Having supported Rufus Wainwright in 2005 and the Guillemots in 2006, Joan Wasser made her Nottingham debut as a headline act last night. In contrast to the self-effacing modesty of her previous shows, she radiated a new-found authority, looking glamorous and sleek with her newly auburn hair and sparkly gold frock.
Technical problems with Joan’s keyboard disrupted the flow of the first few numbers, loosening her focus and disrupting her concentration. Bolstered by the amiable patience of her audience, she soon warmed up. Switching to guitar for the bulk of the more muscular, rock-tinged second half, her performance stepped up a notch, her playing markedly more expressive.
A jumbo-sized packet of Doritos were handed into the crowd, and passed around like communion wafers. From this point on, Joan was on safe ground. The goth-like rumblings of Christobelworked better live than on record, and a sublime Magpies benefited from fine falsetto harmonies, courtesy of her bassist and drummer.
Dedicated with fervent glee to “our new president”, To America segued into a thunderous version of Furious, which climaxed with a no-holds-barred, free-form freak-out. As Joan repeatedly slammed her fists into her keyboard, those earlier technical glitches became much easier to understand.
Patience was rewarded last night, as The Hold Steady compensated for October’s cancelled show with a storming 90 minute set. Just three nights into the rescheduled UK tour, singer Craig Finn could already spot familiar faces in the crowd. These people knew every word of the band’s dense, multi-layered mini-dramas, and they took eager delight in roaring an equally delighted Finn’s lyrics back at him.
Drawing on the experiences of his late teens and early twenties, Finn’s songs capture a world of reckless youthful excess, creating a complex narrative which runs through all four albums. There’s a nostalgic, almost mythological quality which invites comparison with Springsteen – but where Bruce can get bogged down in earnest worthiness, Craig never allows the darker undertows of his lyrics to stand in the way of having the best time possible. He’s the bespectacled college boy who hung out with dangerous “townies”, the geek made good, the thirtysomething who was given a second shot at success, and who has seized that opportunity with both hands.
Slamming from song to song with scarcely a pause, and with a set list that changes nightly, the band peaked with an exultant Sequestered In Memphis and an anthemic Chips Ahoy.
When you started the “From The Jam” project in 2007, how much of a risk did you think you were taking?
As some people already know, I played a couple of times with [original Jam drummer] Rick Buckler’s band The Gift in 2006, which was basically the line-up that we have now. I knew that Russell Hastings was doing a fantastic job of lead vocals and guitar, and having Dave Moore as the second guitarist and keyboard player added to the sound. So I just gatecrashed the band, really. Obviously there was an element of risk, but I knew we could perform those songs as well as we ever have done, and do them justice.
But of course, we couldn’t take anything for granted. When we announced the first From The Jam tour in May 2007, obviously we were all a little bit apprehensive: wondering what the Jam fans would make of it, and would they actually come to see the band, and so on. But then the tour sold out within days, so obviously they voted by buying a ticket.
The fans seem to have accepted the line-up, and accepted Russell and Dave with open arms. So any apprehension or fears were soon dismissed, because the reaction we got up and down the country has been phenomenal.
I imagine that within the first two or three dates, you must have realised that the risk had paid off.
Yeah – it’s all right selling the tickets, and the shows selling out in advance, but you’ve still got to come up with the goods. On that side of it, I didn’t have any doubts, because we’d had rehearsals beforehand. I knew the band were sounding great, so it’s nice that what you feel and what you hope for comes off – and it has done.
Before that, you were in Stiff Little Fingers for fifteen years. During that time, did you ever publicly perform any Jam songs?
I joined Stiff Little Fingers around 1990, when I spoke with Jake Burns. He said that Ali McMordie was leaving the band, and would I like to come in. I think we did play Smithers-Jones on the first tour that I did with them, but that was it. It was just an introduction to me to joining Stiff Little Fingers, and it was fun to play that one Jam song. But the From The Jam tour of May last year was the first time that I’ve played all those songs in a long, long while.
Was there a time when you thought you’d never play the Jam stuff again? Or had you always got it in the back of your mind as a possible option?
