Review and Photography by John Bentley

Michael Chapman is a 78 year-old British singer-songwriter and guitarist who forged a formidable reputation from a string of classic 1970’s albums, perhaps most notably ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’. He is nothing if not prolific and continues to make albums (now over 30) and give live performances. His song-writing skills are widely respected, as is his skilful guitar playing. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore is one of his admirers and they toured together back in 2013.

Michael Chapman at The Continental, Preston with Bridget St John, Sarah Smout and B J Cole

What makes this tour particularly interesting is the presence of an unusual all-star cast of accompanying musicians. First there is B. J. Cole, Britain’s foremost pedal-steel guitar player and a much in-demand session musician who has played with many famous names, ranging from Robert Plant to Robbie Williams. Then there is an old friend of Chapman’s, velvet-voiced singer-songwriter Bridget St John. Like Chapman himself, she was a real favourite on John Peel’s radio programmes back in the 70s. The line-up is completed by talented cello player Sarah Smout.

The set tonight concentrates on Chapman’s two most recent albums, 2017’s ‘50’ and 2019’s ‘True North’, but he also delves into a few of his older classics. Chapman is rightly celebrated for his instrumental acoustic guitar prowess, with comparisons being made with great players like John Fahey. He is on great form tonight and it is especially interesting to see the instrumental interplay with the other musicians, starting with opening tracks ‘Eleuthera’ and ‘The Mallard’, which run together as a lengthy instrumental extravaganza.

Michael Chapman at The Continental, Preston with Bridget St John, Sarah Smout and B J Cole

Michael Chapman at The Continental, Preston with Bridget St John, Sarah Smout and B J Cole

He does have some problems with his vocals, however. Ever gravelly, he apologises for the fact that the voice is about an octave lower than it should be tonight. His voice is very low pitched and he sings almost spoken word. He proudly points out that his composition ‘That Time of Night’ was recorded by Lucinda Williams, of whom he is a big fan. Although Leeds-born and thoroughly British, Chapman is very much a white bluesman and many of his songs document aspects of America, such as ‘Just Another Story’, about a truck-stop waitress: the song develops into a rather avant-garde instrumental, with some interesting sound effects coming out of B. J. Cole’s pedal steel guitar. ‘It’s Too Late’ continues the instrumental virtuosity, with strident pedal steel and plucked cello strings. Many of the instrumental passages are really soundscape homages to the American landscape, like the shimmering new song ‘Caddo Lake’, reminiscent of the way Calexico celebrate the Tex-Mex border country in their music.

Michael Chapman at The Continental, Preston with Bridget St John, Sarah Smout and B J Cole

The second half opens with Bridget St John beautifully singing Chapman’s ‘Rabbit Hills’, the sole offering tonight from the classic ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ album. ‘Sometimes You Just Drive’ is another interesting new composition making marvellous use of the musicians’ diverse instruments and skills, including eastern-sounding cello parts and sharply defined guitar-playing, while Chapman and St John sing different vocal parts. As the show approaches the end, Michael thanks everyone for coming – “it would have been weird without you!” We finish with another Chapman old-favourite ‘Shuffleboat River Farewell’, once again benefitting from an imaginative arrangement for the musicians.

Setlist: Eleuthera; The Mallard; That Time of Night; Just Another Story; It’s Too Late; Rabbit Hills; Caddo Lake; Truck Song; All This Time; Sometimes You Just Drive; Shuffleboat River Farewell.

Michael Chapman at The Continental, Preston with Bridget St John, Sarah Smout and B J Cole

Michael Chapman at The Continental, Preston with Bridget St John, Sarah Smout and B J Cole

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