On entering the 100 Club’s dressing room you’re stopped in your tracks. You look around to take it all in. There’s a beaten up naugahyde sofa, a glass-fronted fridge, an arcade machine (that isn’t plugged in), at the room’s centre a table – upon which are strewn tins and take away boxes, packets of crisps and cups – and lining the near wall are three plastic chairs. There’s also an en suite bathroom behind a heavy door, but what really catches the eye are the walls (and ceiling), every inch of which is covered in the graffiti of the ages.
The graffiti is a conversation killer. If you start reading it, you can’t stop. So you turn to the room and greet the people. Then, if you’re me, you sit beside Matt Deighton who is busy peering into his guitar case as he prepares for an acoustic gig that will begin in half an hour’s time.
“Tonight I’ll be playing some old hits from a parallel universe,” says Matt. “Well, stuff from my old albums really, albums like The Common Good and You Are The Healer, but there’ll also be songs from Doubtless Dauntless, my new album that’ll be released next spring on Monks Road Records. But I’m not unveiling the album tonight because,” says Matt, grinning at me, “there’s a song on the album with a chord in it and right now I’m not sure what chord it is. I’ve misplaced it… which is not very handy.”
Such is the method by which this songwriter composes, his creativity not hampered by hackneyed musical phrases, his left hand in perpetual search across the fretboard for that elusive, better sound. He closes the case and sits with his mug of tea. Through the walls come the strains of Vinny Peculiar who is half way through his own live set. Vinny is opening for Matt and after Matt’s set, Kevin Rowland will spin his tunes as house DJ for the night.
The reason this unique trio of performers have come together on this freezing pre-Christmas evening at the legendary London venue is to raise awareness of the work done by Tonic Music for Mental Health; it’s a cause very close to all their hearts.
“I’ve turned 50 now… I’m still grappling with that,” Matt laughs. “But my voice has got deeper since I joined the 50s club, I’m sure of it. I sound like a man.” But how will he feel when he takes to the stage later on at such a historic venue as the 100 Club? “I’ll feel like I’m 50 years old.”
Matt lives in north Wales: “It sounds like the last letters you end up with in Scrabble.” The cleaner air of the farm, its wide skies and the dark, looming nights are clearly doing the trick because he’s currently enjoying a fertile period that sees him writing and performing both as a solo artist and as lead singer and guitarist with The Family Silver.
“Doubtless Dauntless has been mastered and is being pressed up right now. There’ll also be a documentary that was filmed by Kevin Brown of Mother Brown Films at Monnow Valley Studio in November of last year, which was where we recorded the album. I’m really pleased with the album, it’s the best thing I’ve done… Well, it’s what I’m doing now, anyway.”
Matt is able to winnow existential truths from modern life, writing with an economy of lyrical gesture, his lyrics weighted, figuratively precise. As a solo artist after his time with Mother Earth, he distilled his art into four soulful folk-tinged albums of quiet beauty (Villager, 1995; You Are The Healer, 2000; The Common Good, 2002; and Wake Up The Moths, 2004) before joining The Family Silver in 2015 and continuing on his solo journey. More recently, he released a collaboration with Squeeze’s Chris Difford, the album Kids Steal Feelings (2017).
But this evening he’s at the musical coalface again, alone on a stage with just the crowd for company. A flash gun snaps, light bouncing off the dressing room’s walls, and we both blink. “I’ve always wanted to do this, but it’s been a long day. I’ve been up since 5am and assessing music students’ work at 9am this morning.”
The dressing room door opens and in walks Kevin Rowland, stylishly clad for the weather. He sits on the sofa and surveys the room. He seems at home, but what’s he expecting of the evening ahead? “I’ve got no idea what it’s going to be like,” he says, “Is it sold out? I’ve brought my CDs, as always, and I’ll be singing along to some of the tunes. It’s the Kevin Rowland DJ show and so, I suppose, you can call me a Sing-J.”
Standing, he hangs up and his coat and removes his shades. “I’ll trust my instinct tonight. I’ll continue something if it’s working really well, you know, a certain groove, or if the groove isn’t really happening, then I’ll change it. I do try to respond to the crowd, but it’s very much still my set. It’s my thing. If I play three reggae tracks, and there are more people on the floor for the first one than the third one, then I ain’t gonna play a fourth one.”
Kevin’s DJing sound – not unlike the reggae or rare groove sound stage output found at summertime carnival – sits in marked counterpoint to other forms of DJing that can be heard throughout the capital. His is the humane and ultra-stylised approach to dance hall entertainment, imbued with his own brand of humour and Celtic soul.
“I’m not into the politics [of taste]. If people are having a good time, then that’s all that matters,” he says. “But yeah, I’m going to change the mood. It’s totally essential. I think DJing is really about playing the right record at the right time… and well, I won’t be playing any folk.”
But Matt will be, standing and making his way through the crowd to the stage which is drenched in a blood red light. The years, they come and go, but the 100 Club’s doors, unlike so many of a bygone age, remain open, forever making history. Tonight was yet another small chapter in the writing of a London legend.
Portrait of Matt Deighton by Sandra Vijandi