Tuesday, 24 April 2007

April 14th Golden Fleece Babyshambles, Ark of the Covenant, Left Hand, Gingerbread Men by Alice Bigelow

Just got back from the Golden Fleece in Edmonton. A little gig with the promise of Babyshambles, and a guarantee of a nice evening with Ark of the Covenant, Left Hand and local band, Gingerbread Men. A little pub in far-flung Enfield with a function room which would probably hold a packed 200 without the intrusion of the stage space, it was informal and friendly. A number of people, primarily associated with Ark of the Covenant rushed around getting things ready (we later gathered that they had not directly been organising the event, but just pitched in to help out). Early arrivers were treated to sound checks including a couple of lovely duets from A of C’s bassist with their frontman, the General. We arrived and settled down to wait. But, although much of the event remained good natured, it turned out to be a really difficult evening all around.

The event was overshadowed by problems with the PA system and both Gingerbread Men and Left Hand's sets were a bit stop start, making it problematic for them as well as the crowd. Gingerbread Men bit the bullet and stopped for a 10 minute tech-break, and returned with an energetic, if somewhat vocal-less set. Left Hand fared, if anything, worse. A wobbly mic stand, a rather worse-for-wear frontman, Alan Wass, and erratic sound dominated the set despite best efforts of the guitarist, bass player, and particularly the drummer (who kept jumping up to help with rewiring). We managed to hear a couple of songs clearly, but the performance could not show off the band’s strengths under the circumstances. Ark of the Covenant's bassist did sterling service as a tech man, but mics persisted in failing during the beginning of the A of C set itself. However, everyone was quite relaxed, although the time slipped by, as did the cheap drinks, until everything was running quite late.

Ark of the Covenant managed to pull off the first full-sounding set of the evening, partly due to the General’s real ability to hold the crowd through endless lead-replugging, and partly due to the infectious rhythms of the bands reggae-ska sound, and their performance transformed the gig into a dancing, party atmosphere. The General cranked up the excitement further by organising a singalong rap about Billy Bilo. By the end of their set, the room was focused on one thing and one thing only. Were Babyshambles going to show, and if so, when. It was gone midnight, and it was not totally clear that the boys were actually in the building. The mood became increasingly restive fuelled by five hours of drinking. Somehow, the event turned from small, friendly and low key, to one of the most intense, physically painful and difficult things I have experienced in the name of fun.

It is not clear why it got, and stayed, so frenzied. Partly, no doubt, due to the excitement generated by Thursday's Hackney Pete-Carl reunion, partly the long wait, and alcohol fuelled anticipation. And partly due to the lack of adequate security. The stage was low, small (one foot high, three feet wide, ten feet long with an extension at the back centre for the drummer), and with nothing to divide the audience from the performers. When Ark of the Covenant finished their blinding set, I was directly against the stage in front of the central mic. Lined up to be inches from Pete. Which I was. Breathtakingly intimate. But a combination of people trying to touch him with a particularly dedicated forward-sideways push-fest meant that within minutes of the start, I was pushed onto the stage with my lower legs trapped in front of the stage by the crowd.

The General showed amazing presence of mind in positioning himself in front of Pete, trying to get fallen front-row-ers to our feet, and forming the keystone around which a number of bouncers formed a line at the front of the stage, keeping the audience from collapsing onto it, but leaving a scant couple of feet for performers. However, by then it was too late to really get things in control. The front row, mostly female, was crushed at shin level against the stage, and held from collapsing by the bouncers (I developed a surprisingly intimate relationship with the General!), but it was impossible to stay upright, and the line of tall, bulky men in front of Pete meant that few were able to actually see him.

Really, the security guys should have taken up a position in front of the stage on the floor and given both the band and the crowd a bit of space, but by the time they had organised themselves, there was no space for them to get in front of the stage. The show was short, running about a half an hour and ending at about 1am. The band gave it their usual energy, and played a collection of brilliant songs, including ‘Albion’, ‘Arcady’, ‘Time for Heroes’, ‘I Wish’, ‘Beg, Steal Or Borrow’, ‘Killamingiro’, ‘Pipedown’, and ‘Back from the Dead’, as well as a rather sweet rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ to a girl in the audience, Charlotte, who was 19 that day. But it was all a race to the end, and it can't have been fun for them. At all. And it was really hard to see, breathe or hear. By the time they got to ‘Fuck Forever’ – signalling the end of the set, it was a kind of relief. Which for such a tiny audience (maybe 150), was really quite depressing. Seeing Pete and the Shambles in such an intimate setting should have been magical. But it wasn't. Peter has the ability to make even large audiences feel as if he is playing to 30 people in his living room – and this event could have had that quality more than most. If people had been prepared to shut up and listen. But they weren’t. Which is particularly ironic when set against the respect that Pete shows for other performers. Who wanted to hear screams of ‘Pete, Pete’ in their ear rather than Pete himself singing? Clearly a lot of people at the Golden Fleece. Rumours that Carl might show up, which created a sense of excitement earlier in the evening proved thankfully unfounded, since the crowd would have eaten them both alive.

I hope that this does not discourage Pete and Babyshambles from playing this type of gig again, particularly since it is really nice to get bands in the further flung corners of London, and I also hope that if they do, someone manages to think through how to keep things a bit more safe. I am all for the wildness of the mosh pit, but this was beyond wild. It was savage. It seemed like the majority of the audience saw how close and accessible Pete was and wanted to get a piece of him...and that was more important than listening to the music. And this is about music.

Alice, 14th April 2007

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