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Toby Burke of Horse Stories - Bush Hall, Shepherd's Bush on 31 March 2004

As I entered the intimate converted ballroom that is Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush on 31 March to see a concert by Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer, I passed a poster saying that the opening act would be Horse Stories. As often happens when I am presented with the name of a band unknown to me, I scarcely gave its CD a glance as I eagerly shelled out money for Sarah’s new one. Yet a mere 30 minutes later, I could think of little more than rushing out of the performance area to buy a Horse Stories CD at any cost before they sold out.

For Horse Stories, or more accurately its front man Toby Burke who performed for us solo this night, was remarkable. Burke had a haunting, wailing voice like no other that would burst into an ear-shattering mournful cry that, when it hit particularly lofty heights, would zoom into a new level of supersonic volume, sending spines tingling throughout the unusually ornate room.

Burke wandered onto the tiny stage like a young Dylan with a high disarray of curls, a guitar dangling from his shoulder and a harmonica holder strapped around his neck, in front of about 150 people who were seated casually on the floor. It must be daunting and disheartening enough to be the support act without everyone seated as though on a picnic, chatting and drinking wine and viewing the person on stage as though he were an annoying gnat buzzing around their heads, disturbing their conversation.

Fortunately, Burke, a tall, gangly long-faced, young dishevelled Australian in a tight t-shirt that made him look more like a surfer than a folk musician, did not let the uninterested audience affect him, nor was it a factor for very long. Those of us who bothered to notice him initially observed him with mild interest as he began to play with no introduction and no applause even to welcome him out of politeness. However, once he opened his mouth to sing, we were all captivated and the room was immediately silenced by the power of his anguished voice. I can’t think the last time I saw a crowd sit so attentively for the entire opening act.

His wailing style was, in its softer moments, reminiscent of Radiohead or Aqualung, but then would occasionally boom out a Bono-style bleat that filled the room so aptly that we would have been knocked off our feet had we not already been seated. He accompanied his lengthy harmonica solo with delicate strumming of the electric guitar, never appearing to pause for breath. I really felt that this is what it must have been like for the crowd in a small Greenwich Village club in the early 1960s when Robert Zimmerman revealed his talents to the world. Burke’s whispery lyrics were difficult to discern, but when I could make them out, they described their own delivery: ‘Now I’m just fading in and out like a radio on a country road. So turn me up.’

When he finished the first marvellous song, which I later learned was called Radio, he overlooked the intense applause from the wowed audience and launched straight into the next song, a raw interpretation of Neil Young’s Harvest, gracing us with another extremely mature harmonica solo, which was greeted again with huge applause.

Toby finally addressed the audience full of North Americans, revealing himself to be far more affable and cheerful than his intimate, melancholic songs and delivery would lead one to believe. He explained his choice of covered song by saying he knew there were some Canadians present amongst us, as of course the legendary Neil Young is, like tonight’s headliner Sarah Harmer, Canadian.

Burke then moved onto a gentler number that I later determined to be Night Falls, slurring his emotive voice à la John Martyn, so it was difficult to make out many of the lyrics. That was a consistent characteristic all evening, which made it challenging to guess retrospectively his setlist, but I feel confident I’ve now managed (as the proud owner of both Horse Stories albums) to identify his treasure trove of songs so sadly delivered. This one wailed, ‘when the day is gone and the night falls, she will, too…And all I can see is the road.’ He particularly wowed us with the moments when his voice burst into another dimension with such strength and volume that we might have thought a sad Pavrotti had taken the stage, were there not such a marked difference in their stature. I thought at one point I recognised a recording of a saxophone being played, when I realised instead that Burke seemed somehow to be manipulating his electric guitar to sound a bit like a sax.

We were now in a fixed pattern of pausing after each song to gasp in disbelief at the amazing performance we’d witnessed, as he smiled and tuned and sometimes chatted confusingly with a persona distinct from that sad soul conveyed in the anguished wails of his songs. ‘Actually, I’m quite friendly,’ he now said out of the blue, presumably reading our minds as he tuned for the next number under the eight double-tiered chandeliers in the former ballroom.

Burke strolled gently into the next, quieter song with fewer solemn cries than the others had. ‘When your eyes are soaked but your mouth’s still dry, you’ll know it’s not your time,’ Burke sang softly. The loud bluesy electric guitar solo livened things up a bit, only vaguely, and the rest of the melodic tune sounded a bit like a lullaby—which is amazing when one hears the album version of In Her Time, which is more of an upbeat, almost bluegrass country ditty.

During our predictable cheers, he changed to an acoustic guitar, replacing the harmonica holder around his neck, and had his first stab at a chat of any significance, revealing a strong Australian accent. That is when he told us he was Toby Burke and played in a band called Horse Stories, and that some of the songs he was playing tonight where Horse Stories songs, but some were not, " ‘cause I’m on my own and I can do what I like,’ he said with a pronounced grin. He pointed out that we could buy the most recent Horse Stories CD, One Hundred Waves, in the foyer, ‘but until then, I’ll keep going on the promotion.’ Although, as it happens, most of the songs he played were from the album that was not on sale that night, their 2002 release, Travelling Mercies (For Troubled Paths), a highly fitting name for such soothing, sentimental songs.

