Rhythm Factory January 17th and 19th
For anyone lucky enough to get to any of the Doherty/ Babyshambles gigs at the Rhythm Factory in Whitechapel on January 17th, 18th, 19th, I don’t need to say what a treat they were. But with only 400 tickets each night, there were not many of us experiencing these amazing gigs demonstrating all the reasons why fans are so enthusiastic about Doherty and Babyshambles.
The venue is intimate, low ceiling and a concrete floor with a long bar on one side. The stage seems to take up nearly one third of the space – and it is small. Ghosts of other performances flit past - Peter – on his own, with Babyshambles and most famously, with The Libertines, who played frequently at the RF.
The first gig was scheduled to be just Doherty, an acoustic set, and perhaps, we hoped, a chance to see glimpses of the quiet poet. The RF however, paid scant attention to the mid-week acoustic theme, and offered no less than six other bands of varying interest - including a well received set from Babyshambles regular, The General, with his reggae/ska style band. At about midnight, (precisely on schedule for those who may have doubts about his timekeeping) Pete came on and treated the rapt audience to two hours of delight. He spent a lot of time perched on a stool clutching his acoustic guitar and running from one song to another, in the intimate way of someone playing unplanned in a room full of friends.
We were treated to everything under the sun – lots of new material, a load of songs from the Libertines early days and only released on the internet, not much from either Down in Albion or The Blinding. The audience spent a lot of time shouting out requests, and although a few people annoyingly failed to wait until he finished a song before shouting out what he ought to play next, Pete maintained a good temper, chatting to people, as well as playing requests. When not stool bound, Pete balanced on the edge of the stage, and was joined for several songs by The General and Purple. Although we got rather more of them than most of the audience would have preferred, they added to the overall sense of informality, as did the ever vigilant presence of Babyshambles guitarist Mik Whitnall. Whitnall joined Doherty for the set as jack of all trades, guitar tech, support guitarist, and even reluctant singer (responding with obvious embarrassment, but good grace to having a teasing Peter shove a mic in his face to sing ‘I Wish’).
A wonderful evening ended at just after 2am when the management turned the lights on, forcing Doherty, who clearly would have played on, and the rest of us, who would have gladly continued to listen, to go home.
Two nights later, we returned to the Rhythm Factory for the full Babyshambles band. Having learned from the long wait on Wednesday, we showed up a bit later, but the Rhythm Factory outdid us. Instead of Wednesday’s six support bands, they offered no less than eight, with Babyshambles scheduled for 1:30am. I don’t know if Doherty and co have any idea of how long the audience, particularly those who want to be at the front, are prepared to stand in one place just waiting! A conservative reckoning is that between Wednesday and Friday evenings, EXCLUDING the actual headline performances, we stood for a total of about ten hours, most of those in one spot near the stage! The time was hard on the feet and back, but not boring. The Friday offering was mostly different from Wednesday’s (appreciated by all of us two nighters, of whom there seemed to be quite a few). The bands did include two repeat performances, The General, who remained in his Wednesday 3-from-the-end slot, and, last on both nights, Left Hand – complete with their own, well deserved fan base, in a sort of sub Rolling Stones sort of way.
The biggest problem on Friday was not that Babyshambles were late on, contrary to the fears being discussed in the audience, but the opposite. Pete arrived well in time, over an hour before his scheduled performance, and then couldn’t keep out of sight. He predictably joined The General for a song, which was great fun, but did have the unfortunate consequence that the forward crush of the crowd, usually reserved until the arrival of the main band, happened with two support bands still to come on! So instead of close compression lasting for the ninety minutes of the main act, we experienced it for nearly three hours – and the two last bands suffered the growing impatience of the crowd – and of Pete himself who seemed unable to resist popping out from behind the backstage door at regular intervals, making the last hour before Babyshambles seem a bit more like the performance was coming from the doorway than the stage.
By the time the band themselves hit the stage at gone half two, the exhaustion of the audience lifted into euphoria. The band were every bit as brilliant as the solo Doherty had been on the 17th – and yet totally different. Doherty exuded energy, the band were tight, balancing his personal brand of chaos and the set was electrifying. Still managing to play to the intimate atmosphere, Pete chatted to the audience, shushing us at one point to listen to someone at the back of the crowd playing harmonica, and chucking his drink over a couple of intolerant fans who booed a between songs rendition of football favourite, ‘you’ll never walk alone’. Every boundary between audience and performer was ignored, as Doherty spent much of his time balanced on the sound monitors hanging from the lighting bars looming over the audience below, literally dripping sweat on us. Pete dressed in his favourite smart suit and tie (which he removed and tangled up in the mic stand causing much mic stand falling over confusion later), turned into rock icon as his shirt rapidly became a slick-wet second skin making him look as if he had been standing in a downpour.
As on Wednesday, Babyshambles played lots of new songs, plus most of The Blinding, some from Down in Albion (not Albion itself, sadly) and a few Libertines oldies, including a riotous version of ‘Time for Heroes’ flowing from the introduction to ‘What Katie Did’. The band is so good around him, Drew McConnell keeping up a steady rhythm even when Adam Fieck’s tight drumming paused, and the wonderful Mik Whitnall, watching Pete and bringing songs to an end when Pete might let them drift on indefinitely. When you could tear your eyes away from the spectacle of Doherty at his best, they were fascinating to watch, communicating with each other all the time to make sure they worked together to give the music its underlying coherence.
Repeating the ending of Wednesday, but two hours later, at 4am, things were drawn to an abrupt close, giving the impression that had it not been for those nasty entertainment licensing regulations, we might have been there all night! Both events included too many hours standing in incredible heat and squish, but it was worth every moment. This is the Pete one hears about and always hopes to see, but doesn't always. Brilliant!