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David Mead - The Borderline, 5 August 2003

After a particularly busy period at work that led to me being the female equivalent of a dull boy, I learned too late that the fabulous Canadian singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith would be playing two nights at the tiny Borderline Club in Soho. In order to make me feel even worse, someone had booked the stunning talent David Mead to open for him. They were a great pairing as their music has similarities (it was not, for instance, Jools Holland and the Medieval Babes, whom I once saw at the Albert Hall) and they later came to share a record label in Nettwerk America. Both men were fond of occasionally eulogising vintage pop and both were incredibly talented songwriting musicians who should certainly be household names. As the performance dates drew nearer, I was gripped with an increasingly expanding cloud of regret.

Then I had a bit of luck when I tuned into digital radio station BBC Radio 6 to hear an interview with Ron and ended up winning tickets to the second night of the gig simply for saying that Ron was from Ontario. It might be that I was the only person tuned in to the station at the time, but I like to think that I was a winner because my luck was finally changing. They didn’t even disqualify me when I addressed my answer to Laverne when the guest DJ was Lauren Laverne. (Sorry, but I only know her as a girl who appears on those myriad programmes such as I Love 1982 and The Worst Singing TV Villains Ever along with forgotten Big Brother participants, obscure presenters and completely unknown comedians, so I never felt driven to learn her name). Still, she fared better on the competition during her broadcast than the DJ on BBC London the previous day whose contest centred around identifying the mystery voice on a Ron song.  She played the verse that Ron himself sang and asked people to ring in to identify the singer, then gave prizes to people who said it was Chris Martin of Coldplay. Bless.

So I found myself happily entering the (unfortunately) smoky confines of the tiny windowless basement off Orange Yard that comprises the Borderline Club. I willingly packed myself into the mass of 300 other 30-and 40-somethings on the hottest day of the year in near record temperatures, which seemed to double with all that compressed body heat rising to suffocate us. But we were happy in our sauna as we knew we were about to experience greatness.

Without any introduction, the Nashville-based former New Yorker David Mead wandered silently onto the teeny low stage, busying himself with strapping on his acoustic guitar until a few people up front noticed him and jump-started us all into cheering a welcome. I had seen this bubbly young man perform in this venue before, three years ago on a night made for music that also featured brilliant singer/songwriter Boo Hewerdine and the wonderful, slightly country Darden Smith. Although the set list tonight ended up passing by many of my favourite Mead songs, including (astonishly) one of the strongest songs from his last album, Comfort, where he croons 'And I believe in easy answers, Coming home for Christmas, Minding manners all along.  I sleep alone, leave the radio on,' the gig was to prove to outdo the previous performance I’d seen. Possibly this increased success could be attributed to his having shed the extra weight of his mad towering coif, nature’s gingerish tribute to Eraserhead, so that now, also fuller of face, he was a different man.

This new closely cropped hair look, which was more serious, stylish and down to earth, gave him a bit of a David Gray appearance. Mead thankfully didn’t shake his head constantly as does David Gray (to such a degree that I can’t go to his concerts lest I get seasick), but he was as big a star on this night, impressing the whole club with his truly faultless, soaring voice, a bold confidence that poured into the room, a sparkly joking nature, and finely crafted melodies. Some of his songs can be overly slick in their arrangement and production on record, but in their raw shape on stage, they were utterly gripping.

He launched his set with Elodie, a marvellous number that must have been written about adoring Cannes Best Actress winner Elodie Bouchez from the wrong side of the screen, a soothingly crooned tune with a nod towards Paul McCartney circa Abbey Road. In fact, although Elodie was thankfully less stalkerish and violent, as Mead is generally a shameless romantic, it did put me in mind of the Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, mainly in its gentle approach to the vocals skirting over the chords. Perhaps closer to the innocence of Woody Allen’s Radio Days, the song sees Mead’s soaring voice plead for the actress to ‘come down here with me.’ The track features on Mead’s second album, produced by Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne, They Might Be Giants), on which David played all guitars as well as adding keyboards, piano, bass and, of course, vocals. (Nevertheless, he left room to be accompanied by several musicians with impressive pedigrees.) Even live, Mead proved himself to be almost sickeningly talented in so many respects by finishing off this song with a terribly impressive guitar solo, and he immediately won over those Ron fans in the sweltering club who had never heard of this confident and clever American.

