Bill Ryder-Jones at Future Yard Festival, Birkenhead

We’re all slowly cooking in the vestibule of the tiny Priory chapel when Bill Ryder-Jones sidles up. He’s just about to assume his place at the altar, but then he clocks the crowd, by now a slurry of melted lipstick and sodden brows. 

Yanking back the curtain of the confession booth, he seizes upon a tower of water bottles — cheers, God — and dispatches them to everyone in sight.

“You’re not getting in, so you may as well have some water,” he shrugs, as volunteers stagger by with speakers, trying to appease the fans outside. There’s still a long line snaking across the courtyard, masses of people still hoping they’ll make it into Bill’s “secret” gig. At least now they’re hydrated.

Inside the chapel, the lucky few are treated like old friends. Bill hands over the reins of the setlist, insisting on song requests and groaning at half of them. A Bad Wind Blows Through My Heart is denied, but Wild Roses is a winner, as is Daniel, his voice cracking with emotion on every line.

There Are Worse Things I Could Do comes prefaced with a short speech about Grease. Sandy rewrites her whole personality to please a boy, Bill muses, while Rizzo dares to confront her sexuality. People try to shame her, yet she emerges still hurting but wiser, more self-knowing. He’s Rizzo. (Did you even have to ask?)

Outside the chapel people compete for Bill’s attention, longing to spill their guts right back at him. He smiles at a man who told him he didn’t think much of his last show, but this one was phenomenal. He hugs your history teacher as she tells him what her brother’s name was, and he draws his sunglasses back down like a shield. “Don’t tell me this now,” he says, softly. “You’ll only make me cry.” 

It’s a different story later that night at the Town Hall. Being a headline act isn’t the endgame, it turns out, but just another battle. While Bill acknowledges tons of old friends and relatives and hairdressers in the crowd, it’s the chattering faces of strangers which seem to slowly unravel him.

This is a gig where pints are the real headliner, and people chat over the music as though it were only some distant pub jukebox. Gossiping hard, they barely register Bill’s acerbic asides, as he flits between sunny and saturnine. Every so often there’s a round of industrial-strength shushing, but it’s too late.

When set-closer Two Singles to Birkenhead inevitably kicks in, there’s a weird subtext, like he’s singing a paean to a place that has set his teeth on edge. Meanwhile, at the mention of its own name, the town’s ears finally prick up. Raise the crowdsurfers, belt out the chorus, we’re listening now.

Is it all an act? your dad asks in the car. I guess he’s talking about the belligerence and the bum notes, the drawn out vulnerability you sometimes have to hold your breath through, wondering if he’ll make it through the set.

Not an act, exactly. But maybe it’s the hangover of having been in a huge indie band and getting their fanbase as a free side. People will snap up your records and adopt you as a favourite son, but that doesn’t mean they’ll hang on to every word. There are already so many favourite sons here, after all. 

2019. An adapted version of this review appeared on Getintothis