"Better if you don't speak"
by Maddy Ryle for remotegoat on 15/04/10

It's never an easy gig to have to play to a near-empty room, and I felt for Brian Hanlon and his band that Charlie Wright's was so understaffed with an audience on Tuesday night. I do wonder, though, if there had been more people there to hear Brian Hanlon's jazz-pop fusion, whether they would have felt the same slightly perplexed disappointment that I did.

Promotion for the event contained a Time Out quote: "Sounding like a young version of Van Morrison/Sting with more appeal". What the Time Out listing actually said was "a younger version of Van Morrison/Sting, with an obvious MOR appeal". In other words, middle of the road or mainstream, with an eye on commercial potential. Mr Hanlon clearly has some great compositional skills (the layered textures of the intro to 'Happy when it rains' were lovely), and he was playing with some fantastic musicians - Mike Janisch on bass, Dave Giovannini on drums and the outstanding Paul Booth on sax and keys. They combine often impressive jazz riffs and melodics, occasionally interspersed with short but sweet improv (such as in 'Crossfire), but then moving into distinctly pop territory with Hanlon singing and strumming Jack Johnson-esque guitar.

And it is these moments which disappoint. Hanlon's voice is not strong or unusual enough to match the strength of the instrumentals, and indeed feels like he is making a deliberate effort to style himself to successful antecedents - sometimes the winsomeness of James Blunt, then at others the more gutsy approach of Ben Harper or the sweeping sound of Sting. Given that his producer has worked with both of these latter two singers, it's perhaps not surprising, but it indicates that Hanlon hasn't developed his own vocal style, and the result is that something seemingly innovative turns into something irritatingly imitative.

There were moments of real musical enjoyment and displays of talent here. I'm not totally opposed to the attempt to bring jazz into a more popular format, but the 'obvious MOR appeal' really jarred on this occasion, and I couldn't help wishing they'd abandon the commercial instinct and just indulge their passion for the far more interesting musical exploration they are clearly capable of.

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