Why do I love music? Is it in my nature, derived genetically from my parents, and going back before that, to my paternal grandfather, who was in a singing group in his teens? Or is it nurture: was I made this way by constant exposure to music from the day I was born? Why do I love Bowie and not Céline Dion? I’ve made judgements about music all my life, and I wonder if I’m getting more argumentative as I get older. My views have become more concrete in terms of my own moral (political, social, feminist, equality-based) certainties, but I do think my likes and dislikes have evolved towards greater open-mindedness, and I certainly know myself in a way I didn’t in my 20s. I suppose we’re all the same. We have passions that we want to share with others and we want others to feel the same love we do, whether about our politics or the art that matters. What I hope to work towards, when it comes to differences of taste, is the ability to restrain myself from feeling negatively about someone who loves/hates something that I hate/love. It’s something I am trying, struggling, to do, to improve myself: to stop being so knee-jerk about oppositional views, which in the current internet age feels nearly impossible some days.
Our parents make us in their image, and we mirror their tastes because they are our first and primary influencers. But at some point, you break away from getting all your opinions from them. Yes, there’s a primal pull for me in judging someone’s music taste, as my mother did. She would question everyone about what they liked and, if their answers didn’t meet her high standards, she would, sometimes in a charming way, sometimes not, rebut them and scoff at what they loved. Once she questioned someone about their favourite band, and when the answer came back as Take That she bit her tongue and asked who this person’s favourite member was? The reply, under pressure and beneath mum’s stern, demanding eye, was that she couldn’t remember their names. This was the final straw; mum was incredulous at such a lack of attention to detail. It wasn’t about liking Take That anymore. It was about the fact that, if you’re going to have a favourite band – even if it’s a shitty one that I hate, she thought – the very least you can do is know their names.
My reactions to the music other people love have often resembled my mother’s: super, ultra, crazily judgemental. Dad is similar, but less wild-eyed about it. Though I did speak to him about this review and he confessed he is still baffled and annoyed by his best friend’s extreme dislike of two artists – Beatles, Hendrix – who most rock fans, which he is, adore without question. I’d like to evolve somehow past all that judgement. Who am I to be passing comment on what I perceive to be a lowbrow taste, a devotion to music I deem of poor quality (writing, performance, production) or sentimental in the worst way? What I should be doing is trying to strip myself of being so argumentative and just be grateful that other people have… loves and hates and passions just like mine (thank you Moz, you have a lyric, if not a novel, for every occasion). I value music and admit I feel sorry for those who think it’s alright, own a few albums, quite like it but could live without it. I barely understand how there are people on earth for whom music is not only unimportant but absent in their lives. I know: how pretentious and condescending is that? If everyone likes what I like as much as I like it, then everyone is the same. And that sounds pretty dull. This all leads me to a book I was recently bought: Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste. I actually think this beautiful, insightful, intelligent, even moving book could make me a better person. Perhaps I am this way because I’m a frustrated music critic at heart, because I don’t create. I’m cool with that – it’s a living (pretty much). But my intense need to correct doesn’t just extend to books or magazines or menus, it goes to people as well. I can’t resist telling people what I think of what they think. I’m not immune from being the subject – tying into Wilson’s concepts of the social hierarchies of how we relate to others – as only the other day I was getting into it on Facebook. The subject? U2. Having posted that I was excited about seeing them live, friends immediately rushed to tell me how much of a gigantic twat Bono is (no mention of their music from the Bono-haters). Others told me they loved U2, who put on a great show, etc. (no mention of Bono from the music-lovers). I couldn’t help notice that the haters were those with otherwise ‘cool’ music taste (indie/alternative types), and the ones who loved U2 also loved the Stones or Bon Jovi or other mainstream rock music. I admit that U2 are somewhat of an anomaly in my own music collection. If you were to glance at my iTunes Library you would find tons of classic pop/rock, certainly. But you’re more likely to close your eyes and stick a pin in Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman or Wayne Shorter or Sufjan or Terry Riley or Joanna Newsom or Laura Nyro or Björk, and so on. What this means is that, certainly as I’ve gotten older, my ears seem to like, and my brain seems to seek out, music that’s sonically diverse and/or unusual. In my teens I was all about three chords and the truth. It was all big rock by white, straight guys: from the Beatles to Guns ‘N Roses to Aerosmith to Led Zep to the Doors (all of whom I still like). In my 20s I expanded that palette a little to the Flaming Lips and Radiohead et al. In my 30s all hell broke loose in my music collection, with old off-kilter discoveries coming by the day (Tom Waits, Kate Bush, Eno, innumerable jazz albums), genre gaps being filled by the truckload (country, Americana, folk, psychedelia, prog, free jazz, krautrock, classical, electronic, ambient, everything!) and suddenly, unexpectedly, a passion for hip-hop (Kendrick, Kanye and getting in with the godfathers like Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, then Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, in short catching up with forty years of rap culture). There are not enough hours in the day to listen to everything I want to listen to.
The Wilson book, which he talks about here in an excellent Pitchfork interview, has been recently reissued and extended with accompanying essays from the book’s admirers, including Krist Novoselic, Nick Hornby, Ann Powers, Owen Pallett and James Franco (my copy is the original). It has become perhaps the most acclaimed title in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 imprint, which puts out small-form books, each about one album. I was gripped from page one. It’s about judgement, taste, sentimentality (which he defines as the opposite of cool), love, hate, cultural and social capital, music history, prejudice and more. For a case study, Wilson chose an artist he hated: Céline Dion. His concluding point, in general, is that writing the book made him become more open to opposites, which goes against the way the internet is designed to dominate cultural life. The online experience is based around ‘we know you like this, here’s more just like that’, whether it’s Amazon recommendations or Last.fm libraries or iTunes Genius. These systems are set up to sell you more of the same, which is the opposite of what I want now. I already have hundreds of classic albums. What I want, as I get older, is stuff I’ve never considered before.
Wilson could just have easily chosen U2 over the Québécoise chanteuse. Except his objections would have been based on music versus not-music. What that means is, despite 220 million albums sold, people despise Dion’s music and, despite 170 million albums sold, people despise Bono. They object to her music and his personality. Nobody cares much what kind of person Dion is: they just hate her cheesy, saccharine, shrill and ubiquitous songs, despite only hearing My Heart Will Go On. Nobody cares much what U2 sound like (in fact, most pop/rock fans would admit their music is actually, technically good, with its gargantuan hooks): they just hate Bono’s political pontificating and lecturing. So it came to this: in a confluence of events so deliciously perfect as to defy parody, I was sitting on a little step at a U2 concert reading the Céline book last night.
I’m realising this isn’t largely a review of the show, is it? It’s more like a series of musings on why we love what we love. Why does my adoration of uncool U2 persist? It’s not stubbornness; I genuinely think they are one of the great bands. Why do I bat away anyone who can’t wait to tell me how tedious they find the singer? Why do I love him despite this? For a kid from Dublin, who left school with no qualifications, who has for decades worked tirelessly for social justice, learning by doing nothing more than reading mountains of books and talking to people, who can get his calls taken by presidents and prime ministers… he is so hated, because rich pop stars shouldn’t minister to their flocks about the impoverished. He rubs people up the wrong way, despite being pretty much exactly like Springsteen, who never gets shit for doing the same thing – using his stage like a pulpit, preaching about the power of doing good and of rock and roll – and it baffles me. He’s the most hated rock star on earth. I’m trying to get to a place where I let go of my need to defend him, rather than explain why I disagree and drive myself mad trying to change minds. His music makes me happy and I like him, so I know I should stop trying to convince anyone to think like I do. A lesser version happens with Dylan as well, incidentally. How can I like such an awful singer? How can I stand such sins committed on his words, rendered unintelligible? It happens with Morrissey all the time. People can’t stand him, and can’t wait to tell me about it, though to be fair sometimes he doesn’t help himself. Perhaps getting older is accepting that you love what you love and you can’t be persuaded out of it, but the flipside is that you need to let go of the notion that you must convince everyone else why you feel that way. That kind of self-acceptance is a work-in-progress. U2’s forced album download crime, to be fair, didn’t help. You almost have to admire that level of hubris. It’s a great record, after the very flat previous one, so they didn’t need to give it away, but there you go. They took shit and then got on with it. Frankly, if you are dumb enough to trust Apple/iTunes and have switched on automatic downloading you probably deserve to get a U2 album for nothing. Welcome to the era of killed privacy, monitored liberty and big data. U2 are the least of your problems online.
Last time out for the mammoth 2009-11 360° Tour the three huge metal (not glass) spiders would live in three cities at a time. One was being put up, another being taken down and the last was being played under, simultaneously. This time it’s more of a residency venture, with between two and five shows (six in London and eight at Madison Square Garden) being played in each arena, which lets everyone settle in for around a week at a time into each city. In contrast to the largesse of 360, the main stage has few lights, and the first four songs take place under a single oversized light bulb. It must be exhausting putting on these shows but probably less so this time than previous tours: 76 arena gigs on this Innocence + Experience Tour compared to 110 on the last one (all stadiums: the highest grossing and attended tour of all time), 131 on the set before that (2005’s Vertigo, also stadia) and 113 going back to Elevation (arenas) in 2001. Today I feel both elated and knackered, which makes me realise how fit the band must be (at 15/16 years older than me) to do this every night. Let’s also take into account how, frankly, cursed the tour has been, having to be delayed for months because Bono smashed himself up in a bicycle accident, breaking his arm, finger, eye socket and shoulder. The day before the first show Larry’s father died; he flew to Dublin and back in time for the gig. Incidentally, Larry is still ageless and hot as hell (any excuse to post this) and, while I’m at it, Adam has unexpectedly become a silver fox. Edge then fell off the stage at the first show, and thinking about Grohl’s leg-breaking spill, he got lucky to get away with a few scrapes. Then the irreplaceable Dennis Sheehan, their tour manager since 1982, died just after the tour started. Yet still they go on, survivors all, toughness inbuilt.
So, trying to get back on point, we had to go and get our tickets together (security stuff, to try and avoid touting; inflexible but it’s an evolving thing, gig entrance tech) and get our various wristbands affixed. Handed my ticket, I saw that it was £215 – not the 100 he said, nor the 65 I paid. I didn’t say anything but I guess that’s the price of the best side vantage point in the house; before you even think it (that U2 are greedy), the Red Zone ticket money benefits (RED), the AIDS charity. Madonna’s most expensive, to compare, are £300 and, you will already have guessed, do not benefit a charity. I took my place in the little barricaded off section at the side. Last tour, there was a ‘golden circle’ (all big artists do this now: pay more, get to the front ahead of the hoi polloi) but they’ve changed it so fans paying their £65 can get to the front. While entry to the RZ is a touch earlier than GA, so you can go out of your side section and to the centre front if you wish, only a few hundred RZ tickets are sold, which means there’s plenty of room for fans who bought the cheap tickets. All quite nicely arranged, I thought. So I went in and found a seat, of sorts: it was where the security would stand to pull people over the barrier, but also served as a little chair. Minding my own business, reading my Céline book, I was engaged in conversation by three men in their 40s. In a display of irony so acute that their tiny minds would explode if I had suggested it, they started to tease me for reading a book about Céline Dion (i.e. they were at a U2 gig, who nobody thinks are cool). And yet, I bounced up and what did I hurriedly say? That it was not a book entirely about Céline and that I don’t like her music and don't judge me and blah blah. Yes, I felt the need to tell these total strangers that I was not a Dion fan. One of the men called her a bitch, which I thought was a little far. Music criticism aside, she’s never seemed like a bad person: “let them touch those things!” I kind of love her for that slightly unhinged CNN interview where she defends looters. I explained what the book was about and they quietened down; heaven forefend I’d have actually been a Dion fan at a U2 show. At that point they spotted my Montreux Jazz Festival shirt – this seemingly proved that I was a person of taste and worth listening to (we all judge). I bonded with them after that, and it turned out they had rented U2 seven (!) mixing desks for this tour. These were not your average consoles of course, costing £150,000 a pop (no wonder they rented). The show surely cost millions to put on. I then started to look around and realised the levels of hierarchy that surrounded me and the 150 others in the RZ. The real fans, who’d paid that much to get as close as they could, were pressed against the barriers. Everyone else was either rich men (with the stench of banker about them) and their younger girlfriends or people who’d worked on the show. Of the middle category, one couple stood out: both attractive, him about 15 years older than her, and very drunk. She kept bumping into people, all night, with no apology forthcoming. She was of the variety of girls so beautiful, for whom everything in life had gone perfectly, and had never felt a need to be polite or courteous. Imagine what the life of a supermodel-level woman is like… the world belongs to you. It must not even occur to you that other less attractive humans exist. Vapid and rude, she harangued anyone whose face she recognised. This brings me to the most surreal part of the evening.
Each night, during Beautiful Day, the lyrics are changed to say hello to whichever famous friends are in the house. As this is U2, and they know everyone, depending on the city it could be Bill Clinton or Brian Eno. As it happened, on my first night it was indeed Eno (“see the world in green and blue, Brian Eno right in front of you”). Jimmy Page was there too, just for good measure. Slightly to my right was a cordoned off section, fully on view to everyone around it, a foot or so off the ground. I didn’t pay it much mind at first; then it started filling up with faces I knew. There I was, with space to dance and jump around, while Stella McCartney, Chris Martin (and his stunning girlfriend, actress Annabelle Wallis) and, ridiculously, Woody Harrelson did the same embarrassing white-person dancing as me. The Z-list nobodies in my section behaved like drunken assholes. The A-list somebodies were courteous and polite every time they were asked for a selfie. This is something I’ve heard often about Hollywood, incidentally; that the Z-list actors/producers/directors treat people like shit, from the catering guy to the driver, but that Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise and Meryl and everyone at that level are the exact opposite and nobody has a bad word to say about them. In action, I saw it. By the way, Chris Martin took the same amount of pleasure in seeing U2 as me and sang the songs just as loudly as I did.
I’ve realised that part of my love of seeing multiple concerts is centred on the differences. I want to see a show twice or more so I can notice the bits that change; this details obsession translates to every aspect of my life. It’s useful, if a bit of a curse, but that’s the way I’m made. Seeing a second show can give a fuller picture and you might even hear different songs. At this high level, there are three elements to setlist design – which itself is a fine art. Songs that must go in (Streets, Pride, With Or Without You, Mysterious Ways, Bullet The Blue Sky, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Beautiful Day), ones from the new album (seven in my first show, six in the second) and then a changeable, smaller, third set, which is made up of older obscurities or forgotten classics. They’ve got a lot of songs to go round. I got five song changes for the second show, which I was pleased with. On night two of the six, incidentally, they had gotten Patti Smith on to sing People Have The Power, which they come on stage to each night, and then, the night after, Noel Gallagher popped up for Still Haven’t Found… and a heartfelt version of All You Need Is Love. I spotted him last night, chatting to a teenage boy as I made my way down the side, behind the section with the famous people in it, to the back to see the B-stage set. At first, I thought, is that his kid? No, he has a daughter that age, not a son. Then I spotted a gorgeous dark-haired woman standing behind the boy, who I realised was Alison Stewart (Hewson), Bono’s wife, and that the lad was probably their youngest. I should have gone up to Noel and asked him if he knew the City-Sevilla score, which would have been a question he couldn’t have bet on being asked, but the moment passed (we won 3-1!). He was later spotted getting as into it as any other fan would, even one who’s known Bono for 20 years, and then having a little dance with Ali. Lest we forget that, like Morrissey, he’s Mancunian-Irish. Ironically, while witnessing all this I managed to miss a little snippet of Young Americans, of all things, in Mysterious Ways. I did catch a little shot of TOTP Starman on screen during the childhood section though, which is no surprise. Last tour they came on to Space Oddity every night. Ending the show, I was particularly thrilled to hear Bad, which caused a joyous explosion of love in the room, followed inevitably by 40. There wasn’t enough time for all the songs they had to leave out either: New Year’s Day, Running To Stand Still, Zoo Station, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, All I Want Is You, Angel Of Harlem, Sweetest Thing, Stuck In A Moment, Staring At The Sun, Discotheque, Walk On, The Unforgettable Fire, Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own, plenty more…
So in the end, what am I trying to say about love and music and taste? I can only say what a pleasure the pair of nights were and what a grand time I had. Some people will never get past their Bono(Céline)-aversion and give something they think they hate a chance. I hope that one day I’m able to become someone who embraces what makes other people happy. I hear Céline’s back in Vegas…
The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
Out of Control
Vertigo (Do You Remember Rock' N' Roll Radio/God Save the Queen snippets)
I Will Follow (London Calling snippet)
Iris (Hold Me Close) (snippet of David Essex’s Hold Me Close)
Song for Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday (When Johnny Comes Marching Home snippet)
Raised by Wolves
Until the End of the World (Love and Peace or Else & Words snippets)
The Fly (remix, band offstage)
Even Better Than the Real Thing
Mysterious Ways (Burning Down the House snippet)
Every Breaking Wave
(back to main stage)
Bullet the Blue Sky (Ode to Joy & 19 snippets)
Where the Streets Have No Name (California (There Is No End to Love) snippet)
Pride (In the Name of Love)
With or Without You
City of Blinding Lights (Stephen Hawking speech intro)
One (with 'Mother and Child Reunion' intro)
The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
I Will Follow
Iris (Hold Me Close)
Song for Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday (When Johnny Comes Marching Home snippet)
Raised by Wolves
Until the End of the World
The Fly (remix, band offstage)
Even Better Than the Real Thing (Young Americans snippet)
Mysterious Ways (Burning Down the House snippet)
Desire (Love Me Do snippet)
Every Breaking Wave
(back to main stage)
Bullet the Blue Sky
Where the Streets Have No Name
Pride (In the Name of Love)
With or Without You (Yellow snippet)
City of Blinding Lights
Beautiful Day (Live Forever snippet)
Bad (with 'Mother and Child Reunion' intro)
He does test you though. Having ditched Kristeen Young (for the second time) as a support act, he’s extended the video that has been playing before his stage entrance for some years. In my recollection, it used to be about 10 minutes long and took place when the house lights were off. Most people thought it was a short intro film and when they realised it wasn’t boredom and fidgeting set in. At least now he keeps the lights up, so everyone realises they’re going to have to sit/stand through 30 minutes of what goes on inside his mind. And quite the eye-opener it is too. Some of it’s pretty normal, unsurprising: The Ramones, the New York Dolls, Ike and Tina, and, in the past, The Small Faces, Jobriath, Eno, Nico, Francoise Hardy, even Tim Buckley. But interspersed between these music clips you get some outright weird shit. From poetry – Anne Sexton reciting Wanting To Die (cheerful) and an interview with Edith Sitwell – to a grainy 70s clip of Charles Aznavour, a brief interview with novelist James Baldwin, and a bit of prog-metal from System of a Down-adjacent band Mt. Helium (highly uncharacteristic of his taste), immediately followed by a movie clip of flamenco dance pioneer José Greco. Then, just when you think it can’t get weirder, on comes 60s comic Rex Jameson, as his cross-dressing alter ego Mrs Shufflewick. And just before the brief final clip, which is always drag performer Lypsinka, we get an indescribably weird song with Leo Sayer-as-a-clown. It’s all very Morrissey. It’s all very odd. Who else could get away with this? The things you’ll endure for love.
There’s something about seeing a second night played at the same venue. Not that I was sure the setlist would differ significantly, as you can never predict this man’s moods. He could just as easily have played the same songs in the same order as he had the night before. But he’s also capable of surprising me, and to my delight he made extensive changes, which he almost never does, letting go of What She Said (and its snippet of Rubber Ring, which would have been landmark to hear), Yes I Am Blind, two new songs, plus I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris, which I’ve always found dull. I’ve got a list going on Facebook of gigs I’ve seen, and perhaps the nerdiest aspect of it is the Moz song list. Eighty-six different songs played at 16 gigs over nine years and four months. So I’m checking the list now to see how many new songs I got to hear… seven! That is remarkable. The total now sits at 93.
He opened with an acapella line “If I made you feel second best, I'm so sorry I was blind” (from Always On My Mind) then launched into You’ll Be Gone, one of only 10 songwriting credits that had the name Elvis Presley listed (I suspect he didn’t do much writing for any of those). Let’s get the new song statistics out of the way first. That Elvis tune, obviously. Super obscure song Let The Right One Slip In, a B-side leftover from the Your Arsenal sessions (more Ronson production genius), check. Boxers, a one-off single to promote a 1995 tour, shoved on a compilation (World Of Morrissey) shortly after, check. My Dearest Love, B-side of All You Need Is Me (great song), check. Alma Matters, a bad pun and the first single from Maladjusted, which I thought I’d heard before, but hadn’t, check. Oboe Concerto, from the new album, let’s face it a rewritten version of Death Of A Disco Dancer, and almost as good, check. And finally, to push our devotion to critical mass, one of his most beautiful and most Moz-like songs ever, Will Never Marry. It’s mostly swelling strings, not much to sing, but every word is meaningful:
I’m writing this to say
In a gentle way, thank you, but no
I will live my life as I will undoubtedly die, alone
I’m writing this to say
In a gentle way, thank you
I will live my life as I
For whether you stay or you stray an inbuilt guilt catches up with you
And as it comes around to your place at 5 a.m., wakes you up
And it laughs in your face
I feel like I’ve been waiting to hear that song since the second I saw the video, in which he receives heartfelt expressions of love and affection from total strangers. If that is the last new song I ever hear him sing, I can live with that. But I don’t fall for all that drama; I think the tickets under-sold (they were very expensive) and he wanted to drum up some attention. And despite his lengthy list of issues with Bowie, I also think it was a little nod to the last Ziggy show. Without getting into too much detail, it’s fairly obvious that his whole ‘no record label wants me’ tantrum is bullshit. He has been offered countless deals and is known to turn them down because they are ‘360’, meaning that, like everyone else in music who is asked to sign a record contract, a slice of touring is part of the package due to the state of record sales. But since Moz lives in 1973 in his head – obsessed with airplay and chart positions, the quicksand last quarter of his autobiography is devoted to such statistics – he does not (perhaps understandably) want to give anyone a cut of the only way he makes money. So he remains unsigned. Then says nobody is interested in signing him. It’s a classic Moz move. Ever poetic, near the end, like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard asking DeMille for her close-up, he tells the crowd, “our UK days conclude, but there is no need for me to say goodbye because we will all be close for the rest of our days” before launching into the last song of the night: a frenzied version of the ever-powerful and subversive The Queen Is Dead.
In the face of endless criticism for loving Morrissey, what is it exactly that makes me go again and again just so I can look at that square jaw and greying quiff? My gig-going companion saw him before we met at the Livid Festival in Brisbane in October 2002, 10 days no less after I saw Bowie at Hammersmith (that took some Googling!). I remember her telling me someone threw a bra onstage, which he picked up, made a disgusted face and threw back into the audience. Of course he did. He also played Meat Is Murder, bathed in red light, and that was it for her, that light-switches-on moment. I didn’t imagine when she took me to see my first show in 2006 that I’d equal the number of times I saw Bowie. She has a theory about him, which we’ve come to call ‘Morrissey is me’. I can’t do it justice but it’s about his flaws being our flaws. His imperfections and oddness and madness and anger and bitterness and vulnerability and aloneness being reflections of ours. He makes many mistakes and they are our mistakes too. And no matter how many people tell you Morrissey is a prick both online and to your face it only strengthens your adoration. Or something like that, I can’t get it right but I will never tire of hearing it. Why only this week, as I wrote this, another torrent of ridicule and humiliation has come his way, due to the release of his first, and surely last, novel List of the Lost. Nobody is taking any pleasure in reporting that it’s an unedited disaster, an unreadable mess that a renowned publisher like Penguin should hang their heads in shame over putting out in such a state. The reviews I’ve read are by wounded Moz fans who just feel let down by him (not for the first time), from Michael Hann at the Guardian to Medium’s Emily Reynolds; they seem to be in some sort of physical pain from having to report that the book is dreck. They took one for the team and read it so we don’t have to; the consensus is that it makes his Autobiography (which was brilliant until it wasn’t) look like Ulysses. But again, this only somehow strengthens everyone’s devotion. So he’s written an awful book, so what? Love can’t be extinguished by his poor judgement – if it could we’d all have abandoned him years ago.
Of course, he can go too far, even for me. I’m already a vegetarian man, because of you, what more do you want of me? He makes me sit through footage of animal slaughter, the backdrop to Meat Is Murder; usually it doesn’t get to me, but this time it really did. I was quite near the front, maybe 15 or 20 feet back, so I got hooked in for the first minute. To illustrate his point, which you know he feels he must make night after night, he has sought out the worst examples of animal cruelty, factory farming. It’s too much for a lot of people; many look away. Cows imprisoned in tiny cages. Chickens having their beaks sliced off. That kind of thing. But of course, the very worst examples of slaughter practices are the creation of halal and kosher meat, so I’m confronted with the unedifying spectacle of Hebrew and Arabic captions stating that a lot of the footage is taken from Middle Eastern slaughterhouses, which makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. This is a language I have a tattoo in (shalom: peace), below my Morrissey tattoo, and it appears on screen as writhing, distressed animals’ throats are slit and blood pours out as their lives drain away. Stunning animals (so, it’s said, they aren’t conscious as they are slaughtered) is accepted worldwide as the only humane part of this animal losing its life so someone can eat a burger but it is banned in kosher/halal processes, for spurious reasons of course, as is true of most religion-based rulings. Too complex to go into the details (Google ‘shechita’ if you’re interested) but of course it makes for a snuff film that this trapped audience must tolerate. Of course, he goes too far sometimes and in interviews has compared the daily animal slaughter to the Holocaust, which despite my passion for animal welfare I find to be way over the line. Nevertheless, when you must stand and listen (even if you look away from much of the footage, as I did) to sound clips of cows mooing, with those brutal lyrics, which he now embellishes to make the audience feel as bad as possible, well, anyone would come away feeling sick. And that’s what he wants.
Earlier in the show, not to neglect humans, during Ganglord the screen shows extreme footage of police brutality, including murders of innocent, mostly African-American, citizens by power-crazed cops. More snuff films. This is who he is. You walk into his house, where you’re held captive and confronted with the worst of humanity, the worst of human behaviours. And yet, in between songs he makes you laugh hard, he gives you every droplet of sweat from his body, he encourages fans to try to make it onto the stage to touch him, he reaches down and touches as many hands as he can. This is the dissonance that makes us go back again and again.
On the musical side, he’s finally added some nuance and subtlety to his band, who’ve been slogging on behind him for a decade or more, with occasional member changes. Mostly this comes in the form of Colombian-American Gustavo Manzur, who plays keyboards, trumpet, accordion, flamenco guitar, and even steps forward to sing the last half of Speedway in Spanish. He’s genuinely added something new, a Latino flavour which fits perfectly, to the proceedings. He joined in 2009 but his impact has grown year on year, with his influence felt in all corners of World Peace Is None Of Your Business. The new Alain Whyte is finally here.
After Meat Is Murder, which only a heartless person would be untouched by, he creates a calm after the storm as we reach the show’s end. It’s like he’s thanking you for sitting through the red light, torture and feedback by playing one of his sweetest, gentlest, most touching songs, Now My Heart Is Full. It’s the perfect five words. It’s how every fibre of my being feels during one of his concerts. That man gave me life in Hammersmith and will do so again today and the next day. He is me, I am him, and we are all together.
The gig ends in chaos of course, like all of his do. The crowd surges forward to catch his discarded shirt, with the fight for it broken up by exhausted security guards and their scissors long after the lights have come up and the venue is nearly empty. They don’t want to let go. That, I understand. Until the next time.
You'll Be Gone / Let The Right One Slip In / Suedehead / Speedway / Ganglord / Boxers / World Peace Is None Of Your Business / Kiss Me A Lot / Staircase At The University / Alma Matters / Will Never Marry / My Dearest Love / The Bullfighter Dies / The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores / Oboe Concerto / Meat Is Murder / Now My Heart Is Full / Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed / I Will See You In Far-Off Places / Everyday Is Like Sunday // The Queen Is Dead
In 1997, during a visit to London, I saw The Dance, a VH1 concert that Fleetwood Mac had been persuaded into reforming for; Lindsey Buckingham had been out of the band for a decade by then, with the exception of an appearance at, erm, Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball in 1993 (he’d used Don’t Stop as his campaign song). I was instantly smitten by such perfectly formed songs – I also developed quite the crush on Lindsey, I freely admit. More than that, I was utterly entranced by Stevie’s voice and that whole lace-clad ethereal gypsy persona (much copied, stand up Florence, Courtney Love (love this cover), and many more). She threw him some serious shade, as they sang to each other:
And if you don't love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you saying
You would never break the chain.
I’d never seen anything like it, that charged connection between two singers, and his incredible, intuitive guitar playing, without a pick, which was another first for my eyes. I knew very little about them, but learned fast, via the BBC’s brilliant Rock Family Trees documentary series. I may have a tendency toward sonic oddities, but I love, just absolutely love, impeccably sophisticated pop music, which no doubt comes from being raised on Motown and the Beatles/Stones. I never bought into the idea that Fleetwood Mac were bland soft rock. They are not The Eagles. I think that attitude toward them came from post-Peter Green snobbery, based around the opinion that a blues band is more authentic and should be more respected than a band who ditches that style entirely and brings the hippy Californians in so they can become huge-selling. The Fleetwood Mac of the late 60s and early 70s is dramatically different in tone from the Buckingham/Nicks version and I think English blues fans, my parents included, felt they had lost something. To me, they had moved forward, with only the band name remaining the same. Peter Green’s FM are great, but the mid-70s output is what I fell for. I also only recently discovered the album that got the Yanks into the band, the superb Buckingham Nicks, which has never been reissued or remastered on any format since it came out in 1973.
Everyone knows the tales – addiction, rehab, affairs, divorces, rancour, break-ups; they embodied that 70s private jet, separate limos, bowls of coke excess – and to an extent that lived experience is part of the attraction if you see them live. You’re paying to see Stevie and Lindsay, who met in high school and were together for almost a decade, a lifetime ago, give each other the side-eye and bicker. You’re there to witness that attraction between them that will never end. You get the feeling neither is still entirely comfortable with having to spend their professional lives together, playing out songs from their break-up every night on stage, like a lifelong version of The Mousetrap, but they accept they are destined to stand on stage together, holding hands, until someone drops. Neither seems to be easy to get on with either. Lest we forget, in 1987, with a tour for their hugely well received comeback album Tango In The Night already booked, Lindsey airily announced at a band meeting that he had had enough and was leaving. Stevie chased him out of his own house, pinned him to a car bonnet and tried to strangle him. These rock tales are part of the attraction, but there is also clearly genuine affection between them, if a little sadness on her part. By virtue of biology, men get to move on in ways women can’t, inhibited by time. In his 50s Lindsey (now 65) met a blonde woman just over half his age and got married, then had a family; Stevie has said she knew it was finally over when his first child was born. A woman is not afforded that same luxury. Stevie married her best friend’s husband in the early 80s, a few months after losing her (cancer grief makes people do odd things), annulling the marriage a few months later, but she seems not to have had a significant relationship since, aside from one in the 90s with a younger non-famous man. It fell apart because, she said, they couldn’t go anywhere because of her fame. I get the sense she never got over Lindsey, that he is her great lost love. Incidentally, how weird must it be for his wife to see him holding his ex’s hand, singing to her every night? He’s worked through it all – it might be easier when love is found again – and you can tell he’s spent a long time in therapy just from the way he talks about full circles and patterns, that slightly loopy Esalen-style psychobabble. That story, that dynamic, is how you get drawn in, true enough, but if the music was average your attention couldn’t possibly justify the investment. It’s those songs; they are for the ages. I’d walk a million miles to hear their masterpiece Landslide, which has taken on such a poignant ache now the duo are approaching 70….
I took my love and took it down
I climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills
Till the landslide brought me down
Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Well, I've been afraid of changing
'Cause I've built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I'm getting older too
There is also one, very new, X factor in this soapy drama: the return of Christine McVie (the oldest, at 71). If Lindsey’s tenure out of the band had ground them to a halt between 1987 and 1997 (they toured without him after his Tango tantrum but it was half-hearted), Christine’s departure in 1998 didn’t change the band’s plans. They toured without her because they had the momentum, even though it wasn’t the same and led to the loss of many great songs from the setlist (Say You Love Me, Everywhere, Little Lies, Songbird, You Make Loving Fun). She was happy and had retired to the Kent countryside; nobody expected her to return to the band, who, remember, have weathered the departures of Spinal Tap levels of members. Peter Green took too much acid, went mad and left. Jeremy Spencer got plucked off the street in LA by a religious cult and went off down his own path (still touring and making music at least). Danny Kirwan’s alcoholism got him fired. Bob Weston was fired for having an affair with Mick’s wife. And so on. So they are used to moving forward when a member has had their day. But it felt different with Christine. She’s always been the heart of the band, a hugely gifted songwriter and keyboardist, with a flawless voice, and her returned presence alone seems to just knit everything together. Stevie is visibly happier since she returned, following a one-off 2012 appearance at the O2 that last year turned into full un-retirement (she’s older than Bowie. It’s never too late. I’m just saying). Everyone seems thrilled she is back; they’re genuinely having a grand old time doing what they were born to do. The vibe on stage is warm and filled with energy. Mick and John in particularly are quite a pair of old boys, travelling musicians, on the road for nearly 50 years together. It’s what they do, it’s who they are. It’s life, living in hotels, always on the move, the adrenalin ups and managed downs (not with mountains of coke, these days, fortunately).
I’d never seen them live before; I’d been tempted on many occasions in the last decade but somehow never got round to it, perhaps it never felt right. I’m glad now that I didn’t see them without Christine – those five people are special, you can’t replicate that chemistry with just the four. For a while there I thought I might not see them ever, what with John McVie’s cancer diagnosis last year. He was looking a little grey around the gills (he’s 69) and only a few weeks ago talked about how he’s not got much more touring left in him, which is understandable. His musical partner and best friend Mick Fleetwood (68 and behaves like a teenager) is going to tour until he drops dead on stage, of that I am quite certain. His energy levels put us all to shame; he’s a funny, eccentric man who would have fitted in quite nicely to a Bonzo Dog Doo Dah line-up. He once played a fish in Star Trek: TNG you know. Anyway, my excitement level for this gig was sky high, as I’d loved this band for nearly two decades. I think perhaps the moment I realised they were for me back in 1997 was this crazy brilliant solo version of Big Love, where Lindsey plays both rhythm and lead parts at the same time; it’s a remarkable piece of work, I still have no idea how he does it. People don’t play guitar like him anymore, the way he does it, with all the solos and O-faces (seeing Santana next month, mind you, am expecting a two-hour-long solo). I wasn’t certain if they played it live, and given that the version from The Dance is nearly two decades old, I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d chosen to play it a bit safer (with full band, like the original). So, I was utterly thrilled to hear the acoustic version exactly like I remembered it, now that was a serious highlight.
The big tunes kept coming, breathlessly, with the three singles from Tango In The Night – Big Love, Everywhere, Little Lies – getting huge responses. As many fans present were in their 40s and grew up hearing those late 80s singles as remember Rumours from the 70s. The only lengthy interludes, aside from a ridiculous drum solo (is there any other kind?), were a pair of songs back-to-back that saw them play around beautifully outside of their comfort zones as four-minute pop song purveyors. I’m So Afraid had such prog majesty it bordered on Pink Floyd-esque. But my highlight was a dramatic, lengthy, epic version of Gold Dust Woman, with Stevie doing her twirling mystical thing and the band getting a real head of steam on.
Oh, Stevie Nicks (the youngest of the five at 67). As 70s icons go – Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell – she is in their exalted company, easily. Her voice has no high range these days but she’s developed this gorgeous, deep, gravelly, powerful tone that has no trouble at all delivering these songs. She’s just so likeable, too; she exudes a kind of maternal kindness. And to have her girl Chris back in the band, it’s just added so much to the dynamic, musically and personally (interesting section in there about how they both felt unable to have families, like the men did). Stevie, incredibly, was only accepted into the band in the first place because Mick wanted her boyfriend in to play guitar and they were a package deal. They had no idea what they had; what a singer/songwriter she is, well able to write beyond the band too – her 1981 solo album Belladonna is superb (there’s no beating Edge Of Seventeen, a classic, or Leather and Lace, a Don Henley duet). She told a long, entertaining story before Gypsy – she probably tells the same one every night but I don’t care – about how she and Lindsey supported some of the big bands in San Francisco in the late 60s (Hendrix, Santana, Janis, who she is not a million miles away from, a pop version if you like). Her day job, as a waitress, supported them both while they toiled away, waiting to be discovered. There was a clothing store in the Bay Area, called The Velvet Underground (said without irony; how many minds but mine in the O2 wandered to think of the band?), which sold hippy clothes to the local rock stars, like Janis and Grace Slick. Stevie would go in and know she couldn’t afford anything, but dreamed of being able to buy something without looking at the price tag, which she went back and did only a few years later. Like most stories told by people in therapy/recovery she makes it a paean to not giving in, believing in yourself and following your heart/dreams and all that kind of West coast guff. Gypsy’s opening lyric, of course, runs:
So I'm back, to the velvet underground
Back to the floor, that I love
To a room with some lace and paper flowers
Back to the gypsy that I was
To the gypsy... that I was
And it all comes down to you
Well, you know that it does
I enjoyed the story, it was well told, and the song itself has a beautiful simplicity to it, which is not something you could accuse this band of too much. Their Rumours follow-up, the sprawling but not unlistenable double album Tusk, cost over $1m to make and Lindsey was so out of it, and being an unbearable control freak, he thought it sensible to hire a 112-piece marching band for the title track. Fleetwood Mac are why punk had to happen.
Anyway, regardless of their crowded and complex history, and disparate personalities, all given equal front-time, when they are on stage they click into that rhythm that all great bands have, and everything just works like magic. You get exactly what you want, without that predictability ever being a bad thing; this was their 95th gig of the tour and it still felt fresh as gig 1. You sing and do embarrassing white person dancing and everyone is just so happy. What more could anyone ever want from a gig? I hope I get the chance to see them many more times.
You Make Loving Fun
Second Hand News
I Know I'm Not Wrong
Sisters of the Moon
Say You Love Me
Big Love (Lindsey solo)
Never Going Back Again
Over My Head
Gold Dust Woman
I'm So Afraid
Go Your Own Way
Songbird (Christine solo at piano)
Last year, the brilliant Mikal Gilmore wrote a tender, heartfelt piece about Queen that encapsulated what kind of band they were and carefully unravelled the nightmare that saw their end. The subhead was the best summation you could imagine: theatrical, brilliant, excessive and doomed. Of course, they were a million other things too, and there was not only no other band like them, but their leader was… well, what adjectives are left to describe him? I thought of that article this week, in the lead-up to seeing (half of) them live on Sunday January 18th with Adam Lambert, who is going to do a fine job, because he gets it; his American Idol audition was Bohemian Rhapsody.
So why I am writing this? I’m not even certain I want to write anything down for permanence, opening up those old wounds, let alone have anyone read it. I have so many memories and thoughts swirling around my head, some of which are profoundly strange, so I feel uncertain about whether anyone should read this, even if it is a personal catharsis. This band are the most personal to me, more than any other, and their emotional effect is indescribable, more so than Bowie. Perhaps it’s because he’s still here, even if I don’t get to gaze upon that beautiful face in real life anymore. Perhaps it’s because I went through a trauma with them in a way I never have with anyone else. I have never loved a band like I love Queen – that first, teenage, love, right? It never goes away and it is never surpassed. The Beatles and Stones and Zeppelin and The Doors and Dylan and all the rest are the bands of my parents, first. Queen never were. They were mine. My dad doesn’t get it at all. He finds them ludicrous, overblown, preposterous and irritating – he is right on all counts. I learned, recently, that it’s Brian May’s playing that lies at the crux of his allergy, which is a bit of a problem because his sound is Queen as much as the voice. He couldn’t exactly explain what his problem with Brian is, something about wringing the notes out, the very timbre of the sound of his playing is like Marmite to dad, which is funny in a way because he loves old fashioned guitar playing and in July will make me sit through 2 hours of Santana’s scrunchy-faced, over-wrought, endless soloing.
I think (hope) he recognises that Queen have written some great pop/rock songs, but he’s formed in his head a pre-conceived notion that will not change, despite being based only on the ‘famous’ singles they’ve released. If I told him I’d discovered this awesome prog band from the 70s he’d never heard of, and sent him a copy of Queen II with a fake name, he would love it if he thought it was by someone else, for its sheer musicality and inventiveness. The core of their appeal, I think, is that there’s something for everyone. They were wonderfully hit and miss, and god knows there is some real dreck in their catalogue, entire albums with only 2 or 3 good songs. But when they hit it, boy did they hit it. Only Bowie has attempted as many genres, which is probably why he fancied them as a perfect fit for Under Pressure, which let’s face it is a pretty strange record. You know it well, but if you actually listen intently it’s most oddly structured, has no chorus and faintly disturbing and doomy subject matter. They’ve done it all – big pomp rock (what is more ridiculous than We Are The Champions?), massive stadium pop tunes (Radio Ga Ga), vaudeville (Old Fashioned Lover Boy), prog, classical and operatic madness (all in one song, you know which), gorgeous love songs (You’re My Best Friend), novelty records (Bicycle Race), Elvis-pastiche-rockabilly (Crazy Little Thing Called Love), fairly heavy metal (Sheer Heart Attack, Stone Cold Crazy and lots more), even pop funk, Moroder-style, on the not-as-bad-as-you-think Hot Space album (Dancer).
Freddie used to say that they were the most preposterous band that ever lived. I think what sets them apart is sense of humour; a bit like Jethro Tull, and unlike other prog luminaries (yer Genesis, ELP), they knew they were outlandish and it was all rather done with a wink (just give a glance to the video for I Want To Break Free). You may be surprised to hear me say they were prog but for much of the 70s, certainly their first five records, they absolutely were. Every member was a songwriter and had an ear for a great pop song, each contributing plenty to the canon. I forget exactly when I fell for them, but I think it was around the time of The Miracle’s release in mid-1989. I was just starting to get into heavier rock and I Want It All was a big record for me, as was the follow-up single Breakthru (its video is still tremendously fun). I had a friend at the time who loved them and I’m certain she was partly responsible for introducing me to their music. I couldn’t take my eyes off the singer and I fell in love with the brilliant musicians around him instantly – I marvelled at the guitarist’s mastery, ideas and ability to control a song so completely, and of course, I had the biggest crush on the drummer… what a pretty boy he was back in the day. The bassist always seemed out of place, like he’d rather have been a provincial Home Counties chartered surveyor, though he certainly knew his way around the instrument and penned some brilliant songs as well. When he retired from music in 1993 and retreated completely from any kind of contact, except financial, with Roger and Brian, absolutely nobody was surprised.
When they went one man down, on November 24th 1991, they all agreed the band was over – but it just wouldn’t die. After all, what else can touring musicians do? They don’t know how to, nor do they wish to, do anything else. Remember also that they had missed out on the last five years of the band’s touring lifespan and hadn’t played a gig since 1986, at Knebworth. Oh for a DVD of that gig… but having had two shows already filmed in entirety on that tour (Budapest and Wembley) they chose not to film it so it’s lost to the mists of time forever. They wanted to play live again, which is understandable, so in 2005 recruited the very macho, heterosexual, bluesy ex-Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers to front. I thought it was a huge, nay gargantuan, mistake. You don’t have to be gay to sing for Queen (and indeed Freddie himself liked a bit of both in his younger days) but it helps. You have to acknowledge the thoroughly bonkers, camp, heavy and commercial songs and persona that came before you. Doing it straight, no pun intended, was not the right approach. A leaden, lumpen, and worse than anything else, boring set of live shows, and a badly received album, set the band back. I also felt that the We Will Rock You musical, though lucrative and hugely successful, was damaging to the legacy, not least because it’s such a piece of shit. The songs are what they are, and nicely delivered and staged, but my god, you can barely believe the guy who wrote it once did The Young Ones and Blackadder. I suppose, however, it’s kept the band in people’s minds; they are bigger now, it seems, and more sewn into culture than they were during the 18 years (yes, only 18) they were making records.
Another example of poor legacy management, and one which I don’t think much of either, has been to haul out the last demos of songs and work them round, like The Doors did with An American Prayer. Not a lot of quality control going on though when the poor fucker doing the singing is just getting out as many notes as he can until he drops. Last July I did get to stand on the very spot in Montreux he sang his last in (the famous Smoke On The Water casino, now turned into a small but wonderful Queen museum), which was almost unbearably moving. However, I have little desire to listen to bits of songs magically discovered from some old demo (the truly awful There Must Be More To Life Than This, a duet with Michael Jackson, proves beyond doubt that these things should be left on the cutting room floor); let the albums rest as they are. Innuendo was a fine enough swan song, equal parts overdone, heartbreakingly sad, funny, majestic and filler. It was, in fact, when Innuendo, the title track, came out (entering the charts at number 1, which is common now but was almost unheard of in 1991) that I became so devoted. It is an absurd epic, an ambitious and intense six minutes of ageless prog opera (it even includes a flamenco section rendered by Brian and Steve Howe from Yes, it’s that arrogant!) and to this day it makes me walk a little taller when I hear it on the iPod. I bought the album, on cassette, the day it came out. It was shortly after its release when the black clouds started to gather and trouble began to loom, with accompanying whispers and rumours and worries. In early 1991, I was watching the video for Headlong on TOTP when mum came in and told me, for she was as blunt as the day is long, how ill Freddie looked, how gaunt. I was a pretty naïve 14-year-old, quite sheltered, and I said: don’t be daft, he’s fine! What did I know? Absolutely nothing it turned out. I marvel now, and shake my head, just thinking about it because you can see so very crystal clearly exactly the progression of AIDS just from watching the band’s video clips. How could I have not seen it?
