Tuesday night in Southsea, Portsmouth, and the sun was setting on the harbour as an Isle Of Wight ferry made its way across the waters of this historic waterway. I arrived early and after a brief walk along the sea front, made my way into the short queue at the Pyramids for Lisa Hannigan and Richard Hawley.
I was in the venue at 7:35 and immediately appreciated the size of the place. This was my first time at the Pyramids and it felt more like being at one of the smaller stages at a festival. I had a quick wander around, walked up to the stage and checked out the guitars and amps on display. At the front you could almost touch them. Most people were flocking in the bar areas at the back and to one side and I found myself standing about six feet from the stage with only a single line of hardened fans at the front, arms resting on the barrier between floor and stage. And at 7:55, the lights dimmed and Lisa Hannigan, guitar in hand, walked alone onto the stage. She introduced herself and started her first song.
This seemed to take everyone else by surprise. But not me. It sounds corny but it was as if she was singing just for me, looking right at me, singing just for me. The ground could have swallowed me up and I wouldn't have cared. The lack of crowd around me, as I stood motionless, listening to this wonderful voice and guitar, made it feel like I was the only person in the room.
Safe to say, Hannigan's set was mesmerising. She was joined by her band (including guitarist, backing singer John Smith) for the remaining set - a short 35 minutes or so but packed with brilliance. The magnificent Knots was a highlight for me, as was the beautiful O Sleep which captivated everyone. Anyone who can rock out with a Ukulele is greatness incarnate. Thankfully the performance drew people from the bars and towards the stage - so by the time Lisa and her two male companions gave a heartfelt and honest rendition of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down in honour of the late Levon Helm (The Band), gathered together around a single microphone, everyone was captivated.
So Lisa Hannigan walked off stage to respectful applause and shouts of 'more' (not just from me) and a sense of bewilderment. A guy next to me told me when he booked tickets he had to look her up on YouTube because he hadn't heard of her. I smiled and said 'I was only here for her'. This was greeted with raised eyebrows. I went on to explain that I probably wouldn't have got a ticket if it wasn't for such a great support act. I think most people waiting for Richard Hawley and his band to take to the stage felt the same way, even if they didn't before.
I decided to stay in the same spot for the main man. After twenty minutes of watching roadies going through final sound checks, tuning and arranging a plethora of guitars, and generally rushing about, Richard Hawley and band took to the stage to rapturous applause and whooping. Dressed in jeans and a tight leather jacket, with trademark quiff, he is an instantly recognisable and distinctive 'front man'. After a 'good evening', they immediately launched into She Brings The Sunlight, the opening song from his now Mercury nominated album Standing At The Sky's Edge.
Naturally the album dominated the set list and my trepidations about how the songs would be delivered (and received) live were instantly settled. It was blistering stuff - the echoing guitars, pounding drums and Hawley's vocals shaking my soul to the core. Leave Your Body Behind You, Down In The Woods, Standing At The Sky's Edge, Before and new single Seek It were all superb. Hawley's banter with the crowd was engaging, sweary and gloriously charming. He lambasted the mp3 generation ("Anyone handing over a tenner and getting nothing needs their head looking at" - or words to that effect) and then tried - presumably in jest - to arrange an after-show party under Southsea Pier, and criticising someone for saying they would bring a Parker jacket, after someone else said "box of wine". There was a good vibe between Hawley, the audience and his band as he talked about the lead guitarist's new trousers. Back to the music, old favourite Tonight The Streets Are Ours and the more recent Open Up Your Door and Soldier On were equally well received. His genuine and respectful thanks to the crowd nearly fell flat - "Thanks for choosing to come and see us. It's tough out there", he declared which got the response: "It's Portsmouth" from one wise-cracking local. Comedy aside, his thanks were well received and it felt honest and humbling. The applause at the end of the set was the loudest I've heard.
This continued for what seemed like hours before Hawley and his band (who were superb all night) returned for one last song, appropriately The Ocean. This was a huge version ending in a massive feedback-fuelled finale of teeth-rattling guitars and bass. A great end to a great night.