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KIRSTY MACCOLL TRIBUTE - 23 September 2002, South Bank Centre, London
(from left to right: Julian Cox, Boo Hewerdine, Michele Drees, Pete Glenister, Mark Nevin, Johnny Marr, Spider Stacy, Brian Kennedy, Jem Finer, Omar Puente, Phil Rambow, Dave Ruffy, Boz Boorer, Neill MacColl, Tracey Ullman, Roddy Frame, Phill Jupitus, James Knight, Liam Kirkham, Ben Storey, Mary Coughlan)
If there is anyone who couldn’t make it to the spectacular ‘Celebration of Kirsty MacColl’ on 23 September but would like a play-by-play account, this rambling review should place you there.
The first surprise upon entering the comfortable Royal Festival Hall at the South Bank Centre was being handed a free programme, something I have never encountered before. One is usually charged an extortionate price for such things, and I would have paid it on this night, but its being a gift to everyone attending was the first sign of the fabulous, caring, we’re-in-it-together spirit of the whole evening. The simple programme included a few lovely, familiar photographs of Kirsty, all in a purple hue (apparently the theme colour of the festival, The Song’s the Thing: A celebration of the art of songwriting, of which this was a part). A summary of her life and work by Nigel Williamson was included, but it began by saying that Kirsty was killed in December 1999 when actually it was 2000. But never mind, however long she’s been gone, it’s still an achingly terrible loss for so many, and I just thank goodness she’s left such a legacy of songs. I often feel comforted by the comments she had made about feeling she could die happy if her last album was a brilliant one, which of course it was, in the end.
I sat in the fourth row of the modern, comfortable hall that seemed filled to its capacity of about 2500 people, and took in the friendly atmosphere, which was reeking with excited anticipation. Kirsty's nine-strong Tropical Brainstorm band came on to a rapturous cheer, and the three brass players stood in front of me—James Knight, who played sax and about anything else going, young but hairless Liam Kirkham on trombone, and Ben Storey on trumpet. I had not seen this band live before, and my mind wandered from wondering if Ben were really only 12 years old, as he looked, and being impressed by his smart casual dress sense (including a pink and purple striped shirt—matching the programme--and a co-ordinated tie), to marvelling at the strength of James Knight, who was Kirsty’s partner. Any type of memorial service for a loved one would be a drain, even years after the tragedy, but it must be odd and heartbreaking to find oneself up on stage, performing familiar songs, but when you turn to watch your loved one singing them as always, you find that it’s someone else in tribute to her, because she’s gone. Indeed, he did look touched and understandably sensitive initially, but the rest of the ‘brass section’ seemed to check on him regularly and send him cheery smiles a lot. So he quickly fell into step with the joy and fun of the evening, and seemed to enjoy himself as much as the rest of us. It was, after all, a celebration of Kirsty, and not meant to be all about mourning. James was terribly impressive, and not just as a skilled musician.
Big bad bearded comedian Phill Jupitus marched on stage, and I assumed he, as a BBC6 disc jockey, would introduce the evening. Instead, he shocked us all by bursting into song, although I couldn’t say he was a singer of the traditional type. Reading the lyrics from a stand, he rather gruffly voiced his way through FIFTEEN MINUTES, one of my favourites, in a Brechtian or Pogue-like manner. He did from time to time hold out a note briefly with some strength, and I suspect that he might be able to sing a bit had he not been nervous. But chiefly, it seems, he was just taking part as a tribute to his late friend. Good for him. It reminded me of Master in the House from Les Miserables. After the concert, astonished friends who’d heard that he’d performed would give me a startled look and say, Can Phill Jupitus sing?? Well, he was better than I would have been (not saying much), certainly had more guts, and I think he has done it before. He was not quite Cerys Matthews, but it was fun, and I think had he been less nervous, we would have been more impressed. I have never been a Phill Jupitus fan. He’s suitable enough as a panellist on BBC2's music quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks, but he was always a bit too rough and crude for my tastes. Still, I’m willing to give him a total re-think now. Any friend of Kirsty’s…. He apparently even directed some of her videos.
The band, including Julian Cox (great name—looked like a young bald Pete Townsend) playing a big double bass for this number, really livened up the brilliant song. The brass section, in particular, added some terrifically lively, fabulous music, as Phill marched around a bit like a mechanical soldier. For the first of a hundred times that night, I was almost dumbstruck by the incredible talent of youthful-looking trumpeter Ben Storey—he could hit notes that only dogs could hear (and, uh, I could, too, but let's not evaluate that). Strong, lovely, Kirsty-like backing vocals were provided by a casually dressed (as were most people—James and acoustic guitarist Pete Glenister won the prize for apparently most comfortable) woman standing at the back, who I didn’t recognise at first, until she was introduced by compère Phill Jupitus shortly afterwards.
