The Royal Festival Hall
Wednesday 2 September 2015
“We’re all going to die”
“We’re all going to die”
“We’re all going to die”
Some days are just so life affirming. Some days you have to just stop and think “wow, this makes it all worthwhile.” And some days everything coincides just so perfectly you can almost believe there is a god up there planning it all out; ok, that last part is maybe pushing it a little too far!
And this day was just one such day when everything seemed just right. I’d been reading the most perfect of books as I traveled up and down into central London (twice in one day, so quite a lot of reading), the sun was giving me the most impressive view from the small office I find myself in on a Wednesday;
I’d seen the most amazing rainbow I’ve ever seen as I made my way back up towards the gig to meet my concert companion, we got a table in a very packed Pizza Express just minutes before the rush started and the queue wound its way out of the door, the food seemed just that little tastier than normal, the sudden rain shower came and went while we were eating so we didn’t get wet, the timing of the food was so perfect to allow us to find our way to the Royal Festival Hall, just one hundred yards away, so that by the time we had sat and taken jackets off, the support were making their way onto the stage.
And some days you are lucky enough to be part of something special, something that will live in your mind forever, like seeing Sufjan Stevens sing “We’re all going to die” over and over, not a refrain of sadness or depression, but one of simple fact, of acceptance of death when it finally comes. But giving the life that was in the Royal Festival Hall tonight, death wasn’t happening today, today was clearly for living and rejoicing.
Sufjan Stevens has a reputation for great live performances, and this was a gig I’d been eagerly waiting for since the day I had spent three hours hitting refresh on my work computer desperately waiting for the Southbank Centre’s website to be restarted, having crashed under the weight of every Stevens fan in the country accessing it at once. And for an artist who I’ve struggled to find anyone else who has heard of him, there does appear to be a damn lot of us fans out there.
So maybe it was this anticipation that made the day feel so perfect, or maybe it really was just a perfect day, either way it really doesn’t matter. What mattered was that I was there. And after a short and beautiful instrumental opening, Stevens playing the moving piano of “”Redford” he stepped forward and without any words spoken launched into “Death With Dignity”, the opening song from “Carrie and Lowell” the album written as a way to get over the depression caused by the death of his mother. Death does appear a lot doesn’t it!
“Carrie And Lowell” is a thing of pure beauty, an expression of love and forgiveness for his mother who left when he was only one year old, and for his step-father, who introduced him to music and encouraged him to explore it, and who now runs his record label. Death may feature prominently, but it is an acceptance that it happens to us all, that it is natural and not to be feared.
And while the recorded album is one of the mellowest things Stevens has ever done, as he played it out in full tonight, he allows the band to take the songs to new places, to build them to crescendo’s that hold us in wonder as we watch the show before us, the mellow guitar led sound we knew from the album often being transformed into full blown electronica, a three minute piece suddenly becoming ten instead. The sound is accompanied by the lights flashing around the stunning venue, just adding to the feeling that this is something special. And yet all the time Stevens is at the centre, looking so small and vulnerable as he bears his soul to the world.
There is hardly a sound from the audience as all this transpires around us, just as there are no words from stevens throughout the main body of the set. But even so we, his congregation, sit transfixed by the whole event in front of us, myself, like so many others I am sure, simply grinning madly in a state of euphoria as the man bares his heart to us all, and in return we give him our love.
The main set ends with sixteen minutes of “Blue Bucket of Gold”, another song that is transformed from its album version into a wall of sound and lights for the closing ten minutes as the band create a soundscape that we never want to end, notes lasting forever as the hall is transformed into his church, the lights shining off the lowered mirrors that suddenly look like windows; we are in his church and we are certainly here to worship.
If you dont have 16 minutes free, please please please glance at four minutes in to see the visual of this!!!!!
It’s 90 minutes of pure delight, and it’s clear the effect that the performance has on so many of us. It’s an experience that has to be shared with others so we can believe that we actually witnessed it.
When the band re-emerge for the encore (if 30 more minutes can be an encore and not actually a second half?), it’s more relaxed, Stevens finally speaks, announcing to us that “we got through it, we got through the vortex.” We know what he means, it was a delight but it was emotionally wrought too, and the encore seems designed to bring us back out of the silence we had fallen into before, a chance to relax and enjoy after the sheer emotion of it all.
