The Angel of The Northern Line?

by Gerry Smith

There was a time when, like many Londoners, I had to endure the Northern Line on an almost daily basis to get to work. So, perhaps it is a happy sort of nemesis in reverse, if there can be such a thing, that the last three occasions on which I have used the blackest line on the tube should have been to convey me to a Pete Atkin gig.

Stepping once more outside into the night from Angel tube, the Empress of Russia, present home of the Islington Folk Club but an otherwise unremarkable pub, was a couple of minutes walk down the road. There was already a fair contingent of Midnight Voices in the bar when I arrived (fifteen quid's worth at the bar, anyway) and after downing a couple of pints to wet the vocal chords we headed upstairs for the main event of the evening. We formed a queue which stretched right down the stairs, if not right down the hall, and eventually found ourselves in a medium sized but peculiarly shaped room with no obvious centre or focal point.

Following from the recent debate on MV, Pete chose to sing in an East Anglian accent and opened with THE PRINCE OF AQUITAINE. A song about London sung in a London club, but how far that cold, dark and seamy corner of London seemed from the glamour of those international jets. And along with several other subtle changes to songs over the course of the evening, Pete's chord on the word 'pain' was particularly dissonant. In a subtle and almost undefinable way, the song set the tone for the evening. Another London song, RAIN-WHEELS featured half way through the first set. A strident and purposeful delivery where the nonchalance of the girl at the wheel was almost tangible. I wonder if the extra twiddles in the keyboard right hand were put in as meat for the cover artists amongst the Voices? Who knows and ultimately it is unimportant but it's good to hear variation, and bears out Pete's own point in a recent posting, that a song is recreated only in performance.

I think this was a gig of Pete in 'serious' mode. Most of the songs were those which make us think about life; the dichotomy of rich and poor, the way in which we are haunted by our sins, vanity, old age, war, deception, love and even death. Even the second number up, DON'T BOTHER ME NOW (from Julie Covington's THE BEAUTIFUL CHANGES) had a moody, blues feel which perhaps reflected Pete's mood after his none too trouble-free journey to London. And TENDERFOOT , one of the several songs which I hadn't heard Pete play before, was introduced with slow, rich chords before breaking into a rendition perhaps a little slower than on the album but all the more solid for that.

Hard on the heels of RAIN-WHEELS was a piece of pure gold. I FEEL LIKE MIDNIGHT made its debut. A completely new song, the lyric of which was faxed to Pete by Clive James only a fortnight ago. Truly a case of work in progress, a blinding song in the making and a distillation of the things I like best about Pete's music. A strong melody, with rich, evocative and eccentric harmony. Definite echoes of THE MAGIC WASN'T THERE and THE DOUBLE AGENT along with many transient references to the style of composition identified throughout the MV postings. A must for the seventh album and high on the order too.

But what comes first for Pete, piano or guitar? He steadfastly refused to be drawn on this point. I suppose it could be a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other but I still reckon he'd reach for the guitar on an even field. As on every occasion in the past year when I've seen Pete, the room was plunged into silence with all eyes to the front as he reached for his guitar and played SENIOR CITIZENS, a truly beautiful song. Spellbinding. And all those chords right the way up the neck of the instrument in THE PRINCE OF AQUITAINE and other songs? It just seems to me that he goes for the guitar when a song needs maximum effect which suggests a greater instinctive affinity with the instrument. Just my own thoughts, of course.

Tremendous to see some other favourites of mine performed for the first time since the 'second coming'. I particularly enjoyed THE HOLLOW AND THE FLUTED NIGHT and TOUCH HAS A MEMORY and I'm looking forward to hearing more of our favourites over the next few months. Good as it is to hear the songs we know so well, it is encouraging to see so many numbers not from the six released albums featuring in Pete's set. These accounted for a third of the total at Islington last week. Perhaps even more encouraging is that many of these songs, such as CANOE, HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY and SEARCH AND DESTROY are being requested. And I for one will be requesting I FEEL LIKE MIDNIGHT next time. Brilliant too that Pete is attracting new fans after all, it wasn't only MV's at Islington by a long chalk, and there was still standing room only when stumps were drawn.

Nevertheless, it would be a shame to see Pete become a 'star'. Stars are aloof and quirky and often do not talk to their fans. Stars do not perform within arm's reach of their fans or shift their own gear. One of the Voices summed it up nicely when he said that coming back from the gig he felt as though he'd met an old friend. And perhaps this is why we love these songs so well, as over the years they have become old friends to us. Knowing them is a bit like knowing a well kept secret that enriches our experience.

All the same, I can't help but feel that another type of venue is called for even at the risk of sacrificing some of the 'homeliness' of recent appearances. Whilst we should be grateful that small clubs have kept Pete's music live over the years, surely now larger venues are called for. Buxton proved that and all the other smaller venues bursting at the seams just drive the point home.

The revival is happening. People are turning out in large numbers to see Pete Atkin. And they want to see more. Let's move with it!

Gerald Smith


See also Richard Corfield's review
Other reviews: Buxton; Eastbourne



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