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Loudon Wainwright III - Shepherd's Bush Empire - 13 October 2003
Last night’s show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire was a wonder to behold. Loudon was in tremendously high spirits (is he ever anything else?), created a marvellous rapport with the audience despite them shouting at him almost incessantly (‘pushing him around’, telling him what to play rather than showing the English reserve he had been led to expect) and performed meticulously, and no doubt refusing to play any songs pre-1982 helped, as he said they had been expunged from his brain during a memory transplant. Playing solo with only one guitar, which he would endearingly pause to tune like a penniless amateur, he treated us to about 30 songs that touched considerably on the family theme—his grandfather, his father, his mother, his children, his dog—and threw in a few geographical numbers that he seemed to use to make towns his own. Oh, and a few tributes, as well…to the late Johnny Cash and of course to the late Mr Rogers. I cannot even type that name without ‘It’s a wonderful day in the neighbourhood’ taking over my brain….
The Shepherd’s Bush Empire in west London is a somewhat dog-eared, red-walled old vaudeville theatre with ornate cornices and the like. It can hold up to 2000 people, which would have been reduced on this night as the venue was unusually all-seated, whereas usually the ground floor was for standing room only, and the two balcony levels are for old fogies like me who like a seat and crawl over each other to get the best one. I guess because all of Loudon’s audience was, well, not in their teens, they decided to give us all seats and assign them ahead of time so that we didn’t need to overextend ourselves by fighting for them, and with that set-up, the theatre was full to capacity.
Something I hadn’t noticed before at the Empire was the old-style cinema surround out front that enabled them to put Loudon’s name up in lights. The venue was used as a BBC studio theatre for almost 50 years, when it housed the likes of the Generation Game, Wogan and The Old Grey Whistle Test, the second fine DVD of which was being released on this day. That show’s outstanding line-up of guests over the years meant that even the Beatles had performed on the stage where Loudon was standing on his own this night.
As I sat waiting for the show to start, I thought how appropriate it was that they were playing a tape of James Taylor, who, like me and Loudon, was from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Then I realised that, when I had seen Boo Hewerdine and Brian Kennedy perform there last year, and maybe even before Neil Finn’s show, they played James Taylor as well. So perhaps that is the only tape they own, or perhaps they throw that on for anything remotely folky or less noisy than Metallica.
Taylor was interrupted when a tall, imposing besuited figure wondered on humbly to the solitary mike on the huge stage, and I assumed he was the MC there to announce Peter Blegvad, as he had a fluffy grey head of hair and the chap on the album covers downstairs was a youngster with specs. When he told us his name, I clocked that Father Time had kicked in as he does with us all, and sat back and enjoyed a marvellous set from Blegvad, whom I had never heard before. He is very Loudon-esque in his manner of performing, alternating between songs with a somewhat humorous take and those that are gripping in their serious beauty. He sings an awful lot like Dylan would if he had professional training and paid attention to things like pitch.
Most of the audience enjoyed Blegvad’s stint so much that someone even shouted out in between songs for the people in the bar to shut up, as there was the usual murmur coming from the bar in the back to which most opening acts are subjected, and upon that command, many of the others already in their seats applauded in agreement. Afterwards, I popped downstairs to get his King Strut and Other Stories album, which was co-produced by ex-dB Chris Stamey (another North Carolinian), apart from the track produced by XTC’s Andy Partridge, who also co-wrote some of the songs. Blegvad kindly signed the CD for me later, saying that he doesn’t go looking to play gigs much but Loudon sometimes asks him along when he’s in town. I cannot wait to hear his song On Obsession again, and look forward to hearing the other songs with Loudon-type titles (Not Weak Enough, Real Slap in the Face, Swim, and Chicken).