I didn’t think I’d be playing them again, to be perfectly honest. Over the years, Paul [Weller] had mentioned that he wouldn’t want to reform the band, and I was quite happy being in Stiff Little Fingers. It is a cliché, but I’ll say it anyway: you don’t know what’s around the corner.
We stumbled into forming From The Jam, just from doing a couple of numbers with Rick’s band in 2006. It kind of snowballed from there, and now here we are in 2008, with a winter tour of the UK, and having pretty much toured the world earlier this year.
So nothing was pre-meditated, and I didn’t really know. I’d occasionally hear a Jam song on the radio and was still very proud to hear it, because the actual production on the records still sounds very contemporary.
You struck lucky with Russell, who does a fine job as lead singer and guitarist. What makes him such a successful front man?
Russell was a big Jam fan. He was a young lad when the Jam were going, and he was at the last concert that the band performed in Brighton in 1982. He loved the music and the image and the whole package. And so we were very lucky. He was just a natural, to step in and take lead vocal.
I like the way that he’s able to channel the spirit of the songs, without ever coming across as some kind of impersonation.
Exactly. I’m glad you said that. He doesn’t try to emulate Paul. The tone of his voice is similar to Paul. If you close your eyes and listen to some of the vocal sounds, you think: that’s Paul, isn’t it? Then it’s just slightly different phrasings here and there, and he brings quite a lot to the table. He’s his own man. He was obviously very nervous about stepping into the role, but the fans have really taken to him. I do think he deserves it, because he’s a great front man, and he performs those songs with all his heart.
At your first Nottingham show at the Rescue Rooms, the old “We are the mods” chant made a comeback – and then about four numbers in, the chant changed to “Who needs Weller?” I’m sure they were just being cheeky, but that’s when I thought: Russell’s cracked it!
(Laughs) It may have settled the nerves a bit. But we wouldn’t be doing anything now without those great songs, of which Paul wrote the majority. I’m still very friendly with Paul, and so that’s their opinion, and in a way it was cheeky – but it caused a wry smile. It was quite amusing at the time, and obviously for Russell he probably thought, yeah, I seem to have fitted in OK here!
Does he have a full and equal say when you’re deciding on your set list?
Yeah, it’s very much a four-way thing. It’s difficult, because of the great wealth of songs that we’ve got to choose from. For the set that we’re playing in December, most of the singles will be there, and they probably will be forever – but it’s really difficult to choose the album tracks.
We all draw up a list beforehand of what we would like to play individually. There are obviously common denominators in there. There are certain songs where you go: oh, you want to play that one as well, great, OK! But we can’t possibly play them all, so we just get into rehearsals and go through each number. Some will sound better than others, so we’ll say: OK, that’s made the decision; we’ll play that one instead of that one. But it’s a nice sort of problem to have.
And will there be any new compositions?
Yeah, we’ve been saying this since we first got together! (Laughs) But we’ve had a bit more time recently to concentrate on the new material. There will probably be a couple of new songs in the set, which we’re very pleased with. We’ve only got to the demo stage, so we’ll see what the audience make of them.
Who wrote the new songs?
Again, it’s all four ways. You live and learn! (Laughs) With The Jam, it was whoever came up with the initial idea, and that was usually Paul. But it was very much a three-piece band, all those years ago, and the fairest way of doing things in 2008 is to split the songs four ways.
Is any physical product coming out to accompany the tour?
There’s a double DVD, which was released in November. The first DVD is a live concert that we did at The Forum in Kentish Town in December of last year. The second DVD is a series of interviews with the band. From my point of view, it’s really interesting to listen to Russell and Dave chat about how they feel about being part of From The Jam, because we hadn’t really spoken about it that much. Gary Crowley [DJ and radio presenter] also chats to Rick and myself. We go through all the Jam albums and chat about what we can remember about recording each one of them.
When the original Jam split up in 1982, you ended on a real high. Did you split at the right time?
I don’t think it was the right time. Like you said, The Jam were riding the crest of a wave. It’s what every band aims for, and the quality of the music was still there. I don’t think we’d dried up, or that we’d taken it as far as we could musically.
As you must be aware, Paul decided he wanted to leave the band. We tried to talk him out of it and we suggested other alternatives, such having a break for six months and taking a rest. There was a lot of pressure on all of us, and in particular Paul, because of the record company saying that they needed another Number One album and another Number One single. But Paul had obviously made up his mind and that was the end of it.
