Marc Almond Live at Wilton's Music Hall, 3rd May 2008
Marc Almond is almost certainly the artist I've seen live the most. I have never kept count, but I'd guess it must be 60 or 70 times, maybe more… and every single one of those shows has been totally unique (and I almost guarantee that every one had a different set list - including the times I've seen him on consecutive nights). I doubt there are many artists who keep it fresh and interesting enough to warrant attendance that many times, yet after 25 years of seeing him live, Marc still remains the one ticket I look forward to more than any other.
When he had that near fatal motorbike crash back in 2004 (leaving him with a broken skull, broken shoulder, fractured ribs, perforated ear drum and collapsed lung), the outlook was bleak, and the best people were looking at was that he might just live. Ever performing again was out of the question – in fact whilst in a coma, he was at one point just hours away from a tracheostomy. Yet after dozens of operations and much rehabilitation, miraculously Marc returned to the stage last year, with his highly successful and emotional shows at Wilton's Music Hall. He followed these with some special ‘bigger venue’ shows to celebrate his 50th birthday.
This year though it was back to Willton's, for another sold-out run. Marc is a great one for sniffing out interesting venues to play in, and this must be the best yet. The last surviving grand music hall in the world, Wilton’s was a host to all manor of entertainment from the 1850s onwards, long before the event of the ‘old time music hall’ shows, for which it is most famously known. In its day, Wilton's used to cram 1500 people inside, an incredible thought, especially when you consider that today it has a licence to hold just 300! The venue is a pure delight – it’s faded glory and the crumbly decay of its décor are the perfect setting for Almond's songs of unrequited love, prostitution, seedy sex and the like.
Wilton's is a million miles away from the corporate hell of venues such as the O2 arena, Wembley, Hammersmith etc etc, with their sponsors, uniformed security, plastic burgers, plastic glasses and grumpy staff. Wilton’s is a step back in time in every sense…. the staff are very friendly and helpful, there appears to be no security at all, the bar is makeshift and the food is home-made Tapas! Marc has a real affinity with places such as this, and seems genuinely passionate about trying to help preserve these venues. As he wrote in the programme notes:
“Every day I see aspects of London's rich and wonderful history disappearing, lost for ever. When they go we lose a part of ourselves. Of course, we shouldn't live in the past, cities are amorphous and ever-changing but London is in danger of becoming a city of Glass and concrete, a temporary city. London is arguably the greatest city in the world with the greatest history and should protect its old and special places where people can feel a connection with the past. This gives the city a soul and therefore enriches our souls. The music halls such as Wilton’s are an important part of London's theatrical tradition and it pleases me that many of today's performers, tired of the more soulless corporate venues, are looking for alternative settings for their music. More modern venues have their place as state-of-the-art that are right for particular types of shows and performers and give a choice to audiences. They mustn't however, become the only choice.”
The venues tend to set the scene for Marc’s set lists, if it’s a bigger ‘stand up’ show, then you are likely to get more up-tempo songs, and maybe even a bit of Soft Cell thrown in, but when somewhere as intimate and atmospheric as Wilton’s is on the menu, you know you are in for a real treat. Marc always puts a lot of thought into his selection of songs, and his delve into the back catalogue for this show was no exception, bringing us a great selection of material from throughout his career. As always there was a smattering of some unrecorded gems -- and if the past is anything to go by, many will remain that way, making these events extra special.
Entwined within his own material is Marc's passion for the work of others, from Russian folk songs to Charles Aznavour and Jacques Brel, from Richard Thompson to 1920's Music Hall (which has been brought into the set specifically for tonight's venue). He has a remarkable talent for taking these songs, injecting them with passion, intensity and reverence, and making them his own. The guy could sing nursery rhymes and I'd be welling up by the end!
The audience too completely understand the reverence of shows such as this. During the song 'Cosmic Boxer' he slowly walks around the auditorium, adding yet more intensity to the high drama of the song. Up close to their hero not a single person makes a grab for him, not one flash of a camera, not a single word uttered -- all you can hear is the quiet accompaniment of the band as Marc slowly and solemnly marches around the venue as though he were following a funeral parade. High art stuff, treated with the utmost respect.
One of the few songs to return from last years shows is Lavender. An emotional song about the trials and tribulations of being gay in less enlightened times. This time the song is given yet more poignancy as the slideshow behind Almond flashes up images of tortured stars forced to live a lie for fear of ruining their careers...
When returning from a gig, I normally start digging out a few CDs, to keep the buzz of the show going, but with Marc is not so easy. I've got a very comprehensive collection of his work, yet somehow after returning from one of his shows, nothing quite fits the bill. His knack for reinventing/reinterpreting his own songs means the ones you own are completely different versions to the one’s you're now craving, and many of the new songs and covers you've just heard have never been recorded. He's one artist who could get away with releasing pretty much every live show on CD, and it's no wonder that there is such an interest in bootleg recordings of these events, as fans clamour for what is sometimes his only rendition of certain songs.
I hope that these Wilton's shows are becoming an annual tradition, as there really is no one better to keep the spirit of this special venue alive.
Marc's Stardom Road album made my 'Best of 2007' list, you can read my review here
Visit Wilton's on the Web and find out more about this amazing piece of history
Visit the Official Marc Almond Website here
The below audience video is actually from one of last years shows at Wilton's, Marc performing one of his best (yet still unreleased!) recent songs, the aforementioned Lavender: