October 3, 2015 by Robb Powell
Getting in on the action of all this ‘renaming the month to mean something type stuff’ (i.e. STOPTOBER, MOVEMBER and the like), I am renaming my own October, GIGTOBER because – and forgive me for perhaps stating the blindingly obvious – I seem to have packed the month chock full of live music events. The first four days sees me take in three very diverse styles of artist/band before I get a few days to recuperate and settle into a little less hectic but no less music-filled schedule.
So, kicking off GIGTOBER for me was a musician I have seen countless times since first being seemingly randomly introduced to him via a live show and frantically binge listening to his first two albums (the second of which, Just Like Blood, had not long been released) back in 2003 (oh those carefree days of Yore when one was indeed, young). The strong connection established with Tom McRae at that gig was something I would even go so far as to claim was akin to a transcendental experience. Magnifique! Bellisimo! Terrifique!(?) After being lucky enough to win tickets to the delightfully intimate launch of his most recent album Did I Sleep And Miss The Border back in May, I was quite literally squeeing to the max at the announcement of a handful of live dates coming up in October. It, nevertheless, has been only one small handful of dates for various reasons Tom quite openly shares with his fans. I dashed to get tickets so quickly I fear I wore away the keys on my keyboard in one not-so foul swoop of a transaction.
The Islington Assembly Rooms is one stunning venue (and it is so nice to be at a venue that has decent clean non-foul smelling toilets – just putting that out there because let’s face it too many just don’t). It was made for sound! For music! And as amazing as it was hearing Tom on stage with a full band again (including the original line-up of Olli Cunningham on piano/keyboards and Oli Kraus on cello) it would be superb to hear an acoustic show in that sensational sound space. The fantastic Brian Wright opened as support, playing solo on his acoustic guitar – with some intensely beautiful harmonica splashes here and there – songs of the true heart, soul and existence of a singer-songwriter man on the road type that pull you instantly into a hectic and wonderful personal world. You know you’re in a room full of true music fans (genre doesn’t necessarily come into it here) when there is little to no cacophonous nattering throughout the entire support act. It was bliss to hear Brian’s set in its entirety without all the noise you’d usually get at other gigs. There was a little ‘bar noise’ but this was just regular for the relatively quieter gentle sound of this opening. Plus I was nearer the bar so I could have easily moved. After five years since seeing him last when he banded as well as opened for McRae at a bunch of UK gigs on that 2010 tour (I was at the Oxford one, I believe), it was like meeting up with an old friend again. A pure delight!
Brian was back playing in The Standing Band and was on formidable form with some truly electrifying electric guitar arrangements on McRae songs both old and new. Indeed, the set covered a lot of the new material from the recent album for which many in the crowd (myself included) already know all the words to duly mime or sing along to. I mentioned recently in reviewing Ange Hardy’s outstanding new album Esteesee, how being the utter uber music geek I am I do get goosebumps (or goose prickles for you Game of Thrones/ASOIAF fans) from music on a regular basis. Esteesee takes them to a new level and although Tom McRae’s music has been giving me goosebumps for the entire twelve years I’ve been listening to it I note with enormous pleasure how I experienced goosebumps from start to finish at Thursday night’s gig. No word of a lie. And as musically geeky as I am, and as many magnificent bands and musicians as I’ve seen, and incredible gigs I have had the pleasure to experience I am pretty sure that was the first time I have been goosebumping from beginning to end without any let up or breather. EVERY. SINGLE. SONG! Total goosebump overload. Further proof of the music transcendentalism of the entire night.
Launching into songs from the new album, firstly the haunting The Dogs Never Sleep which laments “I am so tired…” and then “…so lost”, followed by the song of the Revolution and a firm new personal favourite, We Are The Mark which merely writing about brings those goosebumps back with a force that moves me to urgent action. There was a wonderful approach to What A Way To Win A War too. The recorded version is big, fast and loud but this time round, Tom beckoned over all band members, the only other with an instrument being Brian with a second acoustic guitar and they all performed it in unison right there. This also included the Ooh ah, Ooh Ooh ah sounds we were encouraged to join in with as we marched on Downing Street and crept into Samantha Cameron’s bedroom to scare her witless (this was trialled at that launch gig too with, unbeknown to Tom, David Cameron’s press secretary in the small audience – the smallest victories are oft so wonderfully satisfying).
