It’s not so long ago I saw JW Francis live for the first time – a stripped-back gig launching his gorgeous new album Dream House, perfectly paired with the warmly welcoming venue, the hybrid music store-cafe-bar Jacaranda Records / Phase One in Liverpool.
Armed with little more than his voice, a guitar, and some pre-recorded backing music, JW had us in the palm of his hand with his mixture of torch songs and ballads celebrating various forms of love. As if we were at some sort of mini-festival, you could feel the audience being lifted by his impish personality nearly as much as by the music.
His playing solo certainly didn’t give the impression there was anything missing; so how would having his whole band with him change things?
At first, the main difference was an extra depth, a bit like having 3D glasses for your ears, highlighting a wider musical palate than had previously been apparent. Then there was the more propulsive feeling to the songs, perfectly suited to the subterranean Jimmy’s stage, a venue that (downstairs at least) has echoes of The Cavern.
I’m not sure whether they were being played any faster in reality, but it certainly felt like they were. If you’d told me after the previous gig that some of the folk-adjacent dream-pop songs would tonight come across more like an invitation to pogo, I’m not sure I’d’ve believed you; but they do, in an almost Beach Boys-meets-Buzzcocks style.
The band (guitarist Alex Lleo, drummer Danny Jerome Brooks, and bassist Frank Styles) is tight, their interplay with JW and each other at times playful, at times more driving and forceful, making the sentiment of the lyrics to I Love You – before, a sort of blessing – more of a challenge to us to disbelieve the sentiment. In other hands, this mightn’t have worked; here, we go with it, gladly.
Similarly, the revelation that the couple that inspired Sweet As A Rose has since split up might have punctured the atmosphere of a different gig, but is here accepted with a laugh that has more to do with recognition of the irony of life than any schadenfreude.
We even forgive JW for the brief plug he gives his music and merchandise desk during the encore-that’s-not-an-encore. It’s a night many of us will be happy to remember. Catch him while you can.
A quick mention for support act Bright Town (I wasn’t able to catch the earlier set by Alexander Reid). When I asked, they described their sound as ‘vaguely nautical-themed power pop for sad people’, though for me there’s a warming hint of Americana in some of the harmonies and shared guitar parts that really works. I’m not sure if the two acoustic guitars / electric guitar / cello combination is their usual line-up; either way, on this evidence, it serves the well-written and well-performed music down to the ground.