A Diamond in a Dark Place

by Richard Corfield

Have you ever been in a dark place and dreamed of a way out? Dreamed of a ray of light, perhaps even a shard from some refractive gem whose glitter in a wrinkle of folded coal might strike your retina and impart some hope? A dark place such as this can be somewhere in the physical world, but often it's somewhere in your inner world.

And sometimes it's both.

The Angel of Islington last night was a not just a dark place; it was a cold, dark place, the scurrying pedestrians making their way as rapidly as possible back to their nests in amongst the wealth. And your reviewer's soul was at a low ebb for reasons that I won't bore you with.

I was not of my best.

But when I went home, the spring was back in my step, and I was up till 1.30 a.m. telling another what a great evening I'd had.

The reason, as regular readers might possibly guess, was the intervention of the music of one Pete Atkin, lyrics - as ever - kindly provided by the supple mind and pen of Clive James.

The setting was uninspiring, it must be said. And this, before you fill your Pentium chips with vitriol, is not an attack on Martin Nail or the Islington Folk Club. It is a fact. The pub was grimy, and the room was small, and both added to my beleaguered coal-mine mentality. But the venue was packed, an eager cluster of Midnight Voices and others who were clearly regulars. Most members (I wonder, BTW, how the attendance figures jumped last night? By twenty percent: forty percent?) were there for the music of Pete and Clive. But the music from the club's regular contributors was both enthusiastic and loud. And then Pete appeared, after a gruelling four and half hour journey from Bristol. From beyond - as it later transpired - a border town that they call Contrition, but for our purposes we may call it Slough.

From the beginning it was obvious that Pete has decided to broaden his 'live' output now. I wondered fleetingly whether this new found confidence wasn't in some way related to the efforts of his Cyberspatial Fan Club. I think I found the right answer.

Yours on a postcard please.

Pete started the set with THE PRINCE OF AQUITAINE, a huge success and a surprise - correct me if I'm wrong (and boy do I know you will...), but I don't believe this one has been aired live since the mid-seventies. As he pointed out "That song's about as near as I get to Streets of London..."

Then, "Here's a curiosity, DON'T BOTHER ME NOW." From, of course, Julie Covington's THE BEAUTIFUL CHANGES and played here with a distinctive blues feel. "Maybe some of you can correct me, but that might be the only Clive James lyric that contains the word, 'Baby' [Well, let's see...... - SJB]. You know I had the most appalling journey here today... four and a quarter hours it took me from Bristol... and having thought that, I then thought I might sing you a song about another appalling journey. Clive likes to get hold of an idea sometimes and flog it to the absolute limit. I think that one of the things that everybody can probably recognise is the way that one is sometimes haunted by things from their past... and this is a song about that. The song is fuelled by the fact that the western American towns founded by the early settlers were given names associated with abstract qualities... The song is called TENDERFOOT..." And the M4 corridor was magically transformed to the flats and mesas of the Arizona and Nevada badlands. The tempo of this song was slower than in the original SECRET DRINKER version but worked well, the pounding keyboard adding drama to the interpretation. Then, "Here's another London song," thoughtful pause, "it always pays to see if I can remember the first words." And then for the first time in this, Pete's '90's renaissance, we had RAIN-WHEELS. A roar from the crowd as the man's fingers scaled the first octave, and within seconds the audience were stomping their feet. The fifth album is arguably the most technically accomplished in the Atkin/James canon and it must be with some trepidation that Pete approached this without the benefit of Morgan Studio's multi-tracking facilities, but, Boy, did it work! A pounding, word and key perfect, rendition that lifted the heart.

Here was where I really started to forget my woes.

This song was a real crowd pleaser. By the time we hit the second verse, the Voice on my right was adding his eighteen stone enthusiasm (his estimate, not mine) to the stress loading on the Empress's already horizontally-challenged floor beams.

