Sometimes life can surprise you, the paths it leads you down can be full of twists and turns, and what seems improbable and far fetched is offered up as truth.
Ryan Hamilton is opening his short tour of the UK in Newcastle, a move that carries a lot of weight and history for us both. His ex wife is from the Toon, the ex part being relatively recent and fresh, an elephant that is addressed early on in tonight's proceedings. But there are better ties to memories for me here between us both.
My first review for 3 Songs & Out was from a solo gig of Ryan's in the North East a few years ago. One of the earliest times my partner had with me up here was at another of Ryan's gigs when I sat and interviewed him and his band mate Mickey on their tour bus. Whenever we see each other there's always warm words and warm hugs, like catching up with an old friend.
It's been a while since we last saw each other but the Texan native is all smiles in the upstairs room of Newcastle's Prohibition Cabaret Bar, a speakeasy style venue that definitely defines the word intimate. The room is small but lushly decorated, nic nacks scattered about the room that resembles a gentleman's club. Wooden chairs form rows in front of the stage area, some velvet curtains and a screen.
Tonight is about one thing we’re told as Ryan picks up his acoustic guitar. Tonight is the story of Smile Smile, his band band and, more importantly, his relationship with Jencey Mirunrusme.
The tale starts in Dallas, Texas and can be abridged with this synopsis (apologies to Ryan):
Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl write music together. Boy and girl sign to a label. Album explodes and boy and girl go on tour. Along the way boy and girl fall deeper in love and become engaged. Then, suddenly, girl cheats on boy and breaks it off with them. Boy is heartbroken. Girl brings new lover on tour with them. Boy writes songs of heartbreak, loss and betrayal and emails them to girl. Girl adds keys and vocals. Record company releases this as a record and sends boy and girl on tour. This lasts for a third album before it becomes too much and band breaks up.
It’s something that Hollywood couldn’t write. It’s “A Star Is Born” with extra heartbreak and just goes to show that real life can always trump fiction.
Ryan has invested a lot of time, heart and soul into this show and it is evident. As we continue, a projector shows photos of Ryan and Jencey as a couple and as musicians performing together. Ryan interjects the narrative with songs from the band’s three albums. One of the most moving pieces is part of a book Ryan was trying to write about the band, spoken across the instrumental part of ‘Truth On Tape’ before singing it and then going back to the spoken word. As the night continues you realise it’s not just the story of the band though, it’s the story of Ryan, explaining how he is the person he is, why he writes the music he writes. There are several songs from Smile Smile’s three album career scattered throughout the set, broken down and stripped back to just Ryan’s voice and guitar, which really adds an extra dimension to the songs. His voice, warm and friendly, occasionally shows signs of breaking under the weight and pressure which isn’t surprising with lyrics such as “This is almost permanent/The pain I feel inside since you’ve been gone/You’re filling me with lies” (‘Truth On Tape’) and “Ask me if I’ll beg you to stay/And I’ll beg you to stay” (‘Beg You To Stay’).
This isn’t a session of “poor, pitiful me” as Ryan explains. It’s almost therapy as he goes through everything. The emotions are still raw, even after all the years, evident in pauses in the narrative as he composes himself at times, dipping his head slightly so his eyes that are starting to brim with tears are hidden beneath the broad brim of his hat. It’s tough to sit and listen to at times as you feel like this is an artist who’s pulling back the curtain on his life. Ryan wears his huge heart on his sleeve so tonight feels more like sitting with a friend and a bottle of wine, listening to their tale of heartbreak. The images and songs are more for the benefit of a film crew who are recording the shows as part of a film on the story of Smile Smile, a film several fans have asked for.
After the main ‘set’ (if you can call it such) Ryan plays a few songs from his solo career such as ‘Be Kind, Rewind’, ‘Records And Needles’ and ‘Freak Flag’. There’s also his current single ‘Can I Get An Amen’, written alongside new label boss and living Rock and Roll icon “Little” Stevie Van Zandt (yes, he of Bruce Springsteen’s band and The Sopranos fame). The crowd are happily singing along in such a way that we’re all feeling like one extended family.
Afterwards Ryan is hanging around by his merch table happily talking with everyone, signing records and posing for photographs. He has plenty of time for everyone, his smile and heart as big as his Texan hat. I greet him warmly and we hug each other for a few moments. I’m proud of him and say so. It would be easy to have made the tale dark and full of “woe is me” moments, but Ryan has carried his part of the tale with a sense of nobility. He still doesn’t know the reason why the band carried on after their breakup, other than they were their for the music. There had to be more feelings of hurt and betrayal present at times than the need to carry on in an artistic sense, so you really feel for him. He is an artist and storyteller who needs to be travelling troubadour like, drawing upon his real life as inspiration for his songs. In fact I used to think that Ryan drew a lot from musicians such as Tom Petty but, after tonight, I really feel like he’s tapping subconsciously into a place previously mined by the likes of Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt; musicians who live their life through their songs and vice versa. His battered, beaten and broken heart may have been hurt many times, but it’s still beating as strong as ever.
Review - Scott Hamilton