Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Marc Almond at the Roundhouse - Live Review

Marc Almond Live at The Roundhouse, 1st November 2009

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.

I have to say that I genuinely loved this show! and I always find the quirky set list much more enjoyable than perhaps hearing more obvious songs. But I couldn't help also viewing it from a more neutral standpoint too, and just felt that tonight's set list which included a large selection of Russian folk songs, unreleased self-penned songs aqnd obscure cover versions (including lesser known Bowie and Bolan songs and tracks by Baby Dee, Richard Thompson and even Aleister Crowley!) was probably not a big people pleaser, and probably did little to win over any potential new fans. Yes there was the odd 'classic' ('Only The Moment', 'Mother Fist', 'Torment' 'Tears Run Rings' 'Jacky' 'Say Hello Wave Goodbye') but I fear not enough of them in a two hour show to be bringing some of tonight's crowd back out for another outing. I took a friend along who although a longtime Marc fan, is very definitely a casual one, and he found the evening way too heavy. I also heard several people in the crowd as we filed out saying they thought it was a bit flat. A case of 'horses for courses' perhaps?


Here's that 'Say Hello Wave Goodbye'

See my review of Marc Almond at Wiltons Music Hall in 2008 here


Kolley Kibber said...

Aw, love him. He ploughs his own furrow, doesn't he? Surely anyone who's even remotely kept up with his career would know it'd be a bit left-field (there was quite a long piece on his Russian stuff on Front Row a few weeks ago, so even I knew). But it seems sadly inevitable that some people probably still went along expecting him to do 'Tainted Love', and then felt miffed when he didn't.

He looks really well in those photos - did he look as good in real life?

E F RICE said...

I enjoyed this post Piley, I am not a fan nor do I dislike his music over the years. I just have the classic Soft Cell albums and not a lot else. Definitely my loss I think.

At last I have found your achillies heel for gig going and can proudly say I have been to the Roundhoue twice ! Once for the Jesus and Mary Chain, closely followed by a return for Spiritualised. Great venue and lots of interesting history associated with it.

Piley said...

yeah love him indeed ISBW!!! My favourite artist of all time is Mr Almond. His type are a dying breed i'm afraid, still i'm sure some of the oiks from X Factor will be a jolly good replacement eh?!

The Russian stuff is fabulous! I know it sounds a bit arsey, but it is just perfect for someone like him. I know someone who retired then went to university to study music. He was interested in all sorts of music, and would listen to anything. At 60 he had a wonderfully open mind. I lent him the 1st Russian album a few years ago when it came out, and although he’d never heard of Marc before, he couldn't praise it enough. He said that these songs eventually just die, as nobody performs or remembers them any more, and what Marc had done was preserve them for a few more decades. Fab stuff.

Oh and yes, he really does look that well!!

EF - thanks. Love the Soft Cell stuff too. It's weird though, as I almost separate the two these days and sometimes forget it's the same person! LOVED that venue, it oozed character. Hope to get there again soon.


Mondo said...

Great review P, he does seem to have misjudged the audience/venue balance though

Never seen him live, unfortunately. Did I mention my idea to you 'Soft Cell the Musical'? what a winner that would make in some of lower key venues - My Secret Life, Say Hello almost any of the tunes could be show songs..

Martin said...

Have to admit to not really being a fan but you've gotta have respect for anyone that's been around for that long doing stuff on their own terms. From what you've said though it looks as if he may have misjudged a bit on this particular night.

Piley said...

Mondo - Soft Cell the Musical??! I can hear Marc Almond turning in his grave... and he aint dead!!! Bet Ben Elton would love the idea tho!!

Martin - To be honest, he wouldn't be where he is now if he had pandered to what people wanted. He'd be doing Soft Cell packed shows on naff nostalgia tours. Marc was never interested in living in the past, ans has such has remained credible. Can't think of many others from that era who can say the same.


Anonymous said...

I barely own any of his songs but i do admire the way he does his own thing and has kept a following. It was nearly curtians for him after that crash so it's good he's up and at it again. Isn't it funny how you can kinda respect a musician even tho you aint really a punter ?.


Piley said...

Hi Carl - Jolly good to have you back Sir! Don't do it again eh? I gets scared when you go :-)

Know exactly what you mean, I can admire many artists who I don't really 'get'. It's obvious they have talent, style, charisma etc etc... just doesn't press my buttons. But that doesn't really matter does it. Marc is a true survivor, and I'm pleased that proper music fans can admire him for what he does, even if they don't neccesarily 'like' what he does.

Good call.


Istvanski said...

Loved the write up, P.
Incidentally, whatever happened to that bus conductor bloke from Soft Cell?

Piley said...

Thanks Ist... Dave Ball you mean?? He's still about. Obviously there was the Soft Cell reform earlier in the 2000's, but he keeps busy producing and mixing, and I think his band (The Grid) have reformed recently too.


PS - i'll get you Butler...