When the song finished, Phill muttered something about the strategy behind putting ‘the sh*t one on first,’ and described the night as being an example of ‘Kirsty-oke’ (get it? vs karaoke). He described himself, somewhat poetically, as being the grout between the tiles of talent that we would witness that night. Well, he may have a big head, but only in the physical sense, it seems. He cued the lighting folk to ‘illuminate the fish’, and eventually the cover of Kirsty’s last album, perhaps with ironic tragedy a picture of the sea, but a cool welcoming blueness, was projected onto the wall behind the stage, and remained there for much of the evening.
Now Phill introduced the backing vocalist with the awe and admiration that she deserved, although despite her incredible talent, I suppose she would not be that well known outside some circles. Christine Collister, dressed in turquoise trousers and a striped shirt (she must have rung Ben to see what he’d be wearing), stepped forward to sing the next song in her wonderfully deep voice, as Phill gushed about how absurd it had been having a singer of her merit providing his backing vocals. Now a successful solo artist, Christine was a long-term partner of Clive Gregson, and she has also performed with Loudon Wainwright III, Richard Thompson and Bert Jansch. She can belt out and growl powerful vocals faultlessly like Alison Moyet with Dusty Springfield’s edge. As Julian switched to electric bass, the brass players toyed with egg shakers and assisted Pete Glenister (who greatly reminded me from a distance of Billy Bragg) with backing vocals, Christine absolutely stunned us with a strong and exciting rendition of US AMAZONIANS, the type of song that rips your heart out with its power. The band continued to whip up more enthusiasm, with some particularly striking drumming from Dave Ruffy who seemed to grow 20 arms for the occasion, and when this energetic number finished, after an initial false ending of the psych-out type, all thoughtful eloquence was driven from my mind with a single, bold and bursting word: WOW.
We should have all been dancing already, but that isn’t really a London thing to do, and it certainly isn’t done at the artsy, sophisticated Royal Festival Hall. Most of these venues have ushers who rush at you in droves and make you sit down for fire safety reasons if you even look like you’re considering putting a foot in the aisle, so we remained in our seats, tapping our toes in a well-behaved manner.
The third performer was a particular favourite of mine. Not many curators in the world get the chance to be an exhibit themselves, but this was the case here, as marvellous singer/songwriter Boo Hewerdine was the curator of the songwriting festival, and this tribute was his idea. He, like all the other performers this night, had been a friend of Kirsty’s, and he worked for many years with her half brothers, Calum and Neill. Boo had a band that had a few hits in the 1980s called the Bible, with Neill MacColl, who like Christine Collister, was another person tucked at the back of the stage this night who I did not instantly recognise. He was adding his extremely skilful talents on electric guitar.
Boo, a tall bespectacled chap who usually sings deep and meaningful songs sedately from atop a stool, seemed to rush out like a bolt of lightning and stood towering above us all whilst powerfully strumming his acoustic guitar, and burst into an absolutely dynamic FREE WORLD. Christine had returned to providing backing vocals, scaling the heights of the ‘if I didn’t care’ part, the horns were blaring out with incredible vibrancy, and everyone was racing through the song at an amazing pace. It was so moving, I almost took up head-banging as a tribute. It was about this time that James Knight seemed to start really losing himself in the enjoyment of performing and didn’t look mournful again, with only radiant smiles on his face for the rest of the evening, which was so heartening.
I know that most people will remember from the evening the names more familiar to them, the bigger stars, but even if you didn’t hear or particularly recall Boo’s performance on this night, which I can't imagine, I strongly recommend that you pick up one of his albums, particularly one of the last two, Thanksgiving or Anon. You are guaranteed to love him. I give this recommendation because Boo is possibly one of the least well known singers to take part in the tribute, and everyone who hears him always wonders why he isn’t a household name. Free World was a surprising choice for him as he excels at soft, introspective numbers, and it was great fun, full of growling and rebellious bile-spitting, but it didn’t show off his gorgeous voice, since that wasn’t his mission; it just injected a lot of urgent fun early into the evening.
Phill rushed out to gush over Boo and stress that this celebration of Kirsty was entirely down to Boo, which naturally received grateful cheers from the audience. As Boo left, Phill told us that one of the main things he remembered about Kirsty was that her fridge was always full…of booze, which clearly appealed to him as he claimed to have got drunk with her loads of times. He then quipped that this concert was like ‘one long orgasm...with a 20-stone man on top of you.’ For anyone who wasn’t there who is confused by that last bit, I refer you to my initial introduction of Phill Jupitus as being big. (20 stone = 280 pounds. I’d say the evening was a bit more fun than having that on top of you, but certainly as breathtaking). ‘It’s not just sex with me, it’s a fight for survival,’ he added. He introduced the performers who would be doing the next song: Roddy Frame and Eliza Carthy.
