Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Afterglow of Greatness

White mist seeps across the seats...
After the resounding success of opening a venue in Camberwell I have taken the next step in music promotion and put together my very own mini festival! The Southbank Centre is hired, the acts booked and my name changed to David Eavis! In reality (as if you need clarification!) I’ve bought tickets for three gigs in five days at the Southbank Centre. In today's ‘me culture’ I feel I can justify the claim that this amounts to my very own personal festival! Oh the irony!

Even more ironic (or is that iconic?) is the true Glastonbury weather which arrives in time for the first gig! Definately not the perpetual sunshine I would have chosen for my own festival. Rather today it raineth all day! I am soaked through just running from the bus to the Purcell Room and in serious danger of steaming as I sit through the gig slowly drying off! At first, I think that the rest of the audience is also slowing drying off, so thick is the atmosphere in the auditorium. As the white mist seeps across the seats and out the doors however, I soon realise that Shlomo has actually filled the Purcell Room with dry ice - enough to hide any embarrassing steaming issues I may have! Or maybe it is just a vain attempt to disguise the fact that his effects and loop station are set up on the ubiquitous, but ultimately not very Rock ‘n’ Roll, Gopak table!

I have seen Shlomo at a couple of festivals and must admit I am wondering how I will cope with a full evening of beatbox in the incongruous surroundings of the Purcell Room! I fear Shlomo has similar concerns about the venue as he remarks sarcastically ‘I love Drum ’n’ Bass in a seated theatre!

But forget the length of the set and the surroundings. This is a fantastic evening. Once I've stopped asking ‘How do you do that?’ I am able to sit back and enjoy Shlomo. Shlomo the storyteller, Shlomo the stand-up comedian and Shlomo the songwriter. Each persona involving us in his looped creations which become the soundtrack to the insightful story of his career.

When joined on stage by the Vocal Orchestra I see another side to this great artist – Shlomo the conductor. But, he is more than a conductor. He is conductor and composer. His orchestra have no score and follow him as he carefully shapes the music and conjures up a new sound, a new beat and a new feel with simple instructions to each member. The totally improvised ‘Dirty Corduroy Knickers’ was uttley brilliant and the musical highlight of the whole evening. 

We are a married couple... 
During the interval, in the drinks queue, I strike up a conversation with my neighbour. It starts as just a passing comment really…
Not sure how they do that but its amazing!
We then spend the entire interval in animated conversation wrestling with questions like, 
Is this craft or art?’ and
Why are we listening to someone impersonate percussion when we could be listening to the real thing?
We offer some commentary too...
'But what they are doing is amazing?’ countered by
Yes it’s a great skill – but I'm not quite sure what the point of it is...' 
Anyone listening would think we are a married couple! 

I would like to point out that many people at this very moment are next door in the Royal Festival Hall listening to Nigel Kennedy playing Hendrix! Were does that fit into the argument about the real thing I wonder!?

I can't answer that now, but I do need an answer to the niggling question which has troubled me all interval, ‘Will I get bored in the second half?' I need not have worried. As I sit through a wonderful post-interval set by Shlomo and the Vocal Orchestra the answer is a resounding NO!

Which is unusual because I don’t normally take no for an answer and with that contrived link we move into the second day of my Southbank Festival…

Before this gig I would have said to you that I grew up listening to Tom Robinson and that that was as close to Punk as I got in those days! Songs like Grey Cortina, 2-4-6-8 Motorway and Don’t take No for an Answer were the musical backdrop to my youth. Tonight he drives into his first set - a ‘best of compilation' for the faithful – with ‘Summer of ‘79'. As his classic songs from the 70’s wash over me, nearly 40 years later, I realise how different the culture was back in my ‘Life On Mars’ teenage Manchester days. I realise too that I didn’t just listen to Tom Robinson. Tom Robinson shaped my whole outlook on life and inspired my first faltering footsteps into politics. He, of course, began to shape my understanding of sexual politics too. This guy has a lot to answer for, and a lot I want to thank him for. 

24-caret stick of consumerism... 
As the set continues through Martin, Glad to be Gay and War Baby, the music is rebuilding the feelings of that time. Not only do I want to sing along, but I want to be back on those CND marches and attending the Rock Against Racism gigs in Alexander Park. I have tried to wax-lyrical about the spirituality of music in many of these blogs but I have not touched on music as an agent to social change.

