Italo Calvino’s classic of postmodern literature, “If on a winter’s night a traveller”, toys with the idea that the first few lines of a book are usually the most exciting and powerful. Like the first few bars of a song, or even the first few months of a relationship, what follows is still unknown; a vortex of possibilities, limited only by our very own imagination.
Bill Ryder-Jones’ first solo album, If…, released in 2011, was written as a pseudo-soundtrack for Calvino’s novel, and the ex-Coral guitarist now stands before a packed Manchester Cathedral, cutting as unlikely a figure as the venue as he gives some understated advice to the audience on how to best show appreciation for the album’s first live outing (yes, we can clap after the songs). He walks off as a recording reads out the opening passage of the book, setting the scene before the Manchester Camerata orchestra launch into the album’s title track. The eerie opener slowly creeps into every corner; the Cathedral as close to a perfect setting for the cathartic nature of the music. As the piece explodes after a silent pause, you instantly know you’re in for a special evening.
The influence of Clint Mansell’s work is evident on some of the tracks, but some of them cunningly deviate from the traditional soundtrack/score genre, and Ryder-Jones has brought several guests to expertly deliver the blows. By The Sea’s Liam Power plays the acoustic guitar on several tracks, ex-Zuton Sean Payne brings another dimension to the songs where his drum-kit features, whilst MiNNETONKA and Frankie Ross provide haunting, mermaid-like vocals on ‘By the Church of Apollonia’. Ryder-Jones himself joins the party on several tracks, adding his semi-acoustic Gibson and fragile, whispered vocals to the crisp sound of the orchestra, notably on the desolately beautiful ‘Leaning (Star of Sweden)’.
However, it’s ‘Enlace’ that ends up being the highlight of the night. A slow burning, piano and drum-driven piece, it anxiously builds with unrelenting dread, occasionally joined by the strings of both the orchestra and Ryder-Jones, before erupting with a spectacular guitar solo, courtesy of the evening’s maestro himself.
By the time the evening concludes with ‘Some Absolute End (The End)’, a delicate closer featuring the piano and two guitars only, it is evident that the stunned-into-silence audience has witnessed an evening of live music of a singular type; there are currently no plans for more live performances of If… anytime soon.
Although he has released the more traditional, but as excellent A Bad Wind Blows in my Heart since, the beauty of If… lies in its exceptional difference and diversity, whilst everything is still perfectly linked by Ryder-Jones’ knack for poignant and lingering melodies. Calvino would be delighted with Ryder-Jones’ opening chapter, for where he goes from here is as exciting as anyone’s guess.