PAUL BUCHANAN/HAYLEY HUTCHINSON The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 21 May 2006

Around the time of the release of The Blue Nile’s astonishing fourth album “High” in August 2004, the band’s chief singer, songwriter, creative force and spokesperson Paul Buchanan hinted at the tantalising prospect of a Blue Nile tour in early 2005. If it happened, it would be the first time they performed on a British stage since a somewhat out-of-character appearance at Glastonbury in 1997. Inevitably 2005 passed without a word, the band’s website, which I visited ritually on a near-daily basis, being updated with such slothful irregularity that they might as well have issued their communiqués by pigeon post or smoke signal. And then suddenly, about a year later than originally mooted, came the news that Paul Buchanan would be undertaking a solo tour. With seemingly no common meeting place for Blue Nile fans to congregate and pontificate, further information, or even speculation, was near-impossible to come by. Some venue listings dangled the tantalising possibility of cover versions and even – saints preserve us! – new material in the setlist, not yet two years after The Blue Nile sated their grateful, patient acolytes with the “High”’s nine perfectly formed sophisticated synth-pop landscapes of the heart. But why a solo tour? What has become of the trio that have for so long been, and maybe still are, The Blue Nile? The day before the first gig of the tour the band’s website finally revealed the long-promised details of the accompanying musicians: Robert Bell, The Blue Nile’s bassist, was on the team; of keyboard player Paul Joseph Moore there was no mention.

Hayley Hutchinson is a singer/songwriter from York, so naturally her genre of choice is a kind of outside-looking-in Americana, pitched somewhere between Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. I don’t know whether the songs available on her MySpace page all sound the same or by some technical quirk I kept playing the same one repeatedly, but her music seemed to be exactly as expected – pleasant and thoroughly worked through but not especially distinctive or memorable. Tonight she performed solo with just her acoustic guitar for company, and despite admitting to being overawed by the Bridgewater’s capacious environs she did admirable justice to her songs in front of an appreciative and respectful audience.

Around 8:40 the lights dim, and as the cheers raise high the roof beams Paul Buchanan and his quartet take to the stage. “Tonight we’ll be playing the show in darkness”, he quips, before thanking us all for turning up. There’s already more adoration in the room than at any concert I’ve been to since, well, my first Blue Nile concert, and nobody’s even played a note yet. So they gently ease into the evening with “I Would Never”, like much that’s played tonight slower and sparser than on album, and if at times it seems as though Paul’s voice is about to falter he immediately allays those fears with a swooning, soaring syllable that tingles the spine. There are innumerable occasions tonight when, from the privileged position of a second row vantage point, it occurs to me that I hadn’t really heard these songs, appreciated them to their fullest, until seeing Buchanan’s face contorted with emotion whilst singing them. (Even if he does appear to have turned into a slightly less grizzled version of Lou Reed!)

Next up is “Happiness”, and, being pedantic, it would be all too easy to criticise the intrusive syndrums, the way Buchanan (presumably inadvertently, since he corrects himself on the second chorus) mixes up some of the lyrics, and omits some lines entirely. But the fact of the matter is that to be yards away from two-thirds of The Blue Nile performing this song sweeps such pettiness aside. It’s at this point that, having foolishly primed him to do so, my gig buddy yells “Where’s PJ?” Paul’s response is as gently disturbing as it is politely uninformative: “He could be here at any minute. I don’t know where he is. I’ve known him since we were ten years old. I don’t think PJ knows where he is.” It’s a sad moment in an otherwise rapturous evening.

There are times tonight when it seems like the audience don’t want to stop applauding, almost as if fearing that if the clapping ends too soon Buchanan will vanish back into whatever sumptuously melancholic cranny he’s been hiding out the last decade or so in. If at times the tortured artist shtick seems to be ladled on a little thickly – “Being enigmatic’s exhausting”, he quips at one point, to inevitable applause - he still appears humbled by the audience’s warmth, encouragement and support. In a typical exchange, after admitting to being terrified at the prospect of playing tonight a wag yells back “You should do it more often!”, at which Paul falls to his knees. To inevitable applause.

