Sunday, 13 December 2015

Alabama Safe

Men and women are separated as they enter...
Less than a week after the Paris attacks at the Bataclan, and I’m heading to the Brixton Academy. It’s the first time that my 50/50 challenge has taken me the short walk down Coldharbour Lane to this famous South London venue. It is good to be able to walk to a gig, but it’s a miserable night, calling for a warm coat and hat.

As expected the security is not only visible but very strict. From the Police presence outside the gig to the barrier of Orange Jackets that greet us inside. Men and women are separated as they enter the venue and are patted down by an army of security guards. I stand with arms outstretched in the crucifixion pose of submission; the guard just stands there and eventually nods to my hat. I take my hat off to him. Then I am searched. He takes time making sure the bulge in my left back pocket is just a phone and the slightly bigger one on the right is… what is it… he has a bit more of a feel… do I feel him tense a little… what can it be… oh a camera – OK you can go through.

The sedentary air that seems to have settled...
I find my way up to the circle and a seat on the front row. I feel safe in the knowledge that security has been taken seriously. Is it just my imagination or is the atmosphere subdued? Maybe it’s where I am seated, but there seems little of the usual pre-gig chatter I so enjoy listening to. The support is greeted on stage with warm but disinterested applause. Michael Kiwanuka’s set is good but does nothing to lift the sedentary air that seems to have settled over us.

Even the arrival of a group of guys drinking heavily and speaking loudly in the row behind fails to break the lethargy of the atmosphere. I just cannot be bothered to sigh at how widely they miss the mark in their summation of the support act and the mix. It’s turning into a strange evening.

I remind myself during the break that I have been looking forward to seeing Alabama Shakes for a while now and I head back to my seat full of renewed anticipation.

As the songs are ticked off the set-list so I too become more ticked off...
They take the stage to a great roar from the mass of fans that have assembled in the stalls. And for the second time this evening I find myself taking my hat off (metaphorically not literally this time!) to someone. Alabama Shakes are tight and professional and I admire them for their skill. However, (and this is where my hat, metaphorically, is replaced) they recreate their songs with too much precision.

It is not often I come away from a gig feeling underwhelmed. All night, at the start of each new song, I find myself thinking that this is the one when they will let go, let rip, improvise, add a devastating new dimension to their tune. But as the songs are ticked off the set-list so I too become more ticked off, at how safe they play the gig.

Perhaps we took a risk, perhaps we didn't ...
Safety seems to be the order of the day. Security and Alabama Shakes' set both safe. Yet live music should never be safe it is the unpredictability of a gig that is one of it's biggest pulls. Gone are the days of bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin recording their first album in hours. We know that artists spend weeks perfecting the recording with endless takes and retakes. Live music, at its best, is about the fusion of the band not seeking perfection but seeking a one off interpretation of the song in that time and place and for that particular audience.

Brittany Howard thanks us for turning up tonight after what happened in Paris. Perhaps we took a risk, perhaps we didn't or maybe we were protected by the very strict and visible security. What would have been good is if we had been rewarded, not just with a vote of thanks from the stage but, with a little live risk taking by the band...

I grew up with that round yellow sticker adorning the instrument case of any self-respecting musician: ‘Keep Music Live’. The digital compression and easily achievable perfection of modern recording technology has done much to help sanitise modern music but the best live music has always been more about the performance than the perfection.

Expecting to be shaken, but unfortunately I was hardly stirred...
I reflect on the walk home. I am glad I went and it was good, but I had really expected so much more. I had expected there to be at least one ‘wow’ moment. I had been expecting to be shaken, but unfortunately I was hardly stirred.

Gig: 35 of 50
Date of Gig: Wed. 18th November 2015

Brixton Academy

Alabama Shakes
Michael Kiwanuka

Running total of artists seen 73

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