He was unlucky enough to have gotten it at a time before the treatments and medications changed the lives of so many millions of people, who are now living long lives with the disease. If he’d contracted HIV even just a few years later he’d probably still be here. It’d be him marrying his handsome Irish partner Jim Hutton, a shy, quiet barber (also now gone, to cancer 5 years ago; if you have the stomach for it, here’s his account of the last days, grab a tissue) instead of Elton and David. It’s possible to make an estimate for when it all began as being somewhere in early 1987, just after he had left Munich (he’d spent several years living there, the city being famous for some of the most bacchanalian gay nightlife in all of Europe) for London. You can see it all, laid bare in the videos he made: the early drugs like AZT could cause bloating, which you can see in 1987 (The Great Pretender), 1988 (the fantastically ridiculous Barcelona) and up to May 1989 (I Want It All). He even grew a bit of a beard to hide the weight gain, which nobody, I don’t suppose, thought was a sign of anything. By Breakthru he is still obviously in very good health but slowly the weight is starting to go. He gets slimmer, slowly, as each video goes by: The Invisible Man, Scandal and The Miracle, by which time he’s certainly looking slender, but still not ill, as such. But, by February 1990, when he made his final public appearance at the Brits, where the band were to receive an honorary award, the truth was naked for all to see. Clean-shaven, dressed in powder blue silk, he looks frail and sick, a completely different human from the master of Live Aid, 4½ years before. And it would get a lot worse.
There had been no video for Innuendo (released in January 1991) and the rumours, among those who knew what they were looking for, began to mount. So the band must have thought, fuck it, let’s just make videos and let history record the truth. The video for Headlong, filmed in late 1990 but released as the third single, concealed nothing but he was still energetic, at least. Then, the monochrome I’m Going Slightly Mad, filmed in February 1991, with Freddie in wig and make-up, also hid nothing (though he was certainly very mobile and expressive). The Show Must Go On, the next single, released in October, had no clip to sell it; Brian’s lyrics are among the most defiantly moving I’ve ever heard, while the vocals were recorded in one take, incredibly. The final video, These Are The Days Of Our Lives (written by Roger, vocalising impending loss and death in the most tender way), was filmed on May 30th, though it was released in December. Finally, there it all was, out there in public – no denying it now. It shows the truth: a man in the last months of his life who can barely stand; it had to be filmed in black and white because the colour rushes were just beyond words, almost impossible to watch. I still find it painful to watch the original video, and when writing this I got in and found the link as fast as I could, choosing not to watch it, because it tends to leave me in tears.
For me, it was a very confusing time, because on some level I think I knew something was wrong (or maybe I really was in complete denial), but I had no knowledge of AIDS; in the very early 90s, most people didn’t know what was really going on, and teenagers certainly had less information and education on these things than most. We had no idea of the entire generations of men being taken in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The tens of thousands in London and San Francisco and New York and countless other cities wasting away in front of their families and friends. The hundreds of funerals friends of mine went to, one after the other, every week. Freddie Mercury was simply one of the 39 million people who have died since the epidemic began. It wasn’t like governments cared: Reagan famously didn’t even say the word AIDS until 1985, by which time thousands were dead. Only gays though, who didn’t vote for him anyway, so it was hardly a surprise that his administration openly laughed at people even asking questions about it as thousands lay dying and in need of medical attention.
The tabloids have pretty much always been filled with craven, judgmental, misogynist, homophobic invective. But what they would find fit to report today is a cakewalk compared to how they treated Freddie Mercury as he had a few months of life left. Instead of going to die in Switzerland, a place he had a beautiful home in, right on the lake in Montreux, he wanted to spend his last days in England, his adopted country. I always saw him as this rather posh, endearingly reserved (very few filmed interviews exist, but in them you can see he was as shy as he could be outlandish), very English bloke, and didn’t know at first he was actually born on a small island (then called Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania) off the coast of Africa and grew up in India, educated in a boarding school (hence the posh accent), before his well-off Gujarati parents fled a revolutionary uprising (to glamourous Feltham, Middlesex) in the early 60s. Mind you, as Zanzibar was an England protectorate he was a British citizen from birth. There was nobody more English in spirit and persona than Freddie.
So, as he wanted to die here, the tabloid press embarked upon a sickening game of hide and seek, as they tried to catch him out, the lying queer, and out him as a sick man, punished by his own promiscuity. To what end? Sales, I suppose, and it became quite the game of cat and mouse as he left home briefly in the early autumn for doctors’ appointments and the like. The final photo caught him on Harley Street less than 2 months before he died – he didn’t leave his house after that. The vernacular they used to sneer and speculate about his health was deeply unpleasant and would never be employed now, even by a piece of shit rag like the Daily Mail. He had no right, it seemed, to live his remaining days in peace. The paparazzi camped outside his Kensington house, where the curtains had to remain drawn for fear of a last, profitable, photo. He had never sought sympathy, and never complained about his lot; he just got on with it. When he told the band, who immediately closed ranks around him, he had said, paraphrasing, “rumours about my health are true but I don’t want to talk about it, I just want to make music until I fucking drop”. That’s what he was like, very matter of fact, unrepentant, and without a shred of self-pity.
Some AIDS activists attacked him for remaining so silent about his illness (and for leaving everything to Mary Austin, his lifelong confidante and partner for six years in the late 60s/early 70s, rather than the man he lived with, who she cut out of all arrangements even as he nursed Freddie to his end; it was a different time, as we say a lot these days) but he didn’t owe anybody the grim details of his health status. The press hounded him to his grave anyway. The Daily Star, and this is the one I really remember, put out a cover a few weeks before his death. It said: “Why are you hiding, Freddie?” The private business of celebrities being in the ‘public interest’ is not a new phenomenon, but that was way over the line. The Sun’s “Tragic face of Freddie Mercury” cover was just another example of his treatment. The same paper, in 1987, had bought a tell-all interview from his assistant Paul Prenter (everyone in the band suspected him as a snake from day one, but Freddie was a trusting type and it broke his heart when Prenter betrayed him; he was paid £32,000 for his betrayal, I hope it was worth it) with the charming headline: “AIDS kills Freddie’s 2 lovers”. He was 45 when he died, which to me seemed ancient at the time. Now it seems like no age at all. To see this virile, masculine, vibrant, tough, resilient, brave, proud man, so full of life, taken down to a bony husk is, to this day, a painful thing to even think about, let alone express out loud, like I’m doing now.
If I sound appalled and ashamed of the tabloid press, I am. He deserved better but there were papers to be sold, and you can’t imagine the virulently homophobic fear-mongering that took place back in those days, with John Hurt’s words on that TV ad terrifying the life out of everybody. I remember the final turn of events like it was yesterday. I was supposed to go and see a Senser gig with my parents on the Saturday night, November 23rd 1991, and for some reason I had started to feel nervous about the news, probably because of the tabloids and their coverage. I was checking Teletext obsessively and up it popped, clear as day: I have AIDS, says Mercury. Even now, in my mind’s eye, I can see the words, in capital letters, on the TV. Frozen in time, in horror, forever.
The rest of the weekend was a blur. I didn’t want to go out, so I just kept reading it over and over. I spent Sunday in shock, watching videos, not knowing what was to come, and so soon. I wondered how long he had left, months maybe? On the Monday morning, November 25th, dad knocked on my bedroom door, came in and sat on the edge of my bed and told me he had died. I refused to go to school and spent the day crying, watching the morning shows and their tributes, my youthful innocence destroyed and turned to ash. Mum bought me the Sun’s commemorative issue. I hadn’t realised the gravity of their treatment of him yet, and I had to read everything. I went to school the day after and this bitch, Laura Edelson (she was quite the entitled cow; her dad was a millionaire businessman and director of Man United), backed me up against a wall by the lockers and laughed at me, remarking that I was stupid because I was upset about a stranger dying. Everyone at school knew I was two things: a City fan and a Queen fan. She didn’t understand how anyone could be upset about losing someone they’d never met. So much for empathy – I hope she’s a nicer person now than the bully she was then. I escaped and found a friend of mine, Louise, who was the only other Queen fan in the school, as far as I knew, and we had a cry together.
I was a fan club member by then, I’d joined at least a year before. Every week the club president, a lovely lady called Jacky Smith, who has been interviewed for Queen documentaries and wrote the band’s official biography, would leave an answerphone message for fans to listen to with the news of the week (oh, the pre-internet days!). I had called the number a few months before and she picked up; we ended up chatting every few weeks for a couple of months after that. I remember so clearly asking her if she thought I would ever see the band live. She said she was sure I would. And I can’t help think of that conversation now, as 24 years later I finally get to see them live, in whatever form. She took time out of her day to comfort a worried teenager, I now think, because she must have known that he didn’t have long left. Though not public knowledge, then, it was, I am certain now, obvious to ‘adults’ exactly what was wrong. I did get to see ¾ of the band live actually at the tribute concert in April 1992, having made a pilgrimage to the fan club offices to get my tickets the day before. That was a special day, one I’ll never forget. There was a great sense of closure, of saying goodbye, and that the whole world was watching and we, Queen fans, must do him proud and sing as loud as we could to make up for the inadequacies of most of the singers attempting to sing his songs. Nobody can ‘be’ him, as that gig proved. A few vodkas, a couple of cigarettes and some vocal exercises was as much as he ever did for a pre-gig regime. There were no half-measures, he was just ready. He was born to do it.
This all cuts so deep with me, reminding me of my own loss of innocence, of that first feeling of losing a stranger and it mattering, and it’s all about to come to a head this weekend. I feel like I’ve waited my whole life for this gig. I know exactly what it’s going to be like. I know exactly how I will feel. The tribute concert was an odd, overwhelming occasion, but it did not, for a second, feel like what a Queen show must have felt like – because it wasn’t trying to be one. It was something else. This show can’t really get close to how it would have been to see them for real, but it’s as much as I will ever get. How different the outcome of this band could have been, but this is how it is now. My only chance is here.
Photograph: Gaelle Beri/Redferns via Getty Images
I was a slightly odd teenager. I know, not a big shock. Fairly sheltered, I didn’t go to friends’ houses nor did they come to mine (they lived too far away, we had no car) and I spent the weekends with my grandparents, and from 1990 onwards just gran, who really raised me as much as my parents did. I didn’t go out partying until I was nearly 17 (which I turned in October 1993); gran would visit London and I’d be left to my own devices in her flat, where adult merriment was had. Before then, in the more innocent late 80s and very early 90s, I’d spend time watching old movies and mountains of music videos. Pop promos were the big thing in those days; they actually mattered to a career and defined bands and their songs. I taped the videos for new singles onto VHS and played them until they wore out and watched the more niche clips on TV shows (like ITV’s Raw Power) that ran well after midnight. I remember staying up late to watch the premieres of Madonna and Michael Jackson videos on Channel 4: a new pop promo was a huge deal in those days and warranted great fanfare. I didn’t have MTV, so I would tape hours of it when I went down to London to visit my aunt and uncle and their little ones. The MTV rock show Headbangers Ball was a fave, I was really into metal in those days. Anything slightly weird and/or outside of the charts caught my eye and ear, functioning alongside the musical education I was receiving from my parents. I haven’t watched MTV in years but I don’t think they put much music on now, and the videos they do put on are simple – pedestrian pop music with ladies in various states of undress. Anyway, one night I was watching 120 Minutes, their flagship alternative/indie show. It was late 1990, I was shortly about to turn 14, and this video came on.
I had never seen anything like it. It looked like what would now pass for an episode of American Horror Story. A band with big backcombed hair (and not in a Motley Crüe kind of way) and plenty of poorly applied foundation and red lipstick (men in make-up had been my thing since childhood; as I said: odd kid). It was a big dark pop tune, with an unusual voice selling it to me. The video told a tale of a carny sideshow. I had never seen anything like it. Last night, I got to hear that song, Never Enough, 24 years after I fell in love with that pop group, The Cure. I got the ticket by chance. With the closure of the essential Scarlet Mist, a face value ticket exchange, which I have benefitted from so very many times, I’ve been on the lookout for a new ticketing marketplace in order to avoid being ripped off by touts if my admittedly famed ticket-getting karma fails me. The most reliable source now is Twickets, an app (no use to me, my phone purposely has no online access) and Twitter feed. For no particular reason I was browsing my feed and a post popped up offering a ticket to see The Cure at the Hammersmith Apollo. Less than a minute had passed and I was the first to reply. I had no time to think, I just did it. Be ready to take your chances, I always say. A lovely Scouse girl had a spare, and was coming down for the show. Several excitable texts later and the ticket was mine. I met a friend at the venue and tried to prepare, for I had been warned by friends, you see, to steel myself. I already knew that they play long shows. I mean, Springsteen long. The night before they’d done a 40-song setlist. Forty songs. Ok, this is not The Grateful Dead, and their 15+ minutes of meandering solos. These are short, sharp, perfect pop songs. But still, that equated to quite the marathon, and I ain’t as young as I used to be, so my standing ticket was going to be a bit of a challenge. Wisely, I suggested we go over to one side, just behind the disabled section (where a fight nearly broke out later, due to a drunken idiot, but that’s another story) and perch by the wall, so we could lean on something. Very smart move, it turned out. For I was to get 40 songs too, and the longest gig I’ve ever seen by a single band (the previous record was Bowie, in the same venue in 2002: 33 songs and 2½ hours or so).
The support act was terrible, though the hardcore at the front seemed to like them. I didn’t realise there were still lead singers who took themselves that seriously. A bit of Ian Curtis crossed with Jim Morrison and the talent and presence of neither. A bit shoegaze-y and a bit goth, you could see why they’d been chosen. Interminable though. I remembered there’s a reason why I usually spend the minutes leading up to the headliner in the pub. They were called And Also The Trees and, as it turns out, having just researched them (they’re The Cure’s pet project, I’m unsurprised to learn), they’re ancient. That makes it worse somehow. A new band being so derivatively naïve you wouldn’t mind, you’d think it was almost sweet. Now I see they’ve been around for 30+ years – get a new act. Please. You don’t do gloomy torch songs well, move on.
The crowd seemed arranged by age: young sweet alt kids at the front; in the middle, the fans in their 20s, out of university and letting their hipster flag and luminescent hair fly. Then, in the good standing spots, the rest of us in our 30s and 40s, being sensible and not wishing to get pushed around. I’ve been each one of those groups; now and then I dip in and turn the clock back but mostly I’m the one near the bar these days, nodding and singing along; mentally, and subconsciously, noting everything. I know as much about The Cure as I do any other band from the 80s and 90s I’ve loved for years, because even though I’m certain they make new albums, I don’t pay attention to them. I’m not sure anyone outside their fanbase does. But I knew they had an august reputation as a live band, because I have a couple of friends who adore them. Strangely, I’m scooping up all the classic bands at the moment, not entirely accidentally or on purpose, and this felt like another one to tick off. See ‘em before they pop off, Leah said to me a couple of years ago, after we saw some ancient pop star I forget the name of. She’s right. It sounds a bit doomy but we’re living in an age where nearly all the great rock stars of the 50s are gone (Fats, Little Richard, Jerry Lee and Chuck are clinging on, that’s it really) and the ones of the 60s and 70s are about to start dropping like flies (the brilliant Joe Cocker left us as I was travelling to this gig). In the next decade we will lose people that… well, let’s just say I’m glad my mother won’t be here to see it. There’s a reason Lou going hit so hard, the great unspeakable truth of it is too much to contemplate... Those parts of your life since youth, those artists and iconic figures – they taught you, you made yourself out of them. They won’t be here forever.
Of course, Robert Smith is 55 and his lifelong bandmate Simon Gallup (as always, a hot tattooed quiffed rockabilly goth) is 54 so I don’t refer to them. I mention it because in 2015 I’ll be seeing a bunch of old geezers do their thing. Queen (and the terrifically entertaining Adam Lambert) in January, a band I’ve waited for a quarter of a century to properly see. The first band I loved. In March, The Who. In June, Fleetwood Mac (waited 18 years for that one). Then, ridiculously, Bette Midler in July (which will be a highly entertaining old school vaudeville throwback). Then Santana, the week after. Of all people! Rock history, right there, dad has persuaded me I must see him. In between all that, yes, I’ll see Tune-Yards and Flying Lotus and FKA Twigs and who knows who else, but I’m going on a 2015 tour of rock history (including two acts who played Woodstock, for goodness sake). So in that spirit, The Cure, as one of the favourite bands of my teen years, found themselves on that bucket list of bands to see.
And I have to say, it was one of the great pop concerts I have ever seen. Most gigs follow patterns, delineated by the material – new, old and/or obscure (deep cuts, B-sides, remember those?). The flow of a concert will be consistent with a new artist (like the aforementioned FKA Twigs, say), as everyone’s there to hear the new album. Someone with a few records under their belt (like Arcade Fire) will play half new/half old setlists, with the temperature hovering around a simmer, going up to a boil for the songs everyone loves. The Cure somehow managed to keep it at a consistent boil throughout with the occasional wild mad energy jump for the biggest hits. Even the songs of theirs I didn’t know, and there were plenty, felt familiar and were a joy to hear.
As a writer, Robert Smith knows well enough how to work incredibly hard and make it look easy. He’s so gifted as a creator of pop music; the songs are just unutterably pleasant to listen to even if they’re strangers to you. You manage to forget exactly how many, for want of a better word, ‘famous’ songs he’s written. With the exception of one of the great 90s pop tunes, Friday, I’m In Love, and Let’s Go To Bed they played everything any gig-goer could have wanted. The show was so compelling, so brilliantly executed, I forgot what hadn’t been played yet and the third and fourth encores were a blizzard of hits that genuinely surprised me. It was a special night. I made a quick exit as they played their last song and that was as the show ticked over to the three hours and ten minutes mark. I had so many moments where my brain went ‘Aw, wow, I forgot about this one!’ Like when they started the gorgeous Pictures Of You. I had simply forgotten it existed, so rapt was I by the performance. Every part of each song was delivered with care: not a note was wasted. Propulsive drumming (Jason Cooper, magnificent, drove the whole show), flawless keyboard parts (Roger O’Donnell, who has been in and out of The Cure for 27 years), Gallup’s winding, sonorous bass played like a lead guitar, and Smith’s voice sounding just like the records, strong and slightly whiny, but charming. No backing vocalists – it was all just him, though I admit I couldn’t hear a word of his between-song mumbling, though I could gather he was content and happy to be there. The chemistry between Smith and Gallup is always such a pleasure to watch, those two old stagers doing their thing for the 38th year in a row.
I also derived some amusement from the guitarist recently drafted in – our old friend Reeves Gabrels (note: their current absent long-term guitarist Porl Thompson is now a trans woman called Pearl, how wonderful). A lifetime, a century, ago (1999) he was fired by Bowie because of his coke habit. He’s obviously sorted his life out and it was quite nice to see him back, looking well, with Doc Brown-esque plug socket hair, and adding a great new sonic palate to another bunch of classic songs. Admittedly, he doesn’t seem stretched (jokes aside, he’s a gifted musician) but he’s a creditable addition, fits in nicely and kept the ridiculous guitar solos to a tolerable minimum. He gets to play legendary pop songs night after night; it’s not a bad job to have. Those songs, those towering songs… they just kept coming. They were judiciously dotted around the first 2 ½ hours of the set like gemstones sparkling at the bottom of a pool. A Night Like This, Lovesong, In Between Days, Just Like Heaven (which has one of my favourite first verses, what great writing), The Walk, A Forest, Three Imaginary Boys, Charlotte Sometimes and on and on.
It felt so good. Like a piece of my teenage years had come to meet me as I push 40 over here. I was obsessed with Lullaby in my youth. I listened to it over and over and transcribed the lyrics (with a pencil!) from the cassette tape, just because I wanted to read them (ah, the pre-internet universe!) The band were as tight as a drum, and it was a pleasure to see musicians enjoying themselves. They set about their task with great determination, stamina and style, for I can’t think of which other artist does shows like this, with such a wide scope of song choice and devotion to their audience. I suppose Springsteen is the closest, as he also plays marathons and plucks out album track obscurities for the delight of the hardcore fans and his own amusement. All pop/rock gigs are ‘a bit of what I want to play/a bit of what you want to hear’ but this one felt different, most likely because of the sheer length of the show. You felt like everyone was on this journey together, through our lives and theirs, and it built and built. People are used to 90-minute shows then schlepping home and worrying about getting up for work in the morning. Everyone just utterly lost themselves at this gig. A few filtered out, as they had trains to catch, but 99% stayed and revelled and hoped it would never end. And those songs, they kept on coming – Lullaby was extraordinary, greeted with such love. Fascination Street. Why Can’t I Be You? The Lovecats, Close To Me (incidentally, haven’t their videos aged incredibly well?!)… And of course, an oddly slowed down, but no less powerful, Boys Don’t Cry. Everything was spent, delivered, given to us. We gave our hearts back.
1. Shake Dog Shake
2. Piggy in the Mirror
3. A Night Like This
5. In Between Days
6. Just Like Heaven
8. The Caterpillar
9. The Walk
10. A Man Inside My Mouth
11. Wailing Wall
12. Three Imaginary Boys
13. Never Enough
14. Wrong Number
15. Birdmad Girl
17. Like Cockatoos
18. From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea
19. Kyoto Song
22. The Hungry Ghost
23. One Hundred Years
24. Give Me It
25. The Top
26. The Empty World
27. Charlotte Sometimes
30. Play for Today
31. A Forest
32. Pictures of You
34. Fascination Street
35. Dressing Up
36. The Lovecats
37. Close to Me
38. Why Can't I Be You?
39. Boys Don't Cry
40. Hey You!
Photo by Burak Cingi (click to see a gallery)
Morrissey must have big balls. Big brass northern balls. I grant you, this is a fairly odd way to start a review. My current slightly loopy demeanour is a result of sleep deprivation. I got home not particularly late after the show but just could not get off the high. I’m finding it increasingly tough to wind down after I get home late, and there’s a sliding scale. If I’m out for dinner I’ll get home early and usually I’m fine. If I’m at a gig and I get home by 11, which is fairly rare, that might be fine too. If I get home from a gig near midnight I might try and stay up for an hour but not go online so it gives me the best chance of dropping off. And then there’s Morrissey. I got home at a reasonable hour, just before midnight, but couldn’t resist spending an hour online, messaging and checking Twitter and watching clips and generally indulging my Moz glow. And it screwed me up for sleeping beyond words. My heart was pounding and wouldn’t slow down. I was humming with vibration. My mind had songs playing in it like a jukebox. Finally, at nearly 5am I passed out. I woke just before 10 and now here I sit, at 10.30, trying to find a way to describe what happened. This shouldn’t be new. I’ve seen Morrissey 14 (I think) times now. I’ve written about him before. And god knows I’ve heard better setlists, at least I think so, but I suppose it depends on your criteria and interest levels in the varying periods of his career. And yet somehow, somehow, somehow I have rarely seen him do a better show and never felt more in love with him than I do at this moment. How did he pull off this magic trick? To play his new album in near-entirety and still have the biggest audience he’s ever attracted in London in the palm of his hand?
I’ve spoken before about how, and this is not to cause offense or make musical comparisons, he has a surrogate Bowie effect on me and my fellow Moz traveller. We never saw Bowie live together and so somehow he has taken on this mythical quality as a performer, someone I speak about in both boastful and grateful tones, recognising how monumentally lucky I was to, as it were, follow him around Europe (and to New York) on the Reality Tour. I’m not comparing him to Morrissey as a performer – they are so very different. But that intangible quality, call it an aura if you like, is something both have a ton of (alright, Bowie has more, for the record). I can be front row, or in the swaying, violent semi-moshpit, or at the side craning my neck, or half way back so he’s nearly a dot, and the same thing will happen every time. You fear he’ll let you down and he doesn’t. And then, when he doesn’t, you think, well of course you wouldn’t let me down, let us down. You would never do that. It’s a complex relationship and it can’t be compared to anything I feel for anyone else now, not even Bowie. I have seen Morrissey deliver songs (never perform; he says: “if you have a true and physical need to sing a song then you are not performing. Performance is forced and artificial, and you are either a singer, or else you are... simply ... a costume”) from every album, band and solo, that he has in his arsenal. But last night he started and then ended with a pair of songs everyone knew, but somehow managed to make everyone embrace the fact that the songs between those four were largely unknown. And we loved him for it. And Twitter, the first place any complainer goes, you best believe it was unanimous in love (I said love L-U-V, as the Dolls go) for him. He played 20 songs (that’s a lot for him, he usually does a few less) and of the 16 in between the opening pairs he started with three from his new record in a row. Then I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris, a thoroughly average song from his last album. Then three more new songs, again in a row – I must confess to thinking that the lyrics are somewhat lacking on both World Peace… in general and on its adolescent title track (it’s the kind of impractical idealistic ‘don’t vote, viva la revolución!’ nonsense you hear from Russell Brand – this is not a compliment). He can do so much better. But just when you think ‘get on with it’ comes the extraordinary obscurity Trouble Loves Me, more of which later. And then, yes, another couple of new songs. At this point I’m amazed that he’s making no concessions to nearly 20,000 people, almost all of whom must be there to hear the hits. It’s nearly Dylan-esque in its contrariness! And what happens next? He goes into the dirge-like raw brutality of Meat Is Murder, a song still so shocking and powerful nearly 30 years after its release that has converted more humans to vegetarianism (myself included) than any other piece of art yet created. He prefaced it with: “I read the other day that 75% of chicken sold in the UK is contaminated, therefore poisonous - and I thought to myself ‘ha ha ha ha!’ (Not entirely true: there is a toxic bacteria in most chicken, true, but it gets destroyed during cooking, so unless you’re eating raw meat… never let the facts get in the way of a good story; as Tony Wilson said: print the legend). He accompanies the song with a video of vivisection, factory farming, caged animal slaughter and torture, which everyone is forced to watch, while bathed in red light, and it makes the entire audience feel sick and disgusted. And we love him for it. It’s a prestige the like of which Houdini would be proud. Also bear in mind that he had commanded the O2 to cease selling any meat products on the night of his show – an unprecedented request to which, incredibly, they agreed. They must have lost money but did it anyway. Incidentally, he’d also previously gotten the Staples Center in LA (where he’s a god, basically, and can sell out arenas with ease mostly due to his rabid Latino fanbase) to do the same. They had already said no to McCartney. These are more useful victories derived from the small amount of power he has than being snooty about the political process, if you ask me.
So then, yes, you guessed it, a trio more of new songs (and oh the irony, my favourite new song, Oboe Concerto, is not played). The main show ends with another wonderfully obscure non-hit, Speedway, the song from which I have taken my lyric tattoo design, and we’re finished. Encore. The end. And people are going absolutely mad. They’re throwing flowers they have brought at the stage. They are throwing themselves at the stage, just trying to touch him. This is normal gig behaviour at his shows and nowhere else in music have I seen it – weeping humans of all shapes and sizes and genders and ages and sexualities simply prostrating their bodies to him to touch and, one imagines, be healed. Each touch of hands provokes a roar. You’re cheering for each human who needs, just needs desperately, to feel his touch because they are you.
The setlist and its 11 new songs are a marvel, a miracle (with I’m Not A Man and Istanbul working particularly well). I’ve heard him perform everything you could imagine, from How Soon Is Now? to This Charming Man. From Death Of A Disco Dancer to Last Of The Famous International Playboys. From There Is A Light That Never Goes Out to Please Please Please (Let Me Get What I Want). From Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me to Panic to Girlfriend In A Coma and so on and so on and so on. This man has 100 songs to spare. He could perform any of his albums in entirety. Until last night I had heard 72 different songs – it’s now 84. And in researching my own Moz history just now I realised I’ve seen him 15, not 14, times (not counting that Roundhouse one where his voice gave out after three songs and the gig was abandoned). I saw Bowie 16 times. He’s getting there. I’ve had to wait two years for this 15th show, mind you. I have to hope he has many more in him. Remarkably, I cannot remember his voice ever sounding this good. He seems to be either dreadfully unlucky or prone to health issues, which he has recently alluded to without properly discussing, and why should he, as his health, like world peace, is none of my business. And yet, he looks great, muscular and determined and ornery as ever. As one might expect, he’s lost none of his tendency to confront, which feels oddly comforting. Without perceived injustice (the charts, record labels, hunting, animal welfare, the Royals, celebrities) who would he even be?
We’d managed to engineer a pretty perfect show day, it must be said. This despite the fact that I’m suffering from a trapped sciatic nerve and can’t stand or walk for more than five minutes at a time. A lovely day in the pub, then a sobering-up dinner and then a spot by the mixing desk. My location on the arena floor was not at all how I planned it. Pre-nerve-injury I was so very up for being front and centre, right in the pit. I was pretty gutted, in all honesty, about having to abandon that plan, having waited two years to see him live again. I held up pretty well in the end, despite having to spend some time crouching on the ground or bent at the waist to stave off the pain. I didn’t care. He was singing to me, he was mine again. My love affair with this Mancunian hero had started eight years ago. I liked him fine before then, I knew what The Smiths meant, but he hadn’t found me as a solo artist. One night – May 1st 2006 – at Alexandra Palace changed all that and since then… god, he gets on my nerves sometimes, with some of the outlandish nonsense he says. But I always forgive him, why? I understand him, through all the madness and militancy and attention seeking and drama.
The show began (following a lengthy set of clips – the Dolls, Nico, drag legend Lypsinka etc.) as an image of a grumpy-looking Queen appeared on the big screen. She was giving the crowd the finger, with both hands. And then, yes, of course he did it: he played The Queen Is Dead, which I had never heard him do before. The lyrics, one of his finest, which I now realise I must put here, are as follows:
Farewell to this land's cheerless marshes
Hemmed in like a boar between arches
Her very Lowness with her head in a sling
I’m truly sorry - but it sounds like a wonderful thing
I said Charles, don't you ever crave
To appear on the front of the Daily Mail
Dressed in your mother’s bridal veil?
And so I checked all the registered historical facts
And I was shocked into shame to discover
How I'm the 18th pale descendant
Of some old queen or other
Oh has the world changed, or have I changed?
Oh has the world changed, or have I changed?
Some 9-year-old tough who peddles drugs
I swear to God, I swear: I never even knew what drugs were
So, I broke into the palace
With a sponge and a rusty spanner
She said: “Eh, I know you, and you cannot sing”
I said: "That’s nothing - you should hear me play piano"
We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry
And talk about precious things
But when you're tied to your mother's apron
No-one talks about castration
We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry
And talk about precious things
Like love and law and poverty
Oh, oh, these are the things that kill me
We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry
And talk about precious things
But the rain that flattens my hair...
Oh, these are the things that kill me
All their lies about make-up and long hair are still there…
Past the pub who saps your body
And the church who’ll snatch your money
The Queen is dead, boys
And it’s so lonely on a limb
Past the pub that wrecks your body
And the church - all it wants is your money
The Queen is dead, boys
And it’s so lonely on a limb
Life is very long, when you're lonely
People have been sent to the Tower, frankly, for less. The crowd roared every word and we jumped and danced and punched the air and the entire O2, filled to the brim, realised we were in the presence of perhaps the greatest living Englishman, certainly the greatest one currently touring! A sweet nostalgia blast, next up, was Suedehead, his first solo single, which was surely the moment post-Smiths breakup where everyone had gone, aha, he doesn’t need Johnny to write great songs. Of course, there are many arguments to be made about the relative quality, similarity and lack of adventurousness in some of his solo output. However, he’s a pop artist and he makes pop songs because that’s the music that mattered to him when he was growing up. The (older) lyrics may be sophisticated but the music is not – and who cares? He’s not avant-garde and nor does he care for it. He likes crooners and pop music and his subversion lies in the words and persona. It is telling that this morning’s reviews make reference to his attacks on the Royal family, the meat industry, the government and his own record label. The Telegraph even makes hay out of his recent health issues, which he hasn’t discussed at all coherently. Talking of Asleep, they went full on: “Dimly lit, face obscured, it felt like he was delivering his own eulogy, made even more poignant by his health problems.” Please. Really? As if any of this were newsworthy somehow – unusual proclamations and events are just par for the course at one of his shows. Rarely do artists say or do anything beyond what is expected of them at a performance, and certainly even fewer challenge their own crowd between songs to think about animal welfare (we sing happily: “Hooray, hooray, the bullfighter dies, and nobody cries”) or the nature of how record labels shaft artists or the love of hunting demonstrated constantly by a bunch of toffs we all pay for. That’s just him. He has said he is only controversial because it’s so easy to be controversial in pop music: nobody ever is. Most of the reviews I’ve read have called the show ‘emotional’ – to which I reply, when is he not? Seeing Morrissey live is always a moving experience, otherwise we wouldn’t do it.
So after Suedehead off we went for an hour of 11 new songs and an animal torture video. But in the middle of it all, as my pain kicked in and I started to flag, out came Trouble Loves Me. From 1997’s fairly forgotten Maladjusted, this one is an epic Bond theme of a record. I’d heard it live once before, the first time I saw him, and I didn’t know it then. But I can pinpoint it as the song that made me fall for him, this Hulmerist, flaws and all. And so we sang and swayed arm in arm and it was overwhelming. So, right now, I am exhausted and starting to feel emotional about the night. I must wrap up. I cannot imagine what life would be like if I didn’t get to be in a room with that man every so often. He has come to mean so much to me. In between the times when I get to see him live I’m challenged by much of what he says – his own sometimes-muddled naïve invective, the abuse for loving him that I receive from acquaintance and stranger alike… I sometimes forget why I like him at all. But seeing him live reminds me, so perfectly, why he’s worth every second of my time. It fills you up, somehow, until the next show. It always feels like a re-acquaintance – never a goodbye.
The two-song encore began with a fairly obscure Smiths B-side, Asleep. It reminded me of an old bedtime rhyme my great-grandma, Rose, used to sing to me when I was little: “show me the way to go home, I’m tired and I want to go to bed…” Maybe his gran sang it to him a few miles (and a couple of decades) away from where my great-gran sang it to me… he stole the second line straight out:
Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
I'm tired and I
I want to go to bed
Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
And then leave me alone
Don't try to wake me in the morning
'Cause I will be gone
Don't feel bad for me
I want you to know
Deep in the cell of my heart
I will feel so glad to go
Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
I don't want to wake up
On my own anymore
You could feel the emotion coursing through the venue. You could hear a pin drop. He won over every person there, with a couple of old songs and a ton of new ones. His first words to the crowd were “I am privileged beyond my wildest dreams.” His last, delivered with a dramatic flourish, as ever, were “Remember me. Forget my fate” (a quote from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas). And then, the last song was with us, the ubiquitous Everyday Is Like Sunday, greeted like an old friend. The lights came up and Klaus Nomi’s aria Death (from Dido’s Lament, also, of course, from Dido and Aeneas) ushered us out into the cold night. People sang his songs as we made our way to the Tube, joined forever by this unique human being.
The Queen Is Dead / Suedehead / Staircase At The University / World Peace Is None Of Your Business / Kiss Me A Lot / I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris / Istanbul / Smiler With Knife / The Bullfighter Dies / Trouble Loves Me / Earth Is The Loneliest Planet / Neal Cassady Drops Dead / Meat Is Murder / Scandinavia / Kick The Bride Down The Aisle / I'm Not A Man / Speedway // Asleep / Everyday Is Like Sunday
Robert Plant, possibly the greatest rock singer of all time, and I go way back. I wish I could remember the exact moment I fell for him, like I can with Bowie, but in the mists of time I can only recall that it happened when he released Manic Nirvana in early 1990. In my evenings, after school, I was listening, on cassette, to New Kids On The Block’s Hangin’ Tough. I was still in the grip of that perfectly normal teen phase, which had started in early 1988, of liking the pretty boys and the pop music designed just for me. However, I was already a fan of more substantial music, due to my parents, by then. I was surely the only 13-year-old who could name 10 Dylan albums, watched Doors VHS tapes every weekend, rented Bowie’s movies obsessively (I had Glass Spider but it was the films that made me swoon) and knew who Robert Johnson was. And yet… and yet, I was in the grip of wanting to be some sort of normal teenager and the boybands had their hooks in. 1990 was the year it all changed. Manic Nirvana was the album that stole me away and set me on a path of seeing gigs that continues to this day. It grabbed hold of my NKOTB and Bros cassettes and threw them away because I was ready to move on.
Up to that point, Plant’s solo albums hadn’t quite registered in the old-fashioned rock world, which seems remarkable when you consider what a respected (and Album Of The Year Grammy-winning) solo performer he is today. Back then, everyone was just waiting around for him to reunite his old band; mind you, looking at the landscape of the questions he is still being asked, following the 2007 O2 reunion, you can see how little things have changed. Every week, it seems, there’s a story about how he’s turned down a truckload of cash to play soulless arenas and I love him a little more each time he talks about how little it interests him and then brushes it off with that West Bromwich charm. The man is just not bothered. He’s got a life to get on with and it doesn’t involve doing what everyone else craves so greatly.
When Manic Nirvana came out people were, frankly, surprised it was any good, as his solo output had been pretty average until then. He’d had a big solo hit with the of-its-time brilliantly awful, and comically named, Big Log (too many jokes to make) in 1983 and a trio of thoroughly average albums followed. In 1988 he released Now and Zen (as a pun connoisseur, that is a shocker) which was notable only for the excellent, and now dated, Heaven Knows, replete with overblown backing vocals and a brilliant solo (in the era of guitar solos) by Jimmy Page, the very same. But still, no cohesive whole album had made a dent. Manic Nirvana, at the time, was deemed to be a very good record, though when you listen now only a handful of tracks stand the test of time. What the album accomplished was to signal the beginning of a new career as a creditable solo artist, finally, a decade after LZ ended in a blaze of Bonzo’s alcoholism. My mum loved the album, so I did too. She must have suggested we go see him live; he was playing the Manchester Apollo that December, a few months after I’d started to wake up out of my boyband stupor (in August 1990 I saw Prince, Bowie and the Stones live in 23 life-changing days). She handed out homework to prepare me – don’t ask me why, but she put the vinyl of LZII into my hands. I can’t imagine why she picked that particular album to tell me to listen to, out of them all, but listen incessantly I did. When we saw him he actually did two songs from it; did she know that Ramble On and Living Loving Maid were coming? Impossible. I remember asking her: “Ma, do you think he’ll play Stairway?” I snort now with the notion. I didn’t know then about the two Plants. I call them pre and post the discovery of irony. (A digression: he’s had the nickname Percy since the 70s and my mum would never tell me why! As an adult, I found out that Percy was a movie starring Hywel Bennett about a man who gets a (huge) penis transplant! A rock magazine had run a pic of him in particularly snug and revealing trousers and captioned it ‘Robert “Percy” Plant’ and it stuck; always makes me smile now to think of it.)
You see, at some point between 1976’s Presence and 1979’s In Through The Out Door, Robert Plant realised he was ridiculous. He realised his band was ridiculous. And that travelling around in a private jet with mountains of coke, groupies, roadies getting favours for passes, endless thugs in security and smashed up hotel rooms were all ridiculous. Hammer Of The Gods and all that. The reasons why he woke up and saw the madness of the clichéd rock life that surrounded him are numerous, most likely derived from a combination of the loss of his son, the after effects of a bad car accident and the arrival of punk. That perfect storm of tragedy and the changing musical landscape had a marked effect on him and you can see it clearly in later LZ footage. The rock god poses struck came to be accompanied by smirks and winks; he’d clearly just become much more self-aware, self-knowing. By the time Zep were on their death knell, though they didn’t know it, at Knebworth in 1979, he was mentally out. He had been a Golden God, with his bare chest stuck out, circulation-cutting jeans and blond locks flowing, as he rescued a maiden from a castle. But he was done. A very smart man, he stopped wanting to play that part long before the hair metal understudies took over. So into the 80s he went, perm resplendent, and tried to escape the weight of being ¼ of a colossus that bestrode the planet. The 80s was a tough time generally for the old guard; Dylan, Bowie, Neil Young and many others all found themselves adrift. Manic Nirvana was the first sign of him finding his feet.
I love Led Zeppelin. Even though I don’t know what a single one of their songs are about (does anyone?) they are without doubt the most powerful and perfect rock band that has ever been. But, like Bowie, Plant had a bit of trouble in the 90s coming to terms with his legacy; he largely refused to play the so-called big songs (LZ released few singles so technically didn’t have many hits). And like Bowie, he got over it. What he does now is really what Dylan should be doing, instead of unintelligible, unrecognisable renditions coming at you via his cat-like nasal delivery (it’s just about charming, but only when you're at the front or in a small venue; seeing Bob in an arena with no screens – he refuses to have them – is frankly a shitty experience). Plant leaves the odd motif in and rewrites some of the song structure, but largely keeps the lyrical melody line intact. It makes for some nice surprises. So a song will begin and it’s familiar but you can’t put your finger on why and then he’ll start singing and this pure rush of joy will spread through the audience when everyone realises it’s Going To California.
As it happens, his new album …Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar is very good indeed, for my money the best solo record he’s ever put out. So I was very much looking forward to hearing it performed live; anything else that came along would simply be a nice little bonus. Having watched his highly enjoyable Glastonbury performance (on telly, am too old for that tent shit now) in July I knew that I was going to get Whole Lotta Love. I was ready for it. A song like that is sewn into the fabric of being English and loving music. It exists like any Beatles song or Satisfaction or Life On Mars or Won’t Get Fooled Again (speaking of, they’re the only big rock band of that era I’ve never seen live: must fix that). So I’ve done ok with gigs, let’s face it. In nearly 300 shows, and counting, I’ve seen the Stones and CSN thrice, Macca twice, Bowie has passed my eyeballs and earholes 16 times, and I’ve even seen Ian Astbury fronting The Doors; a roster of everyone who’s been anyone in popular music of the last 50 years. When I saw Plant in 1990 he performed those two Zep songs but I don’t remember any further ones; history shows the night before in Newcastle he did Immigrant Song and Nobody’s Fault But Mine so it’s very possible I heard four but it was a long time ago. When I saw him at the Freddie Mercury tribute he did Queen songs (he did Innuendo like it was Kashmir (even sneaking in a couplet from that song to make the association clear) and Crazy Little Thing Called Love like the Elvis pastiche it is) and snuck in a little bit of Thank You (said to be Freddie’s favourite Zep song). I saw him again in 2000 in a small club in Manchester but he was on a covers tour, so did no original material at all. I didn’t care: I was on the front row. Last night, well, that was my first time really hearing Zeppelin songs and it was just as monumental, adrenalin-fuelled and emotional as you imagine.
I think my highlight of hearing him delve into that particular part of his history was What Is And What Should Never Be, which blew my mind. His voice is still powerful, strong and all that, but now because it’s lost range there’s much more emotion and nuance to it. He’s using it as a greater, but more careful, instrument than he has before, is learning more about his ability to interpret than ever before, and has certainly been finding new ways to convey his own musical loves. There’s a touch of Ralph Stanley here, a bit of Appalachian folk there, and a big slice of north west African rhythms, which go back a long way. His passion for Moroccan music and culture goes back to the 60s and he he performed at Mali’s Festival in the Desert in 2003. His fascination with Indian music is also well known – his and Page’s 1994 collaboration with Najma Akhtar (replacing the late Sandy Denny) on the Battle of Evermore is a joy to hear. His vocal style of the past couple of decades also undoubtedly owes a lot to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (who Jeff Buckley was famously obsessed with; his #2 obsession after, of course, Zeppelin). Then there’s his background as, frankly, a blues scholar; he knows his stuff and leads his brilliant band around a rip-roaring, heavy version of Bukka White’s Fixin’ To Die. Mention must go to the companions he uses to get the job done: what a fantastic collective they are, the Sensational Space Shifters. Playing a synthesis of African-influenced Celtic bluegrass folk blues, they’re partly made up of members of a former backing band of his, Strange Sensation. Liam Tyson from Britpop legends Cast and world music luminary Justin Adams lead the show on guitars. John Baggott on keyboards, Dave Smith on drums, Billy Fuller on bass and, perhaps the star of the show, Juldeh Camara complete the line-up. From the Gambia, Camara is known as a griot, a storyteller, and plays the riti, a one-stringed fiddle. You would not believe the range of noise and melody he coaxes from this deceptively simple instrument.
Plant acknowledges his past, takes the bits he wants, leaves the rest, and escapes from its weight with ease. I love him so very much for having less than zero interest in schlepping around some shitty arena in the Midwest playing Black Dog for the millionth time. You want to hear him sing a famous old rock tune? Go ahead. He ended the show with a drastically reworked version of Rock And Roll. It’s on his terms, take it or leave it.
