Into Music Reviews: William McCarthy Film and Gig, Edinburgh

Film: Rise: The Story of Augustines
Venue: Vue Omni Centre, Edinburgh
Date: 22 March 2019

Act: William McCarthy
Venue: Leith Dockers Association Club, Edinburgh
Date: 23 March 2019

Back in 2014 I was skipping through a sampler disc that came with that month’s Classic Rock magazine. Generally this involved playing the first 30 secs of each song and moving on to the next. Rarely did anything attract my attention long enough to go beyond the 30 secs. Some don’t even get that far. It takes something quite exceptional to make me raise my head and take notice. A track came on with a driving tribal drum beat, heavy bass and a voice that dripped with all sorts of emotion. By the time he’d sung ‘I still reach for you in the dark, I miss your skin’ in the closing refrain my head was raised, and my attention fully grabbed. A search of the CD cover informed me this was a band called Augustines doing a track called Cruel City from their new album called simply, Augustines. Album or albums were duly purchased as I discovered they had also released an album called Rise Ye Sunken Ships under the name We Are Augustines. I added them to my ‘bands to see’ list.

Fast forward to 2017. I saw that Augustines were playing their final ever tour in support of their 2016 release This is Your Life. I had no idea what the story was but noted the date. I would at least see them once. St Luke’s in Glasgow was the venue and about a month prior to the show I suddenly become totally obsessed with their albums to the point that my wife was probably going to divorce me. The 2nd album, in particular, was on constant rotation, being played up to 4 or 5 times a day. I had obviously played the albums before but something had changed. Music can do that to you for no apparent reason, but it was a long time since this had happened to me.

So I was more than looking forward to the show but not really knowing what to expect. Given it was the last time they would play Glasgow I thought the atmosphere would either be a sad sombre affair in a half empty venue or a celebration.  Luckily it was the latter and when Billy McCarthy came on stage and sang The Avenue a capella with no amplification the hairs on my arms and neck just stood straight up and my jaw dropped. The bar had been set and rarely, if at all, did they dip below it during a fantastic two hour set. I felt a little like I was gatecrashing someone else’s party as I didn’t know the singalongs and those connections that long-time fans and the band have had since the beginning. There was clearly a bond between the two that few bands experience. I left the gig in a conflicted state. Absolutely buzzing at such a great show but also kicking myself that I had taken so long to see them live and missed out on some great nights. It was also an act of almost criminal negligence by the music industry that such a great band couldn’t make a living doing what they do best. Badly managed, badly promoted, lack of record company support etc. All the pitfalls a band could fall into, Augustines seemed to find them all.

Since that night I felt as if I’ve been playing catch up and I’m still chasing. To try and keep a long story shorter, I joined Billy McCarthy’s (he’d now adopted his Sunday name of William but I can’t get out of the habit of calling him Billy or Bill)) ‘Patreon’ as a means to support him in his post-Augustines days and became part of an incredible fan group called the Onward Community. My Patreon donation allowed me to take part in a meet-and-greet in Glasgow on his solo tour to support his first album Shelter. I thought it would be a bit of soundcheck and a 15 minute chat. Over an hour later we had to wrap it up as the venue had opened the doors to let people in. Billy came across as one of the most genuine and humble guys I’d ever met.

Fast forward again to Friday night and the film screening of Rise: The Story Of Augustines in Edinburgh.A film directed by Todd Howe that told the story of how the Augustines came to be and the tragic and heartbreaking circumstances behind many of the lyrics on the first album Rise Ye Sunken Ships.

It is an absolute triumph. It became a history lesson for me as, although through some of Bill’s posts on the Onward Community and stories at the shows I’ve seen, I knew some of the back story, the film brought all this together and showed that from adversity you can make something positive and meaningful. The film mainly centred around Bill and his chaotic childhood with an absent father, and a mother who was incapable of looking after her three children, Bill with his older sister Beverly and younger brother James being left to fend for themselves. Also his shunting around foster homes and being split up from his sister. His discovery of music, leading to the formation of Pela, the band that preceded Augustines. Even at this time the band were being manipulated and ripped off, with Eric Sanderson commenting that they were playing sell-out shows across the country but couldn’t afford to travel to them. The accelerated demise in the final days of Pela led to Sanderson and McCarthy forming the Augustines and finding the final part of the puzzle in drummer, Rob Allen. They went on to complete the album Rise Ye Sunken Ships that had started to take shape during the Pela days.

It’s a deeply personal and raw album and, knowing the back story, can be quite hard to listen to. Billy had to deal with the suicide of his brother in jail and then his mother also committed suicide with both being diagnosed as schizophrenic but had been abandoned by a country that just didn’t seem to care. The album is something of a rallying call to those who have suffered similar tales of despair and tragedy.

To be honest I can’t do the film justice in a few short words. Although it is mainly a music documentary it is so much more. Triumph over adversity, enduring friendships and belief in the human spirit. Due to be released on DVD in the next few months do yourself a favour and get a copy, you won’t be disappointed.

