Review: Sam Wickens – Black Box, Belfast
It’s been a long time in coming, but tonight marks the launch of local singer-songwriter Sam Wickens’ debut album, All I’ve Seen. Although he has released singles and one EP to date, there has been some anticipation as to whether he could carry off an album of his own material. Getting proceedings underway this evening are the excellent indie rock four-piece, Pale Lanterns. They get a short set but as always play with a driving drum and bass sound, overlaid with their trademark repetitive guitar hooks and riffs.
Prior to Sam Wickens taking the stage we get a set from the wonderful Master And Dog, a band who had effectively disappeared off the music scene in Ireland for 4-5 years. They have lost none of their raw edge, with a big, bassy sound and guitar riffs that cut through the backing. They dedicate the song “Bad Moon” to recent victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland, Ronan Kerr and Lyra McKee; this gets a well-deserved reaction from the audience and the keyboards stand out, as do the vocal harmonies throughout the track.
The chopping guitar rhythm and rasping vocals of days gone are still there and the keyboard, bass drums come in to lift the band’s deceptively simple but extremely catchy songs. “Canada” is, as always, a stand out tune in their set and it lifts the whole evening, bouncing along brightly. Surely a great big tune to end a set with.
Sam Wickens takes to the stage, accompanied by Chris McCann (drums), Laura McFadden (cello) and Maeve Mulholland (keys) and sets the overall tone of the evening with “Cliffside,” one of the stand out tracks from the new album. Slow and mesmerical, this is a song that starts low and slow but builds as each instrument joins in. Immediately you can’t help but be struck by how much the addition of Laura McFaddens’ cello lifts the overall sound.
Wickens’ stage presence could best be described as unassuming; he comes across as shy and quiet but lets his voice and the quality of his material do the talking for him. When he does speak, he is soft and genuine in his delivery, nearly seeming surprised that people have packed out the venue to hear him.
There is a variety in his writing and his performance that is unusual in a relatively young artist. Electronic, almost ambient tracks like “Ice” and “Grove” are played beautifully, reminding me of how difficult it would be to pin Wickens down to one particular genre or style. “Ice” in particular sounds like a dreamy poem set to electronic jazz/synth sounds. Just as he seems to be veering off into Ryan Vail territory, he sings the soulful and intimate “Red” with slow, measured piano, ringing cymbals and, once again, perfectly judged cello that adds contrast to Wickens’ voice.
“Ravens And Crows” is a slightly older song, mournful and rhythmical and Wickens’ delivery is as close to the late Jeff Buckley as you’re going to hear anywhere. “Eden” is high and light, with the tempo and feel changing throughout the track and on “Forests”, he reaches for the big notes and hits them with ease.
“Jericho” is the final song of the set and the final song on the album. In both cases, what has gone before serves to illustrate Wicken’s talent as a diverse and complex songwriter but this takes it somewhere else again – a great big pop number, opening with a simple guitar rhythm and McCann’s drums clipping away in the background. Although this is a more subdued version than the recording, it starts to lift off and soar when the strings and keys join in on the bridge and chorus. Very, very different to the other material on show, but a fabulous song nevertheless.
In all honesty, if things had ended there, everyone would have gone home happy clutching signed copies of the new CD and the odd t-shirt. Nothing could have prepared me for the encore that Wickens delivered. I’ve heard him perform “I Was” before and it had certainly struck me a lovely acoustic guitar-style song. Wickens strums three simple chords on his battered guitar – think Malojian meets Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” – and the vocals are delicate, fragile and honest.
As the cello comes in behind Wickens, the entire room is silent and hushed. A song that is both personal but shrouded in allegory and metaphor it would perhaps be a textbook definition of the phrase “less is more.” Without any hyperbole or exaggeration, the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck by the time this song ended and I doubt that I will hear anything as true and affecting anywhere else this year.
Overall, the album is exceptionally good and as noted above, there is a lot of diversity and some experimentation in terms of the style and performance of the songs; something for everyone perhaps, ranging from laid back ambient to foot-tapping pop. “Jericho” in particular is a stand out radio-friendly single-in-waiting and deserves some serious airplay. Wickens is an incredible talent as a writer and a performer and it surely only a matter of time before major success makes its way to his door.