Last month Sean Parker expressed dismay at live shows in Selfridges, but Getintothis’ Cath Bore finds mingling with Saturday shoppers a most satisfying experience.
Mid-afternoon on the third Saturday in January of this year, Meilyr Jones, winner of Welsh Music Prize 2016, and his conductor and collaborator Joseph Davies – himself awarded the Sir Geraint Evans Prize by the Welsh Music Guild earlier this month – led an ensemble of twelve players into Gallery 9 in Tate Britain, London. They settled in a wide circle of chairs in front of the painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sergeant. The musicians then performed a 10 minute contemporary classic piece, chamber music composed by Jones, inspired by the painting.
The ensemble wafted out after the performance was done, but returned to play the next hour, then again on the hour for a final time. Surrounded as we were by art by the Pre-Raphealites, portraits of titian haired women seen as respectable now but scandalous in Victorian times, Singer Sergeant’s portrait of two children lighting paper lanterns at twilight, the ultimate portrayal of innocence, combined with the entrance and departure by the musicians adding drama, it was quite an experience, both theatrical and musical.
Lots of people listening and watching, from babes in arms to grandparents, standing together in this normally quiet place, surrounded by such art both visual and aural, it was difficult not to feel charmed, and so very lucky to be there. And yet, talking to a few of those present, they came to look at the paintings, and wondered what the devil was going on. Those I spoke to wouldn’t have experienced, consumed and enjoyed this piece of music were it not performed there and then in a world famous art gallery, one they happened to be in.
Sufficient evidence to me that bringing music to people, and the places they congregate, can only be a positive, whether it be inside as historic a building as Tate Britain, or somewhere a touch humbler.
At first thought as conventional a space may not seem the natural bedfellow for music, whether pop or classical, so I appreciate where Sean Parker is coming from with his opinion Live music in shops don’t work – here’s why over Selfridges’ Music Matters scheme. And yet, opposites attract, and it can work, and we all know there’s many examples of music venues that aren’t satisfactory, not for the artist and nor audience either. So much so that it’s worth giving such alternatives, due consideration.
Indie-pop foursome King No-One played the View Two art gallery on Mathew Street in Liverpool last year, a gallery-come-music venue now sadly closed but used by so many musicians, the grand piano a tempting draw. Not only that, but King No-One built up the band’s reputation over the past two years, busking in the high streets of different towns and cities, and still busk on the days they aren’t touring. On the day I contact them to chat, they weren’t available…because, yep, they were out busking.
“Busking was something we initially started doing because we needed money to live off. We were absolutely skint but refused to get normal jobs as we felt we had to do the band full time. Then, we realised we were getting a load of love for our own material,” King No-One’s singer Zach Lount tells me.
If anything, busking has made the band. They have in essence used the UK’s highstreets as a launch pad.
“One day we decided to put on a show in the only city we busked, York – and it was shockingly busy. I remember nipping out for a sandwich just before doors and when I came back there were hundreds crammed into the room… so we decided to take it everywhere – and the response to us in all the different cities was incredible. People were absolutely loving it – also it’s interesting to see all the different audiences, I feel (with) marketing at the minute labels (and) artists…pick a target audience. Whereas on the streets, you’ve got everyone – and we find there’s no limits to the different people you attract. Which we find wonderful.”
King No-One now sell out tours around the UK the Autumn 2017 headline tour has over 5,500 tickets – they are at Liverpool Arts Club on October 12 – and play the Radio 1/NME Stage at Reading and Leeds Festival this coming weekend.
In reality, taking music to where people congregate is by no means either a new or bad thing. On the contrary, it is a well tried and tested idea.
Liverpool singer songwriter (Daniel) Astles, Getintothis Deep Cuts alumni and winner of the Mersey Sound Station 2016 has performed in a number of places on Merseyside he labels ‘interesting’, including Red Brick Vintage in Cains Brewery, Moorfields train station, The Small Cinema and even a hairdressing salon in Southport. Red Brick Vintage is a bit like The Old Curiosity Shop, or the shop Bagpuss used to live in, and in April Astles played a warmly received set there, the audience in comfy chairs happily holding cups of tea or maybe something stronger, surrounded by knick-knacks and bric a brac.
