REVIEW: Will Hoge – Live At Gullivers, Manchester

The last couple of years haven’t been an easy ride for Will Hoge. Following the release of his last album ‘Small Town Dreams’, he was promised a slot as ‘The Next Big Thing’ by a radio conglomerate in New York, only to be told then next day it had been given to another artist after a threat from a record label. Will lost his spark and love for music, only to be brought back by watching his kids rehearsing in the garage some months later. (Fascinating interview with Rolling Stone which you can read HERE).

This year, Will’s back with his brand-new album ‘Anchors’, set for release on August 11th. Bob Harris has championed Will on his Radio 2 show for some time and has been previewing tracks from the album, a few of which we heard at Gullivers on Monday night. Will’s commitment to the UK has to be commended; this was the third time I’d seen him in three years, and it was so great to see the room busy. He’s building a fan base here from the ground up, and judging by the response to this tour, it’s working.

New Yorker Hans Chew opened the show. What an unusual but thoroughly entertaining set! He strode on stage looking like a guy who’d just come in from the street. But Hans was simply brilliant musically; I’d never seen a guy play the keyboard with so much confidence and flair. It was almost as if he was making it up as he went along; he would drift into almost 5-minute long solos that just didn’t seem scripted! His music was also very lyrically-intriguing to say the least (if anyone could enlighten us with what any of those songs were about, it would be much appreciated!). But this was an instrumental masterclass from an artist with an incredible amount of natural ability. Not someone I’d listen to in the car, but certainly an entertaining live act.

Will took the stage just after 9pm. He’s doing this tour solo, but he promised he’d come back early next year with his new band. In truth, whether he’s got a band with him or not, Will is a class act and I could quite happily watch him for hours. He gave us a 90-minute set, packed full of fan favourites stretching across his whole career. Kicking off with ‘Home Is Where The Heart Breaks’ from his 2013 ‘Never Give In’ album, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand; absolutely transfixed by Will’s wonderful command of a guitar and signature raspy vocal delivery. Obviously it’s great to see artists with a band, but there’s a vulnerability attached to acoustic performances that really tests an artist, and Will shines in this environment.

It was fantastic to hear a selection of tracks from the ‘Small Town Dreams’ album, which, judging by the response of the crowd, seems to be the album that turned a few heads. ‘Growing Up Around Here’ provoked many cheers and his adoring fans sang along to every word. ‘Little Bitty Dreams’ is up there with the best songs Will has ever released, and watching him perform this live adds even more emotion and power to the song. And of course, ‘Middle Of America’ was a massive highlight and clearly the unanimous fan favourite. We gave Will a telling off in Sheffield a couple of years ago for taking it out of his set list…he’s played it ever since!

One of my favourite moments from the show was his stunning performance of ‘When I Can Afford To Lose’, from his 2007 ‘Draw The Curtains’ album. Sitting at the keyboard this time, also playing the harmonica, you could have heard a pin drop as he flawlessly delivered one of the most spine-tingling, vulnerable tracks in his repertoire. So much passion; it’s like Will has lived each and every one of these songs. ‘Washed By The Water’ had a similar impact; he recalled how he’d been invited to perform the track on TV fund-raiser following the Nashville flood in 2012, and it’s a song full of heart and soul.

We were also treated to a fair few tracks from the upcoming album ‘Anchors’. From what we heard, all I can say is it’s going to be another album of the year contender. ‘Young As We Will Ever Be’, which Bob played on Radio 2 recently, has been released today (July 14th) with all pre-orders, and it went down incredibly well live. Rocky and edgy with a punchy backbeat; it’s yet another sign of this album’s sheer quality. We also heard the brilliant ‘This Grand Charade’, a very honest reflection of a relationship’s ups and downs, as well as the title track ‘The Reckoning’. ‘Little Bit Of Rust’ was the lead single released a few weeks back, and he introduced it by saying “it’s a duet with a rising artist in Nashville. I’m glad I can be a part of her career…her name is Sheryl Crow”.

If you haven’t had the chance to check out one of Will’s live shows, be sure to catch him next year when he’s here with the band. That’ll be something special. I love the intimacy of a venue like Gullivers, but going there to watch Will Hoge brings me some degree of sadness too; this guy shouldn’t be playing rooms like that. Hopefully there’ll be many more UK tours to look forward to in the future and his fan base will continue to expand. An artist with such immense natural talent deserves so much more.

Dan Wharton (@LifeInASong_Dan)