While other soul stars of her generation might opt for the safety of the revival package tour, trotting out twenty minutes of hits to the nostalgia brigade, Candi Staton has chosen to walk the high road. Returning to the secular stage after two decades spent mainly on the gospel circuit, she concluded her UK tour at the Rescue Rooms last night, backed by a fine and funky eight-piece British band called Push (featuring Mick Talbot, former keyboardist with The Style Council).
Although the show was downsized from Rock City, the smaller venue worked in everybody’s favour. Dancers shook their stuff down the front, while veteran soul buffs beamed from the sidelines. This was a warm, earthy, up close and personal show, and an opportunity for the players to draw from a rich tradition of classic styles – from Southern Soul (I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart) to Northern Soul (Now You Got The Upper Hand), via blues, gospel, country, disco and garage house.
The big hits – Nights On Broadway, Young Hearts Run Free, Suspicious Minds – all got an airing, along with both of Candi’s Grammy-nominated recordings: Stand By Your Man (which stayed just the right side of hokey), and a spine-tingling cover of Elvis Presley’s In The Ghetto.
The main set finished with a triumphant reclaiming of Candi’s biggest hit, You Got The Love – a song which started out as the soundtrack for a diet video, before being remixed and covered many times over, most recently by Florence and the Machine. This was soul music as it should be heard: immaculately performed, sung with love and understanding, and lifting the spirits of a small, sweaty, happy room.
When Rufus Wainwright last played the Royal Concert Hall, he ended the show by stripping to his underpants and donning a beauty queen’s sash. Nearly five years on, with the recent death of his mother (Kate McGarrigle) very much on his mind, the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different.
On entering the venue, we were greeted by a notice instructing us not to applaud during the show’s first half: a straight run-through of Wainwright’s new album (All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu), to be performed as a solo “song cycle” for voice and piano. The ban even extended to his exit from the stage, which was described as “part of the piece”.
“The artist has requested that you are in your seats by 7:45”, the tannoys told us, although this didn’t stop him from making us wait another fifteen minutes, just to be on the safe side. And in case we had missed the notices, an onstage announcer spelt out the “no clapping” rule one more time – generously adding that during the second half, we were free to applaud to our heart’s content.
Lit by a single spotlight, Wainwright duly made his entrance in total silence, dressed all in black and slowly marching across the stage in the manner of a one-man funeral procession. Behind his extravagantly plumed cloak, a long train stretched right back to the wings.
Aside from the grand piano, the stage’s only other adornment was a video backdrop, created by the Turner Prize-winning Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. This showed various giant close-ups of Wainwright’s slowly blinking eyes, which were coated in thick, black, tar-like make-up, giving them an eerie, insect-like appearance.
The sombre mood of the staging was more than matched by the music. Many of Wainwright’s new songs were written during the later stages of his mother’s treatment for cancer, and as such they offer an agonised premonition of her passing. These were joined by arrangements of three Shakespeare sonnets, and the closing aria from Wainwright’s debut opera, sung in French.
This was austere stuff, which demanded much from the listener – and yet Rufus remained unwilling to make any concessions to his audience. Performing in near-darkness throughout, he seemed wholly oblivious to our presence. Instead, it felt as if he was engaged in a private ritual: confronting his grief, but also trapped inside it, the stricken nature of his material offering him no means of release.
Such flagrant self-indulgence would have been easier to bear, had the material offered more in the way of dramatic progression, musical light and shade – and crucially, stronger tunes. But the brutal truth is that compositionally, this is Rufus Wainwright’s weakest album to date, and the passionate brilliance of his performance was not enough to compensate for its flaws. Robbed of his customary flair for multi-instrumental arrangement, we found ourselves wading through somewhat dirge-like reworkings of some dangerously similar cadences, intervals and flourishes. Inevitably, this placed a considerable strain on our ability to concentrate, and to maintain our emotional engagement.
That said, there were still rich rewards to be mined. Faced with his mother’s worsening condition, Rufus’s pained plea to his sister (“Martha, please call me back”), hit a particularly powerful nerve – and the album’s closing song (Zebulon) skillfully juxtaposed the singer’s present grief with wistful memories of an adolescent crush, to heartbreaking effect.
For the show’s second half, which was given over to material from the first five albums, Rufus reverted to his usual good-humoured, wittily self-deprecatory stage persona. But for all his banter and charm, an underlying sense of loss was never far from the surface. Songs in memory of the late River Phoenix (Matinee Idol) and the late Jeff Buckley (Memphis Skyline) got an airing, only to be followed by the scarcely more cheering In A Graveyard (a surprise addition to the set list, included for the benefit of the diehard “regulars” in the front rows). Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk started in a jaunty fashion, before mournfully ebbing away. (“So please be kind… if I’m in a mess….”)
