Review of Pete Atkin at the Standard Athletic Club, Meudon

Mel Powell

The Singer at the World's End

Paris poster

Renoir, Verlaine, Ronsard and yes, even existentialism all made their appearance in Pete Atkin's repertoire at Meudon near Paris on Saturday evening, in a fascinating set considerately chosen to appeal to a small but very varied audience.

At first glance, the Standard Athletic Club at Meudon is a corner of a foreign (athletics) field that is forever England. The same portrait of the Queen which presided over every ex-pat Officers' Mess in the 1950s presides over an outstanding collection of old copies of Wisden, and pints and halves hold sway at the bar. But a closer look at the notices confirms an international membership and it was this group of Anglo-French sports enthusiasts which made up the majority of Saturday's audience.

Their ranks were swelled by the small but determined group of die-hard Midnight Voices who had braved the Channel, the Metro, the cabbies of Paris and finally the deep dark forest to see Pete perform again at the only concert I've ever experienced at which the organisers sent out a search party to find the rest of the audience.

Settling down in my seat and wondering what Pete would come up with for such a mixed audience, I felt the thrill once unfamiliar, but now becoming usual of knowing that some of them would be hearing him for the first time, and wondering what their reaction would be. I was particularly interested to see how he would go down with the French contingent, bearing in mind that the chanson tradition has accustomed this nation to greater lyrical complexity in popular songs than we're used to on the other side of the Channel.

Et maintenant... Pete steps up to the mic. It's strangely touching to see him in this unfamiliar place, after our travels and the nightmare journey. One feels concerned for him (small audience, newcomers, hope he'll be all right) but also reassured by his presence. Pete's here: he'll see us right.

And he did. A lot of thought had obviously gone into choosing the set list. There were the French cultural references plus plenty of background detail to help with interpretation for the French audience members whose English was good, and a few of the clear, limpid songs for those whose English is as good as my French. There were classics for the newcomers and, yes, a couple of surprises for the Voices.

First things first (this is a female reviewer, remember). Some of the Voices spoke a harsh word about Pete's choice of shirt for Monyash, deeming it too loud. Me, I thought it was brilliant. It had guitars all over it, and I hoped he might have another one just like it at home, only with pianos all over it. Tonight's shirt had satellites all over it an obvious tribute to the unfortunately absent Steve Birkill as well as a subtle visual reference to the music of the spheres. N.B. Leading fashion sources tell me it was purchased in LA, not on Mars.

And then, the music. Starting as usual on guitar, Pete started with an extended, Spanish-influenced intro, which sounded new but led eventually into Thief in the Night. Despite some teething problems with the sound mix, resulting in a slightly tinny sound quality on the crescendo into the chorus, it was a cracking start and drew an enthusiastic round of applause from Voices and newcomers alike.

Next, after dropping a heavy clue about its 'curiously dated references', Pete followed it with Girl on the Train, producing some lovely mellow bass notes to complement the melody. The audience listened intently, and I noticed a few smiles of amused recognition from the French contingent when Monsieur Verlaine was mentioned. Pete's slight hesitation on the final "again and again" underlined the poignancy of the ending, which was drowned in warm applause and a few cheers.

Now Pete moved to the keyboard. A brief knockabout on the marimba setting (was I the only one to recognise the theme from the Sooty Show?), and he settled into the blues piano setting he needed for the next song, Sessionman's Blues, going on to give one of the most touching performances I've heard of this song. The slightly ponderous, jazz-piano intro with its 'walking bass' underlined the weariness of the lyric. Newcomers in the audience clearly relished "they want me to work/ on the afternoon after I'm dead": there were a few chuckles. And then after the words were over, Pete's hands took off into a flourish of swooping, melodic piano blues which seemed to belie the apparent cynicism of the lyric. A classic moment.

After explaining how its lyrics were prompted by movie and documentary images of the 70s, ranging from Nixon to The Godfather, Pete launched into I See The Joker. After a bouncy intro mixing brass and stopped diapason tones, he gave a tense, tight, dramatic vocal performance. I particularly enjoy hearing the keyboard accompaniment in these live performances: the variation from just a few sparse notes to the deep doomy chords before "crossed wires on my brow", and of course, the skittery notes just after "I see the Joker", which sound like mocking laughter.

By way of contrast, Pete played what he called "a short song", commenting: "It's a lot harder to be simple than to be complicated. It took us a long time to learn that. And of course, another advantage of short songs is that if you don't like them, they're over very quickly."

The song in question was Care-Charmer Sleep, whose first chords were enough to bring tears to my eyes. Pete persevered through a hitch in the amplification and was soon back in the flow, retrieving the mood in plenty of time for "And pale purple on a clear liqueur" and the heart of the song's meaning which follows. He sang only two repeats of "I am the sleep", so it was shorter than ever. "Sweet", said someone in the audience at the end and it was.

Changing the mood, Pete next introduced Stranger In Town as having been written as the theme song intended for a Clint Eastwood movie which was never made. He played the long one-chord intro to the tale of the Western non-hero up to the hilt (or should that be the capo?), and then went on to play it for all it was worth, pausing to point out the allegedly Existentialist line "I still can't be sure if he was him". There was some audience speculation as to whether this shadowy Anti-Clint figure was in fact Oliver Ash, but his name-check wasn't far away.

