Is There Life After the Rhythm Factory?
December 16-17-18 2007
The Rhythm Factory in Whitechapel has been home to what is now becoming a little annual ritual. Three nights of Pete Doherty, the first a solo and the subsequent two with the rest of Babyshambles. This year a shifting cast of friends booked tickets in a late night frenzy of excitement to a mega Pete-fest. Three nights and nowhere near enough sleep later, it’s over. Late night debriefing, feeling as if we have been spat out at the other end of yet another set of memorable gigs.
Seeing Pete at the Rhythm Factory has a special quality. A venue that is full of associations with the Libertines, the familiar blue back wall, with Rhythm Factory in white lettering, appears in video after video, immortalised in photographs, it is hard to be there and not see the ghosts of young Pete and Carl flitting about the stage. It is an incredibly atmospheric venue. A small concrete box, low ceiling, barrier constructed of scaffolding and ply, tiny stage and a box lighting rig hanging from the ceiling inches above the performers’ heads. It boasts a somewhat unbelievable license for 400, and the music always seems several notches too loud for the size of the space. It gets crowded and sweaty, and even when, early on in the evening, there are not many people in the hall, it seems to burst at the seams.
Act I - Soliloquy
Pete Doherty December 16th, 2007
Most of the reviews of Babyshambles recent Arena Tour led with a commentary on how un-shambolic the band were. And, indeed, this was palpably true. Shambles were tight and professional, and the performances were impressive. But the change in Doherty was nowhere near as dramatically visible as it was at his first solo gig since emerging from rehab.
When I saw Pete’s solo gig last January at the Rhythm Factory I was pleasantly surprised at how lucid he was. But eleven months on, the transformation is astonishing, and it is only seeing him on his own, close up, that you realise just how much difference being clean has made. It was evident in hundreds of little ways. His movement was precise and controlled, he looked wonderful, he was talkative and interacted with the audience during the whole of the 100 minute performance. But best of all, most significantly of all, was his voice – beautifully controlled, breathy and passionate, not a glimmer of the slightly rambling quality that one associates with Pete solo. We didn’t know what we were missing until it was there. He has not lost the meandering sense of someone singing to a bunch of mates in their front room, but has acquired a beautiful tone and a precision that is less familiar. Every song was a joy to hear, and he was charming, funny and alert throughout.
By 9pm we were ensconced one row back, and, inevitably, had a long wait until Pete appeared bang on time at midnight. The time was filled by chatting to an excited bloke in front of us, who eventually gave up his spot in the front to go to the loo. Four support bands were listed, starting with a rather engaging Dylan look-alike by the name of Tom Court, who with his ‘mate’ played a sequence of interesting acoustic songs. Next up was the energetic Supernovas who combined driving tunes with a convincingly rock and roll front man. The third band, featuring Texas Bob, was the Television Personalities. Their set was interrupted by a completely wasted Alan Wass, scheduled to play next, who wandered on stage and proved unwilling to leave, to the point of wielding a bottle threateningly. He was finally escorted off by a clutch of bouncers, having rather blotted his copy book with the audience. The energetic and funny compere, Vis the Spoon, provided amusing commentary, and we were rather surprised to see Wass take the stage about half an hour later, announcing he had an apology to make, which he did, and then played a rather discordant version of his rather tuneful, ‘Hired Gun’.
At midnight sharp Pete arrived on stage, radiating good form, wearing a slightly grubby black suit and white shirt (missing button replaced by safety pin) and a hugely ornate silver necklace. He looked particularly beautiful, skin clear and translucent. The set was eclectic, starting, somewhat disconcertingly with ‘Shambles’ usual closer, Fuck Forever. Most songs were played in response to audience request, and included a number of real treats – songs not often played, including Bucket Shop, Through the Looking Glass and You’re My Waterloo. It was a performance full of memorable ‘moments’ and witty comments. In response to a request for ‘What a Waster’, Pete replied, ‘Yeah, I know, but what do you want me to play?’. ‘The Delaney’ followed a somewhat off the wall, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that, I don’t play it very often’, and he launched into ‘I Wish’ only to grind to a halt, saying ‘I’ve been practising… but I can never get this right’.
He downed pints of cranberry juice, getting through nearly four of the stuff which I find has an odd dehydrating effect on your mouth. Pete, however, seems to have no such problems with cranberry. Dripping with sweat, he requested ‘towels for the artiste,’ but didn’t complain when it seemed to take ages to provide said towels. And when they came (two little checked tea towels – someone had clearly rummaged around in the kitchen), he dried his head vigorously, creating a charmingly tufty hairstyle reminiscent of his very early days. Indeed, one of the things that really struck me about his appearance was how young he looked. Much younger than earlier this year when he still had the rather haggard appearance of a heavy drug user.