He had opened the show with Friends from LZIII and I was knocked off my feet. The crowd, hoary old rock blokes mixed with old school rock chicks and, of course, some hipsters and students, loved every second of it. And by that I mean not just the old stuff but they were clearly familiar with the new album as well, and I find that to be quite something. How many heritage acts (ugh, horrible term, let’s think of something else) are releasing new material that’s resonating with audiences who look forward to hearing it live? Yes, Dylan and Cohen are putting out great albums but nobody (hardcore fans aside) wants to hear them live. They know what they want to hear and it ain’t Tempest. Plant still has priapic charisma to burn as well, and doesn’t mind at all being a bit of a crowd-pleaser. He’s relatable, seems down to earth and has shed his rock god aura. Mostly. There are moments when you do see the flash of it, the flash of former self, and you realise exactly who he is and what stages he has stood upon. And that only makes it all the more remarkable. It would be very easy to crave stadia adulation; frankly, most rock stars on his level do. I just paid £141 for a ticket to see Fleetwood Mac churn out Rumours at the O2: the ticket to see Plant was £43. He’s come from an era where albums were sold, meaning he’s got enough money, and he doesn’t seem to feel that need at all, which is hugely refreshing. He wants to play new songs to 3000 people. He doesn’t want to be a human jukebox for 150 quid a head. He played the Roundhouse 46 years ago, almost exactly. And back there again, there’s nowhere else he’d rather be, singing and banging a bendir drum during the interludes. Except perhaps Molineux on a cold Saturday afternoon.
Spoonful (Howlin’ Wolf)
Turn It Up
Going to California
Embrace Another Fall
What Is and What Should Never Be
No Place to Go (Howlin’ Wolf )
Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You (Anne Bredon)
Fixin' to Die (Bukka White)
I Just Want to Make Love to You (Willie Dixon)/Whole Lotta Love/ Who Do You Love (Bo Diddley)
A Stolen Kiss
Rock and Roll
Who knows who wrote that song of summer
That blackbirds sing at dusk
This is a song of colour
Where sands sing in crimson, red and rust
Then climb into bed and turn to dust
Here I sit. Staring at an unforgiving blank page. It’s so white, it’s so empty. In the past, when I’ve seen a consciousness-altering gig I’ve come here, to trusty old Word, and the text has just flowed. From where, I do not know. It all just tumbles out, and then I leave it alone. I go back later (1-3 hours typically), and rewrite perhaps half of it (and I’m doing that right now, and right now, get your head around that…). And it’s at that point where I’ve largely figured out what I’m trying to say. I’m trying to get the constituent parts to hang together. I’m trying to collate words that illustrate the pictures and sounds in my mind. My retinas have let my brain collect images, stored into my mind bank forever. My ears have let sound slip in and swirl around, resonances which can be recalled forever, like a jukebox inside my head. The next stage, the third draft, and I know this might make me sound crazy, is to read what I’ve written out loud once or even twice, at which point I then rewrite about 10%. Somehow, my own voice, and my own ‘acting’, as it were, of the writing manages to show up the bits that don’t work, that I’m not explaining well, that don’t read well. Because really, it’s my voice that people hear (whether they want to or not!) when they read something I’ve written. People I know, anyway. Strangers can’t hear me but I hope to convey a bit of myself in reviews like this. I will then read it once more aloud to my dad, over the phone, tweak it a little more and finally send it off to the ether. That is the process. Even this paragraph explaining how I write will get rewritten; how meta, how postmodern!
Kate Bush was once asked who her favourite singer was. She said: the blackbird, then the thrush. She is an ordinary, extraordinary human being. Her level of creative control over her career has not come easy; it is something she has insisted upon, and fought for, and been bullied over, and people have tried to take it away from her. In the concert programme, a beautifully printed annual-type book (with some pages that don’t quite open, though you can see inside them, just because), the following exchange describes a meeting with Adrian Noble, the former head of the RSC who co-directs the show:
He was charm personified and was really, really enthusiastic about being involved in the show. He loved the idea of working on something that could integrate contemporary music with theatre.
But would we get on? Still a little nervous of him taking over, we met and I gave him the full blown lecture: “I’ve had to fight all my career to be heard… people always think I’m talking out of my arse… I don’t want you to just walk in and take over.” He sat very politely while I ranted and gave me the look I know so well: “We’ve got a right one ‘ere”.
This is, I think, hugely illuminating. Of course, as the world knows, a man would never have to fight and battle and be sublimated into a passive role in his own music career. But behind that warm, genuine, gentle persona she is a formidable opponent. So here she is, as ever doing what she wants in her own time and offering us all a look inside her head with Before The Dawn. And what lives in there? Birdsong, it turns out. Nature. The calmness of a single day, from dawn to dusk, to moonlight, to dawn again. This is the story of the second half of the concert. We’ve all been pounded and hammered and, frankly, a bit disturbed by the bleak tale of the first half. Battered around the head by more emotions than you’d think possible. The second half is where she attempts to take you by the metaphorical hand into a comedown room, one of those soft chill-out spaces found (when we were all younger) in clubs and festivals. That room where you need to go to breathe, because everything has become too much, you crave human contact and just want a nice cuddle. The sounds are temperate, the surroundings are welcoming, there is nothing to be afraid of, and you get into a corner, in your own space, in your own head, and everything is alright again. That’s what the second half was like. Having Kate Bush be your mum and make everything ok. I didn’t think of this at all last night, the maternal wave that envelopes the second half, but I’m thinking of it now, which is making me think of my own mother. She was so many things, too numerous to even begin to talk about here, but the one thing she was, above everything, was kind. She never thought of herself before me. She was interested and engaged and passionate about everything I did. Though not really, in any way, a traditional Jewish mother type, in her own way she made me the centre of her universe. And that, again, was what the second half felt like: to be spoken to, and have the thoughts in another person’s head directed at you. It was so light and positive and charming and, I keep saying this, warm. She was our mum, and she held us. And above all, throughout the whole night, you got this sense that she is just a good person. She thanked everyone, multiple times; the band, the cast, the audience. It was sincere and genuine. You could feel it, in your heart.
She goes for that same kind of state of human existence in the universe connection that Björk does. That sense of: marvel at the solar system, nature, animals, birds, the earth, the sky, the sun, the moon, it is all here, for you, and in the pinprick millisecond you live on this rotating blue rock it is a miracle that you are alive. You’re only here once, so you take her hand and walk through a single day by her side. Most crucially, though, the second half is really about light. How it gives life and how it wakes birds up to let them sing their songs; and then it goes away at night and the birds go to sleep. Light is what controls nature. The soundtrack to this reverie is the second half of Aerial, my favourite album of hers. The way it was built, block-by-block, going from a lazy morning to the blasted freak out of the title track was an hour I would like to relive every day. A trilogy of its songs were worth the price of admission: the Balearic, flamenco tour de force of Sunset, the driving, spectacular Nocturn and then the sonic frenzy of Aerial itself. It felt like something just for me; many of the reviews have focused on The Ninth Wave. Is that because perhaps 75% of the audience simply don’t know Aerial that well? If this concert series accomplishes anything, it’s that everyone should realise now what a brilliant album it is.
So, as I thought it would be, it was all too much. But ‘too much’ is why we came, it’s what we knew would happen. The second half’s Sky Of Honey, as she calls it, is remarkable. As a musical, visual, auditory, theatrical experience, she has raised the bar beyond what anyone (yes, this includes Bowie) could reach, today, tomorrow, or ever again. She’s set a new level, a new benchmark for how music and visuals can be matched together in a live context. And that’s not bad at all considering that she herself had almost no live context three weeks ago. A solitary, exhausting 1979 tour, some TV appearances, a few one-off-one-song live performances, and that’s your lot. It started thus:
In March of 2013, I said to Bertie, “Shall we do some live shows?” He said, “Yes. Absolutely!” I really wanted to do something different from working on another album and felt a real desire to have contact with the audience that still liked my work.
First, praise that sweet boy, Bertie. His support seems to have made the whole thing possible. For all of her feminine credentials, incidentally, she most often surrounds herself with men as collaborators. From these live musicians to her studio bands to the creative team, the only women present are a couple of backing singers and the hair/make-up/wardrobe team. It’s interesting in itself that she relies so heavily on male energy yet creates music that is so very female; perhaps she brings the feminine side out of her musicians, as there is nothing macho about the intuitive band around her.
During the whole show, nobody looked at their phone, incidentally, and what a pleasure that was. But here’s the thing about the show, aside from all the majesty and creativity and musicianship and theatrics and performance. The thing is this: you’ve never heard this stuff live before because none of these songs have ever been played live before. Not ever! Well, ok, you can watch, if you wish, a couple of performances of Hounds of Love (mimed) and Running Up That Hill but that’s two songs, out of the 26 performed, that have been played before. The unique part, and what sets her apart from anyone else, is that you have no relationship to these tracks outside of their album context. Nobody does. The only songs her fans have a relationship to are the songs played in 1979 – and she plays precisely zero songs from that tour, from her first four albums or, for that matter, from The Sensual World (imagine if she’d done This Woman’s Work… talk about too much!). And that, for a living artist, is unprecedented. I’ve got plenty of albums, hundreds, by people who I’ve never seen live but they’ve all passed on, pining for the fjords, as it goes. Apart from Joni and Tom Waits, that is – sure, they don’t play live now but, like Bowie, they certainly have and live footage is easy to find (of the three, Tom does the odd gig so I live in hope). But even in the cases of artists long gone, if I didn’t see them live, they did of course play concerts (again, an exception: Nick Drake, no live footage of any kind exists) and you can get hold of recordings, easily. With Kate Bush, this is all new territory. Your whole life, you’ve been listening to her music as a recorded document, exactly as she wanted you to hear it, and it is your only source. And now, as if by magic, decades after her career started, she’s standing RIGHT THERE in front of you, singing at you, singing these songs and giving them a new, brand new, brand shiny and new, context. You have never laid eyes on her in person and you may never again. As Caitlin Moran said in her review, it is unquantifiably too much.
I was happy with the way the show was going even before the theatrical part began. It was a perfectly normal, perfectly brilliant rock show. The first half dozen songs were simply, powerfully, emotionally rendered, a little walk around Aerial and Hounds of Love and The Red Shoes. Lily, from that album (gave me a little smile: it’s my gran’s name), opened the show, and was later joined by Top Of The City, from the same record; the delivery on that song knocked me back in my seat. I’ve rarely heard a live vocal sound better. An Aerial track, Joanni, was sandwiched between the opener and a good old-fashioned crowd pleaser, Hounds Of Love itself. I mean, this is not up for argument: that is one of the great pop songs of the last century. As is Running Up That Hill, of course it is, which followed shortly after. What a pleasure, hearing those two songs was. But in that opening six-song salvo, which works as a sort of warm-up for The Ninth Wave, which I’m going to get to shortly, finally, the track that fucking KILLED was Aerial’s King Of the Mountain. I just can’t… there’s just no way… you’ll have to wait to hear it. It built and built (like Aerial’s title track did later on) to this sturm und drang turmoil and the backline core of the band, led by drumming legend Omar Hakim (what a privilege to see this guy play), just completely owned it.
Interlude:: my bootleg has just finished downloading. How nice. This may help with the rest of the review ::
I looked around the venue (recently refurbished and looking lovely, I’m glad to say, no longer the dump it latterly became) after it was all over and considered its history for both Kate Bush and myself. Epiphanies abounded. She sat in a seat not dissimilar to mine a few weeks before her 15th birthday on July 3rd 1973 and saw Bowie’s ‘final’ show there, then sought out his mime teacher (to have such a thing, how very 70s) and took herself forward. (Sidebar: by then she had already written The Man With The Child In His Eyes, when she was 13; she recorded the album version when she was 16). In 1979 her tour ended in Hammersmith. In 2002 I saw Bowie there, and that was a landmark night. I’m not interested particularly in ranking and lists, but I can’t deny that last night was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, or likely ever will see. The love in the room was unlike anything I’ve experienced at a live show. At the end of Aerial, she sprouted a blackbird’s wing and flew away. Of course she did, because it was a remarkable and unforgettable night where anything was possible.
Hounds of Love
Top of the City
Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)
King of the Mountain
The Ninth Wave
Video Interlude - And Dream of Sheep
Waking the Witch
Watching You Without Me
Jig of Life
The Morning Fog
A Sky of Honey
An Architect's Dream
The Painter's Link
Somewhere in Between
Tawny Moon (performed by Albert McIntosh)
A first. This is a first. I’ve never written a preview of a gig before. The closest I’ve ever come was writing the opening two paragraphs of my Poughkeepsie review before I saw the show. Reading now, it’s presumptuous; it predicts being changed (even though I was) by something I hadn’t yet experienced. Is it possible to know that something will change you before you are present? Or is it just something you feel, like a premonition? I’ve never felt pressure to love or hate something based on what other people, friends or strangers, have said. And I don’t feel it this time, but I do seem to instinctively somehow just know that I am about to see something special.
It’s not rare, in any event, to have prior information about a pop concert. When you go to see the Stones you know what songs you’ll get. In fact, when you see most artists – Arcade Fire, Morrissey, McCartney, even Björk – you know what you’re going to hear and see, largely. There are certain songs you know will be played, the performer/s will move and sing in familiar poses and tones and, on a good night for you and them, will reach you in a certain, visceral, emotional way. Surprises may come to meet you, but we go to see pop or rock shows precisely because of those degrees of comfort, nostalgia and familiarity. At jazz concerts, the pieces you know from the albums probably aren’t going to be played note for note (it’s unlikely but can happen), so you’re most likely going to spend your evening in sonic surprise. At classical recitals, improvisation is surely unlikely (I could be wrong, I’m a beginner at classical, at best), so unless you know the music back to front it’ll be a new exploration. But even then, of course, you know how those instruments in those combinations sound, even if some of the specifics are unknown to you. In the case of popular music, if you know the songs as part of your muscle memory, you might hope for something visually arresting to accompany them. Something, anything, as an unexpected flourish of sound or vision makes the eyes sparkle and the synapses fire. However, It’s rare to get everything in combination: songs you know + something you’ve never seen before + the feeling that you’re seeing something unprecedented. This gold dust formula can and should all = a unique night. It might not be the music itself that’s going to be a surprise: you’re excited because you have the sense of being present at an event.
Even allowing for the fact that I’ve seen hundreds of gigs, the mere act of going to a performance of any kind fills me with anticipatory excitement. Whether I’ve seen the artist a dozen times or never before, I have a bit of a sleepless night, as I fantasise about what the show’s going to be like. It’s a bit like going on holiday – having something, whether big or small, to look forward to… isn’t that what makes life worth living?
Having said all of that, even if you (think you) fundamentally know what a concert will contain, once in a blue moon you’ll be confronted with something so completely unexpected that you have no idea how to process it. While this usually happens at the gig, not before it, this is where I am, today, thinking about Kate Bush’s run of concerts in Hammersmith and what on earth it’s going to be like to see, pretty much, the only pop artist (of this size, certainly) who has never established herself as a live performer. The reasons for her absence from the stage are storied and varied and irrelevant to me (as in, none of my business). Did she feel her songs could live only as products of studio creativity that passed through listeners’ ears in private? Was stage fright a factor? What about the understandable trauma at the death of her lighting engineer on her sole outing, 1979’s Tour Of Life? A desire to simply retreat from the burdens placed on her, perhaps, as a female in pop music operating in a sexist industry atmosphere? (We think misogyny lurks around every corner today, and we’re right; but try it in the 1970s for size.) I don’t suppose the reasons matter, though the latter point does bring to mind a recent set of thoughts (and an online exchange) I had about music and femininity.
BBC4 screened a new documentary recently, no doubt made to cash in on these Hammersmith shows. It was very enjoyable and part of it illuminated views on the essentially feminine qualities of her music and persona. This, inevitably, elicited some unpleasantness on Twitter, the world’s toilet wall, and even on friends’ Facebook pages, with one person saying that she (yes she, incredibly) didn’t like female singers – a generalisation that I could barely believe I was reading. Back on Twitter, female creative expression was being roundly scoffed at, in this case in particular as the proponent is attractive but deemed to be strange. During this depressing stream of Tweets, I had a quite brilliant email thread going with my frequent gig companion. Back and forth we went, on the subject of what exactly it is that bothers men so much about women like Kate Bush. And yes, predictably, it was almost entirely men decrying her as a weirdo. They don’t really know what to do with women like her – who appear on the surface demure and slight, but are suspected of being like sirens drawing you onto the rocks; they are suspicious and find it easier to dismiss Bush and her musical contemporaries and descendants as crazy or kooky.
We’ve all grown up with male voices in music, male bands, so where is the coping framework for someone as original as Kate Bush? Oh, the male Bowie, they say, because it’s easier to place her in that box (she stole plenty from him, of course, as he stole plenty from others). Music can be, but does not have to be, gendered. Music made by men isn’t always exclusively masculine, nor does music made by women have to be feminine. And certainly, you don’t have to be female to understand the music made by females. Yet here we are, talking about female musicians and female composers and female singers. When have you ever seen a man be asked what it’s like to be a man navigating his music career? When has a man ever been asked how he juggles his fatherhood with his job? When have you ever seen a man described as bossy, feisty or pushy? These are questions and terms directed exclusively at women and, while we have to tolerate it before we can change it, we are at least starting to talk about it and call it out for the misogynist rhetoric it is.
Music is so much about emotion and how comfortable you are able to feel when a song has that alchemy, that combination of notes that causes your eyes to get wet, in a song like This Woman’s Work. If men don’t feel comfortable with that level of emotion (or her total creative control of her own career) they can dismiss her by calling her kooky, then decry that emotional relationship to music that most people crave and respond to, and push anything that resembles real connection away. She can make that response easy, in some ways, because so much of her music, let’s face it, is pretty odd! A song like Wuthering Heights is so accepted now as a classic pop single. But listen to it, I mean, really listen. It is incredibly bizarre! Everything about it, the lyrics, the arrangement, orchestration and composition, the vocal… even today it seems shocking somehow; now imagine it in the 1978 world of felt-up and frightened girls in BBC dressing rooms and lumpen coked-up Eagles road crew favours.
Freed from the yoke of live performance, and how songs must be rendered with live bands, her music is imbued with this quite incredible, otherworldly quality, and perhaps nobody has embodied or employed the concept of using the studio as a musical instrument quite as well, or as opulently. Albums like The Dreaming and Never For Ever are strange, bewitching, wonderful and even surreal records. Incidentally, and perhaps it’s a combination of a high register and the sheer scale of those recordings, but she performs nothing from her first four albums at these shows.
Consumers of pop music are comfortable with outright sexuality, Rihanna et al., but women who confront, like PJ Harvey and Tori Amos, are ‘scary’ and even marketed as such. Strong men are adored, yet strong women are feared and shut down, worldwide, every day. Even now, in the gushing reviews of Before The Dawn (the title she’s given to this set of shows), she is fitted neatly into the last of the three categories women are allowed to occupy (virgin, whore, mother). This has come to pass because she’s now 56, and not as svelte (another word used only to describe women’s bodies) as she once was. It seems fair game for the nastier sections of the press to call her ‘matronly’ and remark on how much she must have eaten, how she has ‘let herself go’. Some of the tabloid reviews are filled with euphemisms commenting on her weight, which is as predictable as it is depressing and tedious.
So, second only to seeing Bowie live again, this gig next week is a special one. It’s a bucket list chance to see a performer who doesn’t perform. It’s up there with somehow getting to see Joni (who has retired from live performance) and Tom Waits (one show in England a decade ago, and in 1987 before that). In addition, in quite a staggering development, I’m actually going to see her twice, entirely by accident. On the morning of the sale, in the same frenzy as everyone else, I loaded up 22 pages (one for each date) and reloaded them all to the point of insanity, looking for a pair of tickets. I failed. And then, after nearly two hours of trying, I was barely concentrating between the incessant reloading and my own madness when I accidentally clicked on one ticket and a screen telling me I had five minutes to buy it appeared. I panicked. I bought it. Ok, so I had one. But this was no good, and I was a little upset about it. I told Leah and she was, of course, very happy that I had gotten a ticket. But, I didn’t feel good about it, as you’d imagine, and I went back in to try and get another for the same night. Another hour passed and, dejected, I had to admit defeat. I spent the day not talking to anyone – I wasn’t happy that I was going, I know what kind of a night it’s going to be and the idea of her not getting to see it was… well, we never got to see Bowie together, not that I’m trying to make a comparison, but there’s similar dash of magic about the pair of them. However, on the next day I was coming round a little to the idea because I had little choice but to. And then I got a message from my old friend Joe Wakeling. I’d completely forgotten that we’d had a conversation a few days earlier about the shows. He lives in Berlin and had said he was going to try for tickets too. I said, rather airily I recall, as even my ticket karma shouldn’t stretch all the way to Germany, that if he got in to try and get four, as we would happily take those two spares off his hands. You guessed the end of the story, right?
So we got two and I was bouncingly happy. And now I get to go twice! And how perfect it is to go with the very person who actually got me properly into Kate Bush in the first place. I only knew the hits. I thought she was fantastic but I didn’t understand her. I love whole albums, and prefer listening to song cycle concepts rather than singles collections, but I had no place to start. So on a particular day, some years ago, she says, this is the one, this is the album, listen to this and it’ll blow your mind: Aerial. Good lord, AERIAL. Released twelve years after her last album The Red Shoes, 2005’s Aerial is an utterly epic 80-minute double album and, to this day, if people tell me they don’t get Kate Bush I never send them running to singles or even, arguably, to her most complete album, Hounds Of Love. I send them to songs about nature, Pi, summer days, the sky, the sea, birdsong, contentment, childhood, motherhood and her washing machine. It was a revelation to me. I own all of her albums now, and it is still my favourite (not even Rolf can ruin it). However, it seems that Hounds Of Love is recognised as her most realised work – the first half has three big hits, the second half is a concept piece about a woman lost at sea, which she calls The Ninth Wave, as it is partially based on Tennyson’s The Coming Of Arthur:
Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame
That excerpt, printed on yellow-aged paper, lands like confetti on the heads of the audience at these Hammersmith shows during the first half. I know, a spoiler. But they have been, even with warnings, unavoidable. I read with abandon the myriad reviews of the first night. Respected and august journalists wiping tears from their eyes and falling over themselves to claim it the greatest concert spectacle of all. My hope for the show before it began was that some of Aerial would be played, this being the reason I fell for her. My second hope was to hear some of Hounds Of Love, of course. Typically, I’m not a person who cares much about setlists. I have no time for that. I’ve never exited a gig complaining about anything the artist played (ok, once: Primus, they played two hours of B sides and rarities, it was interminable). I’ve also avoided the very few sneaked audio/video clips on You Tube; I’ve seen almost no photos of the stage set, even. Remarkably, in our digital age, 99% of the photos I’ve seen are of fans beaming outside the venue, as people are really letting their phones drop and putting themselves in the moment, incredible in itself! As a result of the reviews, I do know the seemingly unchanging setlist, but my excitement has not been dimmed remotely even though I know she performs the entire hour-long second half of Aerial and virtually all of Hounds Of Love. On Wednesday I’ll go to Hammersmith, fall asleep and wake up in a dream. Caitlin Moran’s Times review describes the show as being simply too much. As it’s subscriber-only, I’ll print some of it here (and I’ll finish with my three favourite reviews):
“Foyer, ticket, seat, waiting, lights down, roaring – a sound of love I have never heard before. Kate Bush walks on stage, a tangle of black hair and a pale face like the Moon, but beaming, like the Moon never did. We expected drama, or fear, or perhaps a ghost, but not someone beatific in a state of simultaneous calm and joy that you see in yogis and lamas, and very old couples holding hands on park benches, still in love.
Bush opens fire on the audience with Hounds of Love, which is like having every emotion you’ve ever experienced in your life all turn up at once, unannounced, as you’re leaving the house at 8am. It’s quantifiably too much. “Take my shoes off/ And THRRRROW them in the lake … Oh, here I go!”
… Interval. Foyer. The darker and deeper neurones have been fired up. Everyone here feels as if they are part of something on-rushing and huge. People touch more, use words that they never usually use in the supermarket queue or, tired, in the bathroom: “euphoric”, “astonishing”, “voltaic” (it means electric).
The second half takes us from the sea to the land and the sky. This is the second half of Aerial, and if we didn’t know what it was about then, we do now. Just: a day. A beautiful day. And how one might go wild trying to pin it down. For, in your younger years, you live for moments – a kiss, a song, the email that changes everything.
But as you move into your thirties and forties, your moment-hunger becomes longer, and you shift your obsession to whole days, instead – vexed with the inability of a photo, or a single song, to capture the amazing ones, the ones that truly grieve you to know you can never live again. Just to have, and keep, a whole day – that is the greatest magic you can imagine. It is all you wish, as you rush towards death. Where can we live but days?
In A Sea of Honey’s long day, nothing particularly remarkable happens, just as nothing really remarkable happens in Ulysses. The sun comes up, and “the sky is filled with birds”, and the Moon rises, and the protagonists swim in the sea, at night. But some people are just more alive than others, all eyes and mouth, and overloading senses – and that’s what Joyce was, and that’s what Kate Bush is. They appear in your life to remind you that to watch a sunrise is to watch a burning star, and that pollen is sperm, and summer is fleeting, and everything on Earth is so unlikely – so improbable – that we might as well live somewhere where Kate Bush can end a concert by turning into a one-winged bird and flying out into the auditorium, as 4,000 people roar for her return.
So what is it that you know, as you stagger out into Hammersmith – rattled, high and newborn again? This: that you have patiently waited 35 years to be reminded that you are alive.”
To write like that, what a gift… so, as she says, it’s all going to be too much. Every emotion happens to you all at once simply because you’re in a room with a person you never thought you’d be in a room with. I’ve read a hundred accounts from attendees on Twitter: to a human, everyone says they wept. These are not only reports from people who went to the first night, when it was utterly new: this is every night. The mornings after each show Twitter is filled with changed, emotional wrecks warning everyone to be prepared; one woman saying today her life has been leading up to the concert. Everyone is meeting their childhood memories face-on all at once. I don’t even have a childhood attachment to her and I don’t feel ready, not even close. But as sure as the days roll into night, Wednesday will come, and I will sit in a venue I saw Bowie in, and I expect it to be just as transformative. In this case, I don’t feel cowed or frightened of what I expect from her. I trust her to deliver, more than I’ve trusted anyone.
perhaps the best review I’ve read, by Simon Price in The Quietus
Alexis Petridis in The Guardian
pop star turned author Tracey Thorn writes brilliantly; worth reading for the subhead alone: “If we still ask, where has Kate Bush been all these years and why has she not done this before, my answer would be that I think she has been living the life that made this show possible.”
1. photo credit John Carder Bush
2. photo credit Ken McKay/Rex Features...
photo by Jason Williamson
During a conversation about a hundred (ok, 5-10) years ago on BowieNet a friend of mine opined on Prince, exclaiming that he was like a walking Black History Month. He absorbed the best bits of those he had loved, watched and learned from. But while his influences were worn openly, he was completely himself. For the guitar, and the hotness which shouldn’t work but somehow does, he took plenty of Hendrix (though a much more conservative version). For the weirdness and sense of innovation he took some George Clinton. For the dictatorial bandleader, to channel the funk that poured out of him, he took so much from Sly Stone. For the overall king of everything, master of all, he stole liberally from James Brown. For the fuck you attitude it was all Miles Davis. And only recently, I realised, for the slices of sweeter soul he nicked a ton from Shuggie Otis. This is Prince. The parts that make him who he is. The people through which he is filtered. Everyone in music has this, the family tree that created them. But few are as blatant as Prince, and few have been so transparent, until I saw Janelle Monáe perform.
This is no bad thing, and I don’t wish to make it appear so. She does have a bit of an authenticity problem, because stealing without filtering and reimagining is just you doing an impersonation of someone else and I don’t think she needs to do that. This was never demonstrated better than during the two ‘tribute’ sections in the show. The second, during the encore, was a little much, a fairly karaoke-ish version of Let’s Go Crazy. It was perhaps only present as a nod because Prince appears briefly on Givin Em What They Love, from her most recent album, last year’s The Electric Lady, hands down my favourite pop record of 2013 (imagine a lost album located between Off The Wall and Lovesexy, you’re nearly there; in a pop-world of single digital downloads, she made a real no-filler long player). It was fine; it wasn’t bad, but the show just didn’t need it. She had half a dozen of her own songs she hadn’t played yet – like the remarkable Victory, which sadly wasn’t played at all. There’s really no need to do covers when you have the songs, though I understood why she felt the need to pay tribute.
Some time before that, and this one hit the sweet spot with me because he was my first childhood music love, she did a perfectly weighted Jackson Five homage (I Want You Back /ABC). If you shut your eyes, it was like listening to a note-perfect teenage Michael Jackson. No kidding, she nailed the shit out of a pair of songs she has obviously been singing all her life. So when I say that Prince synthesises all of his musical loves yet manages to create something wholly original, I don’t think Janelle Monáe is quite there yet. But, and this is the crucial part, because her songwriting is so fantastic and her songs are so incredibly perfect, none of her reliance on being derivative matters.
My best friend and gig-going companion suggested that her robotic persona is misdirection, as since the start she has adopted, Bowie-like, the persona of a character called Cindi Mayweather. Incidentally, she says that she hasn’t yet talked to Bowie but that he’s in her subconscious and they speak ‘on the same frequencies', which is a little bit nutty, a good sign (she also says there’s a time travel machine in Atlanta that both she and OutKast have been through, and I feel like I could believe her). We mused on whether she does the whole I’m-an-android thing because she’s a bit, how to put it, stiff? She can be a little halting in her performance, without the emotional warmth of other R&B divas, but that this is covered by the sheer amount of hard work she gets through onstage, dancing both brilliantly and a bit awkwardly without pause. I was exhausted just watching her. Or does she do it because she wants to put up a big wall and not convey any of the over-personal I’m-really-your-mate nonsense of the Rihannas and the Mileys? I actually love that about her, how little I know about her personally, in this age of over-sharing. I don’t know what she wears when she’s offstage. I don’t know where she lives or what her house looks like. I don’t know whether she drinks or smokes or takes drugs. I don’t know who she sleeps with or who she hangs out with. I know nothing about her at all, except that, somehow fittingly, as she does have a kind of Dorothy innocence, that she’s from Kansas, aka the Land of Oz (incidentally, someone should remake The Wiz: she could play all of the parts). She talks about being an android, though certainly, Data-like, she seems to be trying to be more human. It’s a clever and unique approach.
So for example, the android Janelle has spent years watching Michael Jackson on repeat and has synthesised and then replicated his moves, and the showman inside lets it out; to the delight of the audience she moonwalks several times. Not just Michael either, there was more than a little of Rhythm Nation Janet present in the room as well. How many members of the audience get all of these references? It doesn’t matter. Maybe the kids swooning over her will look something up on You Tube when they get home, find some old clips and see from whence it all came. I must admit, I couldn’t help but smile at the overwhelming amount of James Brown-isms on show: the boxing-style warm-up man, the announcer, reminiscent of Danny Ray, who stirred JB crowds into a frenzy for over 30 years. Then we had the foot-to-foot shuffle and the mic stand being flipped back and forth, which are now third generation moves. I am always reminded of that precocious MJ clip, recorded in July 1968 (a month before his 10th birthday, he’d already been performing on stage for 4 years), covering JB’s I Got The Feelin, for their Motown audition tape. And now she steals from MJ, who stole from JB, so she’s lauding both and those same moves are passed down across 50 years. And finally there was the announcer coming on to put a velvet robe around her shoulders, which she would then throw off, another JB steal. It was utterly shameless and I loved every second of it.
I have rarely heard such perfectly appointed pop music, conveyed so meticulously, both calculated and heartfelt. And she doesn’t have to do what all of the other female artists seem to think they need to do, or are told to do by fat white guys at their record labels. It’s a little sad that this must be stated as news but she doesn’t use sex to sell her music. Shocking! She has a simple but slick visual theme that doesn’t exploit anyone and she sticks to it to the last: enveloped in a big white backdrop, alongside her tight 7-piece band, who are dressed in black and white and play black or white instruments, and her two black and white stripe-clad backing singers, she wears a uniform of black and white – tight white trousers, white shirt, bolero jacket, black braces and with her hair in a high pompadour (this time, a steal from both JB and Little Richard). There’s no short skirts or cleavage or sliding down a pole happening. There are a few instances of crotch thrusting but it comes off in a non-sexual way, somehow (to be fair, it wasn’t exactly arousing when MJ did it either). She’s not Beyoncé, who with the raising of one eyebrow and the slight movement of one thigh can exude sex all day long, but she does have a Beyoncé-like control over her creative output (without, one hopes, the slightly creepy temperature-controlled digital storage facility recording her every move). She seems to be in complete control, without having to expose her flesh, and has surrounded herself with an intelligent, creative team – from her excellent band to OutKast’s Big Boi as producer to collaborators such as Erykah Badu, Solange and Esperanza Spalding, who are, in no coincidence, also powerful women in control of their careers.
But the songs, it’s all about those songs: Dance Apocalyptic, Q.U.E.E.N., Electric Lady, Come Alive and the big hit from the first record, Tightrope. In truth, the encore of Many Moons dragged a little, turning into a 10-minute band introduction song that descended into her lying on stage before being ‘revived’, Frankenstein-style, by bolts of lightning. It probably looked great from the front row, not least when she finished the show with a spot of crowd surfing, but at the back it caused people to start checking their phones. That minor quibble aside, from the second the gig started with her being carried on stage in a straitjacket, after no less than three men in white delivered and polished her black and white striped microphone stand, this was a devastating, energetic, brilliant pitch-perfect performance of flawless pop music in front of a baying, buzzing crowd. It was a thrill to be there.
The Rolling Stones are unreviewable. There is no element of surprise with a live show like theirs: you know what you’re going to get. The only surprise comes from your own muscle memory, how these songs are part of your heart and brain, how you instinctively know every note and word. For me anyway, they trace the line of so much, including my relationship with my mother, who was trying to get me into Mick when she showed me the video for Dancing In The Street. She finally got me in 1990 when we watched the VHS of 25x5 until the tape was worn out. We saw them live on August 25th 1990 at Wembley Stadium – she would always tease me and say ‘you said Keith looked straight at you!’ Hey, I was 13, we were quite near the front, and I coulda sworn he had. They were her favourite band: they were our band. More than her other faves like Miles, Bob or even the Beatles – the Stones belonged to us.
I hadn’t seen them live since we saw them again in Sheffield in 1995 – they’ve toured several times since but I always said ‘they’ve had enough of my money’. When they announced a return to Hyde Park, for the first time since the concert they had played there following the death of Brian Jones, I did raise an eyebrow but it fell on the night of a Bowie party long in the planning. But then, when they announced a show the week after, it felt like I was meant to be there – following in mum’s footsteps, she had attended the 1969 show. When I got lucky with tickets, it was on.
Concert-going, in the pop/rock arena, is split into sections – young artists, who plough their debut albums in small venues; the mid-level bands on albums 3 or 4 doing the same in slightly larger, say Roundhouse-size, places, who throw in well-received tracks from their previous records. There’s your established acts, say aged between 30-45, who are probably big enough to play an arena but prefer a run of gigs at a theatre. The audience care about the new record but the band knows there’s a balance to be found. Then there’s that hideous phrase, the heritage act. With the notable exceptions of Neil Young, Robert Plant, Bruce Springsteen and a few others, new stuff is neither played nor wanted. A nostalgia party takes place. There’s a couple who don’t tour at all, like Bowie and Joni, but that’s rare, most want to fill an arena and relive their glory days. At the older end of even that scale the Stones stand alone – they don’t much care about new material, and neither does anybody else. They wouldn’t, they couldn’t, do a version of The Next Day; adding to the musical canon matters not. It’s about leaving something behind that people can actually see. It’s about the experience of being in their presence. The notion of retirement has always been a stupid question, for a different day. The blues guys they worship went on into their 80s (partly because they were ripped off and had to but that’s yet another issue) and nobody suggests that actors or painters or musicians playing jazz or classical music give it all up when they’re over 60. Pop music is certainly a young person’s game but if you can still deliver, why the fuck shouldn’t you? I watched what was allowed to be televised at Glastonbury the other week. They hit some high spots but honestly, it wasn’t great. However, many bands try and fail at that level, where you’re piloting into someone else’s stage, sound system, technicians, cameras etc. U2 fell a little flat when they headlined too, though to be fair to them that was more to do with torrential rain turning the stage into an ice rink, rendering them static and nervous. I’d seen a few clips of the O2 shows they did at the end of last year, and those were better. As such, at this level, and given the famed level of control Mick loves, when they’re on their own turf everything tends to come together.
Having said that, they are not, and have never been, polished. They don’t churn out perfect Fleetwood Mac style MOR and they don’t play note-perfect recreations a la Pink Floyd. Stay at home and listen to the records, if that’s what you want. They are a bit ramshackle, it could all fall to bits, there’s the odd bum note, but this is a band with Keith Richards in it after all, and he is the musical leader, so that can’t bother you. If it does, you don’t know your Stones history very well. Their shows might not offer the danger of yore, and their (or at least Mick and Charlie’s) approach might be super-professional, but you can still let go and see the sparks between them. They’re breaking this mould – there are no other rock bands who’ve been together for 50 years. Think about that time frame, think about how many generations have come and gone, how many challengers they’ve seen off. They’re not flawless, they’re a little bit dirty and messy, and that’s why I’ve loved them so much for nearly 25 years.
It was a beautiful, blue-skied day, and we sat in the sun for a few hours before the quite enjoyable Jake Bugg came on. He’s pretty great for a teenager. We’d smuggled rum into the venue in the back of our trousers (it’s not my first time) and this turned out to be a wise move. A few bottles of mixers were procured and we were set for the evening, having found a great spot by one of the screens. The pre-show warm-up tape was a bit of blues, as you’d expect, but then on came Milestones, the 1958 classic by Miles Davis. A second later a woman wearing a Star of David walked past me. It might sound like I’m full of shit but I had a little moment where I felt like my mum was right there. The show started with a brief film of the original Hyde Park show, right on time, on the dot of 8.25pm. Start Me Up! Then It’s Only Rock And Roll, and then Tumbling Dice. Big punches, thrown one after the other, they’ve got songs to burn. The energy and noise level started to rise and, despite it being the hottest day of the year, stayed sky high for the next 2 hours. It was a pleasure to hear the languid disco funk of Emotional Rescue, a bit of a surprise (played for the first time ever 2 months ago, this was its first European performance, amazingly), and I couldn’t help but smile as Mick’s perfect falsetto rang out across the grass. It’s a ridiculous song, a daft attempt at being on-trend in the Studio 54 era, but it also feels like an old friend.
The backing players are staples now themselves – bassist Darryl Jones, who has been playing with them for two decades, impressed hugely, and nobody gave a thought to the old Bill. Backing vocalists Lisa Fischer (incredible on Gimme Shelter) and Bernard Edwards, in their 25th year of touring with the band, are beautifully settled and woven in. Chuck Leavell, a Stones veteran of some 31 years, adds boogie-woogie piano that Ian Stewart would have been proud of. And of course, the tough Texan warhorse Bobby Keys has been playing sax with these old boys longer than Ronnie’s been in the band (on and off from 1970-81 but a constant from ’82 onwards). Mick Taylor had been asked to join in June ’69 after Brian was fired and, less than a month later, two days after Brian died, he was making his stage debut. Arguably, he’s the best guitarist that’s ever played with them, and certainly their highest creative points were reached in his years with the band (1969-75). He has been playing with them on this tour and, though I knew it was coming, what a pleasure it was to hear him play on a mindblowing version of my favourite live Stones song Midnight Rambler (pleasingly, he made another bow in Satisfaction, at the end).
Charlie is of course solidity personified, even if you know he’d rather be at Ronnie Scott’s playing some Art Blakey licks. It’s charming that he’s still so thoroughly unimpressed by the machinery of the rock music industry all these years later. He likes to complain about being in this band, but he always answers Keith’s call. Ronnie, however, I was left in no doubt, is the glue that holds it all together. He was always the social glue; he was hired, effectively, to give Keith a companion who’d keep up with him and then hold him back, as and when it was needed. But now, what with Keith’s arthritis, and his attached inability to play quite as solidly, or certainly as consistently, as he once could, it falls to Woody to hold this whole thing together. Keith still leads the band, as ever, but Ronnie circles him, musically and literally, and plays through everything. He is quite brilliant, and clearly, unlike in some previous tours, on the wagon – he couldn’t possibly perform like this if he was drinking.
On July 26th, in just over a week, Michael Philip Jagger will turn 70 years old. I want you to imagine what a normal 70 year old man is like. Perhaps he’ll be still working in a job he hates. He could be retired and filling his days with gardening or reading or going on a cruise perhaps. He might have a bit of middle-aged spread (as goodness knows a lot of the men in the audience did, and felt no compunction about showing off), or even an overflowing beer gut that clothing fails to tame. The once lustrous hair he had has started to thin or even made its escape completely. Then watch Jagger, howling it out, losing himself on harmonica, he never stops moving or working. And so, despite an undeniably wrinkly face, I cannot fail to marvel at what this particular pensioner puts in. He has a nice line in acting, all that mockney ‘Ar ya doin tonight Laandaahn!’ His voice, always a classic rock instrument, is in perfect nick, and just the sheer energy and approach of his performance is staggering. Morrissey always says he ‘appears’; he doesn’t perform. What he means is that he and his emotions are ‘real’ and his singing is from the soul, he’s not putting anything on. Mick is a performer in every sense. It’s so affected as to almost be cartoonish. He has always played this rock frontman character, which is a mile away from the cultured, yet bohemian, mischievous but whip-smart economist that he really is. What he does is a job. It’s a part he plays and my god, he plays it well. He prepares himself like a marathon runner, he trains and, on stage, he works his tiny little arse off. He runs miles and engages and communicates and it is his job to get the audience off, to never let the energy level drop. He’s one of the greatest and I felt lucky to have left it 18 years since I last saw him and for the performance to be better than it was then. Good genes (his dad was a PE teacher and both parents lived well into their 90s), hard bloody work and natural gifts make him what he is. It’s easy to take the piss, but you can’t watch him and be unimpressed. It’s impossible. I won’t go on about the songs because you’ll see the setlist below – it was all a highlight. Mick even found a smock dress to put on, in the same style as the one he wore for the ’69 show. And Ruby Tuesday (pardon my shaky, excited hand), played for the first time on this tour, took me back to 1990; I remember hearing it at Wembley so clearly. There were no low points, there was no filler (even new song Doom and Gloom sounds like classic Stones) and it made me want to see them again and again.
The whole experience was a magical blur and seemed to be over far too quickly. Nobody does this kind of thing better. Their songs are part of the fabric of this country and they have always been cooler and sexier than The Beatles ever were. The Beatles get you in the heart: the Stones aim somewhat lower. I’ve seen McCartney too and it is joyous, but not as passionate or visceral or real as it is watching the Stones. I couldn’t help think how happy mum would have been that I went to see her boys. She saw them in 1964 when she was 13. She took me to see them in 1990 when I was 13. And I saw plenty of kids the same age, whose grandparents are younger than the band, revelling in this extraordinary day, something they’ll be able to tell their grandkids about when we’re all gone. All except Keith of course, obviously. He’ll be around forever.
Start Me Up
It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)
Street Fighting Man
Doom and Gloom
Paint It Black
Honky Tonk Women
You Got the Silver
Jumpin' Jack Flash
Sympathy for the Devil
You Can't Always Get What You Want
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
She has always had that same rumpled charm, since the beginning. I can’t think of any women in her profession who changed the visual aesthetic in popular music so greatly. Before her, you had 60s girl groups, Janis (not beautiful but certainly intending to exude sex), Joni, and of course the Debbie Harry’s of the world, and all that came after. People knew how to treat, and react to, beautiful women in music. They were either taken seriously ‘despite’ their looks or not taken seriously at all. You sang someone else’s songs, like Dusty, with glamour, or you wrote your own, like Joni, and both critics and the public did their best to fit you into a box. I watched an interview with Joni recently where she spoke candidly about the abuse she received in the early 70s for having the temerity, as a 21 year old, to write a song that went ‘I’ve looked at love from both sides now.’ How dare she, at that age, think she knows about such things in such depth? You can’t imagine that happening now. And it certainly didn’t happen to men – nobody had a go at Dylan for writing Masters Of War at 23 even though he’d never been further than New York and Minnesota.
So in 1975, this extraordinary woman appeared. With matted hair, wearing men’s clothes, she sang political songs and was certainly not what was accepted as beautiful. She didn’t play anyone else’s game. She wasn’t gamine or coquettish, she led a band of men, she had a gay boyfriend (Robert Mapplethorpe of course), and she had a song called Rock N Roll Nigger. People must have been horrified. She got called angry, because if women aren’t overly emotional or subservient (think of the women in Mad Men, and how Peggy and Joan are treated for not being obedient) they’re angry don’t you know, and she got called a man, and a hundred worse things. She might have arrived in the 70s but the reaction to her as a woman was very mid-60s. Now, she is accepted without question but back then she was treated as a threat. It was bad enough for Joni, and she was pretty and blonde.
You’d think all of this treatment would make her a bitter person, but that was absolutely not the woman who walked on stage last night. Your audience reflects you, understands you, and she knew it, she was grateful for it. She spent most of the show smiling, between songs, talking about how stupid she is, how she knows that striking poses is what’s expected of her, but can’t stop talking about silly things on stage. And then in the next second she’s talking about the usual protest singer stuff (fuck corporations, governments, capitalism etc), telling us we have to take our freedom, talking of violent protests in Istanbul and Brazil, spelling out P-U-S-S-Y R-I-OT in the style of G-L-O-R-I-A near the end of the show, to roars. She knows how to play the audience, how to create the show in her image, but she is tremendously charismatic, likeable and sincere.
