Ben Watt’s Comforting Songs of Experience and Loss: Concert Review

Makiko Wakita
The other half of Everything but the Girl rediscovers his own history with a consistently engaging set that reminds us, we can't change  the past, only accept it.

The male of Everything but the Girl offers an autobiographical solo stint from his new album, "Hendra," that mirrors the stories in his recently published autobiography, "Romany and Tom."

Feedback announced the start of Ben Watt’s show at the Echoplex Friday night. But it was not the snarling, anguished tones of Jack White, or the wild electrified arcs of Neil Young or Thurston Moore; this was a modest, nubby, controlled harmonic sustain. It was feedback as comfort, a soft blanket to keep off the chill.

It’s a sense that was carried through the entire performance, his first in L.A as a solo act, and Watt’s second-ever solo album, Hendra, released last week on Unmade Road, and performed in its entirety. Although these are the first songs released under his own name in 30 years, Watt kept himself busy, as half of Everything but the Girl (the other half being his wife, Tracey Thorn) , and in the 21st century as the owner and guiding force behind the techno label Buzzin’ Fly. But he recently found himself “rediscovering” the guitar, and wrote the new album’s ten songs.

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What he arrived at is a soulful, jazz-tinged folk, reminiscent in its conversational  storytelling and understated melodies, of John Martyn. Released simultaneously, and dealing with the same material as his family memoir, Romany and Tom, published by Bloomsbury, Hendra meditates on loss, memory and perseverance; scattering a father’s ashes (“Matthew Arnold’s Field”); a widower taking stock of the shop and life he built with his wife (“The Levels”); two brothers who take a detour and visit the house where they grew up (the unreleased “Brick and Wood”).  They are, Watt explained, songs of experience.

In performance, the songs’ 70s inspirations were more apparent. Accompanied by Suede’s Bernard Butler on guitar, “The Heart Is a Mirror” has a Laurel Canyon feel, while “Young Man’s Game” (which Watt claims is “the first country song ever written about being a DJing old man”) has an easy, gentle country-rock lope.

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Butler played with a warm, liquid tone throughout, adding sweet-tempered fills and sly, probing leads. And with Watt moving through a collection of stunning guitars and taking a few songs on the Fender Rhodes, there was enough variation to keep the 75-minute set consistently engaging. Ending the evening with Everything but the Girl’s “25th December,” a bittersweet Christmas memory and a reminder that you can’t change the past, only accept it, Watt tucks the evening in, leaving the audience to sleep on it.

Set list:

Young Man’s Game
Brick and Wood
North Marine Drive
Some Things Don’t Matter
The Gun
Matthew Arnold’s Field
The Road
The Levels
Golden Ratio
The Heart Is a Mirror

25th December