04 July 2010

Feel like letting my freak flag fly

While other Londoners made a beeline for an unusually sunny Glastonbury last weekend, music fans who stayed closer to home took advantage of the massive series of gigs organised under the Hard Rock Calling banner.  Held in the same Hyde Park location in which I saw Morrissey and Beck in 2008, the HRC gigs have the advantage of being well organised and being close to the all-important Tube – no camping out and getting muddy!

The first two nights of HRC had been headlined by Pearl Jam and Stevie Wonder respectively.  I had been strolling nearby the concert venue on the first night and had noted the ease with which the performances could be heard outside the tall wooden fences surrounding the site.  Given my relatively constrained finances at the moment, I considered bringing a picnic and sitting outside to enjoy a little of the third day’s line-up.

And what an appealing line-up for fans of classic rock.  ‘Dadrock’, as Alastair accurately observed; perhaps even with a little one-upmanship I could proffer ‘grandad rock’, given the age of some of the participants:

  • Sir Paul McCartney (68)
  • Crosby Stills & Nash (average age 67)
  • Crowded House (average age 50)
  • Elvis Costello (55)
  • Joshua Radin (36)

Hip and current, I guess not – although Crowded House’s new album Intriguer is only a few months old, even if the reviews are, so far, mixed.  But the line-up on offer was exactly the sort of show to pique my interest – not only would I get to see a living legend and former Beatle perform as the headliner, but I’d also get the chance to see two acts I’ve always wanted to see live: CSN and Elvis Costello.  And my Finn fandom is long-established, so I was keen to add a fourth Crowded House gig to my third here in London a few years ago.  And Joshua Radin?  Never heard of him.  

Of course, there was one small problem.  The tickets were expensive: £68 is a lot of money when you’re trying to watch your pennies.  So in the lead-up to the concert I decided, somewhat ruefully, not to go.  Perhaps the eavesdropping picnic option wouldn’t be so bad after all.  And I presumed the tickets would be sold out anyway.

But then I saw an article pointing out that tickets were still available.  And I reasoned that while the ticket price was expensive, there were four artists on the bill that I would pay to see individually, so really I should just take the combination lock off my wallet and stump up the cash.

As luck would have it, the Sunday of the event turned out to be the hottest day of the year in London, with bright sunshine and a high of 31 degrees.  The advantage of the northern climes, unlike New Zealand and Australia, is that this sort of weather doesn’t burn you to a crisp, unless you’re actively courting a singeing.  I trooped up and purchased my ticket.  Does anyone else worry about misplacing valuable tickets, even when they’ve only got 50 metres to walk with them?

Inside the security fences, which are designed for revenue protection rather than to ward off savage Hyde Park predators, thousands of concert-goers were wandering around the fields looking for an ideal vantage.  For those further back from the stage a giant remote video screen had been erected directly in front of the stage, with the reasoning that from that distance you might as well be watching a screen as seeing tiny figures on a stage a couple of hundred metres away.  Two other huge screens flanked either side of the stage.  (The central screen would later show the England v Germany 4-1 evisceration on mute to concert-goers who couldn’t bear to miss the match even though they’d paid loads to see a rock concert.  Every so often you’d hear them groan when Germany scored yet another goal).

It’s a great venue for a rock concert, as long as you’re not too short – the angles from crowd to stage aren’t huge, and if you’re a little closer to the ground than your fellow concert-goers you’re likely to find your view of the stage obstructed by a strategically-placed head.  Still, that’s what the screens are for, and it’s not hard to move to get a better vantage, at least before the headline act comes on.  I was struck again by the peculiar habits of some concert-goers who shell out large sums of money to see bands play and then talk loudly to each other while said bands are performing.  Perhaps they’re only interested in the headline act, but surely simple courtesy indicates that if you’re not interested in the performance then you should remember that other people are interested.  I moved spots several times to escape yapping buffoons, either English middle-class male bores or gabbling Brazilian narcissists.  And what is it with people who join a crowded concert crush near the stage and decide that’s a perfect time to smoke a cigarette?  Attention: you smell.  The sweat of tens of thousands of concert-goers is bad enough without adding the aroma of tobacco to it!     

Right.  Mini-rant over.  After examining the plentiful food and merchandise vendors it was time to settle down an watch the acts.

Joshua Radin turned out to be quietly impressive in the jangle-pop singer-songwriter category, showing pleasing similarities to the melodic and well-thought-out tunesmithery of fellow American performer Michael Penn.  He only had a 20 minute set in which to make an impact, but was delighted to be able to rev the audience up for the next act, whom he had long admired.

Elvis Costello, clad in a natty suit and hat, emerged with his rootin’ tootin’ honky tonk band, the Sugarcanes, and performed a 50 minute set that highlighted the rootsy musical direction he’s pursued for over a decade.  His half-broken croon seems ideally suited to the Nashville-tinged sound, and in the Sugarcanes Costello seems to have found ideal companions.  The tone worked perfectly on a slowed-down torch-song version of the pop hit Every Day I Write The Book, giving the lyrics a new sense of gravitas.  He also performed two appealing medleys, joining New Amsterdam with the Beatles’ You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, and closing with his classic Alison augmented by the other Elvis’ Suspicious Minds.  And it just so happens that the last time I’d seen a performance with an accordion player was probably David Vujanic and his sister rocking the Manukau Intermediate school assembly back in 1985.  So there’s a novelty angle too.

