Compared to 2016’s Festival of Voice (which featured both John Grant and Rufus Wainwright) I had found little to attract me to 2018’s programme. The one name that did grab me was Passenger: I had a vague notion that ‘they’ had had some recent success and were thought a good thing.
It was helpful, then, that Passenger (real name Michael David Rosenberg) filled in some of the blanks in the course of his performance at the Wales Millennium Centre: he is from Brighton, has been a busker, has toured widely (Scotland and America were mentioned), and has had a big hit called ‘Let Her Go’ (from the 2012 album All the Little Lights, and which I discovered later was nominated for a 2014 Brit Award for British Single of the Year). Shortly before the concert I had listened to All the Little Lights so that I would not be totally in the dark about what to expect from this particular singer-songwriter.
Taking to the stage with just a guitar and a foot-operated drum beat, and backed only by a simple curve-topped screen depicting a land and skyscape with PASSENGER emblazoned across it which was lit with different colours at various points, it transpired that Passenger totally dominated his audience and the not inconsiderable space of the WMC with an accomplished, intense, funny, energetic, sweary, moving, engaging performance.
This was no mere bash out the hits show. Passenger took his time to engage with the audience and explain the inspiration for various songs. This was quality over quantity. Not all the songs from All the Little Lights were featured (I would have loved to hear Patient Love), and we were treated to some covers revealing evident inspirations (Jackson Brown, Simon and Garfunkel, and a sample of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah), as well as some new and older material. Particularly memorable was when Passenger was joined on stage by his able Australian support artist and good friend Stu Larsen, for a rendition of Heart’s on Fire. In the quiet moments of the concert, despite the capacity age-diverse crowd, one really could have heard a pin drop.
At one point Passenger joked that he writes songs about lonely men, and inspired by being in Wales he performed a song about a Welsh girlfriend he had once had. There is certainly a beautiful melancholic quality to his work, but there is room for hope and determination too, epitomised by the finale which paired a new song about walking through London in springtime and the mantra-like Holes (‘we’ve got holes but we carry on’).
Passenger did the Festival of Voice proud. Not just because of his own performance (which my companion, a music fanatic and inveterate concert goer, described as ‘one of the most awesome acoustic gigs’ he has seen), but because he gave voice to the audience too; with ease we followed his requests to stand and sing along, and then when he left the stage we took action ourselves and sang him back for the finale. We were not passengers but fellow travellers.