April 17, 2002 was a truly remarkable evening in the metro Detroit area, the first night in recent memory that those of the rock persuasion in this often ludicrously provincial burg weren’t starved for out-of-town talent. Cutting edge scenesters could check out the Scottish Beta Band at St. Andrews or Swedish the Hellacopters at The Shelter. Aging hipsters could catch the angriest man in anti-folk, Billy Bragg, at the Majestic Theatre. Heck, even lame-o college kids had an option in Guster, the pride of Somerville, Massachusetts, playing thirty miles away in Ann Arbor.
But the smart money (and, given the meager attendance, apparently only about 100 people had the smart money) was on Brit Neil Halstead at the Magic Stick. An extraordinarily gifted songwriter who plays rock music with substantial debts to the folk and country traditions, Halstead has taken time off from his regular band Mojave 3 this year to release and tour behind a well-received solo album titled Sleeping on Roads. While the album’s overall tone and lyrics are similar to those of Mojave 3, the relatively scaled-down arrangements provide for a slightly different sound and effect, a difference that extends to his live show.
Halstead brought along his designated warm-up act, Sid Hillman, sans eponymously named quartet (the Sid Hilllman Quartet were the openers for Mojave 3’s North American tour last year). A man with a self-proclaimed 700 t-shirts to sell and seemingly no takers, Hillman played a short but yawn-inducing set of over-emoted country-ish ballads. Hillman must surely have some appeal to Halstead besides being the nephew of Byrds bassist Chris Hillman, but so far that appeal escapes me.
Neil Halstead appeared onstage shortly afterward, with only a chair, an acoustic guitar, a guitar case, and a beer as accoutrements. He started right in with charmingly simple renditions of “Driving With Bert” and “Sleeping on Roads” from his solo album, and continued on in this unadorned vein for the rest of his all-too-short set. At times Halstead resembled an un-ambitious busker on his favorite corner, virtually oblivious to the audience in front of him as he adjusted his capo or reached into his guitar case to switch harmonicas between songs. The audience responded in kind, appreciative but quiet, allowing Halstead to move from song to song without any prompting or pleading from them.
One of Halstead’s few attempts at audience patter was to ask whether anyone in attendance liked Mojave 3 (begging the question, would anybody be there if they didn’t?). Happily for those unlikely few listeners, Halstead worked in a goodly number of songs from his regular gig, taking from both of their most recent albums, Out of Tune and Excuses for Travelers. While it may have seemed a bit strange at first to hear songs like “Who Do You Love” and “Give What You Take” without their lush orchestrations and Rachel Goswell’s gorgeous harmonies, the stripped-down approach worked well, allowing listeners to really concentrate on the well-drawn lyrics, the subtle shifts in mood and emphasis, and Halstead’s husky note-perfect voice. Halstead wears his influences on his sleeve and this night was no exception, with song title tributes to folkies Bert Jansch and Townes Van Zandt, a Van Zandt cover (“Greensboro Woman”), and the inevitable Nick Drake sound-alike bits. In fact, the set served almost as a Neil Halstead for Dummies, being so wonderfully representative of his career’s fixations. (If he would have just thrown in a shoegazing Slowdive number I think he would have covered just about everything.)
Halstead closed with what is perhaps my favorite composition of his, “In Love with a View” from Excuses for Travelers, and the effect was absolutely breathtaking, the hushed vocals and simple guitar parts heartbreaking and just right. Although I could have listened for hours more, it was the perfect end to a set that was short but incredibly sweet. And though we got the Cliff Notes to Neil Halstead this time, next time he comes around I hope we’ll be treated to the whole unabridged volume.