In terms of vocal technique, Rufus has never sounded better; towards the end of Vibrate, a sequence of brilliantly sustained notes drew applause from the delighted crowd. But perhaps his finest moment came towards the end of Going To A Town, the penultimate song. “I’ve got a life to lead, I’ve got a soul to feed”, he crooned, sounding re-energised and renewed at last. “Making my own way home, ain’t gonna be alone”, he concluded, seconds before his warmest ovation of the night. In those few short lines, perhaps he had told us what we had wanted to hear all along.
Who Are You New York?
Sad With What I Have
Give Me What I Want And Give It To Me Now!
Sonnet 43: When Most I Wink…
Sonnet 20: A Woman’s Face…
Sonnet 10: For Shame Deny…
What Would I Ever Do With A Rose?
Les Feux D’Artifice T’Appellent
Nobody’s Off The Hook
The Art Teacher
In A Graveyard
Dinner at Eight
Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk
Going To A Town
The Walking Song (Kate McGarrigle cover)
These New Puritans are not a band for the faint-hearted. As the opening number We Want War creaks into life, a sequence of brutal drum smashes pierces the smoky darkness, each one making us flinch in shock. Emerging from the gloom, lead singer Jake Barnett begins indistinctly, before taking full command. “We hold all the secrets, we hold all the words”, he intones. “But they’re scrambled and broken, so you’ll never know.” It’s as clear a statement of his intentions as you’ll find.
For while Barnett’s lyrics may tend towards the unfathomable and oblique, the overriding emotion that his band conveys is one of foreboding and dread. It’s almost as if the performers are trying to warn us of some nameless horror which is about to unfold, but are prevented from doing so by some unseen force. If that sounds pretentious, then perhaps their brand of symphonic, percussive art-rock isn’t for you – but for those who are prepared to enter their world, the rewards are rich.
On their most recent album Hidden, the four main players are backed by the brass and woodwind sections of a Czech orchestra, as well as a children’s choir. On stage, it’s impossible to tell who is doing what. There are keyboards, drums, mixers, a laptop and a heavy set of chains hanging off a stand, but these are almost hidden from view by the thick smoke which shrouds the three performers at the back. Only Barnett remains visible throughout: a puny figure with a long neck and haunted eyes, wearing a tunic over his T-shirt that could almost be made out of chain mail.
The drum sound is like nothing you’ve ever heard: fierce, punchy, complex and all-consuming. The music defies all categorisation; no one you can think of sounds remotely like this. But for the encore, as a standard rock back-beat finally kicks in, they’re almost conventional. It helps to break the spell, easing us back into something approaching normality.
An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.
In this age of instant opinion, where anyone’s hastily typed thoughts can be accessed by the whole world within seconds, it’s difficult to know who to trust. This holds especially true when the subject under discussion is the comeback tour by a major star, re-entering the public arena after many years of well-documented personal anguish.
So do we trust Whitney Houston’s diehard fans, who are all too ready to excuse every fault? (“If you want the Whitney of twenty years ago, buy a CD” fumed one supporter, angrily reacting to mixed reviews of Whitney’s first British show in eleven years, just two nights ago.) Or do we listen to widely read gossip websites such as Holy Moly, who pronounced her Birmingham show “a disaster”? (“It was a resounding, unadulterated success in the same way that the Titanic’s maiden voyage was a success”, they sneered.)
If you had witnessed last night’s astonishing performance at the Trent FM Arena, then you might have found it hard to have much sympathy with the cynics. For contrary to many people’s expectations, Whitney Houston delivered a powerful, passionate performance to a crowd that was overwhelmingly on her side.
For the first forty minutes of the show, which were dominated by tracks from her recent album I Look To You, the 46 year old star was on almost flawless form – unless you count a fluffed introduction to one of the older songs. (“Let me take you back to nineteen… I don’t know!” she giggled.) That aside, she hit every note, navigating every rhythmic twist and turn with assured dexterity, and maintaining a commanding stage presence. A slightly ragged My Love Is Your Love was saved by an emotionally charged final section, which saw Whitney obsessively repeating the phrase “Are you with me?” with ever-increasing intensity.
“I have no tricks – I hope you can handle that”, she told us, pointing to the simple stage set-up behind her. “I have no costumes, I have no drag”, she announced – although this didn’t stop her from disappearing for a costume change that lasted nearly twelve minutes, while the backing singers (including Whitney’s brother Gary) performed in her absence. “You take your time, Whitney!” joked the fans at the front, as she announced her departure.
The second half of the show began with a lengthy acoustic section. Grouped together at the front of the stage, the musicians clustered around the seated singer, who began with an emotional tribute to Michael Jackson. (“He was my friend. I called him Michael. And he called me Whitney!”)
From this point onwards, the eccentricities began to emerge. Saving All My Love For You was interrupted for a conversation with a woman in the front row, who expressed her admiration for Whitney’s shoes. The shoes were examined at some length, as Whitney bent over and began to stroke her ankles. The song resumed, only to stall again at the sight of two punters returning to their seats. (“I see you got beer!” made for an interesting lyrical addition.)