As we hit the final song of the night, it is a bittersweet moment. We are here, we experienced something special, but now it is almost over. At least until he comes again, hopefully not another five years this time before he graces us with his brilliance.
Thankfully that final song happens to be “Chicago”, a song of hope and yet more redemption and forgiveness, “I’ve made mistakes, I don’t mind, I don’t mind” Stevens sings, and we all nod, all agreeing, we don’t mind at all, not one little piece.
Some days are just perfect, and some days everything clicks into place and you realise how great life is. And sometimes a man sings to us and the words just seem right, just seem to sum up that moment. To me today was that day, and so thank you Sufjan, thank you so very very much for sharing with us this moment.
“You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow
We had our mindset
All things know, all things know
You had to find it
All things go, all things go”
Of course, I did so want to see the wings, but never mind…
Listening to Belle and Sebastian always seems a bit like it should be a party, not a wild drunken one, just a fun relaxing one with friends. And tonight they took this party feel to a new level when, as they approached the climax of the gig, main man Stuart Murdock jumped from the stage and started helping people over the safety barrier to join him on stage. With some bands this would be as cliche as it can get, but tonight it seems just right.
From the outset tonight was always going to be a little different. For a start there was the venue itself, the Methodist Central Hall, based just up from Parliament Square and opposite Westminster Abbey. A little grand compared to most. For a moment we weren’t even sure we had the right place. And it’s clear it’s not a regular venue, I’m sure you could have just walked in and flashed anything resembling a ticket to the staff and they would have just waved you on through with a helpful smile.
The walk up the rather impressive staircase to the main hall was just as interesting. I can honestly say I’ve never passed a prayer room going to a gig before. In fact by this time I was worried for the band, I mean, this was a place of God, and Belle and Sebastian do a fine line in songs about masturbation. I was honestly concerned that they might be met by lightning bolts if they sung them. (spolier alert; they sung one and they didn’t get struck down.)
Then there was the actual main hall. My tickets said side view, and that was very accurate, the balcony was so large and the main hall so small, that about two thirds of the sides were in line with the stage. I dread to think what those at the very end of the balcony saw, probably the back of the drummers head.
So it was all very grand, but even with all that grandiose, as soon as the band hit the stage the party was on and all thoughts of how crazy this venue was were almost forgotten. Opening with stuff from the new album to grab the audience from the off, they soon begun a trawl through their 20 year history, a vast history when you consider the albums and EP’s that they have to call upon.
Between songs, Stuart Murdock kept up his usual line of banter, so fitting given the storytelling nature of his songs, a banter between him audience and colleagues on the stage with him. And as the party continued, he first took one excited girl from the audience to dance with on stage as he provided backing vocals to the song, and dance she did, almost outdoing Murdock’s efforts comppletely as she savoured her moment.
And then as they approached the climax of the evening, encouraged even more people to join them on stage, resulting in one the biggest cheers as a rather older than normal stage evader joined in, dancing his heart out around the band and getting the biggest cheer of the night. And as I said, it could be cliched, but it just wasn’t, it was natural, fun to watch as the band tried to play with people dancing with passion all around them. It was a party.
Belle and Sebastian are always going to be a band that some find a little twee, maybe just too comfortable, but for others, including me, I see a band that write damn good songs, know how to have a good time and know how to put a smile on your face when you hear them, and an even bigger smile when you see them do so live. It’s just one big party, and we are all invited.
And like any good party, tonight we even had a marriage propose… and like I would at any party when I see that happen, I do think, “Not here, please, it’s just so not needed.” But then that’s me being a miserable git again, I should just go with the party and enjoy shouldn’t I.
Perhaps it’s not until the encore tonight, the epic eighteen minutes of Lights, that some people may have first glanced to the wings of the stage, as the first five minutes of the song are basically performed there; built up layer by layer on piano and programming by Danny Griffiths and Darius Keeler, the founding members of Archive, and yet two guys clearly happy to remain out of the limelight, leaving that to the two vocalists who do take the center stage for the rest of the night.
