The Gary Boyle Band, Puzzle Hall Inn, 29 September 2022

Less of a review and more a collection of thoughts this one, but I didn’t feel I could pass this over without commenting on a really uplifting evening.

A couple of days ago I got a call from Gary Boyle, guitarist supreme, best known in these shores for his work with Brian Auger, Stomu Yamash’ta, Isotope and various bands under his own name. We’ve spoken a few times over the years, initially back in the Noughties when I wrote the sleevenotes for the Isotope Live at the BBC CD release, but more recently during research for the Hugh Hopper biography (to be published by Jazz in Britain) where Gary proved to be probably the most affable and agreeable interviewee of the lot, as well as furnishing me with numbers of some of his and Hugh’s more distant collaborators from the early to mid Seventies.

But, although I’d seen Gary play a couple of times over the years, this was probably the favourite performance of his that I have witnessed. He’d confided when we spoke a couple of years ago, when the world was in the first wave of COVID, that he doubted that he would ever get to gig again – the hands were harder to get moving again and the impetus to practice was receding in a world where performances were going virtual and venues had closed their doors.

The phone call had happened because we live on barely opposite sides of the Lancashire/Yorkshire border and he’d promised to let me know if he started gigging again. The venue tonight was the Puzzle Hall Inn, in Sowerby Bridge, just shy of Halifax, a tiny community pub which I believe has raised itself from extinction since the last time I went there. Word in the crowd was that Gary had played the Puzzle’s first ever gig, possibly in the Nineties, and I had also seen him play here many moons ago in its intimate settings.

Gary mentioned that he’d played a gig the previous weekend in Manchester, which he’d not been totally happy with, but tonight’s performance in the face a couple of mishaps prior to the gig, was wonderfully executed. Normally he would play his own material, but tonight, shorn of his regular drummer (Dave Walsh stepped in), his quartet stuck to standards, airing pieces from Miles, Shorter, Brubeck, Joe Henderson and numerous others; slick, warm, mood enhancing expositions of a very high standard; Gary with his mellow guitar sound stretching his solos out across the top of the frets and adding subtle licks elsewhere, and exchanging solos with an extremely fine pianist in Andrzej Baranak whose performance was simply mesmerising. Throw in a sensitive but rock solid accompaniment from double bass player Ed Harrison and a captivating performance from a beaming drummer and this was a gig you could never take your eyes off: we’d spent the first set in an alcove looking at the back of Gary’s head (his best side, he quipped later) before moving directly in front of the band for the second half, close enough to nick enough his drink if we’d chosen to (we didn’t).

I had a nice chat with Gary between sets: it’s the first time I’ve met him in person and he’s as humble and generous as he is friendly. The mention of an email exchange I’d had earlier in the day with Belgian guitarist Gilbert Isbin, who talked in florid detail about the Bilzen Pop Festival in 1969 (where both Gary – with Brian Auger; and Hugh – with Soft Machine – are captured on file) drew out a hilarious and unsolicited memory from Gary of the festival which I can’t repeat here!  

Gary confided that his amp had packed up on arrival at the pub but thanks to some dexterous work from Andrzej had been fixed in time for the start of the gig – set times were fluid as Gary moved through the crowd chatting, and the ad hoc nature of the band and its repertoire added to the ambience as announcements were lost in the hubbub and the band conferred on where to take the set next. For me, the contrast with a gig seen the previous week in Manchester could not have been more stark: a Godspeed You! Black Emperor concert at the Academy was characterised by inflated prices, sticky dancefloor; muddy, echoing sound; the band positioned several cricket pitches away and visible only if you were 6’5”; and the audience edgy and stressed – tonight’s gig was funded by a magic hat handed around at the interval (donations appeared to be generous); the beer was cheap and excellent; sounds crisp and immediate; band up close and intimate; seated audience soaking up a warm and convivial atmosphere. Where would I rather be? I don’t think I need to answer that one…