Interruptions over, the singer became ever more immersed in her performance. Scarcely registering our presence, she picked at a loose thread on her sequinned frock, while taking ever bolder risks with her interpretations – improvising, freestyling, playing with melodies and rhythms, and turning the cavernous arena into an intimate cabaret club.
As the show approached its climax, the old Eighties dance hits were finally given an airing. I Wanna Dance With Somebody and How Will I Know got the crowd dancing, singing and clapping along – but the star herself seemed almost disinterested in this lighter, poppier material, leaving the choruses of both songs to her backing singers. Or was this simply a case of exhaustion beginning to take its toll?
If so, then perhaps this would explain the bizarre rendition of I Will Always Love You that closed the main set. As with the earlier acoustic section, Whitney attempted to play daring games with her best known vocal performance – but by this time, the cracks were starting to show. The song needed discipline and control, rather than silly false endings and awkwardly botched notes.
Nevertheless, all the high notes were hit – even if we had to wait an eternity for some of them, while Whitney turned her back, fiddled with her hair and costume, and generally pantomimed the role of the nervous, trembling diva, girding herself for one last onslaught. Meanwhile, none of this stopped the crowd from roaring their encouragement throughout the song, willing their idol to last the course and finish the job.
Perhaps the outraged fan had got it right after all. If all you want is the Whitney of twenty years ago – the remote, somewhat bland superstar, obediently playing her role – then perhaps you should stick with those old CDs. But if you would rather have the Whitney of 2010 – flawed at times, but freed from her demons and calling her own tune, in her own unique way – then last night’s show would have sent you home beaming with delight, and thoroughly entertained.
For the Lovers
Nothin’ But Love
I Look to You
My Love Is Your Love
Like I Never Left
It’s Not Right But It’s Okay
For the Love of You (performed by Gary Houston)
Queen of the Night (performed by backing vocalists)
A Song For You
Saving All My Love For You
Greatest Love of All
All At Once
I Learned from the Best
Step By Step
I Love the Lord
I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)
How Will I Know
I Will Always Love You
Million Dollar Bill
(An edited version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)
(Photo taken by soulrush)
Many of us were very saddened to hear of the recent loss of your mother, Kate McGarrigle. In this sort of situation, does writing and performing music become more of a burden, or is it more of a release?
It’s a double-edged sword. Emotionally it’s quite taxing, and at some point I definitely need to do nothing for a while. I don’t know if now is that time, because with mourning you sometimes feel like a shark who thinks that without swimming they’ll die. So I have to keep going. But on the other hand, nothing quite fits as well as death and music! (Laughs) It’s uncanny, the similar emotive power of both those worlds. So it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
Somewhat inevitably, your audience are going to hear your new album (All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu) with the knowledge of that loss in mind, so I guess that might colour their interpretation of the material. To what extent is the album a response to, or a premonition of, those recent events?
None of the songs were written or recorded after her death. The whole process was right up to the end of her life, so it’s definitely a centrepiece to the project. But on the other hand, it’s not technically about that. So it makes for an emotional but surreal experience for the listener, because it’s like this elephant in the room. It’s not really touched on that much, but it’s just so obvious. It’s what dramatic situations are made of.
There is a direct reference to your mother in the album’s final song Zebulon, which is also addressed to a former crush. So there’s a mixture of past and present in there. How do those themes link together?
Zebulon is about a vision that I was gifted with, while taking care of my mother in the hospital. All of a sudden, these floods of memories from the past came back to me. I was reminded of how innocent and idyllic my life was as a child, and how I’m very lucky to have had that. But I’m also robbed of it at this point in my life, because things have gotten so dark. So it’s a sort of bittersweet feeling, of having a beautiful childhood: you can lean on it, but also miss it terribly at the same time.
Zebulon is preceded by a song called Les Feux D‘Artifice T’Appellent (“The Fireworks Are Calling You”), which is taken from your recent opera Prima Donna. What role does that song play?
It’s the last aria of the opera. The prima donna sings it to herself, while she watches the Bastille Day fireworks going on outside her window. It’s a symbolic moment, as the fireworks really represent life itself.
You’ve also set three Shakespeare sonnets to music. What were your reasons for choosing this particular set of three?
I’ve actually put ten of them down to music, for a play that I did with Robert Wilson in Berlin, based on the sonnets. It’s still running at the Berliner Ensemble, which is where the Threepenny Opera was premiered, and where Bertolt Brecht was the director. These specific three were ones that I enjoy performing alone with the piano. The middle one, number 20, is my favourite of all the sonnets.
That was a fascinating one to read. I knew there were theories that some of the sonnets were addressed to a male lover, but I had no idea that any of them were so direct and unequivocal.
It deals with all of those kinds of homoerotic feelings, that I think every man goes through. (Laughs) I actually don’t think that Shakespeare was gay, especially after reading the sonnets. But I do think that he had a sort of homoerotic event occur in his life, that really took him off guard.
