One month ago today I was sat in a theatre for what I fully expected to be the last time for quite a while. SOLT had closed all of its theatres even as audiences were beginning to arrive; the United Kingdom government, when it eventually acknowledged we needed daily briefings, began doing them at any time between 4.30pm & 6.30pm – rather than earlier in the day, allowing businesses & institutions to effect change with a bit of time to prepare. The inability to set a proper time for these briefings merely added to the chaos that inevitably ensued each day. Getting back to the point… I was out at Bromley rather than in the West End, so I managed to get away with seeing Karen Hauer & Gorka Marquez in Firedance and spend one last evening in a theatre. The remaining things I had planned for the week were cancelled or postponed, and by the end of the week my office was closed, leaving us to work from home.
It feels slightly odd that my final show before the curtains came down wasn’t a play or musical – instead it was a dance show. I’d also had a completely show-free weekend out of exhaustion, as well as to catch up on some outstanding reviews. Comparatively speaking, this year I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere near as much theatre as I have in previous years. And *whispers* I’m not really missing it at all.
Yes, the gap has been plugged somewhat by the brilliant #ShowMustGoOnline bringing me a new Shakespeare production every week, and the National Theatre also streaming some of their NT Live favourites on YouTube – plus the countless other productions being streamed online (Hampstead Theatre & Chichester Festival Theatre, to name but two theatres getting involved).
Obviously I don’t wish that people were out of work and losing money. Things can be precarious enough even when shows are running, let alone when they’re suddenly shut down and there’s no way of knowing when things can start up again – not to mention the government’s disregard for individuals affected by this, later to be replaced by (as far as I can see) a confusing & inadequate way of providing financial aid.
I’ve really got into the #timstwitterlisteningparty idea over the last couple of weeks; Tim Burgess (Charlatans frontman, amongst other things) has been doing these on & off for a while, but obviously now everyone’s free there’s more scope to do them on a daily basis – he organises some representatives from whichever band’s album it is, and everyone listens to the album from start to finish from a set time, tweeting along and getting some insights from the artists. It’s so much fun, even if the time does fly by! And it’s made me realise that what I miss most is live music. It’s not something I’ve ever left the house for as much as theatre, but over the past two or three years I’ve made a concerted effort to go to more gigs – and had set myself the task of going to at least one gig a month this year.
That was going well. Before everything shut down, I had been to one in January, two in February, and one in March – plus I had another to come that month, with a couple lined up for June and another booked for September (I also had my eyes on a few others for the summer months). The first two have already been postponed, so now I wait on the rest… Neither will break my heart as much as Queen + Adam Lambert being moved to 2021 (no amount of preparation could’ve stopped the tears when that was confirmed!), but these gigs were definitely the things I was getting most excited about whenever I looked through my calendar.
As Stereophonics were taking a lot of flak for their Cardiff gigs on 14 & 15 March (the dates I was originally planning on seeing them), and because I meant to write something after I saw them in Nottingham but just couldn’t find the words, I do now need to talk about them here.
I saw Kelly Jones twice on his solo tour last year, but aside from that I hadn’t seen the Phonics themselves for a decade when I went to their Absolute Radio show in Kentish Town this January; 7 March 2020 was, as it turns out, my lucky seventh time seeing the band live. I have to stand to see bands like this, but I get incredibly anxious in crowds like that – it’s the time between sets really, unless you know it could get a bit rough – so I’ve started enlisting my brother to come to see bands with me! We weren’t sure exactly where to go, as there was a bit of a runway out to a B-stage (they weren’t doing that 10 years ago!), but ended up second ‘row’ from the front and just slightly off to the side. I’ve never got that close to the Stereophonics before! Despite the people in front apparently needing to film every single song (in a 2h15 set), I had an excellent view and it was all fairly civilised (and by that I mean I didn’t get beer thrown over me or elbowed in the back).
It was The Best Gig Ever™. I think I say things like that a lot after a gig; as they are slightly less frequent events for me there’s more of an element of surprise, if you see what I mean, as there’s usually plenty of time between them for me to process the show and then kind of forget the impact it can have before I head to the next one. But this one was the best. I was sharing it with my family (our parents were sat down), I had an excellent spot, sustained no injuries – and the set list. Fuck me.
In January, they ditched Traffic from the set list. This is a big deal. It’s incredible live as everyone knows it and sings it at the top of their lungs, and it’s a brilliant piece of songwriting; I thoroughly enjoyed that gig, but did feel a bit crushed at the loss of this song – they’d performed it every time I saw them previously, as did Kelly during his solo tour, and I wondered if they’d veered too far in the direction of their new material & forgotten the classics. I was actually worried for weeks that they wouldn’t do it. Hopefully that goes some way to explaining why I was crying my eyes out all the way through it (though it didn’t stop me from singing every goddamn word); the blast of Word Gets Around and Performance & Cocktails hits was the pleasantest of pleasant surprises, and I did my utmost to break my vocal cords. I’ve not managed it yet, but I’ll keep on trying.
See, this is why I couldn’t write the proper review that I’d planned. A Phonics show is all too personal for me! Dismiss them if you like, but they are one of the best (if not the best) live band around – and have been for years – and Kelly Jones is somehow still criminally underrated as a guitarist, songwriter, storyteller, and frontman. I’ve heard the tale about Stuart Cable “busting the crust” on Keith Richards’ shepherd’s pie so many times now, but it’s the way he tells it… Richard Jones is still ineffably cool as he prowls around with his bass, Adam Zindani is a masterful guitarist, Jamie Morrison is an absolute beast on the drums (at one point he lost a stick and I had flashbacks to Sunny Afternoon drum solos), and Gavin Fitzjohn’s sax solo in Geronimo was a definite highlight.
And this is live music for you. It’s a euphoria that’s so hard to explain; being in a room with a group of people (whether it’s tens, hundreds, or thousands) who all love the band you love, and you share that experience with them as well as have your own personal experience. The weekend before the Phonics I had gone to see The Script on something of a whim, and for the whole week I’d been on such a high from it – I still hadn’t processed it all properly, to be honest, and I did wonder how that would affect my enjoyment of the next gig. If anything I think it enhanced it (even if it did almost make me take a couple of cross-country trips to see them both again – thankfully I was too poor for it!), even if it was rather knackering.
I miss it. And I’m definitely ignoring people saying it’ll be 2021 before gigs are back to normal… (Though I feel I should qualify that I know health is more important and wouldn’t question more gigs being cancelled/postponed.) Standing in those big crowds again will definitely take some adjusting to, though as my back & knees protest more & more at standing up for such long stints I might need to pick my moments more anyway! It’s the connection with the artist and fellow fans that we need, and the sooner we are able to find that in the same space the better.