It’s normal at a gig that the focus is on the singer, or at a push the lead guitarist. After all, these are usually the guys thrust to the front of the stage and are the main actors in the performance. And more often than not, the singer is also the main man in the band and has an ego so big that heaven forbid you don’t look at him all night long.
But Archive are an abnormality in this basic concept. The heart of the band stay almost hidden in the wings with their keyboards and electronic paraphernalia, making the wall of sound that allows the others to work around them and the audience to feed on with ecstasy. At times it can seem they are doing nothing except watching the rest of the band, one just waving arms furiously, arms pumping so fast that at times I was genuinely worried he was going to either disconnect his shoulder or punch himself in the face. In fact once your eyes were able to draw away from center stage, this did become a sight that you just had to keep going back to, seeing him do what I’m sure so many of us did as kids, waving arms around, pretending to play guitar or conducting the rest of the band.
The two vocalists complement each other well, enough contrast in their styles that you never really question the need for both of them. Opening tracks “Feel It” and “Fuck U” have an edge to them that work well for the more flamboyant nature of one, while as the tone changes completely for “Dangervisit” and “Finding It So Hard” the softer tones of the second vocalist make it seem as if every band should be doing it this way.
The evening is a build up of sound, there is little pause at all as song after song merges from one to the next, very rarely does a song just end to allow time for applause, rather even as one song draws to its close, there is a natural transition immediately into the next. This isn’t a series of songs, rather a continuation of a sound that lasts from first note of the evening to the very last.
Archive are massive in Europe, and from tonight’s performance you can see how they could hold stadiums and festival crowds in the palms of their hands, slipping from rock band to electronic to god knows what else with infinite ease. It’s just a real shame that for a British band they can go so unnoticed here, and yet thankfully while it could be easy to just go through the motions in a venue so much smaller than what they normally play in the rest of Europe, they still clearly put everything into tonight.
Tonight was a gig that will stick in the mind for a long time, and yet if asked about individual songs, it’s almost impossible to name any, rather it is the overall feel of the night, of the power of the sound, and of course of the arm waving madness of our man in the wings.
About halfway through his set, Nick Mulvey announced he wanted to try something; to do a purely acoustic song, and not only that, but do it in the middle of the crowd, not from the stage. Well Nick, you may be an incredible guitar player, you may write the most beautiful songs with the most amazing hooks, but you are not yet godlike enough to do that successfully, not in the Roundhouse at least.
It was an error that almost destroyed the whole gig. Anyone who knows the Roundhouse will know the name describes the venue perfectly, it’s very round. You stand in the middle and most of the audience is so widely spread only those immediately around or up on the small balcony can see a thing. And because no one had a clue what was going on, we weren’t even sure you had started or what was happening, well, people just got bored. The first most of us knew something had happened was when a cheer went up and he suddenly reappeared on the stage asking “was that good, did you hear?” No Nick, we fucking didn’t and all you did was give the idiots around us more reason to just talk.
The big problem tonight was that it appeared too many people were there for reasons other than the music. Clearly Nick Mulvey is a cool act to see right now, and playing at Camden’s Roundhouse just doubles the cool factor. So I can only assume people turned up for the sole reason of saying “I was they, how cool am I!” And with the mellow nature of much of the music, the subtle sound of every note, it was too quiet, the chattering crowds around me could be clearly heard drowning out so much of the music. One girl even had the nerve to complain about being asked to shut up. I mean, really, you would think we had paid to listen to the music, not her life story.
When I mentioned this on twitter, it was good, in a strange way, to hear others agree, even being told by one girl that she almost ended up in a fight for complaining about the same!
Of course, this rant is pointless, no one who turned up and chatted has any interest in reading about the night, they just need to be able to say they were there. Ignorant pricks.
….. RANT OVER…
So anyway, back to the gig.
Nick Mulvey is clearly a talented musician, I mean, he played the Hang in his time with former band, Portico Quartet (look it up, it’s real! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hang_(instrument))and he seems to have put together a band that can support him in highlighting that talent, although he now concentrates on the guitar, maybe a good career move if he wants a little more commercial attention.
