‘British Summertime’, Hyde Park, London, Friday 30 June 2017
The weatherman- that mythical figure once immortalised in song by Louis Armstrong- forecast rain, which is why I’m currently schlepping my way across Hyde Park with an emergency bag full of “winter wear”. Of course, this will also ensure that not one solitary speck of precipitation will fall from the sky all day- but even if it does, my instincts tell me it’ll still be hard pressed to put a damper on today’s entertainment. In particular, both opening acts…
Slowly wafting across the customary rows of ludicrously overpriced food stalls, the wistful strains of James ‘Walshy’ Walsh and his semi-permeable bunch of indie miscreants STARSAILOR provide an unusual kick-off to the Main Stage, but a welcome one: for a band of alleged “miserablists” once referred to by Oasis svengali Alan McGee as purveyors of “music for bedwetters” (er, pot kettle black, Alan me old mate) they certainly know how to perform with a smile on their collective face. And, more importantly, put a bigger one on everybody else’s.
True, it may have been over one and a half decades since they enjoyed a bona fide hit- but the few they did have back in the day, such as “Silence Is Easy”, “Four To The Floor” and inevitably “Good Souls” still cut a swathe even now, the latter seeming even more lyrically apposite in 2017 than at the turn of the century. By the time their brief 35 minutes are up, they’ve not only reminded the motley mixture of genuine music lovers, tourists, mainstream chartfans and random ‘not quite sure what I’m doing here but I got these tickets through Corporate’ types that seem to populate these yearly events who they once were, but won over a few new devotees too; mission accomplished.
The sensible (for once) positioning of the stages from one another, coupled with the fact that a lot of people are still at work at this time on a Friday, means that within less than a minute of the Wigan crew vacating the big boards, I can comfortably stride straight to the Barclaycard area; a veritable [if still modest] gang of AORsters have already gathered there in eager anticipation for CATS IN SPACE, an outfit who in less than three short years have already become something of a pet cause (ouch) for lovers of quality melodic rock. Part ELO/10CC/Supertramp yacht heaven (“Last Man Standing” “Mr Heartache”) part rampaging Sweet/Slade/Queen-style classic Brit heaviness (“Too Many Gods” “Greatest Story Never Told”) they bounce onstage (to the sound of the Sweeney theme- a proud statement of their age, attitude and geographical origin if ever there was one) like they were already a huge arena act; the mouth-watering prospect is that one day, they might actually become just that.
Sure, all six members share an average age of around fifty, and their decades-plus’ worth of experience in latterday lineups of veteran acts (Sweet, Heavy Metal Kids, T’Pau, Airrace) shows on their faces- but so does the sheer enjoyment they derive from their own songs, which [largely thanks to guitarist/writer Greg Hart’s uncanny ear for harmony and melody] are the best any British band has come up with in years. With the firm management of Thunder frontman/LiveNation bigwig Danny Bowes, they could easily ascend to greater heights; after all, no-one would have guessed at the time of their inception that they’d make the bill of one major festival, let alone the four others they’ve played in the last year, and with a second album due in August [though only one song from it gets aired here] these Cats can only climb further up their already lofty scratching post. Let’s just hope they don’t drop their ball of wool along the way.
If ever there was an ideal time to witness some nifty disco, then strangely, the middle of a summer afternoon (rather than the darkness of the night) is it: there’s something about the sheer ebullience of the material that reacts well with a warm, hazy day and naturally brings out Da Groove in people. And when you’ve got KC AND THE SUNSHINE BAND on the Main Stage and the late Prince’s former partners in crime THE NEW POWER GENERATION (playing two sets!!) on the second, you’re always in for a hip-hugging treat.
Sure, Harry Casey (the titular KC) may look these days like a man who’s dunked one doughnut too many, but the voice is still there, and the tunes (“Boogie Shoes” “Give It Up” “Shake Your Booty”) speak for themselves. Even “Please Don’t Go”- the pleading, tear-jerking ballad that broke as many hearts as Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” or David Soul’s “Don’t Give Up On Us”- is transformed in this setting into a glowing goblet of joy: the relatively short showing can’t disguise the fact that they’ve been away from our shores far too long, and it’s great to have them back. My generation, you see, was raised on these songs; then, by the time it hit its mischievous teens, it was gyrating to the sounds of the Purple One. These days, of course, there’s a huge, unfillable gap in the centre-stage area where his royal slinkiness once stood- but the NPG haven’t forgotten his teachings in funk, soul or rock’n’roll, and despatch them accordingly.
