This article was first published on 9 September 2012 on Louder Than War.


Last night BBC 6 Music hosted a special performance, a collaboration between the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Richard Hawley, orchestrated and conducted by Joe Duddell.

Sarah Lay was there to hear the result.

I admit it. I am nothing more than a casual fan of Richard Hawley.  His music is right up my street but I’ve never got into it in more than a passing way. I am not a die-hard fan girl but I appreciate his craft.

Nevertheless, there is a sort of winner’s guilt when I get an email telling me I’ve been granted tickets in a BBC audiences ballot to see a special one-off performance, to be broadcast live on 6 Music, by the man himself and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra as arranged and conducted by Joe Duddell.

However unfamiliar I am with Hawley’s massive back catalogue I know that this will be something very special indeed.

Taking place in Magna in Rotherham, an ex-steel works now a science and discovery park (and appealing to my current obsession with gigs in unusual venues and non-traditional performance spaces) everything about this performance was set to be BIG. The Great Hall, a cavernous space that would have once rung, hummed and sweltered with industry, was now beautifully lit and filled only with excited murmurs.

The audience took their seats when asked and fell silent. Totally silent for at least two minutes while we waited for the orchestra to take to the stage. There were the breakouts of sniggering from nervous excitement as the wait stretched but finally the musicians appeared, took their places and the silence broken by the organised tuning up.

Jarvis Cocker introduced the evening to us in the room and to listeners at home and then the final players took their places – Joe Duddell and Richard Hawley.

And it’s then that you realise what a work this collaboration is. There is a real melding of disciplines, approaches and material. The precision and control needed to play as an orchestra directly opposes so much of rock n roll; messy and going where the music takes you to give a different performance every time.

It works though. Hawley allows Duddell to lead and they make their way through some of the older pieces from the canon. These are by turns delicate and quite, Hawley’s deep timbre telling folk tales and then immersive as the orchestra swells and the sound fills heads, hearts and physical space.

Richard speaks between each song, humbled by the opportunity to play his songs with an orchestra in a place where his family grafted before the fires went out on steel-working. He interacts with the audience in a friendly but perhaps more formal way than a standard gig. He makes a joke about Sheffield United, he tells us he’s ‘vibing his tits off’. Everyone here is behind him, pleased for him and in awe of the twist given to his usual sound.

He brings out old songs (I Sleep Alone) and newer material side by side. The first half (as this is a live broadcast we have to break for news and all that other radio gubbins to happen on the airwaves outside of the room) ends with There’s a Storm A Comin’, his contribution to the soundtrack for the remake of Brighton Rock.

Image by BBC

This sounds massive. It has more than a touch of the Bond theme about it but it is just…amazing. From the assurance and depth of the vocal to the rumbling, swell of the arrangement. This is pure magic being conjured right in front of you. The magic of a group of humans coming together to make a sound that can control your emotions.

As we pause for the interval I wipe a solitary tear, that has fallen unbidden, and feel my soul contract back to normal size as reality momentarily returns.

The second part is stronger leading with song’s from most recent album Standing at the Sky’s Edge. This album is a fuller sound than previous works, and more guitar driven, with strings on several tracks. It lends itself well then to the arrangement tonight.

Each work builds from almost nothing to a massive roll of sound which wraps around you and carries you along. Each song a pebble in a stream which has been tumbled and polished by the orchestration, until it is a highly gleaming gem glinting at you and demanding attention.

It takes your breath. Literally, takes your breath. I realise this when my chest actually heaves with survival instinct. As my lungs fill my emotions swell with the orchestra.

The last note hangs in the air and the audience take to their feet, hands clapping above their heads in a standing ovation, well deserved for the beautiful arrangement and performance of superb songs.

It is all smiles from the stage and they give us one more. There are indecipherable requests bubbling up from all quarters but the announcement of The Ocean is greeted with a triumphant wave of whoops.

And it is a perfect ending. A second standing ovation is given and the audience blinks, stunned into a come down.

These pairings of pop and classical are a wonder when they are done as well as this. This isn’t the obligatory addition of strings or brass to plump a song up but a transformation that makes them belong to the orchestra as much as the creator. It is testament to the skills of Joe Duddell that he can change the music to this extent while still maintaining a familiarity.

A special performance indeed.

All words by Sarah Lay.

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