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The Bible Reunion - Purcell Room, South Bank Centre on 24 September 2002
Here’s a write-up of the ‘Bible Reunion’ event on 24 September at the Purcell Room in the South Bank Centre, London.
After a greatly appreciated taster by Boo as his own support with Graham Henderson, about 360 of us welcomed Boo back onto the stage of this modern, intimate hall shortly after 9pm. He was joined by a young, bald, initially-intimidating looking Tony Shepherd (maybe I have an irrational fear of young bald men? They make me think of football thugs. It later became obvious he was fairly harmless and cuddly), who sat in t-shirt and jeans at the drums, and a toughened, cropped-haired Neill MacColl wearing the same lime green Hawaiian shirt as at the previous night’s tribute gig to his half-sister Kirsty (it didn’t smell though, and I was in the front row so I would know). Boo used to always wear those sorts of shirts, before he started wearing black, possibly under the influence of man-in-black Colin Reid. Was Neill the reason Boo used to have a taste for the more flamboyant holiday shirts? Former Bibler Dave Larcombe was not with us, so there was no bass, but the instrument wasn’t really missed this evening, to be honest. Having two magnificent guitarists in Neill and Boo made up for that.
I should declare myself a Bible Virgin (I initially wondered whether I might be struck down for using those two words together, but then I realised that there’s a woman of that name mentioned fairly often in that book, so….). I do have their albums--and it was cheering to see them being sold at the venue that night--but I never saw them perform live. In fact, I only first heard of them a few years ago when a chat about Boo suddenly took on a new holy dimension, and then I back-tracked and learned what I had missed whilst in the States in the 80s. A glance at the sepia photos on the first page of the CD insert/booklet for Eureka gives a fair indication that we’re talking about longer ago than one would immediately realise. Bless them, they look so sweet and innocent there. And it seems they were, as a joke Boo told during the evening about visiting producer Steve Earle proved.
Boo, having perhaps taken to the position during the sensational Kirsty MacColl tribute that he organised the previous night, stood whilst playing for most of the evening, which demanded our attention and made him look even more impressive. He had a music stand in front of him full of cheat sheets. Well, the Bible days were a very long time ago, after all…
As the others sat still at first, Boo started playing on his own, busily bashing away at his acoustic guitar and singing a wonderfully catchy song, SKYWRITING, which contains the appropriate line for the occasion, ‘all it takes is getting older’. That for some inexplicable reason had me thinking how much classier their ‘and we haven’t got a penny in the world, I know’ was than Sonny & Cher’s ‘we don’t have a pot.’ But I realise I’m going a bit mad here….
Shortly after the first verse, Neill joined in on acoustic guitar and Tony added immaculate percussion, playing with brushes to give the song an easy feel. This unplugged version was no less exciting than the busy recordings of it; in fact, it gained quite a lot in the experienced playing of the musicians and the confident voice of the singer.
As the hall erupted in applause at the end of the song, Neill sat on his stool calmly, waiting to start the next one. Suddenly, he said ‘Oh, sh*t!’ and leapt up to change to his black electric guitar. Boo padded things out by saying that they’d chosen to play their favourite songs that evening, which would include some B-sides that they had not been allowed to release (wouldn’t that make them non-sides then?). Rather early in the evening for a London audience in an artsy venue, someone bravely called out demands already at this stage, requesting King Chicago, but the boys had a setlist to which they were sticking, it seemed.
The volume of Neill’s electric guitar soared over everything else during the next number, ELECTRIC MONEY, but he’s such a true talent, it was wonderful just to observe him play. Neill and Boo must have been schooled together when first starting out as performers. Lesson One: wear a Hawaiian shirt. Lesson Two: Keep your eyes shut as tightly as possibly whilst playing, all evening long if you can. Though I did notice that, with his new standing persona, Boo braved opening his eyes and looking around quite a bit, but perhaps that was just because his new stance made him frightened of falling over if he didn’t keep a look out.
I have only ever seen Neill play on television with his brother Calum as part of Eddi Reader’s band, the Patron Saints of Imperfection, during her fine No Stilettos music programme. He looked more wide-eyed and new than his current tough and lived-in look, understandably since so much has happened since then. I wonder, is he the common religious thread responsible for the holy name of this band and the saintly name of the backing band for Eddi?
Electric Money is a song I need to dust off and play more often; it was another splendid, catchy tune, a wonderfully blended concoction created by perfectly equal contributions of Boo’s strong and deep vocals, Neill’s electric reflections on his guitar, and Tony’s relaxed percussion. I wonder, is it a sign of youth when you refuse to give your songs the obvious title? It seems a younger person, new to it all, might search for some obscure but poetic phrase that would serve as a title, rebelling against the convention of choosing a repeated part of the chorus. However, if your living depends on people hearing your song and knowing what to request of DJs and record stores, do you then come to realise that it might be better to call your song something in the refrain? I suppose it might be viewed as selling out to a young and tortured artist. It just strikes me that Skywriting, whilst not an extreme example, is perhaps better remembered by the ‘penny in the world’ line, and certainly Electric Money could have been called ‘Hard to Tell,’ but of course that is nowhere near as poetic or interesting. End of this particular tangential thought. Though I fear there may be more to come…….
