Having graduated at UCL and Birkbeck in the 1970s and later returned to my old stamping ground some thirteen years ago to work for an IT services company, I was probably as familiar with the Gower Street and Tottenham Court Road area as most. Yet I had never noticed or heard of the Drill Hall, tucked away between those two north-south arteries which, in spite of Ken Livingstone's best efforts, defiantly remain a couple of traffic jams most of the working week.
The first I heard of this venue was when I received a flyer through the mail (courtesy of Irregular Records) a couple of months ago. My eyes had nearly popped out of my head when I saw the fascinating line-up for a short season of "English Chanson" artists. This strangely paradoxical term seems to be catching on as the term to describe the work of some of these seemingly otherwise uncategorisable artists who would (and often have been) otherwise be mis-labelled as "folk", "pop/rock" or "easy listening". I would have liked to see the whole series, and would have done but for the irony of being made redundant by the aforementioned company a couple of weeks before the season started.
Nevertheless I just had to make my way up to London especially for this evening. As anyone reading this will already know, among the glittering line-up was our own Pete Atkin, who did two separate gigs (rather than one split by an interval) on the Friday night. This was the first opportunity I had had of seeing Pete for many months, and as he had announced his intention to perform two entirely different sets, I and several others had booked tickets for both - especially as he had promised to air his latest batch of new songs written with collaborator Clive James since their national tour last year.
After a couple of drinks and a chat with some familiar faces in the bar, we made our way downstairs into the tiny venue (capacity 45). The basement room was furnished cabaret-style with tables and chairs, and the mic and upright Victorian piano at the same level as the punters. We grabbed seats right at the front for the best view and where Frankie could rest her recently operated-on leg on top of the speaker which just happened to be the right height - we weren't sure whether this would go down well with "t'committee" but nobody seemed to mind!
Three To Get Ready...
The first event kicked off with Adeola, a young self-styled singer-songwriter who performed about half a dozen of her own songs, some of which have already been recorded by the likes of Claire Martin and Barb Jungr, which bodes extremely well for her future. At least one of the other members of the audience I spoke to were reminded of a young Joan Armatrading in Adeola's performance - although I don't like making direct comparisons, there was something in her strong voice that did sound similar to her.
But of course the highlight for us was Pete's set. He took the floor for just over an hour and kicked off on the now familiar Taylor with one of the new songs Prayers Against The Hitman. Although a new song, some of us had already heard an embryonic version of it at the SoD2K event a couple of years or so back. Pete's rendition tonight was substantially different and sounded less Latin-like than before - it went down well and was a lively starter. Next, Pete stayed with the guitar for Practical Man, in a more laid-back arrangement than we have become accustomed to. The laughter provided evidence that not all of the audience was composed of Pete's fan group Midnight Voices!
Moving to the piano (which looked the Goons' proverbial rosewood piano with brass candleholders), Pete had to put a box on the chair to get the right height, turning down a profferred cushion as not being high enough. The piano wobbled alarmingly with every note as Pete launched into another familiar number Sessionman's Blues. While the instrument not quite in the same league as the St George's Hall Steinway grand, it was nevertheless a good performance by Pete, and the piano's air of being only just in tune added to the slightly shady bar-room atmosphere which seemed to suit the song.
Pete followed this by two new songs at the joanna - the first, Empty Table, was a reflective song looking at a relationship through a table, perhaps outside a Paris brasserie, in what Pete indicated as almost a cinematographic style. After a single hearing and no note-taking it's difficult to recall the details, but the song made a good impression and will no doubt fit in well with the established works. This was immediately followed by I Have To Learn, another song about a lost relationship which again impressed the audience.
Too Loud, Man, Too Loud...
Following these sad songs with something new for the revived partnership - a comic song! Pete switched to guitar for So Loud I Couldn't Hear It, which was inspired by a remark Pete made to Clive during last year's tour, about a well-known 1980s chart band [OK, it was UB40 - Ed] who played at deafening volume. This had got Clive thinking and he had come up with this tale about a rock musician who had lost his hearing through exposure to too many decibels. It got plenty of laughs, this time from all present and not just the newcomers. It's good to hear some new humorous songs to add to the likes of Wristwatch and Practical Man. I'm looking forward to hearing the band version complete with promised air-guitar solo - and if I'm not mistaken this is the first Atkin-James song with a Bo Diddley beat!
Pete returned to the piano for Tenderfoot, this time looking for all the world as if he was balanced on horseback as he perched on the box on the chair and the piano swayed as he played. This was followed by Thought Of You, the last new song of the set - again I can't recall the details but it was another strong song, as is my impression of all the new ones.
