Dan Webster - Harrogate’s secret king of pop

Dan Webster of The Birdman Rallies.
Dan Webster of The Birdman Rallies.

By Graham Chalmers

When it comes time to write the history of pop music in Harrogate, if such a time ever comes, one name will surely feature prominently – Dan Webster.

This wonderfully creative singer, songwriter and multi-talented all-round musician has been a key figure in almost every interesting band the town has produced in the last 20 years, writes Graham Chalmers.

And he’s come up with a fresh batch of brilliant songs on each turn of the road.

Famously, one of his early ventures, Wilma, remain the only Harrogate group to win York venue Fibbers’ notoriously partisan Battle of the Bands.

But it’s a testament to this charming but enigmatic figure’s perennial inventiveness that Real River, Webster’s dazzling new album with current band The Birdman Rallies is probably the best thing he has ever done.

Certainly the Harrogate Advertiser hailed this intricately produced and played, sublimely melodic album and its 12 slices of story-telling quirky pop as an “instant classic.”

The still slightly boyish, likable figure, who started his musical life in a school indie band at Rossett School in Harrogate as a 12-year-old in the early 1990s, says his latest work is an attempt to give up exploring for exploring’s sake.

Dan said: “I use to be a dabbler, experimenting just to do something I hadn’t done before.

“I’d wear stripes and tartan just to see how they went together. In the last few years experience has kicked in. I guess you could call it maturity.”

The first gig he saw was The Shadows at Harrogate International Festival when he was aged just seven.

A pupil at Saltergate Infants, having learned to play guitar at home as a small boy by studying The Beatles Songbook, Dan took his first step into the world of school bands at Rossett School with the short-lived Eclipse who were inspired, literally, by Inspiral Carpets.

Then, aged 16 and a little under the spell of a new influence, Nirvana, the most important band of that generation, he formed Wilma.

This energy-packed, pop-punk trio featuring John Davey on bass and Craig Lee on drums (who’s now owner of Rudgate, the award-winning craft beer brewery at Tockwith), seemed born to succeed.

Such was their natural commerciality and self-confidence, they took victory at Fibbers in era when the judging panel would contain the likes of Rick Witter of Shed Seven and Stu Fletcher of The Seahorses almost for granted.

Wilma had it all – looks, songs, youth, energy – but, as often happens, university and future careers got in the way.

Dan, himself, went off to study music at Manchester University.

But the very idea of fame itself was always a double-edged one for Dan, even as a teenager.

“When I hear Wilma’s records now they sound like Busted to me. I was happy we’d won but we were brought back to earth when we played Fibbers a few weeks’ later and no one turned up.

“It would be great to be hugely successful but I don’t tend to like music by the sort of people who only seem to be doing it for money.”

In 20 years of writing songs, Dan has rarely come up with anything which didn’t show a natural, intelligent flair for arrangement and melody.

But some of the bands which followed Wilma’s demise also revealed a side of him which rejected anything too easy.

Dan said: “Flowered 3rd were great but it was very sprawling and a bit noodly. We liked to throw in as many ideas as we could. I used to like seeing how weird I could make a chord progression and still make the song work.”

Musicians came and went like at a bewildering rate - Nick McKay, Dave Gracey, Ben Harvey, Toby Toby Matthews, John Abrahams and more.

With a revolving cast of some of the more genuinely psychedelic elements in the independent Harrogate indie scene, Dan and fellow mavericks such as Adam Westerman, Jeremy Grove, Dave Armstrong and John Davey still managed to produce some of the most creative music this writer has ever heard.

Mind you, there might have been a little too much cello (courtesy of Alex Beaumont) or trumpet, from Dan, who still plays in a brass band in what passes for his spare time.

Dan said: “I’d made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t do that whole solemn singer-songwriter thing of whinging. I found it quite clichéd and embarrassing. In Tigerbomb if I thought a song was too serious I’d deliberately throw something silly in.”

With current band The Birdman Rallies, those days of stretching for the impossible seem far behind Dan.

He still looks too young to be labelled the elder statesman of Harrogate pop.

Besides, his talent is clearly still evolving.

Poignant but lyrically cutting songs such as Vampire or Wild Sisters on new album Real River resonate emotionally as well as cerebrally.

Dan said: “I used to employ lyrics in a patchwork way almost but with The Birdman Rallies I wanted to be more focused.

“Most of my songs are about real people in real situations with a little bit of my own yearnings and frustrations thrown in. They’re like mini-plays.”

Obsessed with modern production techniques, inspired by everyone from Kanye West to Royal Blood, Dan now lives in York and works as a music teacher when not playing live in Harrogate at the likes of The Blues Bar or further afield in Leeds, York or Manchester.

If the likable Webster’s music now is best summed up as a cross between the pastoral, mildly whimsical psychedelia of Gruff Rhys or Damon Albarn and the baroque pop of Vampire Weekend, it’s the hints of electronica, funk and hip hop which reveal the length and breadth of the journey he’s made over the years.

“I used to think a finished idea was a dead idea but I’m quite proud of the words I come up with now.

“Everyone’s potentially a little bit famous today through things like Facebook. Why would you need to be a pop star?”

For Dan Webster the song is everything.

See Dan Webster live at Charm @ Major Tom’s in Harrogate on Thursday, March 26.

Tickets are available at www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk/

www.thebirdmanrallies.com