Graham Henderson was then welcomed onto the stage, not quite the fifth Beatle but a tremendous contributor to this Bible night (though I am aware that the billing makes it clear that this was a Boo Hewerdine gig). He sat in front of what I have now been educated to call a harmonium, and not a wooden little kiddie organ, whilst Neill returned to acoustic guitar. Boo muttered an introduction to the third song that made the crowd understandably go wild, as it was the brilliant WILL TO LOVE. Tony played a bongo on his lap, and when Neill wasn’t beaming in Tony’s direction, Neill lip-synched along with many of the lyrics. Boo’s vocals were outstanding, and the band performed quite a quick version that was unbelievably fun. Now, don’t let me wow you with my deep knowledge of guitars and their nomenclature, but during this song, I believe Neill moved a metal thing along the neck of the guitar to create a distinctive slide guitar sound, which I’ve never seen done on an acoustic guitar. As many of you know, I am an anti-slide-guitar campaigner, have led marches on Whitehall even, but in this case, the sound Neill created assisted the whole song in being nothing short of amazing.
The next number began with Neill, now on what I call a 1950s Bill Haley type of electric guitar, picking out what surely must be the most famous introduction to a Boo song and led us into GREEDY. Neill began the song standing, possibly even with his eyes open a bit (which supports my fear-of-falling theory), and seemed to long to be louder, so he walked over to the amplifier behind him and turned it up, presumably all the way to 11, ‘cause that’s one louder. He delivered a deafening solo that was worth the sacrifice, whilst Graham interestingly accompanied the other players on accordion. I never used to care for the accordion, but I have seen and heard so much of it recently thanks to Graham, I am now convinced that there is a place for it in the world outside of gypsy camps. After all, it’s just a piano, really, only sideways and squishy with buttons. Boo’s vocals were more appealing during this rendition of the song somehow—--more depth, a bit less whispering, which I appreciate was always done for effect, but whatever he did this time really worked wonders.
As Boo then apparently altered the set list, Neill sat down on his stool again, still with his Bill Haley guitar. Speaking of stools, I don’t recall hearing the k d Lang stool story this time (that description could worry those of you who weren’t aware that it was about a chair, couldn’t it?), although maybe I just take it for granted and don’t take note any more. Instead, I heard Boo introduce the next song, LAST CIGARETTE, by explaining how the band had split up twice, and tonight brought with it the chance to do so a third time. Graham kicked in with his squishy piano with buttons, and Tony added some blinding drumming whilst retaining the smooth tone of the song. Every one of the chaps on stage was smiling brightly throughout this number, as were we in the audience.
I have to interrupt here to explain that, as I started to write this, I thought it would be appropriate to relive the event by popping some Bible CDs into the CD changer. Listening to them has been most enjoyable, though I preferred the live event, of course. Eerily, though, with the obvious exception of Greedy, every time I come to describe a song they played that night, I find that my stereo coincidentally has reached that song, too, so I hear it as I write. It’s almost freaking me out and if I start hearing Tony chant ‘Redrum’ over Boo’s recorded vocals, I’ll be out of here pretty fast, so if I stop suddenly, you’ll know what happened.
Playing now on my stereo, and thus played next at the gig, is BUBBLEHEAD. Neill switched to acoustic guitar while Boo introduced Bubblehead as the shortest ever Bible song. The song is not one that I am too familiar with, nor was it one that Boo was too familiar with, as he had to glance over the words. Rather than read them as he went along, he tried to speed read before beginning and asked his old colleague to keep us entertained as he did so, saying ‘Neill, quick! Tell a story about a dead elephant!’ I am sure the only reason Neill refrained from doing so was because he felt he couldn’t match Graham’s earlier storytelling talents, though it would have been good if we could have voted for a competition winner and everything, though I suppose Neill’s having not been there during the dead elephant incident might have given him a tactical disadvantage. Fortunately, the shortest ever Bible song doesn’t take long to read through, so they started playing fairly soon after that. They gave us a gentle rendition with jazzy percussion; Tony even added the good ol’ egg shaker. Graham had returned to the less squishy piano, ie the harmonium. The limited lyrics are fairly clever really, and I particularly admire the reference to this ‘past imperfect world.’ This performance was a lovely, refreshing interlude amongst the livelier, predictable choices, an interesting selection.