Next, he turned to the energetic bright beauty of the title track of that second album, Mine and Yours, breathing out pure pop poetry reminiscent of old Lloyd Cole (not to be confused with old King Cole). Although he is capable of darker wit, Mead seems to spend a lot of time in dreamy romanticism, but it suits him. ‘Love my eternal mystery, buried in an angel's breast Fell down the stairs and kissed me, smiled and forsook the rest’ begins the song that even speaks of ‘sweet, enchanted sorrow’ as though he were an 18th century poet. Then, considering the sweltering atmosphere that evening, the line ‘I’m a mess to be made this evening  with a cheap serenade so pure,’ rolled off his tongue rather appropriately.

I must admit that, despite thoroughly enjoying his vocals on both his albums, I was totally surprised at this gig by the incredible quality and power of the voice I thought I knew. Particularly when it was stripped of the clutter of a busy band and his electric guitar solos, his pivotal voice stretched easily to the upper echelons of the music register and loitered there for ages. Although free of imitation, his voice would swing from the realms of Paul McCartney to Paul Simon and then slap us in the face with a powerful clarity previously unheard in a sweaty basement club without the aid of technology. This intelligent songwriter who is sometimes compared to James Taylor wasn’t even wearing the in-ear monitor systems that most singers use now to help find their pitch. He had a steady ear on where his voice should be every second of the evening. As he treated us to each song, he had an amusing way of looking down at us whilst his head was pointed upwards, like wild horses do when they’re rearing. Perhaps it was that quirk that led to the feeling that there was a wild soul buried deep in him beneath the outward jolly front of jokes and laughter, constant bubbly smiles, and pop beats.

The song that followed was from his first album, The Luxury of Time, on which he played absolutely everything, even percussion. He sped through the brilliant Touch of Mascara at a rapid heartbeat. This song has an amazing melody, plunging deep into the lower registers before leaping to notes previously unsung by men other than countertenors. Mead’s impressive lyrics claim to quote a young poet that ‘love is not a joke’, before Mead gets deeply personal with himself on a road trip. One senses that he feels the need for a change, to get real, as he spies himself in the rear view mirror, ‘Big hair and a broken bone. I wonder out loud why it's hard to breathe Inside a world of smoke, And what I could use is a touch of mascara, Another name and a foreign home; I wanna cry but I'm prone to laughter In this rolling joke.’ I feel certain that the statement about laughing is a keen self-observation; it is hard to picture this vibrant young man in a dark and sulky mood, although his songwriting skills top many of those who are only driven by depression. The live rendition was truly sublime and he easily impressed the club full of people basking in a heat they wish they weren’t.

When he finished, David delved into his welcoming style of friendly and fearless banter, expressing deep concern for each and every one of us who were suffering in the truly treacherous heat and humidity, noting his particular concern for those by the bar who were drinking themselves to death. Sporting a long-sleeved thin cotton pale patterned shirt over dark baggy shorts, he felt the need to apologise for his wardrobe, particularly for wearing sandals on stage, which made him feel like Jimmy Buffet, whose fans tend to turn out in bright beach party gear. We understood that the attire was a learned response to the unbearable conditions during the previous evening’s gig in the same club, and surely the men in heavy wool business suits (in the UK, switching in the summer to linen or something more comfortable than a winter suit would evidently make you a wuss) in the crush around me were just envious of his dress sense. It had been a bloodbath, Mead explained with a sense of exaggeration you can always count on from us Americans. He had feared death by heat-stroke, and knowing that we were also struggling to avoid that demise, he told us that we all deserved holidays…in Peru. Normally that might be appealing, but on this night, I think we’d have all been hoping for a refreshing holiday at the South Pole if someone were offering….

