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Boo Hewerdine - Purcell Room, South Bank Centre on 24 September 2002
The chap who opened for the Biblesque group on 24 September at the Purcell Room was a young man called Boo Hewerdine, a big guy who remained seated on his stool the whole time with his eyes plastered shut as he belted out the most wonderful noises. He was accompanied by his own guitar as well as by multi-instrumentalist (he even played a silver bowl!) and quick-witted bloke Graham Henderson.
Boo came out earlier than expected, catching out much of the capacity crowd of about 350, many of whom had to suffer the unenviable pain of being kept outside the hall at the beginning of the wonderful performance until they were let in between songs. Boo was wearing jeans and his long sleeved black zig-zag velour shirt, with all head hair cropped fairly close to said head. A true fashion plate. Graham was looking comfortable and decades younger than his age, as usual. Throughout the evening, he provided an excellent Paul Shaffer to Boo’s David Letterman during their subtly wackier moments.
Graham started out on a little three-foot-high-ish wooden kiddie organ that needed its own mike, accompanying Boo on MURDER IN THE DARK, which demonstrated that the evening would be one of Boo’s greater performances, as his voice really was on top form; no note troubled him.
After that, Boo affixed a Dylan-style harmonica holder around his neck, an indication that we would hear something unusual, or something fairly old, as it turned out: LITTLE BITS OF ZERO, a marvellously passionate rendition of a song that was heartily welcomed by the enthusiastic audience. There was never anything wrong with 59 Yards, but I did always think when it was regularly rolled out at the gigs of yesteryear that there were so many neglected songs from the same album that could do with an airing…. At last, he has obliged, and Graham joined in with some rather funky Bodhrán playing, quite an interesting touch.
Next we were treated to our first Boo-story of the evening, with Boo referring to a recent fancy gig he played in a marquee, where one of the punters, uh, lost control of his bowels. Boo naturally took that as a flattering complement, and said he could picture putting up posters advertising that fact, along the lines of ‘Boo Hewerdine was so amazing that I shat myself!’. [I’m assuming one doesn’t need to bleep out partial words when using that verb in the past tense…this is a family show, of course.] Was I the only person who was left wondering how Boo came to be aware that the guy had paid tribute to him in this manner? Perhaps it was an odour thing. Anyway, Boo was struck with a new merchandising idea and advised that, in addition to the sale of CDs (including Bible CDs) at the venue that night, he would also be offering Boo Hewerdine® Pampers. Get them while supplies last.
On that less than pleasant note, Boo moved on to a brilliant Patience of Angels, with Graham offering backing vocals that weren’t picked up by the mike that appeared to be switched off (which would be why). Graham played an amazingly ornate piano accordion that seemed overdressed for the occasion, probably never expecting to be doing an acoustic gig at the artsy South Bank Centre during a songwriting festival (with its curator), having been built for a grander purpose or life in a velvet-walled ethnic restaurant somewhere. Boo asked us to sing along, which many people dutifully did, and Boo would critique us after each bout of ‘There’s a door…’ etc as to whether we needed to be louder (ie must try harder). I never sing at gigs, no matter how much they beg, as it would be really embarrassing when the usher folk came and asked me to leave because of the cacophonous disturbance I was creating. (Not as embarrassing as losing control of my bowels, perhaps, but….) Fortunately, Boo spends all his time whilst singing staring at the back of his eyelids, so I can’t get in trouble for lack of enthusiastic participation or skilled lip synching.
Boo then took us into ANON territory, playing one of its most touching tracks, the title track. He seemed to make up the set list as he went along, muttering to Graham before each song what he planned to do next—very Van Morrison—and Graham would have to leap across the stage from one instrument to another in his extremely laid back shuffling manner of leaping, which was particularly necessary on a stage strewn with wires and equipment. A very smiley Boo, who was clearly enjoying the evening from the start, prefaced this song by explaining that it was about a friend of his that went off the rails. He added that, spookily, he ran into the guy for the first time in 20 years the day after the album was released. ‘So if someone rushes the stage tonight with an axe,’ he warned, ‘that’s not part of the act.’ I’ll leave you in suspense for now as to whether that happened later.
Perhaps because this number was sprung upon him unexpectedly, Graham spent the moments leading up to his solo on the mandolin (or mandocello or Bazouki; I’m no expert—I can confirm that it wasn’t a flute) practising the fingering and visibly going through the sequence in his mind, mastering it just in time. The atmosphere in the hall was such that you could almost feel the people in the audience being moved by this song (and I don’t mean bowel movements, though it was that amazing.)
About this time, Boo noticed one of the free festival programmes in the lap of someone in the first row and enquired as to whether it was a programme for his set specifically, which would have made his day as he’d never played a gig with a programme before. Alas, it was, as I said, a programme for the festival, but said audience member tried to be encouraging by flipping to the page featuring Boo. Boo dismissed it with horror when he saw that they had included the photo of him that, he said, looked like he was making one of those owl-screeching noises. Personally, I then could hardly wait to open my programme to see the image I pictured of Boo baring his teeth and screwing up his face whilst screeching in a high pitch that only dogs (and owls) could hear, possibly taken whilst participating in a bird call competition. Disappointingly, the photo shows Boo looking far more sedate, but I do see what he means, as it’s that photo of him with his enfolded hands hiding his mouth as though he’s blowing into them…to make an owl screeching noise, for instance. (Incidentally, the brochure, as well as the one for the Kirsty MacColl tribute the night before, wrongly says she died in 1999. But that’s me being pedantic….)
