It Wasn’t Out of the Question
by Jay S. Jacobs
For years, if American fans wanted to see 1970s sensation Gilbert O’Sullivan in concert, they would have to fly to Europe or Asia or something. You see, O’Sullivan, who was the best selling solo artist of 1972 – beating out the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart and Neil Diamond – had not played in the United States from 1976 until last year, when he did two acoustic shows in New York (at the City Winery) and Philadelphia (at World Café Live) in two days.
The Irish-born singer/songwriter enjoyed the experience so much that in April, he will be back in the States, doing his first extended US tour since the Bicentennial year. The nine-date tour will start in Washington, return him to New York and Philadelphia (though this year he’ll be playing in the Philly City Winery), and hitting other City Wineries in Boston, Chicago, Nashville and Atlanta. Then he will be hitting other venues in Berkeley, CA (Freight & Salvage) and Los Angeles (The Mint). Buzz on the tour is growing – the LA show is already sold out three months prior to the performance and tickets are going fast in the other cities.
So, how is it possible that it took O’Sullivan over 40 years to make it back to the States?
After all, he had several huge hits in the United States – including the gorgeous and terribly sad “Alone Again (Naturally),” the sweet tribute to his (then) young niece “Clair,” the angry breakup song with a surprisingly bouncy melody “Out of the Question” and the funky “Get Down.” Artists with much less popular songbooks have toured the States successfully over the years.
Also, it was not like he stopped recording and performing. He has put out several albums over the years, and had popular tours in Europe and Asia, amongst other destinations.
In 2018, his most recent, eponymous album returned O’Sullivan to the top 20 of the British album charts for the first time in years, also spawning a few singles. The Gilbert O’Sullivan album is now getting US release, and a new single “The Same the Whole World Over.”
Last year, it seemed like the ideal time to finally make the leap and to cross the pond. Apparently, the possibility of US shows – to paraphrase one of his early hits – it wasn’t out of the question.
“I had wanted to get back into America for so many years,” O’Sullivan recently explained to me on the phone from his UK home. “The reason for the big gap to begin with was because of my major American tour in the early ‘70s. After having three million-sellers in America, the idea was: Do I go out as a support act for the Moody Blues? Or do I go out and do what Tom Jones and Engelbert [Humperdinck] were doing? Because, I had the same manager. Stadiums, big venues. It was a wonderful disaster. It actually got pulled before it got to the west coast. That left a vacuum for quite a few years. Then I had legal stuff.”
However, last year, with the international popularity of the Gilbert O’Sullivan album, the time seemed right to dip his toe back into the American market. Added to that was the fact that the new album somewhat lent itself to a more stripped-back show, so O’Sullivan could do the two shows with just himself and guitarist Bill Shanley, who also plays with former Kinks leader Ray Davies.
“In the last ten years, particularly with my band – I have quite a good band – we have tried several times to get into the States,” O’Sullivan explained. “Of course, as you can well imagine, the cost for the band, the expense and stuff, is pretty high. Now, with the release of this new album, because on the road it is just myself and my guitar player, that gave us the opportunity to come back to you.”
O’Sullivan set up the New York and Philadelphia shows in two straight nights last July to gauge the interest in his return and see what the experience of coming back to the States after 43 years would be like.
“It’s been fantastic,” said O’Sullivan enthusiastically. “The reception I received in New York and Philadelphia was really, really nice.”
Therefore, O’Sullivan determined to not let decades go by again before his next return. In fact, he didn’t even wait a year. Nine months after his two-gig mini-tour, O’Sullivan will be returning to do a longer jaunt across America, making stops in large markets from sea to shining sea.
Like last year’s New York gig, the great majority of the shows will be in City Winery venues. Just playing there in New York had been a fortunate circumstance. Last year’s test gig turned out to pay off in that way as well.
“They were the people that were prepared to take us,” O’Sullivan acknowledged. “It was a question of who would like us to come out there. As I say, what made it easier was the fact that it was just myself and my guitar player. The reason we did that was because we like the idea of being up close and personal. They’re intimate shows. They wanted to take us [last year], but they weren’t prepared to do more than one, just to see what it would be like.”
