1996: Apparition in ... Eastbourne!

But last summer the legend emerged momentarily from (performance) semi-retirement to play a folk club gig in one of England's south coast resorts. Any of my 1973 set walking innocently (how else?) past The Crown in Eastbourne's Old Town district on the warm evening of July 31st would have heard from the wide open second storey (first floor) window of the packed club room a sound which until then they would have believed impossible.
The Pearl-Driller opened two sets of Pete Atkin's distinctive songs, which he accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and electronic piano. As well as crowd favourites like Wristwatch for a Drummer, Beware of the Beautiful Stranger and a rattling original Original Honky-Tonk Night Train Blues he played close on twenty of his best songs, including three numbers associated with Julie Covington: The Ice-cream Man, The Beautiful Changes and a version of Don't Bother Me Now with its original but previously unheard middle eight. A highlight of the set was the unaired James/Atkin piece Search and Destroy, in the spirit of their other war songs but with a twist in the setting.
Pete was in great form, singing and playing like he'd never been away. Thanks to Richard and the others at Eastbourne Folk Club for a memorable night.

March 1997: Hale End

The County Arms in Hale End Road, E4 was the north-east London venue for Pete's most recent public appearance, on March 6th. Around 40 people turned out (one from as far away as Holland) to hear him play two sets, with the club's regular floor singers filling out the evening. Pete kicked off with Over the High Side, his own song which he wrote for the play "A&R". Thief In The Night came next, by request, after which he switched from acoustic guitar to electronic piano for Thirty Year Man. Staying with piano, Canoe, a tale of south seas (or was it lunar) exploration gave us a taste of what Pete's seventh album might have sounded (and may yet sound) like. Then we heard Stranger in Town, the spoof country & western number from the Live Libel album. Next Pete delivered Get It Out Of Your Head, an impromptu performance of a song he and Clive wrote back in February 1968. The first set concluded with the ever-popular Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger.

After the interval Pete came back with Perfect Moments, and then took his venerable National steel guitar from its case to demonstrate his own blues-style slide technique on National Steel, a near-accurate account of how he came to own the instrument. In fact Pete only brought the steel along because he'd been requested in advance to play the song. The next number, The Double Agent, a love song he's very seldom played in public, was also by request. He then went on to play The Flowers And The Wine, Errant Knight, I See The Joker, Touch Has A Memory and Girl On The Train, to a rapturous reception. The club had to close at 10.30 p.m., but for an encore we had time for The original Original Honky Tonk Night Train Blues.

Claire Hunt sums it up better than I could: "Wondered if it would all seem a long time ago. Actually, it was wonderful. Forceful, melodic, witty, entertaining, and the best 3.50's worth I've had in a long time...."

See also Hale End Folk Club


September 1997: Charlbury

Jeremy Walton's report, as posted to Midnight Voices:

Venue:

The Hothouse is a small room in what used to be a small primary school in a small village in Oxfordshire. I think you get the idea - we're not talking about a stadium gig here. I'd guess that there were about forty people in the room, sitting at tables, clustered around a tiny stage, just big enough to hold one man, a guitar and a keyboard. No amplification, which enhanced the notion that Pete was playing for you in the comfort of your living room (the venue isn't licensed either, so you drink your own drinks - again, just as if you were at home).

Setlist:

    First set:

  1. Luck of the Draw/Where have they all gone?
  2. Thief in the Night
  3. Landscapes
  4. Frangipanni was her flower
  5. I see the Joker
  6. Perfect Moments
  7. Song for Rita
  8. Over the High Side
  9. Girl on the Train
(all guitar except for 4-7, on keyboard.
    Second set:

  1. Prince of Aquitaine
  2. Pearl Driller
  3. Sessionman's Blues
  4. Canoe
  5. Commercial Traveller
  6. Senior Citizens
  7. Beware of the Beautiful Stranger
  8. 30 Year Man
  9. Master of the Revels
(1,2,6 guitar, remainder keyboard)
    Encores:

  1. The Original Honky Tonk Night Train Blues
  2. You Can't Expect To Be Remembered
(both guitar)

So what was he like? After getting over the "I've waited too long for this" shock of actually having the man himself there in the flesh (he just walked onto the stage, said hello, reached for a E9 on the guitar, started strumming and singing "I once always finished ahead..."), I found the whole thing delightful. His singing was in fine shape, and the choice of songs was imaginative and entertaining. Particular highlights: "Senior Citizens", "Over the High Side", "Prince of Aquitaine", "Canoe" (which he'd kindly included in his set after I'd requested it) and his final "You can't expect to be remembered", which he dedicated to the venue (it's closing down at the end of the year, alas). The audience responded warmly; maybe thinking that the CJ connection made him a humorous singer, there were big laughs at some of the lines, and there was enthusiastic applause after each number. At the end, the compere intervened to protect him from a third encore by leading the applause with "Pete Atkin - you can remember to be expected!", which struck me as a neat inversion.