And for those who remember the RAIN-WHEELS debate during last summer, SJB's assessment of the closing verse is entirely correct:

     Her Firestones go trailing spray
     They spin, they grip, they whip away
     Through trembling reflections of the lights of intersections
     And the brightly flourished crayon of the neon

"I ask your indulgence for this; this is a work in progress," a handful of minor chords and then, "This song is based on a phrase that haunted me and Clive for a very long time, a wonderful 1948 film called FORCE OF EVIL which was written and directed by a man who suffered greatly at the hands of the McCarthy witch hunts, Abraham Polonsky. It's a New York gangster film, a film noir, and the line, 'I feel like midnight and I don't know what tomorrow will be...' begins it." And so to the first airing of the all-new (as in two weeks old!) Atkin/James song, I FEEL LIKE MIDNIGHT.

Following on from this was a song that began tantalisingly, "Well, it's in G," said the man mischievously, then "He worked setting tools for a multi-purpose punch,..." CARNATIONS ON THE ROOF of course and for followers of the recent debate, Gerry Smith was kind enough to point out the Em7 chord to me. The number started very gently and built gradually to a triumphant crescendo.

Then, just before the interval, a song from Pete's play A&R, OVER THE HIGH SIDE. I had not heard this before and looking around the audience I could see from their rapt expressions that this was a song that most MV's were obviously not familiar with either.

After the interval Pete started with the first of the requests, "sometimes I can pull a request straight off the top of the pile, and sing it after a long time, but there are others that I can't hack at all; I can't say exactly why that is, but this next one falls somewhere between the two, and since this is probably the riskiest thing I'll tackle I'll do it first," APPARITION IN LAS VEGAS (thanks Pete!) was followed by "Here's one I sang here last time", SENIOR CITIZENS was followed by "a song about historical events but placed into the wrong era..." It was of course SEARCH AND DESTROY, a song that Pete hadn't planned to sing but which he agreed to do - with his customary good grace - acquiescing to overwhelming demand.

Then came THE HOLLOW AND THE FLUTED NIGHT, followed by another request, CANOE, prefaced with the words, "Here's something which last time I did (at Buxton) with a funny sort of keyboard voicing, but tonight I'm going to do it straight, the rhythmic feel I was after with this I borrowed from the Beach Boys..."

Next up was SUDDEN ARRIVALS, the theme from Pete's 1970's TV series and last heard at Eastbourne on 5 August this year. As Pete put it mildly, "... another small curiosity for the collectors," and then "one which is such an old war horse I was planning on leaving it out, but I don't mind singing it at all, this song has been very good to me over the years... and for once I won't do this last", it was of course BEWARE OF THE BEAUTIFUL STRANGER, complete with full MV choral accompaniment. Then it was HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY, which netted a round of applause even before the end of the third bar, much to Pete's amusement, "Oh come on..."

At the end of this the Islington Folk Club authorities seemed anxious to wind up proceedings, (do they have an unnegotiable closing hour with the council authorities I wonder?) but with level gaze Pete said. "Oscar Levant said of George Gershwin, an evening with George Gershwin is a George Gershwin evening, and I'm afraid it's much the same with me." Pete then mentioned the Internet, the MV's and what it was doing for his career, "for those of you who are mystified by all this, my career has taken this amazing and meteoric, err, change, due to an extremely civilised man call Steve Birkill who started a web site about me a couple of years ago, and everything that's happened since is due to this amazing medium. If you open up your favourite search engine and type in the words Pete Atkin, up will come this amazing list of arcana. To give you an idea of where we are the site contains a list of every single gig I did between 1970 and 1978..."

Pete followed this with PERFECT MOMENTS, then TOUCH HAS A MEMORY, and then the final number, THIEF IN THE NIGHT.

It was an excellent evening, and Martin Nail and the Islington Folk Club are to be thanked for providing us with the opportunity to hear Pete again before the end of the year. It is also worth mentioning, as Martin himself did a few postings back, that the IFC have booked Pete over the years even during his pre-Internet interregnum. For nurturing that flame, guttering as it was in the chill breeze of the record companies' indifference, and keeping it alive before the arrival of Steve and the Cyberspatial Valkyries known as the Midnight Voices, the IFC deserves our grateful thanks.






(Click to enlarge)

Photo by Jenny Cotterill

(Click for wider view)

Photo by Richard/John Corfield

See also Gerry Smith's Review
Other reviews: Buxton; Eastbourne

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