Pete returned to the guitar for Payday Evening, followed by Star of Tomorrow, finally released last year on the 9x2 album featuring Pete alongside many of the other artists in the Drill Hall English Chanson season. Pete confirmed he was happy to belong to this new genre, which at least provides a tag giving an indication of what his music is about.
Star went down a storm, this time many of us laughing in spite of knowing the song by now. This was partly due to Pete's increased confidence on stage (in this case, floor!) and his wit, both of which struck me as having developed noticeably during the past few years since the slight diffidence after his years away from the limelight. As an all-round performer he has improved remarkably, which augurs well for the upcoming tour.
Of course an encore was demanded and given - Touch Has A Memory, again on guitar - and the first house punters made for the bar, or in some cases, out into the night.
Those who had only turned up for the first show would kick themselves if they knew what was in store during the second. And I suppose those who missed the first house must have regretted it at the end of the evening - for there were more goodies in store for those who stayed.
The only slight downside of doing two shows this way was that it requires the supporting act to play ball. In this case, most of Adeola's set was identical to the first, but I admit I didn't mind as I thought her performance was better in the second show - unless it was the Guinness taking effect! But she had probably gained in confidence after the first gig went well and it showed in her second performance.
On to Pete's set - starting with Prince of Aquitaine on guitar which went down well, Pete continued with The Hypertension Kid, which sounded surprisingly good on the old joanna. We were getting used to its sound by now, and one or two of us wondered whether Pete would opt to play the Original Original Honky Tonk Train Blues, which it would have suited admirably.
In the event he didn't, but the next number on the piano Dancing Master was set to what Pete said was a beguine rhythm, although the song was inspired by Clive's fascination with the tango. Another strong song, although again after a single hearing I'm sorry to say I'm not able to describe it from my increasingly short memory.
...Fat Cat Go!
Staying at the keyboard, or perched above it, the next one was another humorous song Fat Cat, said to be inspired by Clive being cruelly mistreated by Pete's large British Blue cat! Most cat owners could identify with the lyrics and again it raised a lot of laughter.
That wasn't the last of the new material, but meanwhile Pete launched into Search And Destroy, which took on an air of topicality in the current Iraq conflict. A businesslike performance of this by now well-known song which finally got released on Pete's latest album, this was followed by what for me was one of the evening's highlights.
Those of us lucky enough to be at Buxton in 1998 for Pete and Clive's first reunion on stage since the 1970s remembered Clive's moving rendition of A Hill Of Little Shoes, inspired by post-holocaust image of a pile of childrens' footwear discovered at a Nazi concentration camp. On that occasion, Clive surprised us all by singing the new song a capella to his own melody.
The song has never seen the light of day since - until now. Pete had taken Clive's poignant lyrics and set them to a gorgeous tune which fitted the lyrics perfectly, and his performance was spot-on, in spite of the limitations of the instrument. This is surely destined to become one of the greatest songs of the new partnership.
Switching to guitar briefly, Pete's next song was yet another new one Winter/Spring. Again I regret I can remember no specific details other than that my impression of the song was of yet another good one. I did notice throughout the evening that, overall, the lyrics of the new songs, while still thought provoking and original, seem more accessible than those of the early Atkin-James works - this is all to the good as far as future success is concerned. Perhaps Clive no longer feels he has to prove how clever he is, since we all know that by now!
Pete wound up the set with a cracking Master Of The Revels at the old joanna, which went down a storm, and encored with Care-Charmer Sleep on guitar, chosen as a short one because by now we were running out of time, and many of us - not least Pete himself - had trains to catch.
More Good News
In the bar afterwards some of us stayed to enthuse about the new songs. Pete had revealed earlier that he had been recording a new album which was well on the way to completion, and that it would be ready in time for the new tour, if not sooner - great news for Atkin-James fans.
So a couple of great gigs and plenty of good news. Pete's performances keep going from strength to strength, in spite of the odd hiccup during one or two of the new songs - hardly surprising since they had never been aired before. If you missed this, make sure you book up for the tour - disappointment is not an option!
Set List (courtesy of Steve Birkill)
First Set: Prayers Against The Hitman (Guitar); Practical Man (G); Sessionman's Blues (Piano); An Empty Table (P); I Have To Learn (P); So Loud I Couldn't Hear It (G); Tenderfoot (P); Thought Of You (P); Payday Evening (G); Star Of Tomorrow (G); Touch Has A Memory (G - encore)
Second Set: Prince Of Aquitaine (G); Hypertension Kid (P); Dancing Master (P); Fat Cat (P); Search And Destroy (P); A Hill Of Little Shoes (P); Winter Spring (G); Master Of The Revels (P); Care-charmer Sleep (G - encore)
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