Boo moved on to a particularly strong performance of the eternally stunning SOUL, which he said was his favourite song that Eddi Reader sang, with Graham providing a busy almost strangely upbeat rhythm on the accordion (which worked). Even Boo seemed a bit moved by the power of his own performance, and rightly so, and he continued to beam away, which was terribly refreshing to see.
Graham then bravely picked his way across the equipment-laden stage to the piano as Boo pointed out what a courageous act that was. Then they performed everyone else’s favourite, ROUNDABOUT. I think I’ve said before that I do have a new appreciation for the song when it’s accompanied by piano, although I do feel like I’m missing some subliminal message that absolutely everyone else is tuned into, as anyone who hears it seems to burst into tears and praise it endlessly. During this performance, the most amazing thing happened when Boo found his hands free since he was not playing guitar: he made a gesture! Yup, he actually moved his hand from side to side, inspired by his fine song. It wasn’t quite a Brian Kennedy hip wiggle, but it was a lot different from Boo’s normal sedate and reserved choreography of sitting on the stool. Next thing we know, he’ll open his eyes and look at us. I hope that won’t distract any of us from the beauty of the songs.
When introducing JOKE, Boo explained that Eddi had had a hit with it (did she?), and later he tried to get his own version in the charts, but had no luck. Graham enquired, ‘Is she in?’ which, in his northern accent, sounded like ‘This year?’ to Boo and me and possibly the rest of the southerners. With Boo’s mind still on this misunderstanding, it took a minute, when Graham then comforted him by saying that Boo’s version was better than Eddi’s, for Boo to appreciate fully Graham’s fickleness. Graham defended himself by explaining that he was a professional musician, implying that he could not upset any possible employers, and demonstrated said skills by banging out of the keys of the grand piano a truly impressive monument to Boo’s venom-spitting performance of this superlative song.
The hauntingly gorgeous THE BIRDS ARE LEAVING followed, after which Graham began to tip-toe delicately away from the piano through the stage clutter. A member of the audience called out a sound effect: ‘buzz!’, which confused both men on stage so much that they stopped and asked the maybe-heckler for an explanation—perhaps wondering if he was requesting Buzz Aldrin already. The Buzzer explained ‘bare feet, live wires’, but on stage, they only heard the reference to feet, so they proceeded to reassure us that Graham’s bare feet were clean. ‘I insist on that,’ Boo said.
Boo then began tuning for an eternity, and asked Graham to entertain us with a Boostory-once-removed of their summer performance in a pub in Tregaron, Wales. As you would expect, the supposedly true tale involved an elephant that, whilst strolling towards Tregaron, drank infected water and died, so the Tregaroners buried the elephant in the pub garden, as you would. Frankly, I doubt the story’s validity. I have spent years researching Tregaron, and though traditionally sheep and cattle grazed there en route to London, very few elephants were known to do so. Also, rather than being celebrated as an elephant burial ground, the town’s famous for Tregaron Bog, a thriving wool industry, the Just Curious Crafts Store (which does not sell miniatures of elephants, curiously) and being the birthplace of the Welsh Robin Hood, Twm Sion Cati. Nevertheless, Graham continued with this Boostory of a Boostory, ie recounting Boo’s reference at that gig to the legend of the buried elephant, which apparently prompted the whole audience to stare back sombrely and chant eerily in unison, ‘Kim-bah!’ Which should, in future, be Boo’s official chant, to be muttered by any audience when he takes the stage, perhaps whilst modelling his brand of nappies. The Welsh gig must have been fascinating, in any case, as Graham said it also included a sound man who had not heard of sound.
After Tregaron, the two returned us to the matter at hand with a fine rendition of FOOTSTEPS FALL, which Boo dedicated to Kimbah. With Graham on accordion and Boo on his slowly tuned guitar, the two ended up ‘rocking out’ on this song, so it was a refreshingly strong version. Boo even added a lot of ‘Hey na nas’ that could rival the ‘Hey-nyah-nyah-nahs’ of the live version of 16 Miles. I’m pretty sure that, the last time Boo played Footsteps at the Purcell Room, it was more of a ‘Hey-la-la-la-ta-da,’ so I’m impressed to see that the song continues to be fine-tuned, like a guitar.
Graham then returned to his kiddie organ (I believe the technical name is harmonium), which he played in silence at first ‘til he remembered to turn the mike towards it and then mouthed ‘sorry’ to the soundman (who, ironically, was the one who had heard of sound at this gig). And thus we were treated to an absolutely lovely BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE.
By now surely extremely fit, Graham left the organ for his accordion, and he and Boo took us with a skilful voice through the final number, the exquisite PEACETIME. The audience was thrilled with the entire performance, and the only comfort when we let those two walk away from us was knowing that they would soon return. How often does one get so lucky as to have the fabulous support act also headline on the same night? This set was a lovely, relaxed taster of what was yet to come, with Boo in tremendously fine voice and apparently uplifted by the warmth and rapture of the audience. So he returned later, with a few friends, but that’s another story.
Copyright © 2002 by TC.
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