Cast your eyes around the crowd before Artmagic take to the stage at Paper Dress Vintage and you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re at a convention of Suede fan-club obsessives. Friendships are reunited whilst band T-shirts from back in the day are admired. It all shouldn’t really surprise as one half of the Artmagic duo is Richard Oakes, long-term guitarist of Suede.
I surmise that I’m no more than a Johnny-Come-Lately here and marvel at the loyalty. Because in truth, Artmagic aren’t much like Suede. Admittedly, the expansive guitar vision within Oakes’ repertoire crosses both bands and the effortless flourish adds to the floss. But Artmagic are very much a duo in their own right. Sean McGhee, no slouch in terms of music industry influence either, is more than an equal partner. It’s his words, his character sketches, his soaring vocal and his position as the carousing frontman that carries this gig forward. And the Suede fans have clearly adopted him as one of their own.
Before Artmagic do their thing, there are two supports. Thom Ashworth sings a range of folk tunes, some self-penned and some covers whilst playing an acoustic bass. His politics are left-wing and his banter engaging. He advocates against poverty, breaking Union lines and capital punishment. His brief impressions of Martin Carthy might be lost on many gathered but they’ve probably just about heard of Richard Thompson, a track from whom ends Thom’s set.
Maybe I missed something in second support, The Left Outsides. A husband and wife act, they wallow in mournful 60’s folk whilst playing guitar, squeeze box and fiddle. At best, it’s deliberately haunting; at worst, pedestrian and dull. The slow ripple of applause between each song suggests that others are as enamoured and confused as I am by the bleakness on display. I like them more on record.
Artmagic are a modern-day English folk band. Pastoral and laidback, they sing of farmers and fisherman, photography, lost faith and lost love. It’s clever pop, often ‘metrically irregular’ but never to a degree that it alienates. Sean sings at a tone that’s almost falsetto but not quite; the late, great Billy Mackenzie is an obvious reference point. There’s little within that’s jolly although a few upbeat numbers from the latest EP are sprinkled throughout; “we’ve come to terms with what we are”, observes McGhee, content to be languid, almost revelling in it.
“Today’s the warmest day of the year”, says McGhee, noting that the temperature might not be best placed for the wintry chill of Artmagic. But his analysis is flawed; for, despite the evident wistfulness on offer, there’s an undeniable sunnier tone trying to get out. And when it all comes together this dip into their ‘Songs Of Other England’ album is an invitation to celebrate and not denigrate. ‘Sing For The Snowfall’ encourages one and all to live for the moment before a beautiful and chilled encore is conducted without amplification.
The Suede fans and new converts bond together, happy with what they’ve seen.