He laughed, “They really quite liked us, so they’ve asked us back to do some more.”
And do some more he will. On top of the American tour, the 2018 album is getting an official US release. While O’Sullivan has made several albums over the years, this one has returned him to the attention of the music world and fans. O’Sullivan is grateful for the reaction his latest has received. He knows it isn’t easy to make a dent in the music world – particularly a music world which has changed so much since his peak period. The fact that so many people were excited to hear new music from him is very exciting.
“I guess I’m in there competing with everybody,” O’Sullivan said. “The love of songwriting is what keeps me going. It’s always down to the songs, not the artist. I’m quite prolific. I love the art of songwriting. When you get to make a record and get it put out, the reaction I got critically was it was really nice. Then to get a top 20 album after something like 30 years or whatever it was, it was very gratifying.”
Of course, being the humble man that he is, O’Sullivan will not take all the credit for the popularity of the new platter.
“It helped that producer was Ethan Johns, the son of Glyn Johns,” O’Sullivan explained. “Glyn Johns produced people like the Who and the Stones. Ethan has a very organic approach to production. I think that helped in the reception it received. It’s been really nice.”
Also, really nice has been how the new songs have been embraced by fans. Tunes like the sweetly nostalgic “Dansette Dreams and 45s” or the new single “The Same the Whole World Over” have become staples of his show.
“The nice thing is that the new material is slotting in well,” O’Sullivan acknowledged. “The key factor – it isn’t rocket science – what you need with a song is a good melody and a good lyric. If you can combine those two things, then it can slip in with your best material. If, on the other hand, you’re not writing the way you used to write, if you are not turning up with melodies the way you used to do, then it would be difficult for new songs to inject themselves with your act.”
O’Sullivan’s act is a long one – he tends to play over 30 songs and almost three hours (with a brief intermission) – which covers a career of over 50 years. He has slotted in about four new songs into his set list.
“In combination of all the other things I’ve written, it’s a good mix of the old and new,” O’Sullivan explained. “The best-known songs, album tracks that people often request; the mix is it’s the same writer, but there’s a good, varied mix, I think.”
One thing that he won’t do – as he intimated above – is rely on covers of other artists to keep the audience involved. In fact, every single song in O’Sullivan’s set list is by “the same writer,” O’Sullivan himself.
“I’m comfortable singing my own songs,” he laughed.
“I don’t think I have a particularly strong voice,” O’Sullivan continued humbly – perhaps a bit too humbly. “I have a distinctive voice. That helps in some respects. But I don’t have a great voice, so I don’t do covers. I’m very confident in concert, because of the fact that – as you say – it is 30-odd songs of mine.
“There is a mix, I like to feel that the mix is there. There is fast. There is slow. There is sad. There is happy. There is fun. As long as the material is varied, I don’t think people are bored by what they hear. Doubling other people’s songs, it’s just I wouldn’t be comfortable doing it, whereas I am very comfortable singing my own songs.”
Well, he has certainly had a lot of experience singing his own songs. Fifty years on from his first British hit single “Nothing Rhymed” (he had been recording with little success for a few years before that), he is still able to work as a musician. He’s as surprised about that fact as everyone else.
“I always saw myself writing,” O’Sullivan said. “I saw that as a continuation. The love of songwriting is something that sticks with you if you really enjoy it as much as I do. I figured that perhaps I could do it for a few years and maybe as an artist I’d fade away and I could continue to write and see what would happen with my songs. The box I was in is I just concentrate on the writing, making a good record, going out to promote it and dealing with the future that way.”
To this day O’Sullivan is grateful for the great success of his biggest hit, “Alone Again (Naturally),” a sweetly beautiful and lyrically devastating single which is still a staple on oldies radio. Not only that, the song has been covered several times, by the likes of Diana Krall, Michael Bublé, Neil Diamond, even a dance version by The Pet Shop Boys with guest vocalist Elton John. (John has long had a connection with O’Sullivan, he had also sung with O’Sullivan on a 1970s TV special.)
