Review: Seàn McGowan @ The Castle, Manchester

In difficult times, people find comfort in each other. At The Castle on Saturday evening, Seàn McGowan brought people together.

To call this a happy gig would be wrong. Neither was it a particularly fun night out. Instead, McGowan brought people together to give solace, and to tell them to be kind, and look after each other.

All this with a formidable voice and an incredible gift for storytelling.

McGowan, clad in a Fred Perry polo shirt, wrestled his way onto the stage through the crowd. Immediately he seemed to grow to fit the space, laughing and joking with the audience briefly. Then he started to sing.

The first song he sang was a cappella, a folk song about a young man being swept away from home by forces beyond his control. The theme of loss of control, of being swept away runs thickly through the set.

McGowan uses this as an overture, finishing the song and welcoming the audience. With a lesser voice, this would not have worked, but his voice has such power behind it that the room immediately falls silent. From now on, we are his.

For the most part, the themes of the songs are familiar: love, heartbreak, vulnerability. McGowan explores them with vigour and wit. His songs have the rare quality that they communicate big ideas in simple terms. Empathy is at the heart of McGowan’s work.

McGowan’s homage to Billy Bragg leaves no doubt about the anger and empathy he shared with us. The room felt much like a group of people in mourning. Audience members had the option of donating to a food bank. The prime minister got a mention.

I won’t repeat how he was described.

There was disappointment, regret, sadness, and rage. But also, in spite of everything, there was a grim, unyielding optimism drilled into the crowd. Throughout the night, McGowan consoled us: “Things will get better. Just not fucking yet.”

The politics of the downtrodden clearly runs through a lot of McGowan’s music. There is something fiercely proud in his work. He tells us the importance of friendship, of family, and the extraordinary pain these can cause us, at times. We are not spared the details of grief, or loss.

But then the highs come, and small, mundane, and far between as they are, coming from McGowan they seem almost joyous. The final song celebrates the moment you quit a job you hate to go onto something better.

That, I think, shows very well what McGowan is all about. His incredible voice explores the wounds and injuries that we all share throughout our lives. He also shows us how we might begin the long, slow process of healing.

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