Following the film there was a Q&A with Billy and director Todd before Billy played a few songs. Billy fielded the questions with honesty and humour. I don’t think he has quite got used to seeing himself on the big screen yet either. Interestingly, when inevitably asked about an Augustines reformation he didn’t dismiss this as a complete non-starter and, indeed, intimated that they had discussed the possibility between his former band members, albeit, some of this may have occurred while drink had been taken around a campfire. Time will tell where that one leads. Given we were in Edinburgh, a question about Scott Hutchinson from Frightened Rabbit who sadly committed suicide last year and was a friend of Billy’s was to be expected and you could sense and feel the affection and the sadness that Billy felt for his fellow songwriter as he recounted a few stories. Humour was never far away, though, and one fan told Billy it was his wife’s birthday and he made a song up for her on the spot. A great birthday present for Jill.

While all this was going on Billy’s sister Beverly was trying to get to the cinema having had a nightmare flight from the States. When she finally appeared, just before his last couple of songs, she got a rousing reception from the audience and looked quite taken aback.

It was a good start to the weekend but it wasn’t over, as there was a return to Edinburgh on the Saturday for a pop-up gig in Leith.

Now, since leaving Augustines, Billy has been looking at how he can make his music work in the current financial and economic climate. Gone are the days when a record label will finance and throw money at an album release. In the world of downloads, Spotify, streaming etc., making a living from music has become incredibly challenging for artists and a worrying trend for the long-term future of music.

Billy has attempted to forge a different path and find a new model. Part of this is the Patreon monthly donation and a Pledge Music-financed release of his first solo album Shelter. To those in the Onward Community, he is incredibly active in communicating with his fan base. I’ve never seen or heard any other artist that is so involved with their fans on such a regular basis.  Live, he is also trying to do something a bit different. Pop-up shows aren’t a new thing but Billy’s made them something of an art form.  Playing in people’s front rooms, retail units, a British Heart Foundation shop and, on Saturday, in Edinburgh, it was a show in the Leith Dockers Association Club. The thinking behind these shows is that the fans from the Onward Community help organise these events and ultimately the artist, Billy, walks away with much more of the money raised rather than it going to venues, managers, promoters etc. It’s a model that on a smaller scale works well.  Whether it would work on a larger scale remains to be seen but a more creative approach to gigs may see something emerge that rebalances the flow of money.

Tonight though, Leith Dockers has its regular clientele who are there for a drink, a game of bingo and a covers band to provide the dancing music. Mingling amongst them are the Onwarders who are here to see Billy perform in a small side room with an intimate sell-out crowd of 60 in attendance. This is where there is a slight conflict in the model as a wider public sale of tickets would have attracted way more than 60 and necessitated a bigger venue. The upside is you get a rather more engaged audience who respect the no-phones rule and are quiet when they should be quiet and raucous when they should be singing their heads off. It was very much old school and the intimacy of the surroundings made this a very special, if slightly surreal, evening. I tweeted after the show that if you told me a potential gig of the year would have taken place in the Leith Dockers Association Club I may have doubted you, but that is what transpired.

Billy, with an acoustic guitar, a small amp, an electronic candle, a Latvian lightshow and a bottle of Grouse, told stories, sang songs, made us laugh, made us cry and made us singalong.  Sometimes all at the same time. It was inspiring and life affirming. He has an ability to make everyone feel at ease and comfortable despite the slightly odd surroundings. His storytelling and between songs chat is every bit as entertaining as the songs and his ability to just make songs up on the spot while more often than not were complete and utter nonsense there were moments of complete genius. His Neil Young impression singing George Michael’s Faith a case in point.

Then there are the songs.  An incredible line up of great songs that surprisingly transfer with ease from the drama and majesty of Augustines to a single acoustic guitar.  Starting with a brilliant The Avenue through Chapel Song, Juarez, Book of James preceded by the story of how he ended up wearing a red dress while visiting his brother in Folsom prison, Philadelphia, a Springsteen cover in Tougher Than All the Rest, a new song from the yet to be titled new album set for a May release, and a brilliant Weary Eyes. I could go on but you get the idea.

I was genuinely gutted when it was all over as I could have sat there for another few hours. A truly memorable evening in not just the company of Billy but also a group of the friendliest fans around. A bonus of such an intimate show and I got chatting to few before and after the show.

The night didn’t end there though as Billy came out and spent a lot of time speaking to fans, signing stuff, and being the most amenable host. I even got to chat for a few mins before he gave me a bone-crushing hug and it seemed a fitting way to end the journey of the last couple of days.

I can’t finish without saying a big thank you to Julia Schtri and David Fernandez for pulling the gig together and all the others who helped to make it such a success. And a final thanks to Rich Drury for letting me use what I think might be the only photo taken during the show.

Kevin Williamson

Link: Patreon

Rise Film Trailer

Still I Rise

Book of James and Cruel City

Weary Eyes

and where it all I started for me

Cruel City

 

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