Chris T-T has been a bit of a Brighton musical institution but now those days are coming to a close, it would seem. It feels strange referring to somebody who is so personable, so palpably human, with such a cold term but I feel it has some validity: it’s hard to imagine a Brighton music scene that doesn’t contain him in some way. It’s like he’s part of the furniture, almost, but maybe that was part of the problem. As Chris looked back over two decades of work in order to work out the track-list for his Best Of album, he told us tonight, he found that he didn’t like what he’d become – that something had been lost along the way. As he became better at playing and singing, he feels, some of the magic was getting lost. So he has decided to put an end to Chris T-T the firebrand, story-telling singer-songwriter in order to move on to pastures new and this night, barring a final final show in London later in the year (which hasn’t been booked yet), was to be his Last Waltz, only sans Martin Scorsese and with a lot less cocaine-fuelled guest stars.
Opening up for Chris on this special occasion were the charming Dear Everyone, a trio of songwriting women who had banded together to perform their individual songs with beautiful harmonies. Kelly Kemp, Helen Chambers and El Morgan have all released albums in their own right, but they decided to team up in a very egalitarian fashion to form this band. Tonight they share a single acoustic guitar, which is handed to the lead vocalist, and presumably the person who wrote the song, while the other two step back to play supporting roles. They really do have beautiful voices but what’s really great is their communal dedication to serving the songs. There’s no show-boating, as we are gradually introduced to their capabilities rather than slapped in the face with a slab of harmony from the first bar. There are songs where one singer barely sings a note, making the moments when they sing in unison all the more special. Passing the guitar also gives us ample opportunity to appreciate the different qualities of their individual voices, which are lovely and quite different from one another. They’re extremely grateful for the opportunity to tour with Chris, saying it’s a privilege to get to play ‘proper’ venues like Komedia on this tour, when normally they’re plying their craft in living rooms, folk festivals and small pub gigs. On the quality of their work I’d imagine that won’t be true for much longer, check them out if you get the chance.
Chris follows swiftly, for he’s got a lot of material to get through: 20 years of songwriting condensed into two hours. When I heard he was calling it a day I found myself a little regretful that I hadn’t paid closer attention to his career – having only seen him play live a handful of times I was surprised at how much of this set I remembered and how great those memories were as we were expertly walked through them in a room full of dedicated fans. He starts off, a little surprisingly, with some more mellow songs, they could have been introspective naval-gazers if the lyrics weren’t so great: ‘Open Books’ on the guitar and, a personal favourite, ‘Tunguska’, at the piano. From there he introduces us to ‘the biggest mistake’ of his career, a mistake he made twice! By releasing the album 9 Red Songs in 2005 he became known as a protest singer – inescapably linking his music to politics for the foreseeable future. A mistake he repeated last year with 9 Green Songs! This section of the show was really well worked out to tell that story of Chris’ musical history, in the process revealing a truth about it that might not have always been self evident.
As he guided us through sing-alongs with ‘Love Me, I’m A Liberal’ and ‘#Worst Government Ever’, via an amusing detour into the misstep of ‘You Can Be Flirty’, into a trio of career spanning songs that all take place on the same little patch of the M1, we found that his political songs are often underpinned by their personal nature. The story-telling and the humour giving them an appeal that helped him to rise above more dour voices attempting a similar thing. Then with ‘Preaching To The Converted’ he unravelled the whole thing: the problem with protest singers is their audience. There’s a certain futility when your craft is telling people who already agree with you, stuff they already know. What’s great about Chris is his ability to recognise this and turn it into a fantastic song, that’s self-deprecating as much as it is challenging for people who work in those circles, and it was funny enough for him to get away with it without bruising too many egos.
Towards the end of his main set, before the extensive encore, Chris played another song which seemed particularly relevant to his struggle to continue working as the solo singer-songwriter. ‘Words Fail Me’, which is six-years-old now, sees Chris opening up honestly about the personal difficulties people wouldn’t necessarily imagine when they see this man up on stage, so bold, telling stories with such ease you can hardly imagine him being troubled by doubt and insecurity.
“I can still hear the drums-a-beating
But I never did a business meeting where I didn’t feel six inches tall
I did a lot of driving and not so much arriving
Getting lost on purpose so I didn’t have to be where I was really meant to be going.”
It can be easy to forget that the lone song-writer’s journey is an emotionally taxing one, especially if it’s not landing you bucket loads of cash and mainstream recognition. For every Passenger there are a few dozen singer-songwriter’s out on the road, touring small venues in a beat up car with only their acoustic guitar for company. And, for every one of those few dozen there are hundreds more who never pluck up the courage to leave their bedroom to play their heartfelt efforts. For every night filled with rapturous applause, most who’ve tried it have faced many more chattering rooms filled with indifference. It’s a hard slog and you can sympathise with Chris reaching a satisfactory end-of-the-road now, going out on a high, with a fantastic Best Of album and a loving tour full of friendly faces. With politics, ‘preaching to the converted’ is an easy trap to fall into, with heart-on-your-sleeve singer-songwriters it can provide a place full of comfort and recognition. Komedia became that place on this night, but I imagine the conflict between those two polarities may just have become too much to maintain any forward momentum.
Still, I’m getting all too serious and the laughs that filled the room through the first encore numbers, ‘Dreaming Of Injured Popstars’ and ‘Drink Beer’, did a lot to remind me this was a celebration not a funeral. Chris T-T’s 20 years of work is certainly something worth celebrating and this was a night I won’t soon forget. In fact I think I’ll have to pick up a copy of his Best Of, just in case those memories start to fade. Thanks to Chris for a wonderful night and so many wonderful songs.