Saturday, 28 November 2015

How I long for a leader who is like a jewel...

Beery boys of Brighton... 
Rule Number 1 for new gig-goers:
Always get there in time for the support act.

You wouldn’t turn up at a friend’s house just in time for the main course when they have invited you for dinner, so why miss the support act? It is just plain rude and not very good manners! 

Rule Number 2 for new gig-goers:
Be prepared! The starter is seldom the best course of the meal.

That is to say, the support might not be very good! 

Holly Macve is the support act for tonight’s gig at the Hammersmith Apollo. The pre-gig research seems to suggest we are in for a treat as the website reads, “BELLA UNION have recently signed the exciting talent of Holly Macve. Boss Simon Raymonde, “little is known of Holly other than she is a 20 year old from Yorkshire who appeared out of nowhere in Brighton late last year. I had a tip-off to go to a basement bar where she was playing. In a room full of beery boys chatting across all the music beforehand, the minute Holly opened her mouth the room fell silent. Hers is a rare gift.

She wanders on stage whispers a greeting and plays her guitar and manages to play all her songs without once engaging the audience. I can only assume that I am too sober and too old to appreciate her gift, unlike the ‘beery boys of Brighton’! Yet no one seems to be under her spell. The applause is polite but the volume of chatter during the songs is louder. Maybe the venue is too big for her style of songs, maybe standing solo on the stage at the Hammersmith Apollo overawes her, or maybe they just see things differently through the bottom of a beer bottle in Brighton!

There is no doubt she has a fantastic voice but the songs all merge into one. There appears no light and shade within any one of her compositions, or in fact between them – although her dress does make up for this! There is no acknowledgement of the fact that we, the audience, are here. How is my experience so different to Bella Union Boss Simon Raymonde’s? It’s a conundrum! What I do know is that she would have been booed off at the gigs I went to in my teenage years! Perhaps the jury is out on Holly Macve but the proof is that today’s gig goers are a more generous lot than 35 years ago! 

From Birmingham to Reykjavik for a coffee... 
As she finishes her last song the audience are generous in their applause and as the stage is set for John Grant I look around and see the venue is filling up. There is all the usual pre-gig chatter yet a midlands accent sounds out of place; I tune into the conversation as the Brummie explains he comes to gigs in London from time to time. As he is listing the London venues he’s been to I marvel at what lengths people will travel to listen to music they love! As I tune back into his conversation I hear he was in Reykjavik last year and found the cafe on the album cover of John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts. Perhaps Birmingham to London isn’t really that far for a gig, when you are prepared to travel from Birmingham to Reykjavik for a coffee! That is true dedication!

Just as Raymonde got a tip-off to go and listen to Holly Macve I was blissfully unaware of John Grant until earlier this year when a friend tipped me off and sent me ‘Caramel’. I fell in love with the song in an instant. The beautiful depth, tenderness, longing and loving in the lyric, tune and accompaniment is a wonder and just gets deeper every time I listen to it.

The concert is a big event with every number a big number - sweeping ballads, psychedelic pop and pseudo rap – nothing Grant does is understated except his dress! In this respect he is the exact opposite to Holly Macve. The only light and shade in her set was in her dress, the only understatement in Grant is his clothing!

The depth of human inhumanity...
There are great anthems of love, songs of derision, choruses of challenge underpinned, and sometimes totally overridden by, a musical score of such intensity that it’s almost possible to hear the lack of natural light – that Grant finds so conducive to writing and the reason for him choosing to reside in Iceland – in every chord.

A review in the Financial Times (is it just me - but why are the FT reviewing gigs?) mused, John Grant has the perfect voice for imparting bad news. In a previous life he could have recorded the four-minute warning of a nuclear attack, telling the nation in warm, deep tones that it was about to be destroyed. Panic would not have ensued. His show at the Hammersmith Apollo opened with a recording of New Testament verses about love, recited in both English and Icelandic: the Colorado-raised Grant now lives in Reykjavik. The passage is often read at funerals; tonight it preceded a song about Grant’s discovery that he is HIV positive, 'Grey Tickles, Black Pressure'”.

Now I know one or two clergy and I have been to one or two funerals in my time, and a quick straw poll found that no one had ever heard 1 Corinthians 13 read at a funeral. What do journalists know? The FT should stick to finances and not music or religion.

Yet within 24 hours of Grant’s gig, the news of the murders in Paris starts to flash up on my phone. The plight of those at the Bataclan concert venue strikes a minor chord in my heart in particular, and the easy FT journalists’ description of Grant’s voice seems hollow, misplaced and misjudged. This is gig 34 of the target of 50 I have set myself for this year and I have never once thought I might be in any kind of danger.

