For those unfamiliar with this bar deep in student territory, by day Fuel is a popular vegan restaurant, with the creaky mismatched furniture and trend-conscious regulars giving it a no-frills bohemian vibe. It feels, in old hippie parlance, very right on.
At night the small upstairs room provides a cosy performing space for all manner of acts, from poetry and comedy to up-and-coming musicians. One such show is the free monthly gig by Manchester band Picnic Area – centred on their easy-going acoustic Americana, it features a rotating roster of musical brothers in arms in the supporting slots.
Getting things underway this time were Five Mile View – a trio specialising in pretty harmonies and folky touches, a bright-eyed cover of Regina Spektor’s ‘Fidelity’ was the highlight of a compact set.
Next up was Picnic Area’s own Andy Callen – filling in as a last-minute replacement, this solo set displayed a more classic rock ‘n’ roll sound reminiscent of Buddy Holly. Covers of Johnny Cash classic ‘Walk the Line’ and half-forgotten Beatles track ‘Act Naturally’ exhibited a musical erudition fitting in such a student-heavy locale.
Risa Hall – backed by the accomplished Jim Duff on bass and Matt Berry on guitar – took her turn soon after. Following on from her set supporting Alice Gold last month, a mix of new songs alongside tracks from upcoming album Second Chances pleased an audience studded with long-term fans.
The sassy New Yorker showed the bluesy, ballsy power of her voice on ‘But I Know Better’, but as anyone who has seen this genre-busting adoptive Mancunian knows she encompasses a range of styles, as seen by the softer vocals on ‘The Kids on Victoria Avenue’ (written about the students at Chetham’s Music School). Favourites such as ‘Can’t Take Away’ and ‘Electric Lady’ blended with new numbers like ‘Believe Me’ and ‘Soundtrack to My Life’ smoothly.
Closing the night in their regular spot, Picnic Area gave off the air of gifted musicians easy in each other’s company. Songs like ‘Silver Train’ and ‘Gold Chain’ sounded like tunes by a lost Sixties band, the sort of minor Beatles album tracks whose hooks and hit-making qualities were obscured by artful understatement.
Lead singer Wayne McDonald was a natural master of the rambling, tangential conversation between songs, and the easy charm and humour was summed up with two closing covers – Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’ chased down with a knowing rendition of ‘Baby One More Time’. Such playfulness, underpinned by classy musicianship, deserves a bigger audience.
In a warm, intimate setting on a nippy weeknight, what was clear was a sense of a friendly musical community – a convivial atmosphere where people performed for the love of sharing a show, not for the hope of making money or finding fame. And what could be more right on than that?