This is a woman who, between the 17 years of 1979’s Wave and 1996’s Gone Again released one album, Dream Of Life, having basically given up her music career in large part to raise her two children. Another move that confounded the male-dominated corners of music theory who had painted her as a lesbian or a feminist, as if those things are all mutually exclusive and motherhood is incompatible with either. Her daughter, Jesse, joined her on stage, to play keyboards for the last third of the set, following bandleader Lenny Kaye’s three-song sojourn into Nuggets territory, with a nicely judged solo cameo, taking in covers by The Music Machine and Count Five . Incidentally, in the pantheon of albums about loss (Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin et al), her record Gone Again must be right up there. The acute concentration of the deaths of her husband, her brother Todd, her keyboardist Richard Sohl and Mapplethorpe was poured into the record, but rather than such pain being simply too hard to listen to, it’s comforting, relatable and empathic. She dedicated Because The Night, an inevitable highlight, to her late husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, ‘the man it was written for’. There were plenty of other tributes too, with songs dedicated to and Johnny Smith and Amy Winehouse, the latter eulogised beautifully in This Is The Girl.
On stage, she is compelling, proselytising, and frankly, shamanistic. You’d follow her anywhere. I have friends in New York who have seen her play live repeatedly, and I never quite understood why until now. Her voice, a deep and powerful instrument, propels these songs of fight and hope to every corner of the venue. I was standing at the back, near the bar, where much conversation was taking place. After a few songs, people started shushing each other, during her between-song chats – something I have never seen in London at a concert. Gradually, the chatter lessened and the crowd stopped thinking about their drink orders or jobs or catching up with friends and focused their complete attention on the stage.
I’ve had a fair few live music experiences in my time. But I can honestly say that a life highlight was seeing the epic Horses/Gloria rendition at this concert. I can barely speak about it, the transformation of how I felt, the elevation, being utterly removed from the space I was standing in to feel transported to completely another place. Not just in the physical sense, where my mind fluttered to CBGBs and how it must have felt to stand in that shithole and hear the song for the first time. But also in the metaphysical sense, of being raised up off the ground. Like I said, only music does that so completely to me. It was an honour to be there, to be so consumed by a song I forgot where I was. The noise level after it was deafening, as she left the stage. The encore started with Banga, her most recent album’s title track and flew into the deceptively poppy People Have The Power. She led us on another treatise on being free, escaping governmental power and, even though you’d think a rich rock star telling us all to protest and find our joy in the world might be annoying or presumptuous or even ridiculous it just wasn’t, none of it was. Even a roomful of white people singing Rock and Roll Nigger didn’t feel bizarre or out of place, such was the power of the performer. The audience members were among the most varied at a rock concert I’d ever seen. There were people who must have jumped the Glasto fence in the 80s, old crusties, hippies, Red Wedge types, mums and dads, tattooed pin-up girls, students, hipsters, old punks, Guardian/Socialist Worker readers, people in suits who’d just left work, the age range going from fresh-eyed teenagers to desperate-to-escape wage slaves to baby boomers. Everyone listened, everyone heard, and everyone believed in the moment that we could all escape and take her advice, that we could be inspired to not put up with the social and economic conditions in which we live. Even if it was just for a moment, so what? It's better to lose yourself in it than to be a cynic, and it’s preferable to allow yourself that humanistic moment of naivety, of idealism.
It was a special night, a special connection, between two bodies of people. ‘You’re my fuckin’ show, thank you so much!’ That rare thing happened, the performer gave to us, we gave back, and the circle was complete.
Ask the Angels
Privilege (Set Me Free)
Break It Up
This Is the Girl
Ain't It Strange
Beneath the Southern Cross
Psychotic Reaction (Count Five cover)
Pissing in a River
Because the Night
People Have the Power
Rock 'n' Roll Nigger
So, to Neil Young, and his inexplicably odd approach to an arena show. At the start of his classic concert movie, 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, there’s a weird play going on, where men in Ewok-style hooded cloaks are constructing the stage and arguing with each other. This time, it was mad scientists, in white coats and big white wigs, all taking place to the soundtrack of A Day In The Life. The same props from that tour were also present – 20-foot microphone, outsized speaker stacks and flight cases and so on. And then suddenly, the entire band were stood on stage, in a row, hands on heart, as a Union Flag unfurled and God Save The Queen (he covered it on his album Americana) played. No fanfare, no big intro, he was just there, all in black, saluting the national anthem. Alright then. On went the fedora, followed by the battered Gibson, and we were off. It’s a beautiful guitar sound he makes, crunchy and precise yet distorted and savage, and the collective muscle memory of this band – Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro (who replaced original guitarist Danny Whitten) – forms a cocoon around him. They’ve played together, on and off, since 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. The first few songs went relatively normally, and then came Walk Like A Giant from his new record Psychedelic Pill.
It’s hard to say what audiences expect when they pay big bucks to see one of the so-called ‘heritage’ acts. But I’m fairly certain it wasn’t a 20-minute dirge, half of which was atonal feedback while pieces of paper blew across the stage. You could feel the collective disappointment that such a big portion of this show was being wasted by self-indulgence (or, if you want to pretend it’s interesting, and not pretentious, you can call it ‘a startling act of agitprop provocation’). However, in a sense, it’s entirely the crowd’s fault if they were disappointed. They should know better. I want you to imagine Mick Jagger as a quite adorable small dog. He jumps up repeatedly at the kitchen table, trying to get your attention, because he wants treats. So you make him perform for you a bit and reward him with love. He’s so keen, and he wants you to love him so desperately. Now think of Neil Young, and imagine a cat that just doesn’t give a fuck. He views you with disdain, accepts your food if you’re lucky, makes you work for affection, and buggers off out of the house if he’s bored with you.
This is the difference between someone who works hard to make you love him and someone who does exactly whatever the hell he wants and if you don’t like it that’s just tough. In a way, I just adore and hugely admire this approach. He plays his own game, and he doesn’t think about the audience at all for large parts of the show. Later on, he says ‘At times tonight, frankly, we sucked; but with what we do, that’s always a possibility’. He’s out there on a limb, and if the audience have come to hear Rockin’ In The Free World (which to be fair he does play sometimes) and half of Harvest, they’re in big trouble. He doesn’t care if there’s 200 or 20,000 people watching. He does what he does, and makes little concession, unlike pretty much all of his contemporaries. It's true that, in the current musical landscape, where getting people to shell out money is getting harder every day, live performance seems to have become more important than ever. So, what are we expecting when we pay for a gig, when the stakes are so high for the performer (though arguably, Neil is plenty rich and doesn’t actually need to do this to earn a living)? The wonderful Low recently played a gig that consisted of one song lasting 27 minutes and I’ll see Patti Smith, who’s had only had one hit record, this week. However, in the latter case, it’s a small venue, so there’s an unspoken agreement that you’re paying for proximity and the artist can do what they like. A normal musician, in the O2, would recognise that there’s 20,000 people present and tailor their setlist accordingly. But not Neil Young, not until a crowd-pleasing encore. In a way it’s maddening, but in another you just have to admire what he does, when faced with demands from a big audience. Almost every single song dribbles to an extended end, finishing with feedback and false endings. It’s almost funny, as you get kinda sorta tricked into applauding because you think it’s the end, only for the song to come back and drone on for another minute. And this from a man who has about 50 extraordinary songs to play you – instead, you sit there listening to walls of feedback for minutes on end. It’s crackers, let’s face it.
It’s not like he’s up there making no effort, he’s completely lost in the moment with his band, huddled together in the centre of the stage. He wrings every note out with utter conviction and passion. But it has its trying moments. I personally don’t get hung up in setlists, and I know enough about Neil to have expected some of the madness that met me, but even I had my patience tested. It’s a high-wire act; sometimes it works, now and then it doesn’t, but you have to appreciate the stubborn approach. After the interminable Walk Like A Giant wall of noise ended, he embarked on a trio of acoustic songs – which were utterly beautiful, and you’re even more baffled, being swung this way and that. First up, Red Sun from 2000’s Silver & Gold, then the gorgeous Comes A Time and then… Blowin’ In The Wind. It sounded beautiful, moving, and better than Bob could ever do it now. A piano-led new song followed (accompanied by another piece of theatrical eccentricity: a young woman, guitar case in hand, wandering about the stage before disappearing) and then it was back to the main show, though I could have stood for a longer acoustic section, such was its beauty. His voice, incredibly, seems untouched by decades of touring and held out its lovely high tone throughout. Then, the energy level rose, with Cinnamon Girl, but dropped on a 15-minute version of Fuckin’ Up – which was mildly funny, getting the crowd to repeat one profane line over and over, but wore thin, again (though it was amusing to see the insipid corporate hell of the O2 subjected to such a venture). My head was spinning, and then came a lovely surprise, a classic track, Mr Soul, by his old band Buffalo Springfield. A song that lasted less than 5 minutes too, how novel. He then fancied a little chat with the audience, which was just so heartfelt and charming, and started with the bit about the band sucking, and took in a whole heap of gratitude, that he understood people had to leave because it was getting late, then particularly thanked parents with little ones for coming and that he hoped they were in bed without a care in the world by now. This was followed by a massive, crunching, monstrous version of Hey Hey My My. This is a song that will be played in 100 years, a song that can never get old. The place roared its approval and then it was over, and people started making their way to the Tube. What a bizarre, brilliant and crazy show.
But then, he bounced back onto the stage, this man of 67, who was hours from death to a brain aneurysm only 8 years ago, and ripped into one of the best encores I’ve ever heard, as people danced in the aisles. First, Like a Hurricane. Second, from one of his best ever albums Tonight’s The Night, Roll Another Number For The Road, and then just one more, as we flew past the 11pm curfew: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, truly one of his best songs, to end the night. It was worth the fine he’ll have to pay (he told his management to get out their calculators). It was baffling and wonderful, maddening and affirming, unexpected and expected. He’s a crazy old bastard, but he does it all exactly how he wants it, with few allowances. How many others can say that? At his first gig in Newcastle, last week, he took on an interloper: "Sing like you mean it?" he rounds on a heckler. "What the fuck would you sing for if you don't mean it?". Exactly.
Love and Only Love
Walk Like a Giant
Hole in the Sky
Comes a Time
Blowin' in the Wind
Singer Without a Song
Hey Hey, My My
Like a Hurricane
Roll Another Number (For the Road)
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
I’m always game for a bit of adventure and a weird night out so off I went to darkest Hackney. The venue, which was cryptically referred to in the email as ‘opposite 212 Victoria Park Road’, turned out to be a former school. Lined up outside were gentlemen in tuxes, and ladies in evening dresses and flapper garb (I was dressed smartly, but no ball gown for me), many of whom were holding bunches of flowers for the lady of the house Josephine Undine (took me ages to realise that Undine is a track from Laura’s new album).
The place was huge, with about 400 people filling every corner. You were taken in in groups to your ‘hotel room’ and, after a few minutes of looking around and rifling in drawers, which were stuffed with dream journals, a slim, pale, vacant-looking lady in a red dress and no shoes came in and danced around a little – was she supposed to be a disturbed guest? A ghost? Shortly after, one of the smartly dressed maids ushered us into a room with a bar, where I partook in a fabulous cocktail (sadly not at 1927 prices) with a couple of people I’d gotten chatting to. It was all tremendous fun, I must say. There were many rooms – a library with typewriters, where people were invited to write their secrets (and add the books they’d brought, which I did); a full dining room with high-end catering; a study with a snooker table, more cocktails and canapés; many rooms with beds and ornate furniture; an attic that housed birds behind netting (I rather wanted to free them); and even a converted classroom with an arts and crafts table to paint portraits, all on three floors of faded glamour, found through winding staircases, and so on. At about 8.30 everyone rushed to the central hallway to see and hear Ms Marling and her guitarist sing an unannounced, and very Natasha Khan-ish, version of Dancing in the Dark (just like they did in olden times). But I must admit, after about 90 minutes of all this I was starting to get a little fidgety and nobody would tell us when, or even if, there was a main event. The place was teeming with tight-lipped chambermaids, bellhops, waiters and socialites – all of whom remained completely in character – so it was with a small amount of relief that a weary middle aged chambermaid (this is no way to make a living for an out-of-work actress) let slip that ‘the Ball starts at 9.30 I believe, don’t be late!’ It was all quite charming but I was ready for a concert. Sure enough, after an odd bit of performance art where an origami bird was handed from one socialite hostess to another in the main hallway, we were soon told that the Ball would begin as soon as we assembled in the ‘Grand Ballroom’.
We were led en masse into the school assembly hall/converted gym (with added chandeliers and red velvet curtains) next door to the main building, where the stage was filled with a double bassist, the gent we’d seen singing briefly before, and a cellist, all in evening dress. It was time for the inventive supporting act to end and the main event to begin.
There was a ripple of excitement as she quietly walked on stage and began to tune up. When I was younger I remember knowing everything about new artists that I liked. I’d read interviews, I’d taped their videos off the telly, and I’d put up their posters. Now, I’m not saying that I hadn’t set eyes on Laura Marling before. But my sum total of visual contact had been one Later… appearance and my personal knowledge totalled one Uncut interview from last month, in which she came off as shy but determined, in control and keen to create a world around herself away from influence – she’s moved to Silver Lake, which is, in essence, the Hoxton/Shoreditch/Dalston of Los Angeles, to find a new path. Moving over there, to sit in a bit of sun, get some space and be unknown, seems to have done her the world of good. New York is intense, and no good if you want to vanish. Los Angeles, if you can afford it, is the perfect place to disappear.
The only thing I really knew about her was that I loved her music. My relationship to this artist was entirely aural. I just listened and listened. When I got her second album, and found out to my horror and envy that she was only a teenager, I thought it was too good to be true, surely a fluke. When she released her third record, at barely 21, I was blown away, because it barely seems possible to have a talent so mature yet precocious. I got her debut, which is lovely, if unpolished, just before her new record, Once I Was An Eagle, came out at the end of May, just after she turned 23. It’s a masterpiece, which is not a word to be used lightly.
So on she walked, this little elfin thing dressed in black, an angelic porcelain-skinned small-town Hampshire girl, descended from the knighted founders of the English Liberal Party. She looked shy yet confident, and thanked us all for coming, hoped we’d enjoyed the unusual evening thus far. And then she proceeded to play 70 minutes of some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard. She played the new album in entirety; the first section was 15 minutes without pause, melding the first four songs into one long piece, after which the band left the stage, leaving her alone. I was almost open-mouthed, being confronted by the beautiful complexity of these songs, whose lyrics I was really hearing for the first time. I listen to music when I work and, because of my focus on the written word, I often tune out lyrics. So I knew she was able to write incredible songs, breathing new life into the hugely overdone genre of the acoustic singer-songwriter. But her lyrics, diction, expression, voice and tone control: what a revelation.
Many of the songs are about an ended relationship, and it seems ridiculous to think that a 22-year-old has the emotional depth to be able to express so completely her feelings about what happened, what went wrong, but she can, she did. The best singer-songwriters are the ones who are relatable, either because you’re lonely, or in love, or they have a worldview that’s worth listening to and so on. Sometimes the songs go by the wayside, because the lyrics are the attraction, and sometimes the opposite happens. Very rarely do you get a satisfying marriage of both. In such relationship songs, the protagonist may apportion blame, and may lash out angrily, but in Laura Marling’s case she manages to walk a perfect line between vitriol and disappointment. The partner of which she speaks does not come off well, in these songs. You get the sense that she feels let down, but also that he just wasn’t on her level, which should come off as dismissive but doesn’t. She parses and expresses her feelings about the natural end of relationships, when you’ve moved forward and he hasn’t, and has no qualms about admitting to moving on, in hope of finding the right equal. She seems to already know in her early 20s what most people only realise in their 30s about adulthood and starting to become the person you want to be. It does speak of being young, and thinking you know it all, like we all did at that age. But it rings true, and such maturity beyond what you’d expect is quite something to witness someone going through, so publicly, so nakedly.
She commands the room, her beautiful, expressive voice weaving around immaculate guitar playing. For nearly an hour she held a crowd of women in painful high heels, men in stifling tuxedos, everyone a few glasses of wine down the line, in rapt attention. She is the closest thing to Joni Mitchell I have ever seen, and I’ve never thought that about any songwriter. Her fourth album was Blue, and while I don’t think many albums are on that level, Once I Was An Eagle is certainly as good as Ladies Of The Canyon or For The Roses. Joni’s love songs were heartbreakingly sad and transparent, which allowed you to feel warmth for her predicament, but Laura’s versions are a little tougher, a little more sonically slight but thematically strident. She hides behind a shy awkwardness on stage, because the songs certainly don’t ask for permission. She slips into and out of character, leaving you unsure as to how much of the confessional is true. The progression from the wallflower of album 1 to the confident artist on album 4 is stark and staggering. This delicate girl has everything; I thought, as I watched her, that I could see her in her 30s, 40s, 50s, just getting better with each record. I’ve seen a million of these types, the earnest acoustic troubadour, but, frankly, only the old ones (barring Elliott Smith and a few others) are worth a damn. This one, I can’t believe I get to join her at the beginning of the journey.
The problem with employing gimmicks in live concert performance is that you can come to a point where they’re expected and can somewhat take over. This was the situation found in Camden last night. True, the Flaming Lips have plenty that are quite endearing. The introductory lecture, where Wayne Coyne ambles on stage without fanfare to cheers, comes before the show starts, which is supposed to set ‘I’m the rock star but I’m not making a big entrance, look, it’s me, tuning my own instruments!’ against a backdrop of ‘I’m just like you, and vice versa, so let’s have a chat before we play anything’. It immediately puts the artist and the audience on an equal footing, being talked to so directly, as is Wayne’s way. I find it rather charming. But then, once the music starts, I just want to hear it. Never has the phrase ‘would you just get on with it and play something’ been said telepathically by so many people in the same room before.
The gig the night before had been postponed, due to his croaky throat, for which one must make allowances, though I’ve always thought that gruffness in the delivery was part of the attraction. I’ve seen the Lips twice before: once in the Troxy Ballroom, a tiny art deco bingo hall, and again at Alexandra Palace, a cavernous near-arena with many thousands of people. On both of those occasions, Wayne and the rest (the musical driving force, the amazing Steven Drozd, and the insanely brilliant drummer Kliph Scurlock) showed a keen sense of how to raise an audience up and keep them high, figuratively, and in some cases literally, given the pot smoke that permeates all Lips gigs. But it wasn’t clear what the purpose of this show was. It’s near the beginning of the tour for their new record, The Terror, and so these songs are at the beginning of their lives.
I’m now just making excuses – the new material (when they finally got to it) sounded powerful, the band is fantastic, but the visuals have come to overshadow the music. This would be fine if songs came at you, consistently, and you could take yourself away on the air of it all. But the first 2/3 of this show was just plain terrible. It got going, then it stopped, a song was played at glacial pace, and then, even worse, in between every single song was a rambling tribute to the restorative and evangelical power of music. Look, this guy ain’t no Springsteen. He isn’t even Bono. I like a bit of onstage banter, but not to the point where it sucks the energy out of the room. It’s self-indulgent. People really have come to hear music. Not a lecture. The opening pre-gig speech, which usually takes the form of a ‘health and safety’ briefing, was jettisoned for a more serious subject. The recent tornado in Oklahoma, their home, was occupying their thoughts. People listened reverently to his heartfelt monologue about the desire to create something special out of something as unimportant as a rock show, compared to such tragedy. That was fine, of course it was. But, later on, once the gig had begun, must we really hear several minutes of pontificating before each song on the nature of ‘people who want to tell us how to live’? It was tedious. And then, came Race for the Prize. It started with a tease, or so I thought. Keyboards filled the room, he sang the first line, and everyone went mad. This gig was about to take off.
Then, he sang the entire first verse, like a ballad, then the chorus, and then the second verse, and the chorus again. It's a great song, but nobody was permitted to sing with him, it just wasn’t possible. Everyone was fidgety – when was this actually going to kick in? Both previous times I’d seen them live they’d started with it and the place bounced. After he had sang the song’s contents, and several minutes (that is a long time when you’re waiting for something) had passed, the full band kicked in and everyone was thrilled. They played two rounds of the pre-first verse music… and then it ended. What the fuck? I mean, if you’re Prince, and you have 30 hits, you can afford to throw away a few on a medley or a new arrangement. If you have 5 famous songs, tossing one off is utterly unforgivable.
And then, just at the point where I was feeling embarrassed that my cousin was with me, our first gig experience together, he says ‘This is a David Bowie song’ and my heart did a little jump. Heroes, it was. Someone should play it live! The crowd grabbed onto it like thirsty travellers in a desert coming across a waterfall. It kicked off properly, and it was wonderful. It soared. From then, the pace picked up and the between song chats lessened. It was disappointing that it had taken an hour for this gig to get off the ground. All We Have Is Now from Yoshimi was stunning, Riding to Work in the Year 2025 from Zaireeka was awesome and Do You Realize?? was beautiful, a mass sing-along (though I felt relieved at its brevity, as when they’d played it at Ally Pally it took an eternity to end; it was trapped in an endless, dreary Hey Jude-esque repetition of the chorus that went on for what seemed like hours). Finally, the connection between band and audience felt restored. Wayne, who has taken to standing on a plinth 20 feet high, and cradling a plastic baby, looked emotional and touched by the response. He should have realised earlier that we want to connect with him too. It’s not just one way. He talked at us about life and music and we cheered. But we needed a chance to feed back.
We know the Lips need an editor, though I do admire their conviction in simply putting out the sounds that feel good to them rather than thinking the conventional ‘we must put out The Soft Bulletin #2’. The gig ended on a nice high, though without Yoshimi or Fight Test. Throughout, it was a feast for the eyeballs, with a stage-wide LED screen, tendrils of vertical cables with white light rushing up them, and two songs with raining confetti. But this is the problem with gimmicks. They’ve paid so much attention to the visuals they forgot the crowd came to hear music as well. If you’re going to try out your new record do it in a tiny club. The Roundhouse holds thousands (and is considerably bigger than the Troxy, where they put on a fantastic show) and didn’t deserve to be treated like a testing ground. You’d think from his position atop the pedestal he’d have seen the audience, standing like statues, waiting for something joyful to happen. But then again, he literally put himself on it, and that’s a metaphor that says far too much about Wayne Coyne’s level of self-worship. He is never happier than when he’s hearing the sound of his own speaking voice, giving us all a lesson in ‘how to stick it to The Man’. I don’t mind at all the lack of the animal costumes and the absence of the famed big inflatable ball. But I do mind that a person who constantly cries out to be connected, who tells the audience what amazing people we are, and how we can all achieve something if we do it together, showed no ability to actually plug into what his audience wanted.
Heroes brought the whole place together and I couldn’t help think of what mythical Beatles-level adoration there is now for Bowie. It was the best moment of the night, for everyone. The Flaming Lips don’t have a song as good as that in their arsenal, but they do have several that can form an unbreakable bond between band and audience. The new album bargain is to be clever about your setlist, but also put in your best tunes, and play them properly. Next time, I hope they realise that’s what people were crying out for.
Look...The Sun Is Rising
Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast
Silver Trembling Hands
Try to Explain
Race for the Prize
Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die
One More Robot
Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)
Do You Realize??
All We Have Is Now
Always There, In Our Hearts
Led Zeppelin never did get a proper send-off. I suppose there’s Knebworth ’79 , with a bloated, but still brilliant, John Bonham behind the kit. That was his last stand, certainly. But by then Plant had grown up, discovered irony and started to parody his own Golden God ridiculousness. Knebworth was good. It wasn’t great. Let’s not even go there with Live Aid (Phil Collins was the drummer). Then, to honour their mentor Ahmet Ertegun, who had signed them to Atlantic after hearing one demo, they did reasonably well, with Bonzo’s son Jason on drums, at the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary do in 1988. A couple years later they all jammed at Jason’s wedding. Seriously. And that was that. Until Ertegun passed away and, for his charity foundation, they agreed to do one big show at the O2 in 2007.
It’s been felt that Plant is the one who has moved on most successfully, professionally and personally. He’s a clever and engaging man, a blues scholar, a country bluegrass singer, a wonderful interpreter of song , and a hundred other things including a very private fella (so would you be if you’d had kids with two sisters in different decades). But this show, this one night, was his last chance to just drop it all and say ok, I give in, I’ll shake my mane and tilt my hip and play the part all over again. Everyone who attended went crazy about how good it was and then that was that – a DVD was expected but never arrived. Everyone knew it was recorded so what was the problem? Well, anything that has the Zeppelin name has to be perfect, and every fan knows that. It’s why their Live Aid show was kept off the box set. It’s why Plant refused to let half of his performance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert go onto the DVD. That’s how they are. So what a shock when, a month ago, it was announced that, five years after the O2 show, it was coming out on DVD and in the cinema. Cue fan frenzy. I had to go and see it on the big screen. I’ve just returned and I’m waffling because I don’t know how to begin to describe this overwhelming, extraordinary musical experience I’ve just witnessed. I should say that I had a bootleg CD of the show the day after and a bootleg DVD the week after so I knew the content. But seeing it properly fixed up, on the big screen: it just knocked the wind out of me.
Right from the start – Good Times, Bad Times, track 1 from their 1969 debut album – the band crowd round the drum riser, and they barely move from that central square throughout. They’re connected, in a way that very few musicians are, and every nuance, every note, every smile, every single aspect of the performance is utterly, completely, inevitably and beautifully perfect. Every band member is on his own personal journey. If Bonzo himself were alive there’s not a chance he’d have been as good as Jason was that night. His powerful, muscular, frenzied energy powers the entire concert; he’s the rock on which everything builds from, and it’s clear how much everyone else relies on him to provide that explosive foundation, as strong as the one his dad built those 40 years ago. Listen to The Song Remains the Same and tell me that he doesn’t outdo his old man with ease. Listen to Kashmir and try not to feel your spine bending with those thunderous bass drum kicks. And listen to that final flourish in Rock and Roll and you’ll know in that moment that not a drummer on earth could have done it better.
John Paul Jones, then aged 61, has carved out a rather fascinating career as a collaborator, with the likes of Diamanda Galas and Brian Eno, and as a producer/arranger, most notably creating the gorgeous string parts on R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. After this show he found his taste for playing live again with Them Crooked Vultures but at this performance he’s a serene, anchoring presence, though I could have stood to hear his bass a little more crisply in the mix. He comes into his own on keyboards and organ on a flawless No Quarter, fluidly nails the lovely melody line on Ramble On, leads the show during Trampled Underfoot, and what a pleasure to hear that bass run on the big finish at the end of Dazed and Confused. He and Page have an almost telepathic connection, two old stagers butting heads and grinning at each other when they know they've hit a perfect moment, when everything has gone just right.
Jimmy Page, then aged 63, is looking a little haggard these days, but so would you if you’d lived the life he’s had. There’s a reason that kind of guitar playing died out – surely looking at those scrunched up faces just got too funny after a while. In a way he has the hardest job of all, because he’s not played these songs, or indeed any songs, on stage regularly since the band broke up. He turned up for Plant’s 1990 Knebworth Festival encore , and reunited with him for a quite brilliant 1994 TV special for VH1, followed by two well received tours together in 1995 and 1998. But on the whole you know he’s the one who’d most love to be that guy again. The one who is the least creatively satisfied with what he’s accomplished in the last few decades. (Whisper Coverdale/Page if you dare.) He just wants Plant to be his guy again. And there’s no way he can play like he did when he was 25, just as Plant can’t possibly sing like he did when he was 25. But with all that said, he delivered one of the performances of his life. Not every note was perfect, not every run was as fast as it used to be, but he put every single shred of himself into that performance – from riffs to solos to violin bows to a bit of Theremin, it was all there. And he got better and better with each passing song, as if he was finding inside himself some internal clock that he was able to force backwards.
Oh Planty, Percy Plant, the former layer of tarmac on the road to West Bromwich. The Golden God (age at gig time: 59). The man who survived the 80s, somehow, to go on and win the Grammy for Album of the Year . The man who launched a thousand utterly terrible copyists. The man who shook his luscious blond hair, wore the tightest pants in rock, stuck his bare chest out, and howled like the hammer of the Gods was upon him. He has so very much to answer for. It all rests on him, truly. The band played like demons and shook the foundations of the venue, the cinema and my aching, bruised head (I fell off a spaceship the day before, but that’s another story). The groove these guys got going behind him was out of this world – no pressure then. But which Plant would turn up? The one who’s barely bothered to look back to those days, to his credit? Could he just shove it all aside and play that role for one night only, for the last time ever, and not ruin it by winking or getting the tone wrong? He had to be the last hold-out, the last person who wanted to do this, but he was doing it for Ahmet, not for himself. So he just stepped out onto the stage and, like an actor playing a classic role in his twilight years, he howled and preened and nailed the shit out of the songs. He took it seriously, finally. Not the songs themselves, after all, half of them are about rescuing maidens from castles or climbing mountains dressed like Gandalf, but the music. The sound, he just used the noise itself to push his performance to the limit. And, like Page, he just got better song by song and, being as smart as he is, he knew what to hit and what to leave. He knew which songs to excise (no Communication Breakdown or Rain Song; too high, they’d sound wrong sung lower) and he knew which moments to let go. He’s no fool: there were notes he’s a mile away from being able to hit so he used his voice, as he has been doing for the last 20 years, very cleverly and gained power and confidence with each passing minute. He’s still snake of hip (if not of jowl) and manages to exude sex almost every minute he’s on stage. And blow me down, he truly looks like he’s enjoying the night, getting off on every second and the camera captures some wonderful moments of exchanged ‘we’re really doing this!’ recognition and affection between him and Page.
They turn to Jason often, and these precise, insanely powerful songs just come at you in waves. It’s actually highly moving, seeing these four people on stage side-by-side. And that’s why they should never do it again – because it was so perfect. I hear people say that there are no bands like Zeppelin around any more. And perhaps it’s good that the more bloated bands of that ilk are long gone. But I tell you what – there were no bands around like Zeppelin even when they were around. No-one could touch them. They were out there on their own for so many years. And that’s not bad considering that I can’t tell you what a single song lyric is about. It’s the sound, it’s the interplay, it’s the alchemy – man for man, Zeppelin are the best rock band there’s ever been. And that holds true in 1969 and in 2007. I used to say that, if I had a DeLorean, and I could go back in time for certain gigs, I’d choose a particular bunch, like Bowie at the Hammersmith Odeon ’73, Hendrix at Monterey ’67, and a dozen more. And then I would always add to that list, Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden July ’73, aka The Song Remains the Same concert film. But now, today, right this minute, I’m taking it back. That night, December 10th 2007, is the one I’d choose as the crowning night of their career and the one I’d have given anything to attend.
Jack White repackages the blues (and a bit of country, bluegrass and folk) in his own dirty, stripped down way, to an audience who probably knows little about its history or leading figures. This can only be a good thing. He’s an old fashioned sort; there’s no frills (or self-indulgence) to his music but, undoubtedly, stagecraft is his speciality. Watching him at such close quarters was a joy: he expressed himself with power and passion, he shredded to within an inch of his life and his excellent band, or bands, back him with the kind of belief and musicianship he’s never been surrounded by before. I say bands, because yes, there are two.
First up were his all-male band, The Buzzards – keyboardist (and Mars Volta member) Ikey Owens, the brilliant Daru Jones on drums, bassist (often on double bass) Dominic Davis, violinist/pedal steel player Cory Younts and Fats Kaplin on second guitarist/fiddle/mandolin. His music has always been rather masculine and virile, and yet, the show only truly kicked off when his first band made their exit mid-song to be seamlessly replaced by his all-female rhythm section, The Peacocks. Punching even harder than their male counterparts, these women laid waste to the songs. Much has been said about his attitudes toward women but only a fool would deny that he is quite clearly musically smitten with each and every member of this band. They all dazzled: the awesome Autolux drummer Carla Azar , pianist Brooke Waggoner , co-vocalist Ruby Amanfu , fiddler player Lillie Mae Rische , Margaret Bjorklund on pedal steel and bassist (formerly a Cardinal for Ryan Adams) Catherine Popper .
Still, this was a free concert to promote iTunes, so no music was on sale. I guess running those two bands needs the odd concession. He ran through his own greatest hits – a dozen White Stripes songs, three from his Raconteurs period, a couple of Dead Weather tracks and half a dozen from his excellent solo album Blunderbuss. This whole show was just plain fun. The interplay was next level, and at times he seemed completely taken over, possessed, ferociously channelling this music, as the electric currents passed through him. What a privilege to watch this extraordinary performer, singer, songwriter and guitarist at such close quarters. These are just brilliant songs: Black Math, Hello Operator, Hotel Yorba, Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, Ball and Biscuit (with a nice snippet of Dylan’s Meet Me In The Morning at the start) and of course, to finish, the frankly iconic Seven Nation Army.
I still have it in me, it turns out, to take on the pit at the front of a gig. But I couldn’t match this southern gentleman for energy, intensity and conviction. I walked out aching, and he’s doing it all again night after night. Of course, the old tropes were there – gently berating the audience for not making enough noise, having his manager (I assume, like his entire crew he was kitted out in a sharp suit so he could have been a roadie) good-naturedly exhort the crowd to leave their mobiles in their pockets and just enjoy the show and so on. It was old school but never felt contrived. It felt primal, distorted, thrilling and, paradoxically, completely current. I love a back of the venue saunter but, truly, you can’t beat looking the performer in the eye. I must do it again.
As she stood, very still, the crowd collectively inhaled. The backdrop, a sprawling, black, metallic silhouetted tree over a latticed screen, which covered much of the back of the stage, started to come to life, and projections started to run. The ambient noise from her side-stage tech guy that had wound its way around every quiet moment, and would continue to between songs throughout, stopped and her band started to play. A visual focal point was her keyboard player – a cross between Mike Garson and Ming the Merciless, and with the fashion sense of Klaus Nomi – who commanded a bank of vintage organs and synthesisers. The guitarist made Torn/Fripp sounds, excellently; the drummer, in his glass box, surrounded everything with consummately played fills. The bassist switched effortlessly from bass to rhythm guitar. However, the sound, one must say, was poor at times. A shuddering bass seeped out of the speakers now and then, overwhelming all. The two female backing singers were sometimes superfluous. The sound mix was, at times, annoyingly poor. Everything was designed to frame her voice, but since it’s not the loudest there is, the mix was an engineer’s struggle. But despite these flaws, the voice everyone longed to hear was to win. Imperceptible at first, this delicate, undulating sound started to come out of the speakers. Like a hummingbird, it buzzed up and down and around, barely noticeable. It’s not a strident voice, and it’s not going to make the chairs wobble and the glass crack, like Diamanda Galas did last week. But it soars and swoops and, quite honestly, is one of the most beautiful sounds that has ever passed through my ears.
The love washed over the stage in waves. As each song ended, applause and feting filled the room. Declarations of love and marriage were suggested. She smiled sweetly. Just less than half of the set was new material – it reminded me a little of the more recent Kate Bush albums (now there’s a Meltdown fantasy: Kate curates) – and the remainder was old Cocteau Twins songs, greeted like long lost friends. I don’t think a single person present thought they were going to hear these dream pop masterpieces ever performed again. In all seriousness, while she’s been away, her band’s music has had an immeasurable influence. A band like Beach House (or Animal Collective or Bat For Lashes or the xx, and so on) simply wouldn’t exist. The esteemed indie-folk-pop record label Bella Union wouldn’t either: started by former Cocteau’s Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie, the label has given us the aforementioned Beach House, Explosions in the Sky, Fleet Foxes, John Grant, The Low Anthem, Midlake and dozens more.
That her voice is unintelligible, in terms of lyrics, matters not. It’s all about the sound. At times I felt as if I was in a waking dream, with the perfect soundtrack. Her instrument is untouched by years of touring, of slogging around the world and its festivals, and this concert was enriched for it. It’s slightly different, of course, with age, but the mesmerised audience was rapt and thrilled. She must have no doubt now of how much she is loved. In truth, she looked deeply touched at the standing ovations, applause and bouquets offered, and taken, from delirious fans. As she encored with Song to the Siren, a strange and exquisite Tim Buckley song, which, Teardrop aside, she is best known for (recorded as part of This Mortal Coil ), I thought I might dissolve into the seat. Simply, it was the most beautiful rendition imaginable of one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Gratitude fills me – to Antony for the invite, and to Elizabeth Fraser for overcoming her fears and saying yes.
The advance group in any field, especially in the visual, literary, or musical arts, whose works are characterised chiefly by unorthodox and experimental methods.
Of or pertaining to the experimental treatment of artistic, musical or literary material; belonging to the avant-garde: an avant-garde composer; unorthodox or daring; radical.
What has the over-used term avant-garde come to mean? Anything that’s even a millimetre outside of the perceived mainstream; perhaps a Whistle Test prog throwback glaring blankly at their audience through their beards while new instrumental shoegaze swirls around an East London club with a dreadful sound system; or a hipster Brooklyn electronic ‘collective’ declaring their album works best with 12 concurrent mixes. Ok, I’m guilty in this regard: from Okkervil River to Dirty Projectors to the Flaming Lips, count me in. But I know, truly, that calling something ‘experimental’ is a lazy term used entirely too often to describe anything that’s even a little sonically different or visually intriguing, and it’s mostly used inaccurately to label music that isn’t daring or radical at all… and then, among all that wankery, with thanks to Antony Hegarty’s first Meltdown night, I found the real thing.
The audience are always a fascinating barometer of the artist. I keenly observed the Guardian-reading South Bank crowd + a few specs-wearing, plaid-clad hipsters + a hell of a lot of alternatives (a Torture Garden kinda crowd: all tattoos, flesh tunnels and those who graced the 90s as goths). My gig companion had seen Ms Galas at a Brel tribute in the same venue, singing Amsterdam, alongside Marc Almond and other kind-on-the-ear artists: she was booed. I asked why, but he found it hard to explain, exactly.
Within a minute of her striding to the piano, I knew why. Out came this… noise. Operatic and dramatic, enveloped by dark, rolling piano trills, this instrument, this vocal, guttural sound, coming from some unholy place, filled the auditorium. My earholes were being assaulted. I had no idea what this insane woman was screaming about but I knew it was in Italian. The next song was in Greek, then Italian again, then Spanish, then German, then French, one in English, back to German, Italian and so on. Every song was about death. It was unbelievable, truly. You just never knew what was coming next – more ear-splitting soprano shrieking? A chanson-style growl at least two octaves lower? A middle eight which consisted of only high-pitched, but completely controlled, banshee wailing? Yoko’s got nothing on Diamanda. It was sometimes unlistenable, yet often deeply moving, and you wanted it to be over but you never wanted it to end. The most traditionally enjoyable song was a little bluesy, but still ended with a truckload of piano banging.
Near the end I played out several fantasies in my head: Diamanda on the X Factor, the look on Cowell’s face; Diamanda invading a hen-night-jukebox-musical, like Dirty Dancing, and the theatre staff locking the doors; Diamanda on a Lloyd Webber Saturday night BBC1 West End competition show – perhaps she could be the next Wicked Witch? Diamanda on the Royal Variety Show: following Brucie, bowing to the Queen, perhaps a duet with Gary Barlow?
I’ve been watching live music for 24 of my 35 years. I have never seen a gig like this. It was like being punched in the face with sound. Half way through the show an audience member dared to express her devotion with a plain ‘I love you!’ The Cruella De Vil-esque response: “Do you know who you’re talking to? Shut up!”
At the end of the show, as my entire being tried to recover from this unique experience, Antony quietly made his way on stage to hand her a bouquet of flowers. A symbol of traditional beauty, grace and elegance, she accepted it with an affectionate, benevolent smile, took her bow and her standing ovation and walked slowly into the wings.
Image © I-boy, the arts desk
I’ve been avoiding writing this. Because, what I saw on Friday night, which I might call a psychedelic happening of sorts, consumed me to the point of disorientation, joy, worship and downright awe. There are gigs and then there are shows. Experiences. Events where you walk out of the auditorium so dazzled that you struggle to comprehend and describe what you’ve witnessed. Sufjan Stevens.
He’s come a long way from his early folk days, making albums like the scripture-influenced Seven Swans, progressing to more ambitious projects like Illinoise, part of his, now abandoned, vow to make an album about each of the 50 states. Michigan, Illinois, what was next? Rhode Island?! Perhaps it was a gimmick, perhaps he believed it but, regardless, I’m grateful that, following the release of the wonderful All Delighted People (his idea of an EP – an hour long) in August 2010, he launched The Age of Adz, one of my albums of last year, in October. A song cycle of epic beats, samples and fluent guitar and keyboard playing, anthems all, it spoke of his inner spiritual crisis and, without putting it lightly, recent mental breakdown. It’s an extraordinary piece of work.
To perform it, he didn’t just roll out the songs and collect the applause. He spoke of star people and celestial visitors, all dripping with his unique blend of goofy, adorable, innocent irony. He knows how pretentious it all sounds, and seems to have a natural tendency to preface his banter with winks about bullshit psychobabble. London audiences aren’t much for rambling so you can imagine that we knew we were witnessing something unusual when you could have heard a pin drop during his ten minute tale of self-labelled Louisiana prophet Royal Robertson, an artist who created apocalyptic sci-fi comics and canvases, turned his home into a study in eschatology and stayed in touch with his inner id by refusing to take his schizophrenia medication. Sufjan clearly sees him as a kindred spirit, another casualty of spiritual panic, struggling to reconcile himself between his Christian faith and the pull of the universe. Both men design to hold onto their sanity in the middle of the wonder that surrounds us in the face of overwhelming outside influences.
His ten-piece band, dressed in fluorescent suits, played his complex art-rock electronica, with a screen behind them and, often, in front; a gauze descending to the floor as geometric shapes and spaceships whirled on both screens. Throwing off his feathery angel wings after the first song he indulged in some seriously daft dancing, and this was the mix of the night – cult of personality, intricate, powerful music, a product of 21st century technology and true vision, and a self-deprecating tale here and there. There’s an awareness of his genius within him, which is belied by his fantastically uncool charm. He almost seems embarrassed to be putting this deeply personal, but attention seeking, heartfelt, but self-indulgent, material out there.
Late on, he put on a silver cloak, with a rotating mirror ball chest piece, as a giant diamond prop descended from the rafters. It looked even more amazing and odd than it sounds. Sufjan is endlessly inventive and creative, with a delicate voice, and undeniable proficiency on any instrument he chooses to pick up; I can say after more than 20 years of gig going I’ve never seen a performance quite like it. The main show came to an end with a nearly 25 minute rendition of Impossible Soul, from, like most of the evening’s material, The Age of Adz. We sang its blissful refrain – boy, we can do much more together, it’s not so impossible. The encore saw a couple of Illinoise tracks, accompanied by Flaming Lips-style balloons and confetti tumbling from the ceiling, as the hall’s seats were abandoned and we danced joyously, led by this Pied Piper.
“Hi, my name is Sufjan Stevens and I'm your entertainment for the evening. We're gonna sing some songs about love, death and the apocalypse. It should be a lot of fun”.
Age of Adz
Now That I'm Older
Get Real Get Right
I Want To Be Well
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
Casimir Pulaski Day
If you’re a pop musician you’ll never be cooler than when you were under 30. Indeed, the Beatles split before any of them reached that age. At the pinnacle of being respected and lauded, you’re told you produced your best work and you have a, say, 10 year purple patch before everyone starts saying you have nothing left to offer. And on comes the next bright young thing. With some notable exceptions, Radiohead spring to mind, being over 35 in pop music is a tale of raging against the dying light. Your audience gets old with you, you don’t attract fans who were your age when you started, your new albums are wheeled out to flog tickets for your tour, the only way you can make money now, and if you’re very lucky you won’t lose your jawline to chins, your waistline to elasticated trousers and your hairline to suspiciously placed hats.
You’re Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, or Tom Jones; you haven’t made a decent record since the 70s even though your live shows are still worth going to, for nostalgia purposes only. You’re the Stones; you drag your excess skin out on the road for £125 a ticket. You’re Iggy Pop; with your ass hanging out, you look incredible and you do deliver live but it’s a schtick now, though it is remarkable that you’re alive at all. You’re Bowie; you’ve retired because after 5 decades of genius and, frankly, getting more beautiful with age, like Elvis should have but never did, you look a bit old now and you're too vain, and uninspired musically, to flog your hits anymore. Good for you. Better to give it up than be out there and phone it in. Then again, you might be Robert Plant; you don’t give a shit because everyone told you your career was over at 30 and you clawed your way back, using your voice in new ways, collaborating with peers and, lost looks aside (with the exception of resplendent hair) you get respect anew in your 60s. In popular music this is the dance, this is what you go through. And that’s if you’re already famous, your records are already owned and your gig tickets already sell, never mind if you’re trying to be heard in a sea of pathetic self-promotion and endless self-publishing.
However, there are genres, invisible to most, that don’t panic about their lack of attention, finance, talent shows, and all the other accoutrements that popular music is so desperate for. Metal is one, classical another, but, for the purposes of this, let’s talk jazz. You’ve heard it all before, that the musicians on stage have a better time than anyone listening, to paraphrase Tony Wilson. Marmite music. I think in order to appreciate jazz you do need to have an interest in musicianship, because, for wont of a better phrase, there is a certain amount of showing off involved. In terms of attending a jazz concert in the current era, where the great –tets of the past (Miles’ quintets, Monk’s quartet etc) are long gone, only a few of members of each generation remain so you get a fairly elderly figurehead taking on a group of session musos and doing what they know, what they’ve been doing for decades: getting out on the road in a different dark bar each night. But instead of what happens when old rockers go out on the road - at best, raking it in by filling a soulless arena with mums and dads revisiting their youth, or, at worst, eliciting groans from the critics bemoaning your tepid delivery while anyone in the first 15 rows winces at the state of your face - you’re faced by vibrant, thrilling sonic experiences delivered by men for whom age means they’re at the top of their game, not the bottom or, worse, the middle. Since improvisation is key, it doesn’t matter that the song might start out in the 50s, because it certainly comes round to the very moment in time that your ears take it in. Not that there’s no decent modern jazz being created, released and played, there certainly is, but that’s a whole other article.