Pete's final song before the break for dinner was 'for Oliver'. "The fields of Ash" perhaps? But no, it was Thirty Year Man. Perhaps it was the setting, but I was aware as never before of how brilliantly the music mirrors the story in the lyrics: the repeated opening chords signalling the intro to a jazz song, underlining the subtle lyrical shifts and differences between successive verses; the pause and fall before the weary crashing-down of "thirty years in the racket". MVs have commented before that the songs call for Pete to be an actor as well as a singer. What's sometimes less obvious is the way in which he makes the piano his fellow-actor, playing to perfection the little musical flourishes and jeux d'esprit with which the gifted slave makes the most of his brief hour of freedom.

After the break, Pete started the second half with Apparition in Las Vegas, which I hadn't heard live before. Fascinating to hear it without the Vegas-style backing, with a guitar-only accompaniment: it concentrated your attention on the lyrics. Then it was back to the keyboard for Perfect Moments. With a tiny, jingly celeste-sound somewhere beneath the melody, it was paced and limpid, each word and note falling into the darkness like a raindrop, ending on that final questing note. A little ripple of recognition greeted "Renoir's mistresses".

Next, with a reference to his erstwhile backing group The Beautiful Changers, Pete launched into "a London song", Rainwheels. The storming piano accompaniment wasn't a let-down after the full backing sound last time we heard this one live: in fact, the keyboard was shaking throughout the song from the impact of Pete's hands.

Introducing My Egoist and identifying the title as French in source, Pete explained the song's key metaphor: the garden is the author himself. I enjoyed this song and the clear, bell-like tones of Pete's accompaniment more than on previous hearings, probably because I now understood it better. The heavy-handed and then finally, the blind bad enough for a garden: how much worse for a person.

Next came Search and Destroy, which Pete introduced as 'a Mystery song you have to look for clues throughout it'. As a result, I 'got' "we should have nailed the first ones" for the first time ever. Pete's vocal delivery throughout was fittingly harsh, even militaristic, underlined by the marching rhythm of the chords.

A massive mood change now signalled "a very silly song one of our failed attempts to be out-and-out commercial and cash in on the popularity of Country and Western". It was, of course, Song for Rita, and the peals of laughter from the audience underlined just how well this song works in performance. (A note for the purists: Pete definitely sang "what you cost me in MOTEL bills" this time, which makes it sound much more sleazy.)

Still on guitar for Rider to the World's End, Pete's accompaniment was high on tonal contrast between the lyrical picking underpinning the lyrical reminiscence, and the harsh chords underlining the desolation which faces the Rider.

Then a total surprise a first public performance (probably) for "a small but passionate song about not being a good loser". Craning forward so as not to miss a bit, I took in a bluesy piano intro, followed by a song crammed full of anger, sexual jealousy and defiance in the face of impending loss. It was called More in Anger than in Sorrow. I hope we'll be hearing it again.

Next, Screenfreak. The piano accompaniment flows, surges and swells, the cinematic images unfold like an endless stream of celluloid through a projector's flickering light. I forget to scribble notes, Ian forgets the mixing desk and leans forward chin on hands, like an absorbed schoolboy. For the duration of the song, we're as mesmerised as the narrator.

"Break my trance". Pete gets up, picks up the guitar, pauses to fit the capo, and out ring the familiar notes of the intro to Beware of the Beautiful Stranger, instantly drowned by applause. Pete's reaction? "God, if you think the introduction's that good, I won't bother with the song."

After this false start, the familiar melody and story unfold, punctuated by gentle laughter from those who are hearing the lyrics for the first time and are now on their way to being baffled by the blend of irony and seriousness. It's now very dark in the hall, and as Pete plays, the moon is shining clearly through the uncurtained windows of the sports hall conservatory just above his right shoulder, so that when he reaches "you live in a dream, and the dream is a cage", the bars of the window behind him are illuminated, just as if a particularly sensitive stage designer had provided him with a set with a glass cage as scenery. A perfect moment.

From an old favourite to an unreleased song first heard at Monyash, You Alone Will Be My Last Adventure. After a false start to establish the rhythm, it's as overwhelmingly beautiful as when I first heard it. Pete loses it at "the broken figure" well, it is nearly midnight, and he's obviously as knackered as we are. But he gets it back again, and it's still lovely.

Back up-beat for the final scheduled number, Pete introduces the final song from his musical A & R Amy's Blues or Just For Me, which closes the show with the singer heroine left alone in the studio. It's a full-throated, rolling blues for an old-fashioned blues shouter, the words those of the seen-it-all, done-it-all trouper who still craves just one more great song to work the old magic, Somehow it seems magnificently at home in this sports hall at the end of the world.

And then the encore Touch has a Memory. Quiet, paced, understated, it acquires another dimension this late at night ("Fine eyes are wide at night"...)

The show ends with thanks, acknowledgements, and an appeal from Pete for lifts to get the visiting Midnight Voices safely back to Paris. After many concerts, and from many performers, it would have sounded incongruous. After this one, and coming from Pete, it was the finishing touch to an evening of considered, considerate entertainment.

Thanks Oliver and Ian for organising it against all odds and of course, thanks Pete.

Report on the Lyrics Discussion Session at the summer '99 Garden Party.

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