Meilyr Jones – Islington Assembly Hall, London, UK (8th March 2017)

The music of Meilyr Jones is on an exponentially improving curve. Sure, he has produced some golden nuggets over the years, first as part of Race Horses and last year on his debut solo LP, ‘2013’. But his recent re-recording of ‘Return To Life’ since that album’s version is a good example of the way he is now consistently mining a richer seam of sparkling form. The reworked song does away with the neo-classical orchestral arrangements of ‘2013’, going for a more direct and rhythmical rock band format, and introduces a new verse at the end.

It is this interpretation of the track that Jones plays towards the end of his 12-song set in Islington. “It’s not the best one, but…” he self-deprecatingly says as he introduces it. But, at his best, Jones brings to mind the late ’60 albums of Scott Walker. Harpsichord, bass, guitar, trumpet and drums are the instruments chosen to accompany ‘Return To Life’ tonight. The reverb-rich guitar of Euan Hinshelwood (of Younghusband and formerly with Emmy The Great) stands out and Simon Tong’s trumpet lends a ’60s feel to the song, akin to the sound of the classic Love album ‘Forever Changes’. “I’m all shook up,Jones sings in the least rock ’n’ roll way possible, “And I’m trying to explain.

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The “all shook up” lyrical reference is an echo from the evening’s harpsichord-rich third song, ‘Don Juan’ — “I’m all shook up and I can’t explain”. Like almost all of the set, it’s from ‘2013’ but sounds far better live, as new arrangements for a small group of talented musicians replace the orchestra-pop of the recorded version. ‘Don Juan’ shows off the amazing versatility of Jones’ musicians as they switch instruments — Tong switching from trumpet to keyboards, Richard Jones from keys/harpsichord to viola, bassist Emma Smith to violin, Hinshelwood from guitar to bass. 

Jones is endearingly gawky as he steps on stage — his white guayabera shirt, with collar half turned up, awkwardly tucked into the waist of smart grey trousers that end some way above his ankles. But he is full of energy, opening with ‘How To Recognise A Work Of Art’. Smith’s bass replaces the album’s strings on ‘Passionate Friend’, like a slowed down ‘Psycho Killer’, which entrances the audience. At times, Jones steps to the front of the stage and sings without a microphone, demonstrating the strength of his rich tenor voice and his perfect articulation. “Nice to see people here,” he smilingly says.  

A powerful solo piano version of debut single ‘Refugees’ stills the audience into rapt adoration. In complete contrast, ’Strange Emotional’ plays around with rock guitar riffs in tribute to ‘Smoke On The Water’ by Deep Purple and ‘Rebel Rebel’ by David Bowie, as Jonesvocal delivery echoes rock, glam and Bowie again. The tambourine drives a motorik beat and Tong’s trumpet takes off into jazziness. 

A brass section assembles in the dark and most of the musicians swap instruments again for the gorgeously theatrical ‘Olivia’, and this time Tong’s trumpet drives a klezmer beat, aided and abetted by drummer Gwion Llewelyn on flugelhorn. ‘Lovefeatures saxaphone, Jones on piano and more jazzy bits. Not to be outdone in terms of musical dexterity, Jones picks up the bass for B-side ‘All Is Equal In Love’, melodious and rich with violin and viola. He introduces the arch and knowing, rocking and trumpeting ‘Featured Artist’ as the last song, to cynical disbelief from the London crowd, who fully expect and demand an encore: “My last performance was a smash… I am this week’s featured artist, I am the face of the Observer’s free magazine.

The rousing encore includes new single ‘Watchers’, and Jones has changed his untucked white shirt into a fetching black and gold top. Smith switches from bass to sax, Hinshelwood to bass, and Richard Jones lets Meilyr play keys while he bows and plucks his viola. The evening ends with further instrumental switching (Smith on the drum stool playing a violin, while drummer Llewelyn tries to get an electric guitar to rock, sums it up) for a literally stomping finale, Jones dancing as he sings of “experimental music” and his “physicality”, employing well-chosen falsetto, feedback and psychedelic guitar to send the crowd home happy.

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