Heady Brew at The Maltings

a review of Pete Atkin & Clive James's appearance at The Maltings, Farnham, Surrey, 20th October 2005

by Paul Gunningham

Pete Atkin & Clive James at The Maltings   photo: Paul Gunningham

Pete Atkin and Clive James's latest tour has a leisurely air, taking in only eleven venues over a period of six or seven weeks. Their appearance in Farnham on Thursday was the first since last Saturday, and I wondered whether the gap would affect their performance. Would they be slow to warm up after the short break, or would they be raring to go, with their batteries fully charged?

In the event they acquitted themselves more than admirably, but I was a little apprehensive at first, as the venue had an unaccountably odd atmosphere, that somehow didn't seem quite appropriate for what was to come. It appeared that the foyer of the old maltings in which the concert took place was often used as a community centre of sorts. There were several boxes of charity Christmas cards in the foyer, covered up throughout the evening session, with nobody manning the stall - the charity concerned surely missed a trick there. As I waited for the hall doors to open I browsed through a rack of second-hand paperbacks offered for sale. I noted that there were none of CJ's works there - if there had been, I could perhaps have saved myself a few quid later!

Once inside, you could see by its multiple rows of windows that the maltings had had its many malting floors removed to create the hall. It was evidently used for other purposes, as the somewhat wobbly rows of chairs were temporarily set out on the level floor, with a ramped section at the back to allow those further back to see the stage. The front row was several yards from the stage, which may have been disappointing to those hoping to get up close and personal. With a few minutes to go there were still many empty seats and I did wonder whether the event had been publicised adequately by the management. Fortunately my worries on that score were unnecessary, as many people arrived at the last minute. Not a sell-out though, as there were still a few empty seats to be seen.

Given its history, the building clearly wasn't designed for its acoustics, and I have to say that these, and the sound system, were not among the best I've experienced. There was a bathroomy echo in the front section, where the sound from the speakers (suspended high up near the ceiling) was directed to the rear and passed largely over the heads of those in the stalls. This was compounded in the absence (unless I'm mistaken) of floor mounted auditorium speakers, by sound leakage from the monitors, whence Pete noticed and remarked on radio signals!

But enough of the hall - Pete and Clive proved more than able to overcome any adversity posed by its shortcomings. After launching the evening's revelry with Pete's shortened Master Of The Revels, they settled in like the professionals they are and had the crowd eating out of the palms of their hands in next to no time.

The show lasted a couple of hours or so, not including an interval roughly half way. The content was, as those who have seen them before have come to expect, a mixture of old favourites and new material, some humorous and some darker in content, but always entertaining. Clive had the audience sitting in pensive silence as if in a funeral service for one of his serious poems, then a mere five minutes later they would be almost crying with laughter at one of his humorous items.

Pete provided the musical entertainment as well as participating in the - by now - finely honed double act with Clive in between the poems and songs. His performances were superb, with - again as his admirers have come to expect, - some different versions of familiar material, casting new light on them in the process. And there were a couple of brand new songs, recently written and being premiered for the first time on this tour. As well as collaborating with Pete on the new songs, Clive had been busy with some new poems too. This was definitely not just a reworking of the last tour.

One of the musical highlights was a superb performance of Screen-Freak - possibly the best ever - with some beautiful keyboard work from Pete. Another - also on keyboard - was a sensitive rendition of An Empty Table, which pleased the audience mightily. Pete's 'folky' arrangement of Carnations On The Roof (as first heard in relatively recent times at FoD '99) was also well received - the different ending was an especially nice touch. A laid-back version of Ice Cream Man, opening the second half, was also perfectly executed.

Then there were the two new songs, both in the second half - these were also highlights, and not just because they were new. Both very different, and not very similar to anything else in the repertoire, they went down well with the audience, many of whom I judged were hearing most, if not all, of the songs for the first time.

(I've Got) Me To Thank was explained by Clive as a man taking responsibility for his own actions, with regrets for poor decisions made, but placing the blame squarely on himself. Pete's arrangement was described by himself as a 'pop song', and that would be a fair description, except not many pop songs have such a sensitivity or quality. The feel was reminiscent of All I Ever Did, but the new song is more complex musically, even thougb very accessible on first hearing.

The second new offering Here We Stay was very different. A driving, galloping, almost menacing rhythm and a very catchy tune, with - for Pete - a relatively simple arrangement (few 11ths or 13ths here!) to do justice to Clive's straightforward lyrics. This song is already being hailed as an anthem by some, and I can't disagree with that. What's the betting this will become the closer for many a future Pete Atkin gig? The only slight problem with Pete's performance of the song was that it's a pity he didn't use a guitar with heavier strings. The poor Atkin guitar - which served Pete well throughout the whole evening, as his only guitar on stage - took a bit of a hammering and the strings were noticeably out of tune by the end. The number would really benefit from a band treatment - maybe the Shrinks could oblige by backing Pete next time.

Clive's poems included some interesting new offerings, too. When We Were Kids contained many unusual rhymes such as 'battle/bottle', 'griddle/sizzle', 'tower/tyre', 'cables/marbles'. Perhaps this was because of the subject matter - but the man had better brace himself for those critics who carped about his rhyming of 'mouth' with 'earth' in Girl On The Train (a song absent from tonight's show). They could have a field day with this one!

Other highlights among Clive's varied poems and readings were the moving tribute to his father who died in a tragic flying accident after being liberated at the end of the war (My Father Before Me) and the very funny, though perhaps controversially entitled The Australian Suicide Bomber. There were many hilarious moments, but I'll single out his very funny reading of his review (A Blizzard Of Tiny Kisses) of a book by Judith Krantz, Clive's reading of which had the audience in stitches, by no means for the only time during the evening.

As their 'regulars' have come to expect, the pair put on a fabulous evening's entertainment. They just keep getting better and better, and their act together has gelled perfectly - a far cry from the slightly edgy performance at Buxton, which now seems an age ago.

The Atkin-James partnership is a heady brew indeed, not seen since the maltings dispatched its last sacks to the local brewery. Cheers!

Set List

First Set:

Master Of The Revels shortened version (PA, on keyboard)
Have You Got A Biro I Can Borrow? (PA, guitar)
This Is No Drill (poem, CJ)
Sessionman's Blues (PA, kbd)
Screen-Freak (PA, kbd)
Anniversary Serenade (poem, CJ)
The Last Hill That Shows You All The Valley (PA, gtr)
Portrait Of A Man Writing (poem, CJ)
Search And Destroy (PA, kbd)
Publisher's Party (poem, CJ)
An Empty Table (PA, kbd)
A Blizzard Of Tiny Kisses (excerpt) (reading, CJ)

Second Set:

Ice Cream Man (PA, kbd)
When We Were Kids (poem, CJ)
Carnations On The Roof (PA, gtr)
(I've Got) Me To Thank (PA, gtr)
The Australian Suicide Bomber (poem, CJ)
The Prince Of Aquitaine (PA, kbd)
My Father Before Me (poem, CJ)
Senior Citizens (PA, gtr)
Celebrity And Recognition (reading, CJ)
Here We Stay (PA, gtr)
Be Careful When They Offer You The Moon (PA/CJ, gtr)

Encore: Laughing Boy (PA/CJ, gtr)

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