Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Together or Alone

A crazy long weekend has just come to pass in which I journeyed to Manchester to see Morrissey's first gig in his hometown for twelve years, prepared for a testing interview and still somehow managed to slot in going to see An Evening with Rufus Wainwright, The McGarrigles and Martha Wainwright at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The two shows were both excellent, albeit in very different ways, and it's hard to see how they might be bettered as the two best gigs of the year.

The sense of anticipation for the Morrissey show at Manchester's colossal Evening News Arena was almost unbearable. Press hype, both locally and nationally, together with genuine popular demand (tickets reportedly sold out within half an hour, although that statistic ignores the fact that standing tickets actually went on sale a whole day early) combined to give the show a feeling of a genuine event. That anticipation may well have turned to frustration whilst the eager audience members who arrived early to claim their space in the front rows had to endure half an hour of Damien Dempsey. Dempsey is just another in a long line of singer songwriters to be given the 'new Bob Dylan' tag, the kind of journalistic comment tossed away without any consideration of the material. Whilst Dempsey may have been pleasant enough musically (although tending towards blandness), his lyrics were so painfully earnest that they sparked extreme physical discomfort. He sang about human greed, the dangers of drug abuse and positive thinking - all messages fine and good, but not when presented in such a simplistic fashion, together with hackneyed rhyming dictionary couplets. His singing style also seemed to incorporate a bizarre hybrid of Irish and mock-Jamaican accents. It's really quite difficult to see why Morrissey has given this singer his patronage (Dempsey will also act as support for Loudon Wainwright III at Meltdown)when his writing is worthy only of embarrassment. Oh, and he really did have a song called 'I'm Never Going To Let Your Negative Vibes Get Through To My Psyche.' Good for you Damien - we'll just ignore you completely. It's for your own good.

Franz Ferdinand made for a striking contrast. Whilst I like the band in small doses - their album seems to do little more than repeat the same formula over and over again. The ridiculous levels of excitement that have greeted them has therefore occasionally seemed excessive. Perhaps a crisp, concise, high profile support slot is the best context in which to see them - because they were electrifying. Musically, the performance was tight and controlled, and characterised by a seemingly boundless energy and intensity. The crowd certainly seemed appreciative - and in much larger numbers than is usual for an Arena support act. Franz can now attract a sizeable audience for themselves. It was great to see so much playful interplay between the band members, and even the lowpoints on the album had new life breathed into them. A great warm up for the main attraction.

Comments about this show on the message board seem to have been mixed, with some bemoaning a lack of surprises in the setlist or anything distinctive from the shows Moz has performed so far in the USA. This kind of talk is one of my major bugbears. Really, the set could only have been familiar if you had read all the setlists before attending, or if you had spent a stupid amount of money following all the gigs on the tour. To my mind, this was a consistent, esoteric set-list incorporating new material, a generous handful of Smiths classics and, most intriguingly of all, some unpredictable selections from Morrissey's solo past. A Greatest Hits of Morrissey it was not - but this should not be viewed as a criticism.

At the outset, Morrissey and his band milked the fervent anticipation for all it was worth. The lights went down, football chants of 'Morri-ssey!, Morri-ssey!, Morri-ssey!' erupted from various areas in the crowd, and an old Frank Sinatra song played over the stereo. Then, a most peculiar intro tape, consisting of a list of items reminiscent of England - poll tax, Stock Aitken and Waterman etc played over droning keyboards. Then, finally, after a good five minutes, they appeared, Morrissey looking sophisticated in a blue suit, singing the opening line of 'My Way' ('regrets, I've had a few...'). 'First of the Gang to Die' made for a most effective opener - anthemic, upbeat and immediate. Even though the album had only been out for a week, most members of the audience had already embraced this brilliantly evocative song. Many in seats were already on their feet, belting out the chorus.

For me, the most striking element of this show was how well these songs translated to an arena venue with a substantial audience. 'Everyday is Like Sunday' became a communal singalong - and even the slightly less obvious choices from the solo catalogue ('I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday', 'Such A Little Thing Makes A Big Difference', 'Hairdresser On Fire') filled the venue with a rich and impressive sound. Much criticism has been levelled against Morrissey's band for being a collection of workmanlike, uninspired musicians - but the playing to me seemed vibrant, full and entirely complementary to Morrissey's distinctive vocals. They have now, on-and-off, been reliable support for Morrissey for the best part of fifteen years, and their unity is emphasised tonight by Morrissey's telling comment - 'we do have a new album out, and praise God, somebody likes it!'

Morrissey may hate the word 'perform', but if to perform means to communicate to an audience, to connect with them, and to entertain them, then that is exactly what he achieved. Standing in front of huge Elvis-style letters lit up to spell his name, and whipping the microphone coil, making extravagant gestures, he seemed every bit a modern icon. In recent years, he has also learnt how to deploy his voice in a greater variety of ways, losing some of his more mannered techniques and replacing them with greater power and range. The Smiths songs therefore were mere nostalgia, imbued instead with new life and a sense of grandeur (particularly a brilliant 'Shoplifters of the World Unite', closing the main set). He also seemed in good humour, lambasting Britney Spears before a masterful performance of 'The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores' and reporting that seven more copies of the album needed to be sold to secure the number one spot (it now appears that it has entered at number two, stuck behind the stupefying dull Keane).

On his birthday ('it's great to be 29. Where did the years go? Why did the years go?'), this performance seemed like vindication, victory and a celebration of a career that, while inconsistent, has marked Morrissey out as a great survivor. Judging by amusing new track 'Don't Make Fun Of Daddy's Voice', he's continuing to move forward. Hopefully we won't have to wait another seven years for the next album. The inevitable encore of 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out' was moving, and in self-deprecating style, Morrissey left the stage first, leaving his band to exit one by one, an effective final touch to a massively entertaining night.

