Ian McNabb- Backstage at the Green

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The criminally underrated Liverpool musician Ian McNabb has been making great music since he was the frontman of '80s band The Icicle Works.  After they disbanded he has made albums with Neil Young's go-to band, Crazy Horse, Mike Scott of The Waterboys, and his latest album features a song co-written by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck.

Despite this, when I booked tickets for Ian's 2018 gig in Kinross, I was only peripherally aware of his work.  Despite being a huge Crazy Horse fan and owning most of their Neil Youngless output, I had somehow managed to miss the phenomenal 'Head Like A Rock' album to which they contributed.

Just before the 2018 show, I gave myself a little bit of a primer and downloaded the amazing  'Potency' McNabb best-off on Spotify, and fell in love with its Scouse brilliance, particularly the career-best 'Merseybeast'. 

I'm pretty delighted when tonight's show begins with 'Merseybeast' itself, in a tremendous stripped back version that swaps the boom-boom tssch 'Out on the Weekend' rhythm of the original for a solo  'Campaigner' vibe', and finds the Beatle-sy "la-la-la-la" backing vocals replaced with squealing harmonica.  All this combined with a witty, shaggy-dog lyric so witty it makes Edwyn Collins look like a slouch.  Pure audio bliss!

I really enjoyed the gig in 2018 but it soon becomes clear that this solo acoustic show is on another level entirely.  Ian is playing out his skin, clearly having a great time, and with his banter is playing the audience like a fiddle. 

I particularly like his story about the time one of his ex-girlfriends took umbrage to their relationship being immortalised in song.  "Darling", he told her, "If you fall asleep in the arms of a painter, don't be surprised if you wake up and you're on his canvas."

Tonights set-list is pretty damn good too, with 'Head Like a Rock' well represented by 'You Must Be Prepared to Dream' and 'Fire Inside My Soul'.  The recorded versions are perhaps two of the greatest songs that Crazy Horse have ever played 'Fire Inside My Soul' is by turns both soul-baring and sardonic.on.  I know that's a bold statement but 'You Must Be Prepared to Dream' in particular can go toe-to-toe with anything from 'Ragged Glory'.

In acoustic form, these songs really get a chance to breathe. I love McNabbs, ebullient, galloping harmonica and the stripped back arrangements draw cast light on the lyrics of 'Fire Inside My Soul.   The song is by turns both soul-baring ("My Dad died when I was 20, I didn't cry but it tore me up inside") and sardonic ("Started out in Sausalito, they said 'you talk just like The Beatles'.").

If Ian's latest album, 'Our Future In Space', is anything to go by his songwriting talents remain undiminished.  'Makin' Silver Sing' is, of all things, a beautiful piano ballad extolling the virtues of grassroots musical heroes.  Ian is playing tonight is sensitive and his voice has a rich baritone quality somewhere between Scott Walker and Elvis Costello.

Song of the night ('Merseybeast' excepted, of course) is the raucous 'Vodka Rivers  If his latest album, 'Our Future in Space, is anything to go by then McNabb's songwriting abilities remain undiminished.and Cigarette Tree's'.  It's a straightforward but catchy song, kind of a spiritual sequel to 'Big Rock Candy Mountain'. 

The real fun comes with the audience participation, providing the vocals for the chorus.  Sometimes I get frustrated by how undemonstrative Perth audiences and think that this must be off-putting for touring musicians.  I'm a strong believer that live music is a two-way street and think that sometimes you get back what you put in.  This Kinross crowd, for example, hold's nothing back and tonight's experience is all the richer for it.

By the reaction to the rousing renditions of 'Evangeline' and 'Out of Season' you can tell that there is a lot of The Icicle Works fans in the audience.  There is also a hard to top 'Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream)', which sci-fans will know from the phenomenon that is 'Stranger Things'.  Best of the Icicle Works songs for me though is the shimmering pop genius that is  'Understanding Jane', now featuring new, millennial-friendly lyrics!

It's been another great solo show, I'm really going to have to make an effort to see Ian with a full band though, I think it'll be epic.

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, Our Future in Space 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.
  • Ian's 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 more recently when it featured smash in the smash-hit Netflix sci-fi show 'Stranger Things'.
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