Like Colin, I was struck by his apparent nervousness. Perhaps my expectations had been heightened by CJ's remarks about his unfair degree of natural on-stage authority, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one in the audience who was hanging on his every movement (hey, what happened to the D11 at the end of "Senior Citizens", then?) in an over-obsessive fashion, but I think, in the end, that his slight fluffs made it an even more intimate and relaxed evening. For example, when he sat down to play "Thief in the Night" he was momentarially fazed by the choice of having two ways in which he could cross his legs. "You can tell it's been a while since I've done this sort of thing", he announced. Similarly, when somebody called out for "Beautiful Stranger", he obligingly improvised a keyboard part for the song (he'd forgotten a capo, so couldn't play it on guitar). When he stumbled and paused after going straight from the first to the third verse, it was an eager member of the audience (oh, all right then, me) who called out the beginning of the second verse.

During the interval, I went up and spoke to him. I don't remember what I was expecting - probably "Don't bother me now" - but instead, he was unassuming, pleasant and (a word not usually associated with entertainers) polite. We chatted about his day job, the BBC, his resurgence in popularity and access to the chords for the songs (he was kind enough to indicate that he was willing to help in any way he could).

After the show, I spoke briefly with him about last year's Steely Dan concerts. He'd seen them at Birmingham NEC (hey - I was there as well!) and we both agreed that the size of the venue had been unfortunate - not the best environment for finally seeing one of your lifelong musical heroes in the flesh. The contrast with Saturday night at Charlbury was complete.


October 1997: Whelan's 'The Lark In The Park', Islington

Gerry Smith's review, as posted to Midnight Voices:

Well, the voices have gone quiet, haven't they? Where is everybody? Still down at Islington folk club from Thursday night, judging by the bodycount. It was a bit like the old student pastime of seeing how many people can fit in a phone box, mini, or the SU bar on the last night of term! The front row was practically sitting on Pete's lap!

I arrived quite early, but strangely, the room seemed to fill from the back. It reminded me of a quip Frankie Howerd made when he spoke to a meeting of the Oxford Union; "I'm not worried when people walk out...it's when they start coming towards me..!"

But, in all seriousness, what a wonderful evening I had in Islington. Pete did a total of sixteen numbers, mostly old faves, but with a couple of unreleased songs, 'Search and Destroy' (a clip of which is on the website) and 'Commercial Traveller', a song which Pete described as being about coming home. Both had PA and CJ written all over them in terms of theme, lyrical content and music, and would have stood side by side with all the other songs we know so well, had they been released.

Pete seemed relaxed and in fine form, although cuttingly self-deprecating. Before the gig opened with 'Laughing Boy', Pete pointed out that he didn't do this kind of thing for a living any more, for reasons which should soon become clear! Ho ho ho.., but hardly!! And before the second half of the show kicked off he said, wryly, "I have had several requests during the interval....but I'm going to sing anyway..!!"

Well let's hope that Pete decides to carry on singing. It's not often that you get the chance to listen to some of your favourite music being sung by the original composer in a setting as intimate as your front room (despite the crush to get in with others queuing outside the door).

And so there he was. Just Pete and his one keyboard and acoustic guitar. No gimmicks, gizmos, special FX, or even a microphone cable! All the songs were thus presented in their barest form and yet lost nothing in the process. 'Wristwatch For A Drummer', 'Shadow and the Widower' (which Pete claimed not to have performed in public before) and 'I see the Joker' still had all the drive and energy of the original recordings. And to me, Pete's voice was just the same, lacking nothing that all the knobs and screws and toggles that modern production gadgets offer, might have added.

As one of the midnight voices suggested, Pete brought 'Girl on the Train' into the 1990's with a subtle change of lyric in the first verse: 'Ten quid from the bank' became 'Quick trip to the bank'. Neat.

