Sunday 6 June 2010

James Apollo, Kreg Viesselman

Contact Theatre, Manchester, Saturday June 5 

Here's a proposition: two New Dylans on one double-bill. Well, New Dylans in so much as both James Apollo and Kreg Viesselman hail from Minnesota, and both got out of there as soon as possible. "It's only leaving that makes a home at all," sang Apollo at one point, in one of a few allusions to his itinerant lifestyle. Kreg Viesselman, meanwhile, has made his home in Oslo, Norway, whose special micro-climate seems to suit his introspective temperament. 

Indeed, Viesselman was a revelation.  Firmly in the US songwriter idiom, he brings to it an intensity of feeling and an expressive voice that is all his own. To see Viesselman perform is to partake in a soul-deep session of primal therapy. On a song like The Well ("how deep the hole I pushed my brother in / He lost his grasp and gave a gasp") he more or less defines the sick soul, exposing an acute sense of sin and an unvarnished fear of the universe. Although the feeling is directed inward, that extraordinary gravelly voice communicates to an audience, who respond with a mix of awe and self-recognition. The shamanistic element came out most forcefully on Half Baked News, a number where Hobopop Collective's Kirsty McGee and Mat Martin guested on vocals (it was a Hobopop promotion). This was spirit music indeed, and came from deep within.

In contrast to the introspective Viesselman, James Apollo is strong on chutzpah. His smouldering stage presence and charisma are legendary, and here he was joined by a Stateside band of bassist, accordion-player and percussionist. Their instrumental skills were ordinary and their backing vocals were, to put it kindly, undistinguished. The surprise entrance of the latter pair - from the side aisles at the climax of Apollo's second number - was an ineptly-managed piece of business. They were endearingly bad, in short, and displayed more courage and pluck than many slicker musicians.

Apollo, whose gaze became more anxious during the course of the evening, sang a song called I've Got It Easy with calculated irony, and a song called Happiness with relentless joylessness. He raised the quality by including Moman and Penn's Dark End of the Street (uncredited) in the set, before reverting to his own material, which alternated between narcissistic self-regard and romantic claptrap. There is something heroic in such naked self-belief, and Apollo may be in danger of turning into the larger-than-life figure he likes to project. It worked for Dylan, after all.  

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