For a long, silent while it looks like the man in the white suit can’t go through with it. Sitting onstage in a beautiful antique wooden armchair, he faces the dimmed, hushed, ornate hall, trying to compose himself, swigging water to quench his dry throat, rubbing a nervous hand along his jawline.
Then, as the music slowly builds, Cathal Smyth pulls himself together, rises from the chair and in gruff, half-spoken vocals croons tenderly through ‘The Comfortable Man’, the title track of his debut solo album (out in 2015).
It’s an incredibly powerful start to an overwhelming evening, as a humble, vulnerable, middle-aged man looks back over his life, voice sometimes cracking under the weight of stirred emotions.
“I have loved and raised a family
I’m both a father and a son
I have trained to fight close quarter
I have practised sleight of hand
I heard the Dalai Lama
It’s thirty years I’m in the band”
As the music swells it sounds a little like Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’. Cathal Smyth, aka Chas Smash of national treasures Madness, is a million miles away from the infectious, cheeky, chirpy ska-pop that made him and his six muckers household names.
The trek from Nutty Boy to “urban folk” rennaissance man has been a long and heart-rending one for Cathal Smyth. The writing of the songs that would become “The Comfortable Man” began in 2005, with the break-up of his 28-year marriage.
Grief stricken and broken, he went to Cottonwood, Tucson a rehabilitation centre in Arizona where, distraught at being separated from his wife and three children, he started to write songs about what he was going through. The rest of the album, largely a forensic, painfully intimate account of the break-up and its wake, was written in London and in Ibiza where he now lives.
After previewing selections from ‘A Comfortable Man’ at last year’s Festival No 6 in Portmeirion, tonight is the first time Smyth and the Joe Duddell Ensemble have performed the whole album in public.
Tonight is a private preview in front of friends and family, celebrities and journalists before Smyth goes public for the next two nights. Smyth’s children are in the audience, occasionally shouting encouragement and coming to the front to give him a hug. Emotions are raw, simmering very near the surface. There are some tears. At times it feels voyeuristic and uncomfortable to watch.
Sipping tea in between songs, occasionally shrugging his shoulders to tell the audience when a song has finished, Smyth is an engaging character. From time to time he changes from his gruff cockney bark into an Irish accent to tell stories about an uncle’s funeral, or how he came by his antique armchair. Occasionally he’ll do a few Nutty dance steps but that’s the closest we come to his ‘other’ band.
In fact, backed with the lush strings and backing vocals of the Joe Duddell Ensemble, Smyth’s simply worded, heart-on-sleeve lyrics and his open, honest, no-frills delivery hark back to the folksome sounds of his Irish heritage (he was born in England to Irish parents Cathal snr and Maureen) rather than the upbeat ska rhythms of Jamaica artists like Prince Buster.
Recounting how he felt after writing the first few songs while in rehab, Smyth said “At that point I thought – I am an artist. It was the first time I believed that of myself.”
And there are some fine, fine songs on ‘The Comfortable Man’. Not all are about the heartbreak of break-up either. ‘Goodbye Planet Earth’ is an eco-friendly ode to how we are destroying our very home and the epic ‘A Requiem for Common Sense’ is a plea for world peace and unity, “Don’t we all want to live in peace and love and have our children come home each day, safely?”
But tonight’s highlight comes when Smyth takes to the piano for the stark and devastating ‘Are the Children Happy?’ where he tells his ex-wife how he thinks about her all the time “the children, number 29, when we married and how we loved to dance, the times we went on holidays to France.”
‘The Comfortable Man’ is a love letter to his ex-wife, his children and to the everyman, to everyone who goes through the trauma of break-up.
Smyth has come through the pain that kickstarted this newfound creativity and recovered. The pain may surface sometimes but he’s coping. And judging by a recent interview with the Guardian he may be leaving Madness for good.
After all, it must be hard for a 54-year-old father of three to permanently live up to his pork-pie hat wearing Nutty Boy lifestyle. Everyone loves going to see Madness live, but people want their Magnificient Seven to be the same upbeat cockernee sparrows who wrote ‘Our House’, ‘My Girl’ and ‘Baggy Trousers’. They want, for one night, to relive their carefree youths in the 80s. And 30 years on it must be difficult to keep giving the people what they want. ‘My Girl’ has left and the kids have long since left ‘Our House’.
Tonight, Smyth stepped out from the safety of the gang he has been a member of for the last 30 years and proved himself admirably as a solo performer, while baring his soul and delivering some truly moving songs.
Whatever he decides about Madness, judging by this magnificient album, creatively the new Cathal Smyth is more than comfortable in his own skin.