Roddy Frame almost eerily looks exactly the same as he did in his Aztec Camera days 20 years ago, if not younger, and the ever-changing similarly young Eliza Carthy was bigger than life, with short bleached blonde (not red or blue as she sometimes sports) hair, lacy black top, and a long black coat over an intriguing red skirt with a giant silk-screened face on it, possibly Kirsty’s, but I couldn’t be sure. The crowd went mad when they took the stage, as Roddy's Glaswegian accent praised Kirsty and her career as a prolific writer (‘she knew a lot of words’). They took us through a marvellous, country-flavoured version in a lower key of the exquisite INNOCENCE, with calm Roddy singing and playing acoustic guitar and Eliza treating us to a busy, electric solo on her fiddle. Christine stuck to her duties as the backing vocalist, adding such cheery parts that it felt like a hoe-down, and many people in the audience were standing by their seats, no doubt square dancing in their minds (though not dancing in the aisles, God forbid). Again, there was a fun brass arrangement tagged onto the end, with Liam’s trombone bursting through most memorably.
For anyone who might not know, Eliza is a critically acclaimed eccentric folk rock artist, the daughter of traditional players Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson. She has appeared with Bryan Ferry and Joan Baez and always seems full of fun…and piercings. She left the stage when they finished their number, but Roddy remained. Roddy spoke of the two very distinct sides to Kirsty, which he felt the last song and the one he was about to perform, WRONG AGAIN, perfectly illustrated. I suppose it is unsurprising that a clever songwriter would make such a brilliantly succinct observation. There are so many fun, almost joyfully catty but not quite bitter songs by Kirsty, and then there are an almost worrying amount of dreadfully-battered-heart compositions. She was clearly a stunningly sensitive soul within a hard shell. I’m sure we were all pondering that whilst Roddy launched into a quiet and truly touching version of this fine song, a nod to her previous work on an otherwise boldly Latin and lively album. Appropriately, the lyrics of this song were left to stand almost on their own, with Roddy’s moving voice floating through the hall, Roddy and Pete on acoustic guitar, Julian plucking at a stand-up bass, Dave adding a bit of drums, and everyone else just standing quietly and absorbing it all. Even Phill Jupitus remained standing at the side of the stage, just listening to this marvellous tribute.
When Roddy finished and left the stage, Phill introduced a man who had collaborated with Kirsty a number of times: Evan Dando. Clearly, he was expected to sing Lou Reed’s PERFECT DAY, but who would he sing it with? I assume he felt that there was no point in singing a duet if he couldn’t sing it with Kirsty, so the person who joined him on stage was not a singer. Instead, leading influential Cuban violinist Omar Puente strolled on with him. Puente was playing such an unusual string instrument that I can’t say for certain what it was, perhaps some sort of viola, but he did amazing things to whatever it was and it sometimes sounded like a french horn. Former Lemonhead Dando was hidden behind long straight hair and sang as casually as he was dressed, as the lighting engineer doused the stage with fancy orange and green swirling patterns. His voice had a sleepy, defeated feel to it, more in the sense of method acting rather than lack of ability; it was surprisingly clear at times. Christine backed him up for volume and beauty on the chorus, a bit formally, rather than singing Kirsty’s part, although she did alternate with him at the end during the ‘reap what you sow’ part, which was lovely. The horn arrangement at the end was particularly moving, with Ben playing a stunning solo—accentuated by Puente’s perfect strings—with what I would guess was a frugal horn in a most melancholy manner, abetted by James’ sad sax and echoed by Liam on trombone. I suppose an extra layer of sorrow appeared with the telling absence of the other voice in the duet.
While the audience recovered from that beautifully doleful performance, Puente slipped off without any mention, which struck me as unfortunate, whilst Dando remained. With the addition of electric guitars and the rest of the band, it was difficult to make out Dando’s vocals as he sang HE’S ON THE BEACH, reading from a lyric sheet. He turned quietly away from the audience during the instrumental parts—including, yet again, an amazing horn contribution, and when he left the stage and the audience applauded appreciatively, I noted that still no one mentioned poor Omar Puente’s previous contribution.
Phill came on again and reflected upon the past oddity of once finding himself sharing a microphone with Kirsty during the encore at a Billy Bragg show at the Hackney Empire. They sang the Specials’ Message to You Rudy, as his voice couldn’t quite match her angelic tones, and he really wanted to ask for her autograph. He then diagnosed the Royal Festival Hall as being distinctly lacking in the ‘mosh pit’ area—never mind an orchestra pit. Those of you who missed the late 70s might not realise that a mosh pit was the area by the stage where the audience were inspired by the punk or rock band to slam dance, where the band might crowd surf, fight, that kind of thing. Phill warned us that, if we were not all dancing by the end of the evening, he would come around and slap all of our legs individually. Something told me that was how he got his kicks, and I eyed the South Bank Centre officials who were spread around the exits to see if they looked like they were going to report Phill to the police for inciting a riot and encouraging people to clog up the pathways to the fire exits. They did look nervous, but as the London audience dutifully remained in their seats, they had nothing to worry about as yet.
