Fan review: Skinny Lister and Will Varley in the USA
Downstairs @ The Middle East, Cambridge, MA (10/02/2018)
Words by Kimberley Bancroft-Graves / Photos by Adam Graves
Before the doors open for the show, the Middle East restaurant is buzzing. It seems like a bit of a reunion with concert goers and band members alike sitting in the small narrow restaurant eating dinner. Occasionally someone walks in and is greeted by a group of friends that they likely haven’t seen since the last show. Xtra Mile Recordings has created a bit of an American home-base in Boston with many familiar faces showing up time after time at shows for their artists such as Skinny Lister, Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, Will Varley and Beans on Toast. The fans will occasionally get up to say hello to the members of Skinny Lister but for the most part, people let them enjoy their dinner without too much disruption. One man stands up, asks for the restaurant's attention, gets down on one knee and proposes to his girlfriend as lead singer for Skinny Lister, Dan, records the moment on his phone as he sits a table away. A massive celebratory ruckus breaks out and everyone goes back to enjoying this pre-show, unplanned reunion of friends and fans who have come from near and far for tonight's show.
Downstairs at the Middle East is the bigger room at the venue holding 575 people. It has a low black ceiling with exposed pipes. This is the second year in a row that Skinny Lister has headlined this room to a sold-out crowd. These are their biggest headline shows in the United States and about 75% of the way through their North American tour, it feels like a homecoming of sorts. There is one difference this year from last – a new face for the crowd in Boston: the addition of bassist Scott Milsom who has stepped in and taken the place of Michael Camino in the band. There is no barrier between the stage and the crowd and the security staff sits off to the side.
For many in this crowd, Will Varley is not an unknown opener. As soon as doors opened, people started filing in and holding their spot to watch the immensely talented singer-songwriter. Will Varley’s set is filled with funny banter and songs filled with more serious lyrics about life and the universe. You can tell that he is having the time of his life as the crowd, over 3,000 miles from where he started, sings his songs back to him word for word. He plays older crowd favorites and some newer songs off of his new album, Spirit of Minnie. Both are received equally as well by the crowd who is just itching for more. Will Varley reveals that he recently got married and that he and his wife are expecting; again the celebratory ruckus of the crowd erupts. The songs continue from the serious 'February Snow', which he dedicates to his wife, to the ever-hilarious crowd favorite 'Talking Cat Blues'. As his set nears its end, Will Varley hands some cash to those in the front row and asks that everyone pass it to the bar and pass back a shot of Jameson. Before you know it, he’s raising his glass to the crowd and drinking his whiskey. His foot is slamming to the beat as he finishes up his set with 'King for a King'. Before he leaves the stage, Will sends thanks to Frank Turner, without whom he wouldn’t be here singing for us. Will Varley closes off his time on the stage by telling the crowd that he hopes to be back in Boston soon to headline his own show. The crowd's response indicates that Boston is more than ready for a Will Varley headline show.
Between sets, DJ Panda provides the entertainment. The standout moment here is the playing of Frank Turner’s 'Recovery' which grows into a massive singalong. A bit of an ode to the fact that many people here enjoying the show were introduced to both Skinny Lister and Will Varley through their times on tour with Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls.
At exactly 10:45pm, Skinny Lister takes the stage and breaks into 'Wanted', the opening track from their latest record The Devil The Heart & The Fight. The crowd is more than warmed up from Will Varley and it shows. Sam, Dan, Lorna, Thom, Max, and Scott continue on with energetic singalongs, 'Tragedy in A Minor' and the ballad reminiscent of summer, 'Colors'. Throughout the entire show, the members of Skinny Lister constantly connect with their audience and encourage their participation. The crowd responds equally as well to the faster songs and the slower songs along with two brand new songs and their old favorites. One of the brand new songs that the crowd eats up is '38 Minutes', a fantastic tune about the false alarm of a nuclear missile reported to be inbound for Hawaii from North Korea recently. This hits home as former Skinny Lister bassist Michael Camino lives in Hawaii. Between songs, Dan Hepinstall takes a sip from his beer as he welcomes all and sends a special welcome out to the Salty Dog Cruisers in the audience. In a few weeks, Skinny Lister will again be appearing on the Flogging Molly Salty Dog Cruise out of Miami. It’s clear from the crowd's response that they will be seeing some familiar faces on the boat. As Skinny Lister breaks out into another new song, 'Cause', the flagon (a rum-filled seventh member of the band, in a way) is passed around the crowd as people take their turn and pass it along. As 'Geordie Lad' begins, Lorna reaches out into the crowd and is helped down off the stage. The song rages on as Lorna dances her way around the crowd with the concertgoers. In this show, there is no barrier literally or figuratively between the band and the crowd. We’re all in this together. Next up is a crowd favorite, 'Cathy', probably the loudest song of the night and at this point, I think everyone is surprised that the roof is still on the building. As the song ends, Dan wipes away his sweat as he lets us know what he's thinking. “Boston wins,” he says with an exhausted smile on his face. His wife, frontwoman Lorna, follows Dan’s words by saying that this is a homecoming for them. It’s clear that everyone in the room feels the same.