Maybe he just felt weighed down with the whole “spokesman for a generation” tag. After The Jam, he took a real step back from those “state of the nation” songs.
Well yeah, he went off to do the Style Council. If Paul knew that’s what he was going to do, he kept it a very closely guarded secret. Maybe he thought: well, I’m going to go off in this musical direction and I want to use different players.
When I heard the Style Council, it really wasn’t my cup of tea. So it made a bit more sense. Having heard what he wanted to do, I don’t think my heart would have been in that particular musical direction. Having said that, with the later stuff and with what he’s doing now, I really personally love it.
The new album is his best work in years, I think.
It’s a great album. Paul and I have renewed our friendship, and we’re talking a lot more these days. We’re on good terms, and that’s very nice to have as well, so what more could you want? We’re not playing together, but we may do in the future. But it’s nice to have him as a friend again.
If the three of you ever did get back together again, it would be a totally different gig. You’d be on the arena circuit, and I think that something might get lost along the way. Whereas it’s great to hear The Jam’s music in these smaller venues.
I don’t think the three of us will ever get together again, but there might be a possibility that I do something totally new with Paul at some point. I don’t know if or when. But as for The Jam, don’t hold your breath! (Laughs)
And I think you’re right – it may get blown out of all proportion and lose a lot of what the Jam were about, if Paul did join. If he came back to the band and it was arenas, it probably wouldn’t work. It would work financially! (Laughs) But it would lose everything else of what we were about, really.
That’s all my main questions, but I have got a couple of cheeky extras for you, because I can’t resist the opportunity to take you to task over some of the lyrics of Down In The Tube Station At Midnight. It is one of your greatest songs, and I know you didn’t write it, but I’ve always found some of the lyrics a bit puzzling.
Firstly, there’s the moment when the man in the song uses a vending machine, and the line goes “I put in the money and pull out a plum”. Now, even in 1978, I don’t remember seeing vending machines that sold fresh fruit! Was that a metaphor?
(Laughs) You’ve got me there! I think you’d best ask Paul about that. That’s one that has bemused me for a while.
And then we meet his assailants, who “smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs and too many right wing meetings”. What is the maximum quota of right wing meetings that you might reasonably attend, before being tainted by their characteristic odour?
Well, I wouldn’t want to go to one! They were cheeky questions, you’re right.
And right at the end of the end of the song, when he’s lying semi-conscious on the platform, he says “the wine will be flat and the curry’s gone cold”. Now then, sparkling wine with curry? These people were fancy…
Now, I can answer that one. It could go off, couldn’t it? I’m not sure what wine he was drinking, but it may have been a Lambrusco or something! (Laughs)
She would have done better to have left the cork in until he got home – but thanks for clearing that up.
You’ve made me think about those other couple. I’ll put my thinking cap on. But it was a pleasure, anyway!
You first played Nottingham in 2005, supporting Rufus Wainwright and also performing with him during the main set. What memories do you have of that tour?
Oh, I have great memories, for a number of reasons. The fact that Rufus gave me a chance to open for his band was priceless, really. I knew that I was going to be opening for a bunch of true music lovers, so I really got my act together. I would have anyway, but I guess it just scared me a lot more. And then with touring and singing every night, there’s no better way to learn what you’re good at, what works and what doesn’t work. Rufus wanted me to sing in all these different ways that I wasn’t used to: REALLY LOUD! at times, or purposefully nasal, to get different timbres. That was really educational and interesting.
Were you also collaborating with Antony Hegarty [of the Johnsons] at around this time?
I joined Antony’s band around 1999, a couple of years after I started writing my own songs. I stopped playing with him in 2004, when I began touring with Rufus.
Collaboration seems to have been quite important to you along the way. Your name pops up on various albums, from Rufus to Antony to the Scissor Sisters. That suggests that you must be easy to work with, and flexible to other people’s ideas.
Well, I hope so. I find it fun to see how other people work. I go in with a very open mind and I like to make it as fun as possible. Music is the greatest joy of my life, and usually everybody else’s that I’m working with. So it’s wonderful fun, to be making the best of what happens by combining a bunch of brains together.