We did not have long to wait before Loudon wandered onto the stage with an acoustic guitar about 9pm, wearing what seems to be his trademark blue in a twill shirt, as well as brown trousers that allowed plenty of flexibility for leg-kicking, and brogues, standing in a co-ordinated blue light. I go to concerts regularly but I can’t think the last time I heard a performer greeted with such incredible enthusiasm and wild cheers just for managing to find his way onto the stage; that’s how adored this man is. The simple pleasure of seeing him in the flesh (so to speak!) seemed to make the ticket price worthwhile on its own. Loudon, baring slightly more forehead these days but still with plenty of hair and, I must admit, a fairly handsome profile, beamed away at the crowd’s reaction and then immediately set to work ensuring that he earned their adulation.
Within seconds, that tongue was wagging around, doing some mad lip-licking, that left leg was bending up backwards at the knee in an odd mini-kick, and Loudon was belting out, ‘I’m a work in progress’, which I would guess was the song’s title, but I am probably wrong. Happily, it was not one of the country or religious songs of that name. Forgive me, Loudo die-hards, but I am a terror for remembering song titles and his repertoire is just way too large and I only have about 10 albums. The lyrics were, as always, fun and inventive, and Loudon’s lyrics got so much laughter all night that it was clear to me that the audience, appreciative (and demanding!) though they were, was not filled with only die-hard fans. There were clearly many people new to these songs who were even more ignorant than me, which I thought was refreshing—not because it made me look good, but because we were sharing this wonderful talent with people who had not yet discovered it, or at least not fully appreciated it before. I expect lots of them were partners or grown children (I didn’t see any youngsters other than the young 40/50-year-olds) of big fans. When Loudon completed this light-hearted song, he thanked us earnestly for the big cheers he had earned, and said it was nice to be back in London in a way that sounded sincere.
Beside Loudon stood a bar stool that had some paper on it, possibly on a clipboard. I had assumed that was the set list, but he later pulled a tiny piece of notepad paper out of his pocket that fit that bill (which made me think fondly back to his joke when I saw him at the South Bank Centre maybe 10 years ago: he kept checking the piece of paper that was in his pocket, and eventually told us, "this isn’t a set list. It’s a note from my therapist that says, 'You are a good person'." So it had us giggling when he kept taking it out throughout the show and pretended to read ‘You are a good person’ as though he needed that encouragement to keep going.). In any case, he didn’t get a planned song in edgewise; it seemed every member of the audience came to hear their favourite song and they were determined to shout it at Loudon relentlessly throughout the show.
Before the second song, Loudon observed the Empire’s half-hearted bouncers, ie two tall, lean, completely not threatening lads who were leaned up against either side of the stage, half glancing over the audience with the obligatory frowns on their faces. ‘Security’s kinda tight tonight!’ Loudon joked, pointing them out, his face contorted into a feigned expression of awe. Then he addressed them, ‘You guys can go home tonight. Sadly, I don’t think I will get mobbed.’ He carried on making jokes on the subject but the young chaps seemed to be pretending that they were Horse Guards on duty and would sooner die than smile. Or perhaps they had visions of being Mr T and they just ‘pitied the fool’. Bless them their youth and ignorance of the legend they were protecting so admirably.
Next, Loudon treated us to his delightful vision of what was in store for us (she says presumptuously) in Heaven, his legs twitching wildly as he sang of the angels having ashtrays in Heaven. ‘That’s right, smoking’s allowed; it’s what makes all those clouds, and you don’t have to sit at the bar.’ That line earned a big cheer from the smokers in this venue that only allows smoking at the bar. Mind you, having heard Loudon’s version, the dull anti-smoking teetotaller in me is feeling a bit relieved that I now have carte blanche to develop many other sins, since Heaven doesn’t hold much appeal if they’re all going to be smoking and drinking paint thinner up there. Loudon’s incredible talent for fitting funny words together in vividly descriptive ways whilst rhyming as well, and his lively delivery and endless sense of fun, had me thinking that he’s really a modern Tom Leher, isn’t he? I don’t know about his skills as a Harvard-level mathematician, but in terms of writing songs with, when necessary, some bitter political bite, Loudon certainly fits the shoes (and then kicks them up in the air as he flails his legs around whilst singing.)
