Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Let's Uke Them!

A short while ago, I made the contentious claim on this blog that I always try to avoid writing from a fan’s perspective. Well, bollocks to it, on this occasion I’m going to make an exception. I am an MJ Hibbett superfan. It doesn’t matter at all that Hibbett’s guitar playing skills are technically limited, for he knows as many chords as he needs. Nor does it matter that he has a tendency to forget his own words or begin singing his songs in completely the wrong key. This is all part of his endearing appeal. I like Hibbett’s songs because they are both insightful and great fun, mixing poignancy and genuine humour in equal measure.

This is the first of Hibbett’s ‘Totally Acoustic’ nights I’ve attended (although I’ve seen him many times in other contexts), but you can certainly make a decent bet that I will be back for more. Strangely, this most closely resembled Tim Whitehead’s birthday gig at the Ram Jam club just before Christmas in its ‘friendly gathering’ atmosphere, much as I suspect Mark would be baffled to be compared with a jazz musician. There was much merriment and mild inebriation, as well as a ton of fun with a veritable ensemble of ukuleles, but more of that later.

At last, this is an event where the phrase ‘Totally Acoustic’ should be taken at face value. Hibbett and his supporting cast perform completely unamplified with no amps and no microphones. This particularly interests me as I’ve recently been rehearsing unamplified with a singer-songwriter, with satisfying and interesting results. I also cast my mind back to one of the most intriguing gigs I’ve ever played, with the early line-up of Hot Chip at a Cambridge University Ball, which was rendered completely acoustic for legal reasons. I remember Alexis hating the experience, but I found it fascinating – and, at least for one night, it completely forced me to change the way I approach music. For Hibbett, it provides an opportunity to focus attention squarely on his witty and spirited words, and to amplify the fun factor rather than the volume. At last a gig where my ears can emerge unscathed!

Beginning with a brief set on the ukulele, Hibbett immediately announces himself as a man after my own heart with his opener, ‘The Drummer’s Lament’. It’s a litany of problems unique to drummers (from parking and driving difficulties to the lack of interest in our solo projects) set to a lilting and infectious folk melody. Hilariously, he follows it with a brilliantly ramshackle double-time skiffle rendition of Morrissey’s ‘First of the Gang to Die’, in honour of Moz’s current residency at the Roundhouse. He just about manages to squeeze the words in, in a modest triumph of vocal dexterity. The significance of this is heightened at the end of the evening, when Mark plays ‘The Lesson of The Smiths’, in which he admits that his initial revulsion at stereotypical Smiths fans meant he missed the group in action when they were performing. Clearly Hibbett is in the mood, because he then plays a version of ‘Ask’ as well, perceptively highlighting that younger Smiths fans no longer seem to appreciate the significance of ‘the bomb’. The set ends with Hibbett’s manifesto to revolutionise primary music education, ‘A Million Ukuleles’, which prompts a far from spontaneous piece of audience participation from what has been dubbed a ‘ukulele flashmob’. Superb! It’s also worth noting that the song has an incisive and serious message though – that musical snobbery and elitism is profoundly unhelpful when it comes to inspiring children.

We’re then treated to a thoroughly charming set from Andy of Pocketbooks and Sunny Intervals. I’m not familiar with his work, but if cute fey indie boys are your cup of tea, he could hardly be more cute and fey. He also has a particular enthusiasm for verbose lyrics – some of which work brilliantly, some of them less so. I particularly appreciated his Haringey romance. Luckily, he’s also blessed with an unassuming demeanour and light sense of humour that imbue his songs with real warmth.

After a short break for food and beer orders, Hibbett returns with another set, this time on the acoustic guitar. He delves deeper into his back catalogue, and treats us to an encore of ‘Billy Jones is Dead’, juxtaposed somewhat uncomfortably with a typically hysterical ‘Boom! Shake The Room’. It would also take a particularly misanthropic and churlish person not to be touched by 'It Only Works Because You're Here', his story of an office romance between a female office worker and an IT support technician. Apparently, he plans to record this song in a Bossa Nova style, demonstrating new levels of ambition. What strikes me most during this set is Hibbett’s vivacity and exuberance, his positivity and honest appreciation of all that life has to offer, especially the elements that many so obviously take for granted. He’s not one for moaning, that’s for sure and I’m pretty sure that, as a result, he has fulfilled his promise to never make a wack jam. I left this gig feeling a little bit more alive.

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