In this sonnet, Shakespeare mentions that Mother Nature has given his object of desire one particular body part, which precludes him from going any further. That’s not a very gay sentiment.
Yeah, and he’s sort of dumbstruck by this event. And I’ve done it many times! (Laughs)
Sonnet 10 sounds as if it’s addressed to a rather complex and conflicted character. They’re “possessed with murderous hate”, but their presence is also “gracious and kind”.
That’s a very important sonnet, because it’s the first sonnet where the poet admits his love directly to the subject. I always equate it with a kind of blubbering, blundering, over the top professor, who loses his grip and spills his marbles for the young student (laughs), while trying desperately to keep it together. It’s like The Blue Angel, that movie with Marlene Dietrich, where the professor ends up going to the dancehall every night, and falls in love at the ripe old age of 65 or something. So it’s Reason being thwarted!
Your last three albums were lavishly arranged and orchestrated, but this one takes things right back to essentials: voice, piano and nothing else besides. How did that simplicity of approach affect the recording process?
It was much faster to record, but the mixing ended up being a lot trickier than we thought. Pierre Marchand, who also mixed Poses, was somewhat surprised by how complex the relationship is between piano and voice – especially when you have a whole album of it. You really have to bring out the subtleties and polish the product, so that it’s really brilliant. So it was a very subtle process – but that being said, I’ve done this for years, and I was definitely ready to emote and deliver this type of product. I have been locked behind my piano for eons, and I know what I’m doing.
With every album, I try to accomplish some ulterior motive. The Judy project (“Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall”) was a period to really focus on my voice, the opera is dedicated to my classical aspirations, and so forth. This album is really about cornering the piano, facing my ability as a pianist and as an arranger for that instrument, and fleshing out my legacy in that form.
You’re playing the Royal Concert Hall later this month. When you played there in 2005, the show ended with you and your band performing a striptease, after which you put on a silk sash which said “Miss Nottingham”. Do you have any similar surprises in store this time round?
The show that I’m bringing is twofold. The first half is the new album, and it’s very austere and tragic. I don’t want any applause between songs. I want to perform it as a song cycle, so the audience can really get lost in the music. But I will come back again in the second half and do the old favourites, and make every attempt to lighten the load! (Laughs) So, who knows what will happen?
Given all that has happened to her since the start of this year – the BBC’s “Sound of 2010” award, the “Critics’ Choice” BRIT award, the Top Five single, the Number One album – success could easily have swollen Ellie Goulding’s head. And given the sheer scale of that success, she could easily have swapped the intimacy of the Rescue Rooms for a much larger venue, while still pulling in a capacity crowd.
But instead of pressing ever harder on the accelerator pedal, this commendably unaffected 23 year old singer-songwriter has sensibly chosen to develop her performing skills at a rather more measured pace. It has been less than a month since her last visit to Nottingham – supporting Passion Pit at Rock City – and despite the best efforts of the hype machine to turn her into an instant superstar, it is clear that she still needs time to find her bearings as a live performer.
Perhaps it was just the symptoms of her newly acquired chest infection kicking in, but Ellie spent a good deal of her hour-long set looking somewhat anxious and ill at ease. “You’re awfully quiet”, she kept muttering – and with good reason, as the whoops and shrieks that greeted the end of each song tended to die away quickly, leaving an uneasy silence in the room. Although an atmosphere of good-natured curiosity prevailed, few amongst the crowd could yet be counted as diehard fans, and so Ellie had to work hard to win us over.
In this respect, perhaps the weight of our expectations worked against her, creating an unhelpful level of extra pressure. But you also sensed that she was constrained by the glossy layers of pop production that have been added to her compositions, swamping her vocals and hemming her in rhythmically. Tellingly, she often sounded at her best when the pre-recorded backing tracks were switched off, and when her backing band were at their most subdued. At these moments, the self-consciousness slipped away, allowing glimpses of a more tender and heartfelt performance style to shine through. But at other times, you couldn’t help worrying that Ellie Goulding’s sudden success could turn out to be her worst enemy.
The most widespread reaction to Ricky Martin coming out last week was a great big shrug. Have we stopped caring about our pop stars’ sexuality?
Twelve years ago, when his activities in a Californian public toilet forced George Michael to declare his sexuality to the world, the singer was widely hailed for his courage and good grace. This week, the reaction to Ricky Martin‘s apparently unforced declaration of gayness (“I am a fortunate homosexual man”) has been less effusive. On the BBC’s Have Your Say forum, opinions mostly ranged from “who cares” to “we already knew”, with some even suggesting that the whole episode was a publicity stunt, staged to boost flagging sales of his music.
If society has reached the stage where the coming out of a pop star provokes little more than a collective shrug, then perhaps the pressure is also easing on other openly gay performers, who now feel less burdened to act as figureheads or role models. When asked about this in 2008, Boy George told me he “never had that separatist attitude about ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. I love being gay and I support gay culture, but I don’t think of myself as being a solely gay artist.”
