The Talented Mr. Harcourt
20 May 2002: Bowery Ballroom New York
After taking a healthy swig from what appeared to be a bottle of cheap red wine, Ed Harcourt became possessed. It was the culmination of his hard-working set at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom and the London-born singer should have been spent, but instead, as if spirits had risen in him, he went headlong into the bacchanalia of “Shanghai”, off his latest album Here Be Monsters (Capitol). To tell the truth, it’s my least favorite song on the record, but the strange power that had taken hold of Harcourt was apparently catching. I, along with the rest of the audience, stood stunned as he howled and hammered at his keyboard, his body electric and hair a sweaty mess; we were mesmerized when he went truly mad, standing up and convulsing, knocking over the mics, and finally carrying his instrument across the stage to balance it on its side before he exited.
Talent is a funny thing, isn’t it? It promises neither money nor glory. For every time it’s beautiful, it comes off as an atrocity, a threat, or an aberration. Increasingly in the music business, talent is hardly as important as image, publicity, merchandising, or any number of other things. (If you don’t believe me, let’s take a quick count: how many top 40 artists would you say are truly talented?) And historically speaking, the fate of true creative geniuses is hardly an appealing one; often, they’re driven to the furthest extremities of existence, like depression, dementia, and death.
Ed Harcourt, a 24-year-old whose full-length 2001 debut in the UK earned him a career’s worth of critical praise (including a prestigious Mercury Music Prize nomination), embodies the blessings and curses of a truly gifted musician. Released stateside in March of this year, the sound of Here Be Monsters is almost disturbingly mature, dripping with enough lavish instrumentation and languid melodies to envy songwriters twice his age. His lovesick and gin-soaked tenor also defies his youth; whether scratching the grainy bottom or glistening along the top of its range, it’s overfull of gorgeous magic and sensual wonder. Of course, the passion and eagerness Here Be Monsters emotes has twentysomething written all over it—one of the reasons why Harcourt has sometimes been dubbed a hopeless romantic—but that’s also what makes hearing it like listening to a legend in the making. Ed Harcourt is among those rare enigmas who really seem to have a world of music inside them—music that will be the life or death of him, music that must, come hell or high water, find its way out. (Accordingly, Harcourt has said he writes three or four songs a week, and 400 more are waiting within him to be written.)
Yes, getting all that luscious music out, it seems, isn’t always easy. At first, during the first few numbers of Harcourt’s 20 May set at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, it was as if someone had forgotten to wind him up or he were running on a puttering, just-about-dead battery. Touring this time with a full band (Harcourt had visited the States once before, just a trumpet player in tow), he was no match for their intensity during the early part of the evening; this was particularly the case with the trumpeter, who despite using a number of mutes still managed to drown Harcourt out. As he plunked away determinedly at his keyboard, Harcourt’s vocals sounded a bit like he had just run up a flight of stairs and was still regaining his breath. During set’s third song, “Hanging with the Wrong Crowd”, Harcourt struggled a bit with the chorus, which has him leaping octaves from his comfort range into a more challenging falsetto. Though after completing the number, he revealed what might be the problem: a raucous night before, followed by next to no sleep. “I think I’m still drunk,” he confessed.
Though I can’t say the nearly sold out crowd minded much—or would have wanted to see Harcourt any other way. Obviously, the most compelling reason to see Harcourt live is the knowledge that it would be anything but a simple recap of his studio performances. Not only would that have been impossible—I doubt Harcourt has the self-control to deliver something so unadulterated—it would also have been out of the question, against everything that makes him such a miraculous musician. At every turn, along every melody, and through every note, Harcourt hung dangerously close to the edge. Watching his shoulders shudder as he muscled a hearty keyboard solo; giggling uncomfortably as he told stories amusing to only him; trying to figure out what might be going on in that head of his—the audience reveled in every moment as he tottered on the brink of losing it completely. Bearing witness to it all made us complicit his would-be demise, but it also, in a small way, made us a boon to his triumph. And every time, he did make it, in a way so beautiful, so touching, so mesmerizing, there almost aren’t words to describe it. After a rough go with “He’s Building a Swamp” (from 2000 EP Maplewood), which included dropping the microphone and wandering aimlessly around the stage for a bar, Harcourt channeled his delirium into determination, resulting in a bewitching take on “God Protect Your Soul”. Already saturated with voodoo magic on disc, live the song pulsed, knee-weakening and heart-stopping, practically oozing with a delicious carnality. The live band helped to unleash the song’s rock potentialities—it included much more by way of distorted guitar effects and animal drumming—but Harcourt’s masterful keyboard and meaty singing were still, by far, the most engaging and noteworthy aspects. As he sang, he lost focus on the crowd, swinging his head soulfully over the noise, lifting himself up and sitting back down to embody the shifts in volume or emphasis. I have to say, of all the shows I’ve seen in my days, this was the first where I literally swooned.
After that, there was no going back—either the drunkenness he admitted earlier in the show wore off, or he simply shared his intoxication with the rest of us. He followed “God Protect Your Soul” with three spell-binders from Here Be Monsters—“Beneath the Heart of Darkness”, “Birds Fly Backwards”, and “Those Crimson Tears”, each more painstakingly beautiful than the next. He also peppered the end of the set with songs from a yet-to-be album he just finished recording, which showed off Harcourt’s diverse array of influences, from rock to folk, from blues to gospel, and even some vaudeville-style jazz. And, in the habit of someone who is constantly writing new material, he also performed the last song he wrote, a sweet charmer called “Late Night Partner” which he played without accompaniment. This and “Sister Renee” formed the quiet portion of the encore, before he erupted into the chaotic climax of “Shanghai”.
In a park near my childhood home in Michigan, there was a rickety train bridge, slicked with years of grease, hanging high above a shallow, rocky section of the Grand River. Kids used to dare one another to cross it, recalling that scene in Stand By Me, knowing full well that at any moment, another train could come, forcing them to choose a watery or oily grave. The reward for crossing, though—other than the ego trip of having survived such a dangerous thing—was what lie on the other side: a wild, unkempt field, bursting with flowers and burning with sunlight, a place heaven-sent only for the brave and daring. For Ed Harcourt, music seems to be this trip across the bridge. Though it is often a perilous trek, he knows wisely—even in his youth—that there’s only one way to paradise. And I delight in saying, for one evening in May, I experienced the intense euphoria of traveling with him.