Review of the Midnight Voices summer garden party |
Pete's evening set, by Leslie Moss
It was hard, waiting in the audience at just after 8pm on Saturday anticipating Pete Atkin's imminent appearance on stage, not to draw comparisons with a similar scene almost two years earlier in the same venue. On that occasion, a delighted but distinctly nervous Pete had stepped onto the stage in front of an audience most of whom had never expected to see him live again, indeed some who were probably surprised to see him alive, a thought to which he had alluded at the start of his set. There was a real sense of rebirth on that day, with the untidyness that generally accompanies labour, while our total enthusiasm and amazement at our good fortune and metaphorically crossed-fingers carried him through the transposed verses and fluffed lines. A wonderful occasion, certainly, but a musical triumph – perhaps not quite, notwithstanding flawless performances of History and Geography and several others.
What a difference two years makes! Those of us who were privileged enough to attend some or all of the concerts in between – Islington, Winchester, Eastbourne, Buxton and Islington again – already had some inkling of the way Pete was settling down, regaining his familiarity with the songs, reworking old material in new and exciting ways, trying out previously-unperformed or even brand new songs. His initial slight bemusement at the existence of Midnight Voices long mellowed into comfort and enthusiasm, voice and fingers loosened up by a superb afternoon set of cover versions, by the time Steve Birkill announced the appearance of our hero he was here as one of us, amongst friends and admirers rather than star-struck fans, not just a performer but giving voice to the Voices.
Pete had put his reputation on the line by offering to perform at least one choice notified in advance by each person present in the audience. Two years ago, such a request would undoubtedly have resulted in a 'safe' set – Girl on the Train, Beware of the Beautiful Stranger, Honky Tonk Night Train Blues, Master of the Revels – the songs by which Pete was defined in many people's eyes all those years ago. A pure nostalgia set, one which would have left us all feeling good but not challenged. Two years on … and this must say something for the taste of the Voices and for Pete's ability to move us forward with each concert … not one of those excellent songs was included, and the set didn't suffer at all for it, nor was any of them missed (by this listener at least). Instead, we collectively chose a set full of variety, interest and a mixture of familiarity and unfamiliarity. And Pete still kept back a few surprises for us. Though how we managed to miss nominating Eye of the Universe – well I suppose every diamond has to have a single flaw.
But this would have been for naught if it had not been matched by the quality of the performance. Pete's singing and playing was the best this Voice has ever heard, and listening today to the BOTBS/DTMA CD confirmed for me that his voice has reached a maturity and richness lacking from those recordings. Your reviewer confesses to having been ambivalent in the past about Pete's voice, preferring the songs to the singer, but I need no longer say this. His voice, and also his keyboard skills and guitar-playing were simply superlative, with the result that this was a memorable concert musically as well as emotionally. And to my recollection, a word-perfect performance though Pete later insisted that he'd dropped a verse somewhere.
With no preliminary chat beyond a reference to his decision to play all the requests, and his expressed hope that he hadn't missed anyone out, Pete started his set in his usual manner on guitar, with Ice Cream Man, a jaunty number associated with Julie Covington as it appeared on her album The Beautiful Changes. Typical of Clive James' lyrics, seeing both the romance and the reality behind the ice-cream seller. A minor masterpiece, working just as well with Pete's voice as it had with Julie's. Straight into Sunrise, a highlight of the first album, played simply and very much in line with the album performance.
Then a novelty - moving to the piano for a rendition of The Wall of Death, the first of four selections from The Road of Silk. On the album, the song is harsh and uncompromising, perhaps few people's favourite (the requester would no doubt beg to differ) but on solo piano, the song revealed an unexpected lyricism, confirming for me the view of a recent Voice that you should always give your least-favourite song another hearing. Definitely a highlight of the first half of the set. Staying at the piano, another song associated with Julie Covington, The Standards of Today , performed flawlessly and with no trace of irony despite its very female lyrics.
Now Pete departed from the request list, introducing a new song (written in the early seventies but never recorded, indeed I now find has never even been referred to in Steve Birkill's encyclopaedic list of unreleased songs). An absolute gem, You Alone Will be my Last Adventure has a haunting eponymous refrain that lingered in my head well beyond the session. How did such an exceptional song manage to slip through the net all those years ago? Further proof if more is needed that the six commercial albums represent only the starting point for an exploration of the Atkin/James canon.
