So how about five great gigs this year? Well, I’ve had plenty to choose from and I can’t say that I’ve seen a bad one, so it hasn’t been an easy choice to whittle it down to the top five (and no cheating this time either). These are all gigs that I walked away from feeling elated, feeling that I’d seen something special that I wanted to tell the world about. So I did, and here’s a reminder of how good these gigs were.

01) High Fives John FairhurstJohn Fairhurst @Rich Mix

On a freezing February Friday night in Shoreditch, Rich Mix was a welcome respite from bars full of bankers and ‘exclusive’ lap-dancing joints. The venue is a social enterprise where the motivation isn’t purely profit and programming of events is always interesting. On this particular night, John Fairhurst, along with Pete Episcopo (bass) and Toby Murray (drums) played a raw and raucous set of blues focussing on the 2014 album “Saltwater”. Some of the album versions of the songs were fairly big production numbers but the live performance was strictly a power trio affair with John’s blistering guitar topping off the mixture. The journey back through Shoreditch didn’t seem quite so bad after a night of proper blues with electric guitars playing way up loud. You can see some photos from the gig here.

Mollie and Izzy

Mollie and Izzy

Mollie Marriott @The Half Moon

This one was firmly in the eagerly-anticipated category. Mollie’s been working quietly for some time putting together a great band for live and studio work featuring her Jim Stapley bandmates Izzy Chase-Phillmore, Sam Tanner and Johnson-Jay Medwik-Daley. After an interesting acoustic support set from her nephew, Mo Evans, Mollie’s full band made their first live appearance in a Half Moon packed with fans and a few well-known faces as well. It was obvious from the start that this isn’t just a bunch of hired hands; this is a bunch of really good mates as well. None of their playing is showy or attention-seeking; everything serves the songs and underpins Mollie’s phenomenal voice, and it all works perfectly. The audience were onside anyway, but Mollie and the band gave a great performance of material from the upcoming debut album and a couple of covers as well. Here are some photos of this one.

14) MichaelMad Dog Mcrea and Sound of the Sirens @The Half Moon

This was a very special gig. I’d been invited along to see Mad Dog Mcrea and I had no idea about the support on the night, Sound of the Sirens. It’s such a great feeling when you see an artist for the first time and you know instantly that they’re something special. And it’s not just me; apparently Chris Evans was quite impressed with them as well. Anyway, they played a storming set completely winning over the audience with their powerful songs, dynamics, and harmonies. If the night had stopped at that point, I would have been perfectly happy, but we still had Mad Dog Mcrea to come, with an energetic run through material from their album “Almost Home” plus a few old favourites and crowd pleasers. Two great bands with enough in common to appeal to the whole audience but with enough differences to create a very varied night. And there are some photos here.

10) Chris DiffordSqueeze and Dr John Cooper Clarke @Indigo2

Another interesting double bill, this time with two very different artists, linked by the era which saw the start of their careers. John Cooper Clarke (now making the most of his honorary doctorate) has been doing poetry and comedy events for a few years but the tour with Squeeze put him back in front of big audiences filled with people who remembered him from the first time round. He throws more one-liners and gags into his routine now but a lot of the old favourite poems are still there, although some of them, particularly “Twat”, have evolved over time. On this night he was a barnstorming crowd-pleaser, building up the audience nicely for the headline act.

This year Squeeze had a new album to promote so the setlist was varied, to say the least, with material covering almost forty years from “Take Me I’m Yours” to new songs like “Cradle to the grave” with the usual smattering of different interpretations of Squeeze classics. What made this performance so special was the group of musicians (mainly Glenn Tilbrook’s Fluffers) now making up the rest of Squeeze who add upright bass, melodica and other esoteric instruments to the mix as well as adding rich vocal harmonies. Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook have never sounded better and what an incredible set of songs. Guess what, some photos here.