“The intensity and the cluttered beauty of (Red Brick’s) surroundings… makes it a really special show straight away because it is unusual, it feels like an event, rather than just any other gig,” he says.
Independent vintage shops aren’t the only ones to see value in the trend. National stores like Fred Perry and Liam Gallagher’s Pretty Green host in-store performances around in their outlets around the country, recently including The Sherlocks.
Wirral’s The Sundowners played Pretty Green Liverpool in 2012 and Fred Perry Liverpool the spring of this year to promote albums The Sundowners and Cut The Master respectively. “A gig is a gig at the end of the day, if the crowd are good you’ll enjoy it, if not it will be a drag,” singer, songwriter and guitarist Niamh Rowe told me. “A bonus of playing in a clothing store is that you’ll probably get free clothes, which is always nice.”
Clothing shops aside, in-store performances at record shops, even those big nasty chains we’re all meant to be horrified by, gift music lovers some intimate, memorable experiences. HMV may well be a boxy sterile environment – though the store security guards stood around on pins lest a One Direction-esque fan base rushes the place always raise a smile – but it is the sign of an artist, the one who adapts and enhances performance to suit the space they are in.
Daytime in-store shows are typically dry events, and while there’s no need to call for the return of Prohibition anytime soon, seeing a band do a handful of songs in the middle of the day or at teatime, buying an album from them, going home and listening to it has got an niceness about it, somehow. It might not be cool or trendy, but the nerd in me likes it. Independent record shops have got the concept of the album launch down pat, of course, they personalise it well, some even have a bar. Ok, some shops are quite small and you have little option but get to know the person in front, behind and either side of you very well indeed, but a stranger is merely a friend you haven’t met yet, right?
Bands have played unconventional spaces for a long time – after all, the Beatles played on the roof of the Apple Building in 1969, much to the delight of London’s office workers on lunch break. And let’s not forget the current and excellent work by Get It Loud In Libraries; who ever thought the house of books and rock n roll would be a good mix?
“The venues (I’ve played in) also have some features which make effect the music in a positive way,” continues Astles. “The high walled vast space in Moorfields station took more sounds to somewhere they hadn’t been before, I believe that the location really bettered my performance, it felt that way.”
Thinking outside the box is good, and more are doing it; for example pop gigs in churches are becoming less of a novelty now – praise be! Personal favourites include Trinity Church in Salford, the Round Chapel in Hackney, and Liverpool’s Nordic Church and of course The Anglican Cathedral; places of worship were after all designed for musical performance, albeit more along the classical or choral vein, and with a side order of prayer. Wooden pews aren’t the most comfortable things to sit on, I grant you, but standing in a muddy festival field or one that resembles a building site ain’t no picnic either but some folk eagerly pay big bucks for the privilege of both.
There’s something very British and a bit naughty about live music performance in places they shouldn’t be, and a sense of informality within even a more formal setting. At Tate Britain, when Meilyr Jones and his friends sashayed back into Gallery 9 for performance number three, route and manner well practised and perfected by then, they were greeted by a lovely gaggle of ladies resting tired feet and having a quality sit down on their chairs. Polite requests for them to move, and giggles all round.
And as Mary Miller prepared to play Red Box Vintage earlier this year, a woman in an impressive Indian headdress questioned the singer songwriter intently about all manner of things as she sound checked. Unexpected little moments like these, you don’t get them at conventional shows, and they are made all the more unique for it.
“Playing somewhere unconventional rather than a classic stage setup is always really fun. I think smaller independently run venues or shops have a bit more life in them,” says Mary, of LIMF Academy’s Class of 2017-18. “Having a space with a beautiful, odd interior like Red Brick and putting live music on there creates a really special atmosphere and a greater intimacy between the audience and the artist.”
“There are many advantages to playing in these places and I’m sure there will be people who are against the idea in general,” adds Astles. “(but) when done correctly it can present some very special events.”