If you are not familiar with Hebden Bridge and its Trade Club, it’s worth looking into this historic little venue. The Trade Club itself is a socialist labour club run by its members and hosts gigs in its 150-capacity gig room most nights of the week. This is no ordinary venue though, it’s a special place with a long history and much like its counterpart The Brudenell Social Club in Leeds it is often chosen by artists who could (in some cases) sell out venues 100 times as big. Amongst those who have played there in recent times include Patti Smith, Donovan, Idles, Killing Joke and Frank Turner amongst many others. Hebden Bridge itself is a small town nestled in West Yorkshire between Halifax and Burnley, famous for its hippy lifestyle, gift shops and beautiful location. With its looming cotton mills and hills surrounding it, it actually could not be a better location to go and see Justin Sullivan live.
I only found out the support for today’s gig a few hours before and was pretty excited to see that it was Ally Dickaty of The Virginmarys. Their album Northern Sun Sessions was one of my top recommended albums of 2018 and I had yet to catch them live, either solo or as the full band. It turns out The Virginmarys and New Model Army do have some shared history with The Virginmarys having supported New Model Army on their first ever tour in 2009. For me there are moments on Northern Sun Sessions that are reminiscent of NMA so it was a perfect pairing.
Nothing though, and I mean literally nothing can prepare you for Ally’s voice live. My god it is as raw, emotional, loud, gritty, in your face and intense as the recorded sessions and this doubled with a lone acoustic guitar as a solo act is mesmerising. Everyone came down early to see the set and everyone was transfixed. When presented with such a force as that voice and a good splattering of The Virginmarys back catalogue it is no surprise. Yes, this is acoustic, so-set wise I am not going to go on about rock and roll antics but as an advertisement for his band I imagine he converted everyone there. It was hard not to be blown away by the honesty of the performance and it definitely makes you want to check out the full band. Highlights of the set for me were, of course, songs from that last album with fantastic versions of “S.O.S.4.U.N.I” and “Northern Sun” particularly standing out.
Justin Sullivan is a cult hero and rightly adored by his fan base and for very good reason. New Model Army are a band that have stuck to their roots whilst still managing to be innovative on every album. Their latest and 17th studio album From Here is due out in August (although no songs were played tonight from it). Justin himself seemed super relaxed and extremely chatty which was great to see. This was an intimate gig even by his solo standards. No Dean White in tow tonight, just Justin, his guitar and his stories. It felt like you were being let into the NMA story just a little and by a great storyteller.
I have had the pleasure of meeting Justin a few times over the years and know when he is relaxed, he has a hundred stories to tell and last night this accumulated in one of the most passionate performances that I have ever seen by him. Solo Justin is different to NMA and that for me is one of the attractions, I love his solo work anyway but that engagement with the audience he can find in these more intimate settings is second to none. Set list wise you couldn’t really have asked for much better and for me what stood out the most was actually some of the songs from Winter, which isn’t personally my favourite album but in this context, I saw them in an entirely different light. “Winter”, “Eyes Get Used to the Darkness” and “Strogoula” were all epic. And we were treated to their perhaps greatest song and one I had only ever seen NMA play live once before Green and Grey, written literally about and for the valley we were stood in.
As a gig this is one that is going to stand out in my mind for a long time, it was the sort of gig that made you happy and appreciate life around you and that we can all come together with friends and enjoy two of the most engaging frontman around in a stripped back and intimate form. What more could you ask for?