When he finished amusing us with Heaven and our cheers subsided at last, Loudon recited in the tired mother-made-me-say-this attitude-filled voice of a stroppy teenager that his new CD was on sale at the venue tonight, and then brightened when he joked that there would be a big CD party later since he had his Sharpie pen with him. The he muttered, ‘Here’s a song not on the new CD,’ and began singing the wonderful, poignant ‘family song’ about the grandfather he didn’t get a chance to meet, the first Loudon. The song, Half-Fist, was utterly fantastic and rightfully attracted hearty cheers.
Someone then got the courage to shout out a request, which initially seemed harmless enough, but these requests did get rather out of hand as the evening went on. They demonstrated Loudon’s talent for diversity and spontaneity and showed off his huge repertoire, but meant that Loudon spent all night being hit with aggressive-sounding shouted demands, which made me thankful that he didn’t react in the way that Van Morrison did at one of the worst of his concerts that I ever saw in Brighton in 1999. Van was trying to sing a set of his healing/spiritual/mystic type of songs, and sometimes even during the slower periods, people would call out ‘Moondance!’ ‘Bright-Eyed Girls!’ It doesn’t take much to disgust him and I seem to recall that he stormed off after a shockingly short set. Loudon, fortunately, maintained great humour and tolerance and catered to the Request Mafia whenever he could, and the atmosphere remained bright and cheerful all night.
So during this first bout of shouts, he peered at the tiny sheet of paper that he took from his pocket, planning to choose a song that he had mapped out for the performance that night, but then started trying to grasp a feasible request from the audience and abandoned his set list, tossing it onto the top of the stool (on top of what I thought was paper but might have been a towel—the light was dim and I was too far away; he didn’t use it, whatever it was). After catching the name of one of his older songs, he smiled and ruled firmly, ‘Impossible! Anything written before 1982 is gone!’ He explained that he had had a memory transplant. Someone then called out ‘Tonya’s Twirls!’, which Loudon said was an incredible request because, he smiled whilst hamming things up, it was on the new CD, so he obliged.
Loudon explained to the uninitiated that the song was about notorious ice skater Tonya Harding. He said he had been in Portland, Oregon, on a day off recently and had stalked her, and now he was not allowed to go near her or her family. The clever lyrics of the breezy song were hilarious and they engaged the audience throughout, who kept laughing after even the simpler lines like ‘and her childhood was unhappy, and her mom was really weird’, mainly owing to Loudon’s champion delivery. This song really is a gem, with the hilarity of the reality (I shouldn’t laugh at someone’s hardship!) contrasting the innocent fairytale girl image in the refrain of ‘with their gliding and their sliding and their girlish dainty twirls.’ During its brief guitar interlude—and the whole show was a strong reminder of Loudon’s tremendous talents as a guitarist—he squinted his face up tightly as he faced the lights above him.
As we busied ourselves cheering like mad, Loudon launched straight into the song that follows Tonya’s Twirls on the new album, A Year. The sad song seemed to touch every one of us, recounting the horribly sad situation that absent parents face, particularly when they are full of too much shame to begin to make amends and cannot face the heartache of saying goodbye as soon as they say hello, or as Loudon put it, ‘I didn’t pick you up because I’d have to put you down.’. As we applauded at the end, he thanked us and remarked that he was doing lots of family songs together.