Christine came down to the front of the stage again and was joined by young Eliza Carthy without her instrument, and they took turns belting out a wonderfully tough-talking MAMBO DE LA LUNA, full of the fun spirit in which it was clearly written. Eliza’s voice surprised me by suiting this role perfectly, and they both had tremendous fun with it, as the audience joined in. Omar Puente snuck back on the stage, again unannounced, and added not just some amazing violin (or whatever) but also an electrically charged Cuban rap (which oddly reminded me of Ranking Roger of the Beat in the 80s). Unlike the recorded version, the rap was a bold, amplified feature on stage and it was most impressive. The trumpet and sax continued to amaze, and the trombonist switched to a melodica, one of those hand-held mini-keyboards that you blow into like a recorder. These boys were really working like mad all night. The audience absolutely roared at this delightful song’s finish. What a performance. To paraphrase one of Kirsty’s last songs, Wow again.
Eliza called for more applause for Christine, as the latter returned to backing vocalist status at the back of the stage, but still no one acknowledged dear Omar Puente. Eliza simply introduced her next number with ‘Here’s a good song’. She was right, and boy, did her vocals surprise me by being absolutely perfectly suited for the superior, bitter indignation required for ENGLAND 2 COLOMBIA 0. She gave a faultless performance, and obviously got a tremendous amount of enjoyment from it herself. Now, I know I’m getting dull in raving about the brass section, but they really reached the upper echelons of sublimity during this number. On trombone, Liam played a staccato part I was not aware that instrument was capable of, joined by James’ impeccable sax and Ben’s irreproachable trumpet. They sounded like a brass section 10 times their size, Cuban-born and they gave an utterly unparalleled performance. That trumpet, I tell you---particularly when those incredibly celestial last notes rang out, no doubt bringing dogs to London from all across Europe—well, it made me think about proposing to Ben (assuming he isn’t really 12, but anyway….). Seriously, even if he’s in his 30s, how does someone so young get such amazing talent so soon? I’m 36 and I haven’t even mastered air guitar. Ben’s talent was so huge and his contribution so meaningful that he managed to tempt me to propose despite my feelings for romance generally being much as exemplified by Kirsty in this song. (That leads me to add that, if I could sing and if I had been a talented showbizzy friend of Kirsty asked to perform on this fine night, I would probably want to sing this one. Although I have never been so tricked or betrayed, I feel I could sing it with appropriate vehemence. Or possibly Fifteen Minutes.)
In any case, I know I wasn’t the only one falling for innocent musicians on the stage during this number. The entire audience completely melted. We were all so excited that no one could wait ‘til the end to begin applauding; we just started even before it was in our sights and carried on for an age.
Phill rushed on, full of jokes, and informed us that Kirsty’s nickname at school was Krusty Mackerel, so he decided to name tonight’s band that, though they didn’t look to impressed (but at least they matched the fish backdrop), though nor was Kirsty about that nickname, I’m sure. He introduced the next singer, Mary Coughlan, a tough flame-haired Irish singer whose difficult life has encompassed careers as varied as modelling and street-sweeping, and who famously shares a strong affinity with Billie Holliday. Her powerful, bluesy voice was ideal for BAD, and was so enchanting that it even managed to draw our attention away from her bizarre outfit, a rather golden concoction that one might find on a Shakespearean character, if not Queen Elizabeth I, and we weren’t entirely certain that it wasn’t on backwards. Her raunchy vocals were accompanied by some stupefying clarinet playing by Boz Boorer, former Polecat and current Morrissey collaborator. He co-produced Kirsty’s Perfect Day and worked with her live, playing various instruments. He surprisingly came on looking a bit like Rolf Harris, but took over with his astounding performance, as Christine and the brass boys got to sit and have a well-earned brief rest. Mary’s passionate vocals made me think she was about to burst into a rendition of Master of the House—and with Phill’s vocals reminding me of the same song, I almost felt cheated not to have seen them perform it together. When she so sincerely sang the lines about eyeing the carving knife, ‘you’ve been lucky so far,’ it drew laughter from the audience. The song earned tremendous applause.
