For Pete Atkin fans, it really doesn’t get any better than this. For the latest in the eccentric series of *oDs, we are at the Lantern Theatre, Sheffield, courtesy of MV diva Carole Birkill, to witness a solo performance by our man. The theatre is ideal for the occasion – quirkily cosy, comfortable, intimate. Carole introduces Pete, whose instruments for the evening are a fairly modest electronic keyboard and the now-familiar Atkin acoustic guitar.
Pete opens with a guitar version of the old favourite “Sunlight Gate”, which, as he mentioned, carries a bitter contemporary resonance now as the regular ritual of the returning dead from Afghanistan is enacted on our TV screens. Pete announces that he’s determined to cut down on the chat this evening to make way for more music, and launches into the unreleased song “The way you are with me”. This song is at once unfamiliar, because so seldom heard, but familiar as well in the nuanced phrasing, the delicate melody, and the emotional territory of love not quite requited. A snarling “Search and Destroy” is followed by the evening’s only glitch, with Pete unable to get his new version of “A Man Who’s Been Around” to work. Instead we get a cover of “I will write my book” by Joe Henry. Back to the canon for “All the Dead were Strangers”, one of my personal favourites, and another song with a disturbing contemporary relevance all these years after its initial appearance. The audience is quiet, reverent, even, listening intently and then erupting into applause at the end of each song. The venue helps – it really does feel like a personal experience.
The highlight of the first half for me was the way “Me to Thank” segues into “An Empty Table.” The first song, another unissued rarity, exudes a world-weariness with which the frankly mature audience could identify – “I've got to where apart from air there's nothing in the tank” is a sentiment, perhaps unspoken, that might cross the mind of many MVs... “An Empty Table” has become a real stalwart of the Atkin-James repertoire, the lyric hitting that characteristic note of poignant regret, accompanied by a wonderfully complementary melody that creates the melancholy mood perfectly. A brand new song, “We will love again” is given its first public airing before the closer, “Girl on the train”. There’s a nice insight into the compositional process, too. Pete says that, for the new song, Clive had suggested a “cocktail piano” approach; he then proceeds to play it with an aggressive guitar accompaniment.
A change of shirt for the second set – “just like Madonna” – and straight into a guitar driven “I See the Joker” followed by a quick music lesson. Pete tells us the chords for “Joker” were derived from reversing the E minor, G major sequence of the old Elvis hit “His Latest Flame”, which he then proceeds to sing. Not for the first time, I’m struck by what a good interpreter Pete is, and this impression is borne out later by a version of Steely Dan’s “Razor Boy” that is subtler than the original. We’re treated to a couple more new ones in the second half, both typical late James lyrically, and treated with Pete’s usual sensitivity. “I know the way that it will go” examines the inevitability of disappointment with the soft-centred toughness that Clive’s lyrics so often evoke.
Pete presents lovely versions of the two best songs about the music business, “Thirty Year Man” and “Sessionman’s Blues” before concluding with a rousing – and strangely uplifting, considering the lyric – “Here We Stay”. We can’t let him go like that of course, so it’s back for an encore, “Thief in the Night”, bringing us full circle really. The last words we hear are the ominous “the very last call of all”, but it caps a really joyous occasion, and one that will live long in the memory. It’s a great privilege to have been there, and we leave for the post-show reception knowing that new songs are in the offing, and that there’s more than air in the tank.
[Rob is creator of the Facebook group The Pete Atkin and Clive James Appreciation Society]
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