Nevertheless, George’s follow-up comments provided an unexpected sting. “Today’s pop stars are out of the closet,” he continued, “but they don’t express anything about their sexuality. They don’t ever use the word ‘he’ in their songs. They think they don’t need to, because they think everybody loves them. They’ve been lulled into this false sense of security.”
At this charge, a gay performer might trot out that well-worn line, “I want my songs to have a universal appeal.” A cynic might retort that he was merely scared of being pigeonholed as a gay act, as that could limit his appeal. Either way, you’ll search long and hard to find hit songs that unequivocally reference same-sex desire, as opposed to dropping veiled hints. Curiously, many of the former – Suede’s The Drowners, Franz Ferdinand’s Michael, Placebo’s Nancy Boy, Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl, tATu’s All the Things She Said – are the work of artists who have sought to play games with sexual identity, rather than bona fide, down-the-line gay acts. In other words, it’s the ambiguous acts who have often felt the most free to sing in unambiguous terms.
In the case of Suede, who reunited last week for a rapturously received show at the Royal Albert Hall, most of the ambiguity was supplied by singer Brett Anderson, who famously declared that he was “a bisexual man who never had a homosexual experience”. His sexuality became an object of fascination, even though Suede’s drummer Simon Gilbert had quietly come out early in the band’s career. As with his contemporary Simon Fowler, the singer of Ocean Colour Scene, there was never any big deal about Gilbert’s sexuality, perhaps because neither performer could be placed into the usual categories – arty/cerebral (Neil Tennant, Michael Stipe) or colourful/flamboyant (Jake Shears, Elton John) – that still define most gay performers. Neither Gilbert nor Fowler played with representations of sexuality: they just happened to be gay.
For isolated young gay men who might be seeking public role models, but who remain wary of identifying with anyone that carries too strong a whiff of camp, perhaps it is the gay stars of mainstream pop who have had the most to offer. Will Young, Mark Feehily of Westlife and the late Stephen Gately have all presented themselves as clean-cut boy-next-door types – and yet all remained objects of desire for their overwhelmingly female fanbases.
That has given rise to a curious phenomenon, whereby openly gay pop performers now feel free to flirt on stage with wildly appreciative female audiences, without compromising their core identities. You’ll find the same thing at John Barrowman’s shows, where the star can be found relating homespun anecdotes about his partner, before suggestively wiggling and thrusting his way through songs like Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic. So if you’re hoping that Ricky Martin, gay pop’s freshest addition to the ranks, might start reworking his old hits with a new gay twist (He Bangs, anyone?), you are best advised to prepare for disappointment.
Robin Hood: Absolutely Queer? Mike Atkinson investigates the claims that our local legend was even more familiar with the wood than we ever realised…
He lives with a bunch of so-called ‘Merry’ men (and we all know what ‘Merry’ means, right?) in the middle of a forest (and we all know what ‘Merry’ Men get up to in wooded thickets, right?). With no women for miles around, save for an impossibly perfect little madam who swishes about in embroidered frocks, the men content themselves with “bonding” activities such as:
• Blowing each other’s horns
• Clapping each other heartily on the back
• Kitting themselves out in matching short-shorts and tights
• Ordering likely-looking strangers to ‘Stand and Deliver’
• Huddling into a tight, dark, enclosed space (aka the Major Oak, arguably the world’s first ever ‘dark room’), at even the flimsiest of pretexts.
If any of this irrepressibly man-to-man cavorting has ever struck you as, well, not entirely heterosexual, then you are not alone in your suspicions. The homo-eroticism of Hood has been the subject of serious academic study (he “inter-phallicised endlessly with his masculine coevals, while Maid Marian drooped about waiting for the token final kiss”); themed walking tours have taken place in Nottingham over the last few years (“Hear about the gay origins of the world’s most famous folk hero”); and even Peter Tatchell has optimistically stuck his oar in (“His lifestyle alone was enough to provoke speculation”).
Still not convinced? Well, how about the line uttered by Douglas Fairbanks, playing Robin Hood in the 1922 film of the same name, as he tries to duck out of some wench-related frolics offered by Richard The Lionheart (also thought not to be entirely heterosexual, but that’s a whole other scrappily researched think-piece): “Exempt me sire, I am afeard of women.” Or in the modern vernacular: “Eww, minge – scar-eh!”
Need a more historically legitimate citation? Then look no further than the original ballads upon which the Hood legend is said to be based, as penned by a fourteenth century poet called Sir John Clanvowe. You’ll find no mention of Maid Marian here; she doesn’t pop up for another couple of hundred years, and is thought by some to represent an after-the-fact attempt at butching Hood up: part fag-hag, part “beard”, part cover story. Instead, Clanvowe’s ballads linger lovingly on the close friendship between Robin and “Little” John (who, as we all know, was quite the opposite – feel free to extrapolate further):
“When Robin Hood was about twenty years old… he happened to meet Little John. A jolly brisk blade, right fit for the trade, for he was a lusty young man.”