I think that Mary then said that she often danced in the kitchen, but never IN THESE SHOES, words which set the brass section alight. Absolutely no one else, other than Kirsty, could have sung this song so appropriately, with such viciously detached superiority. She was growling out the lines, belting the song across the hall with apparent ease, joining Christine and many of the boys in the band during the perfectly delivered Spanish parts. She was so tough, she was almost scary, and in the line in the last verse about doubting he’d survive, she said, ‘Honey, let’s…….’ and then fiercely shrieked at incredible volume ‘DO IT!!!!!’ I know I’m starting to gush about the trumpet playing, so I’ll just say ‘insert trumpeter-worshipping text here.’
Next, she drew us into a sleepy, jazzy version of HEAD, with James dissolving the previous in-your-face atmosphere with some amazing hazy, deeply moody sax. His solos were remarkably powerful. Other than Pete’s quiet guitar, Julian on bass, Michele Drees (looking like a paler Sheila E) on percussion and Dave playing brushes on the drums, everyone sat down. Some smoky purple lights dropped on the stage to accompany their creation. It was an amazing concoction that really impressed the audience. As Mary left, she kissed Pete, who with drummer Dave, was a musical director for the evening.
Phill returned and spewed out a few puzzling anecdotes of sorts…that it was a very special evening, but there was nothing more special than the way that Mary Coughlan just said ‘Arse’, he said imitating her strong Irish accent. I might be wrong but I believe she altered the lyrics of Bad so that it went ‘a hand on my arse in a Spanish bar’. Phill then recounted a memory of playing with Kirsty at the Hackney Empire when, to fill time whilst Dave was having trouble with his drums, Kirsty quipped, ‘She went 12 miles from London and still no sign of Dick.’ I turned that word into a name here so that I didn’t have to delete any letters that might make you unsure of what I was saying, because you might read that and think, that’s not too funny; I don’t get it. Well, to tell you the truth, I thought that upon hearing it and, from the uneasy, quiet, insincere chuckling going on in the audience, I feel secure in saying that I wasn’t alone. So if you comprehend that joke, answers on a postcard please to me and every member of the audience. [I was later informed it was a reference to Dick Whittington, the legendary country boy who came to London with his cat, became Lord Mayor and inadvertently began a long tradition of pantomime.] In any case, Phill urged us all to give that a ‘big laugh!’. Then he introduced the next three guests.
On came the outstanding angel-voice singer from Belfast, Brian Kennedy, with Boo Hewerdine (of ‘Free World’ fame earlier) and the fabulous singer/songwriter Mark Nevin, formerly of Fairground Attraction and co-writer of many of the songs on Titanic Days, both accompanying Brian on acoustic guitar. This trio was pretty much my dream team. Brian, with long dark locks, was donning a dark suit, whereas Mark was wearing a teal blue one, with red shoes and what looked like a leopard print hat. Before they began to play, seasoned performer Brian said ‘We’re not nervous at all—Jesus!’ and spoke of what an honour it was to be there to sing the brilliant song they were going to perform, written by Kirsty with Mark: DEAR JOHN. Ironically, this totally fitting song did not make Kirsty’s ‘sad divorce album’, Titanic Days, but it was released as a single (and on an album) by incredible Scottish singer Eddi Reader, who sang it on the BBC2 tribute. Eddi was the lead singer in Mark’s band Fairground Attraction (you all surely know their huge hit Perfect), and she frequently works with Boo Hewerdine and occasionally with Brian Kennedy, so that all wraps up rather nicely. But I digress….Predictably, Brian delivered a gorgeous and touching version of the beautifully written song, with the rest of the band taking a break while only the two enormously talented acoustic guitarists created a mound of moody music (I went a bit over the top there, I know, but if you could have heard the applause, you’d know I wasn’t the only OTT admirer….).
Brian thanked Boo and Mark as they left the stage, and spoke of spending many nights sitting up late with Kirsty in her music room where she had the most incredible record collection, and she introduced him to millions of artists of whom he would not otherwise have heard. Then he said ‘I get to sing this next song,’ fully aware of the privilege of being exposed to such special songs, and his floating voice took us through ANGEL from Titanic Days. The band picked up the rhythm, with everything busy and more upbeat now. Omar Puente returned and played a blinding solo on his violin, and Liam downed his trombone in favour of the melodica again. James added some wonderful soprano sax, and with some strong bass and busy percussion, including bongos, I believe, the full sound they created was quite striking. I almost thought I heard a sitar, but it was just a result of unusual combinations playing tricks on my ears.
With Brian having one of the most faultless live voices around, I was surprised he didn’t choose a song that demonstrated how he could reach seemingly unattainable high notes. But again, part of the wonder of this celebration was that, because these professional people were all Kirsty’s friends and, it seemed, genuinely decent people themselves, it wasn’t about them or about showcasing their own talents. It was about honouring an incredible woman and enjoying the privilege of performing a favourite song in front of an audience that could not wait to hear it and love it to bits.