Some minor gripes - it would have been great to hear at least something from 'Vauxhall and I' - perhaps 'Now My Heart is Full' or 'Speedway'. Whilst 'Irish Blood, English Heart', 'Crashing Bores' and 'First of The Gang To Die' stood as strong as anything in his solo back catalogue, some of the new tracks were replicated in excessively faithful fashion, even to the extent of reproducing the production trickery. 'How Could Anybody Know How I Feel?' lumbered as much as its studio version, whilst 'I'm Not Sorry' still felt limp and bland. 'Let Me Kiss You' and 'I Have Forgiven Jesus' are strong songs, but may well have worked better if given a bit more room to breathe. Still, only minor problems really. Anyone seeing Morrissey at Meltdown or Move is in for a treat.

Watching Rufus Wainwright and his family at London's Royal Festival Hall was an altogether different, more intimate experience. The venue is actually quite sizeable, and certainly imposing, but this endearingly shambolic evening genuinely felt like they were all playing in our living room. Everyone seemed in good humour, Rufus joking that the 'last time we played this show was for Grandma.' If there had been a pre-ordained set list, it was repeatedly deviated from, and the results were an embarrassment of riches, including solo spots for both Rufus and Martha, several originals from the McGarrigle sisters, guest spots from Linda and Teddy Thompson, and some moving interpretations of standards from the whole family. Perhaps the most striking element of this wonderful show was to hear how such varying and distinctive voices (The McGarrigles are understated but eerily haunting, Martha is forthright and intense, Rufus powerful and emotive) work so well together.

The arrangements are stripped down, but also richly detailed, give or take a few bum notes. The set list was vast, and with many songs I had never heard before, but it's possible to indentify some of the highlights. The scene was set masterfully with the evocative 'Heart Like A Wheel', one of the McGarrigles earliest compositions. Some of the songs with Kate McGarrigle at the piano and singing lead were desolate and affecting, emotional but avoiding sentimentality. Martha performed a song which may well have been called 'You Bloody Motherf**king Arsehole', which was forceful, and certainly generated some laughs amongst the audience. The level of uncertainty was endearing rather than unprofessional - Rufus claiming 'this is a club show...except we're not in a club!'. All performers, including Lily Lankin, Rufus' cousin, joined in for a rousing rendition of 'St. James' Infirmary Blues'. Even more haunting was an entirely accapella reading of the spiritual 'Hard Times Come Again No More' in the encore, with all the performers achieving a wondrously selfless harmony. Rufus may not be a folk singer, but his adoption of the folk idiom during this show seemed entirely convincing, and the contrast between the traditional songs and his self-penned solo performances worked remarkably well.

Rufus' solo performances were predictably sublime, and he offered a generous range of material, including 'Beauty Mark' and the extraordinary 'Foolish Love' from his debut album. The latter remains one of his most exquisite songs, full of Sondheim-esque show tune extravagance, but bookended by a graceful and emotive slower section, in which he played most effectively with tempo and phrasing. From the 'Poses' album there was a lilting solo version of the title track, and a rich performance of 'One Man Guy' with Martha and special guest Teddy Thompson. From 'Want One', there was a touching, subtle rendition of 'Pretty Things' and a stirring, almost virtuosic 'Dinner At Eight'. In its place at the end of the album, this track had failed to make much impression on me - but it's sheer power made it one of the highlights of the show. Someone in the audience shouted out 'GENIUS!' as the last chord gradually died. It was hard to disagree.

Rufus even found space for a slightly indulgent cover of 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' (he just about got away with it), before which he reminisced about going to see 'Annie' as a child. Apparently his mother had told him that 'sometimes, Rufus, they even let little boys play Annie!' although Kate could not remember the conversation. Most effective of all was the whole family joining in on a new song, 'Hometown Waltz' which sounded grand and impressive, possibly even the equal of the fantastic '14th Street' which was sadly left unplayed.

This was a playful show, and a celebration of a family with an extraordinary range of talent. It gave invaluable insight into the songs which shaped Rufus and Martha's childhood, and which no doubt inspired them to follow a musical course themselves. The music of Leonard Cohen, traditional country songs, the McGarrigles own work all combined fluidly with the more grandiose stylings of Rufus' work and the ragged intensity of Martha's singing. At the end, there were shouts amongst the audience for all sorts of songs, including 'Gay Messiah', one of the forthcoming 'Want Two' album's more controversial offerings. 'Please', said Rufus, 'this is a family show!' 'Rufus will not be playing Gay Messiah tonight' said Kate firmly, Rufus responding by saying he was saving it for Dublin. Instead, we got a rapturous 'Goodnight Sweetheart', made all the more entertaining by Rufus completely forgetting the words, replacing them with 'I feel like Judy Garland, except I'm stone cold sober...' Whilst this rambling and erratic element was a consistent presence of the gig, it'e effect was to make the performance more touching. This was how live music should be - generous, adaptable, honest and with the audience made to feel part of the celebration. In essence, a marvellous evening.

One major gripe with both shows - those bloody motherf**king arseholes who insist on walking in and out of the venue during the performance. Right - you've come to Manchester to see his first gig in the city for 12 years, or you've taken what could easily be your one and only chance to see the McGarrigle and Wainwright families on the same stage together and what do you do? Stay and watch the show and be entertained and inspired or get another vastly overpriced beer? It shouldn't really be a hard choice to make, and the latter option is vastly disrespectful to the artist, whether they notice you or not.

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