How can music - which unites people in a shared chorus, an explosion of applause, an experience of spirituality in lifting of the soul above the mundane, the sinful and the plain evil - become the backdrop for such shared pain, explosions of hatred and an experience of coldblooded violence? You could argue that shopping or travelling on a tube should not mean an encounter with such violence either and I whole-heartedly agree, but because music is God-given and brings people together in a way that shopping and tube travel doesn’t it seems to highlight for me the depth of human inhumanity.

Grant’s voice would not have kept panic at bay had it happened a day earlier and this side of the channel, at the Hammersmith Apollo, London. I should be writing about how I waited and waited for Grant to play Caramel with excited anticipation that grew and grew as I was swept through the highs (and occasional lows) of his set. Instead, I just keep thinking what would I have done, what would my response have been, if it had happened a night earlier in London at the gig I was at. Or would my only response be that I was paralyzed with fear as things became so rough (to misquote Grant)? 

A video-gamer rapidly hitting the fire button in blind hope...
The public response is fairly inevitable. Our leaders state the ‘War on Terror’ goes on. They called the First World War the war to end all wars – it didn’t work. The War on Terror has not worked either. For 14 years our foreign policy has failed to bring peace. Instead it has fueled radicalization and the world has become increasingly unstable. Yet our leaders seem incapable of changing their tune. They constantly repeat the ‘War on Terror’ mantra like a video-gamer rapidly hitting the fire button in blind hope they will kill all of the Zombies on their screen.

It appears there is no strategy to defeat this new wave of terrorism. Selling arms to unscrupulous leaders spectacularly backfired. Invading countries ended in failure. Hunting down and killing a figurehead had no effect. Flying drones and bombing suspected camps only fuels the fire. Not even orange jumpsuits and torture have helped. So instead, turn the anger at terrorist events into patriotism with lots of jingoism and at least your people are with you even if you have no idea what you are doing.

In this brave new world the people will call for retribution and revenge, the press will create villains and headlines to match: ‘TERMINATED’. People will talk of not trusting ‘them’ - tarring so, so many God-fearing, peace-loving generous human beings with the same brush as a few irreligious, murderous people. Add in a healthy dose of Social Media rife with rumor, reporting uncovered plots (the dangers of men in burka’s), advice on how to stay safe (reportedly from a friend of a friend’s relative who is in the police) and you can neatly hide the fact that you don’t know how to win this war on terror that you started in the first place.

The FT reviewer informed us that 1 Corinthians 13 is often heard at funerals. Closer to the truth is that it is often read at weddings. However, it can easily be argued that it has much to do with weddings as it has to do with funerals! The Ancient Greeks had many more words for ‘Love’ than we English have. The Love written about in 1 Corinthians 13 is not ‘Eros’ the love of lovers, or even ‘Philial’ the love between friends and equals. It is ‘Agape’ the love of God for humanity. God’s love for humanity is seen supremely in the life of God’s Son Jesus. A love that kneels at the feet of his friends and engages enemies in conversation. It is a love that gives of its self that others might know life, by turning the other cheek in forgiveness, and accepting that the world can (and will) change.

I believe in this love...
The passage we are talking about starts Grant’s new album and his show tonight. It talks of a love that is patient and kind, that keeps no record of wrong, that is not happy with wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. A love that does not insist on its own way. A love that is not irritable or resentful but rather believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.

I have struggled to understand why Grant chose to use these words at the beginning of the album and the set but the reason surely lies in what follows. The title track of the album includes the heart felt lyric: ‘And there are children who have cancer and so all bets are off’. Such a line written by a man who has just discovered he is HIV+ is a statement of a love that does not insist on things its own way but bears all things. A love, that even in its own pain, seeks to kneel at the feet of those who also suffer and serve them. This is a love that never ends.

It is this love that we need in our response to terror. A love not insistent that we are right. A love that seeks truth not stereotype. A love that while enduring all things still hopes all things. A love that seeks a different way, not just perpetuating the spiral of violence. A love that crosses cultural boundaries and challenges those stereotypes built on ancient mistrust and hatred.

Oh for a leader strong enough to stand in this valley of difficult love and not on the easy soapbox mountaintop of retribution and revenge.

Finally Grant plays Caramel and I hear live the song that speaks of real love out of every note, chord, word and phrase. I believe in this love. And post Bataclan how I long for a leader who is like a jewel and who grounds us in love, who heals the darkest of years, revealing themselves in tenderness and grace, and who with their arms constructs for us the safest place… 

Gig: 34 of 50
Date of Gig: Thurs. 12th November 2015

Hammersmith Apollo

John Grant
Holly Macve

Running total of artists seen 71

1 comment:

  1. you clearly were not at any of john's early shows, which was probably a good thing. unecessarily harsh critique of Holly, and i don't need to justify my signings. I signed john in 1999 and it took till 2010 for anyone to pay the slightest bit of attention to him.