DSC05041 Crowded House didn’t suffer at all from playing during the England v Germany match, but they did joke that there was no precedent for performing a rock gig in direct competition to a football match.  This was my fourth Crowded House gig, after seeing them at the Auckland Town Hall in 1992, supporting REM at Western Springs in 1995, and in London in 2007, but it was the first time I’d seen Neil Finn with what can only be described as the filthiest of moustaches.  Each to their own, and I suppose it’s preferable to the usual mid-life crisis gambit of buying a Harley Davidson and forgetting that you need to actually put your feet on the ground when you come to a halt at intersections. 

British audiences are still fond of Crowded House despite the fact that the breakthrough Woodface album came out nearly 20 years ago.  The setlist was dominated by crowd-pleasing sing-along options, with three numbers from the new album Intriguer thrown in (Saturday Sun, Archer’s Arrows and Either Side of the World), and closing with a stomping cover of Road To Nowhere.  Early on Neil and bassist Nick Seymour lamented the absence of what they called an ‘ego ramp’ – apparently the last time they played Hyde Park in 2007 they shared a billing with Aerosmith and Steven Tyler had a ramp installed to run out into his adoring crowd, so he could soak up the adulation.  Noticeably, Crowded House were the last act in the running order to exhort the crowd to be excited for the upcoming acts and say how happy they were to be playing on the same billing.  Make of that what you will.

Crosby Stills and Nash were one of the leading acts at Woodstock in 1969, even though it was, famously, ‘only their second gig, man’.  A folk-rock supergroup, with its members ex- Byrds, Buffalo Springfielders and Hollies, CSN are known for their immaculate three-part harmonies and hippie sensibility.  A surfeit of drugs and fractious relations with their sometime fourth band member Neil Young meant that their commercial success ebbed following their late ‘60s and early ‘70s creative peak.  Still, you only have to listen to the Fleet Foxes to hear CSN’s influences still percolate through popular music today.  And for my part, one of the first records I ever remember hearing was the insidiously catchy electric sitar of Marrakesh Express – the irony of a tot bopping to a jaunty psychedelic anthem not being lost on the older self: ‘blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth’ indeed, Mr Nash?  (Here’s a nice acoustic version from back in the day with plentiful facial hair).

Their 2010 set still boasts impressive harmonies, although naturally not as taut or soaring as in their youthful prime.  Stephen Stills, one of the most highly regarded guitarists of the ‘60s (he played with Hendrix, you know) plays deft guitar solos in many of the songs, impressing the indie kids in the crowd.  Highlights of the gig were their hippie magnum opus, Almost Cut My Hair (‘feel like letting my freak flag fly’), and the post-apocalyptic anthem Wooden Ships.  CSN also performed a couple of well-chosen covers: The Who’s Behind Blue Eyes and the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday.

Paul McCartney, the headline act, deserved the big build-up and the palpable sense of anticipation that swept the huge crowd, which entertained itself by singing the ‘na-na’ bits of Hey Jude while they waited for the ex-Beatle to emerge.  And emerge he finally did, to a rapturous response, and after the scene-setting Wings opener of Venus & Mars / Rock Show, he crashed into the jubilant pop blasts of Jet and All My Loving.  Dressed in a sharp-looking Nehru / Beatle jacket and sporting a luxuriant carpet of the finest vat-grown mullet, McCartney looked in great shape for a billionaire 68-year-old.  And the band he brought with him is a top-notch team of elite mercenary musos; not only were they experts in stitching together a slew of Beatles and McCartney classics on stage, but they also genuinely seemed to enjoy the experience. 

The impressive setlist shows that McCartney definitely gives his audiences value for money – he played from 7.45pm until 10.30pm with only the briefest of encore breaks.  I was expecting an intermission at his age!  There was even a brief detour from what was no doubt a meticulously planned running order, when a momentary jam evolved into a seemingly impromptu rendition of The Champs’ Tequila.  But it was the combination of peerless Beatles numbers with a selection of the better Wings and solo McCartney tracks that carried the show.  Given the length of the performance McCartney was able to include a great many tracks that I didn’t see in his Western Springs gig in 1993.  The exuberant Let Me Roll It from Band On The Run is a surefire rock classic (and the B-side of the Jet single), and here segued into Hendrix’s Foxy Lady.  Another Band On The Run track, Mrs Vandebilt, hadn’t appeared in McCartney’s setlists before a 2008 concert in Kiev, when it was a wildly popular request and later became a regular part of his show.  There was also the ukelele performance of George Harrison’s beautiful Something, which has proved so likeable since it was featured in the 2002 Concert For George

There was also the now-traditional extravagant use of stage pyros and fireworks to kick Live And Let Die into the stratosphere:

 

The show-stopping encore performances closed the gig with major hits, which McCartney is hardly short of.  The first, a dream run of Daytripper, Lady Madonna and Get Back, soon led to the second and final encore: Yesterday, Helter Skelter and closing with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (Reprise) / The End.  Because as you all know, the love you take is equal to the love you make.  Whatever that means.     

For the next few weeks you can watch edited highlights of the Paul McCartney set on Youtube, so you can get a glimpse of how good it was!

Paul McCartney at Hard Rock Calling (71 mins edited highlights)

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