Chris Helme

Fibbers, York, 28/01/2005

Chris Helme (the former Seahorses singer) is a man with brackets after his name. If you see what I mean. Which, given his performance at Fibbers on Friday night, is a shame.

Helme’s story is Britpop legend – talent spotted busking outside Woolworth’s in his home town of York by ex-Stone Rose John Squire for Squire’s new band, the Seahorses (it’s an anagram of ‘He hates roses’, you know? And also, the more erotically weighted cry of ‘O, the she arses!’) formed in the wake of the Roses disintegration in 1995/96. The band was augmented by two other York musicians – Stuart Fletcher on bass (still with Helme in the band the Yards) and Andy Watts on drums. Two singles and a vastly under-rated album, Do it yourself, were released in 1997, and a second set recorded but never released before the group disbanded acrimoniously in early 1999. ‘[John Squire] thought that I had little peddles in my throat, where I could pretend to be Joe Strummer one minute and Liam Gallagher the next,’ Helme says of his differences with Squire.

And accepted music industry wisdom (if there is such a thing) says that should have been it for Helme. A footnote in Squire’s career. Get back to your busking, you elfin-locked Northern warbler. But – and it’s a big BUT – the saving grace of Helme’s involvement in the Seahorses are two of the three songs he contributed to the album. That is ‘Blinded by the sun’ (also a single) and ‘Hello’ which equal, if not surpass, Squire’s own efforts (chief amongst these being the monumental ‘Love is the law’ and ‘Boy in the picture’ – get the album out and listen to it again, it’s better than some floppy-hatted Stone Roses devotees would lead you to believe).

For the sake of these tunes Helme generates serious interest in his own right and evidences the fact that he was more than simply a voice for Squire’s ideas.

And so, partly on the back of this, but also on the strength of the work he’s been putting in post-Seahorses, and in particular with his present band, the Yards, Helme has attracted a good crowd in Fibbers on a freezing cold and rainy night in January.

Helme starts the show foot-stepping out a 4/4 time signature accompanied by handclaps, and then launches into an accapella blue-eyed soul version of the blues. Helme’s voice has matured since his Seahorses days – richer and fuller – and he clearly enjoys singing. The set consists of Helme and his acoustic guitars, with occasional support from Yards guitarist Chris Farrell (cousin to Colin) on a Les Paul at his side. He’s also joined at intervals on the stage by Hayley Hutchinson, a York singer/songwriter who has recently released her own debut album, adding harmonies to Helme’s main vocal in a way reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris on Dylan’s Desire album.

It’s a good if not ground-breaking set – mid-Atlantic folk blues, with a occasional nods towards 70s singer/songwriter rock – and Helme is top quality. But the crowd are split, between the appreciative and those who can’t shut up talking, which is a pity. And infuriating. If the stupid wankers gabbling away just back from the stage had shut up for a few minutes they might have realized just how good Helme is at what he does.

The fact that the crowd is restive isn’t lost on Helme who fights a losing battle to get their full attention. He finally gets it when he mumbles into the microphone, ‘I haven’t played this song for a long time, for a number of reasons.’ Then gifts the crowd with a blistering unaccompanied version of ‘Hello’, which blows the Seahorses recording to the wall.

He finishes to huge applause at just after eleven having been onstage for just over an hour. I thought I caught a glimpse of a beardless John Squire at the back, his trademark long fringe hanging down over one eye, nodding his head at the last song as he rubbed his stubbly chin between a thumb and index finger stained with Prussian Blue and Burnt Umber. He walked thoughtfully out into the Stonebow and the rain. Maybe he’ll buy the Yards’ album when it’s released in April.

Blinded by the sun

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