Shocks, surprises and disappointments? I was a little saddened that “Tinseltown In The Rain”’s gorgeous traffic noise guitar solo was buried under synthetic string stabs, and even given the astonishing wealth of incredible material now in the Blue Nile canon the omission from the setlist of “Family Life”, “God Bless You Kid” and “The Downtown Lights” seemed a shame. But, as advertised, there was new material: “I’ve been persuaded to play two new songs; I don’t know if this one’s finished”, he confessed, before donning glasses to read the lyrics to “Meanwhile” from a crib sheet. “This tour is sponsored by Specsavers!” It certainly seemed finished to me, sounding immediately like a classic Blue Nile song. The other new song didn’t appear to have grown a name yet, so I’ll call it “Runaround Girl” after its most prominent lyric. A vaguely bluesy, slightly countrified extension of the Americana aspects of the last two albums, Buchanan’s mumbled vagueness suggested it needs a few more years of nurturing, after which it will almost certainly be brilliant. And though the promised covers failed to materialise during the main set, the encore cemented all those Glaswegian Sinatra comparisons with a version of “Strangers In The Night” that was poured into the mould as if it were always a Blue Nile song and Frank just borrowed it. They close with a second attempt at “I Would Never”, “because it’s the one we’re farthest away from”, and its apparent that, even during the 90 minutes of this band’s first public performance, they’ve sharpened up considerably, Buchanan’s singing in particular being even more commanding.

Genius, then, in an overworked word; it’s popular culture’s problem not his that it takes Texas to get Paul Buchanan near the charts. I can’t imagine that any of us left disappointed, or that we won’t cite this evening as a cultural landmark for years to come. And let’s hope that PJ’s all right too, wherever he may be.

PAUL BUCHANAN/HAYLEY HUTCHINSON Colston Hall, Bristol 24 May 2006

Or, what a difference three nights makes. Immediately tonight it’s apparent that Paul’s voice is fuller and even more emotive, any signs of the occasional falter or strain shown on Sunday banished utterly. Just as both he and the band tightened up greatly during the Manchester gig, so tonight they’re several orders of magnitude ahead of the already sky-high standards they’d set for themselves. Even the sound has improved, losing a slight fluffiness that distanced those renditions from the immaculate sonics of the albums.

But, a ways into “The Days Of Our Lives”, the technical gremlins he’d alluded to on taking the stage bite back with a vengeance. Suddenly we’re plunged into silence; the PowerBook responsible for providing keyboardist Allan Cuthbertson with his synth sounds had crashed. It’s incidents like this that really test the reserves of an audience’s goodwill, especially when that audience had waited the best part of a decade for this evening. If the Colston Hall is shamefully underpopulated tonight – two-thirds empty, I’d guesstimate (he quips “If I have to give you your money back at least it’s not full!”) – those of us who’ve made the pilgrimage are too devoted to be dissuaded by such setbacks. But when the same problem curtails “A Walk Across The Rooftops”, a visibly shaken Mr Buchanan laments “I’m never leaving the house again!”, and “I’ve gone from enigmatic to nonentity!”, before muttering dark threats to cancel his three Glasgow gigs “within seconds of leaving the stage…I’ll have to move!”

A necessarily abbreviated set moves through “Meanwhile”, which, contrary to his continued warnings that it’s still unfinished, sounds more magical every time I hear it: I can’t think of any other songwriter whose work imprints itself so deeply into my subconscious after such a fleeting acquaintance. “Runaround Girl”, as he calls it to his soundman, still seems in need of work, but it’s nevertheless an utter privilege to be granted an audition of any new PB song, no matter how skeletal. “The new songs will have a lot more of this”, he says, indicating his guitar, ”and a lot less of that”, motioning with disgust towards the errant laptop.

The equipment holds up for a fabulous “Headlights On The Parade”, its “Fly little angel” vocal interjections, missing in Manchester, happily reinstated, and amidst a flurry of apologies and storms of applause he and the band take their leave, Buchanan seemingly punching the stage door in frustration on the way. But we won’t let them stay away: dragged back to the stage by our frenzied demands for an encore, when Paul admits “We only missed out “Rooftops” and “Tinseltown”” the crowd’s response is a unanimous vote for an attempt on the latter, no matter how disastrously it might end up. What follows is arguably the most heroic “Tinseltown In The Rain” of his career. There are more sincere, heartfelt apologies, he pauses to shake the outstretched hands of those in the front row and they’re away, for a long and painful post-mortem on the bus to Glasgow.

So, a fan’s perspective. I took two days off work and the train down from Preston to be there and I didn’t leave the Colston Hall feeling disappointed. The man’s a beacon of professionalism and integrity, such a perfectionist that he was probably shaken inconsolable that his musical instruments became instruments of torture. For all his protestations of nervousness he’s an incredible live performer: most of the concerts I attend leave me feeling ambivalent about what I’ve just seen, but in all the times I’ve seen him, twice with The Blue Nile and twice on this solo tour, I’ve witnessed a performance that communicated in ways that most artists don’t even attempt. No studied cool, no Van-in-the-hat grumpy mystique or Dylanesque catalogue mangling, just some of the most moving songs ever written performed with a passion and commitment that outstrips even the long-treasured recorded versions. If tonight’s troubles – compared to the Manchester setlist we ultimately lost “A Walk Across The Rooftops”, “High” and “Strangers In The Night” – scare him from the stage permanently it would be tragic, but also the only criticism I could level at the evening’s entertainment.

