Gilbert O’Sullivan At City Winery, Tuesday, July 9th, 2019, reviewed
The most astonishing thing about Gilbert O’Sullivan, the Irish singer songwriter’s, first performance in the states since a Carnegie Hall gig 43 years, at City Winery last night, was how astoundingly consistent his composition skills are. Over 28 songs of unflagging, unwavering, melodic sweetness and lyrical inventiveness, and despite a voice which lacks range, and a tempo that veers on plodding, he was a never wavering genius of the craft of pop song.
You know O’Sullivan from the suicide solution “Alone Again, Naturally” and the compelling innocence of “Clair,” if you know him at all. In the rest of western civilization, he hit the top forty 16 times, and had six # 1’s. But in both multiverses, his career derailed for no good reason. No scandal, no horror, no drugs, no drop off, just the nature of things. A terrible business decision scuttled him in the States, where given the option of either opening for the Moody Blues in the US or headlining a European tour, he chose door number three, headlined a US tour and couldn’t sell any tickets. The UK was more complicated. After three albums (Himself, Back To Front, I’m A Writer, Not a Fighter) that stand toe to toe with early Elton John, the 1974 was a disappointment, followed by a greatest hits that made sense, but then he got swept away by punk, compounded by a fight with his manager, and not by any softening of his soft rock. He never went away but he might as well have.
Fast forward to 2015, and O’Sullivan released Latin ala G, another ridiculously great set of songs with a Latin beat (prescient as hell, given where Latin pop stands today) that ended on my best of the year list, last year’s eponymous album was less thrilling though included the brilliant “Dansette Dreams And 45s,” a highlight of a show that had problems but not really of his making and absolutely not deal killers. Behind his Roland keyboard (a Juno synth?) and with his band at home for monetary reasons, accompanied only by guitarist Bill Shaney, he pulled off the first set with an opening self portrait “January Git,” a verse off the first song he ever recorded, holding back one of his greatest moments ever, “Nothing Rhymed” -an exemplary mix of emotional devastation and hooks, to number 4, a song he released in 2018, a very effective singalong, the gorgeous, heartachingly lovely “Clair” and ended with an exemplary song about 9-11, “All They Wanted To Say” that effectively echoes Martin Amis’ writings about Flight 93: Amis claimed that as the passengers faced their death, love was the last thing to leave them. Gilbert sings the same.
But the break, at over 25 minutes, was too long, he had us under his spell and he lifted it. At the end of the first set we were between dreams of loss of every variety, the joyful run on sentence verse of Clair (“get back into bed, can’t you see that it’s late, no you can’t have a drink, well, alright then but wait…” has its own innocence, so difficult to recapture today, while “All I Wanted To Say” is innocent in a different way though “It’s a fine line you cross when you talk of a loss In terms of its market share” certainly isn’t.
The Second half didn’t click for half an hour. Everything Gilbert did to maintain momentum on the first set, he didn’t do for the second set. “Why Oh Why Oh Why” was the exception that proved the rule as he slowed the tempo to a crawl and everything that you might question about Gilbert blew up. The slowness, the monotonousness of his voice, the way the two instruments seemed to float. It wasn’t entirely Gilbert’s fault, when you have two US hits to your name and 28 songs to go through, it is asking a lot of your fanbase to keep interested. I have a friend who was furious at Neil Young decades ago because Neil was only performing an album he hadn’t release yet in concert. The album? Freedom. And even as I got restless, I admired every single song. And appreciated Gilbert placing himself in a world of popular music, explaining how he took up the piano because he is a lefty, just like Paul McCartney, and there were no guitars for lefthanded performers back then, he namechecked Fats Domino AND the recently departed Dave Bartholomew. And Jim Croce. Slim Whitman. A world Gilbert absolutely belongs in. Even more clear is why Gilbert deserves to be placed in the same conversation, and listed to MOR star David Gates, his lyrics sop over, they are just churning and romantic mush, or Don McLean on something you can’t imagine Gilbert writing “Empty Chairs” -O’Sullivan at his best is incapable of pathos, he mixes dancehall humor with off side self-deprecation and an odd vision of life. Five songs before the end of the set, this obtuseness saves him with “Out Of The Question,” with its stunningly singable coda, it is an enormous act of melodic construction at odds with time keeping (sadly, we don’t get “Who Was It?” off the same album) and for the final half an hour, Gilbert’s restraint with the hits pays off, as he moves effortlessly to the end of the evening. “Alone Again (Naturally)” is the last song before the encore, and while the encore itself, “Matrimony” and the adorable rocker “Get Down,” is a terrific close of the evening, there is no shame in his biggest song also being his best. From the opening verses projected suicide, to the death of his father and then his mother, every tear is earned, every sigh, it is one of the great songs of the 1970s.
Gilbert has had a happy life, money never a concern in his childhood, success from the get go, and the sort of songs that pay, literal, dividends throughout his happily married life. If the world didn’t give him everything he deserved, he got enough to craft a lifetime career behind. His jingle jangle piano romp songs are sticky and attractive, and weren’t in time there, when he began his career as pop star as Irish Street Urchin, so today they haven’t really aged. Here he is, selling out City Winery, returning to where what might have happened didn’t, at 72 years of age it is the career and life he made for himself. In 2019, something rhymed.