Vagabonding with EDDI READER in Manchester

Walking down the sloping aisles of the Royal Northern College of Music theatre, espying the impressive array of instruments on the stage awaiting the audience, a sense of occasion wafts over me on this blustery Friday night in Manchester. Glasgow’s EDDI READER is in town to remind us why she’s one of the best singers and multi-instrumentalists to ever emerge from the UK. Having seen FAIRGROUND ATTRACTION perform way back in the day when their stunning 1988 debut album First of A Million Kisses was doing the rounds and went on to win a best album BRIT (an incredible 25 years ago), I’ve since seen Reader perform solo several times, including in Japan where she enjoys a loyal fanbase – every show an unforgettable landmark in her career and in my life.

Boasting a healthy discography, she’s now back on tour to promote her upcoming album Vagabond (due to drop 3 February, 2014, though lucky tour-goers can pick it up ahead of time). You can read more on the evolution of the album here:

Warming up proceedings, Ireland’s Kieran Goss charms the crowds with his lighthearted humour and easy-on-the-ears vocals. An artist of great depth, he’s a suitable opener for the band preparing to take to the stage. In the intermission, we find the atmosphere among the Reader fans as always convivial, and there’s an enormous spirit of respect surrounding the singer among her fans.

The theatre fills up as cheers and whistles greet Reader’s backing band, but the audience turns it up when Reader joins them onstage. Without much further ado, she introduces her band including Boo Hewerdine, Ian Carr, Kevin McGuire (on double-bass), Alan Kelly (on accordion), and Sweden’s Gustaf Ljunggren. Between the six of them, they infuse the auditorium with a warmth, joyousness and high-calibre musicianship rarely witnessed these days, and what ensues is the most intimate show I have seen in some years.

Straight into new album opener I’ll Never be the Same, within seconds Reader’s vocals raise hairs on the back of my neck with her familiar pitch-perfect sounds – I’m moved again by the incredible range that she displays, the years seem not to have passed and I’m transported back to every show of hers I’ve attended since the ‘80s. And I’m not the only one – every song is received with adoration and genuine emotion from the crowds.

Explaining her attire, we learn that Reader’s red hat (which also adorns the surface of her new album CD) is that of Auntie Mollie (“the oldest Reader in the family”) and her housecoat that of another auntie – she likes wearing her relatives’ clothes because it makes her feel like they’re on stage with her, indicating that Reader has kept her feet firmly on the ground even after all the touring, recording and performing over the decades.

Once we get to the catchy Baby’s Boat, inspired by Reader’s son who recently flew the nest, the audience is bobbing in their seats to the fantastic ensemble sounds including a wicked double-bass, slick saxophone and Reader’s characteristic husky jazz vocals. Revealing that the lyrics were written by American Alice Riley in the late 1800s, an author who spent many years encouraging women into the arts, Reader heard these in a lullaby featured in 1990 Robert de Niro film Awakenings and was determined to apply them to the new song.

Going on to explain how she went from being christened Sadenia Edna (named after a long-passed relative) to finally choosing to adopt the name Eddi at the end of the 70s (“at the height of feminism… because I wanted to be like my da.”), Reader again touches on her roots and the fact that she grew up in an exciting yet tumultuous period where being an ambitious and creative woman was a thing to be emulated and admired. She links this in with her new track Edinah inspired by musings on how to survive in the music world, and recollecting the time she met Amy Winehouse and how she was saddened to see her suffer under the strain of the musician’s lifestyle.

No Eddi Reader show would be complete without nods to Robert Burns. Charlie Is My Darling provides a special opportunity for the band to charm us with their wit and Ian Carr’s high-speed accordion-playing.

Treated to more new tracks, Vagabond is a stand-out, with Reader on concertina and lyrics taken from former poet laureate John Masefield. It’s clearly a song close to her heart, which sung live brings up the emotions, all members of the band smiling and enjoying the perfect moment. Anybody who has found themselves dreamily wandering in life often with a series of accompanying ups and downs will relate to this song, and it’s another classic Eddi Reader track which you couldn’t imagine being ever covered successfully by another singer.

A surprise in the set comes with a blinding cover of Moon River – the best version I have heard performed live, and tear-inducingly beautiful. The high continues with a flashback to Fairground Attraction days (“I used to be in a band called Fatal Attraction… you know, bunny boiling… Michael Douglas…”) and The Moon Is Mine which Reader – never one to resist social commentary – slyly dedicates to Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, a comment heartily received with applause. This is followed by crowd-pleaser Perfect, the song that broke Reader to the surface of the music industry at the time, and which to this day hasn’t aged, proving its longevity.

The band closes the night with more tracks off the new album, including the absolutely gorgeous In Ma Ain Country. Reader picks up her clock and concertina, bidding farewell to the crowds with smiles and bows of gratitude, while the boys keep the instrumentals going until the final second. But, this is not the end – Reader meets and greets the long queue of fans in the foyer, chatting at length to each one, signing merch and thanking them for coming. Utterly charming and open, she demonstrates a grace and humility that we have all come to love her for. And now we have a new spanking album to boot – another landmark in the Reader story.