Song after song, lyric after lyric, Robinson’s first set reminds me how powerful a protest song can be and how few protest songs and singers there are in today's individualistic society. We have been enticed and beaten into not caring for others, with the 24-caret stick of consumerism dangling in front of us. As Nick Harper wryly observes introducing his Comedy Western tune 'The Magnificent G7' - on his Double Life album: “This is a quieter song I wrote ‘cause I thought that there was plenty of wealth in the world and enough to go round for everybody… but now that I’ve got my DVD player I see things slightly differently

In the years that I have been listening to Tom Robinson I have owned TRB Vinyl, taped his music onto Cassette, bought his CD’s and now listen to him on an MP3 player. Each of the formats has successively become more individualistic. His vinyl I listened to on an old record player at a volume that inadvertantly shared it with three houses down the street. On cassette I enjoyed the experience of portable music for the first time with my pride and joy, a Sony Walkman (although it is debatable how portable it was – carrying those extra cassettes was never that easy!) On CD, for a while, the experience was again a shared one, but then with the advent of the MP3 player I am once more head-phoned and cocooned in my own world. As music has become more individualistic (to the point that is now possible to pick and choose the album tracks you want to download and those you don’t and to create your own compilation albums with playlists) so too has the content of songs become less of a challenge to the world and more of a comforter for the individual soul. In reality of course it is unfair to blame the format of the music. It is the politics of greed that has infected society since 1979 which is the real culprit here! 

He's lost his voice... 
The first set has broken the apathetic spell of the past 35 years and I am eagerly anticipating new songs in the second set. I look forward to protest songs for this generation to rise up to. Songs to challenge the tax dodging, bonus paying, climate destroying, union bashing, Islamophobic, sanctioning, scum-mongering, xenophobic, NHS dismantling, lying elite.

But no - he’s lost his voice! 

I’m devastated. 

We are several songs into the new material but there is no anger and no twenty-first century protest song.

But then the 65-year-old Robinson suddenly changes up a gear and we discover that he has not lost his voice or his righteous anger after all. Song after song, he lays into, first, Rebekah Brooks, then Banker’s Bonuses and then bomber pilots justifying their actions through their Christian Faith and so much more that is wrong with our money-grabbing, war-mongering, generation.

After the last song the audience, with TRB fists raised, cheer for more with hope reawakened and fire in our bellies. His music has touched our souls and stirred our hearts and we will stand with him to demand a different world.

So, just one night of my Southbank Festival left and to conclude it is the mighty Richard Thompson. One year older than Tom Robinson, he still rocks and delivers a stunning set. It is quite simply a wonderful finale. I am not quite sure how I have managed never to catch him in concert before but I haven’t. So I’ll admit to being a very excited festival goer - if just a little apprehensive that it will be an anti-climax. I need not have worried, The evening is wonderful. 

Guitar and gravel-lined voice... 
Keeping it in the family, The Rails open the show with a beautiful set of exquisite acoustic guitar, heart-breaking harmonies, and fabulous folk tunes telling tales and love and loss. 

Richard Thompson opens his set with The Rails playing ‘That’s Enough’ and I’m taken back to Tom Robinson’s set as the protest song rings out…

Then his drummer and bass player join him on stage and they power into ‘All Buttoned Up’ with the signature Thompson guitar and gravel-lined voice. Song after song his effortless guitar playing strikes you but then you become aware of the prowess of the musicians he has chosen to play with him. Lou Reed once famously said, “You can’t beat 2 guitars, bass and drums." Well Lou you can, and I’ve seen and heard it done! Thompson’s Electric Trio, 1 guitar, bass and drums, are individually so brilliant that they each demand your attention. However, the moment you offer it they drag you back to listen to the overall sound they are creating as a trio. 

As the band leave after ‘Hard on Me', Thompson is handed his acoustic guitar and we are treated to ‘Meet on the Ledge'. In this, and as he rides straight into '1952 Vincent Black Lightening', we are reminded that Thompson isn’t just a great guitarist but one of the best song-writers this country has produced. 

The band re-joins him on stage and they are straight back into the groove of ‘Beatnik Walking’ and power through the rest of a brilliant set. As they return for the first encore an audience member shouts out a request. Thompson doesn’t quite hear and asks for the request to be repeated.

Hey Joe'.
He just nods, thinks for the slightest of moments and then launches straight in…

After the third song of the second encore the band finally leave the stage, the house lights are on and a number of the audience remain in their seats. They are saviouring the moment, the afterglow of greatness, the radiance of splendour, and know that they have experienced one of the greats of the British music scene. 

Nowadays bands come and go, the next great band whither as quickly as they bloom. Thompson has weathered critical rejection and record company ambivalence. He has been seen as a cultural irrelevance and a musical monolith. But through all of that he has grown and continues to inspire and impress in a way that all the Johnny-come-latelies can only dream off as they enjoy their 15 minutes of fame. 

After all, as we all know - to misquote a sporting idiom - Fame is temporary. Class, on the other hand, is permanent, and tonight was pure class.

Gigs: 21, 22 & 23 of 50
Date of Gigs: Wednesday 16th, Friday 18th & Sunday 20th September 2015

Purcell Room
Queen Elizabeth Hall
Royal Festival Hall

Vocal Orchestra
Kitten Pyramid
Tom Robinson
The Rails
Richard Thompson

Running total of artists seen 51

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