Marc Almond is one of the most complex artists I follow. He juggles countless styles and influences, and can provide an almost infinite amount of completely different live shows. I've been seeing him live for 25 years now, and STILL, I can't second guess what kind of set-list I will see that night! The rule of thumb tends to be that at the small, intimate, atmospheric venues (Wiltons Music Hall, Almeida, Union Chapel etc) he'll do an intense 'torch singer' style set, with stripped down accompaniment of just keyboards and\or guitar. These shows will be full of what Marc does best, dramatic songs of doom and gloom, where every silver lining has a cloud! At the bigger venues (Palladium, Shepherds Bush Empire, Royal Festival Hall etc) there tends to be a slant towards some of his more up-tempo material (although still not necessarily the 'hits' that some may be expecting), backed by a much fuller band. He'll usually still have a segment of a few slower torch songs at some point during these shows though.
If I had to pick my favourite type of Almond show it would have to be the intense, small venues. A two hour set seems to fly by, and I spend much of that time with shivers down the spine and goosebumps, as Marc holds you completely captivated. It is not uncommon for him to sing completely acapella at some point during these shows, and he will even walk through the crowd singing without a microphone. There is so much respect for the man that not a single person attempts to 'grab' at their idol, and you can hear a pin drop during the quiet moments. Tonight though, we're at the Roundhouse in Camden, so although I'd never dare try to guess the setlist, I at least assume we are in for a more lively affair (especially as this is predominantly a standing venue).
As a gig-goer for more than 25 years, I can't quite believe that I've never been to a show at the Roundhouse before. It's a very unique building, built in 1846 as a turning circle\turntable train shed. It soon became redundant though, and by 1867 it was mothballed.... and it remained so for almost the next 100 years! In 1964 it was turned into an arts venue, and played host to such legends as David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. It closed its doors again in 1983 (ironically, the year I started going to gigs in London), and lay dormant once more, until it was reinstated as a venue in 1996. Since then (bar a closure for a couple of years between 2004 and 2006) it has become a favourite venue on many gig-goers schedules.
Marc takes to the stage with a huge ovation, and he seems genuinely touched by the welcome. The show starts with the uplifting 'Glorious' and is followed up with the Marc and The Mambas track 'Untitled'. Despite his on-going health issues, Marc seems to have the energy of a man half his age (I still can't believe he is in his 50's now!), and his voice seems to just get better and better. He has a full band with him tonight including an excellent 3-girl brass section, and the always welcome accompaniment of Gini Ball and Anne Stephenson (both original members of Marc and the Mambas) on violin. Very quickly though, many of the band leave the stage, to enable Marc to do a selection of his more intense, stripped down songs. Various members come back from time to time to provide backing for the odd number here and there, but it seems to be a rarity when all members are on stage at the same time. As much as I love Marc's torch songs, I couldn't help but feel he missed a trick tonight, as:
a) when you've assembled a fabulous backing band complete with brass section, it seems almost churlish to not use them as much as possible, and select songs which they can all be involved in; and
b) there is always a 'mixed' crowd at the bigger shows. Unlike the 'hardcore' fans who attend all the intimate gigs, I got a real feeling that there were a lot of casual fans in tonight, no doubt looking for a few memories from the past.
The 'heaviness' of what turned out to be a very extended slow section seemed to switch off and alienate a fair number of the crowd. This set would have gone down a storm at say Wiltons Music Hall, but unlike there, where you can hear a pin drop in the quiet moments of the songs, tonight all I can hear is very loud chattering and the noise of the bar. Personally I love this material, but I'm just not sure it worked in this venue, and to continue with it for such a long period of time comes across as a little self indulgent. The intensity and drama of the songs seems to get lost a little in the size of the venue, and the momentum of the show loses its way somewhat... leaving a 'stand-up' audience with little to stand-up for. By the time Marc finally upped the tempo of the set again, for an absolutely rousing rendition of 'Tears Run Rings', I fear it was all too late for some of the audience, who had switched off by this point. He followed 'Tears Run Rings' with just about the best version of 'Jacky' I've ever seen him do. This was followed by.... erm, "thank you and goodnight" Doh! He returned for a few encores, including a beautiful and emotional 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye', which finally gave the crowd something to sing along with.
I've been following Marc long enough to know that he never panders to anyone, and his set lists are always exactly what he wants to perform. This is a healthy attitude for an artist who is still interested in progressing his career rather than resting on his laurels, and it also ensures for an interesting evening when he performs live. However, at times, I really think he should have a think about the venue he is performing in and the audience that is likely to attend. If he doesn't, then there is really little point in specifically choosing to play these big and small venues.
Here's that 'Say Hello Wave Goodbye'
See my review of Marc Almond at Wiltons Music Hall in 2008 here