It was a really lovely show. Pete was chatty, the audience was enthusiastic, but benevolent, football chants abounded, and there was that really strong sense of connection with the audience that Pete is so very good at generating.
Act II - Chaos in the Dark
Babyshambles December 17th, 2007
Night two. Babyshambles plus five support acts. Oh joy, the prospect of standing at the barrier for, in the region of five hours, much of it waiting. But the alternative is to end up at the back of the crowd feeling frustrated. So to wait is the only really viable option.
The supports were a pleasant surprise. First up was Steve White, a heavily tattooed ‘ordinary joe’ with a good sense of tune and a handful of cheerfully delivered lyrics cram packed with social commentary – global warming, the tyranny of trying to be thin, and a chirpy condemnation of supermarkets with a memorable chorus starting with ‘why is it always summer in Sainsbury’s?’ The Badass Cowboys followed on with a series of musical treats which could only be described as an Indie style Country and Western.
Alan Wass repeated his apologies from the night before in rather more convincing style, and with his excellent guitarist, performed a reasonably coherent set. Red Roots followed, having scooped multi-talented and effortlessly charming Nico from the disintegrating ranks of Ark of the Covenant, winning over the audience with a lively front man and ska influences. The final support was No Picasso, and although I wasn’t convinced by their punk-style delivery, the lead singer, with his ‘fuck me’ dancing, and his able handling of a heckler proved quite entertaining.
And then somehow, between the end of the support bands and the arrival of Babyshambles, all the technicals seemed to go haywire. First sign of a glitch was a lot of fiddling with the bass amp, plugging and unplugging Drew McConnell’s familiar bashed-up instrument. A plea was made to the other bands for a working bass, and after more futzing, it appeared that ‘Shambles were ready to go. But it was not to be that simple. Only Adam’s drum set up was trouble free. The others embarked on a sequence of plugging and re-plugging, dial-twiddling and mic-tapping. Once again, Pete’s recent sobriety showed, beacon-strong, as he self-tech-ed with a surprising competence and confidence. Indeed, as the audience, already in full ‘band’s-on-squish-mode’ became increasingly restive, the band’s efficient teamwork was impressive, as Rhythm Factory techies raced around looking increasingly stressed. The tension on and off stage escalated. Half an hour of pissing about and several punch-ups in the crowd, and Pete took a pragmatic and wise decision to bugger the problems now focussed on his guitar and begin the set. And they did with gusto, more than compensating for in-out sound for guitars and mics, obvious absence of a monitor on the bass. But the night was destined to be a total technical disaster, because no sooner was the room filled with sound, than we lost all lighting. And I mean all lighting. Pitch black. Gamely, the band carried on, as a single emergency light flicked on and off, casting the stage into a realm of eerie shadow and silhouette. And so it remained for the rest of the set – half light, erratic sound and a band that seemed to feed off the chaos, tethering the audience through driving sound. Pushing flitting thoughts of health and safety into the back of my consciousness, the only sane thing to do was to follow the band’s lead and go with the flow. Anything else would have pushed the event off the scale of chaos into madness.
It was a set cram-packed full of memorable moments. Flickering images cut from old newsreel. Drew coming to the front of the stage and screaming, open mouthed. Mik, Pete and Drew closing in on each other, as if seeking compensation for the lack of light, sound or anything else by reinforcing their connection with each other. Pete bashing his head on a cymbal when offered ‘Leatherhead’ during ‘Albion’. Drew’s own bass, abandoned at the side of the stage. The energy from the band flowed through the venue like a surrogate electric current, warm and good natured. It was clear that all four were delighted to be playing a small venue after the Arena Tour.
And just to liven things up, it was an evening of for stage diving. Pete, dressed for a grunge-stomp in skinny black jeans, white plimsoles, white T shirt and a polo-neck style jumper, leaped repeatedly into the crowd, once continuing to play his guitar. Stage dives that were just that, dives, forward thrust, not simply a flop. Visions of feet and legs poking up from the crowd, worried bouncers trying frantically to haul him back to safety, only to have him do it again. Shoes went on the first go, red socks on the second. Bare feet for the rest of the show giving an unexpected sense of vulnerability. On his first or second dive, following the line of trajectory to just behind me, I was startled to see a alarmed-looking Pete face just behind me, low down, maybe on his knees. And, along with those around me, I hauled, pulling him up and towards the barrier, frantically struggling to keep the bouncer from dragging him over the foot high scaffolding pole upright which would have scored a rather nasty groove along the Doherty frame.
Stocking feet dancing. Between leaps floor resting. Music with no pauses. Playing every song not needing Pete on guitar. Keeping order amidst chaos, this was ‘Shambles magic. Feeding on chaos and managing it, effortlessly. Certainly not the greatest live music they have ever produced, but one of the most amazing live events I have ever had the good fortune to take part in.
