Gig review – New Acoustics with Michael Vickers, Upstairs at The Western, Friday 2nd February 2024

Michael Vickers. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

with Michael Vickers, Joshua Hartshorn and Nour

Reviewed by Phil Taylor (see his Music Observer blog here)

I was very pleased to be invited by Music in Leicester to cover this, the first of a new series of monthly acoustic gig nights, held at Upstairs at The Western.

The series is the brainchild of local artist Michael Vickers, who aims to showcase local musical talent in an up-close and personal setting, and take the opportunity to treat us to some of his music – and stories – too.

Goodness knows we need events like this at the moment: to help push back against the constant and increasing pressure on grassroots venues and the artists they nurture; and as a means of spreading light and hope in a very dark world, in that special way that music does.

This venue, more often found putting on theatre, comedy and spoken word shows, is a great choice for New Acoustics. It’s really quite unique: set up in a theatre style with tiered seating, a curtained backstop and lots of spotlighting, but small and intimate with a great bar downstairs (which seems to offer something for everyone, with a darts board, DJ and sport on TV, as well as plenty of real ale on the dual-aspect bar).

Upstairs at The Western relies heavily on volunteers and has a mission to promote female and non-binary artists. This is also one of Michael’s stated aims. He’s keen to emphasise that he wants to be truly inclusive – it’s all about the music.

For this, the first event, Michael opened the night with a short set of his own original songs. The audience is immediately engaged, I sense. It’s hard not to get drawn in by Michael’s genuine passion. Emotion is immediately written across his face as he launches into 17 (the first track from his recently released album, A Life In A Day).

Michael Vickers. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

From there he veers to an Elliot Smith cover, and then three more of his own. One of these (note to performers, please always tell us your songs’ names!) overtly tells of Michael’s struggles with mental health, with notes of depression and imposter syndrome ringing through. It’s a commendably direct song, bold and brave and beautiful; full of vulnerability; honest and expressive. Combined with his subtly skilful finger-picked acoustic guitar, this shows us the essence of what Michael does as a songwriter and performer. He’s one of a rare breed of modern-day storytellers, writing proper folk songs for this difficult, if enlightened, age.

Another of his songs is I Already Love You: a ballad Michael wrote for his daughter before she was born, which expresses fatherly love with humble and self-deprecating honesty.

Nour is up next; she’s a relatively recent arrival in Leicester and an instantly captivating presence on stage. She’s perhaps nervous, but clearly happy when performing, relaxing into her songs and allowing them to immerse her as much as her audience. Hers is a dreamy style of songwriting, rich and hazy, deep and thoughtful.

Nour has a gentle, soulful voice to complement her writing and is clearly blessed with real and entirely natural talent. She doesn’t push that voice too hard, sometimes dropping to barely above a whisper, and presenting herself with an endearing mix of shyness and disarming directness in her brief comments between the music.

She gives us a short first song called Raindrops. It’s wending, without a chorus, lonely and superbly evocative. She’s proven her ability to captivate us, and she continues to hold attention with If I’m Not So Good.

This leads to a beautiful cover of Promises by Cleo Sol – it’s beautifully enunciated, Nour showing great judgement and balance as she makes the song her own.
The next and final two offerings are original songs. The first (Both Ways) is about making a mistake leading to the end of a relationship. The second is For A While and is the only one in her set which has been released. This one sees her riffing on friendship, and seems to be based on just two chords. There are few notes here – it’s a minimal offering, with few notes, but it’s definitely enough. She’s distilled the theme of her song to a wonderful, warm, shining core.

“Happier days since you came in, into my life”, she sings as she strums oh so softly with bare fingers, bringing an airy, slightly restless feel to the space around her. As with all her music, it’s what Nour does with her voice that’s so special: she keeps it refined and reigned in for most of the song, but near the end flits up effortlessly to her higher registers before dropping back again with precision and confidence.

She’s a singer who has grown to deeply know her strengths, as well as her limits, and exactly how to exploit them. What a find, and what a gift to the Leicester music scene.

Nour. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

19-year-old Joshua Hartshorn provides a neat contrast of styles. He’s a very different performer – a little louder, more gruff, influenced by elements of emo, alternative and cerebral rock (he gives us a cover of Radiohead’s No Surprises early on his set) and electronica pioneers.

His opener is Persephone, which he tells us is about being stuck in a relationship. It’s a track from his new EP To Feel Alive, which was released on the day of the gig.

This one is dark and brooding, earnest and angst-ridden, but with an element of self-doubt and self-deprecating humour, too. Joshua’s voice remains low and buzzy, intense to match his lyrics. His is a pleasingly verbose style; the songs are dense and full of poetic, experimental lyrics, edging towards stream of thought at times.

The second song of the set is pure self-doubt and introspection, ending with an intense cry, “endless mess until the day I die”. Next is one Joshua tells us he usually plays with his band – Electrocatus (forgive any misspelling), an interesting one with open chords and a building feel, climactic and infused again with that theme of tortured souls and relationship struggles.
Undo Send is Joshua’s last offering in his short set – a modern take on regret and frustrated emotion, which sums up this artist’s sensibilities well.

The performance gives us an intriguing glimpse into an obviously very creative soul, and hopefully will lead people to explore more of what he has to offer.

Joshua Hartshorn. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

Michael’s second set begins with another album track, What The Hell Am I Doing Here?, before he treats us to another new song, one he describes as bittersweet. My life began when I met you he sings in what turns into an incredibly open, vulnerable tale about losing something and gaining much more.

He then treats us to one of my favourites ADHD, a song he jokingly describes as “about being a naughty little kid”, then Anything And Everything (his mum’s favourite) which is more upbeat and sprinkled with amusing moments.

Michael closes with Yellow Belly, a raucous romp of a song built around the intriguing refrain, “I’m a yellow bellied, insignificant, wet wipe runaway; no, I can’t make today…”

He’s a modest man, but whatever Michael says, or sings, about himself, Leicester is lucky to have this artist standing firm as part of the city’s independent music scene. He has curated an interesting and eclectic lineup for the first of these monthly events, one which deftly demonstrates the city’s diverse range of talents.

Be sure to support him and his fellow artists with the New Acoustics project; we all need music, togetherness and collaboration more than ever.