Brian chose another fun one next, assuming it was the artists themselves who did the choosing: DON’T COME THE COWBOY WITH ME SONNY JIM. Boz Boorer, who had wowed us with his clarinet earlier, returned with a guitar and joined Brian on vocals during the chorus, as did the entire audience. Brian’s voice really shone and he danced on the spot a bit, and I hate to be predictable, but the boys on brass sounded brilliant. I believe that Pete played slide guitar quite loudly here, which is entirely appropriate for a song with country leanings, but I must confess to having an aversion to slide and steel guitars. Fortunately, I was caught up in the happy spirit of the night with everyone else, so it sounded fine to me. Everyone in the hall was just having fun; we were kids in a playground after a long day at school.
For song number 16 (can you believe), Mark Nevin made a welcome return. He said that Kirsty would have been really chuffed about this evening’s concert, and referred to her own reference to Titanic Days as the sad divorce album, as I mentioned earlier, and I think he said that she also referred to herself and Mark as ‘Paddle’ whilst they recorded it, as they were both up sh*t’s creek without one. It seemed the song we all wanted him to sing was a fine one he’d co-written with Kirsty, one near and dear to the hearts of everyone on her discussion list (they arranged for a bench to be placed in London's Soho Square and dedicated to Kirsty) and sure enough, he played SOHO SQUARE. Strumming away at his acoustic guitar, his voice presented an unusual take on the song. I am a huge fan of Mark and his singing, but he does have a songwriter’s voice, as does, for instance, Neil Young; it doesn’t quite have the power of Mary Coughlan (but what does?). Performing his own material, he sounds wonderful, but like most people, he has a limited range. He compromised here by almost talking through the verses in a most entertaining way, and it really worked. Meanwhile, the band whipped up a storm, with James playing some glorious soprano sax, Liam on melodica again and Ben playing a stunning Penny Lane style of trumpet. It was all highly effective, and was hugely popular with the audience. That 'wow' feeling crept in again.
After that, compère Phill returned and referred to the chap who had rushed on after each act throughout the night in a ghostly fashion, half bent over, to whip the sheet music from the singer’s music stand and replace it with music for the next song. Phill had frequently made jokes about the importance of that man, and now quipped that it was a union thing, that Phill himself wasn’t allowed to go near the sheet music himself. He then suggested that we drag Christine Collister from the back again, and she took the spotlight once again, to the blasts of the brass section. They played a marvellous MY AFFAIR, with the sound desk leaving Christine’s perfect vocals a bit too quiet compared to all the magnificent music that filled the hall. I first heard this song years ago on an aeroplane, on one of those pretend-radio stations they pipe through your headphones, and its cheerful loungeroom jazz combined with punchy Cuban style and brass, punctuated by clever puns, was about the only thing that got me through a long and terrible flight. It’s beautifully written but, even if you are as amazing as Christine Collister, no one can sing it with the acerbic wit of Kirsty. Without Kirsty, Christine did a great job. This evening wasn’t about comparing anyone with Kirsty though.
The most marvellous thing about this song tonight was that, during the course of it, Christine introduced each of the band members, who then had a minute’s solo to impress us with their talents, and boy did they! Each and every person was astonishing, with special marks going to James and Liam (I’ve never heard the trombone be so exciting as when he was allowed to let rip) and, of course, Ben, who seems to have been snatched out of the 1940s, possibly from the Harry James Orchestra. It was great for Neill MacColl to have a chance to shine briefly here, too, as he was hidden away at the back, albeit hidden in a very bright green Hawaiian shirt. The chaps provided the Spanish backing vocals, and after a breathtaking brass arrangement at the finish, the crowd went wild, and Phill returned to the stage.
He tried to encourage us again to dance in the eight feet of space in front of the centre of the stage, which he excitedly pointed out would piss off the people behind, who would no longer be able to see. Someone in the audience called out to him, but he said he couldn’t understand her as she was speaking in too high a pitch, and that it was ‘like being heckled by a Clanger.’ (For those not in the UK, Clangers were sort of outer-space children’s animated characters, with very high voices.) That led him to criticise Dave on drums for not adding a laudatory couple of drum beats to punctuate his humour (ie Boom-boom). He then told the audience a true story, he insisted, about the next guest being Kirsty’s lodger once, and he called her ‘electric landlady,’ which is how they came up with the name for the album. On came said lodger, former Smith Johnny Marr, in a plaid lumberjack shirt, with wig-like long dark hair that was scarily almost styled in a mullet. He performed TREAD LIGHTLY, muttering through the verses a bit, but the chorus was, as it always is regardless of who sings it, truly catchy and wonderful. He is another songwriter and was perhaps better at playing his red electric guitar than carrying a tune, but it really didn’t matter. It was fun, and Christine was helping out with backing vocals, and she’d make even me sound good. We all thoroughly enjoyed it. The ‘tomorrow’s’ at the end were sung with Johnny and Christine alternating quickly, much like the end of the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love, where they rush through ‘love is all you need’, and the music building up like the transitional part of A Day in the Life.