O’Sullivan is still gratified that the tune has touched so many people over the years. After all, most people can relate to its sense of loneliness and devastation.
“It’s very much a song about their life,” O’Sullivan said. “The memories it holds for people. It astonishes me, the reaction to it.”
However, he acknowledged that it has led to a slight misconception.
“People are surprised that it is not based on personal experience,” O’Sullivan admitted. “It’s based, I think, on an understanding. To be a good songwriter, to be a good lyricist, if you have an understanding of a subject, you can write about it in a sincere way. You can’t be flip about anything you’re writing about, particularly if it’s dealing with potential suicide. When I meet people afterwards, they tell me what it meant to them. It always amazes me.”
Writing and recording was what it was all about for O’Sullivan in those early days. In fact, he was so cloistered as a studio musician and songwriter that he almost didn’t feel the surreal aspects of his early stardom.
“A lot of artists you might have talked to would say they learned their craft starting off in clubs, working their way up, getting into the live front,” O’Sullivan stated. “With me, I never did the early live work. With me, it was always the writing that started me off, the writing that kept me going. Even when touring was starting to happen around the world, I didn’t take too much on board. I was quite an amateur to begin with, in terms of live performance. I’m much better now.”
Which is not to say that he was completely immune from the music business game. O’Sullivan wanted his music to be heard. He just never had a plan for global conquest.
“I wanted success, obviously,” O’Sullivan said. “I wanted success more where I was living, rather than other places around the world. The success in America astonished me. It was really nice. The joy of having success around the world is when you meet people, or people will write you and tell you how much a particular song, or songs, of yours means to them. It could be in America, it could be in Australia, it could be anywhere. Japan. All over. It’s fascinating.”
Also fascinating to O’Sullivan is the fact that after all these years, his musical profile is back on the rise.
“As you said my album here is a top 20 and the biggest radio station in the UK – Radio 2 – playlisted my singles that were released here,” O’Sullivan said. “The album was ‘Album of the Week.’ The exposure I’ve had here has grown and developed to a point where it’s becoming… not as successful… but it’s becoming quite successful. Which is good for me, because that’s the kind of thing that I’m working at.
“I’ve had that experience of getting good airplay. It’ll be interesting to see how people react in America. It’s nice that people seem to like certain tracks on the album. As you say, you picked up on ‘Dansette Dreams.’ That’s a popular song when we do it on stage, with just the two of us. It resonates with people. I’m really pleased with the way things have gone.”
O’Sullivan is also enjoying the more scaled-back performances. Though he does expect to return to full band shows, it is enjoyable to connect with the audience with just him and Shanley, a keyboard and a guitar.
“The band is great,” O’Sullivan said. “Last year we only did a couple of festivals. They’re a great band. There’s about nine of us – two girl singers, two guitars, bass, drums, another keyboard and myself. And sax player. That’s great, and I love doing that, and we will be doing that again in the future.”
But for now, it is O’Sullivan unplugged.
“The joy of just the two of us is because it is up close and personal,” O’Sullivan explained. “There is something really nice about the reaction we’re getting with just the two of us. Bill Shanley, who has played with Ray Davies, Bill is one of Ireland’s greatest guitar players. He’s a fantastic guitar player. Ray Davies wouldn’t go on the road without him.”
The pairing with Shanley works for O’Sullivan, as well.
“I think what’s nice, if every lyric I wrote Jay was ‘I love you baby, you love me,’ there could be a lull in 30 songs like that. I feel with the intimacy, the up close and personal approach, some of the words are getting through on stories that are more interesting. People often say after the shows that they have seen us with the band: a bit loud. What they like about these solo shows was that they get to hear the lyrics more clearly. That’s an interesting reaction.”
Gilbert O’Sullivan’s career has been full of interesting reactions, so it makes some sort of cosmic sense that at this late date in his career that he is having a second wind. Now, once again, America will be able to experience the magic of Gilbert O’Sullivan. To paraphrase another one of his classic hits: He’s a bad dog, baby, but even after all these years, we still want him around.
Copyright ©2020 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 25, 2020.
Photos by Jim Rinaldi © 2019.