The last 12 months or so Ryan Hamilton has released a critically acclaimed album with his band The Harlequin Ghosts, toured with The Alarm and Blondie’s Clem Burke, and yet he ends the year divorced, battling online bullies and doing a bit of soul searching. What better way to drown his sorrows with a one-off UK Christmas show billed as The Holiday Hoedown.
Miles from Nowhere (or MFN as it is more commonly known) is a biker bar/club literally miles from anywhere in the Nottingham countryside. As we follow the sat nav down a dark and damp country road in the scenic (maybe in daylight) countryside, I do wonder if the postcode is wrong, but lo and behold here we are at a very cool looking venue, several hours before show time to catch up with the man himself for an exclusive interview which you will be able to listen to very soon.
Turns out MFN is owned by former Showaddywaddy drummer Malcolm Allured. Gold and silver discs adorn the walls alongside 50’s and 60’s rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia. It’s pretty cool, but also pretty small. A small kit and a couple of Fender amps are set up near the bar. A tad underwhelmed that the band appears to be playing a pub gig, we grab a drink and a seat. Slowly the bar empties and I wonder if maybe this is not where the band are playing after all.
Turns out we are in the wrong bar! A door at back of the pub leads into a much bigger, proper club sized venue. Shit, this place is an actual tardis of a venue! No wonder the band have returned here for a one off, this is a very cool venue and I’m surprised more bands don’t have this place on their radar. While it may not quite have the size of Nottingham’s iconic Rock City, it certainly has the ‘cool’ factor and bands who maybe aren’t quite big enough for the city centre gig could well find it in their interests to search this place out.
Following bluesy prog 3 piece led by local singer Danny Beardsley and a rather fine set from punky rock ‘n’ rollers Steam Kittens (check ‘em out if you dig the likes of Cyanide Pills and Buzzcocks, I definitely recommend these geezers), Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts take to the stage to great cheers. Gone are the suits, big hats and pigtails of recent shows. Shorn of the locks, sporting John Lennon shades and a tan suit jacket, our favourite Texan troubadour has gone for the casual look. Whether this is a long term image change or just a sidestep for the Hoedown, we will have to wait and see.
Strumming a Martin acoustic picked up during his recent road trip, (from the man who provided guitars for Tom Petty, no less) Ryan and his band get the party started with a one-two from his debut solo album. Opener ‘Be Kind, Rewind’ is a gloriously upbeat power pop delight that incites the first of many crowd sing-a-longs, but it’s the following ‘Smarter’ that takes the party up a notch for sure.
I don’t know if its Ryan’s recent circumstances, the setting, or a combination of both, but there is something extra special about tonight’s performance from the off.
The band are tight as ever, the sound is crystal clear and the crowd are rowdy and up for it. Between songs, the frontman swigs from a bottle of red wine, as he jokes and enjoys banter with the crowd, yet there is understandably a hint of sadness and edginess to the man tonight. Coming straight off a soul searching road trip, the singer is mourning the end of a relationship and going through a period of unexpected change in his life. Playing a bunch of party anthems to his UK fanbase is just the therapy he needs methinks.
The likes of ‘Bottoms Up’, ‘Karaoke With No Crowd’ and the sublime ‘Records & Needles’ should be enough to convince any naysayer in the room that Ryan Hamilton is a match for his peers as a songwriter and an entertainer.
Spangles guitar slinger Ben Marsden is a welcome addition to the band for the first time tonight. He fits the band like a glove. During an extended and jammed out ‘Oh My God’, Ryan encourages the guitarist to go for it and show us all what he is capable of. Ben needs no further encouragement as he rips out a killer improvised solo, while Ryan grins away watching as he plays. Ryan then explains the story of the song, as the band continue the jam behind him. Another bizarre chapter in his life involving a drug addicted model girlfriend, infidelity and revenge. He may not get the breaks in life, but he has definitely not had a dull one!
The boys in the band take a break, leaving Ryan and Carol Hodge on keyboards to duet on latest single ‘Won’t Stop Now’. The duo deliver perfect harmonies over the piano led ballad, as a clearly emotional Ryan is literally in tears as he lays his heart on his sleeve for all to see.
Club owner Malc joins the band for an impromptu blues jam, the whole band get presents to open on stage and we even get a new song called ‘Can I Get An Amen’ which is pencilled in for a January single release. It is a very strong song, as instant as anything he has written. Full on Americana with a big band sound and a memorable chorus, that comes on like Springsteen meets The Band. If this is taste of the new music to come, be excited… be very excited.
As Ryan passes the bottle of red into the crowd there is only one thing left to do. End the set on a high. ‘This Is The Sound’ has a new found urgency to it tonight, even more than the recorded version. Mickey’s beats lead the melody into a rousing chorus many of us will be singing late into the night. The band appear to be loving it, the ever smiling Ben, the hard hitting drummer and the animated Rob Lane who pulls more cool poses than a Bulletboys video and throws up and catches more picks than any sunset strip band in their heyday.
Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts ended their year on a high. Tonight was a memorable and triumphant show in a busy venue with a great atmosphere, which is more than many struggling artists could ever hope for. Same time next year then?
It’s no surprise to see ‘This is The Sound’ featuring in so many Albums Of The Year lists and I hope all the hard work sees Ryan get the rewards he rightly deserves. But I’ll leave you with one thought to contemplate. When an artist is down, when they have their backs against the wall, that is when they are at their best. Heartache, loss and pain, this is the stuff that fuels the fires of creation. Don’t take the phrase ‘tortured artist’ lightly, when a songwriter truly has something to write about, THAT is when they are at their best. Right now Ryan Hamilton could be on the verge of recording the album of his career due to the rocky road he has recently had to travel, and he damn well knows it. 2020 could be a very interesting year indeed for Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts, I look forward to seeing where they take things next.
Author: Ben Hughes
Photo credit to Stephen Curry