Compared to your debut release, your second album To Survive has a more contemplative, delicate feel. It also strikes me as less immediate than its predecessor; you have to put more work in as a listener this time round.
It depends on each person, but this record is pretty dense. You have to give it a moment, and I think it probably takes a little bit more time.
There’s also more of leaning towards piano in the arrangements.
Yes, definitely. Piano is the last instrument I learned, so it’s the most fun, and the most free for me to write on.
I know that much of the album was composed while your mother was battling with a terminal illness, so one might expect the dominant themes to be loss and mourning. However, a lot of the songs also seem to be celebrations of new love, so there’s an interesting contrast of emotions at work there.
You’re right about that. I love being in love, so there’s always going to be love songs on my records. I was very much in love when I was writing some of those songs. But it seems like a lot of people mistake some of the songs about my mum as love songs, and some of the songs they think are about love are about my mum. That’s kind of nice for me, because ultimately it is the same thing. And then I’ve also got a couple of songs about my government, that has taken a FABULOUS turn for the better recently! Thank the Lord above!
So you’re still surfing that wave of elation? I guess he hasn’t had a chance to disappoint anybody yet…
Well, he certainly has a giant job in front of him, but if anybody can do it, it’s going to be that guy.
I guess that relates to the final song on the album (To America), which you perform as a duet with Rufus. So many of the songs have been so deeply personal up until that point, but then it’s almost as if you’re looking outwards towards the world again.
That song has really complicated implications, but it’s really a hope for the future, and for a return to democracy for my country. Some people think it’s cynical or sarcastic, and it sure is not. I am not a cynic or a sarcastic person! I’m an optimist, even though it’s not hip. I don’t care, I’m not hip!
I’ve been listening to your last couple of albums this week, particularly the most recent release Stay Positive, and even three or four listens in, I feel I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the songs. There’s a lot for listeners to get their teeth into, isn’t there?
Yeah, the idea is that hopefully on someone’s 75th listen, they get something that they didn’t get out of the 74th. It’s pretty dense, and a lot of it relates to songs on other records. But you end up writing music that you yourself would want to hear, and I think my favourite records are like that.
Taken as a whole, your four albums form an ongoing narrative, which is almost like a novel. I’ve also heard it compared to episodes of The Wire.
It’s funny, because I’m a huge Wire fan. It does have a serial quality, in that people who are paying attention from the beginning get these updated chapters. Maybe it’s because of our age. We’re a little older, and we certainly are from the classic era of the album, rather than downloading one track at a time. So we tend to look at an album as one big thing that we’re trying to accomplish. I write songs in regard to the other songs on the album, each time we do one.
The comparison with The Wire scared me, as I’ve only ever tried to watch the series once. It was the first episode of the fourth season, and I couldn’t work out what was going on. A friend who’s a Wire evangelist said: well, come on, you wouldn’t start reading a novel at Chapter Four, would you? So, comparing it with your work: is it OK for listeners to start listening with Album Four, or do we all need to start from the beginning and work forwards?
You can absolutely start wherever you want, and hopefully if you enjoy it enough you’ll work your way backwards. But especially with the first record, it maybe only hinted at the stories that were to come. So I think the new one is as good a place to start as any.
What story is Stay Positive telling?
Stay Positive is a record about holding onto useful ideals as you grow older, get more responsibility, and become an adult. I’m 37 years old, and the idea of aging gracefully is a tough thing, especially in rock and roll. The theme of the record is that idea of staying true to yourself, while taking on more responsibilities. Not avoiding being an adult, but embracing it – but at the same time not giving up some of the things that you hold important.
This sounds like the stuff of which mid-life crises are made. As to whether you can lead a rock and roll lifestyle in your thirties, is that a dilemma which the band is actively wrestling with?
When we’re on the road, I spend almost all my time trying to stay healthy: drinking a lot of water and exercising. Being in a rock band at my age is none of the things that you might have thought it was when you were 15 or 16 years old.
Do you have any role models for ageing with dignity as a rock performer?
Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young are two people that have aged well. They aren’t really tied to one particular era or moment, so the music they make is timeless. It crosses decades better than things that are caught up in the trend of the moment.
