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David Mead - The Borderline, 12 October 2000
In July 2000, I bought The Luxury of Time, the debut solo album of American singer/songwriter David Mead, without having heard a note of it. Something in a review convinced me that I would like it, and that something was spot-on. This high-haired troubadour possessed a unique, soaring voice, but he applied its amazing power with a light touch so as not to overwhelm. His songs were all either extremely catchy or bewitchingly beautiful, and, despite being joined by a gaggle of guest musicians, Mead had the capacity for self-sufficiency as he provided vocals, guitars, piano, and percussion himself, and he played everything perfectly.
Naturally, I would seize any chance to see this captivating crooner live, but imagine the staggering joy of a situation where Mead was the support act for Darden Smith whose special guest would be Boo Hewerdine. It was like a talented singer/songwriter convention held in paradise, and I would get to witness the event. So would, as it happens, author and self-confessed muso Nick Hornby, who had undoubtedly turned out to see Boo but would possibly leave the club having added a couple other artists to the many lists he compiles.
The Borderline is a small, windowless basement club in Soho that only holds about 200 people, or more if the people have showered recently so that squashing together is a bearable option. The bar is only a few yards from the stage, so people who aren’t bothered about the support act can lean against it for a natter until the person they’ve paid to see takes the teeny knee-high stage. Said natter might be interrupted, though, if a cocky New Yorker on stage rightfully decides that the chatters are being rude whilst he’s singing his heart out, as some people learned when David stopped mid-show to call to them with a compensating smile, ‘Am I playing too loud for you guys over there? ‘Cause I could hear you; I wasn’t sure if you could hear me.’ His personality was bold but cheerful with an entertaining sense of humour, and his voice never faltered, proving that its spectacular sleekness on the album was no studio trick. Tonight, however, he stuck with only the acoustic guitar rather than playing six instruments at once, which I admit was a slight disappointment, but the only one of the evening.
When that hair and the man beneath it took the stage without fanfare at 9pm, few people took much notice at first, but the smiley creature was full of joy and determined to relish the occasion, and if we did as well, that would be a bonus. He began strumming away and, with the help of the marvellous sound mix that night, took control of the room only moments before the power of his voice knocked us sideways. Or many of us--it has to be said that some of the people who had turned out to see Darden would be more into folky country or perhaps soulful blues with a twist of Americana, and David was none of those things, leaning more toward bright and punchy pop for adults. And that isn’t just a reference to what I thought was appalling language in one of his better songs, World of a King, which I shall explain later.
David’s first song was Sweet Sunshine, a softer busy track from the album that, when I first heard it, struck me as a cross between Any Trouble and the Beatles circa Within You Without You, which turned out to be a happy marriage of styles. The live version, with David’s flawless falsetto warbling high above our heads each time he hit the refrain, was much more infectious than that on the album. It surely grabbed and shook some sense into even the most apathetic bystanders along with those searching for deep lyrics about life-changing events. Hidden in that fun pop sound is the odd profound couplet. Many of Mead’s songs seem to focus on the possibilities of romance, but although he’s only 27, there is a clear progression during the album from the happy, sunny days of picking up girls at parties to realising love is more complicated and that sometimes he’ll be happy to skip the party and stay in wearing comfy slippers.
Mead’s second song was a new one at the time, Girl on the Roof, which turned up as the strongest track on his second album with hit single potential. He rushed through extremely punchy verses with major foot-tapping potential then launched a skyrocketing chorus of ‘Love is in the air / what a perfect day to find. / Nothing could compare / what a waste to turn and wave goodbye.’ It sounded like yet another song about fancying a woman but was actually about his experience of seeing a woman on a ledge of a high building in New York threatening to jump, and his thoughts of what he might say to talk her down safely.
His third song, which tip-toed in on gentle verses until it bombarded the audience with a snappy chorus, was Touch of Mascara, a fantastic song that comes across even better live. ‘And miles will make you notice All you dream is real’ he quips in a tune that aptly demonstrates the aforementioned journey into self-realisation. This one is clearly autobiographical with certain recognisable traits mentioned in the chorus: ‘I look at myself in the rear view mirror, big hair and a broken bone’ before concluding, ‘And what I could use is a touch of mascara, another name and a foreign home / I want to cry but I’m prone to laughter inside this rolling joke.’
These songs shone in a live setting without the cluttered instrument-heavy layers of chart-vying production of Mead’s album, as the minimalist approach focused our minds on his incredibly pure tenor voice and witty but light lyrics. In fact, the thought of seeing Mead tour one day once he meets the success he deserves, with a bigger budget and a full band drowning out his sensational vocal instrument with the wall of sound he clearly prefers, is somewhat unsettling.
Mead was also proving to many that he was a solidly skilled guitarist with great panache when feeding us killer hooks that caught us all without a struggle. His clever winning arrangements and sharp songwriting provided an impressive variety of dreamy melodies and power pop.
The Nashville-based quartet of which he was once a member called ‘Joe, Marc's Brother’ (the nucleus of the band being Joe and Marc Pisapia, hence the name), specialised in guitar pop influenced by Brian Wilson and Elvis Costello, which one can recognise as a path behind Mead. Like many gifted troubadours, he seems to draw from his admiration for Joni Mitchell’s Blue, with perhaps some James Taylor, Paul Simon, Travis and early Matthew Sweet. His voice leaps to the high register almost as deftly as Split Enz’s Tim Finn and his tunes share a ballpark with the style of Neil Finn’s Crowded House. There are moments when he could be considered to be a peppier, satin-voiced David Gray with vocal similarities to Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook, with whom he also shares a fondness for Beatleseque composition. However, David is no mere imitator; he may throw those ingredients into the pot but the final product is a unique sound. He clearly knows how to combine a scattered pile of pieces to build a masterpiece all his own.
