Even by the relatively modest standards of Reading, the Rising Sun Arts Centre is a hidden pearl. But for a dilapidated golden sun on the outside, it would be invisible amongst the terraced houses on a nondescript residential street, a fair walk from the town centre. The unrelenting January rain resounds off a bus shelter in the smoking area decorated with wind chimes that look like robot innards. The bar still has novelty Christmas beers behind it, and is warmed by a modified AGA. A man seeking a quiet spot for a piss or a phone call announces to his friends, ‘I’m going to go behind this giant triceratops.’
There’s no stage, just a small room, kitted out in tie-dye wall coverings and mismatched fairy lights, looking less like a gig venue and more like the bedroom of a girl named Rain who makes her own incense.
Starting out as a squat in the early 90’s and run entirely by volunteers, it could scarcely be a more fitting place to celebrate ‘Independent Venue Week’ a nationwide drive to stand up and shout for the unsung spaces that artists like Beans on Toast have spent their lives promoting.
‘Drunk-folk’ singer-songwriter Jay McAllister, who has performed under the Beans on Toast moniker since 2005, has since become a festival staple, a household name and an act who effortlessly sells out mid-size venues. Yet he retains the same everyman demeanour which has become his trademark– during any gig McAllister is sure to be found in the crowd cheering on the support acts, or chatting with fans at the merch table like old drinking buddies. Maybe that shouldn’t be as unusual as it is, but there you go.
There’s some well chosen support to start with, solo synthwave artist Deerful, a Reading local is an act as consciously quirky as the venue, but with strong, emotive vocals and captivating narratives to accompany the Nintendo-vibe of each number. Next up is Matt Stockl, a Windsor based acoustic folk-rocker with a punchy, cynical and sometimes darkly humorous tone. Definitely one to watch out for – ‘This Machine Kills Optimists’ is a standout.
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The room is close to bursting by the time Beans on Toast appears, but as he takes centre stage, the crowd close in and sit down with sermon-like adoration. In the wave of Trumps first few weeks of presidency, ‘I Think Everybody Should Be Terrified’ from his 2016 album, ‘Spanner in the Works’ is more relevant now than ever, and sets the tone for the night: Mr. Toast is as jovial as ever, but the serious shit will never be ignored.
‘I’m Home When You Hold Me’, one of McAllister’s numerous homages to wife and oft-muse Lizzy B, is a setlist staple by now, but he surprises the crowd with a thematic sequel of sorts, ‘Jamie and Lily’, penned after both halves of a Brighton fan couple coincidentally requested ‘I’m Home’ for each other. ‘The War on War’ is next, serving as the nights first big, chant-along number. A three track medley to the independent venue soon follows, layered in personal loss and a wry observation about the dizzying ascension of beer prices.
Beans on Toast‘s laid back, reassuring affability affords him artistic liberties which might see other musicians face sharp criticism. He false-starts songs, pauses mid-track to deliver rambling anecdotes, drops non-sequiters like litter, and swigs from tinnies during breaks. Prone to meta-musicality, at one point he introduces a number with, ‘How fucking cliché is it for a folk singer to sing a song about trees?’ While he does get fairly political, he takes refuge in audacity, the audience trusted to know that his calls to put the BoomTown boombox in the Gaza strip or drag anti-abortionists into impromptu orgies are not to be taken as serious dialect. This makes it all the more astute when he drops an offhand line like ‘The only thing that’s gonna rip this plaster off is love’.
He name-checks Henry Rollins in one of his many yarns, and though the men are on different dimensions of tempo, McAllister has the rare touch of Rollins in that he can talk about anything or nothing for an hour and have an audience hang on his every word.
‘MDMAzing’ , McAllister’s famous ode to an ecstasy addled festival fling, is the frontrunner for the title of his signature track and appropriately enough forms the cornerstone of most of his sets. And rightly so – with a breezy narrative that nearly every listener has either lived or tried to recreate, McAllister may well have created the quintessential 21st century folk song.
Finally, in troubling times, the mellow optimism of, ‘Afternoon in the Sunshine’ makes for an apt closer, reiterating that as sardonically critical as he can be, McAllister’s output always retains a core of hope. The crowd depart, satisfied, a little pissed and many toting one of Beans’ homemade canvas signs.
It’s a quiet, unassuming Sunday night gig and yet a searing reminder of two salient facts: One, that venues like the Rising Sun are vital to the music industry and need our undying support. Two – Beans on Toast is one of the greatest folk bards of our time, and an unquestionable must-see.
And with the rate the guy tours, you really have no excuse.