Next up was the sublime BUZZ ALDRIN (also playing now on my copy of recent Bible release Dodo), with Boo, who had to check some of the lyrics, really coming out with some fantastic vocals. His high notes were particularly admirable, delivered with such strength as to qualify him for countertenor status, surely. Here again is a song that isn’t called the obvious, such as Jenny or I’ll Cover You or Hold Out Your Arms perhaps. It also seemed appropriate that Boo sings of missing someone like nicotine after he’s played Last Cigarette, but I realise this is another moment of my madness (blame fatigue. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.) Graham was back on the harmonium for this number, I believe, and Neill had switched to his black electric guitar that I seem to recall had an intriguing sticker on it. ‘I (something something) stuff’, it said; my eyes are not what they once were so I simply couldn’t decipher more. He, too, needed a cheat sheet for this number. When they finished it, they were bombarded with tremendous cheers, as one would expect after that stunning performance.
The earlier request of KING CHICAGO was honoured next, after Tony and Graham made a wonderful comic production of racing around the stage in a literal game of musical chairs, with Tony reaching his destination—the grand piano on the opposite side of the stage—first, and Graham ending up seated at the drums. He comically held a brush in one hand and a drumstick in the other like a novice, as Neill ribbed him about whether he had ever actually played the drums before. Tony played a lovely introduction to the song on piano, Boo joined in on acoustic guitar and then suddenly stopped, laughed and said, ‘let’s do it again; I f**ked up!’ Neill teased him by demonstrating with a superior air how to play what Boo should have played, which backfired a bit when they began again, only to have Neill mess up then and laugh. Graham quickly seized that moment to add to the hilarity by banging out a quick childlike drum solo, mainly pounding the bass drum.
When we eventually progressed past the introduction, and past the Morrissey-like dark first verse (actually, I’d never noticed it before but suddenly found moments that reminded me of the Smiths sound, as well), the boys on stage treated us to something quite magnificent in this song. Lacking a saxophone for the solo, Neill took over responsibility for it bygiving us a fabulous, strong solo on the electric guitar. (Before you accuse me of starting to go soft on my lack of fondness for the electric guitar, I have to say that the Bill Haley types of guitar, such as the one he was playing, always sound more acceptable to me, particularly when played by a genius.) Tony turned out to be an awesome pianist, as all Bible fans already knew I suppose, and Graham, almost annoyingly since some of us have mastered none, clearly has yet another instrument he can play with ease. At the end, this new formation of the Bible looked thrilled with how wonderfully the song had gone, and they were met with even more enthusiastic roars from the crowd.
Graham then relinquished the drums to their original master and returned to the accordion. As Boo was about to begin playing the next song, Neill, now donning the black electric guitar, bent over to play with his pedals, prompting Boo to say, ‘Are you fit?’ Neill quipped, ‘Not particularly; I do a bit of racketball.’ Boo then decided it would be fitting to introduce one of their better known songs with a hilarious tale of their time together as the Bible, but then he admitted with some feigned disappointment that there weren’t any. (I thought that was odd as I’m sure he told several during an interview on BBC Wales.) So there was nothing left to do but launch a sublime GRACELAND. Neill even contributed backing vocals at last, and they sounded fabulous. As we were all melting into the atmosphere of the song, I thought how incredibly well these Bible songs, and this one in particular, wore over time. This song is still brilliant, and not solely in the sense of a nostalgic memory of one’s youth—---not at all in my case as I first heard the song a few years ago. I could almost even see one of those soulless regurgitating popular bands of today having a big hit with it, someone like Atomic Kitten. But that’s even scarier than the redrum chant I was worried about earlier. Hearing the true talents perform their own song on this night, the crowd made their adoration clear with mad cheers, which Boo couldn’t resist smiling about.
Before we had a chance to calm down, they launched into another Bible hit, HONEY BE GOOD. Now Graham was on the grand piano and Neill was back on his black electric guitar with the mysterious message. Again, despite my widely proclaimed views about preferring acoustic guitar to electric, I have to say that, after hearing this song (and being so thankful to hear it) performed by one man and his acoustic guitar for a while, it was fascinating to hear Neill make the song more electric, just as a new take on a successful formula. Since he was still sitting and thus didn’t need to watch out lest he fall over, Neill’s eyes were squeezed shut throughout the song. This song is also amazingly fresh and fabulous today, despite its age. It was terrific fun to hear them perform it, and the audience was thrilled.
We were less thrilled when Boo announced afterwards that they were about to play their final song. As a result, the audience ended up muttering and grumbling so much that I believe I heard Neill imitate how we sounded by saying ‘Kim-bah!’ in the same deep and eerie voice used by Graham during his buried elephant tale during Boo’s first set that evening.