He was then bombarded with a dozens of almost bullying requests; I suppose they came across that way because of the intense competition in the hall, everyone wanting their own request to be chosen, to be heard above all the others. Loudon handled it brilliantly, clapping both hands over his ears and opening his mouth wide in imitation of the anguished expression in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Almost to spite them playfully, he announced as though with some one-upmanship glee that he was going to play a new song we’d never heard. He said he had written lots of kid songs, and this one was about his youngest son Harry, who was six months old. Everyone was quiet, presumably trying to figure out his current domestic arrangements, whether he’d done a Michael Douglas or what. We gave a nervous chuckle after the first strong line of ‘Why don’t you come when I call?’ until it became clear that the whole song was about a dog. It was adorably hilarious, full of puns and wondrous rhymes, complaining about the hardships of living with a dog that chewed up everything and cost a fortune in food and shots and training etc. He even gave a nod to The S*it Song, if you know what I mean. One of the many memorable lines from it was, ‘When we got you they said you were a mutt, but they didn’t say what a pain in the butt!’. He proceeded to point out that, in two years, the dog (in dog years, of course) would be 14, and thus be a difficult teenager. We were laughing throughout; it was hilarious, though mostly in the delivery, of course, and gave huge cheers at the end. I've since learned that this song is called Puppy Hate. Loudon's performance of the song at the Cambridge Folk Festival in July 2004 can be viewed at the BBC2 website for a time; this song is the first one shown of an hour of his performance online. Go here and click on Loudon's name: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/events/cambridge2004/
‘Well, it’s a song about love, isn’t it?’ Loudon said as he tuned his guitar. He performed the lovely Out of Reach with a line that I could easily relate to, being a horrible person I guess: ‘But today I’m gonna call you Just to prove that I still care / But I’m so afraid you’ll answer That I hope that you won’t be there.’ I don’t suppose we are the only ones who sometimes want credit for calling people but pray for an answerphone. I enjoyed this raw version of the song more than the vaguely countrified one on the Last Man on Earth album, and it went down really well in Shepherd’s Bush, as did everything the man did.
Next came another relentless chorus of demands from the audience, and Loudon almost didn’t know where to turn. He heard someone request The S*it Song, and he said coyly, ‘Oh, I’ll be doing the S*it Song, don’t you worry about that!’ Loudon was bombarded with a stunning number of other songs, which prompted him to say, ‘You are a demanding group!’ Of the dozens of choices, Loudon decided to honour the request for Synchronicity, which of course was not the Police song. Just after playing the introduction on the guitar, he suddenly stopped so that he could torment a poor soul leaving the first row to head for the bar, whom he eventually released with a request for a drink. The song—again performed even better here without the country tint of the recorded version--about mistakenly trying to seduce lesbians had everyone chuckling again, particularly after the closing line of ‘My brother is so practical, this is what he said: "you should have asked if it was cool to watch them both in bed".’
After Loudon proclaimed the previous song a true story, someone near me in the balcony called out a request for ‘So Damn Funny’. Loudon calmly said, ‘So Damn Happy, you mean?’ ‘Uh, yeh,’ came the humbled reply. ‘I’m glad you asked for that!’ Loudon said, and as he began playing that song, the person he’d tormented earlier for leaving returned to the front row, stopping en route to place a plastic cup of white wine near the edge of the stage. Well, Loudon had asked for a drink, so the person dutifully brought one. But he ignored it (until a choice moment later), busying himself instead with the bottle of water and the two green bottles of beer near his feet.
The title track from his new album was, I thought, the most instantly appealing of the Little Ship album, but it was new to many in the theatre who tittered away as each new line was unveiled. As they applauded at the end, Loudon said mock-defensively, ‘It’s a happy song!’ Then he eyed us slyly and said, ‘I know what you guys want to do! You want to sing, don’t you? Have a sort of folk music Hootenanny. You older guys do, don’t you?’ He said he would sing a song that would take them back to 1973 (let me gloatingly point out that I was only 7 then and thus unfamiliar with the joys of audience participation that year and any folk festivals.) He burst into ‘When I die, and it won’t be long’ (how refreshing that we know that could-be tempt of fate did not happen 30 years ago or since) and had the audience singing along to Unrequited to the nth Degree with its entertaining Minnie the Moocher type of call and repeat chorus. Loudon seemed to be having as much fun as us, although after a few of the choruses, he stopped and criticised our contribution. ‘You started out good,’ he said, 'but it fell apart at the end. You go tired, didn’t you? It’s Monday night, you got a little bushed.’ Then, realising that we were in Shepherd’s Bush, he brightened as he said, ‘Oh, what a wonderful pun!’ I have to admit that, as much fun as this song was, the ‘ha-ha-ha-ha’ part reminded me of those early black-and-white cartoons of taunting crows (vs counting ones) singing that mocking song…but then I’m a bit mad.
