Angels and guitars: State of the Union, 3 March, Haverhill Arts Centre

State of the Union, the unholy musical alliance of Brooks Williams and Boo Hewerdine, came storming back to Haverhill Arts Centre this evening. After an enforced two year absence, they opened with a surging Sweet Honey in the Rocks and didn’t relent for the best part of an hour and a half. With some intriguing new material, they succeeded in charming the audience with their easy mix of banter, blues and bonhomie. With old-time harmonies as sweet as these, they could set the phone book to music and make it sound like a forgotten classic from the 1930s.

For this duo, anything is game when it comes to subject matter, although they’re drawn irresistibly to the margins – alchemising the bizarre into musical gold. Man with a Hammer is a tune about marathons of all things. (In Germany instead of ‘hitting the wall’ at the 20 mile mark, they liken it to being hit by ‘a man with a hammer’). Snake Oil, from their second album of the same name, is a cautionary tale about the charlatans of old medicine shows, and conjures vivid images of the old west. Then there’s 23 Skidoo, which reminds you why you fell in love with State of the Union in the first place: absurdist lyrics that suddenly hit you for six, a hypnotic descending riff (complete with extra bends and trills tonight) and the catchiest tune you ever heard.    

Some songs are possibly over familiar: King of California never leaves Brooks’ set, but it’s not hard to see why. It’s a stunning story-song with a devilish twist. What makes it worth hearing again is what Brooks does with his guitar. His fiendish mix of lead lines, fingerpicking and strumming is never the same twice. He lends the same talents to new and old material alike, never once putting a foot wrong. There’s a real sense of risk-taking too as he dashes up some new musical avenue, possibly not quite sure himself where it will lead. Watching and listening to him find his way back again by some ingeniously inventive means (and in time for the start of the next verse) is a genuine treat.

They didn’t waste time in lockdown, Boo relates, having recorded ‘a song,’ which leapt to number three on the New Zealand iTunes chart. Brooks remarks that he’s noticed a few pence arrive in his bank account. Boo wonders whether they might have been better off if they’d been paid in kiwis. Unjustly overlooked on release, Why Does the Nightingale Sing? is genuinely one of the most intoxicating ballads of the last two years (if not twenty). Despite sounding like it was written before the Second World War, its plaintive lyric and haunting melody goes straight to the heart. If anything, their combined voices evoke the spirit of the Everly Brothers. The standard really is that high. Equally good is Butterfly Wings, which achieves lift off with its equisitely harmonised chorus. Wings are clearly a recurring motif of Boo’s. His song I Wish I Had Wings from his last solo album is a real gem.

Two boda-fide classics from Boo’s oceanic back catalogue are delivered solo (while Brooks goes backstage to rifle through Boo’s dressing room, we’re told). Patience of Angels is as fresh as the day it was written, an empathetic study of a woman’s fortitude every bit as good as McCartney’s Daytime Nightime Suffering. Meanwhile, Dragonflies continues to dazzle with its lilting sing-song melody mimicking the dance of the dragonfly. 

Not to be outdone, Brooks’ Down at the Mission is a deceptively straightforward sounding piece of folk radicalism, that would fit nicely alongside his acoustic gospel-blues number, On The Rolling Sea. Its searing melody seems sure to earn it a regular place in his setlist.

Unforgettable, their take on the Nat King Cole classic is a thing of fragile beauty (although they forget bits of it at an earlier performance, they confess). One of the highlights comes near the end. That’s All Folks is a brand-new end of relationship song in the same vein as Paul Simon’s 50 Ways To Leave your Lover, with some of their wittiest lyrics to date. Delivered in Boo’s trademark deadpan style, it’s an instant winner. Another unexpected treat comes in the form of Hesitation Waltz. Boo found the title from a piece of sheet music from the 1890s – but with no evidence of the words or music, they composed their own, with predictably brilliant results.

All too soon, the set draws to a close with more closely harmonised balladeering. It’s a deliciously enjoyable night. With the prospect of plenty of new material on the (next) horizon there are still tricks up the sleeves of these most prodigiously talented of troubadours.