Here's an account of my gig of the year.
A couple of years ago New Zealand singer songwriter Aldous Harding used to do a cover of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights while touring. It made perfect sense really. If anybody should be playing Kate Bush songs apart from the woman herself it's Harding. She did a great job of it. She has the range and the emotive artillery required and an understanding of the essential silliness but the equally essential poetry that's going on in the original. At the end of the song in the link I posted she makes a face of childish embarrassment to her audience. An 'I'm not worthy' look. There was no need. She's more than worthy. If Kevin Morby is the modern equivalent of Bob and Bill Callahan plays Leonard, then Aldous is just right for Kate. The comparisons are not a diminishment of any of the three. In fact a compliment. We're very lucky to have them.
I watched the clip this Sunday morning before going to see Harding play The Cluny 2 in the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle in the evening. A prize ticket in a tiny, intimate venue to see a very special artist. I'd snapped it up a few months ago as soon as I'd heard she was playing and waited in great anticipation ever since. Watching her do Kate I wondered whether she'd play the song again that evening. Perhaps it was too much to hope for.
All in all it was a very special day. Nice weather in Newcastle as Spring becomes Summer. I had my lunch and wandered to my local, Rosie's, where James, the perennial barman nowadays, was manning the fort. It was quiet, midday and an empty pub. I put on a few songs, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Love, Cornershop, Mahalia Jackson, things that seemed to fit the early afternoon mood.
Then I wandered down the road to the Tyneside Cinema to watch the documentary about Aretha Franklin Amazing Grace which has just opened. That was an extraordinary thing in itself which will have to wait for a later post but it set me up for the evening. Called Mum and Dad who are both OK. Then after a couple more calls and some texts and another pint at Rosie's took a taxi down to the Ouseburn Valley to The Cluny.
When I got out at the other end there was a definite haze of dope hanging around the place. Lots of, mainly fairly early to late middle aged folk hanging round the venue, several of them dressed in Tie-Dye. The reason soon became clear. Gong, or what is left of them by this point were playing the main venue. Not for me. At least not tonight. I made my way into Cluny 2, just before the support act was due to start.
It was immediately evident that the mood of the evening was polite. Wonderfully so. Not a young crowd but not an old one either. Ranging from twenty to fifty. Stage set up by the venue door, which isn't where it always is. Not where I saw Courtney Barnett for the first time over five years back. Or for Bill Ryder Jones a couple of years later.
Courtney's Dead Fox was playing as support Laura Jean hit the stage. Apt really, as she's been supporting Courtney the last time I'd seen her late last year at Northumbria University. On that occasion Laura Jean had been rather lost on the big stage. Playing alone with guitar, keyboards, sax and effects she's made little sense. Here by contrast, she was in her element.
She played a short half our set of intimate, clever and honest songs and chatted between them to the crowd. Partly about Harding who she called Hannah and said she had looked after years back when she'd been living in Melbourne above a pub of derelict old men. It was great but I went up the winding stairs to catch the last of Newcastle's sunlight. Stood outside the venue for a few minutes and and realised that Aldous Harding was coming straight towards me to turn inside the venue door.
Our eyes met and I got the sense that you do when you see someone in the public eye that they're thinking 'Is he going to bother me?' I'm not like that so I said, 'You're wonderful. Have a good evening.' She thanked me, not once but twice and went downstairs. I went down shortly afterwards to catch the rest of the supporting slot.
After Laura Jean finished with a neat sax solo I followed her out of the doors, (seriously I'm no stalker), and thanked her for her set, telling her I'd seen her supporting Courtney and playing a wonderful version of the Go-Betweens Streets of Your Town with her and her band . She seemed surprised that I knew of them. I said I'd seen Courtney here a few years back, 'We play the circuit' she replied then said 'I'm Laura' and I told her my name and we shook hands.
Half an hour seemed too long to wait for Harding to hit the stage. I stood in a thin queue for the bar although I noticed a sneaky type avoiding this most English of laws and getting his beer before me. I got in conversation with the bloke in front of me. I asked him if he knew Harding and he said no, he was here at his girlfriend's behest. 'Sometimes you have to listen to your girlfriend' I said. 'Only about music', he replied. 'I have to manage everything else.'
And then, shortly after nine, Harding and her band were onstage. For a while it looked as if it was going to be a wonderful gig where I barely saw the artist concerned. Harding was almost unrecognisable from the person I'd seen just outside the venue shortly earlier. She'd pulled her long hair on both sides right across her face and crouched deep onstage. I caught only momentary glimpses of her for the first few numbers, all from her latest album Designer.
She's an intense and mannered performer. She positively gurns at stages, baring her teeth, rolling her eyes, leering. You'll never have seen anything quite like it. Not for everyone, although the crowd seemed to me to be absolutely in the palm of her hand. After the first song, the title track of Designer a middle aged Geordie voice was heard to say 'You're great' which she acknowledged politely and eventually moved onto the next song.
But I still couldn't really see her. A too tall man a few rows ahead was blocking my view. I shuffled horizontally trying not to break the polite, pervasive mood. Still couldn't really see her. The music was magnificent but I seemed destined to be denied a proper view.
Harding began to talk to the audience in between numbers. 'Usually I'm really funny, but it seems not tonight.' was her first rejoinder and from then on she opened up. I'd almost given up being able to see things properly so skirted round the back of the standing area past the bar and towards the exit. Just before it at the side of the stage I finally found the perfect view of Harding and her band. So there I stayed.
So what exactly does Harding do which make her so special? She has precedents and Kate Bush is definitely one of them but by now, moving onto her third album and beyond, she defines her own space. It's definitely intense, the long gap between songs ensures that, but it's a light intensity somehow, and a humorous one. Something quite special anyway.
The band left the stage but were brought back for an encore. A new song, 'Nowhere yet...' called No Peel where she accompanied proceedings by tapping a drumstick on a mug of coffee. Then they were gone. Harding rested her head on the doorway just outside the venue. Then I made my way out. Pausing first for a pee.
I said to the guy in the urinal next to me, 'Well that was something...' He replied, 'I didn't like it.' Each to their own. Outside the venue I saw the bloke I'd chatted to in the queue for the bar, this time with his girlfriend. I asked them if they'd enjoyed it and they both had although she said Harding hadn't played several of the songs she liked best. I told them that previously she'd been known to do Wuthering Heights and we agreed that would have been something. Then my taxi arrived and took me home.
It was one of the best things I've seen...
P.S. No she didn't play Wuthering Heights tonight. She didn't need to.