A delicate introduction on the acoustic guitar led us into an oddly mollifying harmonica part before Burke’s soft voice took us gently through some pretty verses, eventually soaring out of his soul in a suggestion of unbridled emotional agony. ‘I’m losing sleep like all my friends,’ he sang, with a chorus including ‘But the fall will come when the phone rings me in, and I pick it up to tell you where I’ve been. She never minds; I’m on your side.’ He ended On Your Side with another soothing harmonica solo, and I later noted how this was again an amazing interpretation of the song that vastly differed from the dubious country approach to it on their first album. Although I really must declare a bias in my pure hatred for slide and steel guitars, which raid the recording of the song.

After a fully deserved reception of cheers, Burke smiled wryly and again emphasised the joys of performing solo rather than with a band, saying that it allowed him to ‘do unprofessional things like play a song I’ve only just almost written. It’s not professional to admit,’ he added, ‘but will cover for any mistakes.’ He then performed an incredibly lovely, soft unknown song fresh from his clever brain and mournful soul, with a guitar melody that had a slight country feel to it. The lyrics, as always difficult to distinguish despite the lack of out-of-control anguished wails that peppered his set, seemed to speak of driving people home, and "the cops won’t stop you now…’til you’re driving through the dark." I wouldn’t like to guess at the title he has given his new composition, seeing as the two instrumentals on his band’s first album are entitled "It’s Not A Ramble, That’s Just the Way She Talks" and "6pm on Tiara Street and Spring Won’t Come Too Soon", respectively. So for all I know, this new number might be called "Don’t Worry About Getting Breathalysed as the Police Have All Finished Their Shift Now and the Night Shift are in the Donut Shop and Haven’t Set Up the Road Blocks Yet." Burke’s talent for doing imitations of other instruments on the guitar played out a light-hearted solo that sounded like a banjo, which is usually a regrettable sound, but worked here.

Next, without stopping for a chat, Burke played what I believe was the first song of the evening from the album he was flogging in the hall. Whilst it would not have been one I would have shouted a request for had I already been familiar with the other gems on the enjoyable album, it was a wonderful party piece that worked beautifully live, drawing in the audience in a new, happy participatory way without, for a change, making us want either to cry or cuddle him to make it all better.

Putting on a thick country twang, he plunged into a simple, sweeping catchy everyman tune that spelled out the cruel words of what seemed to be an unforgiving God but was surely Satan speaking to someone seeking salvation for his soul too late. ‘When the roll of a dice, it takes your precious life / Don’t say your silly prayers to me. / I’m not God or a man, I cannot understand / Those pretty little words you need’, and later, ‘When the gates of the south open like a mouth / I’ll greet you baring all, your greed / In my eyes will reside, the years of foolish pride….’ On the album, Chanty (For a Drowning Sinner) has, as any respectable sea chanty would, a chorus of drunken-sounding voices joining in at the end with dozens of raucous ‘da-da-da-da-da-das’ whilst banging numerous shakers and cymbals. On stage alone, Burke got to that part of the song and stepped back from the microphone stand and sang like a glorious tenor in one of the world’s best opera houses; it was stunning. One would never determine from the album that he had such incredible vocal ability, as he spends most of his time whispering, whereas live, when he chooses to belt out all he has, you can feel his voice spinning in your bones. That voice, rather than the songs, was an instant indication that I had to have the album.

Afterwards, the audience began murmuring a bit, presumably about this unknown powerhouse before us, but still remained attentive as Burke changed to his electric guitar and strapped on his harmonica holder again. He thanked us for coming early enough to hear him play, thanked Sarah Harmer for letting him support her show, and encouraged us to grab a CD, as though we needed encouragement to do so. I was already assessing how many people I would need to tread on in my race to get out the door to grab a CD before the stock disappeared. He announced, to our relief, that he would play one more song, but surprised himself with the result of his tuning, demanding with a smile to know what sort of key he had accidentally created.

Once fixed, his guitar gently created a fuller melody than any we had heard, and his voice joined it in creating a lovely, low Radiohead feel in the days of Karma Police. He returned to his indecipherable, bleating voice just dripping with an unknown sadness, and it was almost impossible to determine any lyrics in between the gorgeous wails. However, having heard a snippet of ‘And wake me if you can, I may be dead again / ‘cause it feels like nothing to me’, I can be certain that he closed the show with what later became one of my two favourite songs on the second album: Push My Buttons. Again, the song was vastly superior live, mainly because a lap steel guitar strangles its soul in the recording, but one could argue that it perhaps makes the song more atmospheric. One could, I won’t; I wish I had a fine recording of Toby Burke conveying the emotions of this song to us live, but really the composition is so marvellous, even a lap steel cannot ruin its sad beauty thanks to Burke’s yearning voice.

With that marvel, he left us just 20 minutes before the main act took the stage. The audience was clearly deeply appreciative of the talent with which he had surprised us, and I was thrilled that Toby Burke had shared his poetic seclusion and melancholic angst with us so beautifully.

Bizarrely after such a remarkably mind-blowing performance, when Burke emerged shortly afterwards from the anteroom behind the make-shift stage, he picked his way slowly through the seated crowd and no one even noticed him. He blended in, looking like one of us heading for the bar, and I was almost relieved when someone in the back finally half-grabbed him and engulfed him in undoubtedly adoring conversation.

I understand that Burke is releasing a solo album in the United Kingdom in August 2004, which should be revelation, and I anxiously await its wonders.

Copyright © 2004 by TC. All rights reserved.

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