I Witness UK: The Live Music Edition

1) The Hull Choral Society singing Verdi’s Requiem to a sadly sparse crowd at Hull City Hall, Thursday November 4. My mother is somewhere in the middle row, right hand side. (Hint: she’s wearing white.) The “Sanctus” section was epic horror movie soundtrack prog rock, and the sheer size of orchestra and choir put Spiritualized performing Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space to shame. Just a disappointment it has to be in Latin.


2) A perfectly passable band whose name I sadly did not write down performing at 93 Foot East in London’s Brick Lane, Monday Nov 8. I hadn’t been able to help myself sticking around a while after John Robb’s interview with Steve Ignorant from Crass at the Rough Trade East store to catch some free live Monday night music. What this says about me may be rather sad. But it made me happy.


3) Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and Claire Martin at the Omnibus Press/Music Sales offices in Central London performing a few songs to launch Omnibus’ biography on Bennett, The Complete Musician,’ Wednesday November 10. One of the songs was a cabaret style piece that named just about every Class A substance in the book – written, I would guess, back in the days when drug abuse was not necessarily presumed to be a bad thing. (i.e., before half our heroes and close friends OD’d.) They were, it’s fair to say, a class act.


4) LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip at the Coronet Theatre in London’s Elephant & Castle, Thursday November 11. (Awful photos, I know. I need a better camera.) The former cinema makes for a great live venue, apart from the ignorant minimum wage Eastern European security and the fact that, with no ticket distinction between upstairs and downstairs, the main floor was packed beyond all comfort and reason. LCD were great, having come such a long way as a live act since their almost accidental beginnings, but I questioned the wisdom of James Murphy and co. starting so slowly with “Dance Yrself Clean.” Playing a shorter than usual set, it felt like time wasted. And though the slow build finale “Yeah” was phenomenal, it felt like it arrived just a little late. From the opening chords of “Boy From School,” however, Hot Chip were absolutely on fire: whether because they’re a South London band or just that the crowd was sufficiently warmed up (and drunk) this Thursday night, the evening absolutely belonged to them. From opener “Boy From School” to final encore, “Ready for the Floor,” neither band nor audience could stay still: the place was heaving throughout. This, definitely, was the show I wished I’d seen in Central Park back in the summer. (But I’ll take the impeccably (un)dressed, beautifully toned and delightfully behaved New York crowd, over the shabby, pasty, tipsy London lot hands down.)


A few days later, at the Manchester Apollo, I saw the same show, with the bands in the same order. (Routinely, they’ve been alternating.) And yet the vibe was entirely different. Maybe because it was Monday night, and the crowd was less into drinking and more into getting going, early. Maybe because LCD Soundsystem are bigger in than Hot Chip in Manchester. It can’t have harmed that LCD played a much longer set. It was certainly down, in part, to LCD choosing (though only on this, the the last night of the shared tour), to open heavy and hard with “Get Innocuous.” And it must, also, have been something to do with the mix: from the balcony, LCD’s soundsystem was positively blistering, just one decibel short of painful. But at the same time it was crystal clear, to the point that you could hear every single frequency. By comparison, Hot Chip sounded frustratingly muddy, and for all their relentless energy, never reached the dizzy heights of the Coronet gig. So if the lasting memory of the London show was that of the crowd stomping along to Hot Chip’s “Over and Over,” the persistent souvenir from Manchester would be of similar madness for LCD’s “All My Friends.”


Talking with Hot Chip’s Al Doyle and Joe Goddard during a post-gig lock-in at the Apsley Cottage next door, they readily admitted that the Coronet had been their best night of the tour (lucky me!), and that, for any of the aforementioned reasons, the Manchester night was LCD’s. And though they explained that at most venues, the energy level had risen steadily over the course of the evening, regardless of who opened, they did posit that they found it hard to follow LCD, who add a rock band’s full-bore aggression to their dance grooves in a way that Hot Chip have never attempted or intended. Fortunately, the two groups appear to be best of friends, so there’s no sense of rivalry or competition. Me, I’m delighted to have seen this double bill once in 2010, let alone twice. Show of the year and no mistake.


5) Paul Weller at the Brighton Center, Tuesday November 23. I hadn’t been to the Manchester Apollo since playing there with my own band, Apocalypse, opening for the Jam, in 1982. And though I’d been to the Brighton Center to see the Wonder Stuff in 1989, my lasting associations with that seaside venue are also of the Jam, who I saw there many times, including their last ever show, in December 1982 – where Apocalypse as served their final support act. I don’t know Weller personally anymore, perhaps in part because I went right off his solo career around the time that the acclaim started flooding in for Stanley Road. As far as I’m concerned, he coasted on those laurels for the following decade, releasing one disappointing, phoned-in dad rock/Modfather album after another. Alright, so he held onto his following throughout that time, and there may have been the odd passable single or two, and who knows, maybe Heliocentric takes pride of place in your record collection, but my tastes look ever forward, to what’s happening in the here and now, and Weller seemed to have no interest in that.