After the previous energy-charged track, Mead soothed us with the sleepy, easy jazz reminiscent of Louis Armstrong’s version of What a Wonderful World on While the World is Sleeping. One of my favourite tracks on the album, the song again showed off his immense vocal ability, dipping low before shooting up to astonishing heights seemingly without effort. The tune’s lyrics, which observed that ‘time is a temptress and a teacher’, continued with the recurring theme of graduating from the life-of-the-party role to appreciate calm maturity.
Next was an immediate return to breathtakingly rapid pop. Mead spun into the fantastic, uplifting tune of World of a King, a song I would have picked as the winning single if only it did not start with, ‘So a man and a woman f**ked out a baby.’ Fortunately, at the Borderline, I was finally able to enjoy the tune without wincing as Mead seemed to edit it to what sounded like ‘popped out a baby’. I embraced the omission of such a needless, immature inclusion of a schoolboy’s simplistic summary of life. It’s not just that I’m a prude, I simply couldn’t figure out why such a talented wordsmith of his maturity would resort to such a childishly crude description. But it turns out that he didn’t change the line for the live show—why would he? Apparently, the lyrics actually are ‘A man and a woman forked out a baby / and the prince of dysfunction, boy on a string.’ But even when I play the CD with that knowledge, it still sounds like the F-word to me. I understand that Mead resents the fact that so many people hear it that way, not because he’s beyond the odd bit of profanity, but because the images he seeks to convey in his lyrics are never so basically base. I must admit that the picture in my head of a man and a woman prodding a child with a fork still doesn’t seem to meet his usual classy standards. Its best to concentrate on the understated gems, such as what follows in the bridge after a mention of e-mails to Jesus: ‘I took a moment to remember a moonlit night; / The conversation by the candlelight was free. / It's never easy only trying to please yourself; / I'm never happy with nobody else but me’. Whatever the words, the tune is amazing; it makes you want to dance on the train as it roars through your headphones.
Next, honouring a request, Mead played a song that proved that mild profanity was not an issue with him and underlined that quality songwriting with delicious hooks were. Robert Bradley’s Postcard, the first track on his first album, was the introduction to David Mead for many fans. Its busy musical nod toward Queen and its 80s-style production took time to grow on me but for most, it’s an instant winner. The song shouldn’t work as it’s so busy cramming in references to Allen Ginsburg, Marlon Brando, Buddha, abortion, and the title of the album, but it does get results. Mead’s characteristic soaring vocals take charge during the ascending chorus of ‘This is the story borne in the womb of America / This is the glorious dawn; / This is the glory, love what you make of America / and neutralise your focus or I doubt she'll even notice when you're gone.’ Mead’s words regularly suggest that he had a knack for taking himself too seriously before reaching that enlightened state of insignificance that we all learn as we grow old—I mean older—when we readjust our vision of our own stature compared to that of the planet. He doesn’t hit reality with too much of a thump, though, as the reference to Nashville-based performance artist/poet/musician Bob Bradley pans into a statement that poets are the experts at living, recognising when things are right and when one should take risks.
David introduced the next song as Comfort, which the following year would appear on his second album. The tune was another instantly engaging yet placidly pleasant gem, with a memorable refrain of ‘you sleep alone with the radio on.’ Its lyrics exquisitely summed up the dregs of a relationship when the initial sweep of romance has drained away to leave only ‘talking trash again like long sedated lovers’ and rain on all their best intentions. He seems to be drawn to the comfort of being settled whilst resenting the lack of excitement and increased turmoil that ageing relationships can bring. His gorgeous voice sang, ‘I believe in easy answers, / coming home for Christmas, / minding manners all along’, leaving me eager to get my hands and ears on his next album.
I was still hoping to hear my prized favourites when Mead surprised me instead by closing his set with a cover—incredulously—of a Michael Jackson song. The tune was one of seven Top Ten hits from Thriller, surely the most saccharine, although the fact that Miles Davis covered it gave it some street cred. Beginning with images that might have influenced Mead’s own While the World is Sleeping, the song Human Nature was given a more regal treatment than I might have thought it deserved. Clearly a tune that touches the sentiment of New Yorkers, it ended up sounding surprisingly dignified in Mead’s masterly hands. The performance could have been a laughable novelty, but Mead gave the song depth in the affection he had for the images it conveyed, presenting it as though it were a fascinating new composition. David accomplished with aplomb this unexpected twist to finishing his set and left us 40 minutes after his thrilling start.
I must admit to being nothing less than shocked that David had not sung two of the most stunning songs amongst the year’s releases: Breathe You In (with the intelligent relationship comment that I share: ‘the time we spend alone it saves us / the things we learn in solitude inspire’ and ‘but there's so much more to learn apart from you / our time in a bottle would be wasted if it were used / when there's so much left for love to prove’) and Landlocked. How could such graceful splendour be ignored? Fortunately, I can play them repeatedly at home, and his impeccable performance of so many other exceptional songs left me little reason for complaint. The unusual scene of a young man with only one album having to make tough choices in his set list was laudable. I truly cannot wait to see what sort of melodic poetry he creates when he begins to carry a bit more life on his bones, and I hope that the world will have learned by then to listen.
Copyright © 2004 by TC.
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live in concert at the Borderline in London's Soho in October 2000 in support of Darden Smith and Boo Hewerdine..