I first heard Ian Shaw in 2021 when I reviewed Hannah Horton's album Inside Out on which Shaw was the guest vocalist on tracks Frozen Light and Breathing Out. Horton told me, "I mentioned I was recording a new album and he (Shaw) offered to take a listen and then wrote the lyrics for Frozen Light and Breathing Out. He had met my late father a few times so the lyrics for Frozen Light are about me and my father – really special. We recorded the track exactly a year after my father was buried."
Greek Street Friday is released on Shaw's label, Silent Wish Records. The album is out on digital platforms as well as CD, with a vinyl release on 20th October.
The album is a glimpse of life around the streets of Soho, where Shaw landed when he was eighteen and has never got out of his system. He will tell you he grew up in Wales, listening to music on a record player and tapes, unknowingly imbibing influences he would later bring to music and that would help him develop his own style. An engaging listen from the start, Shaw brings emotions, characters, and observations to life as he portrays them through the music. The opening track, People Who Say Ta-dah!, features Shaw in rich vocal form, with sassy undertones. "Welcome to my show. It's all packed in here like an overstuffed carry-on. Life is a carry-on my best friend shrieked," sings Shaw as he invites the listener to step into a world where 'suits' meet to show off their supposed achievements – even if they haven't done much. He prefers, quite rightly, people who have actually done things – those people who go "Ta-dah!"
The seeds for the second track, Greek Street Friday were sown as Shaw people-watched while waiting for friends in Louche, a venue at 5 Greek Street, Soho, and listened in on conversations. It explores his attraction to the underbelly of Soho – and basement bars like Gerry's Bar in Dean Street, Marylebone and the people who frequent the areas. Shaw captures the essence of the people and the diverse backstories they bring in this reflective number.
The album is a series of evocative, brief interludes with descriptions of characters, fleeting encounters, and humorous sketches of meetings, characters, and interactions Shaw has observed, stored, and kept alive in his mind. The evocation of atmosphere, characters and vignettes of their lives creates a sense of observing short skits where the listener is gifted a taste of the atmosphere of Soho and its people, who flit across the stage lyrically and musically as depicted by Shaw. On Jackie's Blues Polly Gibbon's outstanding vocals add atmosphere.
To Be Held, inspired by a Truman Capote interview with Dick Cavett, is a clever, beautiful song that celebrates the simple comfort of being held, and loved, despite life's trials and mistakes. "Come and be my ghost or hunt me down. Come with one good eye, you clumsy clown. The least we're bound to get without a fight… the most we can expect from the hungry night… is to be held and told everything will be alright, everything will be alright."
From the solid disco-funk of A Prayer for Baby Blue with its Swamp Dogg sound to the enchanting, reflective To Be Held or the wisdom of Little World, Shaw covers a broad spectrum of styles, and his delivery is crystal clear – the characterisations helped enormously by the calibre of the musicians with Shaw on this recording. They are: Ian Shaw on vocals and backing vocals, Jamie Safir (Kylie, Birdy, Will Young) on Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Clavinet and Hammond organ, Conor Chaplin (Momentum, The Stanley Turrentine Project) on electric bass, David Preston (Melody Gardot, Curtis Stigers) on electric guitar, Ian Thomas (George Michael, Van Morrison, Céline Dion) on drums and percussion, Alex Haines on acoustic and slide guitar, Matt Kent on backing vocals, Polly Gibbons provides guest vocals on Jackie's Blues and backing vocals on Say A Prayer For Baby Blue, and Iain Ballamy (Quercus, Everything But The Girl, Hermeto Pascoal, Loose Tubes) on soprano sax on Blinded By The Hunt.
The music draws on Shaw's influences – from Bowie, Billy Joel, Steely Dan, Al Jarreau, and more, with soupcons of jazz, folk and blues adding flavour and depth. Blending essences, Shaw depicts his characters in anecdotes, memoirs and reminiscences that work to recreate his observations of the people and places who have passed through or by this musician's life. Here is the winsome George, there is the bullying doorman, over there the barman pours drinks for the suits, the hustler, the downcast Jackie; here are some memories of Baby Blue, and all the might-have-beens and maybes – good or bad that people think of when reflecting on experiences. Shaw also includes a different take on a song from Rickie Lee Jones on Blinded By The Hunt which is quite beautiful, enhanced by the soprano saxophone of Ballamy and the fact that Shaw sings towards the top of his range, imparting an emotive quality, evocative of someone seeking peace. Years is a gorgeous duet between Shaw and Matt Kent and reflects on the passage of time with a touch of humour thrown in among the reflective essence of the song. "Did you cover your secrets with a drink and a smile… A whisky in your cup, a vodka in mine. We won't wake the house up; we'll talk until nine."
The final track is We Stopped Talking, inspired by Robert Elms' book Memoir of a Shape-Shifting City (Canongate Books, 2019) and laments how Britain's politics permeate the capital's culture and the way the UK deals with asylum-seekers.
The depictions of characters, naughty observations as well as profound and deeply emotive ones, put me in mind of another Ian of observations and lyricism – a certain Mr Dury. Shaw is influenced by blues, rock, jazz, cabaret, and popular music, though in conversation he is as happy talking about free jazz as he is about Aretha Franklin or Herbie Hancock. In person, it is difficult not to be enamoured of Shaw, his anecdotes about life (including hiding one shoe of a fellow musician just before they were due to go on stage), and his music only adds to his engaging character. This album is well worth a listen.