PAUL BUCHANAN/JANE TAYLOR Usher Hall, Edinburgh 25 November 2006

As is becoming the trend, Paul Buchanan has again secured the supporting services of a young female acoustic guitar-toting singer songwriter. Jane Taylor’s take on the template is just as pleasant as her predecessors’ (Hayley Hutchinson, Sinéad Lohan), and the crowd react affably to her Johnnie Walker-approved songs. One bravely written in 5/4 time inevitably bears more than a passing resemblance to The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five”, and my mother detected rather more of a Simon & Garfunkel influence than she felt absolutely necessary – again, once you start banging on about “old friends” in song it’s practically a given – but Taylor’s performance was an engaging enough way to kill half an hour of fevered expectation.

The last time I attended one of Mr Buchanan’s concerts, six months previously, one of the PowerBooks channelling the band’s synth sounds failed repeatedly in front of a sparsely populated Colston Hall audience. In the face of daunting odds he pulled off a bravura performance, but experiences like that probably explain why there was just a single solitary English date during this, his second tour of the year. Very much a prophet with honour in his home country, a Scottish PB gig is an experience on a whole other level to even the most intense of his English shows I’ve been privileged to witness: the audience response seems to swell by a whole order of magnitude. This despite suffering from what he referred to, if I recall correctly, as an “unpredictable throat”, an unfortunate condition that was apparent from the first line of stately opener “Over The Hillside”. Throughout the evening he shied away from the high notes: during “Tinseltown In The Rain” – still one of the greatest achievements in the history of songwriting, in my humble opinion - he requested – and received –the audience’s assistance during the “Do I love you?/Yes I love you” sections, the song suddenly taking on a dimension that Buchanan could hardly have envisaged when he penned it a quarter of a century or so ago.

Apart from the shock shuffling of the setlist, the night’s other surprise was the performance of yet another new song – a third, alongside stalwarts from the previous tour “Runaround Girl” (still a little unfocussed around the edges, but sounding more like something leaking from a smoky basement jazz club with every performance) and “Meanwhile” (as finished as anything The Blue Nile have released, despite Buchanan’s continuing need to squint at the printed lyrics before singing it). I’m naming the newie “Start Again”, after its most prominent repeated line: at the moment it’s barely more than a verse and an almost-chorus, but coming from a man who has released exactly nine songs in the last decade it’s a pleasure and a privilege to eavesdrop on even his roughest back-of-an-envelope sketches.

Other observations? Well, shed a small tear for the way “The Downtown Lights” has usurped “Headlights On The Parade” in the setlist (the solution, of course, would be to play both). The glittery green electric guitar Paul had been toting during the previous tour was also nowhere to be seen. The sound quality, which started out with pin-drop precision, muddied slightly as the engineer responded to repeated audience heckles requesting the volume be turned up. On a happier note, when introducing the band as Buchanan reached fellow Blue Nile traveller Robert Bell the venue erupted in applause without Paul having to say his name, even, which, considering The Blue Nile’s subterranean profile, was a charming moment.

I’m aware I haven’t spent many, or maybe even any, words describing just how brilliant Paul Buchanan’s performance was. Perhaps I’m becoming blasé, and taking the excellence of his shows for granted. After all, this was the third I’d attended this year, and I’ve fallen into the trap, if indeed it is a trap, of concentrating on the differences between them rather than their similarities. But all the elements that make a Paul Buchanan or Blue Nile show such a thrilling, heartwarming experience – the astonishing songs, the careful, considered performances, the audience’s adoration – were present in glorious abundance, proceedings flattened only by the tiniest fraction due to his curtailed vocals. The next few months promise something of a surge in PB activity: he’s on the cusp of assisting Shirley Manson with her debut solo album, and The Blue Nile’s website is finally proffering newsletter subscriptions to the band’s legions of fact-starved fans. (No sign of any actual news yet, of course, but given that it’s taken them two years to get this far I won’t be holding my breath.) Given the reception he received tonight – “I’m loving this!”, he confessed partway through the gig, perhaps not totally ironically – there might still be a chance, even this late in the day, to persuade a wider public of his genius.

The Blue Nile