Neil Young and Lou Reed strike me as people who lost their creative mojo for a while, and then returned to form in their forties. Do you think it’s OK to go away and regroup for a few years?
Yeah. I’ve just read Neil Young’s biography, and he was off the mark for a while. He was doing stuff that was weird, and not super-interesting. But it’s about keeping at it, and being an intelligent person. Just keeping being creative.
There are a set of characters – Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon – who were referenced on your first three albums. They’re not mentioned on the new album. Why did you move away from them, and are they in any sense still present?
I think they are still present. I left it open as to whether they are or aren’t, by not using their names – but I think that they still inform the record. I wanted to increase the mystery on this one. Separation Sunday, our second of four albums, was really a linear story – it told the story from front to back – and I wanted to do something a little murkier, and a little tougher to figure out, hopefully with the same rewards.
I get the sense that different songs are sung by different characters from different viewpoints, and you’re trying to piece together what happens from there.
There’s also the concept of an unreliable narrator, that I like a lot. Is what the guy’s saying true?
For your long term diehard fans, you put in quite subtle back references to previous songs. You might even repeat a lyric of an old song in a new song. Does that ever rebound back at you? Do you ever get hardcore fanboys coming up with incredibly detailed questions, and maybe over-analysing?
I know there’s somewhere on the internet that you can find an analysis of all these lyrics, and I haven’t looked at it for that reason. Sometimes I do get questions from people: does this mean this? And I say: no, I never thought of that.
You can just smile your enigmatic smile, and say: that’s for you to work out. (Laughter) But I’m curious to know how your live audiences react. I went to see Drive By Truckers recently, who strike me as fellow travellers. They’ve got a detached, slightly literary style to their lyrics. When I saw them, the crowd seemed to split down the middle. In this case, it was literally down the middle. On the left hand side, you had the serious listeners who were concentrating on every word, almost stroking their chins with concentration. Over on the right, you had a bunch of really drunk people who were throwing themselves around, crowd surfing, and responding physically to the music. Do you get a similar mix at your shows?
It’s not so much right-left as front-back for us – but up front, it usually gets pretty wild. It used to be that we’d come in and we’d see the big barrier between the stage and the audience – especially in England, where they’re more common in the smaller clubs – and we’d think: ah, that doesn’t seem necessary. But it’s now got to the point where I’m pretty excited when I see the barrier! (Laughs) A year or two ago, we started to have problems with people coming on stage a lot, and we do have shows that get really wild.
Does that mix vary from city to city, or from country to country?
It does vary. In the States, you can get really different reactions from city to city. The shows tend to get wilder in smaller towns, and more so in middle America. In places like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, you have pretty mature crowds.
If you were a member of your own audience, how would you react? Would you be down the front, or standing still and concentrating at the back?
I’d hopefully be somewhere in the middle. When I go to see bands, I like to get up real close, but I’m a little too old to deal with getting trampled. But sometimes you can sneak up in front of the wild people. It really depends on the show, and how the club’s laid out.
How much of what you’re singing about is derived from real life experience, and how much is purely imaginary?
It’s mostly imaginary. The characters are built out of composites of people I knew, especially from the age of 17 to 23: when you’re younger, and maybe a little dumber. But each one is not based on a certain person in my life. These are the types of things that I was around for a while, but not specifically. There’s a lot of partying and abuse and things like that in the songs, but I wouldn’t say that was part of my life any more than the average American teenager.
But there are some things that pop in from my life. Certainly I make a lot of reference to Minneapolis, my home town. That’s something I can specifically describe, or picture where these things happen. It’s a way for me to put something real – real details – into the songs.
I find it an interesting approach. I’m so used to seeing bands performing as if they have personally experienced all the emotions in their songs. That’s the default, if you like. Whereas bands like yourselves and the Drive By Truckers are going for a different approach – maybe a more detached approach. Is there a danger that it can get a little too dry and detached?
I don’t think of it as detached so much; I think of it as cinematic. You’re trying to tell a big story, that may or may not have happened to you. Songwriters are so often expected to be opening up a vein and letting their heart flow out, whereas a film maker can do whatever he wants. No one thinks that Quentin Tarantino actually shoots people, for instance. He’s just telling a story through film. We get compared to Bruce Springsteen a lot, and that’s the one thing I think I did definitely take from Springsteen. He tells these huge, epic stories that I don’t really think happened to him.
