I must admit that going into this gig I was unfamiliar with Tom McRae’s work.
The name is itself familiar, having been acclaimed since the singer-songwriter picked up a Mercury nomination for his eponymous debut album. Howard Smith, the man behind People Music Promotions, has put on a series of hugely successful gigs at Guildford Churches during the last few years and swore that McRae‘s album with the Standing Band, Did I Sleep and Miss the Border, was the best of 2015.
Listening to it now, the claim may not be hyperbole. At the time though I went in with Singer-Songwriter concerns. The market has become flooded with guitar-strumming young men who mistakenly believe they are nothing like James Blunt. McRae soon put my fears to rest, settling into the intimate venue having asked someone to turn off the light he’d left on in the dressing room (vestry).
The set drew heavily on last year’s album, only shorn of backing band. Christmas Eve, 1943 is a desperate front line hymn made all the more desperate when the singer provides his own backing vocals. “And if you send me to hell Lord, tell her all that I‘ve said one last shot of whisky one last shot of lead”.
Jolly it is not – something he willingly admits. In between songs, however, he is witty and engaging. He tells us he has considered recording a whole album of songs by criminals. Two Little Boys – that song has been ripped from us. But the overall feeling is melancholy, from the lovelorn “Woke up in Kansas from a dream of burning ships and I still taste the ocean girl, and you on my lips” (Alphabet of Hurricanes). To the thermodynamic of “Cause I‘m living up here where the air is thin, where gravity don't bring you down, I‘m living up here and I‘m watching your universe cooling down” (2nd Law). It is the kind of show for which the church with it‘s foundations in the 11th century is ideally suited. “And we can still be king and queen if only for tonight, cause somewhere in our history our future‘s shining bright” (All That‘s Gone).