Machineries of Joy (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Live Music Again)

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Is there a better way to start a week’s holiday from work than by watching a spellbinding performance from Elvis Costello & the Imposters at Liverpool’s prestigious Philharmonic Hall?

Probably not.

Is there a better way to end a week’s holiday from work than by watching an uproarious set from British Sea Power in the ruins of Liverpool’s ‘bombed-out’ St. Luke’s church?

Ah, I don’t think so?

After the week I have just had I’d be hard pushed to think of a superior alternative. I have simply been spoilt. Spoilt by two of England’s finest music makers, and I have loved every minute of it.

I find it unforgivable that neither act make much of a noise in the charts or on commercial radio. Yes, Elvis Costello is a household name, but like one of my fellow gig-goers on Monday night, many a layman would be hard pushed to name an album or even a single other than Oliver’s Army. Likewise, stood behind me in the ruins of St. Luke’s on Sunday I over heard a man assure his friend that British Sea Power will be good as he’d “watched a couple of their YouTube videos” at the start of the week. But those who know, know. And those who know in Liverpool were with me this overcast week in June.

What I look for in a gig is a song or a moment that will stay with me long after the show has ended. I hope for something memorable to separate it from the majority of gigs that I go to, where it often appears that the performing artist is either going through the motions or just isn’t all that good live. In most cases I just want to see a performance that will distract me from over priced beer, from getting pushed and shoved, and dare I say it, from people relentlessly talking throughout the whole show!

I needn’t have worried with Elvis Costello and British Sea Power, as both shows, however contrasting, satisfied my need for memorable moments with aplomb.

Last Monday, Elvis Costello treated 1,600 or so fans at the Philharmonic Hall to two and half hours of his Spectacular Spinning Songbook, with memorable moment after memorable moment, stemming from Costello’s original idea born in the 1980’s (and now resurrected in the 2010’s) whereby fans are given control of the evening’s setlist. Over the course of the evening, members of the audience are invited to spin a large ‘wheel-of-fortune’ style songbook containing a selection from Elvis’s prominent back catalogue. The lucky fans then get to stay on stage for the duration of their chosen song after having a brief meet ‘n’ greet with a jovial Costello.

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It works a treat. This gimmick warns the fans in advance that although they may not get to hear all of their favourites, they may just get to hear that one special song that will make their night. And even if you’re not one of the lucky gig-goers to get picked from the audience, there is still an electricity in the air, charged from the feeling that you are all witnessing something unique and special. The Spinning Songbook device also allows for great interaction between fan and artist, and Costello takes to this with gusto. He is a natural showman and his enjoyment of this interaction was clear for all to see. Every fan was made welcome on that stage, and nearly every encounter produced a laugh or two. He’s just got it, whatever it may be.

It certainly helps proceedings that Costello’s voice is still so strong, and that the Imposters are so tight that they can dip into such a vast back catalogue at the drop of a hat. I was amazed that near enough every fan who got up on that stage heard the song that they wanted to hear, regardless of whether the wheel actually landed on it or not. In some cases the song wasn’t even written on the wheel in the first place! “If you can’t cheat at the Philharmonic, where can you?” Elvis asked. But you’d imagine from witnessing this show that he’d aim to please wherever he was performing. Below is a taster of a typical Spectacular Spinning Songbook show.

Off the cuff, of the rougher stuff; This Year’s Girl, Strict Time and a hard-hitting, effect laden guitar solo from Watching the Detectives stick in my mind as great performances. But it was actually the softer pool of songs that became the memorable moments for me. Shipbuilding resulted in a worthy standing ovation. She (that uncharacteristic Costello heartbreaker) was enchanting, and Good Year for the Roses a delight. But the memorable moments didn’t stop there. To break up the pattern of audience members spinning the wheel, there was also a section wherein a couple of fans were invited to ‘ring the bell’ via bringing down a circus hammer on another Costello inspired stage prop.

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And as if that wasn’t enough, Elvis went into the crowd himself (as opposed to his attractive “mysterious” leggy blonde assistant), clambered through the stalls, disappeared and gave us a song or two from the Upper Circle.

As a gig packed full of special, memorable moments it was a hard one to beat. So how do British Sea Power fair in comparison? Quite well if I’m honest. And all they needed were two 8 foot tall bears to dance amongst the crowd.

