in a splendid solo concert (is that an oxymoron?) at
Le Château Vieux de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France on May 26th 2012
Report by Stephen J Birkill (original version posted in Midnight Voices, June 3rd 2012)
Work has been quite demanding for some months now, but faced with Oliver Ash and Ian Chippett's initiative for an Île-de-France "Field of Dreams" event at the end of May (despite the persistent title of the MV Forum thread), Carole and I made a supreme effort to liberate a few days around the time of the Jubilee holiday to attend this recital, and visit one of our (well, my) favourite cities. And are we glad we did!
We hadn't seen Pete in a while, and had missed what by all accounts was a superb gig at Walthamstow in April, so the lure of the "Champ de rêves" would in any case have been hard to resist. But it turned out better than we could ever have imagined. Of course it wasn't really in a field the venue was the historic Château Vieux at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a small town just 12 miles north-west of Place de la Concorde, but far removed in spirit from the French capital.
As we were to discover later, several of the UK attendees had also chosen the Eurostar crossing, but it was our first time. Our 09:30 Friday train from Sheffield gave us an easy transfer at St Pancras, and by 15:45 we were disembarking at Paris Gare du Nord. There, as in the UK, it was possibly the hottest day since March's false summer, and with the Whitsun holiday weekend looming the RER connection was a little uncomfortable at first, but we were soon out of the city and rolling into St Germain.
Oliver and his wife Géraldine had graciously offered to accommodate us for the weekend, and their home a house historic in itself directly adjoints the château grounds, so we were soon settling into our cosy bear-themed attic bedroom. Pete and his wife Mary were already established across the landing, having taken the overnight ferry and driven down from Le Havre.
Oliver soon appeared, as did Ian Chippett, followed by Géraldine and the boys. With no time to spare we (Oliver, Ian, Pete and I) grabbed Pete's gear and carried it across to the château. A royal palace dating in part from the 12th century, the Château Vieux now serves as a museum and stands in its own park with extensive gardens and terraces on a limestone plateau overlooking the Seine, with distant views to La Défense. On the north side the park adjoins the huge forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, while the building's entrance on Place du Château connects directly with the town centre. The modern (and modest) auditorium occupies the southeastern corner on the ground floor of the building, and is accessed through the atmospheric inner court. Here we met the French technician who introduced us to the sound and lighting rigs.
The compact Bose 'console' was a 4/5-channel mixer with digital effects and parametric controls, new to me. My French is rudimentary at best and the French tech spoke no English, but after fumbling my questions about 'puissance', 'paramètres' and 'interrupteurs' with the help of Oliver's fluent French, we were confident about controlling the system. Pete was in good form for the sound check, and we were treated to interpretations of some of his favourite songs, both on guitar and at his new keyboard, the red hammer-action Nord Electro 3 HP.
Afterwards our whole party went for dinner on the terrace of the Brasserie du Théâtre, across the square from the château (in the unlikely event you care, I had escargots and cabillaud.)
The day of the concert dawned fine and bright, and at our leisure we prepared breakfast with the help of young Tim Ash, took a walk through the park and the woods, then headed back into town in search of picnic provisions (basically bread, cheese and wine) for the afternoon. Some of our fellow Voices (see their own comments on this thread and Rob Spence's PA/CJ Facebook group) had stayed in a local hotel, and drifted in to Oliver's during the afternoon, to relax in the garden and participate in Ian Chippett's slightly chaotic Atkin song trivia quiz.
And so to the evening:
After a welcome from Oliver, Pete introduced his first song in French, explaining to the audience the significance of 'Biro'. This diluted the impact of the splendidly executed trope of a perfect Perfect Moments guitar intro turning into Have You Got A Biro I Can Borrow? on the first word of the verse, but still it was appreciated by the connoisseurs. I'm not sure the easy-swinging groove suits the eager young poet portrayed in the lyric so well as the original treatment, though.
To keyboard for Ice Cream Man classic in every respect.
Dancing Master the tango instructor is sustained from one week's lesson to the next by his infatuation, obsession even, with his young pupil.
An Empty Table perfectly rendered. More lost love: each day the narrator walks past the scene of his once-frequent romantic liaisons at a Thames-side restaurant.
Pete had to re-tune his guitar (the black Atkin small Jumbo), which was drifting in the high heat and humidity, for I Know The Way, a new and unrecorded song many will not yet have heard. In another one-sided relationship, the singer is certain that his sparkling date will realise the perfect inevitability of their union, but somehow the girl continues to entertain other ideas.