There’s a direct cinematic reference in the album’s final song, Slapped Actress, which references a movie called Opening Night. What’s the story there?
It’s a John Cassavetes movie, and it’s really fascinating. I’m not usually so moved by film but this one emotionally moved me. There’s a huge separation in the film between performance and audience. It’s about an actress who’s refusing to admit that she’s aging. As an actress, she trades on her beauty, which she’s losing. It was a compelling thing to see as a performer, because it highlights the difference between performance and real life. The title of that song relates to a scene where Seymour Cassel wants to slap the lead actress, Gena Rowlands. They’re rehearsing for a play, and he says: I have to slap you. She says: well, why don’t we just fake it? It’s a play; you don’t have to really slap me. But he says: no, I have to slap you so that it will look real. And there’s an interesting kind of paradox there: that you actually have to slap someone, to make it look real to the audience of a play.
That reminds of a Chinese film, Farewell My Concubine. There’s a scene of corporal punishment in there, which you assume was staged. It was only after seeing the film that I realised that the director had sprung a surprise on the actors, and actually did beat them hard – so the expressions were accurate.
Yeah, lots of actors since then have said: that’s not totally uncommon.
On Constructive Summer, you “raise a glass to Saint Joe Strummer”. You say that “he might have been our only decent teacher”. Did you ever see the man in action? Did you ever meet him?
Yes, I did meet him. He came to see my old band in Minneapolis in November 1999. The Mescaleros tour was in town, and he ended up at our show afterwards, and really enjoyed it, and hung out with us for a couple of hours. It was a really brilliant night. He’s a hero: for his music, but also the way he carried himself was very inspirational.
The Steel City Tour (Human League, ABC, Heaven 17) – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday December 3
A tidal wave of Eighties nostalgia swept through the Royal Concert Hall on Wednesday night, as three of Sheffield’s most celebrated pop acts came together for the Steel City Tour. In happy contrast to the cost-conscious Here And Now packages, stylish stage sets had been constructed for all three acts, properly reflecting their art school roots.
Glenn Gregory’s broad, beaming smile never left him for a second, as Heaven 17 whipped through a well chosen selection of chart hits (Come Live With Me), cult hits (Fascist Groove Thang) and even a brand new song. Many of the tracks were subtly beefed up with contemporary dance rhythms, including an epic, show-stopping Temptation.
Bravely, ABC opted to include three songs from Traffic, their most recent album. These blended in well with their Eighties back catalogue, which included six selections from the classic Lexicon Of Love. Performing in front of a red velvet backdrop, a sharp-suited Martin Fry looked happy and relaxed, and sounded in as fine a voice as ever.
The Human League might be a nostalgia act these days, but their futurist tendencies still shine through. Their stage set was all clean white surfaces, retro-modern gadgetry (were those the remains of a vintage IBM mainframe?) and dazzling computer-animated visuals.
Like Glenn and Martin before him, Phil Oakey’s sturdy baritone placed him firmly in the “bellowing foghorn” school of Eighties pop performers. As ever, his commanding vocal presence was balanced by the endearingly unschooled voices of Susan and Joanne, whose occasional off-key wobbles merely added to their charm. Seemingly impervious to the normal aging process, 45-year old Susan vamped it up something rotten, flirting with the front rows and revelling in our attention.
The League’s hour-long set climaxed with the evergreen Don’t You Want Me, a properly arty Being Boiled, and a truly glorious Together In Electric Dreams.
(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang
Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry
Geisha Boys And Temple Girls
I’m Gonna Make You Fall In Love With Me
Come Live With Me
Let Me Go
Penthouse & Pavement
The Very First Time
How To Be A Millionaire
Love Is Strong
All Of My Heart
Tears Are Not Enough
When Smokey Sings
The Look Of Love
Open Your Heart
Love Action (I Believe In Love)
Empire State Human
The Sound Of The Crowd
(Keep Feeling) Fascination
Tell Me When
Don’t You Want Me
Together In Electric Dreams