There was some beautiful audience participation on Hoping Against Hope too, by way of us singing out ‘It’s gonna be okay’ over and over. First quiet, then with Tom controlling the pitch, the volume, the everything like he was conducting an orchestra. He had the power, holding aloft not a guitar but a secret magic sword. There was lightning (okay, mirror ball but hey, there are limits to the budget for these kinds of things) but thankfully he did not re-emerge wearing a harness as He-Man. Now that, would have been strange. Trippy, and the £5 per bottle Hobgoblin Gold (my only gripe with the venue, by the way but admittedly this is across all venues at all such events so hardly a huge negative) doesn’t tend to render me thus. At one point while we were all singing this in full orchestral choir-like harmony, he was rendering us in fits of laughter with comments like, “Even though with a Tory government in power for the next twenty years we just can’t get rid of” and “I’m never played on the fucking radio!” among many others.
Strumming the opening to The End of the World News raised a murmur of joy from the crowd to which he responded with, “Like you mean it, fuckers!” Cue re-strum and a cacophonous cheer which admittedly is what we were all feeling, we must have just felt something holding us back that first time…..likely still in complete awe from such a stunning opening few songs. As has become a staple of this performance live, the audience were pitted against each other in the great chorus sing off, then one side harmonising one half while the other sang the other bits…..followed by those ‘at the Liberal Democrat Conference’ in the seats on the upper floor getting their chance, before everybody got one final go and Tom resumed control with the band to finally end that end of the world news in gloriously epic style.
Other classics like A & B Song, Walking To Hawaii and Silent Boulevard got the rip-roaring big full band outing complete with the sublime arrangements of cello from the magnificent Oli Kraus all the way from LA. The date of the gig clashed with his daughter’s fifth birthday so Tom filmed the audience singing Happy Birthday to her which was a nice little touch. Recalling the show I went to with the four string quartet for a moment (Cambridge, 2011): Obviously that was out of this world amazing to hear, all those sensational strings dancing around, about, within and through Tom’s guitar and vocals but even as monumentally transcendental an experience as that was there is something Oli Kraus achieves even all on his lonesome that takes you out of the universe while he’s playing. Be it frantic energetic solo bits with his long hair dancing in the whirlwind he whips up or those beautiful elongated chords – so long they could have their own show – on parts of the songs in general he becomes one with that instrument. His soul is in that cello. They are one. It is magic. Yet real. Transcendental.
As was Brian Wright, on that aforementioned electric guitar too, though. His playing put me in a trance it was so beyond outstanding and remarkable! On some songs it couldn’t help but conjure up the spirit of Jimi Page a la The Song Remains The Same and the otherworldly heights he takes me to via that Madison Square Garden show back in ’73 (which of course was 7 years before I was even born but I swear on some kind of level I was actually there). The sounds were, of course, very different but the feeling, the transmutation of the soul enticed by the skills Brian displayed were of the same incredible quality.
As was Olli Cunningham with his thunderous piano and indeed all band members produced live music that was transcendental, let’s face it! When those drums kicked in after the whisper of a momentary silence it really moved the whole building. All of them combined to make such musical perfection to match the perfection of the main man McRae himself.
At one point pretty late into the show I glanced over at the sound tech guy – you know the ones who stand at the huge deck of buttons, slides and the like out near the back of the hall, twiddling this, sliding that – and even he was jigging along to the incredible music coming from the stage. He was seriously getting into the swing of it all which I must admit is something I’ve rarely seen before. They usually just get on with their job and don’t necessarily immerse themselves into the music itself, for its artistic connection anyway. I might be wrong, perhaps they all do but I just don’t see it. I only glanced in his direction as I wasn’t too far and saw the dancing in the corner of my eye. It was a beautiful sight to see and only reinforces my summary that this night was pure musical transcendentalism.
Tom kindly and very graciously thanked “all the same fucking faces” for coming out, for travelling and for the last 15 years (I’ve seen him play in Northampton, Birmingham, Oxford, Cambridge & London over the years). Closing with ever and always the mainstay fan favourite I fear would generate a full-on (yet Bloodless (see what I did there? Well, true Tom fans will get it) riot were it not on the set list, Boy With The Bubble Gun. I sensed (but this is just my assumption only and seemed to fit well, whether correct or not) his anger, frustration and hatred for Cameron and his cronies as he sang with such conviction, ‘You’re gonna burn…..I hope you burn’ – I thought he himself might just burst into flames right then and there. TOM MCRAE SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTS THANKS TO TORY RULE the headlines might muse. Tom would laugh. When the flames went out. Such is the power of performance he gives each and every time. So good! So forceful! So musically transcendental you cannot merely sit (or stand) back and let his words, those evocative vocals and, like I say, his tremendous power just wash over you like you’re chilling out for an evening. You FEEL it! You BREATHE it! You LIVE it! You BECOME it! You are left transformed. Carried to another world of pure ecstasy. What A Way To Win A War and what a way to start off a month full of gigs!