Ian McNabb- Backstage at the Green

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As we arrive at Backstage at the Green we pass singer-songwriter Ian McNabb.  "What's on tonight?" he asks?  "Some guy called McNabb" I reply.  "Scouser?", he screws up his face quizzically, "I hear he's rubbish".  I've heard otherwise but I don't really want to get into an argument about it so we head to the bar.   I'm really looking forward to tonight as McNabb is a criminally underrated talent.  I can vaguely remember one of my cousins playing me some of Ian McNabb's solo stuff when I was a teenager but my familiarity didn't go much beyond that until a couple of weeks ago.

Since then I've fallen down a bit of a McNabb shaped rabbit hole discovering his extensive solo albums plus his work with 80's band The Icicle Works.  In particular, I've become obsessed with his '96 single 'Merseybeast', which is so awesome that I can't believe I'd never heard it before.   

Ahead of this gig I also became aware that he shared a connection with a couple of my music idols, Neil Young and Mike Scott.  McNabb opened for Young in his hometown of Liverpool in 2014 and even worked on an album with Young's regular collaborators Crazy Horse.  It's from that album, 'Head Like a Rock' that the first song from tonight's solo acoustic set is taken.

Since then I've fallen down a bit of a McNabb shaped rabbit hole..

The record 'Be Prepared to Dream' is an epic slice of Youngian grunge rock that could trade punches with anything on 'Ragged Glory' but live McNabb strips it back, giving it a quirky 'Campaigner' kind of vibe.  It's excellent stuff.  Tonight, McNabb is going to be playing a jam-packed set of 25 songs (he played a different 25 songs here the night before) and he's already behind schedule. 

You see, when he first arrived on stage, he picked up a guitar and was about to start playing when he suddenly realised that he didn't have his setlist.  "Give me a second!" he shouts as he rushes out the hall, returning a couple of minutes later clutching a piece of paper.

Following "Be Prepared to Dream" is the catchier than cholera "Great Dreams of Heaven".  Lyrically it's one of McNabb's strongest songs, with lines about 'Idols selling fizzy drinks' and 'Verdant scenes and ways and means'. 

By the reaction to the rousing of "Who Do You Want For Your Love" and "Reaping The Rich Harvest" you can tell that there is a lot of The Icicle Works fans in the audience.  However, McNabb isn't just trading on past glories, as his latest album 'Star Smile Strong' is perhaps his best since 'Merseybeast' and the touching, melody-laden piano ballad 'Making Silver Sing' is a welcome addition to tonight's setlist.  

My favourite of his later period tracks is the witty 'Our Future In Space' which features one of the strongest vocals we hear tonight.  Although single, McNabb seems to have a knack for writing about relationships and my girlfriend Jo and I exchange a wry look at the line 'She wants me to wear skinny jeans, I'm 57 for f*cks sake.' 

She wants me to wear skinny jeans, I'm 57 for f*cks sake

The difference is I'm only 40 and I did eventually relent.  It turns out Jo was right, they are quite slimming!  Another great relationship song is the slinky slow burner 'Lady By Degrees' which vocally brings to mind Elvis Costello in ballad mode.

Before the end of the night, we bear witness to a further five The Icicle Works tunes, including a hard to top 'Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream) which sci-fans will know from the phenomenon that is 'Stranger Things'.  The songs go down like gangbusters, particularly with one guy in the front row who is dancing in his seat and pumping his fist and his young daughters are even wearing Ian McNabb t-shirts.  There is also time for a couple more recent songs including another one from 'Our Future In Space' called Vodka Rivers and Cigarette trees which lyrically references Harry McClintock's 'Big Rock Candy Mountain' made famous by Burl Ives and Pete Seeger.

I'm slightly gutted that 'Merseybeast' and 'Camaraderie' didn't make an appearance (they were played last night) but that's the only downside to tonight's performance.  However, the news that he will be coming back to Scotland (02 ABC in Glasgow) next May with The Icicle works and they will be playing 'Head Like A Rock' in its entirety cheers me up somewhat.  An encore featuring the fabulous 'Love Is A Wonderful Colour' doesn't do any harm either.

McNabb Facts

  • Ian had a brief stint as a child model and one of the photos from his portfolio is featured on the album art of Potency: The Best of Ian McNabb.
  • He unsuccessfully auditioned for the part of Barry Grant in Liverpool soap Brookside.
  • His latest album, Star Smile Strong features a contribution from Professor Brian Cox and includes a song that he co-wrote with R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck.
  • McNabb was backed by the legendary Crazy Horse on the album Head Like A Rock.  The only other time they've recorded an album with someone other than Neil Young was Buffy Sainte Marie's 'She Used to Wanna Be A Ballerina' back in 1968.
  • Ians The Icicle Works composition 'Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream)' was introduced to a new generation's of fans both in 1996 when it was on the soundtrack to horror film Scream and last year when it featured in the smash hit Netflix sci-fi show 'Stranger Things'.

 

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