One of the things I like about AUK is that it tries to be the best of both worlds. Whilst it is essentially (and thankfully) a loose collective of fan girls and boys it is also serious about what it does and tries to do its thing in a skilled, articulate and objective manner. Sometimes it is hard to capture this spirit when writing about the ‘stuff’ you love but I have tried to, not always successfully admittedly, but I have tried. However, this piece has really stretched the limits. I’m just not sure how it is possible to communicate the wonder of our own personal ‘night (or nights) to remember’ without it coming across like someone showing off about how great their life experiences have been, how many cool gigs they went to and you didn’t.
I really want the piece to be something more than just reviews of gigs I thought were brilliant. A gig review has a certain convention to follow, specific things to communicate and certain judgements to make, but communicating the transcendent majesty or life-affirming glory of our own ‘night(s) to remember’ is another thing entirely. The ‘facts’ of these events don’t seem to come close to getting across the wonder of the experience. Then even if they could, most of them were so long ago I couldn’t remember the ‘facts’ with anything like the clarity needed to present them properly now anyway.
Then that’s another thing, most of these were ‘massive nights’ in more ways than just music. Each had, and still has, specific personal meaning for me. It almost seems futile trying to capture and present for posterity the aspect of some great gig that had an emotional impact on you – it’s not how this thing works. So how then to communicate all this in a way that has meaning for others when it can’t really be anything other than a personal reflection? Not sure about that either but if I can just find some of what made these nights special and communicate it in a universal way then I will consider that a success.
It actually feels like a lot of these nights could be dreams; in my recollection they tend to merge together and it becomes difficult to recall where one ends and another begins. I remember one and another pops into my mind because of some random connection or similarity. These may all be ‘massive nights’ in their own right but they seem now to resonate more together than individually. So let’s work with that then. The rhetorical rule of three suggests that groups of three happenings are more satisfying together, so here I offer ‘nights to remember’ that live in my consciousness together in three ‘packets-of-three’; “omne trium perfectum” as they say in Hebden Bridge.
1 . “In and out of love” or “The Arc of Simpson”: a story of love and betrayal”
This love story has a clear narrative arc but it remains unfinished and whether it is ultimately a happy ever after or a tragedy remains to be determined. I first met Sturgill on 9th August 2015 at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds. It was a very successful first date; he was great fun, the beer was in good form and the atmosphere was way better than expected – bolstered by a packed crowd, far bigger than I ever imagined. Good as the first date was, our affair was consummated and I fell head-over-heels in love with the Kentucky grudge in Manchester on July 12th 2016. This was during quite possibly the most personally traumatic period of my life. Events, my dear, had taken over and blown the whole shebang off course and music, along with everything else that usually brought joy, had been jettisoned as a result. I’ve no idea what made me decide, at the last minute, to actually use those tickets for Gorilla, a venue with a spectacularly low success rate in my experience. For whatever it was though, I will always remain grateful. The show, quite literally took me on a journey from despair to redemption with the full 7 (or was it 8?) piece band killing everything from New Orleans R&B to Texas Honky Tonk and back to Southern Soul in spectacular fashion. The second half of the set, majoring on ‘Sailors Guide to Earth’, defied anything but slack jawed gawping at its wonder. Speechless but moved to the realisation that things would, somehow, be ok I hugged my jazz/hip-hop loving son and thanked him for coming with me (he was just as smitten), cried most of the way home and gave praise for the life affirming power of the rock n roll. If ever it can truly be said that music saved anyone’s life then it was that night on Whitworth St. All good things come to an end though and our relationship expired in traumatic circumstances two years later on another Manchester night to remember. Sturgill and I had not seen much of each other over the intervening years so I was full of hope for our reunion, despite the discomfort caused by the cantankerous ‘Sound and Fury’ – the product of his “therapeutic indignation” apparently. The disappointment of that record though was nothing compared to the wearisome frustration, tedium and, yes I’ll own it, fury my ex generated that January evening. A never ending vapid and self-referential rant against critics, ‘the business’, record companies … Hey, Sturgill, what are you rebelling against? Whad’ya got?… was only occasionally interrupted by turgid and lumpy Southern rock shredding to a cavernous Ritz. Our fling was over and, sadly, remains so to this day.
2. The Yanks are Coming.
So it’s the start of 1984 and as a wannabe arty/philosophical/know-it-all/smart-ass final year undergraduate I’m showing everyone how clever I think I am by reminding them we are on the verge of the monumental upheaval predicted by Eric Blair (see!). This heralds the emergence of a dystopian social nightmare where newspeak and double think hold sway and we are all subject to Big Brother’s relentless scrutiny… hmmmm, actually not that far from the truth on reflection, we were right in the middle of Thatcher’s poisonous hegemony after all.