Phill then bemoaned the fact that there were still no takers for the mosh pit, and added that all such evenings needed to have a surprise guest. He was interrupted by a kind heckler, and before he managed to come back with a funny reply, Dave, who had been chastised for his lack of support at the previous break between songs, eagerly added a ‘boom-boom,’ but at the wrong time, which had Phill going a bit mad for a minute. Then he introduced the special guest who had flown in from Boston particularly to do this gig: David Gray. Of course, many of us had been expecting him, but the rest of the crowd was joyously stunned. David came on without a guitar, all dressed in black and donning long sideboards, grasped the mike stand and started singing a wonderful WALKING DOWN MADISON. The writer of that song’s music, Johnny Marr, remained on stage and played such noisy guitar before the verses and during his lengthy solo that the hall was transformed into a rock venue, with the rest of the band keeping up in its new guise as hard rock performers, to add to all their many other guises during the evening.
David, who possibly had not had a chance to rehearse if he’d just flown in, read the sheet music closely and even came in too early, bless him, during Johnny’s guitar solo, but it was charming. I noticed particularly that this was the first time I have ever ever seen David Gray perform without rocking his head continually from side to side, which is endearing but tends to give me motion sickness. Perhaps he has had physical therapy or perhaps Kirsty’s music is too engaging to allow such frivolous movement, or maybe he'd flown Concorde and hadn't readjusted to gravity yet, I don’t know. Some people finally started braving Phill’s suggestion and coming down to the teeny ‘mosh pit’ down front and dancing. Naturally, I immediately stood up and planned to read at the top of my voice the part of the programme that said that ‘Persons shall not be permitted to stand or sit in any of the gangways intersecting the seating….’ but then I realised it said nothing about moshing in the mosh pit. When this number finished, everyone left the stage, and the audience went absolutely wild and seriously didn’t show any sign of having any intention of stopping their cheers and whistles before the weekend. It was almost 10pm; the show had lasted almost two hours.
Fortunately, the mad cheering paid off, as expected, and two performers returned to the stage. You probably would never guess which two: Johnny Marr and trumpeter Ben Storey. On their own, with Johnny playing electric guitar, much more peacefully now, and Ben playing the frugal horn (-ish thing), they performed a fascinating, slow version of YOU AND ME BABY. Johnny mumbled through it again, but it was truly intriguing. I believe at some point, Michele joined them on stage and provided a bit of percussion near the end. Ben’s horn was simply stunning; it was a truly clever treatment of the song.
When they finished, the rest of the band returned as the audience waited in almost quiet anticipation. Phill welcomed back Mark Nevin and Mary Coughlan, and they were joined by Pogues Jem Finer--on banjo, which I normally hate but I really enjoyed his skilful playing--and Spider Stacy—whose whistle parts were a revelation. Just before they all began, I think Mary removed her shoes, commenting that she was too tall to share a mike with Mark with her shoes on, which prompted him to chastise her playfully with ‘Oi!’
Then the band played the first notes of FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK, of course, and the audience was almost hysterical with excitement. I cannot stress enough what an utter brainstorm it was to pair up these two singers for this song. Mark’s voice suited it more than I could ever have imagined; he found a new strength for it and his performance was absolutely perfect. As for Mary, well I’m sure you can picture her growling and spitting her way through that wonderful part, even moving Phill again, no doubt, with a further special mention of ‘arse’ along with some other choice words. Everyone was clapping along to the beat and standing by their seats. This performance was truly a perfect dream. During the instrumental part at the end, Mary and Mark started waltzing about the stage together, which was sheer poetry despite the fact that, from a distance and with perhaps the sound turned down, it might have looked an odd sight: someone in an unusual Elizabethan or possibly Renaissance dress swirling with someone in a turquoise suit, red shoes and leopard hat. If anyone in the hall had any sadness in his or her life, this number would have drained it from them. The organisers could have ended the evening there and received nothing but rapturous praise. Not that we’re complaining that the evening continued!
After that, Dave the drummer and Pete the guitarist came to the front and finished each other’s sentences as they thanked each other for their work as musical directors that evening, and quickly raved about all the performers and thanked us all for coming. They joked they’d been in the business for 20 years and ended up in a tribute band. They said they did it all for their mate Kirsty, and raised their hands (since they had no glasses) to absent friends. They explained that they were unaccustomed to public speaking, and were relieved when Phill returned. He asked everyone to applaud Dave and Pete for all their work, putting the band together and rehearsing everyone etc. He then said that if we wanted to bootleg the show, it was going to be aired on BBC Radio 6 the following night, but that frankly you had to be a f***ing Mason to pick up BBC6, and you needed a special code. (BBC6 is only available on the new, fairly rare digital tuners and online). He said he knew cab companies that had more listeners, referring to the dispatcher’s radio.