“Sexy MF” “Cream” “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” “Uptown” “Hot Thing” “Sign O’ The Times”…winners one and all, but for me the highlights have to be the smooth-as-silk “Pop Life” the reverberating, psych-inflected tones of “7even” and an arm-waving, emotional “Nothing Compares 2 U”, the latter evoking so many memories of the various times I witnessed the Great Man himself- often imitated, never surpassed within his field- in action. Granted, they do then blow it slightly by sliding uncomfortably toward the hip-hoppy end of their repertoire, and relying far too much on lesser jamz like “Call The Law” and “Housequake” (if they were going to delve into their own catalogue, “Good Life” and “Cherry Cherry” would have been far more righteous choices) but I have it on good information that the second set was chock-full of Raspberry Berets, Purple Rains and the numerous other genre-defying standards that defined and shaped the much-missed Mr Nelson’s career. Moreover, I get the feeling they’ll be back very soon: with their priceless combination of sartorial cool (even if keyboard whiz Tommy Barbarella has now started to resemble Marshall off of How I Met Your Mother) and tight-as-fuck musicianship, plus a glorious lineage, the NPG are far too vital let death stand in their way. What will be more interesting to see, however, is whether they have an actual future.
A question which, unfortunately, could equally be asked of MIKE AND THE MECHANICS; despite the undeniable charisma Andrew Roachford (always a personal favourite of mine) has brought to the band since joining, one gets the feeling from today’s performance that there’s a fair amount of water being trodden here. The two newer tunes, “The Best Is Yet To Come” and “Let Me Fly” sound more like lift music than the quality soft-rock/AOR in which the band used to primarily deal; obviously, they’re only playing a relatively short set in the middle of a festival, so maybe there are far better tunes on the album to be heard, but it has to be said on the evidence of those two that I’m not overly champing at the bit to investigate them.
In addition, second vocalist Tim Howar’s stagecraft is severely lacking: leaping repeatedly on the spot like a dance-class buffoon during “Get Up”, he’s hardly the most striking of performers (thus making this show’s reliance on the Roachford-fronted material somewhat of a relief) and I can’t help musing that were the Mad Manc himself, the late great Paul Young, still here, he’d have made several cans of mincemeat out of these numbers before swan-diving onto the patrons of the Diamond area with JD in hand. Naturally, the biggest cheers come for the oldies, and I have to admit, “Silent Running” still chills me the way all the best songs about impending Armageddon should- but by the time they’re three-quarters through, my attention has irretrievably wandered, inspiring me to gently pootle orff to the press tent for refreshments. And, to top it all, I can clearly hear, even from there, that they don’t play “Nobody’s Perfect” either. Bah.
Yet it’s always possible to counter any disappointment with a good old knees-up- and five minutes later, that’s precisely what CHAS AND DAVE provide. True, some may question, especially given their recent resurgence, the logicality of their being tucked away on an even smaller third stage at the rear of the arena- but to my mind, such a setting provides an ideal, almost marquis-like ambience for their irresistible good-time Rockney sound. And boy, are they on form today. Despite a recent health scare, the newly-shorn Chas seems well full of beans: Dave, resembling Maurice Gibb even more than he usually does, has stepped further into the limelight than normal on this occasion (no mean feat in itself when you consider he announced his own ‘retirement’ six or seven years ago) but the end result is still every inch a team effort, ably complemented by Nick ‘Son of Chas’ Hodges on drums, and the throng lap it up from start to finish.
And so they should. Sure, every muso worth his salt knows full well (er, isn’t it near Teddington?- Ed) that their rock’n’roll pedigree, taking in work with Joe Meek, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Dave Berry and the Everly Brothers, is impeccable: likewise, several will be aware of Chas’ early ’70s tenure as bassist with the incredible Heads Hands And Feet, who remain one of the most influential and important UK bands to have ever not sold that many records. Yet even if none of that had happened, they’d still be brilliant: their blend of hard-swinging boogie R’n’B and Harry Champion-style music hall is one of the truly eternal formulas of popular music. Ten minutes in their company, and you’re reminded of a happier time when blokes were geezers, birds were dollybirds and proper rub-a-dubs were found on every corner: not to put too fine a point on it, they’re one of the few bands left still capable of making me feel “prahd to be a fahking Lahndahnah”, and though the likes of “Snooker Loopy” “Gertcha” “Rabbit” “Sideboard Song” and the arm-waving, sensitive-yet-still-manly sweep of “Ain’t No Pleasing You”- still very much their centrepiece- are almost enough to make me reconsider my own disenchantment with the “Saahf” and impending decamp to the Midlands. Sadly, the house prices and the political landscape aren’t: but wherever else I can see them, and for however much longer, I will. And I’m telling you that fer naffink.