Back to guitar, and a run of three requests. Carnations on the Roof a popular choice judging from the applause and performed with aplomb. Then your reviewer's request, Over the High Side, dating from the 1977 musical play A&R and previously performed by Pete at Islington. Pete's performance of this simple but attractive song closely mirrored the website snippet. And finally, another popular choice, Wristwatch for a Drummer, performed with powerful vocals and complete control of the guitar.
Back to piano for the revelation of the set two years earlier. History and Geography has, as the earlier lyrics workshop discussed, some of the most despairing lyrics in the canon, but put to a wonderful melody that almost takes away the sting. Undoubtedly one for posterity, and performed on this occasion straight and with respect. The Road of Silk received a rare outing, and delighted the audience, Pete's keyboard control apparent on this as on many other songs. This was followed by Femme Fatale and Get it out of your Head, two more to me-unfamiliar songs though I note their presence on Steve's list of unreleased material. To this listener, both were pleasant though unexceptional but part of the joy of hearing Pete live is the discovery of such new material and frequently the greater appreciation on subsequent hearing.
On guitar again in the run up to the interval, with Perfect Moments, a song normally associated with the keyboard, but this time played in a similar arrangement on guitar and sounding fresh as a consequence. Finally, a song introduced by Pete as involving Clive in research but definitely not practical experimentation, Little Sammy Speedball, another popular choice and performed with great gusto.
Following a short interval, the highlight of which was a communal toast to Steve Birkill on his birthday two days previously, Pete again took the stage and straight into a beautiful rendition of Tonight Your Love is Over which was taken from the BOTBS arrangement and had your reviewer singing along with the descant to himself at the end. Then a wonderfully po-faced performance of the old crowd-pleaser Ballad of an Upstairs Window which clearly was a first for some members of the audience. Back then to the piano for a powerful performance of My Brother's Keeper, destined for the fabled Seventh Album. Almost certainly a first for many listeners, its contrast with the song immediately before only added to the impact (Pete ordered the set superbly considering that his choice of material was almost entirely predetermined). Still at the piano, for The Hollow and the Fluted Night, an often-overlooked gem, here performed with sympathy and feeling, and into Secret Drinker, arranged in similar manner to the album version and another popular choice.
Back to guitar, for The Shadow and the Widower, another ROS song made more accessible through the simplicity of a solo instrument. Followed by another would-be Seventh album selection, Cottonmouth, given another airing following its first performance in Eastbourne last year. For the second time your reviewer failed to understand Pete's explanation of the song - ostensibly about a venomous character, the eponymous anti-hero seems, as so often in Clive's lyrics, more sinned against than sinning. A song destined to be loved or hated.
Back to piano for a run of superb performances, starting with the wonderful Canoe, a timely performance as Pete said given the imminence of the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, although as he pointed out, the song refers to the abortive attempt by Apollo 13 in 1970. Another Seventh Album selection, the song is a perfect blend of music with a lyric that seamlessly segues from prehistoric Polynesia to 1970's deep space. Then a fascinating and highly successful keyboard transcription of You Can't Expect to Be Remembered, with a chord sequence that recalled the jazz piano greats. Another Pete choice, A Dream of Fair Women, to my knowledge a first performance though referred to on the website. It definitely deserves further outings. This followed by only the second performance of a genuinely new song I Feel Like Midnight. Written by Pete and Clive immediately following Buxton, this song had its first airing at Islington in the autumn, when Pete craved indulgence for a work in progress. It was fascinating to compare the song after further work. Merely interesting in Islington its fuller treatment made it a highlight of this set. Proof positive that the creative juices are undimmed. Finally, the one that Sinatra let get away, Thirty-Year Man, a song so good it would be impossible to perform badly, and Pete gave it as good a rendition as he has ever done.
That wasn't quite it. No less than three encores. Rain-Wheels with the Changers will have to await a further review - perhaps we took it a little slow but who cares - followed by the one non Atkin/James song. Introduced by Pete as being far too close to the bone for comfort, his performance of Box Set by the Barenaked Ladies had the audience in half-embarrassed stitches with its tale of a formerly-great rock star reduced to reissuing his greatest hits and previously-unreleased (for good reason) material. And then, as if to ensure that we left in the right mood - a charming performance on guitar of the opening track of Julie Covington's album The Magic Wasn't There.
In short, a set that demonstrated the amazing range and depth of Pete's music, a set that intrigued as well as entertained, a set that gave huge cause for optimism for the future, a set that demonstrated that Pete's admirers are not unthinking worshippers of the same old songs, and a set that sent us away with a song in our hearts and a spring in our steps.
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