Walter Kocays warms up for Glastonbury at The Artisan Tap

Who would have thought it, ay, that a young singer/songwriter from Stoke-on-Trent would find themselves on a Glastonbury line up in 2024? But that’s exactly where Walter Kocays finds himself this June, sitting on the very same bill as Dua Lipa, Paul Heaton, Shania Twain and Coldplay at one of the world’s biggest live music festivals.

And in preparation for what will undoubtedly be one of the biggest gigs of his career to date, Walter – or as many of us know him, Calleb Allport – took to The Artisan Tap in Hartshill for a truly unforgettable warm up show. 

Opening for Kocays was Manchester-based soloist Lewis Ross-Robson, who has played on a number of Lo-Tide collective bills, because when Caleb isn’t performing himself, he’s tirelessly promoting other creative and individual emerging talents as part of his events and media community.

It’s easy to see why Caleb picked Lewis to support, his stripped back set formed in the notes app of his mobile phone and a borrowed acoustic guitar set a laidback tone and reaffirmed that community feel that Stoke-on-Trent is best known for. His reflective and melancholic style captivated the crowd through a delicate blend of introspective lyrics and soulful melodies. 

Such intimate performances can often be difficult when there are still people wanting to get a drink from the bar or shuffle into the next room, but at times, it felt like Lewis could have been the only person in the room. As he made his way through tracks like Chasing Tails and Black Again, eyes loosely shut, he delivered a gorgeous vocal performance with a gentle rasp in all the right places.

Following Ross-Robson was Cocoh, whose ethereal white dress only served to amplify her enchanting set. The singer/songwriter has been incredibly busy with live shows in recent weeks, playing everywhere from Captain’s Bar, Leek’s Foxlowe Arts and Lymelight Festival to The Jacaranda in Liverpool and Manchester’s Peer Hat next week. 

Playing her acoustic guitar to a track of pulsating beats, Cocoh’s solo sets are hypnotic to watch, with soft indie-folk vocals that haunt as much as Billie Eilish’s ‘What Was I Made For’, and intricately picked string instrumentation. More uptempo tracks like Insidious are balanced by more wistful songs like her latest release, iWishFor, with fans treated to a live debut of a yet-to-be-released single and while I won’t spoil anything – I have a feeling it’s going to be a new favourite. Cocoh’s stage presence develops with every show I see, with Caleb even making a point of complimenting her growth and evolution over the past eight-or-so months on stage. She radiates a real glow of positivity on stage and is a real joy to watch.

Then came electro-pop artist and producer, Foxa Riot, bringing a change of pace to the evening. Rhys Oaks, joined by bassist, Joe Stingray, never fails to mesmerise me as he builds his tracks on stage, flitting between synths and drum pads, ukuleles, guitars and tambourines. His DIY approach to music – from writing and recording to mixing and video creation – can only truly be appreciated when you watch his live shows, which are as much a visual art as they are sonic.

Rhys brings a seriously infectious energy to the stage, with a blend of vibrant sounds and dark lyrics in tracks like Best Friend and Letdown (Everything I Ask For), which even got some audience participation, complete with little cocktail umbrellas. He really packs a lot into his dynamic set, from roping in rapper Geth from the crowd for a track or two, and asking everyone – including his mother-in-law – if they like kinky sex. 

And then comes the time for the man of the moment, who will be heading on down to Worthy Farm to represent our city, Mister Walter Kocays. A couple of weeks back when the news broke, Lee wrote a fantastic piece on Caleb’s music career so far, from The Current, to politically fuelled, punk edged Release and hiphop vibes of Look Busy, all of which have evolved and shaped him into this gorgeously gravelly, alternative indie folk visionary. And many of us have watched that journey from start to finish, too – not that Caleb is anywhere near done, because something about Wednesday night’s gig very much felt like the beginning of something. Something for Caleb, absolutely, but something for the wider local music community, too.

His performance was a testament to the dedication he’s given to his craft after learning the guitar quite unconventionally as a youngster, deftly weaving personal stories into his set that made the midweek audience laugh, chant and at times, almost shed a tear. His honesty on stage, his storytelling prowess and his deeply personal tracks, coupled with the intimacy of the venue makes it impossible to not be in absolute awe of this lad, who has spoken openly about how creating music has helped him overcome mental health battles.

Joined by Chris Hough, a member of his very first band, The Current, on keys added an extra layer of nostalgia and warmth to the evening. Chris seized an opportunity to tell the room just how much Caleb means to him, and how hard-earned and well-deserved this opportunity is for him on stage was beautiful. It was really heartwarming to witness their musical journey come full circle over a decade later.

Walter Kocays delivered an exceptionally soul-stirring and heartfelt performance through tracks like Explicitly, I’ve Told and Bird Bath, navigating themes of personal struggle, love and society with utmost ease before performing a cover of Stephen Fretwell’s Run – which many will know better as the Gavin and Stacey theme tune.

I think what is most prevalent in Caleb’s sets, though, is his commitment to authenticity, which is a breath of fresh air in today’s music landscape. And his ability to connect with the audience on such a personal level only confirms his talent and passion.

As he closed the night, the cosy, living room-style setting of The Artisan Tap amplified the emotional weight of his performance. There was a real sense of pride and excitement in that small yet packed-out room, knowing we got a preview of the magic that Walter Kocays will bring to Glastonbury. I very much look forward to hearing the stories he comes back with.

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