When that song ended, so many song requests erupted that Loudon clearly could not make out any of them, and didn’t seem to worry too much about that as he placed a capo on the guitar, clearly with a plan already. Meanwhile, the rest of the audience seemed to tire of all the noise and tried shushing all of the screaming requesters. The requests did seem to discourage Loudon from his usual amazing in-between song banter. He would fit it in when he could, but usually the noise from the audience was too overwhelming. Still, he thankfully took it well and never punished us for it, nor did he ever look irritated. Focusing on family still, in I guess the only way he ever could, Loudon sang another poignant song about the loss of his children to divorce, which I believe is called When You Leave.
When he finished the gorgeous and tragically sad song, he didn’t give the Request Mob a chance and started playing the next song immediately, busying himself with some thoroughly impressive guitar as he chatted over it, setting the scene for the song. He said he just had to get some stuff off his chest, that he had moved to Los Angeles last year. Then came the inevitable (but thankfully without the reaction that the Dixie Chicks got to a similar statement): ‘I’m ashamed to be from California,’ he said, ‘or Ah-nie land, as we call it.’ If anyone has been holidaying on another planet recently, I’ll explain that that’s a reference to the astonishing recent election of Robo-Groper Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California.
Returning to the original subject, his move to LA, Loudon explained that, whenever he got somewhere new, he liked to write a song about it—it was a quirk of his, he said. He began explaining the references in the forthcoming song as he wanted to make it easier for us to enjoy: he lived near an area in Hollywood called the Miracle Mile, he wasn’t far from the Farmers’ Market, SAG referred to the Screen Actors’ Guild et cetera. He said the first weird thing he had come across in the town was a big sign that said ‘Mo’ Better Meaty Meat Burgers’ on the corner of (what sounded like) Beko and Fairfax. Explaining that LA had ‘24-hour-a-day helicopters circling overhead’ and that he wrote this song just as we were getting ‘revved up to go to Iraq for the second time…so far’, he began to sing what I think is called Here Come the Choppers. When he mentioned the weird meat burger sign, everyone cheered with delight. I seem to recall that, despite the light-hearted and sometimes flippant introduction, the song had its darker, deeper moments…there’s still a protest singer in this New Bob Dylan.
During the cheers at the end of that song, three blue spotlights flooded the stage (he usually only got one, of varying colours), and Loudon progressed straight to the next song, perhaps to keep things moving, perhaps because he couldn’t face spending a lot of time trying to guess what was being shouted at him by the audience. He sang a song whose title I don’t know, but it was lovely. I think someone suggested it was called Still Life (apparently this song is now called To Be on TV--thanks for that information, Ags!). I guess that only because he spoke of things being ‘ghostlike in living monochrome’, and ghosts are rather final, and I believe he mentioned things ‘painted in veneer’, which rhymes with frontier…. also sang that ‘everybody’s dying to be on TV’, so the title could be a Star Trek allusion….it’s a weak argument, I know. In any case, the quiet, lovely song hushed the entire theatre as we all listened with awe. The sound throughout the evening was lovely and clear, and it was such a treat to hear nothing but the magnificent Loudon Wainwright III and his guitar fill the atmosphere.
Sadly, that peace was broken with an onslaught of requests. Someone with a terrifyingly booming voice not far from me demanded Black Uncle Remus, and Loudon joked that there was a very old man up in the balcony who knew that old song, which he would not do, I think because that pre-dated the memory transplant. He said instead that the would do the first song from his first album, School Days. I shall no doubt disappoint the die-hards by saying that the first time I heard this song was on The McGarrigle Hour, when he performed it so beautifully with his kiddiwinks and ex-wife and ex-sister-in-law. As I also have roots in Delaware and my brother once considered going to St Andrew’s boarding school, I always enjoy those references in this song, as well as its general catchy melody. Just before Loudon began singing it, he said ‘This one goes out to Roger Holt—I think he’s in the audience. He was one of the guys who signed me up to Atlantic Records, one of the first labels to drop me—one of many! But I know Roger wanted to keep me on,’ he said, verbally winking. (I think that was the name, any way.) Loudon clearly enjoyed playing this song and spent much of the time with his head back, facing skyward.
