As the retreating ambers of a sunny Broadgate evening stream their way through the Continental’s tastefully evergreen décor, my wife and I thread our way through the assembled Friday masses. Immediately my gig experience is thrown off kilter as the bartender greets me in French, takes my order in English then thanks me in Spanish. Although non-plussed, I still leave the interaction with a premium brand pilsner and was confident the evening could yet be saved by Ken Nicol’s performance – an accomplished guitarist, singer, playwright and producer and Preston’s native son.Advertisement
Nicol is flanked by an array of seasoned musicians including a lap-steel player, a drummer on loan from 1970s supergroup 10cc, local session-man and bass stalwart Norm Helm, along with violinist and frequent collaborator Wendy Ross. Throughout the evening all performers acquit themselves more than admirably, though special mention should be given to Ross whose layering and sense of melody really elevate the music throughout the evening.
Mid-tempo opener ‘The Western World’ puts modern society on notice with Nicol’s laid-back vocals taking swipes at keyboard warriors (guilty as charged), online shoppers killing the high street (me again) and a raft of modern absurdities, both mundane and serious.
The major-key folk fingerpicking and lyrical dexterity of songs like ‘All He Wants To Do Is Go Fishing’ recalls Arlo Guthrie at his most playful – with throwaway lines about reaching for his (fishing) tackle in bed making me want to look up the meaning of the word innuendo.
Early on in the performance, Nicol apologises for the number of guitar changes he would be making throughout the set. Fortunately, he’s had the good grace to develop into something of a raconteur between songs, using easy patter and anecdotes ranging from logical conundrums posed to him by Tibetan lama’s (I simply don’t have the word count to fully explain this) to a former music student’s accidental profundities acting as delightfully meandering segues between songs. With Nicol acknowledging the duality of Preston’s roads being swamped with roadworks yet perpetually in a state of disrepair, the crowd is well and truly won over.
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The set was interspersed with tasteful instrumentals, serving as a nice palette cleanser and showing that Nicol both knows his way around an augmented seventh chord and has read a chapter or two of the great American songbook. There’s an upbeat ragtime ode to his TK Maxx wardrobe, titled ‘Ken’s Rag Shirt’ along with a plaintive Celtic ditty that almost made me wish my knowledge of the genre extended beyond the Outlander theme tune. For both these pieces he dismissed the band save for violinist Ross as they traded lead lines with aplomb – whilst the highlight of the night was an audience member falling over backwards after his chair gave way (I’m a wide-eyed sucker for slapstick) the musical interplay between Nicol and Ross was a close second.
The evening closed out with ‘Feeling Good’ complete with a swaggering riff and hearty dollop of Chicago blues that BB King wouldn’t necessarily be proud of (King always seemed way too laid back for superlatives), but boasted a tastefully filthy solo nonetheless and proved that whether it be folk, ragtime, delta blues or rock, Nicol is an engaging and versatile player.
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