He walked casually on stage, baseball cap in place, which seems almost to be a trademark look, I’m sure it is the same one he wears on the album cover? No theatrics as he takes centre stage, the band giving him all the space, afterall, it is him we have come to see and hear.
From the opening bars of Alisa Craig, its gentle sweeping sound gradually building up, the audience, at least those of us who were interested, were rapt. The Roundhouse allowing his sound to flow and fill the room, the minute detail of his guitar work crystal clear.
He rattles through song after song, flawlessly, with the majority of the audience in his hand. As the band leaves him alone to do an acoustic “I Don’t Want To Go Home” I’m starting to think he can’t do any wrong. And then, that fatal error, the acoustic song in the crowd.
He returns to the stage and is straight back into the music again, but he’s lost parts of the audience now, and the beauty of the sound starts to get lost as it fights against the background chatter of those idiots who think this is a pub and the music is for their background pleasure while they talk about their boring lives… yes maybe unfair, but fuck ’em, rude c’~#s.
Maybe “The Trellis” is not the right song to have resumed with, it’s too subtle, too soft, and not powerful enough to stop the chatters, or loud enough to drown them out. Even the distinctive opening of the album’s title track, “First Mind” doesn’t do enough to stop them talking, so again, the lovely sound is half lost.
It’s only when he draws the main set to a close with “Cucurucu”, probably his most singalong track, the chatters seem to remember why they were there. I could almost have laughed when one such person declared at the top of her voice, “oh I love this one” and finally shuts up. The response that we should have given her is “we loved the rest, more than your boring monotone voice”, but I doubt she would have noticed the irony.
The two song encore returned us to the start of the evening, the audience seemingly more engaged again, and as the sounds of “Nitrous” built up, again the night seemed perfect, and over too quickly.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the gig, apart from the five minutes of silence wondering what on earth was going on, not able to hear a sound. So, a good night, a great musician, let down by a bad attempt at connecting with the audience, and further by a lack of respect from certain parts of an audience who should have stayed in the pub.
So Nick, if you are reading this, I will come to see you again, as long as you promise not to try to sing in the middle of the audience again (unless it’s right next to me, I am selfish like that) and if you promise to remind your audience to shut up so the rest of us can enjoy your performance. Do we have a deal?
Quite often when a band finds commercial success, it can be at the risk of losing their old fans. This is often pure and simple music snobbery; “Oh I liked them before they sold out” being the line you most expect to hear, the people who like to think they are music trend setters, seeking out the new up and coming bands to show how hip they are, then dropping them when they find fame, to show again how cool they are.
And other times, it is because the band changes; maybe following a style that is more commercial but less appealing to some, losing the edge that attracted some of their original fans. I know full well this has happened to me in the past, and I’m sure it will happen again. I like to think when I go off a band, it’s this reason, not because I don’t want to listen to them now they are slightly more popular.
And so that brings me nicely onto Elbow, one of the best kept secrets for so long until that pesky Mercury Music award win thrust them into the limelight back in 2008. Way back in 2001 with the long overdue release of their debut, “Asleep In the Back”, I was in awe of their beautiful landscape sounds. I wasn’t the only one, that album being nominated for the Mercury award at the time. But commercial success was always just on the horizon, and by the third album, their record label had clearly lost faith and they were dropped.
In that time though, a hard core fan base remained, and they stayed true to their sound. Then out came “The Seldom Seen Kid”. I remember laying in bed one night, hearing it for the first time on XFM, when the band talked the always knowledgeable John Kennedy through the album track by track, explaining the stories behind the songs and how it all come about. And I was once more transfixed by their beauty, their well crafted song, their sheer perfection. And I also listened to every track as the radio played them out thinking “This isn’t going to break them into the big time, this album is just too un-commercial, nothing to grab the mass radio audience here”, I knew full well me and the other devotees could keep them as our lovely secret without having to tell people that we preferred them when they weren’t famous.
Yes, ok, I may have misjudged that one then. A million plus sales later, a shed load of awards, world tours, I admit it, I misjudged it just every so slightly. And I am so happy that I did, because Elbow should never have been a secret, they deserved to be seen as a band that they made albums that should be cherished and held up as an example of what music should be all about.