After those words of encouragement, he told us that someone the night before had requested the unreleased song Beauty, which he would now sing for us. Beauty was expected to appear on one of Mead’s long-time-forthcoming albums, Wherever You Are, which was produced by Stephen Hague who excelled at 80s electronica, producing New Order, Pet Shop Boys, OMD, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Robert Palmer and the Pretenders. Sadly, that album, which nearly included a duet with famous fan Michelle Branch, has yet to show any signs of appearing, particularly as he has parted company with RCA, so we would have to make do with this preview. After a false start (much like the album, you could say), Mead waded into a richly worded, sassy song with a slightly bluesy beat. Its, uh, beauty was comparable with that of one of his other truly stunning compositions, Landlocked, and that’s saying something. Despite being dreadfully uncomfortable in this airless sweathouse and previously never thinking of this singer in that manner, I almost joined the others in practically swooning to this serenade. Don’t laugh; you would have done the same, even if you’re a man. Mead is a heady (and that's not a reference to his sizeable head) package, playing spectacular guitar so effortlessly, belting out beauty with a unique voice that mixes Bing Crosby with Ian Bostridge, sprinkled with a bit of Jimmy Somerville, and coming up with loving lyrics like ‘All your beauty is hard to explain, Dancing shadows and light on your face; Every kiss in the world wouldn’t make you feel better.’ Okay, so it was probably the heat that brought about the swooning, and with lines like ‘beauty colours the face of the dead,’ it wasn’t quite a love song, but I can barely wait for the release of this elusive album so I can hear the pure, delightful dazzler of a tune again.

Since it wasn’t enough to leave us yearning for one unreleased album, Mead then taunted us with the title track of his other unreleased album, Indiana, which he just finished recording in Nashville. That album should better reflect the power of his acoustic live performances, so it will be a joy to snatch up when it finally becomes available. (Now that he has signed with Nettwerk America, there are hopes that we will see this album released in March 2004.)  Mead introduced this tune as being about a mobile phone, having a conversation on a US highway. Like many of his tunes, this one had a mix of tempos, generally a bit sleepy with upbeat parts to it. He sang of being ‘in the middle of nowhere, population of’ whatever, painting a vivid picture of travelling through the Midwest, and the audience loved it.

The crowd by now had increased a great deal. The thing about clubs like the Borderline is that there is incentive to get there early if you want to get near the stage--although frankly everyone is near the stage in such a small club--and particularly if you want a seat from which the stage is visible, as there are only about five of them. That means lots of people turned up to kill time at the bar until Ron came in and instead were charmed by the talent already on the stage, drawing in close to the stage to soak up his tunes more readily. Now, demonstrating the Mozart in him—and I refer to his being a skilled young prodigy as well as a hero on the ivories—Mead moved to the electric piano that took up about a fifth of the tiny stage.

Before gracing us with his incredible keyboard skills, Mead apologised for being ‘all American and bubbly’ but then mused that it might be a good thing since one didn’t often come across that these days. ‘We just go around bombing people,’ he said in reference to the Iraq conflict. He was speaking to an audience that would lap up that comment more than I am sure he even imagined; the English people, despite the misguided beliefs of the Americans, generally did not support the war, bitterly hated President Bush, began to detest Prime Minister Tony Blair for being Bush’s puppet, and were particularly outraged about far too many reports of British troops being killed by American ‘friendly fire.’ I had a rule that no one could discuss the war with me, as people would often make a B-line for me, the only American they knew, when they wanted an explanation for some mad Bush policy or a bomb that tragically strayed.

He began to play the piano beautifully, saying he was going to write a song about sex, heartbreak and childbirth, and faultlessly performed a marvellous number apparently called Bucket of Girls that was new to me.  It had his vocal chords once again dancing effortlessly amongst the highest notes of the scale. I believe one line was ‘Loving is healthy but leaving is hell,’ and it ended with a strolling, descending line that I initially heard as ‘Send down a bucket of goo’ until I figured out the title of the song and thus my error.  Though when you think of it, you would probably sooner come across a bucket of goo than....  I shall look forward to getting to know these 'new' songs more intimately when Mead's acoustic album is released, as I understand that this track will be included. The song, and his tremendous talent at the piano, certainly wowed us punters.

