Tuesday, 24 April 2007
An Evening Or Two With Pete Doherty. . .
The Big Moment comes well over an hour into the second of Pete Doherty's An Evening With. Pete Doherty gigs at the Hackney Empire, and what's in truth become by now a somewhat rudderless sort of show is brilliantly redeemed when Pete announces his former Libertines accomplice, Carl Barat.
I'm actually at the bar when it happens, the Empire suddenly a cauldron of unbridled hysteria, the noise of the crowd an incredible thing to hear, a demented din, people screaming, weeping, hollering.
The audience tonight has so far been unusually restless, almost pathologically disinclined to sit in their seats and pay anything more than passing attention to what's been happening on stage. They are in and out of the bar, in and out of their seats, fussing with mobiles and spilling drinks, talk loudly over the opening solo set by Pete's friend, handsomely be-hatted Alan Wass, barely noticing that three numbers in he's been joined by Pete and then virtually drowning out Pete's next guest, Bert Jansch.
I don't want to sound precious and I know we're not in a fucking church, but the irksome yakking yahoos around me quickly put me in a fiercely oppositional mood. The whey-faced weasel sitting in front of me is lucky to escape a thump on the head when during Pete's duet with Bert on the latter's classic heroin song, "Needle Of Death" – which Pete had essayed nervously the previous night, but sung year with fragile perfection, investing the original's cautionary grimness with a beatific fatalism – he insists on chatting VERY LOUDLY to his slack-jawed girlfriend about, of all things, kitchen fittings.
The night before, Pete, looking well and sounding better, had been in full control of the crowd, playing brilliantly with their expectations and affection, offering up great versions of old favourites like "Killamangiro", "Music When The Lights Go Out", "What Katie Did", "In Love With A Feeling", "Albion" and "What A Waster" – which ends with the spoken plea, "Save me from the Taliban" – and the more recent "The Blinding" and "Love You But You're Green" ("It's blood from broken hearts that writes the words to every song"). There are guest appearances from Kate Moss on "La Belle Et La Bete", on which guest rapper Lethal Bizzle also did a verse, and a clutch of new songs – including "Salome".
About two hours into what would eventually be a three-hour show, Pete takes a fag break and returns for "Fuck Forever" and "East Of Eden", before he's joined by The General who takes the lead on "Pentonville". The set ending with Pete playing a rousing "Time For Heroes".
"Thanks four your support in troubled times," he says, and splits, triumphant.
Tonight, prior to Barat's appearance, Pete seems distracted by the crowd's restive mood and in trying to hold their interest appears to lose interest himself, even on welcome oddities like "Pipey McGraw" and "Cyclops".
Now, though, as Pete and Carl roar through virtually a full set of Libertines songs, the roof is coming off the venerable old Empire, which in its long history has probably known few scenes like this, the cheers that greet Barat's tap-dancing routine on their cover of Mama Cass' "Dream A Little Dream" quite deafening.
There's some confusion towards the end of all this when after "Time For Heroes" it's announced there'll be an interval, which causes a stampede for the bars. A couple of minutes later, Doherty and Barat are back with Babyshambles guitarist Mick Whitnall on harmonica for a shaky version of "Albion". Carl takes lead vocals for part of this, which probably would have been a better idea if he'd known the words. They then play "The Delaney" and at that point they look like they might play for another hour. Then some twat in the balcony throws a full pint at the stage, which lands between Pete and Carl. God knows, they've had worse things chucked at them, but after a withering glance at the balcony, Pete's off and even as the crowds are flocking back out of the bars the fire curtain comes down, and that appears to be that.
A couple of hours later, getting home, however, the texts and calls start coming through with wild descriptions of Pete and Carl "busking" outside the Empire, which makes me seriously worried for them at the hands of the rabid fans who'd been milling around the venue as we left. Turns out, though, the pair had played an impromptu version of "Can't Stand Me Now" from a backstage window.
Where will it all end?
April 14th Golden Fleece Babyshambles, Ark of the Covenant, Left Hand, Gingerbread Men by Alice Bigelow
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