Three shows this week, two great and one not-so-great, reminded me of the relationships that performers need to sustain with fans. And how the public are not the mugs they’re made out to be. Folks, I give you The Fall and Steve-O. And the X-Factor …
Mark E Smith, celebrated curmudgeon and belligerently opinionated front man of a band that could only be British - could only be Mancunian - has been frustrating and delighting in equal measure since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Running a show with Mark is painted as difficult. It’s not – he’s not, he’s just himself – but you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get other than, of course, nine times out of ten, an uplifting hour of brilliant music, jagged like an uncut gem, in that atonal sing/shout as our man gets tangled in mic leads, fiddles with amps and invariably plink-plonks on the vintage synth played by his beautiful wife, also stage-front and concentrating madly.
But he arrived at Fibbers on Bonfire Night wreathed in crinkly beaming smiles, waiting patiently to perform whilst sat in the tour manager’s car tugging on ciggies and downing cold Stella. “Is it alright for you tonight?”, he asked me, as one of the band dutifully brought a set list for approval.
And not for Mr Smith the carefully assembled de rigeur indie uniform, he’s about as un-rock star-ish as it gets. Clean shaven in slacks, plain shirt, sports jacket and proper shoes. ALWAYS proper shoes.
Despite crippling foot pain, there were only the occasional sit-down moments, a couple of walk-offs for fresh air. Not for Mark the foot-on-monitor, the carefully-timed plea to visit the merch stand, the planned encore. Nope. If he goes off, even at the traditional time, he might come back he might not. And ‘backstage’ (in this instance the garage) at Fibbers on Saturday night, each time the band gathered around him awaiting the great man’s will – and trooped back on.
You think his better half Eleni Poulou is studying that little keyboard and nothing else, head bowed. But standing stageside you also notice the little unseen and loving asides as she gently touches her husband’s back to steady or guide, and deftly untangles a lead threatening to send him headlong.
In amongst the complete and utter bollocks and hype that surrounds many of today’s hopefuls, stand the evergreen giants of modern music. And ticket sales across the board reflect that people are not reacting to ‘new’ bands, they are pitching up in better-than-ever numbers for what they know, what they trust, what historically has shown it cares about them.
And such was the case also with Steve-O. Often cast as little more than a sensationalist stuntman and clown, swallowing pain like sweets. For cheap laughs. But this week he showed himself to be an accomplished stand-up comedian perhaps a bit heavy on the dick and BJ jokes, but funny and compulsive viewing nonetheless. He even split open his nose balancing my heavy 12” kitchen knife on his nose, and then set his hair on fire. You don’t get that with John Bishop.
After the show and a break to draw breath, Steve set himself up, impromptu, on a row of stools at the opposite end of the venue and plugged his iPod in to the PA desk, bidding the engineer, ‘Turn it up, turn it up!”. And for the next ninety minutes, DJ’d his personal favourites, danced, posed for photographs, chatted, laughed, joked and generally gave every single person there exactly what they wanted. Those are real moments. As a fan it’s what you want, to be up REALLY close to your heroes, guessing what’s in their pockets, wondering about the birthmark, scanning their eyelids and judging the mood close up. They got all that and they got it in spades. And that is what sets the enduring performers apart. They give, they connect.
And so to the third show, the stodgy and limping great white heffalump of music on TV. The X-Factor.
I confess to loving the human element, the Tesco cashier finding a huge bellow, the Scottish wallflower dropping jaws, the painter now a pin-up. But much as I admire and respect Gary Barlow, it’s now becoming a bad call. As his Cowell-ish pantomime villain persona, perma-swivel head and ‘knowing’ smirk become predictable and cartoon-ish, Louis Walsh is now emerging from the car crash intact, fulsome in praise and damning in turn. “You’re not a rock star and you never will be!” he shouted at the hapless Frankie Cocozza and he was right. He’s the butt of jokes from the other judges, perhaps because he’s not an established performer himself, but he knows what’s what. Yes, he knows.
And as the show haemorrhages viewers, at least the public are getting it almost right and they despatched the only remaining, and truly dreadful, boy band to the bargain bin but fear not they’re going to carry on … whoo and, indeed, hoo. They’ve been murdering great tunes on a weekly basis, most notably Thriller with a version that had all the creepy menace and lurking teen sex of Mo Mowlam in a nappy. The Risk? Hardly. Go your own way boys, like the Mark E Smiths and the Steve-Os.