Still on guitar, Carnations On The Roof was padded out by an extra couple of bars between each line of the chorus, and repetitions of the final phrase. A difficult one to finish satisfactorily, but then so is the subject.
Back to piano for Hill Of Little Shoes, effectively and affectingly delivered.
Driving Through Mythical America came next, again introduced en Français an infrequently-played classic.
Then came Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger on guitar, a particular favourite of the Ash boys, to the point where Oliver would sing it to them at bedtimes. The three boys, refreshingly gentle and unspoiled by any of the usual British street-smart attitude, sat quiet and absorbed throughout the concert.
"This is a song we wrote to warn ourselves how dangerous it would be to be famous... Fortunately, we have never needed the warning" Be Careful When They Offer You The Moon.
During the interval the audience spilled out into the château's courtyard to discuss the evening so far, pausing only to shell out their 5 Euros apiece for one or more of the CDs on sale. On our return we found Pete had done a quick change (à la Madonna, he offered) and was ready to tackle the second half with renewed vigour.
The Beautiful Changes (guitar) Pete executed in strict tempo, without the triplet feel of Julie Covington's version (coincidentally re-issued in June on the Cherry Red/Cherry Tree label.)
Next he played a favourite of mine from the Footlights days, You'd Better Face It, Boy on piano, segueing into a snappy Hypertension Kid.
Another recent and very poignant song, Me To Thank, addresses the recurrent James theme of regret, the narrator blaming his present predicament on his own actions, or inactions, rather than simply on the passage of time.
Apparition In Las Vegas (guitar), starting slow and accelerating, was introduced as being "about you" (the audience), though I couldn't spot a single pink rinse myself. But the guy on stage indeed "wrote and bound the book of which (our) early aspirations were the pages".
Pete described the songwriter's need to keep a song small, compact and simple, and as a perfect example played Buddy Holly's Learning The Game.
Canoe, a story of exploration across the centuries and by now a very familiar favourite, was brilliantly executed on piano to high acclaim from the audience. I'll have to get a version of this onto YouTube one of these days perhaps a mash-up of concert performances juxtaposed with historic or dramatic footage (frameage? giggage?) from 1970.
One of the very first two or three songs Clive James and Pete Atkin ever wrote, My Dreams Are Troubled, appeared on the 1967 privately-pressed LP While The Music Lasts sung by Julie Covington. Here Pete gave it a straight and simple piano treatment which let the melody, distinctly Atkinesque even back then, speak for itself.
Next came one of the evening's highlights, Tenderfoot. A masterful evocation of the desert landscapes of the American southwest, this relentlessly driving verse-chorus number is an allegory of a man suffering massive regret for his loss of true love through a lifetime's uncaring actions. Written for the Secret Drinker album of 1974, this is surely one of Clive James' greatest and most poignant lyrics.
Back to fingerstyle guitar for another welcome rarity from the Footlights days, You Are The Music (While The Music Lasts). Then to piano again for an immaculate Thirty Year Man.
Pete rounded off the second set with Laughing Boy, on guitar with a boogie groove, remarking how on his tours with Clive the song featured as a finale in which Clive would also sing, and how he (Pete) would often have to modify the rhythm to fit with Clive's apparent inability to count beats and bars.
For an encore, Pete sang Tonight Your Love Is Over (guitar), remarking that the song has been omitted from the new CD of Julie's The Beautiful Changes, though it did feature on the (now out of print) See For Miles reissue of 1999.
This must have been one of Pete's most memorable concerts in years, and the grandeur of the setting surely eclipsed almost any other venue he has played.
After the show a fair sclonch of the audience wandered across the square to the bar La Soubise, where we satisfied our hunger and thirst late into the evening.
Carole and I quit out on Sunday morning for a couple of days in Paris, leaving Pete to lunch and to play a few things for Oliver, family and friends before heading for home.
Midnight Voices members identified:
Oliver Ash and Géraldine
let me know if I've forgotten anyone and I'll add you (them) to the list. Delighted to meet you all and regretting we managed only a few words with some of you!
The remainder of the audience (87 strong in total, if I remember correctly) was made up of locals, other Parisian UK expats and friends of Oliver and Géraldine, not all of whom we had the opportunity to meet.
All in all, a grand few days out. Very large thanks to the Ashs, the Ians, the château on the plateau
Photo credits: Ian Sorensen, Pete Atkin, S J Birkill, that Italian waiter with Oliver's camera. Video: S J Birkill.
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