Compared to their shambolic set of two years ago (although to be fair, my own enjoyment of that was severely hampered by having to co-ordinate about twenty peoples’ guest passes) BLONDIE‘s performance today borders on godlike. Despite a slightly wobbly start, and Debbie Harry taking two or three songs to find her range (which, by the time of “Rapture”, she has well and truly nailed) the New York collective still power through an hour’s worth of material like they have a point to prove, and by the end, they’ve made it; most surprising of all is that the newer stuff, unlike that of many of their peers, is extremely good. “Fragments” and “Long Time” both sound raw and hungry enough to fit on either of their first two [ie best] albums; most encouragingly, their ’98 comeback “Maria” gets the warmest response of all, demonstrating that for many fans, it’s now as much of a classic as any of their ’70s hits. The highlight of the show for me, however, is a supercharged “Atomic”, replete with full-on Frash Metal outro from Messrs Stein and Burke: if they can maintain this level of intensity over longer periods, the prospect of a catching a full headliner later this year seems most appealing. And, to top it all, Debbie has finally stopped dressing like Genesis P Orridge and started looking [even with the silly hat] like a respectable septuagenarian rock’n’roll woman should look. A palpable win.
After Carousing some more hospitality lagers [a bit warm, but bearably refreshing] a brief wander back to the Barclaycard Stage offers me my sole view of prog-Metallers GEYSER; I can’t see the much-vaunted Al ‘Pub Landlord’ Murray [a self-professed Genesis nut, in case you were unaware] up there, but apparently, he’s one of their two drummers. So, not too ostentatious at all, then… As for the band themselves, they’re far more of a serious proposition than their punning moniker would suggest; sure, with a sound balanced somewhere betwixt Porcupine Tree, Rush and King Crimson, they’re never going to be mainstream, yet whilst I‘d be interested to know precisely what today’s quasi-eventist crowd makes of them, they’d go down superbly in an intimate rock venue like the Borderline or Underworld. File under ‘one to watch’
Not today, though; it’s now 8.45 pm, which means it’s at last time to fight our way to the front and observe Murray’s own hero, albeit sans drumkit, make his grand return. Yes, ‘the’ moment has finally arrived; PHIL COLLINS’ first outdoor show for over twenty years [apparently his biggest ever as a solo artist] is upon us, and all across the park, questions hang heavy on bated breath. Will he still be able to sing? How old and frail will he look? And, given last month’s cranial injury [leading him in turn to cancel several long-sold-out Albert Hall concerts] will he even show up?
Whatever the outcome, there’s a definite tinge of unreality about the whole affair, like waiting to meet someone who doesn’t really exist; yet for me, the most astonishing thing is just how many of the ‘alternative rock’ fraternity have turned out in mass droves to see a bloke once openly scorned by everyone from Kerrap! to the NME. Dignitaries of all modern-day subcultures are present, from emos to stoners; suddenly, after several decades’ worth of quoting the Four Levels Of Pretentious Denial [I only like Genesis with Gabriel/up til Hackett left/up til Duke/he’s a great jazz drummer but a crap rock vocalist/delete as appropriate] it seems it’s once more OK to admit to being a fan, and I for one am more than happy to stand up and count myself among that number. So what if I lose all my street cred? It would be wildly presumptuous to suggest I ever had any in the first place…
Sure, the led-by-the-nose twats who still parrot the fatuous [un]truisms of the NME will never cop to it, nor the now-fifty-something-plus, former-Camden-resident-turned-Hackney-dwelling, bespectacled grizzle-grey culture-Marxists still hanging round Zone 2 waiting for the revolution to start, but who gives a shit what they think? In his decade-plus of absence, offset only by the occasional fruitless reformation rumour, the rest of us have had ample time to reflect- and my personal conclusion is that, in spite of releasing some right crap in the ’80s and ’90s, and allegedly voting Tory [which was never proven, the actual statement taken, much like everything else the Scum printed at the time, out of context to serve a purpose] the much-maligned Mr C really is a rather likeable cove. Lest we forget, his all-time favourite band are The Action, which earns him instant kudos; he also drummed for legendary proto-proggers Flaming Youth- replacing Robin Askwith of all people- and comes from Middlesex, which automatically makes him far cooler than any N1/E- based faux-‘Londoner’ feted by the 21st century intelligentsia. There, I said it.
