It is, says Ray Cooper, two years since he’s been in this country. “It’s almost like the last two years didn’t happen,” he notes, rather sagely this evening. So lets first deal with the elephant in the room. There aren’t that many people here in the second city to witness the return.
There, that’s out of the way.
So here’s a little history lesson. Ray Cooper has had a more exciting life than me. He’s played with everyone from Edwin Starr to Steve Lillywhite from the 80s onwards, he was then in the Oysterband for donkey’s years, he left them in 2013 and went solo. Along the way he moved to Sweden in 2000.
In short, he’s got some stories. And my goodness, he’s got some fine songs to go with them.
He opens here with “Drunk On Summer”, a tale, as he recalls, about the last day of the school term. It’s wistful guitar-based happiness is, it must be said, at odds with the rest of the night.
Cooper used the lockdown to work on a record “Land Of Heroes” – and it is a dark collection, but one interspersed with some sunlight. “Eyes Of Mercy” is one such piece, as the protagonist is looked after by a nurse in a mask and these are his feelings.
Indeed, as the set – which is split into two – unfolds, its tempting to think of Cooper as merely the narrator, or at least the conduit of these songs. They are all about something, as it were, all have a story and there is nothing throwaway or ephemeral here.
“Whistle-blower” is one of the more obvious ones, in that it makes its point that these are modern day heroes, shining a light on the excesses and lawlessness of those in power, but “Circles” changes things. It is written for a deceased friend and the way Cooper switches to Cello (which he plays upright) gives this a more mournful, aching feel.
It is particularly impressive just how many instruments are played here. There’s cello, in the forward looking “Dark Days Are Over” and piano in the superb “Dark Father”, and even a mandolin in the beautiful “The Unknown Soldier Has A Name”. That one is especially poignant, given that is written in the first person about a young man who was hung for desertion, but who was from right here in Birmingham.
There’s a cover, but its different to what you might have thought (which is ironically in keeping) and “Seven Curses” by Bob Dylan has never quite sounded like this before, and never will again, and one of a couple of superb instrumentals he plays is “Canada Hill” and this is as windswept and hewn in the countryside as Seth Lakeman, or even The Mission (although I accept he has nothing musically to do with the latter).
Most of these songs, it seems, have an historical bent. It seems apt therefore that he invokes Shakespeare in “We Need More Heroes” before a switch back to piano for “Dark Sky Park” and the guitar returns for the real acerbic “The Beast” – the contrast with the opener couldn’t be stronger with the one that ends the set, for sure.
The encore (of sorts) seems more autobiographical than the others. “My Compass Points To North”, set right in the arctic circle, but whether his heart lies in Scandinavia these days, it seems that Ray Cooper is very much a citizen of the world. These songs, these stories, and this artist, are what happens when you forget comfort zones and do what you think is right.