It wouldn’t be a Skinny Lister show without 'John Kanaka'. The song is a traditional sea shanty that has been adopted by Skinny Lister and turned into the ultimate singalong and crowd participation highlight. Max and Sam stand on the edge of the stage, on speakers, hovering over the crowd leading the chants and singing the main verses, their microphones extended outwards as they lead and encourage the growing roar. Their sweat drips onto those below them. Lorna grabs Mark, a front row mega fan, and pulls him up on stage. He shares her microphone with her for the rest of the song as he radiates excitement. Shortly after, he gets back into his spot in the front row and Lorna hands him a fresh beer.
After a few more high energy songs filled with crowd surfers who lock eyes and sing the lyrics back to the band, Skinny Lister takes a moment to slow it down and congratulate the couple that we all witnessed get engaged a few hours earlier. They play 'Bonny Away', a slower love song, as the crowd forms a circle around the newly-engaged couple and they share a slow dance.
The band doesn’t miss a beat and steps the energy level right back up to where it was before with 'Bold as Brass', 'This is War' and 'Hamburg Drunk'. During 'Hamburg Drunk', Max jumps into the crowd and plays his accordion as he is passed along above the heads of the fans. The ceiling at this venue is low and at one point, Max is holding onto a pipe running along the ceiling while saluting his bandmates back on stage. It’s hard to tell who is having more fun, the members of Skinny Lister or the crowd. Once Max is passed back to the stage, they send their love to the crowd and call it a night. Of course, screams for an encore lead to Skinny Lister returning to the stage, this time with Dan in a one-piece outfit of the flag of Great Britain that he wore in the recent video for the newly released song, 'Thing Like That', which focuses on their feelings regarding the political state of the world involving Brexit and Trump.
During every show, Lorna initiates the need for a group picture of Skinny Lister with their crowd so she can send it to her dad, Party George, as he is fondly called. Party George, the father of Lorna and Max of Skinny Lister, is a musician himself and Skinny Lister goes on to play one of the songs he wrote, '40 Pound Wedding'. As the encore finishes up, Lorna says that they would love to stick around and say hello to everyone after the show. The crowd responds by chanting "ten more songs”. Obviously, they can’t get enough of Skinny Lister. They finish up the night with 'Six Whiskies', the perfect song to bring the night to a close. Crowd members wrap their arms around the strangers next to them as they sway and sing along to the words that close out this wonderful night as Will Varley and Sam Brace are now the ones being passed around the crowd in the seemingly narrow space between the extended arms of the fans and the ceiling. Following the show, Lorna, Max, Sam, Dan, Scott, Thom and Will stick true to their word and spend time with each and every fan that wants something signed or a photo. They share hugs and laughs as the room begins to clear and the fans disperse into the night.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Skinny Lister play live about seven times. I have never once been disappointed. They give absolutely everything they have in them to their live show and make sure that everyone there is having an absolutely fantastic time. When you’re at a Skinny Lister show, you don’t feel like you’re at your typical concert. You feel like you’re at a house show with your favorite band seemingly within reach and they’re constantly reaching back out to you. I have a life philosophy…"buy the concert ticket". In Skinny Lister’s case, this stands true again and again. This is a live show you do not want to miss!