Afterwards, he launched without pausing into The Swimming Song, which is always a delight. It makes me think of Scottish songstress Eddi Reader, who has covered it and, as a matter of course, thrashes her arms about in an uncontrolled, manic way whenever she sings, as though she’s trying to swim. During Loudon’s performance of it, the lighting director reacted quickly and toyed with his limited materials a bit, with a yellow spiral light dancing in a spot on the floor beside Loudon as though it were ripples in a pool. Everyone joined in by clapping to the beat, Loudon’s tongue featured with some enthusiastic waggling, and that the theatre really came to life. When he finished, Loudon called over the cheers, ‘Loudon Wainwright—song for 1974.’
During the barrage of shouted requests, Loudon acknowledged a call for Harry’s Wall, but said that he ‘would screw it up.’ More incessant shouts came, and Loudon playfully whined, ‘God, you guys are pushing me around!! Pushy English people! What happened to that English reserve I heard so much about?’ as we all laughed. He chose one request and began playing the wonderfully fun I Don’t Think That Your Wife Likes Me (IDTTYWLM). He played a little riff on the guitar and each time accentuated the last, delayed note that sounded out of tune, but clearly was deliberate, making it sound a bit bluesy. Loudon hammed up the whole song, almost bending down sideways on one knee whilst moving forward, Chuck Berry style, and got a terrific reaction from the crowd. He provided an impressive guitar solo but then hit the wrong chord, immediately ‘fessed up into the mike ‘wrong chord!’ and then made his excuse with ‘it’s a jazz thing.’ The performance was a highlight and, as we all cheered madly, he gestured with a bit of a flourish as a member of court might to a royal in an old film, and said, ‘As per requested!’
Loudon then told us that he had to do some of the songs that he’d written down on that little piece of paper that was now on the stool, seeing as he went to the trouble to write them down. Then, for the first time, he acknowledged the untouched drink at the foot of the stage that the playfully abused punter had left for him a while earlier. ‘Is that white wine you brought me?’ Cue White Winos with the eminently catchy, ‘Mother liked her white wine.’ This made me wonder….did the person, when choosing what drink Loudon might like, know that he drank white wine, which is odd because he had beer with him on stage, or did they scan in their mind all of his lyrics and decide it would be fitting and symbolic to buy him white wine because of this song? I mean, if it were rapper Ice T on stage, I think I might know what drink would spring to mind, but I couldn’t help wonder about the thought process of this wine purchaser. I suppose I’m glad the decision had not been mine to make. I’m grateful in any case as it encouraged Loudon to sing an ideal choice for us.
After numerous requests more vocal than the subtle cup of wine, Loudon softly sang the gentle Graveyard. Its line ‘I go to the graveyard and I’ll be back again’ reminded me of Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith’s song Pretty Little Cemetery, where he describes a scene on a bus when his little boy turns to an elderly couple and points to the graveyard they are passing ‘And says "This is where you go to when you die, My Papa told me so" / The old man said, "Yes, we know."’, which doesn’t sound terribly significant until you hear the knowing way Sexsmith sings the old man’s resigned reply.
Loudon explained with levity that one of his focuses these days was Death & Decay. He said his focus used to be on sh*tty love relationships, now he writes about both (sh*tty love relationships that end in Death & Decay). He then began playing a fairly hilarious song in his typical bitter style that I shall refer to as The Morgue Song for my lack of knowledge, where he sings of his ex dying of a guilty conscience and a broken heart, which actually is so poetic that it must be the title. Only Loudon could make people laugh about slamming a body back into the deep freeze of a morgue, adding ‘now you’ve got a frozen broken heart—ha ha!’
