There is a theory, admittedly discussed principally over three hour lunches and mostly with my good friend and occasional musical employer, award-winning songwriter Tony James Shevlin, that prophets rarely prosper in their own land. He posits the example of being denied access to the open mics, speakeasys and songwriters’ showcases of Chicago, until a well-placed expression of disappointment in this country’s finest Hugh Grant diction magically gains him entry. If Richard Curtis had been directing this would probably be the bit where Andie McDowell breathlessly intones “Is it still windy? I hadn’t noticed…”. The third wheel at one particular recent lunch attests to the power of the foreign accent* - “Meanwhile, I’m stuck out on the door like a dick”. Our colonial interlocutor is one Scott Stilwell, who much like a minor character in Love, Actually, Tony has met in a bar in America and who has followed him home.
I’m exaggerating for comic effect, of course - a trait, once again, I share with the esteemed writer/director of The Boat that Raped - however the very presence of Scott attests to the beguiling power of the non-indigenous performer. He is here to take part in a short tour of England**, at least in American terms, and on the penultimate night of the jaunt a healthy following has assembled to see the pair of them trade songs, stories, and occasionally accents in the convivial surroundings of a local library. The show is sold out and whilst I am impressed. I am also slightly jealous, as a recent planned expedition to a theatre in Colchester by my musical paramours had to be pulled as advance ticket sales meant that the audience would only just have outnumbered the band, and even for a seven-piece, that’s a sobering statistic.
Tony relates some well-worn and road hardened anecdotes while Scott, an owlish character in full moon glasses, a John Deere cap and double denim, is more of the moment - a fact I only glean because he uses something I said to him in The Green Room*** during one of his introductions. Although individual songwriters in their own right, these two have collaborated, and as they alternate between playing and listening raptly (as are the rest of us) there are subtle additions to the others’ performance, mostly in the form of keening harmonies which bring to mind the best work of (say) Boo Hewerdine working in tandem with Darden Smith. I can see how the most in demand product on the tour so far has been the album that they’re both on which, in an ironic twist, doesn’t exist. At an earlier show they have been upbraided for performing songs that haven’t been recorded, which seems harsh, even for Stowmarket.
Although struggling with a head cold, Scott gamely goes for the notes anyway and his suffering gives him an attractively husky tone which in the interval**** I mention brings to mind the best work of John Prine. In a further twist, he performs a song called Dear John Prine in the second set before giving way for one number to another of Tony’s songwriting collaborators and performers. Me. It’s terribly generous of Scott to make way - this is, after all the reason he’s here in the first place - and it’s very kind of Tony to invite me up. It’s also slightly nerve wracking as if this is the one song they don’t like, it’s going to be pretty obvious what the uncommon denominator is. Fortunately, we make it through to the end, harmonies intact, and pausing only to savour the generous applause I return to my seat.
The boys finish off the rest of the set, the lights go up, there is the sound of chairs being pushed away across the floor, creaking limbs being unfolded, the rain outside has abated, and the vapers are already in the car park. As we make our way toward the cloakroom, I feel a tap on my shoulder.
*It’s exaggerated for effect. Tony’s actually from Burton-on-Trent, but you know what they say, just because you’re from Burton, that doesn’t make you a pint of Bass.
**It is revealed during the show that Scott once took a three hour drive from his home to see Tony play in Kansas City. On a slightly deflatory note, Scott confirms that he would also have driven that far for a barbecue.
***The dressing room - not the high end coffee shop down the road from where we had lunch. I’ve never seen so many electrical sockets in one room. Again, at the library, not the coffee shop.
****There’s a raffle, of course there’s a raffle.