As the pair face each other off, famously brandishing their respective poles, Clanvowe dramatises the dialogue in terms that fairly drip with innuendo.
“And now for thy sake, a staff will I take, the truth of thy manhood to try!” “Lo, see my staff! It is lusty and tough! Now here on the bridge we will play!”
It has been claimed that Clanvowe’s inspiration for the ballads was drawn from his own relationship with one Sir William Neville, the constable of Nottingham Castle (and hence presumably the protector of Mortimer’s Hole, but let’s not muddy the waters with over-conjecture). Widely thought to be a gay couple, the pair fought together in the Hundred Years War, and were eventually buried in the same tomb.
In the face of such iron-clad antecedents, it would be frivolous to speculate further – so let’s do just that. Did Little John ever take his lusty paramour for tea up at his Nan’s in Mansfield? (“I don’t care what y’are duckeh, as long as yer ‘appeh, that’s all I’ve ever wanted for yer, yer know that, don’t yer duckeh…”) Were the Merry Men’s neckerchiefs colour-coded signifiers of sexual predilection, as they remain to this day within certain “specialist” gay circles? (If so, this puts Will Scarlet’s cries of “Hands up, give me all you’ve got” into a wholly different context – you might need to look that one up.) Given the well-documented historical association of the colour green with “rent”, was Maid Marian the clandestine madam of a redistributive anarcho-syndicalist escort agency? (“We bottom for the rich, and top for the poor.”) Was Friar Tuck brought in to service the “bear” market, his nom-du-bonk a thinly veiled Spoonerism? And was Robin Hood really hailed as “the prince of thieves” – or merely slagged off, by the more uncouth and ungrateful recipients of his largesse, as “that ponce from Thieves’ Wood”? Alas, we may never know…
How do you move on from being Dublin’s rock’n'roll Lucifer? By becoming U2′s ‘aesthetic midwife’, outdressing 50 Cent and roping in the Salvation Army for your latest album. Mike Atkinson meets Gavin Friday.
His public profile might be low – after all, it has been 15 years since his last album – but Gavin Friday is a remarkably well-connected man. In October 2009, four days ahead of his 50th birthday, he was the subject of a tribute concert staged in Carnegie Hall in New York, featuring an impressive array of friends, fans and collaborators. All four members of U2 performed in Friday’s honour, along with the likes of Lou Reed, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Antony Hegarty, Shane MacGowan, Andrea Corr, Lady Gaga, Scarlett Johansson and Laurie Anderson. Joel Grey reprised his Oscar-winning role as the master of ceremonies from Cabaret. Patrick McCabe read from his novel Breakfast On Pluto. (In the 2005 film adaptation, Friday played glam-rocker Billy Hatchett.)
To the delight of his loyal fanbase, founder members of Friday’s first band, the Virgin Prunes, also reunited for a couple of songs. Before they took to the stage, Courtney Love paid fond and fervent tribute (“I wasn’t asked to do this show; I demanded to do this show”), citing the “swagger, charisma, shamanism and fury” of their early Dublin gigs. “I had never seen so much sex, snarl, poetry, evil, restraint, grace, filth, raw power and the very essence of rock and roll,” she testified, casting the Prunes as “Lucifer: arch and cunning to U2′s Gabriel: angelic and gorgeous. U2 gave me lashes of love and inspiration, and a few nights later the Virgin Prunes fucked – me – up.”
“It’s quite a mouthful,” says Friday, five months later. “It’s quite great, actually. She gave it to me framed. I have it over my toilet pot – fittingly.”
Love and Friday first met in 1997 at the Las Vegas opening of U2′s PopMart tour. Friday was there to advise his friends on staging and performance. He has been similarly employed on every U2 tour since The Joshua Tree, describing himself as their “aesthetic midwife”.
“I have a fond memory of sitting in one of the dressing rooms, talking about Ireland in the 80s, and her showing me as many of her shamrock tattoos as possible. We reminisced about the early days of punk: her from an American point of view, and me from Ireland and Britain. We got on very well. And then I didn’t see her for years.”
The pair met again in the early 2000s. “She was hanging out a lot with Winona Ryder. I think they were having a bit of a wild girl moment. I saw her perform in the Russian Tea Rooms in New York. It was some sort of strange benefit event. She was playing very improvised abstract stuff on guitar, and Winona was reading poetry. They’re really grandiose, beautiful, art deco, very wealthy rooms. And they were like two demons from hell, vomiting all over the china.”
At the Carnegie Hall show, Love and Friday duetted on a cover of Magazine’s The Light Pours Out of Me. The song was “very fitting for me and Courtney”, says Friday. “We didn’t shy away from the lyric at all. When we were rehearsing, this guttural energy just came up from the floorboards. It was electric and vibrant. It wasn’t like we were going through any motions.”