Loudon said he would take a couple more requests and was given, as you would expect, a zillion, from which he sensibly chose the stunning A Father and A Son, which fit perfectly into the dysfunctional family theme. Loudon introduced it by saying that his son was in town the other day—I didn’t get to see him if he was performing, but Rufus sounded great on his recent appearance on Letterman, as always. Loudon performed the clever song fairly quickly. I always think it’s lovely and generous of him to sing that each and every member of his ex-wife’s family was a gem.
After wowing us with that treasure, and pointing out that the lanky security lads had disappeared after all (guess we were free to mob Loudon), he said that the next song required another lengthy introduction and began speaking about Montgomery, Alabama, where he was this past Spring acting in a movie, which basically meant waiting around in a trailer all day. He started listing all the interesting things about the town: it was the first capital of the Confederacy as Jefferson Davis had his White House there (and I thought that was Richmond—the evening was educational!), Nat King Cole was born there and, most importantly, Hank Williams lived there and thus there was a whole museum devoted to him in the town. The prize exhibit was the Cadillac in which Williams ‘puked and died’. Loudon said the car was roped off, naturally, because singer-songwriters from all over the world came to throw up in that car.
The day he was there, Loudon learned of the death of children’s show icon Mr Rogers. He tried to explain this legend to an English crowd who didn’t grow up with him the way we Americans did. ‘He was kind of like the love child of Rolf Harris and one of the Teletubbies—that kind of scary cute thing,’ he explained rather well. He expanded on the hypnotic powers of Mr Rogers by describing his cardigan-wearing habit, the way he talked to miniature trolley trains that raced across his room, and how he spoke to puppets that were so awful that he must have made them himself, like King Friday. I am not sure what English people made of that description, but for the Americans in the audience, we were probably all about to start welling up! I admired the way Loudon actually seemed to speak with sincere fondness of the man, rather than mocking him completely; he seemed deeply touched by his death, but then Loudon is an actor, so perhaps I was just fooled. So he sang us his Montgomery, Alabama, song called Hank and Fred, chock-full of references, many of which he had just mentioned, including ‘And Fred Rogers knows how to talk to a train’. Lyrics like this song’s should perhaps be put into a time capsule as they capture so much social history so concisely.
At the end, Loudon raised his fist in some sort of solidarity gesture, surprised us by calling out seeming all too soon, ‘It’s great to be back in London again, thanks!’ and walked off with his guitar. He had been playing for almost an hour and a half.
Naturally, although it was evident we had all had a thrilling evening, we felt that 26 songs simply were not enough to leave us sated. We cheered with all our energy and were just beginning to stomp on the floor when he came back, happily just after a few minutes as none of us were teenagers and that kind of thing is exhausting.
Loudon, bombarded by many more demanding requests, disregarded them and said that, not only had we lost Fred Rogers not long ago, but of course Johnny Cash had died fairly recently, as well. He said that Johnny Cash had covered one of Loudon’s songs, which was a bit unexpected because it’s not like he sat down and wrote a song thinking, ‘Yeah, Olivia Newton John could do that one!’. No, Loudon said, when I write, ‘it’s all ME ME ME!!!’ So he seemed a bit surprised when, 10 years ago, Johnny Cash covered ‘a strange song of mine’, The Man Who Couldn’t Cry, which Loudon proceeded to play, complete with a great deal of his trademark twitching. At first, I could hear Cash singing it in my mind, but as the song progressed, I had to agree with Loudon that it was a terribly strange song and I couldn’t imagine it appealing to Cash in terms of his wanting to perform it. But that’s great; he was not as serious as I thought, I guess. And if you had told me that Cash would cover a Nine Inch Nails song, I would never have believed that, either, and yet he turned Hurt into something truly amazing, to the point that it was difficult to believe the song had ever belonged to someone else. I am not a fan of traditional country, but I will probably have to seek out his version of this Loudon song now; Cash clearly was a master interpreter, and it would be fascinating to hear how he performed it. No matter how hard I try, I can’t picture him delivering words about a man who cried 40 days and 40 nights, then on the 41st day was dehydrated to death, went to heaven, found his dog and was rejoined with his severed arm.