Equally of note is how much better a number of his songs now sound with several years of hindsight behind them, a prime example being ‘Another Day In Paradise’; at time of release, I cared for it not one iota [not because of any uppity teen Metalhead principles, but simply because found it unbearably bland] yet here, in the balmy metropolitan twilight, the slow-drifting manifestation of its polished pop-rock vibe makes for an almost mystical opening gambit. Almost. Then again, with players as accomplished as Leland Sklar, long-time collaborator Ronne Caryl and ‘that other band’s live axe supremo Daryl Steurmer gathered around him, the sound was always bound to be technically bang on. And talking of the ‘G’ word, what better way, a mere four songs in as well, to send shivers down an entire audience’s collective spine than with a totally unexpected insertion of ‘Follow You Follow Me’? I mean, I guessed he’d do at least one number from the old gang, but trust me, tears of joy are very close to being shed here. Naturally, had he dived in head first with ‘Carpet Crawl’ [which apparently made it into the set at Utrecht- DAMMIT, why do the mainlanders get all the best stuff?] that would have been another matter entirely, but for now, this will do very nicely thank you…
Most surprising of all, though, is just how good his voice still sounds. For a man who’s spent most of the last few years unable to stand up or walk properly due to a succession of crippling foot and back complaints, and whose stagecraft is now predominantly restricted to what Terry Jones would call ‘the comfy chair’, he’s certainly lost none of his fire; every note is pitch perfect, and on funkier, louder or rockier tracks such as ‘I Missed Again’ and ‘Wake Up Call’ [the latter from Testify, an album which he openly jokes was probably bought by ‘about three of you’] he’s still more than capable of unleashing that trademark, oh-so-sleek snarl that helped define ‘soft rock’ for an entire generation.
On the other hand, just as many parts of the set are far from perfect- while ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ and ‘Easy Lover’ are expertly-executed slices of pure cheese, ‘Hang In Long Enough’ and ‘Dance Into The Light’ remain dull as they were first time round- and it’s a little irksome that the inclusion of such nonentities has to come at the expense of more inventive, cruelly neglected numbers like ‘Both Sides Of The Story’ or ‘Thru These Walls’. Likewise, ‘Separate Lives’, though composed by the great Steven Bishop, is pure unadulterated tedium. Yet it does, for all that, seem to strike a chord with the canoodling couples present; besides, for the rest of us, there’s always a return to the [later] Genesis back catalogue in the shape of ‘Invisible Touch’ to re-up the ante and provide the catalyst for some frenzied front-row frugging.
Nevertheless, the true highlight of the evening undeniably comes when flashing sirens, an ominously-thrumming PA and slow, mechanical beats herald the entrance of That Song. Yes, you know the one- and, as the screen zooms in on a crouched, hunched Collins, half-lit in greenish hue, all previous debate as to his relative greatness ebbs away. After all, regardless of one’s personal tastes, ‘In The Air Tonight’ [for ‘tis that very ditty to which we refer] represents a pivotal pop-culture moment; not only did it transform the tragedy and catharsis of a broken marriage into a million-seller, but it still captures the essence of an entire sonic zeitgeist within four minutes, and as Uncle Philbert intones ‘Take off that grin, know where you been, it’s all been a pack of lies’ with the backing of thousands, and his 16 [!!!]-year-old son slams down that gated, jackhammer rhythm, all is right with the world.
Sadly, all such chilling sensations are rapidly halted by ‘Sussudio’, a tune I hated then and am only slightly more tolerant of now, irrespective of how ‘quaintly retro’ it may be for hipsters to reappraise it – but thankfully, the moment is saved by the chugging, upbeat ‘Take Me Home’, providing both an exultant finale and one last full-time victory with which to send us on our way. As I skilfully utilise its five-minute duration to head toward the exit before every other fucker [trust me, I’m an expert when it comes to the rules of successful venue departure] I turn and catch a glimpse of Collins, fully erect minus stick [double oo-er !!] for apparently the first time in years; could, possibly, the oft-cited ‘redemptive power of music’ have had its desired effect on Our Man From Aaaahnslow? And if so, could it also mean that next time, we’ll get a longer set with even more Genesis numbers chucked in, an opportunity which was [especially given the presence of Stuermer and Rutherford] criminally wasted today?
One can only hope. As the name of both this tour and his impending autobiography suggests, he’s most definitely Not Dead Yet; and though I initially considered it a daft title, it does on reflection sum up his health, where he stands now as a musician in his mid-60s, and the dilemma facing many ‘veteran’ rock and pop artists in 2017 in just three simple words. In which case, maybe I do like it after all. And you know what else? After enjoying a perfect, near-stress-free day in Hyde Park [which only goes to show how much more fun one can have attending a gig alone for once] I like Phil Collins himself more than I ever thought possible. Oh Lord.
PS; I was right about the rain.