In the wake of its debut release, Love Is Here, Starsailor charted a course towards the vast sea of rock stardom - or, at least, Britpop band of the moment. Critics and fans thrilled to driving anthems and lilting lullabies crooned by the honeyed voice of James Walsh. Touring in support of their follow up Silence is Easy, Starsailor—though skilled enough to navigate by moonlight—still seemed to be charting a path towards deeper waters.
28 Jan 2004: The Metro Chicago
As the band took the stage of the intimate confines of the Metro, the audience could feel the sense of catching a last wave before Walsh and crew were bound for bigger venues. As the house speakers blared a recorded version of Starsailor’s “Shark Food”, the lads strapped on their gear. Without missing a beat Starsailor kicked in with their grand live assault of ringing chiming guitar, hammering drum and bass and spacey organ. On the heels of the opener came what surely could be Walsh’s reason to believe, the song “Music Was Saved”—a rock and roll love letter to the power and the glory of music.
As much as Starsailor’s music is richly layered, built like a sonic symphony out of equal parts humming church organ or plaintive piano, bold drumbeats, percolating bass rhythms and gently weeping guitars, live the focus is unquestionably lead singer and guitarist James Walsh. Full of charisma and charm, Walsh also beams with a schoolboy’s glee. Far from the hard faced front man or the cocksure strutter, rather he is the lovable star struck poet with his shaggy brown hair and—dare I declare—soft doughy body. He’s the kid who played guitar for hours on end in his bedroom writing songs and practicing his licks. Even more endearing was his between-song banter. Clearly thankful and grateful to be making music, he thanked the audience over and over again with an earnestness seldom seen from rock and rollers whose faces peer off the cover of so many rock rags and glossy postered walls.
Not trying to take anything away from bassist James Stelfox, drummer Ben Byrne, or piano and organist Barry Westhead, but James Walsh is the centerpiece. His voice lent the trembling ache to wistful swirling rockers like “Lullaby” and “Fever”. Starsailor’s strength as a group is their ability to constantly shift and build tension throughout their music. The mood and color can go from the darkness of “Alcoholic” or the growing, pulsing shimmer of “Tie Up My Hands” to the soaring grace and beauty of the ballad “Love Is Here”.
Midway through the set, after a surging, swirling wash of rock and roll, Walsh dismissed his mates to take up the mantle of acoustic troubadour, surprising those in the audience old enough to remember Bruce Springsteen’s real glory days with a poignant cover of “Atlantic City”.
Sensing the need to stir the crowd, Walsh announced, “For bearing the slow tunes we’re going to reward you with a disco tune.” At which point the band joined in for the rump-shakin’, bass-heavy “Four on the Floor”. With full-on Isley Brothers wonka-wonka guitar and electro-synth organ, Walsh was moved to perform a white man’s boogie across the stage. With the crowd in his hand, Walsh led his followers in a rendition of “Born Again”—an introspective singalong off Silence is Easy, with all of its romantic pleadings and urgings.
Having helmed their way through a night that ebbed and flowed with tides of blistering rock and whispering waves of pop balladry, Starsailor capped the evening with a stirring, squelching and frenzied version of their hit “Good Souls”. Big things certainly loom on the horizon for Starsailor, the challenge will be for a band that is so much reliant on one man’s presence and persona to continually stay vital over the long voyage of a rock and roll life.