Loudon ended the song with a bit of a flourish on his guitar, and the crowd went mad with appreciation. He then referred to his promise earlier to perform The Sh*t Song, which happened to be on the new album, and he played us that. I can’t help but think fondly back to when he played this live on BBC Radio 2 recently from Manchester and said that word umpteen times before the 9pm watershed, commenting playfully in between lines that the producers were looking nervous and he would probably cause lots of letters to be sent to the BBC….
Dancing a bit during this number, almost swinging from side to side, Loudon had us cringing and laughing as he sang about how the certain product in question came in different colours and consistencies…ugh—particularly disturbing whilst he was lifting his leg as he does. He finished one verse of the song (that refers again to dying….) with the enormously popular line ‘Time flies when you f**k around and then you look like sh*t’ and suggested, as we laughed, that that would make a great bumper sticker.
Again following the order of the latest album So Damn Happy, Loudon began to introduce another Town Song, saying that he used to live ‘here in town.’ He began to speak of exploring part of London, and people started yelling out to him again, so Loudon unfortunately cut short his commentary and said, ‘Oh, I’ll just sing it to you, what the heck,’ and delved into a soft, gentle song with trickly guitar about a spot in north London and images from his life at the time he lived near Primrose Hill. The audience loved it, and he left the stage again, this time convincing many people that that was surely as much as we could expect from one night’s performance.
Fortunately, Loudon is a giving guy and he came back for a second encore moments later, and quickly asked us to welcome back his support act, Peter Blegvad, which was fairly thrilling for those of us who had been impressed by him earlier (and those of us who, like the friend I was with, had worshipped him for 28 years). With a grin on his face, Loudon asked Peter through the mike if he knew Motel Blues, then said that they would sing ‘one of the greatest songs ever, which Pete wrote, called Daughter.' Many people cheered, but one woman oddly boomed just then, ‘Entre nous, Loudon, John Cale loves you’. Loudon quickly replied that he loved him, too, and made some crack about that to keep us entertained as a few surprised roadies rushed out to try to lay down cables and boxes that would allow Peter to play his acoustic guitar as well, though they still only had one mike between them for vocals. And the stool, the stool was now between them. Peter sang the first verse wonderfully, leaning over the stool to reach the mike, sounding more Dylanesque than ever (but with pitch, as I said before). Both men performed the chorus before Loudon took the second verse, and then they alternated taking the vocal part. They both bashed away brilliantly at their guitars during a solo mid-song, during which Loudon beamed and shouted into the mike, half tongue in cheek (rather than waggling over his lips), ‘Rock ‘n’ roll!’ This number was utterly fantastic, and it was a shame that Peter left afterwards, as it was terrific fun seeing Loudon perform with another singer-songwriter for a change.
Next, I think someone threw a tiny balled up note to Loudon (we used paper planes when Neil Finn played here; less chance of putting one’s eye out), and he joked that they people used to throw jelly beans instead. After reading the note (which was definitely softer on the ears and the atmosphere than the shouting barrage of requests), he agreed to finish up with Tip That Waitress since someone had requested it in writing. Loudon was having fun, too, it seemed, as he began bouncing a bit like Tigger. During one of the guitar interludes, he leaned into the mike and quipped, ‘I wrote this song to meet women in the workplace’. He then rushed through the last verse, quickly uttered some thanks to Peter Blegvad and said that he would see us next time. Then he finally abandoned us at almost 11pm (so much kinder than an artist I saw recently who only came on shortly before I had to leave to catch my train). The man only played for close to two hours, gave us a mere 1000 jokes or so and only 30 songs, and he thinks that’s enough to keep us going until next time. The cheek of it.
Whilst I think the constant shouting at Loudon got old very quickly, his sparkling onstage personality kept the atmosphere full of fun at all times, and the whole evening was an absolute joy. All that and I was still allowed plenty of time to get across town for my last train—I could not have asked for more. Well, perhaps if he performed whilst hugging a cute fluffy koala and then threw free money into the audience, but other than that, the evening could not have been more delightful.
©2003 by TC. All rights reserved.
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