Union Chapel 050515

Union Chapel 050515

Graham Parker and Brinsley Schwarz & The Union Chapel

And finally. One of the greatest talents never to break through in the seventies and eighties, Graham Parker, who toured twice this year; once with The Rumour and once with Brinsley Schwarz. With a songbook which again covers almost forty years and a new album to promote as well, Graham Parker mixed up some established classics, some surprises and some new songs to delight an audience which might have been a little biased anyway. His voice is still remarkable and the songs are all strong enough to work in stripped-back arrangements. This wasn’t just a nostalgia thing; there were new songs to promote and they all sounded as good as anything he’s done before. He’s a remarkable man and it was a real pleasure to hear these songs in such a beautiful venue. How about a look at GP in the seventies and now?

 

 

In December 2014, I made a conscious decision that I would get to as many gigs as I possibly could during 2015. Not all of those gigs became reviews or picture galleries, but I certainly broke my previous record, which has stood since my second year at university. I love those moments at gigs when something happens which is either so unexpected or so exceptional that the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you know that you’ll remember it forever. Here are five of those from 2015:

Interview ScrollerSound of the Sirens – In mid-March this year I was at The Half Moon in Putney to see Mad Dog Mcrea. I’d just reviewed their “Almost Home” album and thought they would be good to see live. I hadn’t heard of the support band, Sound of the Sirens, but I like to see support bands because you never know when you’ll make a great discovery; this was one of those nights. Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood grabbed my attention from the opening notes with superb songs, perfect harmonies and counterpoint and a huge dynamic range combining to create a set of acoustic anthems for the twenty-first century, all of it completely new to me. The entire set was stunning, but “Faith in Fire” had me transfixed; I had to just stand and watch, open-mouthed as the song progressed from the quiet intro to a rousing finale. Just perfect.

Union Chapel 050515

Union Chapel 050515

Graham Parker & Brinsley Schwarz at The Union Chapel – My first visit to the lovely Union Chapel and I was there with Phil Burdett to see one of my teenage heroes play a stripped-down set with Brinsley Schwarz (who was in the first proper band I saw live). Graham Parker has such a huge catalogue of songs that it’s impossible to predict which ones would make the cut on the night. Over the pre-gig pint, I came up with a small wish-list; one of which was almost a certainty, and the other a bit of an outsider. The opening song “Watch the Moon Come Down” ticked the certainty box, but it wasn’t until much later in the set that the harrowing “You Can’t be Too Strong” completed the list. The audience reaction of awed silence throughout the song and an explosion of applause at the end showed that I wasn’t the only person waiting to hear that one. I think I may have had something in my eye at that point.

Hannah Gallery ScrollerHannah Aldridge at Green Note – This is another gig that came out of hearing an album and deciding that I had to see the artist. Hannah’s debut, “Razor Wire”, is a wonderful piece of work featuring some brutally honest and sincere depictions of her life and I was keen to hear how these songs would strip down to an acoustic format. As expected, the songs worked perfectly in their original forms with Hannah’s pure, clear voice and acoustic guitar; Hannah was engaging between songs, giving some background to each piece, explaining the inspiration behind it. The song which completely silenced the full house at Green Note was “Parchman”, a song that, uncharacteristically, isn’t autobiographical; it’s the story of a woman on death row for murdering her abusive husband. I swear you couldn’t even hear anyone breathe as Hannah pulled the maximum emotion from the song by playing it completely straight; no vocal tricks or adornments, just a perfect song and a beautiful delivery, leaving the audience emotionally drained.

02) DeanDean Owens at The Union Chapel – It’s fair to say that Dean Owens is a bit of a Riot Squad favourite and it’s great to see that he’s having some very well-deserved success this year. Landing the support slot for Rosanne Cash at The Union Chapel gave Dean a chance to play in front of a full house and an appreciative audience in London with only his guitar and a bunch of great songs. He had the audience with him from the start and got a great response for the whole set but saved something very special for the end. He went completely unplugged; no amplification for guitar or voice. I’ve seen this done in smaller venues (Hannah Aldridge did it at Green Note) but it was big moment in a venue this size, however good the acoustics are. Dean hit the ball out of the park; he pulled out a rip-roaring version of Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here” which rightly earned him a huge response from a slightly stunned audience. A magical moment.

