On Friday we went to see Tom McRae and an ensemble of other singer-songwriters at the Carling Academy 2 in Newcastle. We were in the smaller of the Academy's two rooms, which is pretty darned small, but the room was absolutely packed (all standing). Unfortunately this meant that from our position near the back we were behind many very tall people, including someone at least a head higher than me and I'm six foot. Poor Janet, who clocks in at five foot tall, couldn't see a thing. After a few songs I dragged her between and around the crowd until we ended up very near the stage on one side. I felt a bit rude doing it but we didn't really inconvenience anyone and it was quite ridiculous for Janet to try to see otherwise.
The rest of the evening was excellent. Tom McRae was first up, playing a song that was new to me (which I loved) and For the Restless. He explained the format: each artist plays two tracks, then rinse and repeat, with various collaborations and general messing about throughout the evening. I'd never seen him in person and he was the nattiest dressed of the artists by a factor of about 50, in a crisp white shirt and black jacket. He reminded me unexpectedly of Alec Newman (who played Paul Atreides in the Sci-Fi miniseries of Dune, and was on Spooks recently), with a bit of the young Sean Bean. Musically he was great, although the number of people filtering in late and heading straight to the bar to order during his songs was seriously pissing me off. The crowd noise continued for the rest of the evening, with some constant loud chatter from the back. At one stage late in the evening Tom called that if they couldn't hear themselves talk over his keyboard he'd try to play more quietly. I think it's incredibly rude audience behaviour; how hard is it to keep quiet when you've paid to see someone sing? I suspect that some of the audience expected a full Tom McRae set with supporting acts, rather than the more even division of labour that we got. Even so, they couldn't even shut up during his numbers so I have to wonder why they were there. Tom played six songs in total, but was generally up on stage introducing or doing backing vocals for the other artists, beer in hand. He's a funny guy with a great line in extreme bitterness and self-deprecation.
Next up was Steve Reynolds (or "Hobo Baggins" as Tom pegged him due to his unkempt Elijah Wood-nesss), who impressed me. His lyrical style wasn't a million miles from Tom's, although his sound was slightly more country-tinged. He was followed by Cary Brothers, the originator of the Hotel Cafe concept in the US, whose material seemed like radio-friendly US songwriter stuff. He was fine but there wasn't much there to distinguish him for me; possibly the fact that I couldn't make out most of his lyrics didn't help me to connect with his songs. Then came Jim Bianco. Of all the artists who played he's the one who seems most out of left field in the line-up, with a little pork pie hat, a much more funky sound and (as he put it) a series of songs about sex. He was huge fun live but it's not really my kind of stuff in the cold light of day. Lastly was Joe Purdy, the other artist who most impressed me. He sported a beard and outfit that wouldn't look out of place on Deadwood, and again had some interesting lyrics married to a sound that was very americana. Some very obvious Bob Dylanisms became apparent on his later songs, although they weren't as intrusive as I'd have expected.
What was evident throughout was the great sense of fun about proceedings. The rapid shuffle of acts lent the night a real sense of freedom and energy, with each artist supporting the others musically or on backing vocals, and plenty of banter. Between the artists and other musicians there was a truly impressive array of facial hair which didn't hurt the general impression of eccentricity.
After the first round of acts we got a rollicking unbilled turn from one of the supporting musicians (Brian Wright, whose facial hair easily rivalled the billed acts). Then Tom announced delightedly that Kathryn Williams had turned up and he'd managed to persuade her to do a song. She's someone I've only vaguely heard of but the friend we'd brought with us owns three of her albums, so that was cool for him. She was obviously nervous to find herself suddenly on stage but had a nice line in meandering, slightly stream-of-consciousness songwriting. All the artists, even the unexpected ones, got an extremely appreciative response from the audience which helped to offset the ignorant talking at the back.
After that things proceeded along the same lines. Tom played another new one which he said may or may not be on the new album (for me it was about the level of the nearly-but-not-quite stuff on All Maps Welcome), My Vampire Heart and Still Lost. The most unexpected moment was a fun Jim Bianco-led singalong that began in the middle of the audience and worked its way around the room. By the end of the evening all the billed artists had done at least four songs, and the music got increasingly up tempo. (By his last number Joe Purdy astutely judged the crowd with "It's too late and you're too drunk for 'tender'"). Tom managed to cajole Kathryn Williams back for a last minute number, which was the epitome of 'tender' but which the audience listened to regardless. Sadly the room had to be vacated at 10 p.m. for some tedious club night or other, and despite Tom's insistence that they'd stay on until the venue got really pissed off, they ended up finishing about 10.05 with a boisterous rendition of Silent Boulevard.
It's a very particular experience listening to new artists live because there's so much to take in at once and you only gradually build up an impression of them and their music: a few perfectly-chosen lyrics that surprise and delight you; a bit of music that gets you moving your feet; a general demeanour and sound and vocal delivery. I find live music quite intoxicating that way, and it's often tough to decide how much of what you liked was the immediacy of the performance, and how much was something you could recapture on a CD player in your own home. I ended up buying Steve Reynolds and Joe Purdy CDs. Time will tell if these were a wise investment.
Overall we all had a really good evening. Janet overheard the teenage girls in front of us (who spent most of the evening texting each other) grumbling about the lack of Tom McCrae but the evening was a rich home-cooked buffet of musical artists and styles, so it's hard to complain. Of the two new songs that Tom played, the first was definitely the best - very strong - and the only slight disappointment was that his other material was all culled from the third album.
Then we went home and spent the rest of the evening boozing with Janet's brother and one of our friends back at our place, then spent the whole of Saturday doing much the same thing, with a short interval in the middle to have a meeting with a mortgage adviser and arrange a new mortgage deal (our existing one comes to an end on 1st Jan). Saturday night involved much boozing and watching Miyazaki's Nausicca, a film we've never got around to watching, and which I enjoyed very much.
Today we went on a day trip out to Warkworth Castle in Northumberland with another friend and one of his friends, which was fun. We had a very nice carvery lunch at the Hermitage Hotel and the castle, while mostly ruined, is very impressive. Only the fact that the wind was a-howlin' and the rain was a-downpourin' kept it from being entirely fun. My ears are just now beginning to warm up and stop hurting.