For once, you feel, the musicians are truly being respected. In rock, if you’re out there playing as a session muso for some dinosaur you’re happy to have the pay check, because you certainly aren't going to get the respect, perhaps because you’re often playing material that’s unchallenging. In jazz, playing with a remaining great, like Pharoah Sanders, is the pinnacle of your career. At 70, he’s playing more powerfully, with more skill and intricacy than he did in the 60s – when he was Coltrane’s favourite saxophonist. That’s some compliment. Described by Ornette Coleman as the best tenor player in the world, his lengthy, dissonant solos graced half a dozen Coltrane albums. In 1969 he released his masterpiece, the 30-minute free jazz blowout, The Creator Has a Masterplan. McCoy Tyner, Don Cherry, Sun Ra and more have all sought his playing in a career lasting 50 years.
I found it impossible to resist rushing to see him at Ronnie Scott’s recently. While the show was far from my first jazz gig, to my shame it was my first at Ronnie Scott’s. And what a venue, reminiscent of New York’s Village Vanguard; I had a little chuckle as I sat in the plush surroundings, surrounded by photos of jazz luminaries on the walls, low lighting, red table lamps, high-end fixtures and fittings and table service. You don’t get treated like this at a rock show. This was a long way from sticky floors and sweaty, beer-sodden gig-goers. I particularly enjoyed the body language of the table of couples in front of us – who had quite clearly picked Ronnie Scott’s on a random night, probably thinking they’d get some easy listening jazz to go with their bottles of white wine and birthday celebrations. The look on their faces as Sanders blew with wild abandon was a joy to behold. How wonderful that jazz can still horrify the tender-eared and inexperienced. It was an example of regular folks thinking they know what jazz is all about, then being shocked into silence by it. They should probably avoid Cecil Taylor.
What an honour, what a privilege to be in the presence of Pharoah Sanders. Accompanied by dazzling musicians – double bassist Mark Hodgson; pianist Jonathan Gee and drummer Gene Calderazzo – it was truly the most transcendent jazz concert I’ve witnessed. And this cool, charming pensioner blew everyone’s ears off, playing better at 70 than he did at 30. How refreshing to see a genre that doesn’t worship the young, but instead lauds achievement, and allows its members to actually get better with age. The very structure of jazz is designed to allow the artist to create something new with something old, and its demands are the opposite of rock music – slavish note-for-note recreations of hits are unacceptable. In an era of instant success, selling out arenas on one album, this show was a testament to well-earned longevity and timeless class.
In some ways, he’s the very opposite of John, who put everything out there: good, bad and ugly. He was a work in progress and didn’t shy away from everyone knowing it; being incomplete, being painfully flawed, always searching for something, not even knowing what to look for half the time, was part of who he was and when he tried to be a better person, finding success or failure, he would never hide the journey. A confessional genre was born out of him, but Paul has never been like that. There are songs about heartfelt love, yes, but few (aside from Flaming Pie, when he didn’t know what else to do) about human flaws and personal frailty, which I always took as rather unappealing. Not that all singer songwriters must be confessional but, for me, if you’re not connecting with your audience on a personal level, there’s something missing. While songwriters with nothing to say can’t write words worth thinking about and self-absorbed lyricists mask deficiencies in song-craft, the perfect balance is one who can communicate on both musical and lyrical levels and I felt McCartney was sometimes lacking in the latter.
George would always talk about the Beatles as ‘them’, knowing the construct of pop culture iconography was something that shouldn’t be believed, something that shouldn’t stop you from looking for more. Paul, only half joking, once said that sometimes he would walk past the mirror and think, ‘you’re him!’ He and Ringo (who should be grateful, frankly) are satisfied with the tangible, whereas John and George always yearned for more. As such, with all the misgivings I have about his personality, I felt like a blank canvas as I trudged through the snow to Hammersmith to see him live, excited but wary.
After all that, you can guess what happened. He’s Paul fucking McCartney and he will work his arse off to make you forget every doubt you have about him, even if just for those two and a half hours on stage.
Some days I love the Stones more. Some days I love Led Zeppelin more. But they cannot make me feel what I felt last night. The Beatles are woven into the fabric of this country in a way that no other band is. These songs are your life; they’re in your DNA. I saw teenagers, hipsters, mid-30s couples, I’m-still-cool 40-year-old dads with their youngsters, record-fair guys like my dad pushing their late 50s and a collection of sweet old couples in their 60s who might even have seen him play this venue before, long before. And to a man, woman and child, every one of them laughed and cried and sang their hearts out, a deafening roar greeting every song. Strangers looked each other in the eyes with recognition of the moment. Those songs… there are so many - with that back catalogue, how can you go wrong?
The stars even aligned to the point where I ended up closer to the stage than my ticket allowed. I had a balcony ticket, but I was lucky enough to get to use what I call the ‘Arcade Fire trick’, only because I first did it for them at Brixton Academy a few years ago. You need two friends with standing tickets. They go in together. One comes back out with both tickets. You walk in with the spare. Simple. And thus, I ended up 10 rows back from the stage. Good work. Everyone was ready and wide-eyed, thrilled to be in such a small venue, thawing out from the snow, ready to feel or stay young, how they felt when they first heard, or their parents first played them, a Beatles song.
And not just Beatles songs either, there’s a lot of love for the 70s solo/Wings stuff – Band On The Run, Let Me Roll It, Jet and Maybe I’m Amazed were warmly greeted before massive explosions and fireworks, which I thought might set the roof alight, blasted out alongside Live And Let Die.
You simply lose yourself. There is no resistance; you can’t help it. These songs are part of who we are and, as you stand with a crowd of people who have come from all over the world, there’s an inevitable, inescapable, joyous, Englishness about every single person there. The Beatles make you feel, or rediscover, what it is to be English. Fifty years worth of people have grown up with this music in their head and, even in another fifty years, it’ll still mean as much. Undoubtedly, we’re in a lucky position now, to be able to hear these songs performed live. I saw him at Earls Court in 2003, a small figure in the distance, and it was a great show. Then I saw the next night and he came out with the same schtick, verbatim, between songs. I know your game, I thought. Everyone likes to think the gig they’re at, no matter who is on stage, is like a snowflake. Just for you, with your own touches and unique events on the night you went. And sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s not. And yet, with McCartney, despite yourself, it's just one of those things that you let simply float away with the opening bars of Magical Mystery Tour.
We got ‘em all – the innocence of youth (I Saw Her Standing There); Hard Day’s Night Beatlemania (Drive My Car/All My Loving); a Dylan-influenced lyrical move forward (Eleanor Rigby); solo in everything but name late-period rockers (Get Back/Back in the USSR), a little bit of quirky rubbish with good humour (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da), weepy tributes (Here Today/Something); and so on and on and on. Songs you’d forgotten about completely, songs that remind you of being a kid, hearing them at home. Songs that you want to be the last songs you ever hear on this earth. And just think of some of the songs he can afford to leave out: Penny Lane, Can’t Buy Me Love, We Can Work It Out, Things We Said Today, Fixing A Hole, Fool On The Hill, Hello Goodbye, I’ll Follow The Sun, Here, There and Everywhere, Day Tripper, Lady Madonna…
He has everything to offer and, even if he knows it, it is irresistible. One need not be filled with humility when you can say you wrote Hey Jude and Yesterday. Hey Jude in particular is a tune we’ve all heard and over-heard. It goes on forever but, having lived through nine fake endings of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World, I could take it. So I sang and waved my arms and knew it might be the last time I’d get a chance to do it. Arenas and stadia are not for me, this was my night to have, to remember, to thank him for what he’s done. I sang Yesterday, and wept. And just when you think neither you nor he has any more to give, he plays Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, followed by The End and, with everyone joined as one, the meaning strikes home: and in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.
Magical Mystery Tour
Got To Get You Into My life
All My Loving
One After 909
Drive My Car
Let Me Roll It/Foxy Lady (snippet)
The Long and Winding Road
Maybe I'm Amazed
I'm Looking Through You
And I Love Her
Sing The Changes
Band on the Run
Back In The USSR
A Day In The Life/Give Peace A Chance
Let It Be
Live And Let Die
Wonderful Christmas Time
I Saw Her Standing There
Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
With a character as large in life and who has lived as long in the memory as Frank Zappa has, it is fitting that a series of events celebrating his life and work could so dominate the Roundhouse this past weekend, the centrepiece of which was a Zappa plays Zappa performance. His eldest son, Dweezil, has been dutifully performing his father’s songs under that name, almost note for note, for years as his mother Gail wields a caring, but firm, hand over the great man’s legacy, pulling the strings from the California home they shared, which is still a living museum to one of Baltimore’s favourite sons.
The Roundhouse, a perfect venue, had been selected for a programme of celebrations to mark what would have been FZ’s 70th birthday next month. An art exhibition here, a Q&A there, the events culminated in a celebratory gig. Having released 62 albums during his lifetime, there was certainly no shortage of FZ material from which to draw. The crowd, highly knowledgeable, took this, quite acceptably, as their chance to pay tribute. Some, no doubt, never saw him perform for real; those present were the kind of audience I’ve seen so often – teenagers at the beginning of discovery, hipsters who’ve spent many a night talking rubbish while listening to Hot Rats and balding record-fair attendees reliving their 20s, who saw the real thing but aren’t smug about it.
The music FZ left behind was an encyclopaedia of the sounds he heard in his head – from doo-wop to jazz-fusion, from rock and classical to novelty. He might have smiled ruefully to note that his legacy in America is as someone remembered for arguing his anti-censorship-at-all-costs position, as a self-described ‘Constitutional fundamentalist’, on CNN (and in Congress) against the right-wing religiously-motivated moral guardians of the time (how little has changed) while getting his only hit with a bizarre tale of the dumbest Californian Valley Girls, featuring his then 14-year-old daughter Moon – who appeared to perform the song in the encore, joined by her adorable 5-year-old daughter Matilda, who shares Frank’s birthday. Being remembered for both music and politics is a legacy no-one would turn down.
It was a joyous, rather family-oriented, atmosphere. The musical pinnacle was reached upon the performance, in entirety, of perhaps his most complete album, 1974’s Apostrophe. These are classic songs – from the oft-heard Cosmik Debris to the rather normal, in context, and even moving, Uncle Remus.
The evening had started with a musically limited but game performance from a non-band – comedians the Mighty Boosh, lifelong Zappa/Beefheart fans, spent two weeks rehearsing, they said, for the show. Perhaps longer would have been a good idea, but that is their way: often appearing to indulge in little rehearsal and mostly getting away with it. They didn’t quite pull it off but it was a decent effort nonetheless, mostly due to their visible delight at having been included in the events of the weekend. They were well received and, in truth, I quite enjoyed their show (which would have benefitted from some visuals other than costume) until the ‘real’ musicians came on and, guitarist Julian Barratt aside, I accepted that heartfelt amateurism was the best they could offer. Still, they did employ Diva Zappa hidden inside Charlie, a pink, triangular, cowboy-hat-wearing, moustachioed, formerly animated, puppet made of chewing gum, which her old man would certainly have approved of.
One couldn’t help, however, sparing a thought for the path of the handsome Zappa family members. Being rock progeny is no easy task, since you can’t match up to your ancestry if you choose to follow the same medium. Even if you choose another outlet you’re still going to get compared to a figure you can’t live up to. However, there’s no doubt that Dweezil is a gifted guitar player, seemingly happy enough to recreate his music as a way of staying close to his father, and flexible enough as a musician to add his own flourishes along the way. Younger brother Ahmet is an ideas man in the Hollywood movie industry, which seems like a satisfying way of letting his original mind run riot. Moon, the oldest, is a sometime author/stand-up comedian and the youngest, Diva, who seems the most unaffected by the burden of Zappa-ness, is a painter and a creator of knitwear (really). Other people’s expectations don’t seem to affect them; they all seem happy enough. Not all of their contemporaries are as lucky. One might say an exception was Jeff Buckley, but his father Tim hardly reached the levels of fame that would weigh heavily and, sadly, he was only around to make one remarkable album anyway. It’s true that the McCartney kids have turned out pretty well, as has Duncan Jones, now an acclaimed filmmaker, who has flourished since his dad, Bowie, retired a few years ago.
But Lennon’s kids struggle, making unremarkable music, and the Stones/Rod/Geldof/Osbourne offspring just haven’t bothered at all (being a model doesn’t count) and have adopted the job of being socialites (one of the least attractive words in the English language). Whatever you do, you’re on a hiding to nothing. Use the name and you’re accused of profiteering, ignore it and the media press you on whether you resent your parents. Any talent you may have lives in their shadow. The Zappa kids seem remarkably level-headed, which is an achievement in itself considering they never knew what early bedtime was and their dad was away for six months out of every year. They’re all doing a bang-up job of keeping his memory alive in the right way, without attempting any projects that would have caused him to raise an eyebrow like he was hearing a wrong note on stage. Take note, Yoko.
One imagined the performance was how a real Zappa gig must have gone: complex, chaotic, disjointed, compelling and hugely enjoyable. I’ve rarely felt such warmth radiating from the audience to the stage and back. Once the fantastic performance of Apostrophe had ended the show did somewhat descend into a blizzard of muso noodling and guitar solos, as Dweezil was joined onstage by Scott Thunes and Jeff Simmons, who had played, at different times, with Zappa. Unavoidably, the best bits of the night were when the onstage band played with a recording of Zappa on the big screen, looming over us, as Dweezil puts it, from ‘grave to stage’. It’s a tough legacy to follow but one that is easy to honour.
I’d planned to arrive late but by chance took a look at the 100 Club website and saw that the support was called Josephine – it turns out that this girl sounds like a cross between Tracy Chapman and Odetta and is from my very own manor, Cheetham Hill. Well. I had to see her. She was beautiful, charming, humble then confident, in possession of a superior talent for finger-picking and had a voice you could listen to sing anything. The songwriting was raw but all she needs is a proper break. Very impressive. In my life, I never thought I’d hear anyone sing a song about Cheetham Hill. I must have been the only other person from there in the room and it was a surreal moment, one that gave me an inner smile.
Thanks to Uncut, in any given month I will download at least ten albums that they have recommended in reviews or articles. Last month, they gave a fabulous review to Pauper’s Field, the debut by a 20-year-old Louisiana boy, and the son of a Muscle Shoals session musician, called Dylan LeBlanc. When listening, one can’t help but be staggered at how these country blues tales of regret and lost love, sung with a world-weary voice, over mournful pedal steel backings, could possibly have come from the heart of a kid barely out of his teens. A little Townes Van Zandt, a little Neil Young, with the delicate sonic and visual beauty of Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley, he seems out of his time. He’s already had a stay in rehab, confessed with bashful contrition in a recent Guardian interview, for booze and pills and you have to hope some marketing department doesn’t get hold of him and push him too far and too fast.
I remember the first time I heard Kings of Leon, a good, solid, no-nonsense band. And then I blinked and they got sucked into the machine; hair was cut, beards were shaved and they were made MOR. Except the drummer of course, you’ve got to keep one of them ‘dangerous’ looking since the PR company told you some of the target market wants a bad boy. The gritty, swamp blues-rock of their first album was long gone, replaced by Grammy-bland stadium pub rock. This is what can happen to musicians from the South; their God-fearing but happily hedonistic personas get boxed up nicely into something an X Factor Idol Who’s Got Talent auditionee can strain out. At least, since he’s signed to Rough Trade, I have hope that LeBlanc can get the guidance and support he needs without contrivance.
A vision of Southern charm, imbued with politeness and a fringe to hide behind, he gently walked onto the 100 Club stage to make his London debut. With a few pints to steady his nerves, he later confessed, it was only when he smiled shyly that could you see this was a lad who looks like he doesn’t shave yet.
At any other time, leading his band of hot rednecks, who look like they’re straight out of Bon Temps (think Sam Merlotte), he’s confident and turns out song after song of undeniable quality. The opener Low had a country strut, the ballad 5th Avenue Bar was played with tenderness on solo acoustic, he played Death of Outlaw Billy John with a nod to Americana and The Band and, even without the Emmylou Harris backing vocals, If The Creek Don’t Rise, with its epic swirl, had the small crowd enraptured. All of this while looking like a Massey Hall-era Neil Young.
The crowd wouldn’t let him leave, even after he’d thrown in a couple of covers – one by Van Zandt and a quite brilliant heavy blues rendition of Grandma’s Hands by Bill Withers – and he had to play pretty much every song he knew. It was a laid-back but compelling performance. A broken string here, a quip there, he was engaging, gifted and unique. One can only look forward to how good he’ll be when he’s 30.
Editors :: Faith No More :: Rodrigo Y Gabriela :: Gossip :: The Cribs :: Charlie Winston – Gurten Festival, Bern, Switzerland, 16-7-10
Firstly, it was on the top of a mountain, accessible only by a long uphill walk (I think not) or a cable car (yes please). Festival attendees are universal; they’re all looking for the right weather, bands, facilities and vibe. Unsurprisingly, there was a large amount of beer being downed but still nothing compared to Brits, I’m embarrassed to say. Drinking is a sport in the UK; the only aim is to get as wasted as possible. As I surveyed the happy tipsy crowd, they were actually enjoying a drink without hurtling toward the final result, they weren’t hoping to pass out on the grass or wear a volley of vomit as a badge of honour - they just wanted to have a good time.
At the bigger UK festivals performances come with a certain pressure. As TV broadcasts bring self-consciousness to some acts, the critics sharpen their knives as the seen-it-all main stage crowds wait for hits. At a larger festival you have dozens of stages and hundreds of acts to discover away from the main stage pressure but at smaller gatherings an intimate (for a festival) setting can often bring out the best performances.
I suspect many of the smaller European festivals are like Gurten - refreshingly unpretentious and free of the weight of expectation and media pressure. Not that the festival isn’t publicised or given radio/TV coverage, but the attention is national, rather than international. Taking the pressure off further is that Gurten is the smaller relation compared to the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival, finishing up just as Gurten starts, and the larger Paleo Festival, taking place in Nyon, near Geneva, all this week. As a result, the bands clearly feel much freer than when they’re under the make-or-break microscope at Reading/Leeds, V, Wireless, Isle of Wight, T in the Park, Glasto et al.
The performances started with British singer Charlie Winston, completely unknown here in the UK. His easy manner (a likable Jay Kay, if that’s not beyond the realm of imagination) and unfussy songs recall Paolo Nutini. He’s very popular in French-speaking countries, it would seem. It made me wonder how many other British singers there are plying their trade in Europe, achieving considerable success without anyone here noticing. A little cheesy but undoubtedly talented, he was a mildly diverting opening act in the burning sun.
It was at that point, as people looked to their show guides to see what was up next, that I realised something was different. With larger festivals the acts are on different stages simultaneously. People are made to make choices and, while they may go for a food/drink wander between bands, the crucial aspect is that not everyone is doing this at the same time. Not at Gurten. There were three stages, a small one with regional acts, a larger tent and the main stage.
As such, the acts in the larger tent and on the main stage were scheduled not to coincide. The advantage is that no one misses a band they want to see and a short walk between stages ensures you can see every band. This also means you can get to the front easily for any band, should you leave the previous one a couple of songs early. The negative side of this is everyone is doing the same thing, all the time. Everyone goes from one place to another, together. It’s a little crazy. Massive queues for food and a bottleneck formed as everyone tried to get to the other stage for the next band. With limited space, it was a little difficult to move around but the crowds were so good-natured and friendly that you just went with the flow. As an aside, the loos were like luxury compared to what I was used to. Separate ones for men and women; toilet paper, even flushing! Partly, this civilised atmosphere is due to a lot of day tickets as well as campers. Since it’s near the city centre many choose to come for the day and go home.
After Charlie Winston we made our way to see The Cribs. I saw them at Glasto a couple of years ago, out of devotion to Johnny M, and was disappointed. This time they were much better; good punk pop with better songs than I had remembered – or perhaps, their more recent album is a vast improvement. Pretty good but another band beckoned – we strolled back to the main stage to see Gossip.
Admittedly, they do have a schtick; Beth Ditto’s southern charm and powerful voice connect with the crowd instantly and the minimal electro pop is well played with a fair few hits sprinkled throughout the set. Without guile, without self-consciousness, she is a supremely entertaining leader. The crowd was well up for it and bounced happily to Heavy Cross to close the show. You know what you’re getting with Gossip but, I must say, I enjoyed the performance immensely. As evening turned to dusk, everyone rushed for food - a limited selection in truth but by then, a few beers down the line, no one seemed to care. We went for a little walk around the larger part of the site, browsing at the myriad stalls selling clothes and trinkets. We still had time for some heavy flamenco guitar in the form of Mexican duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela. They do get the crowd going, which considering no one knows the songs and everyone is simply recoiling in admiration at the musicianship is impressive. The last time I saw them they played songs by Metallica and Pink Floyd but we were keen to get a great spot for the real reason we had been so excited to come to Gurten: Faith No More. As such, we made a quick exit before the encore and rushed back to the main stage.
I’d seen Rage Against the Machine recently so it was fairly amusing to be faced with another band of my youth so soon. Quickly gaining a place at the front, I was delighted to see them appear, in matching lounge suits, and power into From Out of Nowhere. They had reformed a year before, playing festivals including Gurten, and you sensed that Patton had been on the road for long enough. As a man who creates as much unusual material as he does, you could sense his slight bitterness at the lack of interest projects like Lovage, Mondo Cane, Fantomas and Mr Bungle generate in anyone but his hardcore fans, compared to the collective muscle memory reception given to these 15-20 year old songs. Growling and throwing himself around the stage, but hitting every note, he was almost a parody, if an entertaining one. My companions, who had seen FNM the year before, said the difference was marked, in terms of his tiredness. I suspect the reunion will last long enough for him to fund his next project. Despite this, the songs have lost none of their power and he gave it his all, that’s in no doubt.
Noticeably, rather than a RATM type collective, FNM are very much a band with one leader. Stage diving, he was lifted up to surf, only to be dropped several times, before he made it back to the stage expressing mock annoyance at the crowd for dropping him. Taking over a camera operator’s job he fell again, only to get back up, headphones still perfectly in place. Daft and likable, he elicited a great deal of affection from the crowd.
Billy Gould, Roddy Bottum and Mike Bordin were animated and rock solid throughout, Bordin in particular being impressive, as always. Guitarist Jon Hudson, despite being on their last album, performed competently but came off like a session player, adding nothing in the way of stagecraft or passion. I would imagine he’s in the band precisely for that reason - because he’s no trouble. I can’t see them creating a song like The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, also played, about former guitarist Jim Martin, about him. All the songs you’d wish for were played – Be Aggressive, Surprise! You’re Dead!, Epic, Midlife Crisis, Easy and set closer We Care A Lot. It was a powerful, breathless show received by a rapturous crowd.
As the crowd dispersed to find more drink and then reconvened for Editors, strolling back a few songs in, I realised what a headlining-non-headliner was. Everyone had used their energy on FNM, which felt like a headliners set – a lukewarm reception was all they had left, and wanted, to give. Considering their well played but ultimately fairly dull songs, fronted by a third rate Ian Curtis tribute singer whose voice could put you to sleep, this was no surprise. By then, at nearly 2am, my legs ached and, having not slept for a couple of days, I was ready to make an exit and leave the masses to their all-night party. Off we went, a crush for the cable car down reminding me that Germans (even if they’re Swiss) aren’t big on forming a queue. It was a unique experience and one that I would be happy to repeat.
So, when Jon and Tracy Morter started a Facebook campaign to get a Rage Against The Machine song to challenge the X Factor/Pop Idol dominance of the Christmas number 1 slot the prevailing feeling was that it wouldn’t work, how could it? How could a country that expects something for nothing, whether it’s in the pursuit of these X Factor golden tickets or the reluctance to pay for media, be motivated into dropping their apathy?
The campaign was grass roots; rationally, it had no chance against the multi-million pound ITV-powered exposure of the X Factor. But a funny thing happened. It turned out that as many people as there are lapping up paparazzi-fuelled, reality TV drivel and endless celebrity magazine coverage, there are just as many who not only exist completely outside that world but also were looking for a way to protest against it. There are those of us, even if we’re unable to avoid the cultural proliferation of it all, who don’t watch these shows nor buy into the voting/buying follow-up aspect, and we felt strangely compelled to support this Facebook campaign. By our thousands we downloaded, and no doubt some people were doing so for the first time, the anti-corporate anthem Killing In The Name.
To be part of something that for just one moment defeated the Cowell machine, all cynicism aside, felt undeniably good. The Christmas number 1 race, whether it ended with a cheesy pop hit or a novelty record, had at least always been interesting, a laugh. Now with X Factor et al the race had been destroyed for five years on the run. No longer. More than half a million souls bought that RATM song and proved their point. The promised gig, last night in Finsbury Park, brought 40,000 together for a victory party. It had a Reading Festival feel, with its stalls of endless no quality fast food and poor facilities. It was no Glastonbury, with its veggie burgers and Hare Krishna tent. This was a booze-sodden public space, overtaken by metalheads, current and former, and kids likely born after the 1992 release of the band’s first album.
The conquering heroes from Los Angeles took the stage as evening became night, powering through a flawlessly chosen 75-minute set – Bulls on Parade, Bullet in the Head, Freedom, Bombtrack, Testify – and those monstrous bass-driven riffs felt as powerful as they did 18 years ago. For me, and I suspect many others, there was a sense of youth reliving, having found that first album to be an unwavering accompaniment to my teens. Each member of this muscular and powerful band connected every sinew and thought to each other and the audience. I’ve never heard an outdoor gig sound as good.
I’m sure record labels, themselves raging against the dying light, and PR companies will try to harness the lightning in a bottle campaign and copy it, in a futile attempt to con the public into doing this every year. But they won’t pull it off. The internet has been harnessed many times into creating a buzz about films or flash mobs but it never felt like this before. A band most people in our culturally deprived and tabloid-fed nation had never heard of were made into household names almost overnight. It was a campaign free of guile and agenda, which won’t be repeated in quite the same way again.
As the main show ended and the crowd roared their approval, a short film, accompanied by the losing song, appeared on the screens, telling the David and Goliath tale, complete with quotes from the poor lad who won the X Factor and lost the bigger battle. Who will remember him another 18 years from now? He’ll be a footnote, along with the other ‘winners’ of these shows. The encore performance of Killing in the Name was utterly triumphant, the perfect end to a brilliant show. RATM have always prospered as outspoken advocates for the power of the individual. They had their victory, and we had ours.
The stage stayed dark, save for a single spotlight over him. Flanked by scenery from his own opera, Prima Donna, playing currently, he weaved melodies from his own hand, Shakespeare’s sonnets and a French libretto. A ten-foot coat train draped behind him stretching half way across the stage, as the visuals of Douglas Gordon gently unfurled on a cinema size screen. Known for his Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait film, a real-time study of the graceful, balletic Frenchman playing for Real Madrid, he took film of Rufus’s eye, clad in make-up, black oils and a silver tipped false eyelash, and played the footage back in slow motion as the large eye, or several smaller ones, opened and closed. At the surprising end of his Zidane film, the master fights his way into a red card. As Rufus played the last song, Zebulon, a tale of an imaginary childhood friend returning to witness adulthood, a bulbous tear collected in the on screen eye and slowly made its journey, as tears do. I wiped my own tear, not for the last time in the evening, and took pause as he again slowly walked off as the curtain fell and the applause was finally allowed to rise. With a wonderful absurdity and a theatrical pretentiousness that somehow didn’t feel unwelcome, it was quite simply one of the finest and most moving performances I have seen.
Recorded a month before Kate McGarrigle’s death in January, All Days Are Nights has inevitably taken on the role of songs mourning the end before it came. That he gets out there and plays these songs feels like part of the recovery process, with emotions open and raw. That’s always been the way in his family, gladly beholden to their folk tradition. Intimate feelings are poured into songs, be they complimentary or vicious. The song Martha exhorts his sister to take over the matriarch role, as something she must do, hers to make in her own image. Dinner At Eight, performed in the second half, is a devastating, sad tale of child abandonment and plea for remorse directed at their father Loudon. Now Kate has gone the healing of parental relations seems to have begun, with that song the last, you hope, of the most brutal of judgements.
Coming out for the second half rather more modestly dressed, Rufus was visibly relaxed, performing songs of great beauty – The Art Teacher, Poses, Vibrate – for the assembled crowd. Always a bundle of nervous energy he riffed on the noticeable blue plaques in London, given to notable residents: “I need one of those… or a statue maybe!” He is a curious mix of extreme show-off and goofy joker, welcomed with great affection by his audience.
Taking two encores, the setlist spanning all of his recorded work, he warned us that what was coming, The Walking Song, was by his mother and an example of her being the most talented of the family. It was beautiful and, since he has elected to perform it nightly, it brought the outcome one might expect: he made it almost to the end without breaking down but upon singing “We’ll talk blood and how we were bred, talk about the folks both living and dead” he could hold onto his concentration no longer and, with cracking voice, it rumbled to a quick halt. He stood, wiped tears from his face, and took a bow. One final note of brightness, the first song from his first album, Foolish Love, ended the proceedings.
He pushes himself harder than ever at a time when he’s most vulnerable, inviting us to intrude on his grief. Public mourning is very often painful to witness, and it was, but one could not turn down the invitation of going on the journey.
Who Are You New York?
Sad with What I Have
Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now!
What Would I Ever Do with a Rose?
Les Feux D'Artifice T'Appellent
The Art Teacher
Dinner At Eight
Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk
Going To A Town
The Walking Song
Your heart was consumed by it but your head knew it was fleeting. It was the difference between childhood crush and adult love. Transpose that to music and my crush was Bowie. Then in ’93 he released an album I didn’t, and still don’t, like. He took his eye off the ball and Suede swooped in to take advantage. He got me back in ’95 but Suede had taken hold by then – maybe they did it so easily precisely because they were so in thrall to Bowie too.
The press, as is their way, built them up and then rubbed their hands in glee when Bernard Butler left and their sprawling, insane, brilliant second album Dog Man Star, and its preceding single, Stay Together, fell into wreckage. But Brett Anderson had always been stubborn, he recruited a 17-year-old Suede fan to replicate those guitar parts perfectly and then the press had to shut their mouths as the band produced their most successful and hit-packed album, Coming Up, in ‘96. Anderson/Oakes wrote better pure pop songs than Anderson/Butler. They weren’t ambitious but they were irresistible.
I was there until the bitter end, seven years ago, as they bowed out with the forgettable A New Morning. And then, at the Royal Albert Hall this week, I found that most unimaginable of things – the band I cheated on my crush with had not been dimmed by age and the ardour I felt had not been extinguished by the passing years. I pondered aloud, on these very pages, in a Brett Anderson review in January whether youthful love had blinded me. That in adulthood I feared finding the music dated and shallow, unable to stand the test of time.
Half way through the show, after a breathless Metal Mickey, the applause carried on, and carried on, until it became a full standing ovation. One by one each of them broke into a smile, finally stopping the breakneck pace of the show, and started to take in the wave of love and gratitude coming at them. Even the impermeable Neil Codling, on guitar and keyboards, broke rank. Always a Suede song made flesh, all pale glamour and high cheekbones, he broke character and took in the moment, his first Suede show for nearly ten years. Solid and cool on bass and drums, Mat Osman (now a magazine editor) and Simon Gilbert (living in Thailand, now a member of punk rock band Futon, big in Asia apparently) joined him, exchanging smiles. Richard Oakes, the teenager who never felt the weight of what he was replacing, remembered that the first gig he went to was Suede. He made this possible.
A contented smile covered Brett’s face, visibly overwhelmed by what he had not felt for years. His more self-conscious moves gone, he had retaken the vibrant leader role and made it his again. He still knew how to do this, becoming the focal point of the collective energy of both band and audience. He revelled in it because he hadn’t spent the preceding seven years chasing it.
We jumped and sang and rejoiced, but that was the thing, I wasn’t reliving my teens. It was all happening now, right now, it wasn’t some flashback – this music was still great. Everyone felt it and it was better than when we were young, as if none of us had aged.
I saw them at the Manchester Apollo in ‘96 and given that Coming Up was the first record they’d made with Oakes writing and playing, it was deemed best to not play anything from the first album. They did play some of Dog Man Star but Animal Nitrate et al were too hard to face. I never did get to hear those debut album tunes then but there they were in 2010, we heard it all - B-sides, album tracks and hits.
They could have gone on for another half hour playing songs there were no time for – We Are The Pigs, Still Life, My Insatiable One, By The Sea, Sleeping Pills and Stay Together (never likely, the band disowned it when it came out). But nothing like that mattered. Everyone just forgot how the years had passed, how we’d all grown up, how we were tired of our office jobs, and we let the music do what it does.
The press wrote them off as foppish posers, after once declaring them the most exciting band in England, and they never got the respect they deserved. No more. It was undeniable. A childhood crush lasts forever; it stays with you, frozen in perfect time. But your first love fades, as it’s supposed to. Sixteen years have passed since my first love. I imagined what it would be like seeing him now, still looking the same as in ‘94. My heart would jump; there would be no letdown. It would still mean everything.
Killing of a Flash Boy
Can’t Get Enough
Everything Will Flow
The Next Life
Asphalt World/So Young
The Wild Ones
The Beautiful Ones
The Living Dead
The 2 of Us
It’s the 10th anniversary of the Teenage Cancer Trust, the charity set up by Roger Daltrey, who introduced the band with his customary East End swagger. Having block booked this very week a decade ago, to ensure an uninterrupted series of gigs at the venue, the Hall shuddered, bounced and blasted my ears to shreds. It must have been the loudest show since Led Zeppelin played there in 1970. After about 45 minutes I thought the sound lost something, either the band lost a little energy, which wouldn’t be anything to be ashamed of considering the pace they started at, but then I realised it was just the ringing in my ears.
With one hour-long album out, it took some magic and a couple of new tunes to make a great 90 minute show - but that’s what it was. It was completely without pretension, guile, artifice and calculation. They just enjoy it, there’s no more to it than that. As you might imagine, with a combined age of 135 for the three core members (Mere babies compared to The Stranglers, then - Ed.) and decades of playing to their names, they were tighter than most bands I’ve seen.
It was hard to take your eyes off Dave Grohl. Not just because it’s a pleasure to see him behind the kit again but because he’s a compelling figure, a talisman now as close to Bonham as anyone will ever get. Josh Homme’s voice and playing are perfect, his persona the epitome of tough West Coast cool. He even did a little shuffle dance during Interludes With Ludes, an almost swing track from the album and the only guitar-free song on offer. Grohl and Homme are doing this really to fulfil a childhood dream; that much is obvious. They don’t want to let John Paul Jones, always classy and still lightning quick at 64, down and they’ve made a record together that stands beside the best of Plant’s solo output. Sure, there’s a bit of filler on it. But when they get it right – New Fang, Spinning in Daffodils, Caligulove, Gunman, Mind Eraser No Chaser – those riffs are big enough to stand up to anything they’ve made before.
How many kinds of gigs are there? There’s always a mate’s band and if you’re lucky you won’t have to pretend they’re good. You’ll see overhyped bands in underground clubs with foot-high stages and variable outcomes. You’ll tolerate arenas or stadia to see the artists who’ve always meant the world to you and you’ll feel the pang of songs that have been embedded into your consciousness. For the amount you’re paying these days, 50 quid up, it should be worth it. You might take a chance and find a show unexpectedly enjoyable, not to mention eccentric (as I did last week seeing bass legend Les Claypool – more avant-garde jazz funk experimentation than you could bend a Larry Graham thumb at).
The better experiences last in the memory at least until the next gig. But if, by some miraculous alignment, you combine good judgement and luck on a particular night, you witness a show that you know you’ll be talking about for years to come. I felt that way the first time I saw Arcade Fire, when I knew not one of their songs, in May 2005 at the Astoria. And I felt that same way last Sunday, as I stood in spellbound shock after Grizzly Bear’s last chord had faded.
More of a double bill than a support slot and headliner, I also can’t remember enjoying an opening act as much as I enjoyed Baltimore’s sublime Beach House. I swooned as French-born Victoria Legrand’s soaring, sonorous voice reached into every nook of the Roundhouse’s columns and circus-top roof. Their new album, Teen Dream, one of my favourites of the year so far, resurrects a Cocteau Twins dream pop feel I thought was lost a generation ago. Mac loops, jangly guitars, keyboards and that voice: it won’t be long until they’re filling the venue by themselves.
And so, to Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear. Where on earth do these songs come from? Walls of dense noise, musicianship connected on a cellular level, climactic epic sounds, gentle psychedelic pop floated up to the Roundhouse balcony as lanterns flickered across the stage; all this from four young men who play without displaying any of the arrogance that should be inevitable in a band this good. When you think of how much praise powerful but derivative acts like Kasabian get, you feel like shaking record (CD/digital) buyers by the shoulders and saying come on, listen to this, music can be so much more than the pedestrian big-chorus-and-nothing-else Kings of Leon/Killers rock we’re all being force-fed. It can be more than churned out formulaic electro or Cowell-created packaging. This joyous magical music comes from the Radiohead end of that spectrum – no wonder they’re Jonny Greenwood’s favourite band.
Veckatimest was 2009’s best album, a headphones record that washes over you, a sonic pleasure. The show as a whole and the performance of those songs improved on recorded perfection. I just stood there in shock, taking in the harmonies and the instruments – yes, drums and guitars but also a Rhodes organ, flute, clarinet, glockenspiel and Autoharp – as it all went by in a haze. It was a special night and everyone there knew it. Some say all the chords have been used, all the great songs have been written. Not for them. It felt like a step forward.
Midlake, a few EPs and three albums in, are just now able to play venues the size of the 2000 capacity Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Allowed to make a couple of albums while no-one noticed, they are now ready and moving at their own pace, growing in experience and gaining a fan base at a comfortable level. Now expanded to a seven-piece live, their chilled psychedelic folk rock was a charming way to spend an evening. There’s something undemanding about them, almost forgettable. But you sense they’re the kind of band who’ll start making their best records at album five or six. That’s how it used to be – some of the best artists you can think of, from U2 to Tim Buckley, made several albums before anyone noticed. Albums were made quickly, and to a budget, so that a label weren’t going mad at the studio bill and the artist didn’t find themselves deeply in debt to a label unwilling to take chances on them or anyone else in the future. Now albums can be self-made in a home studio as good as any you can record in. This recording freedom is death to big labels and relentlessly invigorating to everyone else. Midlake took 18 months to make their new album, The Courage Of Others. A decade ago they wouldn’t have had a chance. A beautiful grower of a record, they played much of it last night to a typical London crowd.
By typical, I mean everyone found it hard to shut up and stop moving around constantly for drinks. People treat gigs like they’re in a pub. You don’t notice it when you’re at the front, because those that surround you are committed to the artist. Arriving late, I was at the back, constantly distracted by the search for booze and inane chatter. But as the gig wore on everyone started to focus, realising this band were working hard up there and deserved more attention. And of course, they had started playing songs the audience knew, from 2006’s breakthrough album The Trials of Van Occupanther.
They’re what I’d call a Whistle Test band. They look young, laid back, long- haired, wear a bit of flannel and indulge in the odd jam. Not too much though, it was all tightly played, mostly through their four minute folk pop gems. CSNY harmonies backed by post-Green, but pre-Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac. They might have listened to a lot of what leader Tim Smith has called ‘fair maiden’ music (meaning Fairport Convention and the Pentangle) but fortunately their sound remains relatively untouched by that particular kind of British folk sound, which is a relief to my ear. It was an undemanding but enjoyable night and it’ll be a pleasure to see them find their feet in the next few years.
Uncertainty aside, I came to think that they deserved better and more recognition as one of the great British bands of the 90s. They were the first band to be on the cover of Melody Maker before they released a song and were promoted straight to the cover of the NME at pretty much the same time. The knives were out but when The Drowners arrived, the critical praise and frenzied acolytes poured forward. I remember watching them on the Brit Awards; Brett struck that androgynous chord with me that Bowie had done some years earlier. Shaking his hips, whipping the mic-lead, with his skinny frame barely covered by a chiffon cardigan, there stood the next descendent of Bowie and Morrissey. The latter couldn’t resist covering their Moz-ish B-side My Insatiable One. Always with an eye toward the bitchy he then proclaimed in an interview, ‘Brett Anderson will never forgive God for not making him Angie Bowie.’
After a string of superb singles came the epic Stay Together followed quickly by Dog Man Star, which became one of my favourite albums of the decade. Bernard departed; to be replaced by a teenage fan that followed his, at first, slavish imitation by co-writing hit after hit on Coming Up.
After their split, followed by a well-publicised bout with drug addiction, Brett has, to little attention, moved forward into a surprisingly brilliant musical reinvention. Not that you would know about it, since his albums don’t attract the press these days. Admittedly out of nostalgia I grabbed a ticket for last night’s gig, my ardour having been reawakened by the news of Suede’s forthcoming brief reformation, minus Bernard, who seems busy enough wasting his talent on helping Duffy make average records, for one of March’s Teenage Cancer Trust gigs.
Everyone wanted Suede songs, there were none played. At first there was an understandable restlessness to the crowd, with it being a Friday night and everyone desperate to remember what being young was like. For an artist whose not yet made his name as a solo artist this is a dangerous game. You’re selling tickets on reputation while virtually no one knows any song they’re hearing. And then suddenly, you let go of the reason you came, you forget that you were there to recapture a part of your youth. And the reason this happens is because of the dark, lush, Scott Walker-ish, torch songs coming at you. Cello and piano fill the room and that voice, more powerful than it ever was, sells it. It hardly hinders that the man has charm to spare. Now 42, he’s still dazzling to look at, in a sunken-cheeked Man Who Fell To Earth kind of way, still rake thin and still as impossibly sexy as he was in 1993.
Brett Anderson, the great overlooked icon of Britpop. I’d wondered if I’d be disappointed if nothing old was played. It was a rediscovery.
If you can go to a gig and smile throughout isn’t that something worth celebrating? Yellow and orange balloons bounce onto your head; you raise your hands to the sky as confetti drips over you like psychedelic rain. A pair of oversized hands bookend the stage as the band emerges from a giant LED vagina. A Flaming Lips show is a unique experience.
But this vagina entrance is not the first time we glimpse the talismanic Wayne Coyne. He took a position, grinning, by the onstage mixing desk to hear the support, his nephew’s band, Stardeath & White Dwarfs. Then he pounced onstage during the changeover to make sure everything was set up properly, something you suspect he’d been doing since load in. The lengthy soundcheck/instrument tuning featured the whole band. Finally, Wayne’s health and safety lecture followed then a quick dash off before emerging for the show. The Lips do things a little differently.
Incidentally, Stardeath were really rather good. Swirling guitars and pulsating bass, if not a little too much strobe light, and their fantastic cover of Madonna’s Borderline, made for an enjoyable support slot. It’s testament to the power of the Flaming Lips show and songs that their previous stage cameos took nothing away from Race For The Prize, the joyous bouncy opener. Sure, it’s a shtick in and of itself, the circus in front of you. But it just feels so good, makes you glow from the inside. Other rock shows can only look pedestrian in comparison. It’s a good job their music is as brilliant as it is, otherwise it’d just show up a great spectacle with nothing behind it. Fortunately, having just released their 12th album, the Lips know what they are doing.
The audience was dazzled, taking whatever was thrown, literally and figuratively, whether it was the searing See The Leaves from new album Embryonic, or a glowing singalong of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Even their tendency to pause for applause near the end of songs before they’re over, several times, never feels annoying or contrived. Everything is endearing and charming with enigmatic support on bass provided by longtime member Michael Ivins and, the musical driving force and all round genius, Steven Drozd, on guitars and keyboards.
It’s a collective, with touring drummer Kliph Scurlock and a whole host of animal costume clad friends at both sides of the stage. But the focal point is always rock philosopher Wayne Coyne, clad in his usual linen suit with wild greying hair and beard. It’s his show, the hands-on ringmaster pulling all the chaos together with his beautiful almost Neil Young sounding voice. He creates a chaotic kind of control, as he rolls on the audience’s heads inside a giant plastic ball. It was a gig that had everything – thumping riffs on The W.A.N.D., the gentle Fight Test and the cathartic Do You Realize?? to finish.
I’m sure, reading a recent Pitchfork set of fan comments, that their ‘real’ (read: pre Yoshimi) fans resent this current incarnation. That it’s become all about the show and their music is not what it was. Classic sour grapes from the ‘I liked them 15 years ago’ brigade. Once they were a well-kept secret, now they are at the big cult band end of the spectrum, but I don’t see what the complaining is about. The music is wonderful; the show is unusual and creates happiness in a crowd of people usually, given its London, full of cynicism. They need us to complete the show; it’s a contract between performer and listener. Too many bands have disdain for their audience, this band see us as crucial parts of the show. They can’t do it without us. I walked out of the Troxy feeling high as a kite, wishing more gigs were like this. When I got home and took off my shirt, half a dozen bits of yellow and orange confetti fell out and spiralled to the floor. All gigs should feel like this.