Without pausing and remaining at the piano, he set about draping the club’s atmosphere with another lovely ballad, this being the closing track of his second album. Like Aztec Camera, he seems to be developing a tradition of closing his albums with acoustic ballads. Only in the Movies was a simple but lovely tune, showcasing his vocal talents once again. Sad and cynical, its lyrics referred to God and his angels being disappointed with every promise that turned into a lie, with a chorus chiming ‘You could be mistaken, lost in how it ends, 'cause only in the movies things make sense. Let every stupid story take away your doubts 'cause only in the movies things work out .’ The protagonist in the song is gutted by heartbreak so bad he is in mourning, as Mead, his eyes pressed shut, delicately sang in that arresting, faultless voice, ‘Still life and memories waltz out the door. Is there relief in wanting what was yours? No friend or doctor knows what to say, Blind to forever standing in the way.’

There followed a bit of a shock as the club that was silenced but for the beauty of David’s creation suddenly erupted into greatly gratified cheers.  David stood and returned to his acoustic guitar centre stage, asking someone unseen who was standing off to the side near the door by the bar from whence he had emerged how he was doing on time, and worried us by looking concerned when he learned it was 8.45pm; he was only the opening act, after all, and it seemed he’d been expected to finish by then. We were having none of it, however, and someone called out for him to keep going. In intense anticipation, we hushed to soak up what turned out just to be him tuning his guitar, waited patiently until he announced the he was going to perform the punchy pop song Girl on The Roof. He claimed to need all the help he could get and encouraged us to join in. This song is one of those incredible summery delights that imprints itself on your brain immediately, so catchy and energetic, it makes you want to trampoline around the room, or around the train if you’re listening on your i-Pod. It really is a struggle to resist, and fortunately in a club, you don’t have to resist a thing. Having listened to this song a trillion times at home, I always thought it was a fantastic song about falling for a woman, but it turns out to be a traumatic song about a woman falling. Or perhaps not traumatic so much as fascinated, and we’re not certain that she fell.  David wrote it after coming across a roadblock in New York City surrounding a woman high up on a ledge of a building who was threatening to jump. He imagined how he might talk her down, and later when he looked back towards the scene, she was no longer there, but he was uncertain whether the outcome involved a climbdown or a jump.

I could be forgiven for my initial confusion, as the chorus of the incredibly upbeat song is ‘Love is in the air, What a perfect day to find. Nothing could compare What a waste to turn and wave goodbye.’ But of course, now I know the truth behind it, I can see what the chorus means in the other context.  The line ‘Is she jumping?’ and reference to the crowd below ‘dying to know’ should have been a clue as well. The song was apparently used in last year’s attempt by National Lampoon to revive its Animal House fortunes with the film Van Wilder, starring Two Guys and a Girl star Ryan Reynolds, but I doubt that was in the context of concern over a potential suicide, not that I've seen it, I'm proud to say.

So I knew this song inside out and surely would have a jaded take on it this night, but David once again surprised me and left me astonished and pleased.  First, the hook that has him energetically whooping from the start, I fully expected to sound understandably tired and weak, if not at least breathless, outside of a studio where a hundred takes could be made. Nay, this is David Mead I’m talking about. Nothing is a challenge for his voice or his lungs. He effortlessly plunged through the rhythmic whoops, a bit like Beaker from the Muppets on speed, making each one sound fresh, as the audience struggled to keep up. Second, the song contains another chorus that would place demands on any normal singer's voice, but David soared through the high, long drawn out notes as though it took the effort of spitting. He did not miss a note, did not skip a beat, made everything look simple like ice skaters do. Meanwhile, his fingers were flying up and down the neck of his guitar, rapidly changing chords as though in some mad guitar sprint, which he won without effort, as expected. The man is incredible. It is amazing he ever gets to sleep, with all that adrenaline pumping through his system.