Then he jokingly introduced the next guest, saying that she had not appeared on stage in the UK for 45 years, when she was in a production of ‘Oh, Goodness!’ at the Haymarket. After continuing a build up along those lines, comedian Tracey Ullman burst onto the stage, full of life and fun, wearing a white French revolution-styled jacket (it looked interesting near Mary’s other style from yesteryear) over black trousers, looking incredibly young with lovely long, dark hair. She said, quite fondly, ‘for the first time in nearly 20 years, I would like to sing my hit’. Loads of people in the audience jumped up as if to give her a standing ovation and remained so with the excitement of the production as she sang THEY DON’T KNOW. I was expecting her to rely on Christine to provide the really high ‘Baby’ that Kirsty sang on her single, but Tracey had a fair go at it. The crowd adored it and cheered wildly.
Tracey then said thanks to Kirsty for giving her that fabulous song, and explained that Kirsty had released the song a few years before her cover, with the only difference between their versions being that Tracey wore a pink lurex minidress and had Paul McCartney in the video. She talked about how it stayed at No. 2 in the charts for ages because they just couldn’t budge Boy George’s band’s Karma Chameleon ('bastard!' she said), although her record was number one in Norway. She said that there was no doubt that the song launched her career in the States, which is true. I remember, as a young American still living there then, seeing the video and later hearing that she was a comedian/actress in the UK, and finding that unbelievable. Then on the strength of that fame, she came over and started her own skit show on the then burgeoning Fox network, and her show begot The Simpsons, clips of which led viewers into the commercial breaks, so we owe Kirsty even more than we realise really. I have had periods of not being Tracey’s biggest fan, but everyone adored her tonight; she was lovely. She spoke of the wonder of Kirsty’s lyrics, full of wit, and said she was going to sing a particularly witty example now. As she spoke, I noticed Ben passing his frugal horn to James, who further demonstrated that he is multi-talented.
She welcomed onto the stage the song’s co-author, Phill Rambow, a Canadian singer who was once marked for greatness and formed part of Brian Eno’s post-Roxy Music band. Tonight, he played acoustic guitar and joined Tracey with Van Morrison-like vocals with a twang during an extremely uplifting version of THERE’S A GUY WORKS DOWN THE CHIP SHOP SWEARS HE’S ELVIS. They were joined by almost everyone who had taken part during the evening—I noticed that David Gray was absent though, perhaps flying back to the States already. Boo Hewerdine, Mark Nevin, and Brian Kennedy crowded around a mike stage left to provide backing vocals. Eliza Carthy and Mary Coughlan joined Christine Collister on her stand behind the brass section, dancing in unison, almost like the Supremes. Beside Tracy and Phil Rambow, Phill Jupitus grabbed a mike and sang along. All the other musicians, including Johnny Marr, Roddy Frame, the Pogues, Boz Boorer, Omar Puente, were all on stage. I couldn’t see Evan Dando but suppose he was there amongst the masses. At this stage, plenty of people were moshing in the mosh pit, at last! In a most polite and civilised South Bank manner, of course. At the end of the song, the special guests all lined up with the incredible band members to form a chain of over 20 amazing talents and took a few bows, as Phill named them all and everyone applauded.
Everyone then left the stage, but Phill returned almost immediately. It had been a joyous occasion full of fun and wonderment, and we were still cheering. Phill approached his mike, waited for the applause to die down, and said simply that he had one more dedication to make, and then he paused as though those weren’t the words he’d meant to use, perhaps since no other dedications had been made during the evening. Then he said very quietly, ‘For Kirsty’. His eyes immediately filled and he was visibly choked, so he stepped back from the mike either to try to regain his composure or to hide the fact that this big, wild comedian was on the verge of sobbing. We all pretty much plunged from our joy to join him in that mournful state as he left the stage. That was the end of the evening.
Normally, I might sum up now by giving my impressions of the evening, but I think that was clear all the way through this incredible tome, plus I doubt anyone could possibly have read this far! What a brilliant idea, beautifully conceived, skilfully orchestrated, marvellously produced. How terrific for a wonderful, happy evening with a uniquely joyful atmosphere to pay tribute to an amazing woman who was tragically taken from us far too soon. The support she received from the performers and those attending was a mere fragment of the evidence of how many she touched. Thank goodness I was able to be there, but I am equally thrilled to have all these CDs of her music, so I can hear the great Kirsty MacColl any time—her legacy.
Copyright © 2002 by TC.
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have visited this review of the Kirsty MacColl Tribute concert since 23 March 2005.