So here we are then tonight, Hammersmith Apollo, a crowd packed in and waiting with high expectations. The staging is as simple as always, it’s about the music after all. About the only addition from previous times I have seen them in smaller venues is a small staggered section to one side for the strings and brass section, a few lighting rigs, a plain back drop, nothing to distract from what we are here for, fine music. If you are as good as Elbow, you just don’t need distractions.
The band saunter onto the stage casually, no great fanfare, just taking their places, a quick count in and straight into the latest album opener, “This Blue World”, a slow builder of a song that rises and falls and highlights the surprising smoothness of Guy Garvey’s voice. Then from the new to the old, “Any Day Now” a nod to that debut album, but showing that while they have matured in age, the music has always been of a high quality. This isn’t a case of doing a few old ones to fill the gaps, this is old songs because they deserve to be there.
In-between songs Garvey banters with the audience, at ease and at home, not long rambles, sometimes one-liners, sometimes a little more, on a couple of occasions giving a background to the next song or answering back some calls from the audience. He is a natural, maybe doing this for 20 years has honed his skills, or maybe doing a radio show on the side has given him more gift of the gab. Either way, it’s fine entertainment and the audience lap it all up. Even when he starts to tell a story about one of the crew who has run onto the stage, only to end the story with “I should have a punch line for that really shouldn’t I” he is still greeted with cheers.
But we came for the music, a run through the new and old. And while emphasise is given to the new as you would expect, the old is not ignored at all, at least one song from every album finds its way into tonight’s set list (http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/elbow/2015/eventim-apollo-london-england-13ca0d99.html), not always the ones you might expect, but with a back catalogue this good, they could play a different set list every night and it would still be of top quality.
They surprise the audience by throwing in “One Day Like This” early on, the song that is first on everyone’s lips when you mention Elbow, and the one you would expect to be saved for the closer. But it is dropped so casually in, “Here’s one you might know” declares Garvey as the opening bars play out and the audience explode ready to sing. It’s a show stopper, and will always be so. “Throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year would see me right” is sung back and forth between band and audience, Garvey directing proceedings, pitching it perfect, milking the refrain for every ounce of effect. And then as soon as he decides it is finished, fantastically moving on by declaring that the next song, “Bitten By The Tailfly” is about “getting drunk, doing drugs and going out to pull.” The contrast is perfect, both lyrically and musically, the dirty guitar certainly different from the smoothness of “One Day Like This”.
As the evening draws closer to the end, we’re treated to the opening two songs from “Build A Rocket Boy”, but the first, “Birds” is a total reworking, taking the original and adding additional layers to the point it is almost a new song. And then “Lippy Kids”, made poignant as Garvey dedicates it to the person it was written for who recently passed away.
Then after the title track from the latest album, with its brilliant vocal performance “The Take Off and Landing Of Everything”, my personal highlight as they end the main set with “New Born” another from the debut album, and a song with the perfect opening line, “I’ll be the corpse in your bathtub, useless”, a line I remember listening to in 2001 and still hear today and smile at its poetry.
And then I did something I haven’t done in such a long time. Living in London is perfect, never any rush for trains, but not tonight, a train was calling for my gig partner and I actually had to leave just as the encore started, so I can’t even tell you how amazing it all ended, as I am sure it did. But it actually didn’t matter, the night was still perfect, the band were amazing, Garvey was the front man he was always destined to be, and it was just good to see a band that I have followed for so long continuing to be seen by the bigger audiences, showing that they twenty years of hard word was well worth it, not selling out, not changing to meet the demands of the record label, just doing what they do until the world looked up and noticed them like us lucky ones who were there in 2001.
But saying that, I am actually a terrible music snob, and proud of it. But now and again, I make an exception to the rule, and for that reason I am still in love with Elbow.
Roddy Frame seems to have been going through something of an upgrade over the past few years. After a number of years away, he admitted to getting his love of performing back after helping out long time friend Edwyn Collins following his return from serious illness. After that Frame went back on the road in small patches, playing at the intimate Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush in 2011 as part of a short tour. Then last year he put on an anniversary tour of his debut album, stopping off in London at The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, such a strange venue it almost seemed impolite to cheer too loudly, and made more surreal by all fact the theatre is used for Charlie & The Chocolate Factory the rest of the week and the posters and hoardings all advertised that. And then this time he has taken on the Barbican, probably the most stunning venue I have seen a gig at in my life. When the seating is so spacious you don’t need to get up to let people pass by you, you know the place wasn’t designed for the regular gig-goer like myself.
