Tom Baxter’s extensive UK and Irish tour in support of his latest album The Other Side of Blue (review) includes only one London appearance: here, at the Union Chapel. The place is perfectly suited to Baxter’s solo setup as it remains one of the capital’s most intimate and reverent mid-sized venues. Baxter has been out of the spotlight for a few years but has evidently lost not a drop of the energy and passion he had when we first saw him play The Borderline as a newcomer to London’s acoustic scene more than fifteen years ago.
Before we get on to Tom, though, we ought to make mention of his younger sister Vashti who is the support act for tonight’s show. Similarly flying solo, she begins her set, armed with just electric guitar and loop pedal and proves herself to be actually quite scary! Her opening revenge-murder ballad-dirge gets everyone’s attention and the (completely justified) short shrift she metes out to a couple of over-oiled punters provides the evening’s most memorable pin-drop moment. Anyone who can stop mid-song to tick of a chatterbox and then resume without losing an ounce of composure or mojo is, frankly, due some serious kudos. Other notable parts of Vashti’s set include some gentle fingerpicking and vocal loveliness (singing is obviously a genetic strength in the family) and a moving cover of the Williams’ Brothers’ ‘Can’t Cry Hard Enough’ at the piano. Vashti closes her set admitting - in a very polite and good-natured way - that she is “psychotic, depressive and a bit grumpy” which are, let’s face it, some basic prerequisites for the profession.
Big brother Tom begins his set with the potentially hazardous but slick trick of approaching the stage in darkness, already playing a nylon-string guitar. The opening pair of songs ‘Hosanna’ and ‘In the Arc of Your Mallet’ are both taken from The Uncarved Block - Tom’s “lost album” as he calls it - and are delicate and deft in equal measure. Obviously not wishing for things to get too cosy, Baxter then switches to electric guitar and, as far as one man and a guitar can, completely tears it up for the footstomping, bluesy howlfest that is ‘Night Like This’. This is hotly followed by ‘Lover’, during which Baxter unleashes his inner Hendrix to such a degree that I’m convinced he will segue into ‘Little Wing’ at any moment.
With any idea that he is simply a fluffy ballad-monger now fully shattered, Baxter is able to settle into a little genial banter, discussing certain intimate anatomical aspects of Michelangelo’s statue of David by way of an introduction to the acoustic ‘Boy Beneath the Stone’. ‘The Ballad of Davey Graham’ follows and then it’s over to the piano for two songs from the latest album: a particularly pacey version of the title track ‘The Other Side of Blue’ and the powerful, self-damning ‘Cold’.
Baxter returns to guitar for a sublime ‘Skybound’ and ‘Tell Her Today’ before a minor collision with the standard lamp onstage. This may or may not have precipitated the decision to go off-piste and unplugged for ‘Day in Verona’, which Tom performs minstrel-style, ambling up and down the aisles, allowing him to take in the grandeur of the chapel while simultaneously getting up close to the devout. It’s a good time, then, for audience participation as Baxter remains offstage, actually taking a (literal) pew for the inevitable ‘Better’. The congregation gets to sing the choruses and no cockle goes unwarmed.
Tom returns to the stage for an especially stirring electric version of ‘My Declaration’ from the debut LP Feather & Stone and ‘Hot Wax to a Stone’ from the current record before being told that he really must get off now (we’re almost thirty minutes beyond the venue’s curfew time at this point) and the show duly comes to a close.
As both a songwriter and performer, Tom Baxter possesses a wealth of gifts that borders on the obscene. His return to recording and touring feels like the triumphant thwarting of a major crime and tonight’s show, which is full of hunger, charm and skill is a credit to an artist who shouldn’t be downloaded, hashtagged or skim-read; Tom Baxter ought instead to be experienced in the flesh, in a place and on a night just like this.
Review by Rich Barnard.