Big Gig Week

If I didn’t already write for a living, I’d be tempted to make this a music blog, with lots of downloads and reviews, so, a warning – the rest of this year will be devoted to music. Since the advent of cheap cdr copies and bittorrent, there’s more music coming into my house than I can keep up with on hi-fi, car stereo or iPod. And, while I’m on research leave, there’s no bar to my going to as many gigs as possible, especially on Monday and Wednesday evenings, when I’d normally be teaching. Who cares how long the drive, it gives me the opportunity to catch up on Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour shows (highlights of the last week, ‘Radio’ and ‘School’).

This week my gig going peaked, with five shows in eight days (or four in five nights, with one night off for our anniversary) – more music than I’ve ever seen in a week outside a festival, so I’m devoting my monthly entry to a brief review of the five, starting with Lucinda Williams and her outstanding Love band at Birmingham Symphony Hall (an appalling drive, with one section of the M6 shut down). Lucinda was stoked as anything, having been up all night watching the US mid-terms. She was delighted by the hall’s fantastic acoustics (we had a prime spot, dead centre on the fourth row, the one with the extra leg room which is useful for my delicate driver’s back). She made up the set as she went along, playing loads of old favourites and new songs that sounded like classics. Last time I saw her, in Manchester her voice was miked so loud it grated. Here it was wide and rich, like a country Dusty Springfield, and it was great to see a show where, instead of relying on rock songs to get the audience going, she concentrated on her ballads, often telling the story behind them. A long, long show, with great support from Teddy Thompson, playing an acoustic set. Look out for her new album ‘West’ on February 13. I’ve heard a lot of the songs from it several times, and it could turn out to be the album of her career.

Back to Birmingham and a less demanding drive to the NEC on Saturday night. We had front block tickets to see Paul Simon, who I’ve been listening to lots since I was twelve (Somewhere in the attic there’s a Paul Simon complete songbook, ‘Homeward Bound’ was one of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar -not something you’d want to hear: the quality of my guitar playing is almost as bad as that of my singing). But I’ve never seen him live. Didn’t fancy the Simon and Garfunkel ‘let’s pretend’ reunions but booked for this as soon as I saw it advertised. Simon had a terrific band and played a great set encompassing his whole career, the highlights of which were ‘Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard’, ‘Duncan’ and a stellar ‘Only Living Boy In New York’, an intricate song that I never expected to hear live. When he went off stage, Sue and I joined the rush for the front and found ourselves standing less than ten feet from Simon during the forty minute encore: he seemed excited by suddenly being surrounded by ecstatic fans and lifted his performance further (he’s a very small, spunky guy who still has all his voice at 65). The encore was You Can Call Me Al, Still Crazy After All These Years, Homeward Bound, Mrs Robinson, Late In The Evening and The Boxer. One of those you wanted to pinch yourself shows. The glow from that one lasted the whole of the next day. Until, in fact…

Luke Haines at the Social. Now, I had a freebie for the Scissors Sisters at the arena down the road, but passed that on to Sue, while I went to see Luke on my own. There aren’t many people I’d drag myself into town for solo, on a Sunday night, but Luke Haines is one of the great English songwriters, a dyspeptic cynic who draws on the Graham Greene of ‘Brighton Rock’ and ‘England Made Me’, a man after my own heart, in other words. His solo set at last year’s Leicester Summer Sundae was our highlight of the festival and tonight’s show was in a similar vein, with lots of wry asides and repartee in between a ten song set of bleak 70’s stories like Leeds United (the Yorkshire Ripper) and ‘Bad Reputation’ (Gary Glitter). At one point he tried to think of a way to describe himself and came up with ‘destroyer of souls’. I suggested ‘curmudgeon’, to which Luke replied ‘no, I prefer destroyer of souls, you shouldn’t have a soul anyway.’ A bit later, he declined my request of ‘Unsolved Child Murder’ (best song of his previous band, The Auteurs) as ‘too bleak’ but changed his mind when the rest of the 40 strong crowd protested (‘That’s why we’re here, Luke’ one guy called out). Who says he’s a curmudgeon? The man does requests… Sue and Mike agreed that the Scissors Sisters didn’t suit the arena and some idiot spilt beer all over both of their coats. I think I was in the right place at the right time. Luke’s new album ‘Off My Rocker At The High School Bop’ is great, but I prefer the acoustic version of the songs.

Tuesday night’s was the most problematic drive, as part of the M1 was closed down, and we had to get to Sheffield via Chesterfield and the ring road, but were still there in time to meet my brother for dinner (happy birthday, Paul, 46 today) then join a bunch of other friends for a drink before getting a good spot, dead centre, in the arena for Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions band. Bruce came on late (probably to allow for traffic delays) and played the longest (and, according to cognoscenti) best set of the Seeger tour so far, with radical reworkings of songs like ‘Blinded By The Light’, ‘Growing Up’, ‘Youngstown’ and ‘The River’ in amongst the folk classics like the wonderful ‘Mary, Don’t You Weep’ and anti-war songs like ‘Bring ’em Home’. It was an exhausting, exhaustive show that concluded with an extra encore, dedicated to a little boy who’d been holding up a sign requesting it: ‘Froggie Went A Courtin” – unfortunately, this was two and a half hours in and the boy had been taken home to bed. It was a great show, with absolutely wonderful, joyous sound, better than at Paul Simon, probably the best I’ve ever heard in an arena, and if I don’t sound ecstatic it’s because it was my third show in four nights and I’m not quite as gung ho on the folk material as much of his other stuff. Also, it was a long time to stand with people trying to push into your place… the friends who got there early, so were right at the very front, had an absolutely fantastic time.

Last night, after a trip to the osteopath to sort my car damaged back, it was back to Sheffield to see Scritti Politti, a favourite band of mine since 1979, at the Leadmill. The Scrits never toured because of Green’s stage fright and it seems that, even at 50, he’s still afraid of the stage. The new album ‘White Bread Black Beer’ is the best of his career (second only to Dylan in the unfeasibly early Uncut end of year poll) and he sang wonderfully (while complaining of a sore throat) distinctly summoning up the different voices he used at different stages of his career. Green looked like a deputy head or diffident Geography teacher, but not a pop star. The highlight of the show was a brilliant rendition of the first song he ever wrote, ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’. But boy, was he awkward, constantly fiddling with the sound, introducing songs after he’d played them, throwing in dull hip hop cover versions (musically, his first love) and reacting to my request for the sublime ‘Oh Patti’ with ‘oh no’ (that’s right, he ignored the ‘Provision’ album and the song he got Miles Davis to play on). His awkwardness infected the meagre audience for what should have been a superb, valedictory show. You didn’t get the feeling he’d be touring anywhere again soon or that, if he did, you’d rush to see him. But I got to see Scritti Politti do ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ live, which was worth any number of bad backs and long wet, drives. Now I’ve got a whole week off before Primal Scream.

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