And then, all of a sudden – perhaps it was the young-enough-to-be-his-daughter girlfriend – he woke up to his creative stagnation, and regained the magpie-like fascination for all music that marked the (come on, admit it) exciting early days of the Style Council. 2008’s 22 Dreams album signaled his healthy new direction; Wake Up The Nation confirmed that his quest had reached a fascinating new destination. In fact, it’s proving many peoples’ album of the year, and while I hesitate to go that far – because it doesn’t have that one classic song that it can be eternally remembered by – I still celebrate it as a thrillingly creative and varied body of work, the sound of a 50-year old suddenly (and certainly belatedly) discovering 1970s Bowie, 1990s My Bloody Valentine, and 2000s Broadcast, while not disowning his own love for classic sixties rock and soul. Credit for all of this has to go, in large part, to producer Simon Dine, and the fact that Weller has given him half the songwriting credits for Wake Up The Nation is, itself, evidence that the former hard man is growing pleasantly soft in his own age.

The show at the Brighton Centre, the opening night of yet another British tour, was surprisingly undersold, but the relative sparseness of the crowd made it that much easier for myself and my two great, similarly aged, former Jam/ongoing Weller fans to get a good position and enjoy ourselves. The 100 minute set drew from all periods of Weller’s career (well, almost all: “Shout It To The Top,” from 1983, was the only Style Council contribution), with a healthy dose of new material, of which the four-part “Trees” was probably the creative highlight, though I’m equally taken by the energy of “Wake Up The Nation” itself and “7&3 Is the Striker’s Name.” There was a refreshing lack of noodling, soloing or other self-indulgences throughout; this was primarily the sound of a 50-something man in fighting fitn form (and yes, dandy, all-black clothes) surrounded by a bunch of varyingly younger men, all of them getting on with the craft of playing their rock-solid songs to the best of their ability. Jam songs were thrown in here and there. “Strange Town” seemed especially well-crafted, sounding just sufficiently nostalgic. The inclusion towards the end of the night of “Start!,” “That’s Entertainment” and the encore of “Art School,” as sung in part by youthful keyboard player Andy Crofts was all well and good, but for the fact that by this point, several of the ageing Jam fans around us were wildly drunk and took the opportunity to jump around and shove each other (and by extension, us) to embarrassing effect. Had the show been sold out, I might have had to walk out at this point because unlike these sad cases, I didn’t come here to relive my youth. But though the Weller audience is certainly averaging the older side of 40, there is one major difference from the Jam crowds of old. Women. They now account for at least half of Weller’s audience. Sorry ladies, he’s taken. At least for now.


6) Finally, I sneaked a last night, last-minute visit to the 100 Club to see Roddy Radiation of the Specials and his Skabilly Rebels on Thursday November 25. As I type now, I realize there’s a nice sense of poetry about how this gig followed on the heels of the Weller concert. For while the Brighton Centre hosted the Jam’s last ever concert, it was at the 100 Club that Apocalypse took its own (completely uncelebrated) curtain call, some 18 months later, in June 1984. Now the venue is threatened with closure due to impossibly high rent increases, and as happened with CBGBs in New York, musicians and fans alike are coming out of the woodwork to express their horror at the thought of losing one of London’s finest venues. It has to be said that the 100 Club not only has history (its Punk Festival in 1976 comes most readily to mind, but like the deceased marquee before it, the 100 Club started out primarily as a jazz venue and has hosted some of the finest artists in all walks of live music), but that it’s a wonderful venue: a centrally located basement, long and narrow, allowing for good sight lines from either side, with two bars, and a pillar that I’d completely forgotten about, right in front of center stage, which if you can get yourself there early and prop yourself up against it, provides an almost embarrassingly – and overwhelmingly personal – view of the front man.


To that end, too, the night seemed appropriate. On my last visit to the UK, back in the Spring, I saw the Specials at the Royal Albert Hall and to be honest, I was disappointed. There was energy there, but it didn’t reach me, high up in the seats. It didn’t fully connect. Radiation’s Skabilly Rebels are, and I’m assuming they won’t be insulted by this comment, no patch on the Specials as individual musicians or a collective live band – renditions of “Rat Race” and “Hey Little Rich Girl” provided all the proof necessary – but standing by that pillar with another old friend from my teams, former iJamming! Pub Landlady Shona, I could look into the whites of Roddy Radiation’s eyes and enjoy the cheap and cheerful thrill of hearing and seeing lovingly performed live music at perilously close quarters.

Early in the set, Roddy let on that he’d seen the Sex Pistols and the Clash there, together, back in September 1976, and it’s that sense of continuity that makes our ancient venues so important. Whether it’s the Manchester Apollo, the Brighton Center or the 100 Club, these buildings have history in our lives. And as we revisit them over the decades, we bring that history with us even as we hopefully look forward. Live music will always survive – it’s too ingrained in our human instincts for anything else. But if we take away too many of our old venues, we lose our connection to that history. So SaveThe100Club. And if you can’t do it directly by contributing to their fundraising, do it indirectly – by attending a local gig of your own.

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