I can’t think of one other established band that would dare start a stadium show with four songs from their new album. A band that has been around for 5 albums wouldn’t be confident enough to do it. A band with 10 or more albums tends to put one or two tracks in, sneaking them in between a couple of famous ones. A band with more than 15 albums, a rock dinosaur like the Stones or The Who, play nothing from the last 30 years of their careers. And yet here we were, in the ludicrous Wembley Stadium, listening to four songs from No Line On The Horizon open the show. I’d bemoaned it, having taken a sneaky peek at a typical setlist already, but I can’t deny that it worked perfectly. People are chomping at the bit to hear songs they know but this band are still making good records and everyone knows it. They drop in perfect pop songs like Beautiful Day and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For as if these are just one of many. And they are. Songs this band might use as B-sides would sit as the best songs in their imitators’ canons.
It’s just so easy. And they are this good not because they are all great musicians, they got this good simply because they work hard. Because they have been playing live for 30 years and at this level, they know what they’re doing and somehow make Wembley seem small. Part of that is due to the cartoonish ‘Claw’ stage set. A staggering feat of engineering and designed to resemble some kind of space station (well, they did come on stage to Bowie’s Space Oddity). Every inch of this contraption does something – a mirror ball at the top some 65 feet up, endless lights, moving walkways, a mic shaped as a steering wheel on a rope comes down for the encore and, perhaps most jaw dropping, the 360 degree screen wrapping underneath the entire structure. It’s well executed in itself but about an hour in the whole thing expands downwards, in a lattice shape, to almost reach the crowd’s heads. Ironically, this led to the show’s inevitable dip as I found the new version of the screen completely overwhelming and distracting. The spectacle should complement, not cover up, the band. That could also be due to the average City Of Blinding Lights being up next, looking bloodless after the immense Unforgettable Fire.
In the 90s, as they made musical strides that ensured they sold less records, the pinnacle of rock show excess was undoubtedly ZOO TV. Playing almost every track from their then new album, (the now acclaimed as a classic) Achtung, Baby, Bono fully took over and, let’s face it, U2 have never been shy of embracing their inner Spinal Tap. Those who declare them humourless must be watching a different band than the one who dressed as the Village People for Discotheque, indulging in a camp, now dated but still fun, remix for Even Better Than The Real Thing and did a show backed by the biggest screen ever used in a gig while performing under a giant yellow half of a McDonald’s M. It’s easy to paint them as earnest when they insert a sample of an uplifting Desmond Tutu speech before the encore, or ask everyone to wear paper masks of Aung San Suu Kyi - but somehow, even though you know you should groan, you don’t mind. They give you the songs, so what if they ask you to think for 30 seconds a couple of times? There’s no reason why a rock concert has to be completely mindless. Still, I’m glad that they went back to making obvious music in 2000, which competes with, and effortlessly outflanks bands half their age - the balance in the ranks has been restored. It’s not just Bono’s show anymore.
The ageless Larry Mullen, the greying but effortlessly cool Adam Clayton and The Edge, a scientist of a man who fills the stadium with iconic riffs, are no mere supporting players. They’ve never been better. Other bands who try and fill this kind of space – Coldplay, The Killers et al – should stand back. They know they will never be as good; they will never put on a rock spectacle like U2 can. This is how it’s done.
So admittedly, I knew next to nothing about them. I know what many of you probably know -- that they had a freakish number 1 hit with La Bamba in the 80s. No doubt this song has given them a great life and they still probably earn money from it to this day. It's allowed them the kind of career any band dreams of. You get to play music for a living and no-one drives you mad in the street. You get to meet your heroes and play on their albums. It's a dream and you sensed that they were gladly aware of it, full of smiles and appreciation.
There's a Mexican edge to it, with a few songs sung in Spanish, but on the whole they're a hard, fast, blues rock band. Imagine a soup of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Healey, a bit of Santana and that band from the strip club in From Dusk Til Dawn. In a way they are somewhat like The Band, drawing together the musical strands they know and love into something unique. To top it off I have a weakness for a good guitar and co-leader and multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo is a serious shredder. Imagine David Gilmour in a Tex Mex band. Tremendous player. The other leader, Cesar Rosas, is fairly recognisable, with his slicked back hair, black goatee and ever-present sunglasses. Both have unexpectedly tender voices, which bore no trail of the 25 years of gigs that brought them to Camden.
It was a masterclass, undeniably. Indeed, the cool LA vibe coming off the stage reminded me of my own travels there. I was enthralled, as Dude lookalike Steve Berlin blew hard on the sax and guitarist Louie Perez laid in extra guitars, either electric or on jarana (a small acoustic guitar native to Mexico), before going back to bash the drums -- I later learned he had been the original drummer but had switched, making them a three guitar attack. This was how music should be played, to a small and appreciative audience, with flawless covers of My Generation and Traffic's Dear Mr Fantasy ending the show.
My dad bopped in that embarrassing dad way. My mum couldn't resist asking Hidalgo about his last session gig -- playing accordion (an instrument I found oddly mesmerising live) on the most recent Dylan album, Together Through Life. The night ended with me cracking up talking to Berlin and cuddly, charming bassist Conrad Lozano, as I watched my dad tell a story about drummers Philly Joe Jones and Keith Moon, while being filmed, no doubt for some DVD extra, by Perez. It was an unexpectedly brilliant night, one I'll be happy to repeat....
Morrissey fans are a sour bunch. It seems to me that some of them buy tickets simply to line up and have a go. They love and hate him before they even turn up, love him during the gig then hate him again straight afterwards, if they don't get exactly quite what they want. The man himself gets up there, sweats and exhausts his sometimes-fragile voice, and all he receives back, from some, is a moan. Many are like me, there to have a good time and appreciate one of the best pop back catalogues of the last 30 years. Sometimes I think that the love of his audience is the only kind he's able to process. The worst kinds of fans are what I call the 'setlist moaners'. I have never been this kind of person, one that will attend a gig and come out disappointed that my favourite songs were not played. I might say this is descended from my first Bowie show, where he played a greatest hits setlist. From that point onwards I never had to wish I were hearing a particular song from him since I had heard the 'famous' ones. And that seems to have informed my gig-going habits ever since. I can be disappointed with many aspects of shows I see but not the set list. yet, this seems to be the main, often ruinous issue with the hardcore fans, i.e. those attending more than a few shows. Are they suggesting he changes the set list to accommodate those who obsessively attend multiple shows? Admittedly, on paper the setlist is not strong. Not nearly as good as the one I was seeing at the Roundhouse 18 months ago, which contained Death of a Disco Dancer, International Playboys and more. But who cares really? 25 years of recorded music, 4 Smiths albums and a couple of compilations, 10 solo albums and countless gigs. He knows what he is doing, live. If you don't have a great time it's your own fault.
So, that mini-rant at my fellow fans over, onto the show. The Troxy is one of the more bizarre venues I've been to. A 1920s Art Deco ballroom, carpeted, with many different sections separated by curled stairways and barriers, it felt like being in a venue you didn't want to drop a cup in. There was even a polite row of seats at the back of the tiny main floor. Clumsy as I am, dark as it was, I didn't see this and managed to go flying over someone's outstretched legs before the show even began. I knew I'd done myself some damage but, unwilling to sit it out at the back, I steeled myself and joined the throng. I had been describing the centre of the crowd as a moshpit to friends. This is the wrong word but there doesn't exist a word for what it's like. At the front it was so squashed one could lift legs and remain unmoved. A little further back it's more a mass of swirling, jumping, pushing, frenzied bodies.
This Charming Man had been a song that The Smiths dropped from their shows early on and he had never played it as a solo artist before this tour. As a gig opener it's hard to think of a better choice. I was pleased to then get Boy Happy, from 2005's brilliant Ringleader of the Tormentors, an album he'd been ignoring until recently. Later on, Life is a Pigsty, with its crackling thunder and lightning sound effects, received a rapturous reception, while also allowing everyone a breather. The first couple of songs were a warm up compared to what came next, as everyone bounced together, then something happened -- Irish Blood. It all kicked off. I found myself happily swept up with the crowd, as ever mostly made up of burly men. It's important to stay sharp during these sweeping movements or you can lose your footing. I ended up a good 15 yards to the right of where I started and it wasn't the last time in the evening my position would change. By the end I was almost at the front.
He couldn't resist a little dig at a favoured target. "I was walking through Piccadilly today, and I saw Michael Jackson T shirts saying the King of Pop. This name of this song is The World is Full of Crashing Bores." A smirk and an eyebrow raise, a ripple of laughter spread through the venue. His crowd knows him. And those there to hear Smiths songs, of which there were no less than six, were as delighted as those of us who are more fans of his solo material. After all the moaning, the set list, I feel, has good balance until the later stages. There are four tracks from You Are The Quarry, his so called comeback record, but the six choices from Years of Refusal should be spread better. With half of these Refusal tracks at the end of the show there's no doubt the flow and energy levels do suffer. But these are minor quibbles. You very much feel you are witnessing one of the last great, touring, English pop icons. A man who gives everything he can to his audience. The show is all about him and us; what goes on outside that bubble is irrelevant. He is a million miles away from the performers who might have the songs but barely make eye contact with the audience. He's played arenas and tiny clubs, seeming to prefer the latter despite his lifelong need for appreciation he can never get and his passion for counting sales - as if this bears some relationship to his value as an artist and place in history. He should stop worrying about such things; his legacy is assured.
As his shirt flew into the air just above my head as the First of the Gang encore came to its noisy end, I knew by now what to do -- move back, and fast. In front of me a snarling group, egged on by Morrissey, who has always been attracted to brutal violence (as long as animals aren't involved), jumped for it. A domino effect took hold and the entire middle of the audience fell to the floor. Some people helped each other up, as the rest started fights over the shirt, then security waded in and noses were bloodied. You know you've had a proper night when you've seen a few fights and you go to bed with a bandaged knee.
This Charming Man / I Just Want To See The Boy Happy / Black Cloud / How Soon Is Now? / Irish Blood, English Heart / Ask / I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris / How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel? / You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby / The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores / Girlfriend In A Coma / One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell / Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself / Life Is A Pigsty / Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want / When Last I Spoke To Carol / Sorry Doesn't Help / The Loop / I'm OK By Myself // First Of The Gang To Die
:: The Prodigy :: Bat For Lashes :: Bon Iver :: Linda Lewis :: Tom Jones :: Glastonbury, Shepton Mallet, Somerset, 28-06-09
Tiredness after so many late nights, getting to bed at 4 or so and up before 9, had kicked in but this was the last day and the last chance to hammer it before heading back to real life. A slow start had us at Jazz World (when will they ever put some jazz on?!) relaxing to the unchallenging but listenable vocals of British soul singer LINDA LEWIS. Just listening to her voice (imagine Duffy but much better and less annoying) you’d swear she was 20 but she’s nearly three times that age, having worked with Bowie (backing vocals on Aladdin Sane) and Van Morrison in her time. A pleasant way to start the afternoon.
I confess I’d been looking forward to the designated ‘oldie’ slot of the afternoon - TOM JONES. Last year it had been the dreadful Neil Diamond and was best avoided; this year it was a big party. You think you only know a few songs but it turns out you know almost all of them. A real charmer, he knows how to work the crowd and his soaring voice must have filled the entire farm. Tremendous entertainment.
A short time later we arrived at the Other Stage for the rest of the night. And I witnessed the best back-to-back performances of the weekend. First up was the staggeringly talented Natasha Khan and her band BAT FOR LASHES. More accessible than Kate Bush and not as weird as Bjork she surely has a long career ahead of her, producing magical music. Beautiful songs accompanied by elfin magnetism.
As with Bat For Lashes, the next act were also a solo project, except in name since the leader is the singer and songwriter. Reminding me of Richard Thompson and Tim Buckley came the stand out non-headline performance of the weekend - BON IVER. Leader Justin Vernon wrote the first record in a remote cabin in wintry Wisconsin, his hometown, recovering from serious illness and heartbreak. The crowd felt every sinew of passion and pain as every torn falsetto seared right into you as he told tales of love and loss. It was a truly extraordinary.
Having found Glasvegas to be the emperor’s new clothes the year before we gave them a miss and prepared for the final show. I had been on the fence about it, whether to subject myself to the assault of THE PRODIGY, who I had seen live once before, or take in Blur for the first time. I knew the back catalogues of both bands well so it was just a straight choice. In the end, the Oasis fan in me took over and I thought: fuck Blur. I’ll regret not seeing the Prodigy but I won’t regret not seeing the Essex art-school boys. I needed a big finish to the weekend. And thus I let the Prodigy, also from Essex as it happens, hit me over the head.
No-one does what they do as well as them, of that there’s no doubt. As powerful, and no doubt illegal, flares were set off during Firestarter and the crowd bounced with all the energy they had left I knew I had made the right choice. Without the genius of Howlett they are just a pair of panto villains shouting at you but they were irresistible. And then it was over for another year, as the mud dried, the tents were left in the fields and the long journey home began.
World’s On Fire/Breathe/Omen/Their Law/Poison/Warrior’s Dance/Firestarter/Run With The Wolves/Voodoo People/Comanche/Omen (reprise)/Invaders Must Die/Diesel Power/Smack My Bitch Up/Take Me To The Hospital/Out Of Space
:: Kasabian :: Metric :: Spinal Tap :: Crosby, Stills & Nash :: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band :: Glastonbury, Shepton Mallet, Somerset, 27-06-09
The blazing sun forced me out of my tent earlier than I would have liked but the mud was now dry and so off came the wellies and I was ready to race to the next gig, by now very much in the swing of things. First up was Canadian pop in the form of the surprisingly excellent METRIC before a slow trek in the heat over to the Pyramid to see some proper legends – SPINAL TAP. I confess, I enjoyed this gig a little too much. They would be acclaimed as great musicians were they not, well, what they are. It was a tremendous show, full of humour and genuinely good songs. In theory it simply shouldn’t work - three middle aged actors in eyeliner and wigs - but there is so much good feeling and affection toward them that it became the best day performance I’d seen thus far. You can’t beat tunes like Big Bottom (with Jarvis Cocker adding yet more bass) and Sex Farm and, inevitably, the highlight was a brilliant Stonehenge as they were joined on stage by a sagging inflatable miniature monument and two midgets dressed as Druids. Unbeatable.
Around that time we realised we couldn’t remember the last time we’d eaten, so returned to a tried and trusted food outlet by the John Peel Stage. I must say that the food at Glasto is flawless and hugely varied, a million miles away from standard greasy burger festival fare and more than accommodating to everyone’s tastes, including vegetarians like me. While having a little rest with our food we overheard a band that had recently headlined the Camden Crawl called HOCKEY. They came across to me as utterly average so we left, just as New Jersey’s GASLIGHT ANTHEM were starting, to get back in time for CROSBY, STILLS & NASH. Perhaps we should have given them a chance - Springsteen joined them on stage for a song, to the utter frenzy of the crowd. Lead singer Brian Fallon returned the favour and appeared on stage with Bruce later on. I might say a Glasto regret is rare but not sticking around for the Gaslight Anthem counts as one.
Mind you, I had been very much looking forward to CSN, being a longtime fan I knew they would put me in hippy heaven. What felt like a sparse crowd were treated to some genuinely legendary songs - Long Time Gone, Wooden Ships, For What It’s Worth (originally by Stills’ - and indeed Neil Young’s - first band Buffalo Springfield), Almost Cut My Hair, Military Madness, Marrakesh Express, Guinnevere and even a tender cover of Ruby Tuesday. Even without the iconic Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, which they had performed at only their second ever gig, Woodstock, being played It was a lovely performance from a band who truly embody the spirit and politics of the festival.
Having been underwhelmed by KASABIAN at Oasis’ Heaton Park gig recently I wasn’t excited to see them again but I must say, I wrote them off too early. They turned in a masterful performance, which I couldn’t help but enjoy. I still think they write a lot of filler but they seem to be improving now, after stalling with Empire. However, while it was an undeniably good show, they couldn’t avoid being the forgettable warm up compared to the main event, The Boss. I just never got it, what his fans go on about, until a few months ago. My parents, avid fans, had always insisted of his genius as a live performer. So I bought a DVD before the event to see what all the fuss was about and that was it, I saw the light. And thus, it became, for me, the most anticipated performance of the festival - BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and the earth shaking, history making, Viagra taking E STREET BAND!
I have seen Prince, Bowie, Jagger, Bono and James Brown live but this guy, this likeable, sexy, charming, down to earth working class hero might well be the greatest live performer I have ever seen. Starting with a song written about the festival by Glasto’s patron saint, Joe Strummer, he raced ahead as the audience barely kept pace. After a high-octane start, he left the stage probably a dozen times throughout the show to get down to the crowd, leaning in as far as he could without vanishing into the mass of outstretched hands. The songs are unadorned classic rock and roll but in truth, for most of the audience, there was little recognition of many of them.
The fact is that Springsteen is simply not a cultural icon in this country like he is back home. Your average rock fan in the USA knows a dozen or more of his songs whereas here that’s simply not the case so for much of the audience, though the show was compelling, thrilling and masterfully performed, they didn’t know the songs and that took the edge off. Never mind that it is impossible for the audience to match his energy - never have I seen a performer work so hard. During a quiet moment late on, he stood motionless before starting to sing and the cameras captured his silhouette, as steam rose off his body. It was a staggering moment.
But I can’t deny that he should have chosen the setlist a little more carefully to receive the outpouring of love he’s used to. Outside of his own fanbase, and remember he can still fill stadia here too, people only know Born in the USA and a few others so while I was enthralled I also felt aware that no-one knew the tunes. Classic material like Badlands, The River and Thunder Road would be greeted at an American festival with the same ardour reserved for his famous 80s hits. But here the crowd only hit the sky when he did Glory Days, Born to Run, Because the Night and Dancing in the Dark, as he kept working and finally winning everyone over, ending on the best encore of the festival. For me, the setlist was great - highlights being transcendent versions of Outlaw Pete, the Ghost of Tom Joad and Out in the Street, with particular worship heading for the magnificent Max Weinberg, Nils Lofgren, Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante no less!) and the ageless Clarence Clemons. But for everyone else, they were reaching for songs they knew and found only a few. Perhaps partly because of this, it became my second favourite show of the weekend when I had expected it to be the first. It wasn’t Springsteen’s fault but, on that form, in this setting and despite Bruce playing 10 songs more, Neil Young was never going to be topped.
Coma Girl/Badlands/Prove It All Night/My Lucky Day/Outlaw Pete/ Out In The Street/Working On A Dream/Seeds/Johnny 99/The Ghost Of Tom Joad/Raise Your Hand/Because The Night/No Surrender (w/ Brian Fallon)/Waitin’ On A Sunny Day/The Promised Land/The River/Radio Nowhere/Lonesome Day/The Rising/Born To Run
Encore: Hard Times/Thunder Road/Land Of Hope And Dreams/ American Land/Glory Days/Dancing In The Dark
:: Neil Young :: Fucked Up :: N*E*R*D :: Fleet Foxes :: Lamb :: The Specials :: Glastonbury, Shepton Mallet, Somerset, 26-06-09
It seems to be getting longer each year – time was when the hordes would descend on sleepy Pilton on a Friday, jumping right into the performances before the tent pegs had been driven in. These days virtually everyone is settled in by Thursday morning. Those who couldn’t take the time off work trudged in fearfully late, knowing they would have to find space a mile away or face the worst – camping almost on the paths where people fell into your tent in the night or by the toilets. I need not even describe the folly of the latter. So there we were, leaving Bedford on Wednesday morning at 7am. Even then it was a seven-hour drive including a two hour wait to get into the site. As a result of all this, by the time you see your first band you’ve been there two days and almost forgotten there is even music coming. Some serious overnight rain on Thursday turned the ground into a sticky mudfest, reminiscent of two years ago, but thankfully the weather turned on Friday, sunscreen was applied and the first band were ready.
Personally, I find it all very physically demanding. It’s easier for some people than others and it’s hard not to feel a tinge of envy toward those who sail through it, sitting in blazing hot sun all day without so much as a batted eyelid. Unsuited to the outdoors as I am I don’t find it easy but my god, the rewards are great.
As Friday had dawned and I remembered why we were there, the endlessly fun task of choosing what to see began. It’s quite an art and it’s all in the timing. I had read a little about the unusual stage show of Canadian band FUCKED UP and suggested that they be the first stop. To me their music is undeniably average but the show really lies with their delightfully named frontman Pink Eyes. A bald, but otherwise hairy, anarchist built like a tank, there was no doubt that he was THE show. Crowd surfing on brave shoulders he made his way to the back of the John Peel Stage tent and then forward again. A fun way to start the day.
I should say at this point that I’m not a fan of dance music. I understand it, what the genre gives and means, but I like songs and that isn’t going to change. They don’t have to be short, I can sit and listen to a jazz piece that lasts an hour without a break, but there is variation in that. An endless beat is not for me. In the course of the weekend there were various trips to the dance tents to catch THE EGG, BANCO DE GAIA and others. It reminded me of the true essence of the festival; there truly is something for everyone. And everything that Glasto does, it does very well. Specialists in each genre are present, whether that be comedy, art, poetry and music of acoustic or electric (or electronic) base. It would be impossible to come away from Somerset feeling unsatisfied in any way.
A stroll to the Pyramid Stage and we were confronted by the unbilled but very welcome Pharrell Williams and his band N*E*R*D. On late and with poor sound he did his very best to put on a good show but a touch of self indulgence told in the end. Knowing he had 5 minutes left, whether that is fair on him or not, he should have skipped to the last song and given the crowd what they wanted to hear. Instead he attempted a different, lesser-known track, and suffered the ignominy of being cut off as the music was faded out. The crowd booed. I felt sorry for him because the band are hugely enjoyable but this event is about how the individuals gather to form the collective. You do your thing and make way for the next band. You don’t stand up there slagging off the organisers and saying you’ll play on as long as you like. No you won’t, they have the volume control. He put on a good show while it lasted.
Not that the organisers get it right absolutely all the time and an example of this came next with the marvellous FLEET FOXES. Wrongly placed on the Pyramid they sank in the chatter of the afternoon sun. Songs of beauty lost. Everywhere except the Pyramid, people are open and listening. At the Pyramid it’s play your hits and get off, whether you’re a legend or not. You get that booking, you know what you must do. With one album and one EP under their belts the biggest stage was not their place. Fleet Foxes would have been one of the acts of the festival at the Other (the second largest) stage. As it stood, they couldn’t make it work.
It was time to avoid Lily Allen so off we went to the Jazz World stage to see Manchester duo LAMB fronted by the enchanting Lou Rhodes, not the last magical female singer I would see that weekend. Then it was back to the Pyramid for the rest of the night. I had seen THE SPECIALS on Later… recently and been hugely impressed, so I was very much looking forward to their performance. The band are superb, the songs are well known and the crowd got right into it. It was the first classic Glasto performance of the weekend, closely followed by the second – headliner NEIL YOUNG. Having grown up with his music ringing around my ears at home I was no novice but I had, in fact, never seen him live before. I’d even had tickets but the show had been cancelled, several years ago.
I’ve been seeing gigs since I was a teenager. I’ve travelled to a dozen cities in seven countries to see artists play. I’ve seen shows in stadia, arenas, theatres, clubs, outdoors, basements… and what I witnessed was simply one of the greatest live performances I have ever seen. The superlatives have run out – charming and eccentric, his voice sears through you and both fills and breaks your heart and his guitar playing rips into your perception of what you thought music could give you. The songs, whether well known or not, are performed with such ferocious intensity or delicate heartbreak you just can’t even comprehend that you’re sharing the same space as him, that these gifts are finding you. He did it on his terms and the whole place fell to its knees. We staggered away slowly, the music spinning around our heads. Back to camp, a little fire built, a post mortem then bed. The first day of music was over.
Neil Young setlist:
Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)/Mansion On The Hill/Are You Ready For The Country?/Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere/Spirit Road/ Words/ Cinnamon Girl/Mother Earth/The Needle And The Damage Done/Comes A Time/Unknown Legend/Heart Of Gold/Down By The River/Get Behind The Wheel/Rockin’ In The Free World/A Day In The Life
Despite this, being decidedly a person who seeks out neither endless amounts of booze nor the opportunity for a fight, I had not ventured into the football match atmosphere of an Oasis gig until last autumn at Wembley Arena. It had been a powerful, aggressive, emotional night and I had to see them in my hometown, in the muddy expanse of Heaton Park.
I can see both sides. If you’re not on their track they’re arrogant, boorish oafs with derivative songs and embarrassingly simple lyrics. If you do get it, their songs puncture you, bringing either a full-throated joyous rejection of the constraints of conformity or tears to your eyes. This is your life’s soundtrack. As individuals, they are everyman, never changing into something you can’t identify with. Indeed, never changing at all. Oasis are your football team, if they scored 10 heavenly team goals in each game.
But, in front of a hits-and-singles tolerant crowd covered in beer (and worse), it was hard to evaluate what it is that has set them apart. The sound swirled in the wind and the mostly drunk crowd sang each word above the sound of the band. What you can surmise is that this band knows what they are doing when they deliver a concert experience to their crowd, a group always on the edge of hugging or having a fight. The setlist was well chosen, drawn mostly from their first two and most recent albums. Now with Gem Archer (Heavy Stereo), Andy Bell (Ride, Hurricane #1), Chris Sharrock (Lightning Seeds, Robbie Williams) and Jay Darlington (Kula Shaker) on board, the Mancs have assembled a fairly accomplished and well travelled set of musicians. As a result they have moved beyond the plodding, limited, rock they were guilty of a decade or so ago. Noel has, in a Pete Townshend style, now constructed himself as the leader. Liam is effortless; behaving as if he were a singer with a lesser ego, seemingly happy to saunter on and off stage, allowing Noel what must now be termed as co-lead singer duties.
But a reminder of what Noel can never achieve comes in the form of Wonderwall, which the elder Gallagher used to sing live. Now wrestled back into Liam’s domain it becomes the song that it was originally and the song that it’s meant to be. In some ways the show seems like a glorified sing-along, but there is a joy in being surrounded by smiling faces celebrating these unbeatable songs. Oasis occupy a unique place in the English psyche. The songs speak of freedom and it's something that mid teens to mid 30s, strive to feel. By coming along and singing, letting it out, it means everything. Like winning the weekend match, it makes work bearable on Monday. There’s no greater secret to it and no-one does it better.
Watching the fairly average Kasabian before the main event only compounded it. They’re not bad, exactly. They do have three or four good songs. They’re just not as good as they think they are and their arrogance, somehow charming when Oasis employ it, is wearing. Against a lesser band Kasabian might seem to have something to offer. Last night it was, well, like watching United play Barcelona. Outclassed.
Immediately, I could see why he favours town hall sized venues, as it soon became clear that the intensity and intimacy are unmatched. There was no shortage of odd characters to talk to and time passed quickly. Support act Doll & The Kicks were surprisingly good, received well by the famously uncharitable Morrissey hardcore. Then, a selection of strange little vignettes were projected onto the stage curtain - the comical video for Sparks latest single, Lighten Up Morrissey, a trashy, vintage, New York Dolls performance, a camp, leather-clad, Vince Taylor clip and a touch of 60s Shirley Bassey. Then, the curtain fell, the muscular sailor backdrop was visible and You'll Never Walk Alone dramatically heralded the entrance of the man and his band as the crush started. Pinned to the people surrounding me there was no way at all to move as the crowd surged, albeit good-naturedly.
“Good evening Cambridge, this is your starter for ten - no conferring”. A searing opening blast of This Charming Man and Irish Blood, English Heart and a gasp for breath later, came the first raised eyebrow. "I have some disturbing news for you. You're all missing the Eurovision Song Contest. Dry those eyes." I sighed with relief as his fragile voice found itself and stayed strong and powerful for the rest of the night. Newer songs from his latest, Years of Refusal, prompted a little easing of the crush, with the punchy Black Cloud coming out particularly well, but with a setlist this varied there was little let up. From the gentle Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself to, my surprise hit of the night, obscure B-side The Loop. I was surprised the song choice was so Smiths heavy, with no less than six songs from that period. As you might imagine those songs, among them Ask and How Soon Is Now, were received with joy unconfined.
Most bands you see get up there, play the songs and, while you might enjoy it, you suspect it's not that different to any other show. With Morrissey you're confronted with dozens of unique incidents. One such was an abusive heckler, questioned until he squirmed, and then the show was stopped as bandleader Boz Boorer got in his face, throwing a few unrepeatable words in his direction. Apparently the heckler was later removed from the venue. The atmosphere was frenzied and the game of getting on stage began. I've never experienced this at other gigs as the fans with an eye on security and a foot on the barrier try to invade to hug or kiss the man himself. Given that this behaviour is encouraged it’s no surprise that one brave soul made it up there to wrap his arms around Morrissey's ample waist. Another staple of the show is the removal of a sweaty shirt, which is then thrown to the baying masses. Viewing him as a younger man, one might not have imagined that, nearing 50, he would rip his shirt off, stripper style, to reveal a positively beefy physique.
I didn't want the show to end and after the last song, First of the Gang To Die, I peeled myself off those around me and, aching all over, stumbled out of the venue, floating and glowing. That's the paradox of Morrissey. He might let you down... but he'll never let you down.
This Charming Man / Irish Blood, English Heart / Black Cloud / Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed / How Soon Is Now? / I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris / How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel? / Ask / Something Is Squeezing My Skull / When Last I Spoke To Carol / Girlfriend In A Coma / Best Friend On The Payroll / Let Me Kiss You / Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself? / One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell / I Keep Mine Hidden / Sorry Doesn't Help / Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others / The Loop / I'm OK By Myself // First Of The Gang To Die
Having been on the road consistently now for over 20 years he’s always coming to a town near you. Rather than handfuls of arena shows in major cities alone, he'll play a baseball diamond in Kansas, a club in Helsinki and, now, a needless Roundhouse gig. Needless in the sense that he had played the O2 the night before and I don’t doubt that the 20,000 souls exited having failed to recognise half of what they’d heard. He'll come to you but when you meet him half way that’s your gift. He’ll do songs you know, but they will bear little resemblance to the recording. He has written these songs once and now he has written them again.
You hear endless treatises on The Voice. I've never understood why it repels people. Maybe you must get past it to arrive at the prize - the songs, their words. Or maybe it's something to revel in, as I do. There's almost a perverse desire to see the voice turn people away, so the jewels are left for those who can open their minds and control their expectations. While the madness of who he is and what he means rages around him, he just gets on with the job of being Bob.
The atmosphere outside the Roundhouse was electric. The crowd stretched for hundreds of yards as the desperately ticketless looked toward the heavens for a miracle. Once inside, the expectant atmosphere was palpable as he made his understated entrance. At first it was hard to digest that it was, well, really him. A slim figure in black, with a white hat atop his head, still endless curls framing that Mount Rushmore worthy face, finished off with a Vincent Price moustache. It took the slightest raised eyebrow and glint of the eye to send the crowd into frenzy. Unlike most acts of a certain age,(stand up Mick and Keith), more than half of his set was drawn from his last three albums. His superlative band, honed to a fine point from many years of touring, led the way as Dylan howled at the microphone, leaning over his keyboard. That indescribable voice told tales of the last 45 years, songs that defy age and change lives. The paradox is that in live performance you witness that which would elicit poor reviews of anyone else – he lets the band carry the weight, his voice is a cross between a cat and a wasp that makes Tom Waits sound like Caruso and his keyboard skills are average. And yet, none of these things take anything away from the show. How he makes these clear flaws simply not matter, is part of the Dylan sleight of hand.
It’s hard to write about him, it’s all been said before. You can only be thankful that you’re around in his time. You can only try to explain what he means to you. My father witnessed this same man saying ‘Play it fucking loud!’ in response to the, no doubt now embarrassed, Judas shouter in May ‘66 at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. As this great American songbook played before my eyes, all I could do was simply call my parents and hold the phone aloft, trembling with emotion, bringing them to him and completing the circle.
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
Tangled Up In Blue
Rollin' And Tumblin'
Tryin' To Get To Heaven
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
High Water (For Charley Patton)
I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)
Highway 61 Revisited
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower
Spirit On The Water
Support band Noisettes were pleasant enough. A good sound and undeniably powerful vocals partially masked that they have only two decent songs in their possession and one of those, due to over-saturation, has become fairly annoying. As stage time approached I realised this was how gigs should be; hot, packed and brimming with anticipation. I cast my eye to the staggering array of equipment and instruments on stage. With five band members plus two additional musicians - saxophonist and sample/keyboard tweaker - this band meant business. Entering to a rapturous howl the band started with the gentle Love Dog, from most recent album Dear Science. A late convert to TVOTR I had only owned the album, released last September, for a few months but it had made a late break for my album of 2008, a spot previously held by Fleet Foxes. It’s a perfect pop record, the like of which I haven’t heard in years. I was gratified to hear most of it live, along with choice cuts from their first two albums. Before they hit this vein of pop the band were fairly noisy and discordant in places, in comparison anyway. This accidentally suited the venue’s sound, more of which later.
Musical collectives like TVOTR (and indeed Arcade Fire) give you something extra on stage. Your eyes dart across each performer, alighting on a viciously passionate drummer, a high jumping guitarist, a headbanging keyboard player or a charismatic bassist singing his heart out. I was overwhelmed by the energy on stage, from producer/guitarist David Sitek’s head down hard playing; the wind chimes attached to his guitar head swinging furiously, drummer Jaleel Bunton’s muscular rhythms, serene but cheekily cool guitarist Malone, who hit the show’s high point by singing the brilliant Red Dress, and the jumping bean leader Tunde. All this while Gerard Smith, on bass/keyboards, lurked at the back of the stage getting the job done and saxophonist Martin Perna blew and flailed as if his life depended on it. Their audience already know these songs will become classics and are just waiting for everyone else to catch up. It’s testament to how good this band are that they beat the sound, which, it must be said, was probably the worst I have heard at a London gig.
Brixton Academy used to engineer some of the best live sounds in London. Around five years ago a new system was installed and it’s been downhill ever since. I’ve seen countless gigs here and been disappointed each time. Any band that has complex sound needs should really play somewhere else. Metal doesn’t fare too badly, as it goes, since the NIN show I saw here was outstanding. But last night it was unbearable. They may as well have left the guitar and bass at home for all you could hear them. The voices did sound good, no complaint there. Other than that it was like listening in submerged water, as a wall of noise came at you. It was just a mud of a sound, surely the worst at any venue in London. It reminded me why I wisely choose to avoid the place when possible. Even so, a great band will defeat the sound system and TVOTR were irresistible.
This band overflow with ideas. There’s lyrically dark pop like Bowie at his best, disco, punk, bits of Afro beat, a Prince-like meld of funky drums and voice, touches of jazz, even prog: this is the sound of a band at the top of their game. Most bands can’t achieve in their whole careers what these Brooklynites have done with only three albums. They are refreshing, in a world of agendas. There are no gimmicks, just great music. You dance and they evolve right in front of your eyes into, the often-made comparison, the American Radiohead. Give them a few years, more good records under their belt, a decent sound system and the world is theirs.
Taking the stage with an understated entrance, almost hidden among her band, she slipped into songs from her 2007 release, The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, without fanfare. With the crowd already enthralled she barely needed to dip into her not inconsiderable musical canon to keep our eyes wide open. Her thoughts, lyrical and verbal, muse on larger topics - faith, science, politics, love - but it's her strident yet unthreatening persona that allows her the space with her audience to gently push her opinions. She bemoaned not being able to join the G20 protests then added with a wink 'Sorry, I'll be in sunny Barcelona tomorrow'. The important comment with the throwaway tag was a recurring theme throughout. The English have a peculiar attitude to emotional resonance at musical events. You can tell it in your lyrics but don't stand there between songs harping on about politics. In America such openness is greeted with heart beating sincerity from the audience but here there's very much a 'get on with it' vibe. If we want to find meaning we will find it ourselves, not be told where it is. But if it's done with grace and charm you can navigate around that English cynicism and Meshell knew the game.
Even then, with eyes firmly on current material, there's room for the odd look over the shoulder, with Faithful, from 1999's magical Bitter, a highlight. But the star of the night was the music, more so than theme or voice. The assembled musicians were of a standard one doesn't usually see. The nearest comparison is to a recent Herbie Hancock show at the Barbican, such was the level of musical ESP at both that show and last night.
The band weaved seamlessly in both genre and tempo, dropping and picking up cues and time signatures - bassist Mark Kelley would play around Meshell's bass, creating the unlikely effect of two basses being not too much for the small room. She allowed him space to shine, with her contributions only intermittent but crucial. Keyboardist Jason Lindner was somewhat lost among his collection of electronica and didn't add a great deal but guitarist Chris Bruce created flawless sounds that danced around the harder edges. Perhaps the star of the show was the staggering Deantoni Parks, once the touring drummer for The Mars Volta. Even a short break following his literal destruction of the bass drum added to, rather than derailed, the proceedings. An easy mood pervaded both band and audience.
After a breathless encore and heartfelt thanks she was gone. You were left with the the thoughts of her eternally curious mind and the powerful elan of her musicians
Those are the words of Steve Coogan, playing Mancunian outsider genius, musical pioneer and all round jazz-hater Tony Wilson, as spoken in the film 24 Hour Party People. I laughed at the line in the cinema and laugh each time I see the film – I remain impossible to offend in regard to my love of jazz. I see how other people perceive it and I understand their misgivings. It's music for people who are only interested in their own self-importance, their own ability to show off their musicianship. Yet jazz is a paradox. You can't get people into it in the same way you can rock music yet last night, while surveying the audience at the Barbican, I saw swathes of potential converts; people who had agreed to accompany a parent or partner to see one of the few true legends of the genre left. You could spot these people a mile off. Indeed, the young couple seated next to me were prime candidates. He, with geek glasses and Dazed and Confused threads; she with a bored look on her face rested her head on his shoulder looking for all the world as if she'd rather be in a Shoreditch bar. As the gig moved forward she opened her eyes and found herself unable to be unimpressed by the aural, visceral, sounds battering her ears.
My fellow gig-goers always catch the eye – the crowd was comfortably middle class, mostly middle-aged and, interestingly, the proportion of black concertgoers was higher than, say, when I saw James Brown a few years ago. Jazz is perhaps the greatest untouched art form of the 21st century – by which I mean it exists outside of the mainstream charts and radio almost in entirety. It's a perfect example of a genre only available to those 'in the know' but at the same time remains so varied that it's never inaccessible to those with open ears. The artist I saw, Herbie Hancock, can be defined in much the same terms. He remains an icon of unreachable cool for jazz lovers but is perhaps the artist who has gained the most commercial success of any of his peers. He can work with Miles; write with Wayne Shorter; effectively invent jazz fusion with his band The Headhunters; have a big hit record, Rockit, with its iconic video still played on MTV to this day; provide the crucial sample for 90s dance classic Groove is in the Heart; create 21st century dance music with album Future2Future and finally, last year, create a flawless set of Joni Mitchell covers with River: The Joni Letters. The latter album became only the second jazz album to ever win the Album of the Year Grammy (the first being Getz/Gilberto in 1965).
Surely he's the biggest jazz crossover artist of all time. And with that reverence well and truly in place he strode out onto the stage last night with his current sextet - Terence Blanchard, James Genus, Lionel Loueke, Gregoire Maret and Kendrick Scott. I didn't think the night was enhanced much by Maret – a Swiss harmonica player – but I appreciated the invention and bravery in putting him in the band. Still, there's a reason why the harmonica is not often used in jazz; it doesn't fit! Aside from that small matter it was a truly incredible night of hard, funky, experimental and, sometimes, delicate playing. The complaint most often directed at jazz is in regard to its perceived self-indulgence. On the contrary, if you understand it you can see that the music is ultimately selfless – that the players are stepping aside constantly, while keeping the groove going at all times, to allow the others to shine. In rock music soloing is seen as the perfect time to make an exit for the bar; in jazz it's not only a pre-requisite but virtuosity is greeted with appreciation and love from both the audience and the band members. The musicians last night were constantly smiling at each other, applauding each other, appreciating each other. You don't get that when a rock drum solo begins, you only get the guitarist nipping off for a smoke rolling his eyes. It's the ultimate form of collaborative music as the connection between those on stage verges on ESP at times.
So much so in fact that when I found myself watching the masterful Kendrick Scott on drums and the lumbering, genial, James Genus on bass I forgot the master was on stage at all. It proved that, aside from his own playing, Hancock's greatest gifts are of composer and arranger. He holds everything together while almost never making himself the centre of the show. That's what jazz is – rather than being the cliché of self-indulgence that detractors claim it is most often self-sacrificing. A remarkable section of the show was the solo spot by West African guitarist Loueke, who created sounds with his mouth, voice, guitar and an effects rack that had the assembled crowd gasping in disbelief. This was followed by a lengthy, thrilling, take on perhaps Hancock's most famous jazz composition, Cantaloupe Island. Finally, for the encore, out he came to take stage centre playing a gleaming white keytar. The night itself had taken on an almost mythic significance, as the music swirled around my food-poisoned being. Yes, even with a nasty bout of illness, which I contained, somehow, until after the show, bringing me to my knees it was an unforgettable three hour show in the company of an ageless 68 year old and his band whose energy powered me on from first minute to last.
As a fan of many varied artists I find that only Oasis and Morrissey provoke the kind of blank hatred that I've been at the receiving end of recently. People really hate Oasis. For their shameless purloining, for their predictable musical style, for their unashamed arrogance. U2 aside, I often like bands who sell about eight records and are a well kept secret. Or bands who have long since ceased to be. Mainstream, the word and notion itself, is a profanity to me, pretentious as that is. But I just get this band and always have. I'm sure part of this is tied in with my dad, who gets them as I do. His record collection mostly contains artists no-one has ever heard of but, like me, Oasis are his concession to the mainstream. We get them together. Like our support of Man City, Oasis are our team. The football analogies hardly end there. The tribalism, the singalong, the joyful aggression were all there in spades last night. This band occupies an important part of the English psyche. This band matter to an entire generation in a way that no other English band of the last 30 years has. Their songs defined my teens and took me into my twenties. We support them like our football teams.
As I have gotten older I think I have become more emotional. I couldn't help but be consumed by the occasion and I can honestly say I've never been so moved at a concert by the sheer force of those around me. Most bands who've made a few albums have built up their catalogue and the audience's mood goes up and down depending on the setlist choice, the pace of the show and the newer material. Everyone waits for songs they know, songs that grew up with them. But Oasis still make albums that matter to their audience - having been to many gigs like this I'm accustomed to the crowd taking a breather or a drinks break when the new songs get rolled out. Sure, the older songs - Slide Away, Rock N Roll Star, Morning Glory, The Masterplan, Lyla - provoked hysteria but it's a fair assumption that virtually everyone in the arena owns a copy of the new album and has already started to learn it. Previous albums have had too much filler and everyone knows it, as evidenced by the fairly muted reception to The Meaning of Soul from the last album. This time the new songs fitted in just perfectly - I'm Outta Time, Shock of the Lightning, Falling Down - and were welcomed like old friends.
With Oasis, unlike any other band at this level, there is no show to speak of. There's some run of the mill lighting, four strip screens behind the band showing either them or nice enough, but not thrilling, psychedelic imagery. That's it. The songs sell the show, Noel knows they are strong enough to just stand there and blast it out. New drummer Chris Sharrock - former member of the Icicle Works, The La's and the Lightning Seeds - is perhaps the best drummer they've had. A combination of the complex but light touch of Alan White and the powerful but showy Zak Starkey, better suited to his current job in The Who, he played like he'd always been there even though he only made his debut in August. A guitarist on bass, Andy Bell, gives the band a live complexity they have never had but perhaps the unsung hero is the superb Gem Archer. You hear some solos and you think, Noel's playing great tonight. Then you realise it's Gem playing. Noel still seems a tiny bit subdued, not quite recovered from the broken ribs sustained in Toronto recently. But he's a tenacious, stubborn, determined man and didn't baulk from the business of his own vocals. He gave a tenderness to The Masterplan and Don't Look Back in Anger that reduced me to tears.
Liam, on the other hand, is as he always is. Love him or hate him he provokes a reaction. He stalks the stage like a caged tiger, saying almost nothing intelligible to the audience but his voice was utterly perfect. He's all attitude and he gets on people's nerves. But greeted like a working class hero, the offspring of Lennon and Lydon, there's no-one quite like him. England has a dearth of pathetic wannabes fronting bands like the Kaiser Chiefs and Kasabian. They worship Liam but they are mortals compared to him. He was born to do this. Well, this or robbing cars in Manchester.
Each song was greeted like an old friend. On many occasions I stopped singing and just turned round to see every single human in the place with rapturous delight on their faces, singing their hearts out. It was the very best kind of communal concert experience. People swayed and linked arms to Wonderwall, jumped and barged and clung on to Cigarettes and Alcohol. I can forgive the slightly bizarre exclusion of Live Forever, even. As the house lights came on and the beaming, sweaty masses made their way out of the venue I felt like a pummeled piece of meat, tenderised by the silver hammer of this proud band. Aching and happy, I limped out of the venue as the exit music played. A final smile spread across my face as I realised it was our - mine, dad's and the Gallagher's - football team's anthem playing. Blue Moon.
Before we, my flat mate and I, went to eat I had been sitting outside the venue reading the NME (I don't buy it usually, but Oasis were on the cover and I cracked) and, as I peered over my reading material, I surveyed the greatest collection of wonderful freaks in one place I'd seen since the Rubber Ball. This lot had it all: dykes of all shapes and sizes, tattooed burlesque chicks, Muscle Marys, effete skinny jean wearing indie kids, quiffs... the list goes on. And just when I thought I wouldn't see anything more surprising than this a fairly handsome young slim guy all in denim, looking like he'd walked out of the Suedehead video appeared in front of my eyes. Alex Kapranos, it was. I tried not to be distracted as, when we arrived at the Gate, we were seated next to what appeared to be the whole of Franz Ferdinand, no doubt they were Waters worshippers too.
