Review: Josh T. Pearson – The RNCM, Manchester

Prior to the show, I had been forewarned of sets at the Royal Northern College Of Music in Manchester…..beautifully stripped back, open for all to see, and probably pretty bloody scary for anyone who plays there. Whether this affected Mr Pearson’s set, I’m not sure….however if they all go the way this one did, I would quite like to have been forewarned of this as well…..the word rollercoaster comes to mind.

Cold Specks featured as support; a brilliant, upcoming talent who recently performed her hymnal blues-folk on Jools Holland. And then it was time for Josh….the man renowned for his bleak, heartstring-tugging songs and who’s 2011 record Last Of The Country Gentlemen was voted album of the year by Rough Trade, just last week.

The reason why I mentioned rollercoaster before, is that despite the painfully aching and honest songs that he performs, Josh T. Pearson doesn’t half like a joke or two as well! It takes him well over ten minutes to pluck the first string of his acoustic….having already joked about the length of his songs, tuning, how he looks, the good-looking girls at the front, suicide, cell phones, the intimacy of the show, being sober, his heartbreaking relationship, getting people to sit at the front…..before announcing ‘Thank y’all, see you next time!’

And then there’s the ‘crashing to the ground’ section of the ride….starting with Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ, he essentially pulls his and everyone else’s heart clean out, with his fragile but despairing words. A great deal of respect has to go to this man, for telling his agonising confessions to an unknown audience night after night….God knows he’s lived a hell of a life.  And as he strokes the final string on this show-opener, there’s a pause…just for a second, but one that seems to last a lifetime. A pause indicating that every last soul in the audience has just been knocked to the floor, bowled over by Pearson’s personal story, as well as his delicate and stunning guitar strumming.

But then there’s that rise again! The man from Texas has clearly come to recognise the affect that his performances have on people, and most likely himself as well. In fact, he has admitted numerous times that his ‘clowning around’ is, to an extent, a pickup, a way of pulling himself back from the doom and gloom of the past eleven or so minutes. And for an audience member, despite the confusion this may cause at first, it is a tactic somewhat appreciated…I can’t imagine forty-five minutes of Pearson’s music straight would do anything positive for a human’s heart and mind.

And so, he continues as he means to go on. Bantering with the audience as well as telling crude jokes about goats and Willie Nelson, before stomping on spirits once again with his majestic but painfully raw renditions of Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell and Sorry With A Song. Despite the well known fact that Pearson’s songs can be lengthy, almost twelve minutes on some occasions, it does come as a surprise when he announces his final track. Granted, he only has a select number to choose from, however given the fact that he has played only six songs prior to this and uttered a ton of pretty daft jokes, one did feel somewhat perplexed. Nonetheless, it is a flaw that can easily be forgiven. A strange cocktail of respect, despair, sympathy, pain and joy has just been served, and in this situation it’s difficult to pin down a particular emotion!

Josh T. Pearson plays a cover of Rivers Of Babylon (the Willie Nelson version) combined with album-opener Thou Art Loosed as his final performance of the night in the church-like surroundings of the Royal Northern College Of Music. And then, with his long-flowing locks and messiah-like beard, Pearson bows and listlessly wanders off to the side, with applause echoing around the room.

It would seem a bit strange to say that this was an enjoyable show, but is certainly an event that I’m glad I have finally witnessed. The combination of heartwrenching lyrics and gorgeous guitar-strumming, and then time-filling jokes and silly heckles, made this something like no other. But one thing is for sure, Pearson can take some solace in knowing that his work is being praised by many, many listeners, and he has our deepest respect for what he does and relives each night.