Michael Chapman & Ehud Benai – Con Club, Lewes (30th April, 2017)

It’s a well known phrase that opposites attract and for Michael Chapman and Ehud Benai’s gig at Lewes’ Con Club, that very much seems to be the case. They’re two men that make music with surface level similarities – both are folk/singer-songwriters armed with acoustic guitars. However, dig a little deeper and their musicial attitudes appear to be rather different, at least at first glance. Although Chapman gets top billing tonight, it’s very much an evening of collaboration and the stage is as much Benai’s as it is Chapman’s. Over the course of some two hours, the audience witness solo sets from both men, in addition to a collaborative set later on – an hour of music that turns out to be somewhat revelatory in terms of just how well the work of the two artists actually melds.

Although most at the gig tonight will be more familiar with the work of Chapman – something of an institution amongst Folk enthusiasts – it’s Benai’s set that really wows the audience in terms of the solo sets tonight. The Israeli songwriter sings mainly in Hebrew, meaning that most in the audience will likely have little comprehension of the themes that his songs cover, past the brief introductions given in English. Despite this, he’s met with hearty applause throughout his 40 minute solo set, and it’s not hard to see why. A voracious guitarist clearly well versed in his craft; it’s the winding, spacious instrumental portions of his songs that earn the louder cheers.

Armed with an echo pedal and sharp timing, Benai’s set is a success primarily because of how he so often becomes lost in his own momentum. What starts out as nothing more than a small guitar lick in between verses soon grows to become a raging improv, egged-on by the increasingly intense echo keeping the beat. When Benai lets up, even momentarily, and allows the echo to instigate a swampy ambience rather than a flighty cacophony, there’s a touch of John Martyn in the rich, aching chords that crash like waves over the repeating echos. It’s a wholly unexpected sound that has little in common with Chapman’s – past a shared desire to explore and push the limits of the style – but yet it doesn’t feel out of place tonight; if anything it makes sense in a strange sort of way.

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Whilst Benai’s set may just take the edge for sheer vitality, Chapman’s opening solo set offers rich rewards in its own right. Anecdotal and wryly humerous between songs, Chapman has the aura of a man for whom being on stage is not so much a special occasion as it is an everday event. It’s not that he’s flippant – far from it – but his set tonight has all the accuracy and sharp efficiency of a well-oiled machine; he has an almost mechanical drive and precision in his finger-style guitar work and he’s clearly as dexterous now on the instrument as he’s ever been. Though a fairly pithy set at only 4 songs, what Chapman’s solo set loses in brevity it makes up for in quality.

Cherry picking a handful of songs from throughout his career, rather than sounding hollow or undercooked, Chapman’s lack of accompaniment allows him to find clarity and sonic ascension in the shimmeringly bright, mesmeric guitar parts that he so easily navigates. Though his gruff, world-worn voice is an instrument in itself, much of Chapman’s set is actually instrumental – even on songs with lyrics the stretches of solo guitar exploration far outweigh the moments where he sings.  January’s excellent ’50’, his most recent album, gets surprisingly little play tonight, Chapman instead focusing mainly on old favourites.  It’s something of a surprise, especially given just what a great album it is (see our review of it here for more) but it doesn’t work to the detriment of his set.

However, it’s when the two grace the stage together that the evening really takes off. On paper, it’s a collaboration that shouldn’t really work; Chapman’s guitar work is precise, traditional, old-school, whereas Benai trades in a far more cosmic, exploratory style of playing that has an innate flamboyance that should clash with the measured accuracy of Chapman’s style – but yet it doesn’t. The same, too, goes for the pair’s vocals. Chapman’s weather-beaten voice has a pull all of its own, certainly, but in theory it should be at direct loggerheads with the smooth, melodic voice of Benai. Yet, much like their guitars, their voices – on the moments when they do harmonise – meld together far better than would be expected.

During their collaborative set, the two play off each other, their respective songs gaining the best elements of the other’s style, whilst still retaining the identity of the original writer. Chapman’s songs are still anchord by his ever reliable, rock-solid guitar work, but they gain a lot from the loopy, high flying lead work that Benai lends to the songs. Likewise, the latter’s pieces gain a metronomically solid fingerstyle guitar part that grounds the more astronomic style of the originals without ever limit or tethering them. It’s a symbiotic relationship, of sorts, both musicians making contributions that rarely feel out of place and often shed new light on the songs (though, there is the odd moment when Benai’s high flying guitar work doesn’t quite mesh with Chapman’s songs)..

Michael Chapman and Ehud Benai together deliver near 2 hours of music that defies expectations of what a folk gig can and should be. Both are experimental and exploratory artists in their own ways – Benai perhaps more overtly than Chapman; certainly tonight, anyway. Put together, the results make far more sense than they really should. Tonight’s show is a compelling surprise and one that richly rewards those willing to go with the flow.