Now, I must say at this point that the show was not completely new to me. A fair portion of it was taken from his recent DVD, This Filthy World. Waters tours America with this show, relating tall tales of his influences, inspirations and passions. But knowing some of the material in no way interrupted my enjoyment of the evening. We sat dead centre a few rows back surveying the simple but charming stage set: two large screens, black curtain, two gorgeous flower arrangements on pedestals and a carved wooden lectern stage centre. On he came, looking, self confessedly, like a paedophile hired by central casting. Tall and skinny, well dressed and with his trademark pencil moustache, the crowd welcomed him as a 'Filth Elder', if you will. Now in his 60s, Waters has had a new recent, and no doubt financial, lease of life with the extraordinary success of the stage play of the family film he made by mistake, Hairspray.
His delivery was flawless, smooth and well judged. There is no subject unbroached and no matter that will not be explored with an eye on the unusual and, of course, trashy. But what is purposeful trash? We know what accidental trash is - an Ed Wood film, a house furnished with bad taste by people with more money than sense, a reality TV show which trades in the humiliation of its participants. What Waters does is a world away from that. He seeks out the weird and wonderful and never once talks down to or exploits the undoubted strangeness of America and, most commonly, his hometown Baltimore, where all of his films are written, shot and set. He has love for the freaks of America, he has fascination for their lives and embraces them. Whether he's teaching in prison, done for several years in the 80s, inviting homeless crack addicts to star in his films or employing local eccentrics like Edith Massey he revels in outsider culture. He tells tall tales of his most famed performer, Divine, crawling through pig shit, wearing a gold bolero dress, in a farmer's front yard. They filmed for eight hours with no interruption: he surmises the owners were too afraid of the hippies under acid's influence to come out of their front door. Then there's Eat Your Make-Up, a tale of models kidnapped and forced to eat their make up and model themselves to death. "It's not as good as it sounds!" Its redeeming scene featured Divine dressed as Jacqueline Kennedy, recreating the assassination, covered in fake blood and wearing a designer dress, crawling backwards over the white car as they filmed outside his parents house. The neighbours were fairly offended, probably because the filming took place less than two years after it really happened.
His film life springs from his influences, the early horror directors and their gimmicks. William Castle, director of House on Haunted Hill, would put buzzers under the seats in the theatre, delivering electric shocks to the patrons at tense moments during his film. He would often arrive to his own premieres in a hearse and post an ambulance outside the cinema. On quiet nights he might put poisonous gas in the air vents so patrons would throw up and have to leave. That's where the ambulance came in. These strange but true stories are told with tremendous charm and humour. I didn't take my eyes off him all night.
Reality TV is the flipside version of all this - seeking out the strange and unusual in order to rip them to shreds. People watch the freaks on TV to feel better about themselves, to laugh at them and take advantage of their lack of intelligence and acumen. Waters joins them and takes you along with him, embracing their oddities, and you always feel like the right kind of voyeur watching these kindred spirits. He picks out, and is drawn in by, events most people would miss, like the fantastic New York Post headline last year reporting on the death of Ike Turner. He related the headline, to howls of laughter: Ike Beats Tina to Death.
Like much of the night, truth is stranger than fiction.
Most audiences are used to 9pm gig start times, often it's later. Last night it was 8pm and I sped into the arena only to miss the entrance of the Montreal troubadour by a mere moment. I remembered sitting in a field in Somerset a few weeks ago with the sun on my face as it set to the east and Leah turning to me and saying 'I hope he does Dance to the End of Love'. A moment later he made his entrance and started with that very song and we smiled in surprise and joy. As I emerged into the cavernous, but small compared to Glastonbury, O2 arena the opening verse of that song wafted across to my ears and I smiled again. Making my way to my seat, carefully down the steep concrete steps, the place was full to bursting, with not a seat to be had. I got to my row and saw a young dark-haired woman in white with an empty seat next to her. Smiling and contrite I politely asked the seat occupiers to let me pass through to my place. After the song was over I turned and the woman in white was gone. I thought I saw her sitting somewhere else but maybe I didn't, maybe she was a spirit guiding me to this synagogue of song.
I saw a small boy, no more than eight, being led by his parents to a seat. I saw a hunched over lady, in her eighties, nodding her head to the music. A middle class, middle aged crowd in a sterile grey venue surrounded me and I knew I would have trouble centering myself and my thoughts, feeling the hypnotic music as I had done in that field. It was almost like work at first. The music was not of the volume one is used to at gigs and certainly not like the housequake of Prince that I had seen on my last visit to the venue. It was sedate, not a rock concert by any stretch, and not just because the crowd were seated. And then I focused, on the cantor-like figure on the screen. An avuncular man in a pinstripe suit and sharp fedora, his kind open face smiling out to the masses, benevolently, with warmth and humility. Leonard Cohen didn't think this would be his retirement, having been led into performance by financial misadventure not of his own making. He surely couldn't have imagined the intense level of affection, reverence and appreciation that has greeted this current tour and at times seemed genuinely moved by the reception to his poetry set to music.
He has the songs, of that there's no doubt: from Tower of Song to So Long, Marianne, from First we Take Manhattan to Closing Time. And to Hallelujah, a song with its definitive version recorded by the son of a folk poet like himself. It takes a lot to quieten the noise of Londoners, that cynical breed. But you could have heard a pin drop when he recited, not sang, with sparse keyboard backing, Thousand Kisses Deep. To say he's a magnetic performer hardly does Cohen justice. Holding both hands to the microphone, going down on one knee to sing heartfelt lines, skipping off the stage; his creased wise face and silver hair sets him off as quite the charmer, even at 73. And that voice, it's all about that voice. Dylan gets on with it, rattling out song after song with barely pause for breath or admiration. He doesn't require worship, even though he gets it. Cohen doesn't require worship either but certainly leaves the spaces so they can be filled with respect and, even, laughter. He apologises for putting the audience out of their way 'geographically and financially'. He tells us he's 'not a man to keep things to himself'. That the last time he toured in 1994, aged 60, he was a 'young man making his way in the world'. All said in that rich, deep, hypnotic baritone, which envelopes you in sound from the minute you hear it to the minute he leaves the stage. He never missed a note or a cadence, never missed a cue nor a step. The nine-piece band were consummate and yet I had eyes only for him, like everyone else.
It's cruel, really. That I should get the chances to experience this so late in his career. Surely I won't have many chances after this? Not because he's infirm, far from it. He skipped offstage like a schoolgirl on several occasions and appears to be in great shape. Not touring for 14 years will give a man that wide-eyed enthusiasm for reconnecting with his audience. There's a certain weariness about some older stars, like the Stones. They do deliver but they've been on the road now with little break since 1989. That's longer than most bands entire careers. Hundreds upon hundreds of shows. Being away from it, taking in real life, being ordained as a Buddhist monk, as Cohen has been; it has made coming back that much sweeter for him. A standing ovation after Hallelujah, through my glassy tearful eyes, and the golden voice led us to the gate. It was a moving, profound evening, completely different to Glastonbury. That was an evening that defies description. A freeing experience outdoors with a breeze and a setting sun. Even in this cold, concrete venue, he reached out to me for those three hours and I took my place next to him for the rest of the journey.
Dance me to the end of love
Ain't no cure for love
Bird on the wire
In my secret life
Who By Fire
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye
Tower of song
The Gypsy's Wife
I'm your man
Take this waltz
First we Take Manhattan
Sisters of Mercy
If it be your will
A thousand kisses deep (recitation)
So long, Marianne
I Tried To Leave You
Whither Thou Goest
Going to see a gig can sometimes be predictable in content and style: big hit to start, a track from the last record, two new album tracks to force on the majority while the hardcore beam, another hit, another hit, obscure song, album track, album track, three big hits to finish the encore. That's how it goes, with all bands really. Last night was thrilling precisely because it was a challenging evening, musically, visually and aurally. The venue was the tatty old Apollo, location of so many legendary gigs. I've seen Bowie, Dylan and Rufus there myself, among others.
The lights flashed off and a cute female DJ appeared behind decks on the right. Then, and I shudder as I even think of this, the most horrendous, painful, noise came out of the PA system. What was this? Bjork's madness/genius is inspired, channelled and effortless. This was just bad DJing and it was disappointing to have to listen to it. The mixing was all over the place, that was when it wasn't simply a collection of noises. Two minutes of Bowie's Fashion was the only break from the hell of this so-called support act. The emperor wants his clothes back. I don't know who she was but it was the worst attempt at supporting an artist I've ever seen - and she wasn't even a musician! People put their fingers in their ears because, aside from being musically unlistenable, the PA system was far too loud. Now, I'm a metal fan of 20 years and have been to my share of loud gigs so I don't oppose being blasted. In fact, I've even been having a bit of a moan recently about gigs not being loud enough. But this was ridiculous. I feared ear damage, that's how loud it was. Was she put on to open our ears up and ready us for the voice we had come to hear? Was this a case of having an awful support act to make the main attraction look better? Whatever the aim was, it didn't work.
After what seemed like an eternity of pain, she exited the stage to cheers. Activity was imminent - spotlight operators climbed their ropes and took their place, vibrantly coloured flags appeared from nowhere at the sides and back of the stage and then, quite quickly, a ten piece, identically dressed, all female brass section walked onto the stage as the volume and energy levels rose. Three musicians - who all looked like they work in an Apple store - walked to their decks, Macs and a drumkit as a keyboardist, looking every inch the City gent in his suit, took his place on stage right. The insistent beat of Earth Intruders began and there she was - looking like a cross between Siouxsie and a demented geisha, in multi-coloured dress and huge headpiece wig. We realised quickly that we couldn't see - the floor of the venue is not tilted enough like Brixton Academy's, so we moved back 20 feet and suddenly the view was desirable. Watching her, listening to her, is more of a performance art piece than a pop concert.
We'd seen her at Glastonbury last year, following Arcade Fire, and I was too tired to fully take in what was going on. Normally at gigs, there's singing, jumping around, dancing and general merriment. For large swathes of last night's show, and it was the same at Glasto, it was just... not like that. You're in thrall to her as a performer, you want to watch her and not partake in the usual physical expressions of gig-going. There are moments, from half way through the gig or so, where it does become dance music and that provokes an automatic reaction from the audience - who do want to dance and find the beats in even the most complex songs. You find yourself being manipulated as an audience member in the most mesmeric way. She holds the attention of the viewer/listener with her very being - you realise that the whole show really is about her voice as an instrument, that the songs are merely vehicles by which the voice gives itself to the whole. There are concessions to the 'show' on occasion, as cannons of confetti shoot across the stage as a thunderous Army Of Me reverbs round the venue. That's as close as it gets to a regular gig. I could listen to Bjork's voice for hours on end. The way she uses her voice is unlike any other singer I've ever heard. You can only be in thrall to it, as you watch, glassy-eyed in admiration and astonishment. And yet, with all the unusual energy floating around there are simply magnificent audience pleasing anthems like Hunter, Hyperballad and, one of my highlights of the night, Wanderlust.
Perhaps my ultimate highlight though was Joga, the first song of the encore. The melody makes me want to cry, its beauty brings me to my knees. The expected finale of Declare Independence finished us off, it's a flawless set closer. Given that I go to a fair few gigs that exist in that verse chorus verse universe, it's a joy to see a live show that transforms and challenges your expectations. Only Bjork can provide it.
The Pleasure is All Mine
Dull Flame of Desire
Vertebrae by Vertebrae
Army of Me
Who Is It
As I've said, I felt some twinge of guilt that I had been allowed entry while some true fans had missed out - not that I haven't missed out on plenty of gigs I deserved to be at, most notably the recent Zeppelin reunion. Then I realised that my true love and appreciation of music, which cuts deep, meant I deserved my place at the BBC Radio Theatre. I knew exactly how lucky I was. We arrived and, as always with the BBC, spent an eternity getting through the door. I had thought the BBC had a certain system - as you entered your ticket was given a sticker with a number. This had happened at the Boosh filming the other week. They called out the numbers in groups, like when you board a plane - "People with tickets numbered 0-30 make your way forward". That kind of thing. It seems fairer. My ticket was 110, I was convinced the numbers would be called out in order, as had happened with the squealing Boosh fans who, I now realised, are harder to wrangle than a set of well behaved, but excited, Radiohead fans. After a quick trip to the loo we couldn't get back to our place in the overcrowded, tiny, waiting area so we just settled by the door. Some irate fans said they had been there for hours and were getting in first and I said I thought the BBC system was to call people in by the stickers - otherwise why put numbered stickers on there if you're not going to use the numbers?
I have a Bowie performance, his 2000 Glastonbury warm-up, recorded at the Radio Theatre. I don't know how they do it but the Beeb make their venues look huge even when, especially when, they are very small. The announcement to enter the theatre came and we walked calmly to the studio, round the brand new winding corridors. No-one was stopping us and arranging us by ticket order. As we walked into the tiny theatre I was struck by how much bigger it looked for the Bowie show. And then I realised that we were simply walking in, right to the front fucking row. Yes, one foot after the other and there we were - somehow, inexplicably, outrageously, front and centre. Two feet from the equipment filled stage. Three feet from the microphone. Was this real? Could I see one of the biggest bands on earth, a band who people stand in stadia to see, a band who headline Glastonbury with ease, as if they were playing a gig in my living room. Allison and I looked at each other openmouthed. How had this happened to us?! The gorgeous long haired indie kid to my left beamed at me and I beamed back at him. This was ridiculous, how could I have deserved this?
My eyes were wide open, taking in all the detail - the mountain of amps and effects racks, the row of guitars, the, smaller than I expected, drumkit and, soon enough, Radcliffe was on the one foot high stage introducing the band and out they walked, all boyish sneakers and tatty T shirts. Only Ed, handsome like a catalogue model, wore clothes that looked like they cost more than a tenner. The famed floppy Jonny fringe, the slightly hunched form of bassist Colin, the inscrutable visage of drummer Phil and finally, iconically, the awkward, twitchy, bedraggled Thom. They crashed into the first of seven tracks from In Rainbows, the fast and insistent Bodysnatchers. None of this felt real. I could hear the guitar coming out of the monitor within touching distance as the bass throbbed, with perfect clarity, through the room. My mind was racing - I must take this in, I was thinking. With no photos allowed the image of them in front of me was burning itself into my mind. This would never happen again to me. I have never been front row centre for a gig in my life, let alone one that was in the presence of one of the greatest bands on earth.
My eyes wandered all over the stage. They are about music, not drawing attention with daft outfits or mic-lead-twirling singers. This allows you to admire the sheer craft on show, the unspoken communication between these five men. It felt like I could not just hear them as a collective, hear the music as one entity, but see all of them at the same time. This is the 21st century, he sang. I was desperate to drink this in. As they started the achingly beautiful Nude I closed my eyes and allowed the song to travel around me, like sitting in my room between my big speakers. It sounded better than the record. I started to feel emotional, quite tearful, as Thom hits that big note near the end and I forgot where I was as I floated away. I opened my eyes to see this band standing in front of me playing the song in my head. All my life, I will never forget that moment.
I had come to hear In Rainbows but, in their matinee performance earlier that afternoon, they had played a couple from Kid A. To my delight, this evening show was getting something else - three songs from OK Computer. I gasped as they played Airbag back to back with The Tourist. Then caught my breath as we went back to In Rainbows before a double blast of Lucky and Kid A's Everything In Its Right Place. I'd been warned about this album, how experimental and inaccessible it was to to ear. It was one of the best songs on the night, I think the non-mainstream-rock-song side of this band is something I could easily fall for. I look forward to getting to know their more recent albums, I feel like I have great riches awaiting me. And then it was over, the live Radio 2 broadcast came to its end and the audience let loose, on their feet, howling approval as I caught my breath. I'd witnessed something so special I felt like never seeing the band live again because it could never match that - so many songs from such a masterpiece of an album, played within touching distance. Jonny, in his science lab corner, surrounded by effects racks, a keyboard and various mad professor looking contraptions, walls of sockets with plugged in leads by the dozen shooting off into every corner. His brother Colin, a fluid, expert bassist, always turned away from the crowd and towards metronomic drummer Phil. Ed holds it all together with sweeping tones of guitar, swirling towards the others, complementing the solid, but often spectacular playing and singing at the front. Thom's voice flawless, his charisma palpable and unusual; being so close to this mighty band was... there is no word that fits.
It had been a long day for them, as Thom had said, with a small sigh. But out he and Jonny came to perform Faust Arp, acoustic as on the album, before they made their exit. I took advantage of my proximity to ask a roadie for one of the neatly arranged guitar picks sticking up from Thom's pedals. "You don't want one of them, have this one that he actually used" he said as he picked up a discarded pick off the floor and handed it to me with a smile. Allison got one too. The people to my left and right got setlists. We filed out of the theatre feeling overwhelmed. An occasion like last night will never come again. Every time I close my eyes I am there.
All I Need
House Of Cards
Everything In Its Right Place
I took my seat, 20 feet or so from the stage, and watched the place fill up with New York's trendiest. On came Sean Lennon. I enjoyed his set, he's an excellent guitarist and there's a gentle, ethereal quality to his music but I can't say I'd buy it. He's got more talent than I thought he did and his nervous, shy stage patter works well, to a point, but I couldn't say he impressed me hugely. His most stunning impact is that of a visual one, given his remarkable resemblance to his father. I suspected I might see him again later in the evening. A short break and just before 9pm the curtain went up and the familiar stage set had appeared - black and white Stars and Stripes flag, with brooches, two mirror balls and place on stage for 7 musicians. On they came, opening with title track Release The Stars. A roar went up as he walked on, wearing the loudest, actually luminous, yellow and black suit jacket and trousers, covered in brooches. The band were wearing similar, but not yellow, suits and brooches too. The show has become familiar but it's still very fresh and the songs filled the huge expanse of the venue, with its two mezzanine balconies, easily. Four RTS songs later and everyone was settled, he'd cracked a few jokes ('There should be a countdown machine in Times Square telling us how many moments to go til Bush is outta here!') and I loved every minute of it. Seeing him live is a singular experience. After a year of touring, worldwide, and gigs most days I was amazed at his energy level and his flawless voice. Not a note out of place, every big note high and strong, but with great tenderness on the quieter songs. The emotional quality to his voice is unlike anything I've heard before. I've never been in the presence of an artist who can make you weep with a song then laugh until you hurt with a bit of between song banter. Usually I get to artists when they're dead or ancient, or just starting. This time I've jumped in 5 albums in when he's hit his creative stride and is approaching his mid 30s. That's some impeccable, accidental, timing. He told us about a new annual environmental venture he's doing BlackOutSabbath, where the idea is for everyone to just switch off their appliances, heating, everything that needs electricity, for 12 hours in June.
Before the customary interval we had the last fan participation edition of RTS song Between My Legs. A fan, who sent in a video via You Tube, will take the spoken word bit at the end. Though moving stiffly and looking nervous before his bit, the guy who was up there came to life when the moment required it and delivered the lines like a Shakespearian actor. So far, so regular, but still thrilling, show. Second half began with the amazing, complex, Do I Disappoint You and some, what you might call, hits - Beautiful Child and two songs from his Judy show. During my favourite RTS song, Slideshow, we got, at the punch moment of brass coming in, two sets of pyrotechnics, which was a surprise and a visual treat. He hoped we liked them and they didn't look too ridiculous. After that it was a brave move to try Macushla, the Irish folk song, without a microphone. I'd seen him do it, with great success, in London but this was a venue twice as large. I was close but his voice went right past me to the back, if not to the balconies probably. A rousing, loud and hugely well-received 14th Street, about New York of course, closed the main show out. I was starting to get a bit sad that this was about to be over and it'll be goodness knows how long before I can see him live again. Fortunately, the encore was a complete blast and sent me off with a bounce in my step and a grin on my face that still sits there.
Out he came in bathrobe, to huge cheers, and, as I expected, on came Sean. They performed Across the Universe, as they had done so on that same stage a mere three weeks after 9/11 for a Lennon tribute show, and it was... I'm speechless. As a Beatles fan, it's hard for me to top that. A bearded Sean, playing guitar, with Rufus and not only him from family McGarrigle-Wainwright either - he brought out mum Kate and sister Martha to sing back-ups on it too. Unforgettable highlight. Then a folk song with just Rufus, Martha and Kate on guitar - Meducino, a song about New York state. The finale was approaching. He sat on the chair at stage front and got into drag before our eyes - as people howled, wolf-whistled and he winked flirtatiously at all and sundry. Earrings, lipstick and heels on and off we went into a mimed Get Happy. The band were joined by Kate and Martha in their ramshackle but, you could see, enjoyed choreography and all were dressed, not in tuxes as usual, but as nuns! It brought the house down. Then, finally, Gay Messiah. And he was covered with silly string from the band by the end as Gerry Leonard's daughter, around two years old and dressed in fairy wings and ear-protecting headphones, was hoiste up by her dad. The band took their bow as a rain of white pyrotechnic sparks rained down from the ceiling. A standing ovation and he dragged boyfriend Jorn up there for a bow and Valentine's kiss. His last act before leaving the stage, after a filthy joke about the silly string, was to slip over on the mountains of string, regain his balance, with Jorn's help, and bound offstage with applause ringing in his ears. I honestly can't remember *ever* having so much fun at a concert before. Just pure fun. I've had sombre, happy, thrilling, emotional, joyous, profound experiences at gigs. I've been squashed up against strangers more times than I can remember. But seeing Rufus is just tremendous fun.
Half an hour before I had been sitting in my aunt's house laughing and chatting, I had a little time before the gig started and decided to have dinner with the family before I left. I related tales of my two gigs so far. They think I'm mad. It's a quite lovely 10-15 minute walk from the house to Chalk Farm and I arrived with minutes to spare, found a spot beside the mixing desk again and off we went. It was starting to resemble Groundhog Day in some ways. Would it be Playboys or HSIN to start? Neither. A new song and a quote not from Mother Teresa. Probably.
I wondered if I would get yet another song I'd never heard before live and as if by magic the awesome Jack the Ripper was played. Then, somewhat bizarrely, the Kristeen Young vocal part, at the start of That's How People Grow Up, was played in sample form. Yes, I'm quite sure about that. But as he started to sing, his voice went. Hoarse and cracking I feared the worst, an early end to the evening. "Want to bet my voice is gone by song six?" But he's made of sterner stuff than that and came back to Camden with the best version of Stop Me... I've yet heard. Two days without singing at this point is probably a good idea but, with great relief palpable from all present, his voice stayed strong the rest of the night with only one slightly croaky vocal near the end.
I saw a review the other day remarking on how he has been working with guitarist and bandleader Boz Boorer for four times as long as he worked with Marr. We laud his old band but in years to come may well realise that *this* band is the best he's ever had. A world away from the precise but sparse indie pop four piece he used to front, this is loud, powerful and heavy and this set of musicians could not be better - Boz, drummer Matt Walker, keyboard/guitar/accordion player Chris Pooley, magnificent lead guitarist Jesse Tobias and new bassist Solomon Walker, brother of Matt, who, to be fair, is a hot skinhead but only a limited musician, in no way an equal replacement for Gary Day. The sound these men create whips around the venue, creating a cacophony of noise like I've never heard, and there's no song they play that doesn't sound better live than it ever has before.
'This song is dedicated', he announced solemnly, 'with love, to Heath Ledger'. Life Is A Pigsty. Shortly after, for the first time at these dates, he delivered a beautiful Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want and the audience let out a collective sigh. In one sense, you know what you get with Moz. He sings, 'Don't rake up my mistakes, I know exactly what they are' and while you accept the contrary, curmudgeonly side of him you also feel great love coming at you from the stage, as this is a man who appreciates his audience like no other artist I've seen. During a small break for a technical problem a young man appeared on stage, having made it past security. This happens often at his gigs - some launch themselves at him to plant a big kiss, some kneel before him, some, once they make it up there, don't quite know what to do and their moment of indecision is all security needs to haul them off. This young man held his hand out, which was met, and kissed the hand of the Stretford Bard. A grown man, almost cowed to his knees by this nearly 50 year old singer. He means more to people than anyone outside of this could understand. The hovering danger of his voice packing up again made this the best show of the three so far. There was a lull in the middle when I lost concentration and became distracted during a new song but he got me back again in no time.
I'm tired. Yes, finally. It's much more to do with trouble sleeping than it is the gigs but I feel somewhat dazed this morning. Three gigs in three days. If I'd been getting enough sleep I'd be able to do another tonight but as it stands, I'm quite relieved I have a night off - and I'm relieved his voice gets one too, since we're only half way there. Three gigs played, 25 songs heard. It barely scratches the surface of his back catalogue. Now it's time for a rest and then a sprint to the finish line. I've seen him from the back of the venue and now the barrier calls me to the front.
(LT note: never got to the front – the very next show, his voice went and, despite attempts at comedy from Brand, Ross and Walliams, the crowd was sent home with only 3 songs played. The remaining shows were cancelled. Six gigs in seven days was a bad idea, I could have told him that!)...
The setlist was all mixed up and, given that I was fully prepared to get exactly the same songs as Monday, I was delighted to get three songs I'd never heard live before. Everything about the gig was better than Monday - the band were even tighter, the sound was better, he was clearly in a good mood and the crowd were a great deal louder and more excited than Monday's audience.
He was much more chatty than the first night, telling us Hillary Clinton is changing her name to Billary since no-one is sure who they're voting for anyway, her or her husband! He reiterated his support for Barack Obama, something he'd been saying every night on stage in the US last year. We had a thanks to XFM and Radio 2 for playing his new single - why he's still obsessed, after all these years, with airplay is anyone's guess. The crowd on the whole is mixed but knowledgeable. He's contrary so people coming to hear This Charming Man and Heaven Knows and other 'hits' are going to find themselves disappointed. But with those who love the Smiths, those who scrambled to get a ticket for these shows, they don't want or expect famous songs, they holler their approval at obscure album tracks like Death of a Disco Dancer. With the recent Mark Ronson cover still fresh in the memory he reminded us what a brilliant song Stop Me... is when *he* plays it.
Those present are more likely to nod in appreciation at a Vauxhall and I album track than Hand in Glove - as the reactions to Billy Budd and Your Arsenal's Tomorrow proved. Even for me, who owns his entire back catalogue, there are songs known less than others. In particular the gorgeous Stretch Out and Wait (from compilations Louder than Bombs and The World Won't Listen) is becoming a real discovery of these shows since I never knew it that well before. He keeps pulling these gems out from nowhere, like The Loop, available only on little known compilation the World of Morrissey - played with an upright bass it's as rockabilly Moz as he's ever gotten, reminiscent of songs like Sing Your Life.
The setlist is a treat, all told. A nicely balanced mixture of new songs, obscure solo songs plus the odd big tune (HSIN) and rare Smiths tracks. The biggest reactions of the night actually came not for Smiths songs but the pair from You Are The Quarry. Irish Blood, English Heart in particular, despite being only three years old, has been taken to heart by fans, it's overtly political lyrics are sung with conviction, a little anger and passion which makes it the most powerful song he currently performs. Much like going to a football match, seeing Morrissey live is a primal scream of an evening. A chance to bond together with others of a like mind - this may be true of any gig but having been to my fair share of concerts in the last 20 years I can say the frenzy, the passion is most concentrated at Morrissey shows, of all the gigs I've attended. Again, like a football match, it has something of the tribal gathering about it.
My abiding memory of last night is the huge roar as he changed the lyric in Stretch Out and Wait from 'it's the eskimo blood in my veins' to 'it's the Manchester blood in my veins'. Stupid as this sounds, he makes me feel closer to home a little. A Manc who, like me, hasn't lived there for many years - yet it's something that runs deeper than most things in my blood too.
One more show tonight then a night off tomorrow. In the 8 Morrissey gigs I've attended so far I have heard almost 50 songs. I could name another 20, at least, that I'd like to hear. Some bands don't even have ten good songs. This is quite the journey, I'm loving every second of it.
The atmosphere at a Morrissey gig is highly unusual. Working class pint-in-hand lads with open-necked shirts stand beside delicate teenagers, couples who grew up on the Smiths stand beside bull-necked, tattooed heterosexual men with tears in their eyes desperate to touch the hem of his garment. I had a little trouble getting into the venue because of my refusal to bring my passport as photo ID - I had told the Roundhouse box office this on the phone last week and offered to bring my Glastonbury ticket from last year, since it has a photo on it, and was told that would be fine. I waited patiently in the long queue at the box office as arguments raged in front of me - many had not brought any form of photo ID at all, as stipulated on the confirmation email, and were getting increasingly irate at the jobsworth attitude of the Roundhouse worker in charge.
I got to the front, showed her my 'ID'. "Sorry, can't let you in with that". With some restraint, I said I had brought the email and purchasing card and clearly, that was a photo of me. I wasn't willing to bring my passport, given that I'm travelling to America in 3 weeks. 'Not my problem'. I took a breath, 'Clearly, you've had a shitty day and I appreciate that, you've been stitched up by Seetickets and SJM [the promoter] but I'm not a tout, I paid for my ticket, I've brought photo ID, such as it is, here's my card, it's on your system, let's have a bit of common sense here'. She took the card, looked at it and let me in, after having to put my fancy purple wristband on twice because it was too tight the first time, which she did with unconcealed irritation. 'If it comes off we won't replace it'. I thanked her and moved away. That was a touch harder than I had anticipated. I milled around, making friends - I approached a cute young woman with a tattoo of his name on her forearm. She was there with her husband and had travelled from Birmingham. We regaled each other with warmly told tales. 'I'm seeing all the dates on this mini-tour', 'This is my 40th gig!'. 'I saw him in America last year', 'I haven't seen him live since I had his lyrics tattooed on me'. Yes, one of those quotes is me ;-p
So we chatted and laughed and I remembered that, sometimes, Moz fans can be excitable and charming, rather than misanthropic and dour. The venue has an outdoor terraced balcony, a stroke of genius. I went out there for a smoke and got talking to a Dutch journalist, who was in London interviewing Mary J Blige and just got a ticket that day, about Holland and music and all this while overlooking the always busy Camden roads. He had interviewed Moz too, years before, and said he was charming but shy. He told him his music had changed his life and he replied, half sheepishly, half in false modesty, that he was embarrassed by that.
As the time passed I knew I had several days of this to go so I was surprisingly relaxed. I strolled past Keane's Tom Chaplin, who is surprisingly tall. It's ironic that his music is so dull when his taste is so good - he's on the Rufus Wainwright documentary DVD I have too. At 9pm I heard the intro music and entered the hall - as on the last dates I'd seen him play, the intro film was the same. A collection of clips - Bardot, James Dean, David Johansen and Vince Taylor. The curtain dropped to reveal three identical portraits of Richard Burton as the backdrop. On the band walked, then the man himself, to roars. How Soon Is now is not a bad show opener, not bad at all.
I positioned myself on an inch high metal step in front of the mixing desk, standing just behind film critic, 50s aficionado and all round hero Mark Kermode. His quiff attracts the eye when he's on TV. At this gig he fitted in just perfectly. I'd thought I would take it easy, tap my foot, sing along a little but the occasion overcame me and I was jumping around a bit, singing at the top of my lungs. He had played two French warm-up shows in the last few days and I had studiously avoided the setlist. The first show, incidentally, was in remote picturesque town Clermont Ferrand. An odd place to have a gig, one might say. But as soon as I saw the date announced I knew why - Clermont Ferrand is twinned with Salford. It's something I remembered from signs back home saying 'Welcome to Salford - twinned with...'. I'm quite sure Clermont Ferrand is a much prettier locale than Salford! All my intentions of taking it easy on night 1 went out of the window. I should also mention that very rarely at a show have I been reduced to tears but it happened last night as he played Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself, a real beauty of a song from his best solo record, Vauxhall and I. Having never heard any Vauxhall tracks live before I couldn't possibly have been happier to hear that and Billy Budd.
New songs were aired, the best of which is All You Need is Me, and the crowd were whipped into a frenzy by my highlight, the swirling and discordant Smiths song Death of A Disco Dancer. As you'd expect, there was some heckling which I couldn't properly hear. 'Say what you want, I can take it!', he winked. His voice was flawless so I was surprised when he said he had a frog in his throat, 'and I don't mean a small French person'. A man next to me chuckled, 'Ooh, actual racism'. It was a pleasure to hear a cathartic and audacious rendition of National Front Disco - it was quite something to hear 2000 people, from all over the world, sing 'England for the English' with big grins on their faces.
I'd seen him live 6 times before - last night was a delight and to put it in perspective, he played 20 songs and I had only heard 7 of them played live before. It was surprise after surprise and even if tonight's show is exactly the same I'll be glad to hear these new (to me) songs again. In particular, a cheeky, singalong version of one of my favourite songs, The World is Full of Crashing Bores, had me grinning like a fool. I'm doing it all again tonight and tomorrow. Then with Leah on Friday and Saturday - the last show is Sunday. I don't know what condition I'll be in but I guarantee I will hammer it until I drop.
I should preface the review by saying I’m currently pretty sick with some hideous flu type thing. I can’t stop sneezing, coughing and my chest is wheezing like a miner with emphysema. So, not really in the best of health to attend a concert, least of all one that is seated and contains tender torch songs. I had visions of coughing once too often and being booted out of the venue. I’d been to the doctors just before the gig, racing from work in south London to the doc near Camden back to Hammersmith for the show. I was turned around, feverish and confused. My doctor told me that I should use my inhaler as much as possible. I was unsure about this since I’d always been told you shouldn’t use it more than twice a day. He said it was fine, the worst that could happen was minor tremors. So I used it, a lot. Soon after, I started to shake. The painkillers and the inhaler didn’t get on well and I started to get dizzy and disoriented. This was just at the moment I arrived at the venue. What possessed me to sink half a joint I have no idea but it was a mistake! Why did I think that would improve the situation? Idiot.
My head started to swirl but I held it together to get to the loo, got some water and found my seat, feeling like I was going to pass out all the way. I needed rescuing and this gig was either going to make it worse or centre me and take me out of this misery.
In my state, as it turned out, this was the perfect gig to see. The air conditioning was on full blast and I was getting cold, which seemed to be stopping me from fainting or having to leave. I felt high and paranoid, it was not pleasant. The lights went out, a huge Stars and Stripes flag (with what looked like 13 Xmas baubles instead of 50 stars) and two mirror balls, at slightly different heights, descended from the ceiling and the band, dressed in similar pinstripe brightly coloured suits came on. I caught sight of Gerry Leonard, who I had seen at this venue five years earlier, except that time he was playing Heathen. He’s the most fascinating musician, sometimes you can’t even tell when or what he’s playing. He blends in but not in an unmemorable way. He makes the overall sound what it is, as both guitarist and musical director. It was a pleasure seeing him again. Out walked Rufus, dressed in white suit with vertical stripes and glistening accessories, crystals or diamante brooches all over his suit. Handsome devil, to be sure. The crowd, made up of middle class Londoners, the best gays (and their hags) that London has to offer and trendy students, cheered and wolf-whistled at him as the band struck up Release the Stars. And then this voice, this instrument, came from nowhere and filled the room. I had something to focus on and fixed my tired eyes to him and just let the voice wash over me. People I know who don’t get him say the voice is the problem. He’s hardly Dylan, in terms of being challenging to listen to these days, but I do understand. It’s an odd voice, there’s a monotone quality to it. But once you get it, it soars and sinks and hits big notes, high notes, low notes, all in perfect, flawless pitch. I’ve rarely heard a better live singer.
Later in the show he was playing some complex piano part in the song Tulsa and hit the wrong note, it sent his voice out of tune and in a split second he looked down, found the place his hands should be, and just carried on. No stopping, giggling or apologising. He made a mistake and fixed it. It happened once more where he sang a line then said “Ah, I’ll do that one again”, and did, carrying on til the end. In between songs I can’t underplay how charming, cheeky and funny he is. Filled with nervous energy, he loses track of his thoughts, rambles and tells daft stories.
The stories themselves are worth relating – he told us about a palace Frederick the Great built for men only that he insisted had all doors unlocked at all times. How he then built a room for Voltaire, which, unsurprisingly, was never visited. He came out for the second half dressed in lederhosen, which he was keen to tell us were Austrian, not German. He’d bought them from the same place the von Trapp family had. He told us his boyfriend was back home in Germany and how German Rolling Stone had done an article about the top 10 rock stars and their muses. “Number one was John Lennon and that woman, what’s she called… Yoko, that’s it. Then Mick and Marianne. And at number 9, yes, Rufus Wainwright and Jörn Weisbrodt!”. Then there was the song dedicated to Brandon Flowers, “Hugely talented, incredibly handsome and hopelessly heterosexual!” The banter between the songs is such a part of the whole but never detracts from the sumptuous and sensitive music. I knew almost all the songs but my highlights were the amazing ode to lost love The Art Teacher and Poses.
Having sadly missed him doing the ‘Judy show’ at the Palladium in February I didn’t imagine I’d get any covers from it. Happily, I was wrong. If Love Were All followed a tender version of A Foggy Day in London Town. When I saw Morrissey at the Palladium 18 months ago, where Judy sang in 1963, two years after her Carnegie show, he walked on stage, tuxedo-clad and sang, “But I believe that since my life began, the most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse” before bursting into Panic. The song was familiar but only when I listened to my Judy at Carnegie CD (the greatest live show ever recorded, no joke) and heard her sing those lines did I realise it was the Noel Coward penned If Love Were All. Hearing Rufus sing it in entirety almost brought a tear. Very slowly, my asthma inhaler inspired tremors started to wear off. Only a little, I still felt like I was on some other planet until I got home. I can’t forget about the rendition of Between My Legs though. He has been running a competition online where people submit You Tube footage of themselves doing the spoken word section of the song. The winner is invited on stage each night to perform it. Last night it was a super excited clone-y shaven headed guy in jeans and checked shirt. He delivered his lines, to great cheers, like an overacting Shakespearian actor wannabe. Brilliant.
After the two Judy songs I was even more delighted to get the dragged up Get Happy. He came out for the encore in a bathrobe and I’d seen this before. He did it at Glasto, minus the dress up routine. But this time he perched on a chair and put on clip on earrings, heels and lipstick, slowly and dramatically, smiling, before miming to his own version of Get Happy while the band danced around him. Judy-loving gays aside, I wonder who realised what he was re-creating? I read a description of it in Q magazine a couple of months ago – they described it as him wearing ‘a Liza Minnelli style Cabaret outfit’. I guess they couldn’t be bothered to find out what the outfit really was, a perfectly choreographed recreation of Judy performing the song in Summer Stock. Not remotely like Cabaret. It was tremendous fun and was greeted with a standing ovation. Still in Judy drag, he performed the silly and charming Gay Messiah and he was off. I’m going again tonight and, it being Halloween, I don’t know quite what to expect. It’s taken me a few albums to get there but now I get it. So here I sit, at home, sneezing and coughing, but nothing will stop me from getting back to Hammersmith tonight.
Release the Stars
Going to a Town
Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk
The Art Teacher
I Don’t Know What It Is
A Foggy Day in London Town
If Love Were All
Between My Legs
Macushla (sung with brass only and no microphone)
When my dad heard they were playing Manchester on my birthday he decided we should see them together, as my birthday present. I jumped at the chance. Not even a hideous thrashing at the football on Saturday afternoon could sour my mood - I was home, with friends and family, and about to see a band who have become one of my favourite acts to see over the last few years. I was beamingly happy all day and evening, this being my 3rd AF gig this year after Brixton Academy and Glastonbury.
I was excited and nervous, I hoped beyond hope that it would be a great show and my dad would love them as much as he does on record. Arriving at the venue, we were quite amazed to see the sheer variety of the attendees - from your average couple who wouldn't look out of place at a Simply Red gig to emo teenagers to horn-rimmed glasses wearing students to lads with a permanent pint in their hand. The place was packed. A moment later the lights went out, a brief evangelical-style clip played on the small circular screens and ten shadowed figures walked onstage to huge cheers. It was the first time I had been seated at a concert for quite some time and I won't lie - it was weird. My dad, he says at his age, 57, isn't up for standing at rock concerts anymore after 40-odd years of gig going. Initially I felt somewhat out of it, as I looked longingly at the writhing masses of people packing the centre floor. Starting with four tracks from Neon Bible I was gratified to hear the great reception each song received. When I'd seen them at Brixton, the album had been out for only 2 weeks and the Funeral songs were greeted like old friends, 'hits' even. This time every single person seemed to know the newer songs. In lieu of being able to get up and jump around I found the percussive rhythms of the band irresistible. If you can't move your feet or tap your hands to a band like Arcade Fire you must be completely lacking in the ability to let music wash over you.
And that's what they do - they create a tidal wave of sound, building it up skillfully before pushing each instrument and voice to its limit before the waves crash around you, almost becoming white noise at its highest points. Songs from both albums mingled together with ease and their stagecraft has changed and improved immeasurably. As always, Regine was adorable - bounding around from drums to vocals to accordion, keyboards, always with a joyful step.
I'd read a difficult, somewhat negative interview with them in the Guardian that morning. Clearly struggling to handle the new demands placed on them, as a result of the surprising success of Neon Bible, outside of their natural domain - concerts - Win came across as aloof and uncooperative. They aren't playing the industry game that well and in some ways that's laudable. In others, not so much - who wants to come across in the press as difficult and arrogant? One interesting comment from the interview was that, after a summer of touring, they seemingly don't now consider themselves a band who excels at festivals. The mud stopped them from enjoying Glastonbury, which initially came across as a 'get over yourself' moment as I read it but then I realised that they are absolutely right about their festival performances. Not that they were bad at Glasto, not at all. But the special relationship they try and create between band and audience can seemingly only be formed between them and people who have paid to see them. As in, a festival crowd isn’t going to be of one mind, one reason for attending, and one desire to connect with this band on stage. On Saturday I saw the best of everyone - the band and the audience. They work hard and reach out to the crowd and the crowd push back. The joyful, communal experience I felt at the Astoria three years ago was present and amplified by the 15,000+ crowd in the venue.
Sitting a good half way back I had a unique chance to see the whole show, as a stage piece - the seamless swap of all imaginable kind of instruments in between songs, the power and energy of drums/bass/guitar augmented with their 2 man brass section, 2 violinists and so many stringed and percussive instruments I lost count. An hour into the show, a chatty Win said they were going to play a song never played before. "When I first heard this band they made me want to play music. I was ill for a year and then better for a while and now I'm ill again. This is Still Ill." I leapt out of my seat with joy as they raced through a charming, slightly ramshackle, cover of the Smiths song, from their '83 debut. The coolness of that moment, well, words fail me. It was an exhilarating show, over too quickly. We bounced out of the venue and were home 20 minutes later. Yes, the arena really is that close to home! Dad said he was overwhelmed by the band and their sound, by their songs. The morning after he said the more he'd thought about the show the better it was getting in his mind. Bear in mind my dad has seen everyone live from Miles Davis to the Doors to Zeppelin, Zappa, Santana, - artists who were backed by, or bands who contained, the most immense musicians. Arcade Fire have the potential to turn into one of the great live bands. Album number three can't come fast enough.
Keep The Car Running
(Antichrist Television Blues)
No Cars Go
I'm Sleeping In A Submarine
In The Backseat
Ocean Of Noise
The Well & The Lighthouse
I've seen my share of gigs over the years but last night was on some other musical level, one I've never been to before. I saw Prince in 1990 and I remember little of it, just craning my neck to try and see a blur of movement as I watched the greatest artist of the 80s at what I thought was the height of his powers. And yet here I am 17 years later and last night Prince, 49 years young, surpassed his 32-year-old self in every way.
The imposing O2 building, formerly the £750m Millennium Dome, towered over me as I approached Greenwich. Inside, the outer circle was buzzing with shops, bars, restaurants and inside that circle was the venue itself. Surprisingly compact due to an insanely steep trajectory my heart sank as I realised this glorified sports hall was full of your average beer swilling working class pretending to be middle class Brits. As with any performer, the ability to feed off a good audience is crucial so I was a little worried. The comfy seats and their attached cup holders made me feel like I was in a cinema or about to watch a basketball game. Usually I'm at the front at gigs, standing as near as I can get to the stage. It's been a long while since I was at a seated venue and there was an air of corporate entertainment to it all. I felt the tension of the audience as a good-natured Mexican wave started and the clock ticked on.
At just before 9pm the lights went off and the crowd roared. The stage, the famous symbol, was in the round so all views were good. On the screens by the speakers, at ceiling level, a clip of the man started playing. It was confusing for a second - after all, who starts their show with a tape of themselves? (Well, ok, James Brown's pre-show tape was his own greatest hits when I saw him a few years ago). The crowd was up on their feet, which was a relief. Sitting down to watch him would have been unbearable. The roar was deafening as the centre of the stage, clouded in smoke, sank and then rose with Prince, dressed in black, carrying his usual Telecaster, stood immovably. Quick as a flash he played a familiar opening chord and it was Little Red Corvette. I can't think of another artist who would display quite such an amount of charming arrogance by beginning a gig by throwing away four of his most famous songs as a 4 minute medley but that's exactly what he did - Corvette, Raspberry Beret, I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man and Alphabet Street (which included the lyric ad lib, "I'm gonna put her in the back seat and drive her.....to Manchester!" Where did he think he was?! After that he shouted 'Funky London!' at every opportunity). It was an almost old fashioned singalong, just him and the crowd and a guitar. I've rarely seen a gig where the star didn't hammer a hard first song to get the crowd going. But Prince doesn't do things that way.