In case we hadn’t yet grasped the concept of encores, Boo did his usual best to explain to us about how we were meant to cheer so much when they left the stage that they would come back and play more. If we cheered, did the conga around the hall, applauded, he said, then they’d come back. ‘You sure about that conga bit?’ Neill enquired as he switched to acoustic guitar. Boo introduced everyone on the stage, the audience cheered madly for each artist, and the band began playing CIGARETTE GIRLS. With the two acoustic guitars, Tony playing seemingly dozens of things at once including the triangle as well as drums, Graham on mandolin--on which he played a magnificent solo--and Boo and Neill’s vocals blending into astonishing beauty during parts of the song, this was a marvellous way to end the show, if it had to end. They stretched out the last part of the song with miles of gorgeous music, and then eventually left the stage.
Well, I can’t confirm that we conga’d, but we did cheer until we were almost hoarse, so Boo returned to the stage for an encore, on his own, now an hour after they had begun playing. He spent some time calling for Graham, who must not have grasped the concept of encores when Boo explained it, as he seemed to have left for the after-show party. Boo guessed that Graham obviously ‘clocks off about now’. Then like Shaggy for Scooby Doo, he called out ‘Graham Henderson, where are you?’ to which we were eventually able to scream out, pantomime style, ‘Behind you!’ as Graham finally arrived and took a seat at the grand piano.
As he settled in, Boo encouraged people to buy the Bible CDs that were being sold in the foyer, so that we could laugh at their old photos. Then, standing again, Boo played an introduction that made me think he was about to replay Honey Be Good, but instead gave us a remarkably beautiful WORLD’S END. His voice was truly stunning, with an in-your-face power to them. I noticed that, rather than wearing an earpierce like so many singers do these days in order to hear the performance better, Boo simply wore a single earring, which seemed to have been upgraded to a diamond stud for the occasion (unless it was QVC diamante, but it looked classy to me). Needless to say, though I’m saying it, the crowd adored this tremendous performance.
Neill and Tony (he’s lovely, how could I have thought he looked like a football thug?) joined them on stage then. Tony sat at the grand piano, Graham took over the drums again, and Neill and Boo prepared to play acoustic guitar. Whilst tuning, Boo suddenly remembered that there were, after all, some funny Bible stories. He told the one about them appearing on an Opportunity Knocks style television show in Europe, where they fared badly, and described fellow contestant (or the show host?), Mr Gadget, who had a revolving tie (I assume it was a bow tie). Neill looked puzzled but later remembered to what Boo was referring and laughed. Boo also referred to the time they played King Tut’s, exited through a door to wait for the encore, and accidentally locked themselves outside of the venue in the rain (how very Spinal Tap).
Then, as Neill started to have a sip from his beer bottle, Boo told the story about going to producer Steve Earle’s place and being such non-rock’n’rollers and quite naïve when it came to drugs, that when they entered Earle’s place after he had been free-basing or something and they smelled the burnt foil, they innocently asked Earle if he had been welding. Upon hearing Boo recount this, Neill almost doubled over at the memory and couldn’t manage to drink his beer. ‘It’s true!’ he laughed.
After the sudden onslaught of amusing Bible stories (Noah’s Ark, etc), the boys eased into a magical production of the always sublime WHITE FEATHERS; it truly is utterly gorgeous, and tonight’s performance was heavenly. Neill added lovely backing vocals, sitting with his eyes shut tight most of the time (which was fine with me ‘cause one thing I noticed about sitting in the front row is that the people on stage stare back at you, which is most disconcerting. Perhaps they think it’s rude that I’m staring at them and they are trying to teach me a lesson). Boo remained standing—he’s rather tall, you know, and quite good. His voice sailed clearly through the hall and Tony’s beautiful piano led the song to move us all.
Then it was over. They all stood up and moved towards the centre of the cramped stage, where I thought they might stand in a blaze of camaraderie, arms about shoulders, and take a unified bow, which would have been a marvellous end to such a special evening, and I had my camera at the ready (for only the second time as the South Bank staff are so threatening....). But after a quick wave, Neill was headed for the door cloaked by the curtain at the back of centre stage, and Tony was well on his way behind him, and soon they had all disappeared. Within about a minute, members of the audience had darted up to the stage and snatched the setlists (a well-chosen, impressive variety of songs, I’d have to say) from the floor of the stage, perhaps to auction on E-bay or take to the Antiques Roadshow to have valued in 10 years’ time. It was almost 10.30pm, the curfew for the South Bank. The lights came up and we knew that not even a conga could bring back the Bible boys.
A friend was desperately sorry to miss the gig, and this is for him: if you are reading this, I have to say that the evening was rubbish, really, and you mustn’t be sad that you couldn’t be there. You’re lucky you didn’t have to suffer through it, as we did. A load of Ick, is how I would sum it up. I doubt I will ever recover.
Copyright © 2002 by TC.
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have visited this review of the reunion of the band the Bible in concert at the South Bank Centre since 1 May 2005.