Seems I was sort of right but the upheaval we were actually in line for was somewhat less traumatising and way less widespread than I (on behalf of Orwell) had been predicting. We were about to be subject to an “American roots music invasion” that would, not to overstate its impact, change my worldview forever. It may have taken the entirety of 1984 to foment but it burst gloriously to life in the first months of 1985 at three (plus one) more ‘nights to remember’. Let’s not get sniffy about exact dates, as we’ve seen they are a moveable feast in retrospective memory and nobody, it seems, can be definitive about them nearly 40 years later. It may have begun earlier but this is the point at which the invasion really took off and these ‘nights to remember’ were the fuel for that launch.
In the space of four glorious North London weeks across April and May we got The Long Ryders then Lone Justice at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden and Los Lobos at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. The run was topped off in July by the best one of the lot – Jason and the Scorchers plus The Blasters also at the Electric Ballroom. Really though, I’m not sure of the value of trying to recreate the specific detail of these gigs. What I do remember, clear as day, is the spectacle and the exhilaration of the ‘shows’; because that is just what they were, ‘shows’. Experiencing them taught me that making an effort to entertain; actually giving a monkey’s whether your audience had a good time, was not the empty, soulless and tacky professionalism I had previously alleged, it was simply just being a great live band.
For years as a result of these shows I believed it was a truism that US bands had an almost unique understanding of this phenomenon. That they were the only ones who thought that it was cool to become skilful and proficient, to rehearse to the point where you were so ‘tight’ you could give ‘great show’, every time (Dexy’s notwithstanding). Until that point I never thought I would hold this love of ‘craft’ up as something to be celebrated. The UK punk / post-punk, new wave or experimental electronica crews I had previously identified with were style over substance, pose, mattered above all and would have balked at the very idea and so therefore did I. The Long Ryders, Lone Justice, Los Lobos, The Blasters and most of all Jason and the Scorchers showed me that I didn’t hate it after all, in fact I loved it and I still do today.
This may sound like a somewhat cold or machine-like response to such a spectacular set of experiences. Believe me it wasn’t at the time and it certainly isn’t now, 36 years later. I just don’t think I’m up to the task of evocating the thrilling emotional impact they had on me and mine at the time. Having previously been a punk loner, this was the first real communal music experience I’d had and persuading a rich cast of characters to attend I felt vindicated in seeing the pure joy that everyone else experienced as a result of one or more of these shows. And now, as a wannabe arty/philosophical/know-it-all/smart-ass final year postgraduate student I continue to love alt-country and to eulogise about the American roots rock invasion bands to whoever will listen (see the Blasters classic album piece).
3. Don’t forget the Duchess
I may have spent the early 1980s ‘living the dream’, as they seem to say now, in the big smoke but even the opportunity to witness regular gigs of such pedigree was not enough to keep me there. The call of the North was loud and I returned late in 1986, slightly concerned that my gig going experiences were going to be significantly reduced in quantity and quality back in Yorkshire. I’d clearly reckoned without the glory was the Duchess of York in Leeds (just the Duchess really) and the tireless work of the estimable John Keenan.
It may have been the very model of a scruffy venue on the ‘toilet circuit’, according to many who played there but the Duchess was the scene of some true nights to remember, again three of them stick out because they crystallised the transition I was making from the bar band sounds of the original roots music invasion to a more serious, maybe even grown-up version of the music, befitting a 30-something chancer now holding down a proper job. The first was a sparsely attended August 1991 show by cult legends Thin White Rope and then the real kicker came in one week in March 1993 with magical shows by American Music Club (packed to the gunnels) followed by Uncle Tupelo (let’s say more sparsely attended!). We’d lived through the whole plaid shirted grunge debacle but these bands added that intensity and power to a real rootsy, blue-collar working man’s ethic and topped it with stellar songwriting.
Their shows engaged the head and the heart with real ‘muscle and blood’ in a way that I’d rarely experienced and only ever fleetingly so. Live music could be more than a ‘party’ and I was now equipped with a full range of gears to get the most of whatever was presented to me. That’s not to say simple revelry was completely gone from my live music repertoire. Before it closed its doors in 2000 the duchess was able to deliver more massive party nights. At one of these I fondly remember my partner getting thoroughly messy on lager and lime and flinging properly hairy arsed bikers (definitely not erudite foodie bikers) around the ‘dancefloor’ in front of the stage to the sound of the Big Town Playboys; the point at which I realised I definitely wanted ‘partner’ to become ‘life partner’ (she did). Just another example of how important and life-affirming these ‘nights to remember’ can be.