Out of the stage centre, his band appeared, dressed immaculately in white. The twins, his dancers, gyrated their way onto the front of the symbol. Reviews had said these ladies primary act was to dance around Prince but mostly they didn't - they were just some eye candy working the stage while he was at another end. In fact, the man didn't stop moving all night. I'm going to quote my friend Rex here because I thought of this during the show and he could not be more right. "EVERY time I've seen Prince perform - which has been every opportunity I've gotten for the past 25 years - I'm reminded of the history of popular black music, whether it be a Hendrix or Hazel inspired guitar lick, a Wilson or Brown lifted dance step, or a Mayfield or Redding influenced vocal riff! Prince is a walking, breathing, year-long Black History Month!”
The sound was as good as could be expected, a little muffled and not quite loud enough, in a hangar of a venue like this but it didn't seem to matter. It was a blur of great songs, starting with Cream and continuing with an unbelievable lengthy jam of Musicology. At one point he got half a dozen fans to dance on stage for a few songs, which was distracting but he seemed to enjoy it. You could see that he enjoyed the whole night, constantly dancing and grinning. The premier fan site, Prince.org, reports this morning that the show, while the shortest so far in London at 2 hours, was the best of the ones he's done so far, with the best setlist. I admit, even I was shocked by the quality of the song choices. Some of the songs were truncated, some were played in full, but all were played with power, passion and precision. From the minute he crawled on his hands across to the back of the stage to, my highlight of the night, Controversy, it was a masterclass in stage performance. James Brown may be lost to us now but his essence lives on. I couldn't help thinking that watching this was what it must have been like seeing JB in the 60s or early 70s.
A 45-minute relentless blast of funk before he vanished, leaving everyone breathless. Who else could employ what amounted to mini-intervals mid show and get away with it? It was as if an imaginary rope was attached to each person and he was pulling us up and down, bending everyone at will. It was an honour to see Maceo Parker, James Brown's saxophonist, namechecked throughout the night, play in this interval, an exquisite lengthy version of Wonderful World. Then, with little fanfare, he appeared back on the left circular part of the symbol at the piano, apparently the first time this had been done at the O2. People were sitting, to catch their breath, and were treated to a 25-minute solo piano medley. It felt intimate, somehow. The audience, who usually would have been chatting or taking a booze break, were enraptured. It was an unforgettable show-stealing interlude that even now sends a shiver down my spine just to think about it.
Back came the band with a super hot version of If I Was Your Girlfriend followed by the immaculate Black Sweat and then a surprise choice, Kiss. I heard a woman nearby say 'This is music you listen to after you've had sex'. These three songs were like some horny interlude. Prince shouldn't be hot but he is and everyone knew it. I took a little video on my phone of Purple Rain, which always, charmingly, goes on for a couple of minutes longer than it should. Then he was gone again, down the stage trapdoor. All that was missing was a stage MC with a silk coat over his back, as he kneeled and disappeared. The second encore was a blaze of new and old - Let's Go Crazy and Guitar. Another disappearing act as the roadies hurriedly placed bongos and double snares on the stage for the final song appearance of funk/Latin collective Grupo Fantasma, his support act, which swelled the stage numbers to 13 musicians, 2 dancers and Prince. The 2-hour show felt short, almost. Later he went on to play another 2 hours of covers and jams at the aftershow gig at IndigO2, a small club inside the venue, with Grupo Fantasma, sometimes singing, sometimes just acting as a backing musician.
Such energy in a 30 year old would be impressive but for a man of nearly 50, who played keyboards, piano, guitar and even one song on bass (Give It To Me Baby by Rick James, which he stopped, smiled and said 'you guys don't know that one! I'm old school, I don't like nothin' new!' and then went into Play That Funky Music), it was breathtaking. If you're in any doubt as to whether to try and get a ticket, do it. The question for me now is how long I can resist buying a ticket for any of the remaining 15 London shows because chances like these don't come along often.
(just with guitar)
Little Red Corvette
I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man
Sometimes It Snows In April
(band join the stage)
U Got The Look
Pass the Peas
Give it 2 Me
Play that Funky Music
I Feel For You
Wonderful world (Maceo solo)
(just with piano)
Somewhere Here On Earth
Diamonds & Pearls
How Come You Don't Call
Condition Of The Heart
Do Me Baby
I Wanna Be Your Lover (with band)
(off piano, back on centre stage)
If I Was Your Girlfriend
Let's Go Crazy
Take Me With You
Get On The Boat
In May 2005 I got a spare ticket to see AF at the Astoria in London. I'd never heard one song. And they blew my head off. No other band has had such an effect on me on first play. That night they were all squashed onto a smallish stage, running around from side to side, swapping instruments; they created the most exquisite noise and it was one of those gigs you never forget.
I got Neon Bible at the beginning of last week and on first play, I was underwhelmed. I berated myself for having expected the songs to be immediate and briefly worried about my attention span, since the Gossip album had jumped right into my brain the week before. But that's an album that I don't feel the need to listen to over and over, obsessively - and yet that's exactly what's happened with Neon Bible. It's under my skin now, that album. It's, in the old fashioned musical term, a grower; an album of tremendous depth and opulent arrangements. It fills my room with sound and has a life of its own. It's a remarkable piece of work that will only get better.
On Saturday, after a bit of ticket-getting luck, I saw them again live. Seven days after I stood in the Brixton Academy and saw NIN I stood in the same venue waiting to hear how Neon Bible sounds live. Sure, I was looking forward to tracks from Funeral but really I was there to get another play of the new album, this time live.
The stage set was simplistically beautiful - four vertical light bars spread across the stage; a huge curtain for projections at the back; five light boxes a few feet high with white circles for visuals (often the Neon Bible album cover or shots of the band, plenty of red light on stage at all times) and the most dizzying array of instruments seen outside a classical concert. Spotting them became a game as we waited for them to come on - aside from the obvious guitars/drums/bass we spotted a piano, double bass, xylophone, keyboard, French horn, accordion and hurdy gurdy. And when the band walked on there was of course the violin and viola players to the right. Given the arrangements you can't imagine any less than the 7 band members plus the 3 additional musicians being able to play these songs. Oh, and a pipe organ too at the back which must have been at least 15 feet high.
You would think this would create the 'I don't know where to look' effect thus making it distracting to have so much to feast the eyes on but it didn’t work like that. The sound is a collective, a huge wave coming off the stage. It seemed to take both band and crowd five or so songs to get into it. The new album has only been out a couple of weeks after all so it was bound to be a Funeral song that got everyone going. After that it was a blur of energy; the crowd bounced and sang and the band fed off the crowd - from grinning and singing at the front rows to bashing a drum high above a head, it's clear AF get great pleasure from playing live.
The sound was good, after a fashion, and it was hard to keep up with the band members who kept swapping instruments. You had to chuckle as Regine in particular did an entire circuit of the stage having played violin, accordion, keyboards and drums, all while singing. Highlights for me were No Cars Go and Rebellion but it was all superb. Not many bands could get away with the ending either - an unamplified cover of the Clash's Guns of Brixton with loudhailers. You couldn't hear it but no-one cared. Neon Bible is a dramatic step forward from Funeral. There's not much more that's musically satisfying than liking a cracker of a debut album and seeing the so-called difficult second album blow it out of the water. There truly is no other band on earth like them. And if they do start to spread their influence, already seen in English band The Guillemots, they will surely remain the best at what they do.
Keep The Car Running
No Cars Go
Ocean of Noise
The Well & The Lighthouse
Guns of Brixton
Reviews, like songs, already exist and all they need is to be lured out of your mind. That’s why the morning after a gig I always need to let the words come out of my fingers and onto the page. It’s not that I think, in the matter of a few hours, I’ll forget what’s happened the night before. Plus, I need to get this out in order to make room for the hangover I’m nursing. I find myself in such a position this morning, where I must write, having been sonically assaulted by Nine Inch Nails last night in Brixton, their last of a three night stand there.
I forget how I was introduced to them (I could say him because it really is just Trent but for writing purposes it looks better with a ‘them’) but I do recall that Pretty Hate Machine was one of the first CDs I ever bought, just after it came out 1989. It became the soundtrack to my early teens. I got the follow up EP Broken and then when 1994 turned and I started going out clubbing the album of that era was the Downward Spiral. I wouldn’t say I lost interest in them as the 90s ended but The Fragile never found its way into my playlist, even though I had bought it. They lost me somehow.
Over the years friends saw them live and related wide eyed tales of ‘one of the great nights of my life’ to me but still, I didn’t get it together enough to see them. I had reacquainted myself last week, dragging out my old CDs, and there’s no doubt that the music has dated, in a way. Any music that relies of current technology of the period is bound to. But it hasn’t dated in a bad way, if you know what I mean. And the reason for that is despite NIN being lumped in with Ministry type bands (who were very good in their genre) of the time they were always a big cut above that. They put dance beats into metal clubs, then unheard of. When I was 17 and going out to metal clubs they seemed to be the connecting force between something pretty heavy like Pantera and the what now might be called dance metal of the Prodigy; who were, controversially at the time, being played in rock clubs too.
Last night I had worries – that there’d be many songs I didn’t know, that the sound would be awful in the Brixton Academy (a gorgeous venue which had a dodgy sound system put in a few years ago), that Trent’s voice wouldn’t hold up with so many gigs in a short period (having cancelled a Birmingham gig last week) and so on. It was a good choice to have a couple of drinks before the show, even if I am paying for it now. As such when we arrived, merely minutes before they took the stage, the decision about placement was made for us – the venue was rammed, there was no chance to get anywhere near the front so we found a great little spot at the back, slightly to the right, and kept the drinks coming.
There’s something very simple about the NIN show. No fancy screens or projections, no explosions and daft outfits - just a truckload of dry ice, silver hanging lamps and a beautifully constructed light show. Big flashes and thumping strobes, it doesn’t date. They opened with one I did know, Mr Self Destruct from TDS. My mouth dropped open slightly. Now with my new glasses I could see with crystal clarity, even from the back. And the sound! Shockingly perfect, which proves that if you have great equipment and a shit hot sound guy you can beat the venue’s famously bad sound system. Or perhaps it was the drink that made it sound so good. Who can say? They set up in a certain way and I realised that what dominates is the voice, the collective of guitar and bass and the drums, almost as three separate entities. There must be some sequencing too of course but that’s to be expected. The drums sounded like cracking thunder, one of the best live drum sounds I have ever heard. Imagine the drums, played by in demand session drummer and former GnR (and current A Perfect Circle) member Josh Freese, at the top of a mountain, Trent at the bottom, and all the way up the cacophony of guitar and bass making a huge searing noise. It doesn’t matter who plays behind Trent, he knows what he’s doing and gets the best musicians, for what they have to play. Though the presence of the former Twiggy Ramirez on bass was always going to add some heavy weight to the proceedings.
When Marilyn Manson started getting noticed he was hailed as Trent’s natural successor. Even though I do like Manson, because he has intelligence to the nth degree, that’s way off the mark. Manson has always worked better as an icon than an artist. He might know how to put on the great rock show but all the pantomime dame make up in the world can’t hide that his songs (Mechanical Animals plus a couple of other tunes aside) aren’t that good.
Trent, I now realise, is as close to modern genius as we can see. Live he delivers, he rips every word out as if it’s his last. Wearing a heavy coat, which he never took off, he had command of every person in the venue. I didn’t know half the songs but, incredibly, I felt totally connected to the moment, and each and every song sounded flawless. The show was irresistible, the vibe was joyous and friendly, the music was delivered with power, passion and precision. I felt transported back to my youth as I let Wish and March of the Pigs wash over me. Hurt has taken on a new dimension since the Cash cover and it was greeted like a familiar friend. I did fancy a surprise set list choice, though I wouldn’t have minded if one hadn’t arrived, but I got my wish. The assembled goths worshipping at the shrine must have felt slightly moist when he broke out Dead Souls, the Joy Divison cover done for The Crow soundtrack. Now that was a killer surprise.
No going off and on again, just a hammered at you heavy Head Like a Hole to be dished out and they were gone. Very little chat or breath-catching breaks between songs, this gig was like being strung up in the Closer video and assaulted in the way you want to be.
Pinion (opening music)
Mr. Self Destruct
March of the Pigs
Closer (with The Only Time)
Help Me I Am In Hell
La Mer/Into the Void
No You Don't
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like a Hole
Of course it was my own fault, choosing to queue for a couple of hours so I could be front and centre. I ended up in the worst spot, for being crushed, in the venue: one person back from the barrier. Being on the barrier is alright, you get pushed but nothing is pushing back and you have something to grab onto. One person back is the most precarious place to be. I had travelled from London, all afternoon, up to posh Cheltenham. I went so far west I almost ended up in Wales.
Those already queuing were friendly and welcoming, which for some reason I was surprised about. People swore they'd heard him soundcheck Panic. Once we got in we all realised this venue was in effect a ballroom! Tiny. I ended up behind two really nice Americans who had travelled over for a series of gigs.
Kristeen Young was magnificent: her soaring voice filled the hall and bounced off the walls. The audience response was great, she must be growing on everyone.
The lights dimmed, the mirror ball spun, the music started, the roar lifted the roof. And there he was, looking slimmer than I remembered from Ally Pally the other week. Shirt tied in the centre, he took his bow with the boys. Setlist has been pretty much the same in all the gigs - but hearing Anybody's Hero for the first time was lovely. Still Ill always a highlight but really the revelation has been how well the Ringleader material hangs together. He performed most tracks off the album and they were greeted with the same reverance as older songs. He seemed really pleased about that. In fact being at the front means you get to see so much more, the little smiles and winks and cheeky faces being pulled. How playful he is with everyone, spending lots of time reaching out to the front rows.
Of course at a gig there's always one dickhead (a guy shouting 'Billy Bremner' over and over who provided a running commentary of the songs he didn't like as much). Do these guys come with the venue or what? He hadn't queued and appeared from nowhere, pushing in front of some sweet girls in their late teens. The kind of person who has a great time at the expense of everyone else. It's disappointing that Moz attracts such boorish oafs but that guy will get his in the end.
About the shirt thing. I never thought I'd say this but I wish he'd stop throwing shirts into the crowd. I appreciate the theatre of it, very much. But it's getting quite dangerous. Most fans purposely avoid the shirt being thrown. Once it came over a dozen big blokes reached for it, all got a piece and would not let go. This went on for several songs. Tell me... why would someone rather fight over a shirt than watch the man on stage sing? Clearly Moz could see what was going on and someone shouted out for him to throw his, new and clean, shirt in. Loads of us shouted to not throw anything else! Of course he replied, 'Take my shirt off? That's a little forward of you! I don't think I can, I'm not wearing anything under here!' Cue screams. It seemed to diffuse the situation but then a proper fight broke out between two guys holding the shirt and Arturo got up there and shouted at people to pack it in. Is it worth it? I mean really, for a piece of cloth. Pathetic.
Being so close to him was just wonderful. I never thought I'd get that close. It was a proper mosh pit in there I must say. Several people decided to get over the barrier to touch him during Irish Blood at the end. Of course, like everyone else at the front, I ended up getting kicked in the head a few times. Totally worth it!
Moz seems to enjoy the violence almost, which isn't surprising if you think about it. That edge everyone's on creates such an incredible atmosphere. He was in a great mood and the band played hard and loud; Pigsty as ever was the highlight. Dear God remains the only song not played from Ringleader, too saucy to play? ;)
Sometimes an album calls to you, demanding you buy it. You just know somehow it will have something life changing about it. I haven’t felt this way about an album since Heathen. And Ringleader of the Tormentors hasn’t been out of my CD player for the last two weeks - somewhat helpfully since half of last nights 18 song set list was culled from the album. The studio arrangements lend themselves to live performance and this current band, with older members and new, lends itself perfectly. I wouldn’t have cared if he’d walked on and performed the new record in entirety and not a Smiths tune. Not that I don’t love The Smiths but I’m not one of those people who harps on about old classic records or shouts out song titles or gets disappointed if certain songs aren’t played.
Somewhat surreally, Kristeen Young kicked off the evening’s entertainment. We had found a great spot on the barrier on the left with a superb view the venue was still light inside due to the glass roof and it wasn’t even half full when she came on at 7.15. The sound was superb and you could hear every word. It suddenly dawned on me that I had probably never heard KY get to use either a proper drum kit or a top of the line sound system. Her voice soared through the venue and after a few songs the modest applause grew. I’ve never been sure of those songs where her voice has a slight Yoko tinge to it, its probably not the best way to introduce yourself to several thousand potential new fans. Being behind a keyboard allows a certain amount of hiding and covers up some nervousness I thought KY was really at her best when she came out from behind the keyboard and took it to the crowd a little more. It was a strange feeling knowing the person on stage, wanting her to do well and wishing everyone would be responsive and overall I thought it went very well.
Second support act, Scottish band Sons and Daughters had a couple of interesting moments but were on the whole rather dull. If I never heard a band that sound like Joy Division again it would be too soon.
In between the bands this classical music had been playing. At first the novelty was interesting but then the Chopin started to grate. The oddest choice of warm up music since I went to see James Brown and he used his own records but at least that got the crowd going. I assume the Stretford lad wanted to create a rarefied atmosphere given the sedate Italian themes everywhere from the drum riser to the crew passes. Before he came on a different tape started with some strange old show tunes, including a folky song, a famous song in Australia, about a pub with no beer.
The lights vanished, the crowd roared and the intro tape started. At this point of the review I realised I had to take a look at the set list. I dropped by a site, Morrissey Solo, and was overcome by the whinging and bitching. They make this site look like amateurs. I guess that the bar has been raised so high by Morrissey in the past that anything below perfection is something to complain about. They never stop complaints about the sound (which was flawless), lack of screens (fair point), set list (perfect, for me anyway) and huge resentment of newer fans.
Having peeked at several set lists I pretty much knew what was coming he’s playing almost every night so the sets are under 20 songs, just under 90 mins. I was ready for that. First of the Gang to Die, Still Ill and You Have Killed Me kicked off the show the latter with a nice and cheeky Tony Visconti is me lyric.
We were already out of breath; he was prowling the stage, snapping his mic lead like a circus ringmaster trying to control lions. All the moves were there. I was starting to reach a higher state, how could I have not seen him live all these years? The shows I’ve been missing…
The set was very Ringleader heavy which suited me just fine. New single The Youngest was the Most Loved and an even newer B-side called Ganglord were up next the new songs were very well received on the whole I thought. He stalked from side to side of the stage and must have noticed who knew the words to the new stuff since he came over and sang rather directly at us, in that way Bowie does, making you feel like he’s singing to you. More new songs, a six song burst of them To Me You Are a Work of Art (at this point a security guard came over and asked what song it was and then offered to give us his setlist after the show.), then At Last I am Born and On The Streets I Ran. I love these songs on the album but live they take on another personality. He slipped in the sweet Let Me Kiss You from Quarry in between more Ringleaders - these songs are huge, the band make it sound like they’re each playing two instruments and in the case of Far Off Places they take on an almost Zeppelin-esque power.
After Still Ill, from the first Smiths album, I wasn’t sure if there’d be any other Smiths tunes though I did have my suspicions after keeping my eye on the last few setlists. Even though I wouldn’t have been disappointed one jot to not hear a single Smiths song it was really quite lovely to hear Girlfriend in a Coma next. But then came the show highlight.
I knew it would be this way. I knew that Life is a Pigsty would blow me off my feet. It’s my current favourite track off Ringleader. The version of it last night was indescribable. I don’t mean to be flippant but it was like one of those higher moments, a rapture akin to hearing Station to Station live. With timpani and Boz on water filled glasses and Morrissey’s perfect voice every word wrapped around me as every smash of the cymbals lifted me off the ground. Music so rarely provides those divine moments that when it comes along you know it, you can feel it. After that I needed a break and it came in the form of one of the only songs I wasn’t familiar with, Trouble Loves Me from Maladjusted. It was sung with such passion and heart, lovely song. A couple more cracking new tracks followed, again taking on vibrant new life when played live. And then the opening chord from How Soon is Now? Rang out. He has been playing this but Id forgotten about it. I never thought I would hear that song live. There’s a hell of a lot of Smiths songs out there, dozens of classics but this one was a good choice. A communal experience, the crowd lifted the song higher. Leah and I were of course beside ourselves at this point. And then off his shirt came and it was thrown to the crowd and then it was over. Exhausted and breathless we just looked at each other, the gig had flown by in what seemed like minutes. He ran back on to do Irish Blood, English Heart and then he was gone. I’ve seen some charismatic performers in my time, ones who hold the attention of everyone in the room but Morrissey is on another level. Still buzzing we gratefully took the abbreviated set list from the kind bouncer and strolled, with big grins on our faces, out of the venue. Alexandra Palace is high up on a hill, you can see much of London from the grassy verges next to the buildings. We sat and had a joint, peacefully, happily, with smiles on our faces and our ears ringing. It was a perfect night ending just like wed planned. Before we went to get the bus we were sitting on the grass, it was quiet all around. A woman appeared from nowhere she came from behind us and leapt joyfully around the hill with her arms raised in joy, screaming about her love for Morrissey. She got to the bottom and turned around and we raised our arms too, our cheers were taken away on the breeze. We exchanged happy grins, there it was, the effect that he has on people. I’ve had my epiphany. I wonder how much Palladium tickets are on Ebay.
First Of The Gang To Die
You Have Killed Me
The Youngest Was The Most Loved
To Me You Are A Work Of Art
At Last I Am Born
On The Streets I Ran
Let Me Kiss You
I Will See You In Far Off Places
Girlfriend In A Coma
Life Is A Pigsty
Trouble Loves Me (Intro: Maybe Its Because I’m A Londoner)
In The Future When Alls Well
I Just Want To See The Boy Happy
How Soon Is Now?
Encore: Irish Blood, English Heart
I can't think of how to describe last night's concert. Talking about Bob is overdone - the 250+ books written on him prove that and what more can I add that would be new? I just looked at the setlist and I could have sworn he played If Not For You and I told my concert companion as much when he asked but I see now it wasn't played. That's Dylan for you, content to confuse his audience. Purposely creating arrangements and methods of song performance that preclude singing along, the staple of any gig. Aside from a crowd pleasing encore the show was serene and even confusing occasionally. He keeps us guessing.
That look that each devoted Dylanologist gives to each other when a song starts is familiar to me. A slightly bemused look while you try and recognise it. You can't usually do it from the music, unless the intro is blindingly obvious as in the case of Like A Rolling Stone. You can't do it from the voice because his phrasing is so off centre that the throaty Dylan gargle has now become almost unintelligible. So you listen hard, to catch the odd phrase. It's a game I've been playing for years and, after over a dozen Dylan gigs, my parents are considerably better at it than I am.
The gig started, as the previous 3 nights have, with his Link Wray tribute, a snippet of Rumble. Strangely enough, the last time I heard that was when Bowie started with it at Riverside. His excellent band have created the best kind of accompaniment - both loose and tight, they breathe new life into many of the songs. Aside from a spirited band introduction before the encore Dylan didn't say one word to the audience, as is his way. The years have taken the guitar ability from him I hear so these days he's perched behind an electric piano, clad in cowboy hat and sharp suit.
The curious thing about him is how he draws you in, despite seemingly appearing so aloof as to not care if the audience is even present. But that's the paradox, he must care or why would he have played 150 gigs a year most years since 1988? He takes the applause and must feel the sheer reverance from those who've come to pay their respects. Not to an oldie act like The Stones who people feel they need to see live before someone dies but to a vital, creative and fascinating artist, still. The recent Scorsese documentary seems to have reinvigorated the too-cool London audience and they've realised this man is to be admired and followed. As I said yesterday, you can't explain Dylan to people. As a wise man said, 'You're either on the train, or you're not'.
I found myself smiling so much last night, glad I was there, glad he was there. I'm sure he'll be in my town again soon. As he said in Chronicles, that's the deal he's made. My highlight was Shelter from The Storm, simply because I'd never heard it played before. Positively 4th St was a joy too. A passionate cover of Fats Domino's Blue Monday started the encore as again, we all looked quizzically around. The Dylan collective whispering 'What's this?' to each other. Seeing him live is always filled with surprises. I will keep going for as long as he is and I will meet him half way, always.
She Belongs To Me
Cry A While
Shelter From The Storm
Down Along The Cove
Positively 4th Street
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
Honest With Me
The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
Blue Monday (orig by Fats Domino)
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower
I can't believe REM are this popular!! It's extraordinary. Even if 90% of the 50,000+ were there to hear Losing My Religion and other songs they know from the last decade that's still a positive statement that a great band who haven't sold out or dumbed down can be appreciated by the masses. I was miles away, further than I've ever been for a gig I think but I just got into it in my own way.
The start was blistering, new song Bad Day followed by Kenneth and Drive. The new material was warmly, rather than ecstatically, received and there was a mid concert lull of a sort; the band have made 14 albums and there's plenty of material to choose from. I did feel that there was too much of a weight towards recent (1990s) material and not nearly enough older songs. I love the 1990s album Hi-Fi as much as 1987's Document but a little more balance would have been better. Although, Sitting Still from 1983's debut Murmur was a surprise and a pleasure to hear!
Stipe has become a consummate frontman, the kind he never was. He used to shuffle onto the stage, concentrating hard on the delivery and would only occasionally let go and release his energy. Now he does it all the time. In the last 3 years he has seemed happier on stage than in the previous 20! His voice is flawless, as always. An unexpected treat was the guest appearance of Patti Smith for their duet on Hi-Fi's lead single, E-Bow The Letter. Initial problems with her microphone led to a touching moment when Michael sang with her into his, working, mic. Another moment, as the gorgeous Nightswimming finished, was shared with bass player Mike Mills. As he finished playing piano, Michael sat above him on the top of the instrument and gazed adoringly at him before giving him a kiss to end the song.
Peter Buck was solid, as head-down muso as ever, but without fuss. He doesn't need to show off on the guitar, he never has. At the end Peter and Mike carried a beaming, shirtless, Stipe off the stage on their shoulders. This was the last gig of the tour, this band go from strength to strength and I won't leave it 6 years until I see them again.
What's the Frequency, Kenneth?
The One I Love
Leaving New York
Me In Honey
So Fast So Numb
E-Bow The Letter (with Patti Smith)
Losing My Religion
Imitation of Life
The Great Beyond
It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
I'm Gonna DJ
Man On The Moon
Arcade Fire blew me away. I had a feeling they'd be really good, reviews have been positive and buzz has been building. I took my place almost at the back of the tiny, cramped and hot Astoria and they just sauntered on with a relaxed smile as the knowingly hip London crowd welcomed them to their biggest gig yet. There are 7 members, almost too many to keep up with the action on stage. A string quartet joined them for a few songs taking the stage head count to 11. They sound like... a shade of Belle & Sebastian with a touch of Talking Heads but, paradoxically, totally original. How rare is that in music these days in the days of identikit bands like Interpol/Thrills/Killers/Franz and so on. They're all the same, Arcade Fire stand head and shoulders above them.
They have great songs. And all the eyeliner and ties in the world can't hide that most bands these days don't. I found myself jumping along with the crowd, most of whom clearly already had the album. I had never heard a song by this band before and in the 75 mins of their performance I was won over. Actually I was won over within 10 mins, the band spark off each other so perfectly, they play so well together and the multi instrumentation works perfectly. Usually when the singer or singers of a band are also musicians there's an element of just standing there without engaging the audience in a way that a hands free singer can. They didn't fall into that trap, they connected on every level with the rabid and adoring audience.
They deserve their plaudits. This morning I ordered 2 copies of the album, one for me and one for my dad. It's just his kind of thing, he'll love it. In fact I predict it will become one of his albums of the year. I may have great taste but my dad's is even better.
So, Arcade Fire really are the next big thing. I can't remember the last time a band thrilled me that much live on first hearing. And I certainly can't remember ever being blown away like that by a band whose songs I'd never heard before.
It turns out I’m severely out of gig practice because, 2 days later, I’m still aching from the sheer exuberance of the performance at the Amsterdam Arena. He’s as fresh as a daisy, but I’m getting too old for this. Arriving late I somehow got a great place about 5 rows from the front, no mean feat in a stadium filled with 25,000 fans. The setting was unusual, the stadium roof was on but it was still daylight. As soon as the cartoon kicked in a wave of happiness and contentment descended over me, like I was being transported back to all the gigs I did last year.
I never tire of Rebel Rebel, it really is the perfect gig opener. But then… Panic in Detroit! I’d never heard that live before, such a treat. He complained at us for singing All The Young Dudes, and said as our punishment we had to endure a song from the 80s! He took the piss out of the terrible arena acoustics "You’ll be hearing these songs twice tonight, maybe more!"
He was in great form, tons of jokes and filled with enjoyment at being back in Europe. After over 100 gigs I don’t know where he finds the energy. There was a cheeky dig at the Yanks he’d just left behind. "It’s so lovely to see a crowd filled with such pretty people. Everyone’s so pretty. And I should know, I just got back from America! I feel like a man finally finding water in the desert!"
It was such a wonderfully familiar feeling: seeing him enjoying the crowd, Susan bouncing at the front, Cat’s infectious grin, Gail’s soaring voice, Slick’s playing even more killer than it was last year… I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be and am now gutted my next gig isn’t until Monaco.
Watching the American reports with excitement at the new setlist additions I tried to avoid thinking about any new songs I might be getting, even refusing to say the names of the songs I wanted to hear the most. I can say it now because he played it: Station to Station. I have never wanted to hear a song more and my god the band nailed it. I had heard it once before; my first ever Bowie gig at Maine Road in 1990. I don’t remember that performance of it but I’ll never forget this one. This might sound flighty and over-exaggerated but I think I may have had some kind of religious experience during that song! I looked up (way up, the stage was much higher than usual) at him, the returning Thin White Duke throwing darts in lovers’ eyes and I wanted that complete and perfect moment never to end.
Diamond Dogs wasn’t half bad either. Quicksand completed the trilogy of songs I’d never heard before. All in all, a perfect return to Europe for him and a memorable night for me. Next stop Monte Carlo!
New Killer Star
Panic In Detroit
All The Young Dudes
The Loneliest Guy
The Man Who Sold The World
Heathen (The Rays)
Ashes To Ashes
Hang On To Yourself
Station To Station
I'm Afraid Of Americans
White Light, White Heat
As he raised his arms and sang the last words at the end of Ziggy I shed a happy tear for all the friends I’ve made and songs I’ve heard. It wasn’t the first tear shed. Five Years in Lyon saw to that. Then there was almost getting thrown out of the gig during NKS in Copenhagen, getting lost in Rotterdam, getting elbowed in Frankfurt, 9 hours of driving for Hanover, a morning in casualty in Manchester, at the front again in Dublin… the list goes on and on. So much has happened since October 7th. I stepped into Wembley Arena last night with a huge amount of personal sadness that it was all about to end.
The show has become so familiar, but no less thrilling, to me. The music starts and David's voice booms out something along the lines of: ‘That’s good, let’s try that again’. The lights go out and the animation starts. Rebel Rebel (usually!) opens the show perfectly.
I had hoped tonight would be different to Tuesday’s show since the second nights played in the same venue usually are: I wasn’t disappointed. Fashion instead of Fame, Big Car, an early inclusion of Hang on to Yourself, Be My Wife, Jean Genie, White Light White Heat and Starman for the first time on this tour! It’s always a pleasure to hear Fantastic Voyage too. I’ve never been so floored by a vocal as I am by Gail’s in Under Pressure; the notes she hits are quite astounding. Every member of the band fits perfectly and certainly Gerry has added a dimension to the music I’ve never heard before.
It seemed to me that seeing both nights at Wembley presented a complete picture of the show. The audience, shackled by seating and over zealous security, were appreciative though I was surrounded by the kind of fan who is rather happy to hear the hits and has a bit of a sit down during the songs they don’t know.
Seeing Bowie in such a mainstream venue it did make me think about his appeal and the reaction to Life on Mars was the best example of it. There’s something about LOM at the moment that is really getting to me: I can barely get through it without choking up, something that has never happened to me before. Seeing the massive sing-a-long and standing ovation I realised that he, to us, is this familiar character who tells daft jokes that only we get and plays Bnet shows in venues you’d never get a ticket for otherwise. To the other 95% of the audience last night he was an untouchable icon, they were listening to one of the greatest songs ever written and couldn’t quite believe he was standing right there belting it out. When you're in a massive arena and he's being appreciated by 10,000 it makes you realise who he really is.
Watching him hold every single person in Wembley enraptured was wonderful and it made me even more grateful that I’ve been able to share so many moments like that over the last 7 weeks.
My thanks go to: David and the band; to my BNet family who made me so welcome in so many European destinations; Trevor and the Gnome for the best after party in history and to Blammo for putting up with my incessant waffling – over email and the phone from New York, gibbering as I was at 5am after Poughkeepsie.
Now we’re sending him across the ocean to carry on this amazing spectacle outside Europe. Treat him well, look after his voice and enjoy the rest of the tour.
New Killer Star
Hang On To Yourself
The Loneliest Guy
The Man Who Sold The World
Life On Mars?
Ashes To Ashes
Be My Wife
She'll Drive The Big Car
I'm Afraid Of Americans
White Light, White Heat
(LT note: I really did think that was the last show I’d see, then he announced a massive, sadly uncompleted, summer festival tour. I had to go to and went on an eventful Amsterdam weekend. I’m eternally glad I didn’t know Amsterdam would be the last time I saw him live, since I had a ticket to a Monaco show for a few weeks after, which was one of the shows cancelled.)...
David Bowie: Frankfurt Festhalle October 18 2003
So here I am in Frankfurt trying to get my thoughts together about this gig. Firstly I must say the Dandys were good tonight: all foppish caps and louche demeanour. The best I've seen them so far. He started with Jean Genie for the second time in a week (the first I saw too in Rotterdam) which was a bit of a surprise, having only started with NKS thus far up until Wednesday. Storming versions of Battle for Britain tonight and a quite amazing run through of Suffragette City. The crowd took a bit of warming up but by the end were his. Spaceboy raised the roof as ever and Ziggy sent us home happy to say the least.
What struck me most of all tonight, watching the crowd, was how he has them in the palm of his hand. What a performer, filled with experience and knowledge of how to, pardon the phrase, get everyone off. Each Reality song improves with every play especially Never Get Old: he'll be playing it for years. Hearing Heroes performed in Germany was something I thought I'd never hear so it was such a pleasure and very different in terms of vibe from hearing it in England, for example.
I tell you, I'm knackered and I've only done 3 gigs. I have no idea how he does this night after night... the man has stamina to shame us all! Next gig won't be for a month (in Lyon)... can't wait!!
Now the funny thing is that I decided I couldn't possibly wait a month to see him again, such was the groove of flying and getting up early and travelling and staying in cheap hotels that I'd gotten myself into. I realised that 2 weeks after Frankfurt he was playing in Hanover on Nov 1, bisecting the Frankfurt and Nov 15 Lyon gigs. I bought a ticket, booked the flight and just went. It was a Saturday, as many of the gigs I saw were, so no time off work required. What a wonderful time it was, getting up on Saturday and jetting off to some random European city to see him play live, nice and close up too! I'm grateful I had the opportunity to do it because I'm pretty sure it'll never happen like that again. Good times......
Yesterday was better. Everything: it was more polished, the set list was more varied and the running order and flow of the show is down pat (after only 5 gigs no less). We got there late so ended up about 10 rows back on the left. It’s funny to me now how that seems miles away. Before Poughkeepsie I’d seen each Bowie gig from the back of a stadium and now, I admit, I’m totally spoiled.
I guess the one thing I was after, unattainable you might say when you went to Poughkeepsie and Riverside, was surprises. Even having seen the show last week I still wanted them. Second song in? Jean Genie. And then Fashion. And then Try Some, Buy Some. First performances on the tour. Well, that’s sorted.
I was delighted that so many of the audience knew the Heathen songs, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. It is his highest profile and impact album in years. Slip Away has really become the great anthem from it for this tour.
Set list... well, we all have our opinions on it. Personally I’m over it: I could, as could you, choose a 50 song set list not played last night or any other on the tour. But what has been chosen fits completely with the band and the demands of an arena tour.
Having said that there were tunes that just about took the high roof off the Ahoy in Rotterdam: Suffragette City (brilliant as ever), Changes, China Girl, Ashes to Ashes, Let’s Dance etc. I was thrilled to hear The Motel (never heard it live before) and an exquisite Tibet gig style version of Loving the Alien.
Having never travelled to see him live outside England I wondered if there was a point where I’d get fed up of hearing the same songs. After 4 gigs so far this year I can only say bring it on! I’m getting more excited with each passing show and feel a bit like a runner on starting blocks waiting for the gun to go off… next stop Frankfurt.
New Killer Star
Fall Dog Bombs The Moon
White Light, White Heat
Ashes To Ashes (followed by a snippet of Blur's Song 2)
Try Some, Buy Some
Never Get Old
5:15 The Angels Have Gone
Loving The Alien
I'm Afraid Of Americans
Heathen (The Rays)
Bring Me The Disco King
So back to the aforementioned Mr Ross, who did a fabulous job all night might I add. He told us that David would come out and do a warm up to check the sound, which I wasn’t expecting really, so when he walked out wearing similar clothes to Poughkeepsie with an Earthling tour type jacket a flash of excitement shot through the lucky attendees. We got A New Career In A New Town and bits of Blur’s Song 2 and even Link Wray's Rumble, which he insisted none of us would know!
There was much checking of times in earpieces and satellites and then we were off! As I expected NKS was the first tune up and, it was received loudly and warmly. Even though I knew he was doing the whole of Reality I wasn’t sure if it would be in order a la the Heathen/Low shows last year. Well when Pablo Picasso was announced I knew it would be! I must say the album sounds wonderful in entirety and even though he thought we wouldn’t know it because ‘you haven’t had your bootlegs long enough yet’ every song was sung with great passion and recognition especially Never Get Old which I’m sure will turn into a firm live favourite.
Set-wise the simple lights and wooden floors with catwalk added a great deal to the ambience of the studio and db made full use of the extended stage when he walked out to do The Loneliest Guy, a beautiful and clearly emotional song for him and many of the audience. It seemed like the rest of the album whizzed by, Disco King, the only song I hadn’t heard yet, almost knocked us all out; this must be the best song on the album.
I’d forgotten about the Q&A completely but it turned out to be such a good laugh. A combination of well-handled technical difficulties and great answers (on haircuts, dogs and James Bond); a bit like the Eurovision Song Contest without the shit tunes.
So then on to the request section, which started with my favourite song of the night, Hallo Spaceboy. The band was so good last night; they’ve all really developed a rapport and connection that is better than any Bowie band I’ve ever seen. Oblivious to the cameras we jumped and sang our hearts out hoping the world was wishing they were in our place. Fantastic Voyage is always welcome (my second hearing in 3 weeks), NKS was performed again and the air was punched even more emphatically the second time. And then it was over. He swaggered offstage looking understandably pleased with himself. We attended the biggest interactive music event of all time and I can’t think of anyone who could do it better.
Many post-gig drinks later I got home at 4am and now I’m sitting at work with a giant smile on my face remembering flashes of last night. Talking of flashes there was a couple of T-shirt moments that raised the temperature a little from the man on stage. I got almost to the end without mentioning how good he looked too ;-)
A new Career in a new town
A bit of Song 2
A bit of Rumble
(Whole of Reality album) New Killer Star Pablo Picasso Never Get Old The Loneliest Guy Looking for Water She'll Drive the Big Car Days Fall Dog Bombs The Moon Try Some, Buy Some Reality Bring Me The Disco King
Q n A with Jonathan Ross
Hang On To Yourself
New Killer Star...
I've never felt such a sense of excitement and anticipation. I'd be lying if I said the other attendees weren't a part of that. Having spent the day building up outside the venue with so many wonderful Bnetters, whipping each other up into frenzy, was thrilling and I felt honoured to be part of it.
Clad in pale blue denim trousers and jacket with a black T shirt saying 'Metal World' he looked the picture of perfection. The band cracked into the title track from the new album. Then.. Modern Love. I was really shocked to hear this one, very ripped up and fast but a wonderful surprise.
The show was extremely well balanced, 3 songs from Heathen (Afraid, Cactus and the title track to finish), greeted like the classics they have become, a couple of oldies and 6 songs from Reality.
I was feeling nervous about the new songs and clearly so was he. At first I thought it might be false modesty but he really did seem to be worried about how the new material might go down and how it might sound. It's a mystery to me why Never Get Old isn't the first single. New Killer Star is a wonderful record (played *so* well tonight and sang with heart by everyone; amazing considering it hasn't been released yet) and definitely a single but Never Get Old is just superb.
Fall Dog went down extremely well, a lovely song. He didn't fail to notice our appreciation and how well these tunes were going down. Pablo Picasso almost brought the roof caving in. And they just kept on coming: Battle For Britain; TMWSTW; Rebel Rebel and a temperature-raising version of Iggy's Sister Midnight, followed by a great rendition of I'm Afraid of Americans.
The crowd packed into this tiny theatre were hot and sweaty throughout, gasping for air.I have never jumped and sang and hollered as loud in my life. How can you go back to arenas once you've been to a show of this size? Waiting outside the venue before the show, the band, then David, arrived and waved. He came out and talked to everyone, exhibiting the charm I’ve been told about. He signed various things and, having never been as close to him, I was rather open-mouthed I think. But it occurs to me that the guy who said hi to us and was not the same guy as the one on stage. He goes through a transformation the like of which I've never seen, a supreme act. He is simply mesmerising on stage.
Allow me a shallow moment: I must tell you that this man has been working out, and I don't just mean boxing: I mean down the gym! He has not looked this good since the disrobing performances of Tin Machine. The piercing screams of the teens behind me attested to that.
And don't even get me started on Hang On To Yourself, Suffragette City and an exquisite version of Fantastic Voyage: these songs rocked the Chance so much they'll need to put in new floors tomorrow!
This year (and some of next) are going to be shows like you've never seen, and I know you've seen it all. He's so fit and raring to go. He's ready for this world tour, and so are we. See you on the road!
New Killer Star
Battle For Britain (The Letter)
Fall Dog Bombs The Moon
I'm Afraid Of Americans
She'll Drive The Big Car
Never Get Old
The Man Who Sold The World
Hang On To Yourself
Heathen (The Rays)...
The arrival of Bowie on stage felt like the ultimate in fevered anticipation. As Garson strolled out, sat behind his piano and launched into the familiar opening of Life on Mars we strained to catch a glimpse. And then, there he was. Outfitted in a blue silk suit, with (tied) tie, he sauntered, in that particular way of his, to centre stage as the theatre erupted. And from that moment you knew it was going to be a night like no other. That long, cold night on the concrete outside the venue last Friday was going to be worth it, as we always knew.
Before we could blink he was off - Ashes to Ashes, Look Back in Anger and the "first cowboy song of the night", Cactus followed. The set was a blur as the songs came thick and fast. I'm sure someone will have written it down but I sat in awe as he thundered through the songs that have defined and accompanied all our lives. His trademark energy puts us all to shame - his boundless, ceaseless zest for all the material was astounding.
The Heathen tracks sat beautifully next to the other songs - 5.15, Slip Away, Afraid, I've Been Waiting for You took their rightful place alongside Fame, Fashion, Breaking Glass and so on. The welcome addition of Absolute Beginners was a surprise and everyone smiled as David and Gail danced around the stage as it ended. Not to be outdone he then uttered the famed phrase "not only is this the last show of the tour." The crowd sank to a hush then a cheer as he repeated the line he had once said many years before then he added "but this is the last show we'll ever do." then a pause for dramatic effect before adding "on the day of a fucking Tube strike!"
A cheeky stripped down version of Rebel Rebel had the crowd howling in delight and the gorgeous title track of Heathen ended the first part of the show. Everyone sat, simply stunned in submission by what we were watching and before we could catch our breath he was back again with the sublime Sunday. If the exact song order is sketchy it can only be because it was hard to centre oneself after such a night. Then came the moment I had been dreaming of for as long as I can remember – my favourite song live.
"I'm an alligator." My heart jumped a hundred feet. "I'm a rock and rolling bitch for you." If the gig had been 99.9% perfect until now this was the missing link. I never thought in any wild dream that I would see him perform Moonage Daydream let alone in this venue. Before (or after, still hazy on specifics) someone threw a black and silver feather boa on stage which David picked up and draped around his neck as he had once done before on this same stage. This has been hard to write, as usually a review must have balance, the parts liked with the parts not as much. This was impossible as, genuinely, as all the moments had been just as I imagined every night before this. Now it had been made real.
Then as if it was the most casual announcement it came: "We've only ever performed this song once before.". I think my heart actually stopped as I thought, no chance, he isn't actually going to do this song is he? It just wasn't possible - that we could witness only the second ever public performance of. "This one's called the Bewlay Brothers." He thought no one would know it but the vast majority if the crowd knew exactly how much this one meant. It was word perfect. Can't wait to get the bootleg.
I was stunned after that; to be lucky enough to hear this song performed live was something that left me speechless. It was a wonderful blur - Everyone Says Hi, Starman, Changes, I never wanted it to end. But it must and what better way to make grown men weep than with a roof-raising rendition of Ziggy Stardust. He has so far to go, so many great moments yet to bestow on us.
Life On Mars?
Ashes To Ashes
Look Back In Anger
Speed of Life
Be My Wife
I’m Afraid of Americans
5:15 The Angels Have Gone
I’ve Been Waiting For You
Heathen (The Rays)
I Would Be Your Slave
A New Career In A New Town
Everyone says 'Hi'
The Bewlay Brothers
Sound and Vision