From Bush Hall to The Barbican
In such a spacious venue, there is always the worry that the performer is going to struggle to engage the audience, that the wide open space is simply going to eat up any atmosphere they may manage to make. But when you have been doing this for 30 years and probably 90% of your audience has grown up and grown old with you, you can do some strange things.
Roddy Frame takes a very casual approach to the evening. After following his band onstage, he breaks into chat with the audience while sorting out his guitar, admitting he had skipped the sound check, preferring to remain at his West London home a little longer before heading all the way across town for the evening. And that sets the tone for the whole evening, it’s an evening out for Roddy Frame to relax with friends, it just so happens that these friends are a near two thousand (comfortably seated) audience, lapping up every word the man utters.
When he is finally ready to begin, he opens up with the distinctive jangly guitar riff of Oblivious (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtewQ6V3WY8), a song that 30 years on from its release still sounds as fresh as ever. To open the set with one of your most famous songs could be risky, but given the back catalogue he can choose from, it makes no difference as he moves from song to chat to next song at his own gentle pace.
He intersperses the set with old and new, easily covering most points of his 30 year career. While the audience cheer loudly at the opening of the older, and generally more distinctive, songs from his early days as a pop star in Aztec Camera, there is equal love for songs from his latest release, Seven Dials. In fact it is one of his more solo efforts, “Rainy Season” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JS7wZsYPiJg) that is possibly my highlight of the evening. He begins by explaining it was a homage to Ryuichi Sakamoto, someone he has collaborated with in the past. Sakamoto may not be a name that trips of the tongue but it’s likely most people would have heard some of his work without realising it (“Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence” anyone? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgSeZpcMOBE). The opening sweep of piano gives a far east feel, and suddenly the influence of the song is obvious, then the sweet vocal, and finally the twin violins of the two stunning backing singers made this a moment of pure beauty that brought the song a whole new lease of life in my eyes.
The one thing that you do expect from Roddy Frame is regular guitar solos, this is a man who loves his guitars and knows how to play them. Most songs tonight contain a moment or two where Frame can indulge himself, stepping to the front of the stage for a quick solo, the smile on his face as he does so clear to everyone watching every small movement of his hands. When he goes into one extended solo, the single spot light shines his shadow onto the plain white backdrop, giving a large image of the man as his body moves as one with the guitar, and makes for compelling viewing.
Roddy Frame is so clearly at home, it does seem he is playing for his own enjoyment nowadays, not a bad thing when his enthusiasm for this sweeps across everyone in the room. Frame stops at one point to explain his love of the Barbican and why he wanted to play this hall, telling how he had seen a hero of his acting on the same stage and so he wanted to tread the same boards. He asks the audience to indulge him for a moment as he stands and re-enacts a scene in his head of this actor’s most famous roll, painting the picture for the audience before repeating a phrase in Spanish from this actor’s most famous film. The indulgence is granted and Frame looks like a boy fulfilling a life’s ambition, almost as if that moment is more important that his musical career to date.
And this is the joy of seeing Roddy Frame nowadays. This isn’t just a chore he endures to pay the bills, this is a man possibly at his peak as a performer, having now come to love what he does and has learnt how to share that love with an audience that wants to be his friend. And you sometimes feel he wants to be our friend too as he chats so casually to the audience as if there were just a couple of people there sharing a cup of tea; a cup of tea he had asked for midway through the evening, and which his guitar technician helpfully runs off to find, only for Frame to comment that it showed the priorities of the evening, tea before guitars.
So, where next for Roddy Frame; I’m not sure what an upgrade from the Barbican could be, maybe he will need to hire out some rooms in Buckingham Palace for next year or it could be a downward spiral from here. Either way I will be there wherever he plays, because every time I have seen the man perform, it has been a new experience and just gets better and better.