Act III - Fights and Flight
Babyshambles December 18th, 2007
After the amazing high of Monday night, Tuesday was bound to be a bit odd. But we had not anticipated just how odd it would be. Indeed, by the time this weary audience member sat down to type these words, the internet was buzzing with commentary on the abortive gig that was a rather deflating follow on to such brilliant duo.
For the record, the Rhythm Factory once again produced a varied and entertaining set of support bands, you didn’t have to like them all, but there was something for everyone. The cutely named ‘Hello Wembley’ engaged and charmed, ‘O Titus’ got our feet stomping, ‘The Scuzzies’ thrashed out indie-punk and ‘Blah, Blah, Blah’ seduced us with a unique brand of high energy music hall rock ‘n’ roll. Red Roots ended the support sequence with a tight melodic set, lovely harmonies and thumping bass lines. A late addition to the line up was a repeat performance of Alan Wass and Lefthand’s guitarist. Sadly, Wass, who at his best delivers a collection of rock ‘n’ roll cowboy-style numbers sung in a sub-Jagger drawl, seems to have sacrificed precision and impetus for a drug/alcohol fuelled vagueness. Although this served as a salutary reminder of the potentially degenerating impact of performing-while-wasted, and acted as a marked contrast to his mate Pete’s sobriety, it remained a rather sorry set, lifted by the dexterity of Lefthand’s guitarist, and a contrast to the full band’s tight sets at the January 2006 RF gigs.
It’s a truism that every gig has a unique audience-feel. Sunday night was largely benevolent, Monday’s was edgy and fractious. On Tuesday, the crowd seemed quite relaxed up to the point where anticipation of the imminent arrival of Babyshambles morphed the atmosphere into one of the more forceful press-shove events I have experienced. ‘Shambles set started off with more waiting, band onstage. Unlike the previous night, this was not a result of technical difficulties, but due to a decision to try and relocate a wheelchair user from the barrier to a refuge at the other side of the stage. Rather bloody late in the day. One would have thought that the RF could have noticed the wheelchair-user fan at some point between half eight when he was in place and half eleven when the extended dialogue about his repositioning began. By the time the security decided to try and do the move, the crowd was densely packed, ‘Shambles had arrived on stage, and a fight had broken out just behind the wheelchair user’s position. Security spoke to Pete, asked him to explain what was going on, which he duly did, but the move took quite a while, during which time the crowd became increasingly tense, one person telling Pete to ‘fuck off’ to which Pete replied ‘you fuck off’ and that the wait was to help someone move. Not an auspicious start.
In marked contrast to the previous nights, Pete didn’t look particularly well, and mumbled about having flu. He was bundled up in an overcoat over a leather jacket and jeans, a lot of clothes even by Pete’s standards. He seemed less physically at ease than he had on the preceding nights. Finally, after time-filling musical twiddles (instrumental East of Eden, for example), the band launched into an energetic version of Kilamanjiro, and at long last things seemed to be taking off. But somehow, the set never did quite find it’s stride. It felt slightly stop-start, and Pete appeared restive, interacting a bit with the audience, but not dominating it as he had on the previous nights. They played seven songs, all a pleasure to hear, and then Pete vanished to the back stage area, followed, more slowly by the rest of the band. The audience waited, wondering, ‘fag break?’ but as the minutes ticked by, beginning, in our corner of the crowd at least, to fear a rather more radical interpretation was in order.
The time was broken by Mik appearing to sing a solo version of ‘I Wish’ which he had done at a number of the arena dates. At the end he was not joined by the rest of the band, but left stage himself. Then someone came and gathered up the guitars and took them to the back stage area. Things did not look good. And indeed, they were not. Adrian, one of ‘Shambles managers appeared on stage with the beginnings of an apology. At which point we made a strategic exit, hoping to avoid a potentially difficult and angry crowd. Outside, people gathered, and the news spread via a someone who knew someone who had been back stage that Pete had been quite ill, pale and vomiting. It seems that the rest of the band played a few more songs to a rather unreceptive audience and the gig was over.
When you have the track record like Pete’s, it is inevitable that people will suspect that the last night at the Rhythm Factory was not a result of genuine illness, but due to drugs or temper. And that is a great pity, since he has so clearly been clean of late. It is too much to expect that the forums, never mind the tabloids will accept the explanation of illness at face value. And that is a shame, because it has been so evident in both the arena tour and the first two RF gigs that whatever else is going on with him, he has achieved a new and impressive ability to control himself and his music, without sacrificing his charm or his love of chaos. For me, the last night detracted not one bit from the total magic of the first two. And I hope that those who decide to cast stones as a result of the Tuesday show do not attempt to taint the stunning tour de force that Pete and Babyshambles demonstrated at the Rhythm Factory on Sunday and Monday.
Alice December 19th, 2007