d Harcourt has always been a solo artist, but tonight, he seems even more alone, maybe even lonely. Something about the look on his face betrays forlornness, as he and a backup musician take the stage in this velvety basement club. He carefully smiles, crouched behind a grand piano, his hair shielding his face from the cozy audience who are practically within arms reach. How ironic that it’s St. Patrick ‘s Day, for this setting couldn’t be further from the drunken cavorting that characterizes the holiday’s revelry.
17 Mar 2003: Fez New York
Still, tonight’s theme—“the intimate Ed Harcourt”—seems for all intents and purposes redundant. After all, Harcourt is a singer who could fill an arena and still evoke shivers from a listener in the very back row; he could play for a crowd of thousands and still make it seem like he’s serenading only you. This ability stems from more than the romantic tales that he spins on Here Be Monsters and the forthcoming From Every Sphere, though they are certainly integral to the equation. But ultimately, it comes down to Harcourt’s musicianship, the nugget of which is his gorgeous, gilded voice. That voice, overfull with indomitable passion and bewitching poignancy, is as artful as a painted masterpiece and as warm and powerful as a ray of light. Despite whatever pitfalls may or may not come during his live performance, his voice forms a sturdy, unflappable core.
Despite this strength, Harcourt’s tempered mood remains a bit of a surprise. He is anything if not a dramatic performer, his big personality coming out as loud and clear as his singing. But opening with “Here Be Monsters”, a B-side off the album of the same title, Harcourt is markedly reserved. His piano playing is graceful and smooth, the room’s acoustics and the simple instrumentation giving the song an unmistakable pureness. Warm applause and a brief introduction are the only barrier between it and “Bittersweetheart”, a slow, open number from his new album. Harcourt rises and falls along with this one, gasping at notes and gulping them down, swallowing and breathing sound as if his belly were full of music. The number comes off effortlessly, but Harcourt himself is rather veiled.
What does shine through, as the normally jovial Harcourt is pared away somewhat, is the naked expressiveness of his singing. Every song is even more emotionally immediate, as if the events which inspired them were transpiring before him and he is responding impromptu. “She Fell Into My Arms”, a bouncy jewel from Here Be Monsters is loftier and more gravitational here, overwhelming both him and us. “Birds Fly Backwards”, minus the production, sounds almost like a lullaby. Harcourt may be showing another side of himself tonight, but it’s no less honest.
The set is just about an hour long, but incredibly efficient—he plays a good portion of his new album as well as old favorites like “Apple of My Eye” and “He’s Building a Swamp”. He also warms up as the show progresses, pausing to take a picture of the crowd and joking here and there with the audience. He also eventually explains what might be contributing to his muted demeanor—he’s sober. “For me, drunk is just a personality substitute,” he admits. “I’m actually really boring.”
Boring isn’t the right word though. It might be raw, or quixotic, or even shy, but it’s impossible to imagine being bored by the sheer tenderness that Harcourt emits, intoxicating whether he is intoxicated or not. Ultimately, any intimacy staged by this particular show pales in comparison to what grows organically from Harcourt’s simple being. This may be the closest any of us have been to Ed Harcourt, but it’s certainly not the closest he’s been to us.