10 Dec 2001: Bowery Ballroom New York City
Wait—did he drop the guitar on purpose? The song continued, but James Walsh quit playing in the midst of the action, visibly overwhelmed and signaling a stagehand to come and help him, quick. It only took a few bars for him to strap on a new six-string and segue in again, but the sudden switch—just two numbers into their set, no less—was hardly smooth and just a hair short of jarring.
After making it through “Poor Misguided Fool” though, lead singer and guitar player/dropper Walsh explained the hasty changeover. “You might have noticed the guitar was painfully out of tune”, he said, so matter of fact that it was both unbearably sweet and embarrassingly pathetic. The crowd couldn’t help but coo at his confession. “He’s so young”, someone behind me murmured, as Walsh’s nervous giggling and hair fussing earned him even more doting. And by then, there was no turning back—the sweet lad had nestled himself firmly into the crowd’s ample bosom, and we were giddy with motherly affection.
Maybe someone instructed Starsailor on how to melt the hearts a New York crowd, now well versed in the nuances of sentimentality. But it’s hard to believe that the blunders—and wonders—of the group’s first New York show were anything but a brutally honest depiction of a band on the brink of stateside stardom. The show was far from faultless, but therein laid its perfection, its appeal. Really, I can’t imagine a better introduction to the humble, gutsy, and straight from the heart stylings of the Starsailor sound—and the fact that they were so completely genuine that night was plenty to convince anyone of their talent.
They entered the stage at the Bowery Ballroom without fanfare, as the souped-up version of “Poor Misguided Fool” that had been playing offstage faded. (They’d later play a rendition from onstage, where the mishap I mentioned earlier occurred.) For non-New Yorkers, Bowery Ballroom is an important stepping-stone for most of the indie, Brit and alternative rock that filters through the city’s scene. Bowey is both intimate enough assure the concertgoer that she’s not “just another number”, while sizable enough to prove that the group has a strong following. Often, acts that sell out there come back shortly to do pricier shows in larger venues. (As a case in point, Starsailor will return in January 2002 to open for The Charlatans UK at the larger Irving Plaza, and my guess is they’ll be back to do a headliner there soon enough.)
As soon as they assumed position that night, Walsh—who looks more like a bewildered teenager than rock band figurehead—whispered a timid “hello, New York” before diving into an aching version of one of their UK singles, “Alcoholic”. Bandmates James Stelfox, Ben Byrne, and Barry Westhead brewed an engulfing cloud of musical energy, which Walsh’s voice pierced through like a fog light. Every time he rose up to sing a note higher than his mid-range, his voice quivered with the fragile power, much like a person screaming through tears and an awful lot like Jeff Buckley. Stylistic ditto for the show’s first ballad of the night, a version of “She Just Wept” slightly slower and more theatrical than the one on Love is Here. Eyes closed (and, at one point, rolling back into his head), Walsh sang as if he was writing the song on the spot, driven by the immediacy of a hellish heartsickness. And the audience again slurped up every ounce of his earnestness, practically silent with dumbstruck awe. In short, Walsh’s forte is filling every note with utter agony—ripped to shit, salt-in-wounds, this-hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you agony.
Well apparently, it was something like that, literally and figuratively. “I can’t get into it because my voice sounds like a bag of shit”, he croaked at one point, again prompting the audience to “aww” in a rehearsed-sounding unison. “Fucking record company working us too hard. Fucking bastards”. He giggled it off like a five-year old, though it’s hard not to believe that, like a child, there was an innocent truth to his proclamation. He may have been overcome with passion, but he also seemed beaten by exhaustion; both the beleaguered and the boldness pulsed through every tune.
If I’m talking about James Walsh a lot, there’s a reason for that. He commands the stage as the charismatic leader of the pack, unable to keep his frustration or joy to himself and on a mission to make the whole world understand him. He’s a classic example of the frustrated, creative genius who’s permanently locked in high school, the tragic kid who might scrawl a poem on a wall, then punch a hole through it. When he nailed a number, he bounced about proudly and chatted with the crowd; as his voice burned, he paced with discontent, downing half a bottle of water in the course of each song and seemingly wanting to give up. He never full on threw a tantrum, but you could just see how he was the type—especially midway through the show when the stagehand, apparently reading signals, brought out a steaming cup to soothe his ailing vocal chords. “I’ve got my tea so I’ll be ok”, he quipped. But maybe he wouldn’t have been—after all, a perfectionist never is. And that would have been okay, too.
By and large, James was being too hard on himself and the Starsailor crew; aside from a few understandable slips, the show was clean and bedazzling in its simplicity. Whether a high gear number like “Fever” or Walsh doing “Come Down” solo, the sheer power that emanated from the stage that night drove yet another nail into their predestined stardom. The most forceful blow came near the show’s end, in the rousing “Good Souls” (another hit in the UK). The crowd, as if it were already a single here, reveled with a manic joy as Starsailor pushed the intensity toward a fevered pitch. And Walsh, dramatically, finished out the number kneeling, wailing cacophonously on his guitar and meditating from the feedback.
It’s obvious that Starsailor are still figuring out how to behave as a band, one of international acclaim, no less. But to see them this early on in their journey is to see them in true form—a form that inspiring, heartwarming, loveable. And may they keep a hold of this authenticity always, as their most effective asset.