At around half past 8, in that empty space between the names on the ticket, I got talking to the woman sitting to my right, who must have been well into her fifties. She told me how she had followed Richard Hawley around the country, attending every leg of his UK tour – of which this second Sheffield gig is the penultimate part – and asked whether I had listened to his most recent album, Standing At The Sky’s Edge. I told her that I thought it was fantastic, and she smiled in relief. “Some people don’t get it”, she said. “I’ve seen a few walkouts from people around my age, because he’s so famous for his ballads”. It had taken her a long time to penetrate Hawley’s new heavier, more lively sound, she said, but “when you know the person is as special as Rich, you can’t just give up on him. He’s marvellous”.
Marvellous indeed. In many ways Hawley was preaching to the converted tonight. His fondness for his home city is no secret – every album title to date has been a reference to it. Lady’s Bridge and Sky’s Edge are both places in Sheffield, Coles Corner is a famous meeting place for loved-up couples, and Late Night Final is the cry of the vendors of the Sheffield Star. Believe it or not, even Truelove’s Gutter is a place in Sheffield. Richard Hawley, in return, is revered here. If you see Hawley anywhere, see him in Sheffield.
After a wonderfully charming support slot from Lisa Hannigan, her delicate, low-key folk songs providing a perfect prelude to Hawley’s more masculine presence, the seats began to fill up inside the City Hall, and it becomes clear just how wide a base of support this man has. There are older couples waiting patiently for the music to start, groups of starry-eyed women telling each other where you can still access Hawley’s session with the BBC Philharmonic, and hipsters dressed as Hawley does – leather jackets, Doc Martins, and straight jeans with the bottoms turned up. Good music is good music, as it always was.
Hawley kicks things off with a huge rendition of the title track from Standing at the Sky’s Edge – to be at a sit down gig and still have your ears ringing is an incredible experience – and from this bold statement of intent he segues straight into ‘Don’t Stare At The Sun’, one of the album’s standouts, written for his son Louie, and that it was dedicated to the day they flew a kite together. From here, the older material started to seep in – ‘Hotel Room’ in particular received an especially beefy update.
Yet even when surrounded by overdrive haze, Richard Hawley never gets boring, and he never loses his charm. He is a fascinating, magnetic modern rock star, who has made it big only after decades of releasing consistently top-drawer music, clearly a product of Sheffield but still influenced by the all the familiar big-hitters – Johnny Cash, Elvis obviously, perhaps even a bit of Sinatra. Tonight is a dazzling showcase of his talents, and he seems only capable of growing from here.
As he leaves the stage for the final time, after an encore made up of two traditional folk ballads and straight-up rocker ‘Down In The Woods’, Hawley says his goodbyes, parting with the reassurance that “we’ll probably bump into each other in Sainsbury’s soon”. Richard Hawley is well on his way to becoming (whisper it) a genuine national treasure.