“It was the same when I did the Virgin Prunes songs,” he says. “I was able to dig deep in there and in some way become a young Gavin Friday again – for a moment.”
Did he feel Lucifer rising once more? “Well, it’s odd. You can’t be what you were. You can’t go back to what London was like in the early 80s. We’re going through a recession now, but the recession we had then, with the steel claw of Maggie Thatcher bashing anything that moved, was a very different environment. With revolutionary bands that were run by angst, or anger, or kicking against the so-called pricks, you can’t suddenly reinvent that. And the Virgin Prunes were not like a conventional rock’n'roll band. We were avant-garde, experimental, visual. It had as much to do with performance art as it did with rock’n'roll or punk.”
Having in effect disbanded the Prunes in 1986, Friday released his first solo album (Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves) three years later. Drawing on European influences such as Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, it marked a complete break from his musical past. The Lydon-influenced wailing of the Prunes days was gone, as Friday discovered his lower register. “I’m a late developer, so maybe my balls dropped later. My tone got lower – and higher – as I got older.”
Two more albums followed, before a sequence of misfortunes – the termination of his contract with Island Records (“They basically turned into the Sugababes label”), the death of his father, the break-up of his marriage, a period of depression (“I went a bit arseways in my own life, didn’t know who I was”), major back surgery (“I couldn’t fucking do anything for about a year and a half”) – conspired to place Friday’s solo recording career on indefinite hiatus.
“And then you’re in your early 40s, and you’re going: ‘Who the fuck am I?’ And everything’s changing taste-wise: in some ways for the better, in most ways for the worse. And you’re going, ‘Wow, do I even fit in here? Or do I want to fit in here?’”
Although he never stopped stock-piling new songs, Friday turned his attention to other projects. “I ended up going underground, and learning more about film scores, and getting lost in that crazy world of Hollywood.” A string of commissions followed, including an unlikely collaboration with Quincy Jones and 50 Cent on the soundtrack for Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 50 Cent’s movie vehicle.
“I got on really well with them, which is a strange thing. I have a fear of grown men in short trousers. And those hip-hop guys, they all have about 10 managers and 10 assistants, all with the BlackBerrys. And they all wear these ridiculously short trousers, even in the middle of winter. We met in Canada, and I wore a three-piece suit, a cravat, my hair tied back, and earrings. If you dress well, these guys will respect you. At that first meeting, my suit did all the talking.”
And what of Jones? “Quincy was quite brilliant. My dad had just died, and he was born on the very same day, in the very same year. My father had turned into a black emperor. Hey, you motherfucking crazy Friday! Taliban Friday! That’s what he was calling me. It was like: my dad’s not dead, he’s living in Quincy Jones again.”
For the album he is now in the middle of recording, Friday made a strategic decision to go it alone. “I could have called up Antony and said: ‘Will you do a song with me?’ I will always have certain names tagged on to me, simply because of my birthright.” (Friday and Bono famously grew up on the same Dublin street.) “But I didn’t want any of the ‘famous fuck’, as I call it. I don’t want any celebrity on my album.”
Hooking up with producer Ken Thomas and his son Jolyon, Friday recorded his new songs in the Yorkshire town of Castleford. “It’s a cross between the smell of stew and cigarettes,” he says. “The people are so beautiful and so down to earth. It felt like I was in Dublin in the 80s again. It looks like you’re in a scene from that Hovis ad – like a shrine to the past – but it was just devastated in the 80s by Thatcher.”
As evidence of this new-found fondness, the album features a guest appearance from a local Salvation Army band. Their presence reminded Friday of an old situationist stunt from the Virgin Prunes days. “When we were going up to northern England, we used to loop the theme of Coronation Street and play it for 45 minutes before we went on stage. The fucking audience were banging their heads against the wall. It was actually more hardcore than white noise. But you listen to the music and it has this maudlin depression and beauty at the same time.”
Covering the “usual” themes of “life, love and death”, and said to reference both his past problems and his efforts to overcome them, Friday’s new album could be his most personal, revealing collection to date. And yet he remains an intensely private man, who maintains a wary distance from “this whole Twitter/Facebook thing. I can’t run with it seriously. When I was a kid, I never had fucking penpals. ‘Hello. It’s raining in Ireland. How are you? I’m 18.’ For fuck’s sake!”
“I like mystique,” he concludes. “Why does everyone have to show their tits, so quickly? Mystique is much nicer. I’m not McDonald’s. I’m a Chablis, or a very fine red wine.”
It’s not often that we’re offered the chance to experience one of Britain’s top soul performers in an “up close and personal” situation – so for those lucky listeners of Smooth FM who had won the chance to see Beverley Knight in the intimate surroundings of Tonic on Chapel Bar, this was a moment to savour.
Following a cheerful, likeable support set from Ben Montague, Dr. Beverley Knight MBE took to the small stage at the back of the venue: wreathed in smiles, and looking stunning in a black and silver mini-dress. For the first half of her thirty minute, six song set, she was accompanied on guitar by her long-time musical collaborator Paul Reid.
