I always leave a Beans On Toast gig with a sense of optimism I don’t see much of in everyday life. That sounds like a cry for help. What I mean is that Jay McAllister, accompanied with his band on this tour, creates a particular atmosphere that has brought me back nine times to his live shows. We’re in double figures now across five years now, Beans.
This was my second time with Jay at the Exeter Phoenix and my second time with his A Bird In The Hand tour promoting his newest record of the same name. I was also lucky (and/or sad as my Instagram followers might argue) enough to see the sets the previous weekend to the Exe show at Bristol’s Thekla. In all honesty, I was sold on this tour in part by Jay, but mostly by the announcement that Benjamin Folke Thomas was going to be one of the support. The man deserves his own article but he is an amazing vocalist and well worth checking out for anyone interested in fingerstyle guitar. His voice is like molasses and sawdust and wisdom.
His set began with ‘One Day’, a suitable introductory track to his sense of dry humour, peppered with his *slightly* existential flair (Modern Man 2018). But if you listen to one song by Benjamin Folke Thomas, please (please, please) let it be ‘Stuff Of Dreams’ which closed his portion of the night. With a ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ vibe as my Dad says, this is his most played track on Spotify for a reason. You’ll see. It also lent itself well to an audience participation sing-along that helped warm the crowd up for the next act.
There isn’t a word to fully describe the Norwich-born brand of sweetness that comes from Jess Morgan, the second act to play the Phoenix stage that night. Chatty as anything, with a sort of self depreciating, awkward charm, Jess Morgan’s guitar is one thing but that voice I did not expect – like pressed linen, so soft and so smooth. My favourite song of her Exeter set list has to be ‘Come To The Opera With Me, Loretta’ (Edison Gloriette, 2016), a retelling of the plot of Moonstruck (1987), an 80’s comedy drama starring Cher and Nicholas Cage. Potentially enough said about the film, but Morgan’s song is full of all her wispy soul and sense of humour – as well as melody I’ve had stuck in my head since I first heard it.
The two support acts joined Beans alongside Dave Dangers (yes, the one that smiles at strangers) and Matt Millership on drums and keys respectively. I’ve only seen Beans play with a full band a handful of times in the last year or so. Jess Morgan was on bass, while Benjamin Folke Thomas offered up his harmonica skills as well as his guitar playing and the set began with a full band version of ‘Another Year’ (A Bird in the Hand, 2018). They played a few songs as the gang before Beans and Matt were left onstage for ‘Taylor Swift’ (Cushty, 2017), a response to the question “if you could have a drink with anyone, dead or alive, fictional or non fictional who would you like to have drink with?”. During such, Beans’ took the opportunity of messing up the lyrics (not uncommon at a Beans On Toast show) to talk a little about idolatry and recent “call out culture”. Jay alluded to allegations regarding Ryan Adams and argued that we shouldn’t avoid these conversations because “there’s plenty of people who have done the same”. If anything, that makes it more integral to “call a prick a “prick””, famous or otherwise.
The set then turned to Beans as we mostly know him: alone on stage with his acoustic guitar
The set then turned to Beans as we mostly know him: alone on stage with his acoustic guitar. He took us through a handful of tracks by himself. ‘I’m Home When You Hold Me’ (Rolling Up the Hill, 2015) will never fail to make me swoon a little at the thought of a Sunday afternoon with a loved one. ‘The Sun, The Moon and Me’ (Cushty 2017) is always one that throws me a little, as he introduces it onstage every time by saying it’s about a sort of “elemental orgy”. A gorgeous track with its beautiful melody, but still hasn’t been massively figured out yet. ‘Stinging Nettles’ saw Jess Morgan and all her loveliness return to the stage for the harmonies that appeared on the original album recording (The Grand Scheme of Things, 2014). Aimed at children and commissioned by Camp Bestival a few years ago, the track speaks to a return to nature: “There’s still some things you can enjoy without your login details”.
Beans is the architect of some really powerful moments at his live shows. Needless to say, when the set turned to ‘Magic’ (A Bird in the Hand, 2018), a heartfelt tribute to the birth of his daughter Wren last January; the whole room was filled with that sense of wisdom, wonder and unconditional love. Although the vibe swiftly changed pace, as Beans and his band returned to the usual politically-minded material we are used to. ‘Smells Like Bullshit’ (Cushty 2017) is a frank critique of the current socio-economic and political situation. In my mind, the overarching message of accountability for those who control the narrative – big businesses, the political elite… “the man” if you will – is one that rings true more and more each day. Plus, it has to be said that Jay’s dad dancing is always a giggle during this song.
‘Bamboo Toothbrush’ is not Beans’ first go at an eco-warrior protest song (A Bird in the Hand, 2018). ‘The Great Big Fucking Hole’, while factually incorrect as many teachers have since told him, casted Jay as somewhat environmentally conscious from the beginning of his career (Standing on a Chair 2009) Much of his discography since has always had a moderately “green” message. ‘Bamboo Toothbrush’ landed Beans with a collaboration with the Bristol based company Mabboo who sell a plethora of bamboo alternatives to everyday items. From toothbrushes to cutlery to cotton buds. Legends, the lot of them. Beans’ merch stall stocked a bunch of the toothbrushes which he promoted onstage by using as a baton for the audience participation at the end of the song: nothing pleases my vegan/hippy tendencies like a room of people shouting “Baambbooo Toooothbrush”.
Backed up by Matt on keys once more, the lyrics of ‘Life’ embody that Beans On Toast brand of optimism I leave each show with
Beans could never go wrong in starting a sentence with “I have a lot of ‘F*** You Donald Trump’ songs…” and the audience was certainly receptive to such a notion (fair play, Exe). Jay was referring to Trump’s public statements essentially “slagging off” the National Health Service last year. ‘Homerton Hospital’ (A Bird in the Hand, 2018) isn’t what a protest song might’ve sounded like earlier in Beans’ discography (no swearing for one thing) , but it does the job for sure. With the crowd chanting “N-H-S! N-H-S! N-H-S!” from the left side of the auditorium, the track praises multiculturalism in Britain and not just the doctors and nurses, but everyone involved in the health system on the day-to-day basis. All of them are, of course, champions and Jay’s song certainly makes the perfect anti-Trump anthem on the matter.
I think Beans can be best understood by ‘Life’ (Fishing for a Thank You, 2012). Jumping, barefoot, from the stage and into the crowd, the audience formed a circle – “this’d be really good for a fight… but we won’t” said Jay. Backed up by Matt on keys once more, the lyrics of ‘Life’ embody that Beans On Toast brand of optimism I leave each show with. In a world that is can seem so desperate to sensationalise and scare us, Beans’ lyrics speak to a poignant gratitude that we need now more than ever. On the parameters of the circle, I am reminded of my own lucky position to love and be loved. Walking home that night, pottering along Sidwell Street, everything seems a little less dire. A little less strained. Thank you to everyone involved in pulling off another great night for live music. You’ve done it again, Jay. ‘Til next time.