After this utterly appealing performance, the crowd went wild. It was an amazing way for this unstoppable act to end his set. However, unstoppable he was because, although he clearly had run way past the expected finish time, and one pictured Ron Sexsmith waiting behind that door by the bar with his guitar strapped on and ready, we would not let Mead leave.

So after saying that he’d be sitting on the stage later selling CDs and t-shirts whilst signing people up for his mailing list (which I didn't notice him doing later—perhaps because so little time was left before Sexsmith came on), he gave thought to what final number he could perform. He mentioned that he had spent most of the tour with Sexsmith in Ireland—this was the tour’s last gig—and joked that the Irish were so mean and brutal when demanding requests. Then he decided to close the set with a new song that will appear on the next album called Nashville (not to be confused with Nashville Skyline) which would be appropriate since he was about to return home to Nashville (before shortly beginning a tour with the legendary Joe Jackson).

Although Mead was born in Long Island, New York, he moved around as a child and spent his teen years in Nashville, surrounded by the huge country music industry. Fortunately for us, rather than idolising Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton and dreaming of appearing on Country Music Television one day, he, like me, was charmed as a teenager by the wonders of British 80s music in the 80s including the Housemartins, The Smiths, XTC, Joe Jackson and Billy Bragg. He is clearly greatly influenced by the Beatles, Elton John and, I would venture to say, Nik Kershaw, although that might be down to the hand of one of the producers of his first album, Peter Collins, who also worked with Kershaw. Mead’s song Figure of Eight alone is incredibly reminiscent of 80s Kershaw, whilst in parts sounding scarily similar to Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. But Mead’s take on things is so unique that he always sounds fresh and original. He is.

So when he treated us to his final song, I need not have feared that a song about Nashville would come out with a country twang. It was lovely, soothing and typically wonderful, focused, from what I recall, on easing back home.  His third album will surely be a triumph and will, I hope, expose him to the wider success he deserves.

After certainly winning over the hundreds of Ron Sexsmith fans in the Borderline that night, Mead left the stage after 40 minutes of managing against all odds to keep our minds off fainting in the unbearable heat (the Borderline now claims to have air conditioning, bless them, but it seemed to be a unit as powerful as one of those hand-held mini-fans near the bar, away from the crowd).

I am pleased to say that we got another glimpse of his stunning voice, happy nature and gorgeous piano playing later when Sexsmith asked him to return during his set to join him on a duet arrangement (with two takes on the ending) of George Harrison’s Something, with Mead’s constant beaming smile contrasting Sexsmith’s constant look of worry throughout the song. It was lovely to see them give each other an affectionate hug as Mead left the stage again after their final performance at the end of their tour.

I understand that David, by the way, is a supporter of taping his shows. I always admire this in an artist. I have never recorded a show by anyone myself but have been thoroughly grateful when given a copy of a recording by someone else, provided no strings are attached and they are not a leeching bootlegger, which they never are. Obviously, I enjoy attending concerts but my memory fades so quickly. That is one reason I started taking notes of set lists to begin with, and when I am able to take photographs, they cheer me up for years, even if they’re rubbish, because they are a means of transporting me back to what I had the pleasure of seeing. I wish I could always similarly revisit what I heard, and since most of the unassuming acoustic singer/songwriters I love are unlikely to put out a live DVD, I admire David’s support of people archiving his shows in this manner. Provided the folk recording it are not standing beside me and yelling at me for coughing or applauding and thus messing up the sound, and provided the recordings are never sold, I think it’s a wonderful thing.   I would love to have the opportunity to hear the raw, stripped down performance of some of these songs again.

Fortunately, David's stance does mean that you are able to sample a few live versions of some of these songs at, for instance, the trading site for his fans at Mine & Yours .  I also strongly suggest you explore his bright sense of humour as evident in his website, particularly his online diaries and the mock memo from RCA about how to enlighten the world about his enormous talents (eg start feud with other contemporary singer/songwriters along the lines of David Mead vs David Gray, or reinvent artist as Latin hearthrob). Most of all, I recommend that you buy his albums and be certain to catch him when he next performs in a town near you.

Copyright © 2004 by TC. All rights reserved.

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