The two performers launched into a stripped down rendition of the current single Soul Survivor: a powerfully assertive personal anthem (“I’ve been there through every phase, seasons come and go but I remain”), which is performed on record as a duet with Chaka Khan. To Beverley’s delight, the fans at the front already knew every word. A couple of songs later, Shoulda Woulda Coulda – her best known hit –gave everyone else the chance to join in.
Switching to pre-recorded backing tracks for the second half, Beverley introduced a stunning version of Piece Of My Heart by explaining that Janis Joplin had “nicked the song from Erma Franklin, and now I’m nicking it from Janis Joplin”. The set concluded with Keep This Fire Burning, an uptempo track that got the smart, well-heeled crowd wiggling and shimmying.
She might be bracketed as a “soul diva”, but there was nothing diva-like about Beverley’s warm, friendly demeanour, and the easy rapport which she established with the audience. Vocally flawless and naturally soulful, with sixteen years’ experience in the music business behind her and doubtless many more to come, she remains what she always was: a “class act” indeed.
You’re performing a secret initiation-only show tonight. How did the idea come about?
The radio station Smooth FM asked me if I would be involved in their little “secret squirrel” event, and I thought: oh, that’s lovely. They’ve been so supportive of me, and I thought that the least I could do was come up and have a little sing-song. To be perfectly honest, I love singing so much that if you give me a mike and a P.A., I’ll do it!
The first time I saw you perform was nine years ago, in Trafalgar Square. Your “warm-up guy” on stage that day was none other than Nelson Mandela. That must have been an emotional occasion.
Yes it was. We were celebrating seven years of the freedom of South Africa, and that was one of the most prestigious events that I could have been invited to. I remember the papers the next day were full of Mel B’s top falling down, and all kinds of frivolous stuff, but I was like: this is so prestigious, don’t make it about poor old Mel!
Did you get a chance to meet the great man himself?
I did – he came to my dressing room! OK, check it out: I’ve come off stage, and I’m going on and on about how this is the greatest honour ever bestowed to me. Then I got a knock on the door. It was some official saying “We’ve got the South African high commissioner here, and some other dignitaries who would like to say hello”. The high commissioner walks in – this lovely lady – and then in walks Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, and the actor Richard E. Grant. So I’m sitting there staring, and Nelson Mandela said “I really enjoyed your performance, and I hope I have the pleasure of hearing you again.” And I did sing for him again, at a private dinner event for his children’s foundation, thrown by Earl Spencer.
You’ll be performing a short UK tour next month, back once again at the larger venues. How will tonight’s show compare?
Tonight, it’s just me and my guitarist Paul. So it will be extremely intimate – right up close and personal. When people see me on a big stage, it’s lively, to say the least. It’s full on. So this will be very chilled, with a lot of banter – because I do like to chat!
Your new EP (Soul Survivor) comes with three additional live tracks. Is this the first time that you’ve released live material?
I’ve recorded live sessions before, but this is the first time I’ve released something from one of my live shows. The tracks were recorded in Sheffield, so that’s not so far from Nottingham!
The lead track is a duet with Chaka Khan. I know you go back a long way, so how did you first meet?
I went to see her at the Jazz Café in London, a number of years back. She noticed me in the crowd, and got me onto the stage to sing with her. That was the start of our friendship. We kept doing things on stage together, then she flew me to Montreux to do some singing at her show at the Jazz Festival. Then I had Soul Survivor all written, and I asked if she would duet it.
It’s a very appropriate track for the both of you. What does it take to be a “soul survivor” in this business?
Number One: you’ve got to love it. If you don’t love what you do, you will fall on your face in this industry – because it is tough. The thing that will galvanise you and propel you – even when you might be having a few problems with a song, or when the record label is at your throat – is the love of the music. That will keep you in the game. And beyond that, you’ve got to be prepared to work hard, because it won’t always come easy. Some things do, and you’re like: oh my God, this is so great! Other times, it’s like: I’ve got to fight for this one.
You’re much more independent now, as you’re recording for your own label. Does that bring additional pressures, or does it bring a new sense of freedom?
You know that quote from Spiderman? “With great freedom comes responsibility.” That couldn’t be truer! The freedom has been wonderful, but the responsibility has been things like looking at budgets and keeping them in check, and thinking: OK, it’s my responsibility to make sure that the single is the right single. All the kinds of things that I could blame the record label for are now on my head! But at the same time, I’m enjoying it.
After the tour has finished, what are your plans for the rest of the year?
Hopefully there will be the festivals, and once we move beyond that, the cycle will start again. So I’ll be back in the studio, thinking about the next record.
Have you done any writing for that yet?
Not yet, but I’ve got a lot of ideas. When I’m in the promotional phase, I find it difficult to write. When I’m in the touring phase, that’s when it’s easy. That’s when the ideas start flying around.