In contrast to the raw energy of 'Wristwatch', 'Shadow and the Widower' and 'Joker' you could have heard a pin drop in the packed room when Pete did 'Senior Citizens' and 'Faded Mansion'. Probably in reference to the great debate about FMOTH which occurred on MV a few weeks ago, Pete described the song as being about 'everything and nothing'. Did he mean that it's a song about people who have everything and those who have nothing, or, was he saying sometimes a song is just a song, just as Freud once said 'sometimes a cigar is just a cigar'? The whole room hung on his every word as he sang 'Senior Citizens', a truly beautiful love song, delivered a little more slowly than the album version, I thought, but with great sensitivity, and met with rapturous applause.

Far from detracting from the show, Pete's occasional lapse of memory, and indeed false start (in Faded Mansion) only added to the experience. It was indeed a live show, warts and all. Far better this way than those concerts which we've probably all been to where we may as well have stayed at home and put the relevant artist's CDs on the hi-fi. 'Practical Man' turned into a singalong when Pete dropped a line in one of the early verses and it was the audience itself which threw Pete when he started to play 'Beware of the Beautiful Stranger', such was the enthusiasm which met those opening chords. 'What do singers mean when they introduce a song by saying 'it goes something like this', mused Pete before going for take two. 'Don't they mean it goes exactly like this.?! (My seven year old step daughter now sings along when I play BOTBS).

The show was over all too quickly, and Pete wound up with 'Perfect Moments'. How appropriate, for the whole experience was just so - a perfect moment (well, perfect 90 minutes, anyway). Here's to the next, and many more.

Roll on CD re-releases, videos and the long-overdue seventh album.

(The whole set list was as follows : Laughing Boy, Girl on the Train, Between Us..., Search and Destroy, Sessionman's Blues, Stranger in Town, Wristwatch..., Practical Man, Thief in the Night, Senior Citizens, Commercial Traveller, I See The Joker, Faded Mansion..., Beware of the Beautiful Stranger, Shadow and the Widower, Perfect Moments.)


October 1997: Winchester Contemporary and Traditional Music Club

Review by Stephen Payne, first posted to Midnight Voices:

When the King of Difficult Listening sang in the Railway
He sang to folkies and computer nerds
To 'Chester came the ageing Midnight Voices
It was they and never him that knew the words...........

I'm being unkind. There were only a few slips, and the songs still sound stunning. I made no notes, and yesterday already seems so long ago, so I can't tell of the full playlist, and I'll probably misremember the sequence. But here's a brief review, for what it's worth.

Pete seemed quite nervous at first, forgetting the very first line of his opening Sunlight Gate, and then slipping up both lyrically and musically in Care Charmer Sleep. But the longer he was on stage the more relaxed and commanding he became.

I once went to an Elvis Costello concert in which he accompanied himself on piano and guitar. He commented that he felt that some of his songs got hidden in the recordings, and that the sparse accompaniment revealed them in a new light. And so it was with some of Pete's songs. For me the highlights of the concert were the songs that I like least on the records.

The first highlight for me was The Man who Walked Towards the Music, which Pete described as Clive's only autobiographical song. I'm like Clive here, I'm afraid: I don't know a Bb minor from the capital of China, but I liked the new guitar accompaniment the way Nat Lofthouse liked the ball.

On to the piano for two unrecorded songs that I knew from the website, Search and Destroy and Canoe. Pete's new piano showed off for Canoe, sounding like tuned-up strings of sea-shells. Then the second highlight - Wall of Death. The emptied spaces in the music, and the atmospheric singer-as-actor performance revealed a much stronger song than I'd appreciated from the record.

The first set finished back on the guitar with Have you Got a Biro I can Borrow, which I suppose belongs in a group with Shadow and the Widower and Prince of Aquitaine as a lyric inspired by a French writer.

I think the second set began with Laughing Boy, before Pete started fielding some requests from the floor, moving over to the piano for I See the Joker and Thirty Year Man. Staying on piano we were treated to a song Pete claimed never to have performed before, one that "not even Steve Birkill knows". I'm afraid I can't remember its name - "For Ladies Fair"? ["A Dream Of Fair Women" -- SJB].

Perhaps inspired by the age of his audience Pete also played another of his least-played songs - his "most depressing song of all, about a mid-life crisis", Nothing Left to Say.

My memory has it that the rest of the concert was all on guitar: National Steel (brought along specially), Tonight Your Love is Over, Stranger in Town, Girl on the Train, Practical Man, The Original Original Honky Tonk Night Train Blues. By that time the man was calling time, but he wasn't quite right, for Pete squeezed in Beautiful Stranger as a requested encore.


Eastbourne 1998 review here
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