Band Of Holy Joy
(With the Bitter Springs and Idiot Son), Macbeth, London, 9/1/2015
published: 12 /
Dominic Simpson looks back on our first Bands' Nights of 2015, which at the Macbeth in London, saw sets from the Band of Holy Joy, the Bitter Springs and Idiot Son
The Macbeth is a glorious looking pub indeed. This is Pennyblackmusic's first night here after blossoming in the live arena with a number of nights first at the Spitz in East London before that venue's closure; then with six nights at the Half Moon, Herne Hill before it fell pray to flooding. Along they way, we've had one-offs at the Brixton Windmill, Brixton Jamm, and The Lexington, before heading East to the Macbeth.
Glorious huge Roman paintings adorn the grand-looking walls of the pub as the rain and wind hit outside on a cold early January. In a way, it's the perfect setting to see a band like Idiot Son, who take the stage with two cellists sitting down. Having formed as far back as the late 90s, they released their first single, 'Sunflowers', the following year, before taking another four years to release their debut album, 'Lummox', on their own Poppycock label, during which time they played an early Pennyblackmusic night (a new album, ‘Stibbington’, is imminent). Dominated by shimmering, solitary acoustic guitar work, sparse drum work, cello, and singer and guitarist Thompson's wry observations of life in the capital, Idiot Son's contemplative chamber-pop is perfect for a desolate early January. They may not release much, but when they do, it's pretty special, as evidenced by a rapt front row. “See you in the next few years!” Thompson says at the end of the set.
The Bitter Springs are also veterans of those early PB nights, having played in the days when we were at the Spitz, but they have a pedigree that stretches as far as the mid-80s, when they formed in Teddington as Last Party, changing their moniker to their current one in '96. Six studio albums have subsequently been released, each one chronicling English wit and heartbreak in equal measure, culminating in 2013’s 'Everyone's Cup of Tea', on the Harvey label. Not one to rest on their laurels, the band have also collaborated with Subway Sect's Vic Godard as his backing band for nigh on ten years.
“In the long gone days of old / When the nights were long and cold”, coos Simon James Rivers on 'My Life as a Dog in a Pigsty', while six musicians around him, including a pedal-steel guitarist, lay forth a mixture of punk, folk, vaudeville, country and electronica. There's some more slapstick humour on display, with the same song containing lines such as “I broke up with my fiancé /She caught me in bed with Beyoncé/ Beyoncé was our dog's name”. It's the last song ‘And Even Now’ though, that really gets the venue jumping, a brilliant, Pulp-esque disco-tinged theme which acts as a perfect climax to the set.
Tonight's headliners, the Band of Holy Joy, are also veterans of 80s London, having formed south of the river around 1984, when the capital was decidedly less salubrious than now. Like the Fall before then, the BOHJ have seen numerous musicians pass through their doors one by one, with the only constant being Newcastle-born Johny Brown, the central focus on the band (though original drummer William Lewington has returned to the fold). It was Brown who initiated the band some thirty years ago, sharing a squat with Test Department in what was then a thriving and fertile post-punk scene. Early BOHJ records reflect that time, with their cheap junk-shop style industrial electronics, Cabaret Voltaire-style funk, and Brown's treated echoing vocal sounds. These days, many albums later. their sound is a different beast, taking in folk rock, Celtic punk, European chanson, ambient electronica, and above all, epic, lyrical songs underpinned by a full band against a backdrop of arresting visuals courtesy of Inga Tillere.
It's Brown, though, who remains the arresting presence onstage.Still impassioned and imploring of his audience thirty years since he formed the band, he's one hell of a frontman, prowling the stage and facing the crowd with an intense gaze, echoing Iggy Pop at his best (one song even brings to mind The Stooges' ‘1970’ with its crazed chorus “I feel alright”!). “I keep on searching”, he sighs on ‘It is Written on the Wind’ on the same new album, while ‘Land of Holy Joy' echo's the bands past with its urgent drums and electronics underpinning Brown's sardonic lyrics about Britain in 2015: “I'm living in the Land of Holy Joy/Coughing, dancing, in the lane /I am driving through the Land of Holy Joy/To find Utopia once again”.
Like Idiot Son's Andy Thompson, his songs often home in on the inequities and minutiae of the British capital; “This city is a bitch”, he sings on “I Have Travelled The Buses Late At Night”, with its lyrics about the rich trying to hide the presence of the poor. But his lyrics, and the band's music, remain joyfully upbeat too, celebrating what can happen when individuals are joined together; perhaps that's the point of the band's moniker. He's a man possessed onstage, galvanising the crowd in communal joy. It's an amazing climax to a night, with a transfixed audience calling the band for more than one encore.
The top photographs that accompany this article were taken by Pete Tainsh.