Rosanne Review TitleRosanne Cash & John Leventhal at The Union Chapel – I know, I’m just being greedy here; two epiphanies on the same night. Rosanne Cash featured a lot of songs from the award-winning “The River and the Thread” and, with husband John Leventhal, was superb throughout, taking time to tell some of the stories behind the songs and establish a warm rapport with the audience. Strangely enough, the entire set seemed to come into sharp focus on someone else’s song, Bobbie Gentry’s enigmatic “Ode to Billy Joe”, which pulled all of the other threads together. A very simple arrangement and heartfelt performances pulled the audience into the song and generated a response that was part acclamation and part relief at escape from the song’s interwoven strands of tragedy and banality.

And I suppose that’s one reason that we go to gigs; we always hope that we’ll see those moments that you can’t capture on film or record/CD/MP3; the things that only happen once. I think five in one year’s pretty good going. Thanks to Sound of the Sirens, Graham Parker, Hannah Aldridge, Dean Owens and Rosanne Cash for those fabulous memories.

GP TitleSo, Graham Parker and Brinsley Schwarz at The Union Chapel and I have to say that this one has a special significance for me. The first proper gig I saw was Brinsley Schwarz (the band) playing at Mansfield Civic Theatre on February 25, 1974 and you can read about that gig here. As a student I saw Graham Parker and The Rumour play at Dundee University Students’ Association (April 20, 1978 if you must know, and £1.50 to get in) and the following year at The Odeon in Edinburgh. The songs were great and the band was on fire at that time; Graham Parker should have had huge commercial success, either at that time or without The Rumour in the early eighties, but it didn’t happen. He’s continued to write, make albums, and play as a solo artist and with various group lineups, mainly in the USA, but after 2012’s “Three Chords Good” album which reunited The Rumour, the UK seems to be ready to clasp him to its bosom again.

The audience in The Union Chapel was pretty much what you would expect for this type of gig and surprisingly well-behaved (no loud conversations about how terrible the journey to the gig was or whinges about the bar prices) apart from the bunch that wanted to help GP by braying along like a tone-deaf rugby team; you can’t win them all. With a body of work going back around forty-five years and a new album to promote as well, there’s a chance that you might not get to hear their favourite song; it must have been my lucky night, because I heard two of mine.

The set started with a GP solo version of my first favourite, “Watch the Moon Come Down”, which lends itself to an acoustic interpretation and it’s probably known by most of the old fans so it was the perfect way to ease everyone in before the almost new “Stop Crying About the Rain” from “Three Chords Good”. It’s great to see Brinsley Schwarz back in live action again; his musicianship has always been superb and his harmonies add another layer to the sound. It’s not The Rumour, but it’s a big enough sound to work in an intimate venue like The Union Chapel.

The set spanned the forty years from the release of “Howlin’ Wind” (which was well represented with “White Honey”, “Silly Thing”, “Not if it Pleases Me” and “Don’t Ask Me Questions”) to the new album, “Mystery Glue” which has three songs featured: “Railroad Spikes”, “I’ve Done Bad Things” and “Flying into London”. There was an obvious warmth and camaraderie between Brinsley and Graham as well as between the audience and the performers throughout the set; GP seemed very much at ease with the whole thing and his voice still sounds superb.

As you might expect, there were a couple of interesting choices. The encore opened with an a cappella solo version of the Gershwin classic “Someone to Watch over Me” and ended with the big seventies hit “Hold Back the Night”. Throw in a scattering of great songs (“Turned up Too Late”, “Under the Mask of Happiness”, “Nation of Shopkeepers”, “Passion Is No Ordinary Word”, “Back to Schooldays” and “Stick to Me”) from across the forty year period and you’ve got a pretty good summary of the career of one of our greatest singer-songwriters. And as for that second favourite song of mine – the second song of the encore was one of the best and most harrowing songs I know. “You Can’t Be Too Strong” (from the album “Squeezing Out Sparks”) is a controversial but very brave piece of songwriting which sounds as relevant now as it did in 1979.

So, Graham Parker can still do it live and this was a pretty good selection of his best songs of the last forty years. He looks relaxed in the live partnership with Brinsley Schwarz, but I suspect that the best is still to come with the reformed Rumour promoting “Mystery Glue” which is out on Monday May 18. You can also hear him doing a guest vocal on the new Stone Foundation album “A Life Unlimited” which is released in the UK in August this year.