British Sea Power visited Liverpool on Sunday to take part in ‘Liverpool Calling’, an all day event which saw a variety of acts playing two of the city’s most glorious structures; Liverpool’s iconic ‘bombed out church’ and the indispensable pub/eatery/venue du jour that is The Shipping Forecast. (http://www.theshippingforecastliverpool.com/)

Liverpool's Bombed Out Church (Copyright http://ruslangolenkov.com)
Liverpool’s Bombed Out Church (Copyright http://ruslangolenkov.com)
BSP headlined the first part of the day, playing to a small but excitable crowd in the early hours of a cloud-covered Father’s Day evening. It seemed fitting to the day to see the band acting as their own roadies; lugging amplifiers to the stage, tuning up and performing brief but essential sound checks in front of a (by this point) less than patient audience, including a small group provocatively chanting No Lucifer’s “Easy! Easy! Easy!” rallying cry in anticipation.

The band opened with current single/album/memoranda Machineries of Joy, whose shimmering lead guitar line I was particularly looking forward to in advance. It didn’t disappoint, and although I am enjoying their latest LP it soon became apparent that this wasn’t to be a set dominated by current material. Just like Elvis Costello’s Spinning Songbook show, this was to be a performance packed full of ‘hits’, delivered by a band full of merry disposition and eager to please. A debut album double in the form of Apologies to Insect Life/Remember Me soon whipped the crowd into shape for a surging Waving Flags. If it had all ended there, even after just four songs, I would have still left the church a happy man. As to be so close to a band I unquestionably revere was definitely a special moment that I was delighted to have been able to take advantage of.

The venue itself added an intimacy unfound at your more corporately (mobile phone etc.) sponsored venues. The shell that is St. Luke’s, bombed and burnt by the Nazi’s Second World War Blitz on Merseyside (May 1941) accommodating a band steeped in history (natural and British); a band full of character, with a colourful ethos, themselves still standing strong against the incendiary bombs of the modern music business. British Sea Power at St. Luke’s in Liverpool seemed perfectly at home.

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The proximity between the fans and the band allowed for some inevitable heckling. Not long into the set singer Yan appeared genuinely touched by a fans declaration: “you’re doing great lads!”, she exclaimed. “You’re SHIT!” another fan then counter-claimed. Both comments resulting in “thanks” from the stage. The small group singing No Lucifer in the build up then got their wish. After the billowy instrumental that is The Great Skua, brothers Yan and Hamilton exchanged front man duties and swapped instruments to lead us through a 3 strong selection from Hamilton’s rockier side, beginning with the “Easy! Easy! Easy!” shout-a-thon that is No Lucifer. Following that was the throbbing Loving Animals, a new fan favourite which saw BSP’s ‘Bipolar Bear’ enter the arena and cause smiles abound (as you’d imagine a man in an 8′ polar bear costume dancing along to a rock band would.) Below is a clear, studio recorded session of the song. You’ll have to imagine the bear for yourselves.

After the bear left and the band splurged their way through the divisive Mongk II (from the under represented Valhalla Dancehall) the band were encouraged to turn it up, with shouts that the Church “hasn’t got a fucking roof anyway!” An untimely request seeing as the following song, A Light Above Descending, was the only ballad of the set. This didn’t deter from my enjoyment however, as after Yan admitted that it would be difficult to tear the roof off (of a roofless building) with a weary ballad, some minor chuckles were had as a result of BSP guitarist Noble pulling rock god poses as he played along to the slow number.

They turned up the noise a little with 10 year old rarity The Spirit of St. Louis, which was an unexpected selection being as there wasn’t a single representation from their Open Season album, but all’s well that ends well as events came to a close with a boisterous performance of their first Top 40 single, Carrion, including further dancing from the Bi-polar bear as well as the return of Ursine Ultra, British Sea Power’s aging 8 foot Grizzly. Both bears then stayed for the climactic All In It, and thus it was all over. British Sea Power left us encore-less but fulfilled, with Noble appearing to wield a wooden broom in the direction of the remaining fans, either in a manner of victory or as a gesture to say “you’ve had your fill, now be gone.”

Fans collected set lists as I collected memories. It’s been too long since I really enjoyed a gig and in the space of week I had enjoyed two. I left the church feeling elated, eager to go home and listen to more Sea Power and then to head out in the future and get reacquainted with live music once again. As British Sea Power tell us, we are magnificent machineries of joy, and then some. And it’d be a shame for us to ignore this.

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