The Sheffield music aficionados are restless. The tickets say 7pm, they’ve loaded up on pints of Thornbridge’s finest, and they want in. The Greystones’ staff apologise: the bands aren’t ready yet. An awkward queue forms along the bar; the audience has false-started, but nevertheless will stake its individual claims to the best seats inside The Backroom.
The tension is understandable. The public has been presented with an insatiably moreish musical tasting menu by Low Duo’s brothers Greenwood in the form of Later…Without Jools Holland.
The gig has a cocktail-shaker format: four acts playing three sets of two songs each (with the promise of a one-song encore), the order drawn at random by the crowd. The finest ingredients have been selected from Sheffield’s well-stocked liquor cabinet: Low Duo, See Emily Play, The Payroll Union’s Pete David, and David Lee Roth.
For me, there’s a garnish – a paper umbrella in a pint of stout, if you will – to this occasion. If he comes, and if he interferes, it’s the opportunity to send Satan’s own pianist back from whence he came.
You see, for the last twenty years I’ve witnessed countless acts appear on Later…, their deal with the plinky-plonky devil being that for ten minutes of televisual exposure they must sacrifice one of their most cherished songs on The Altar of Boogie Woogie, and stand by as Holland tears out its bleeding heart with his pudgy-fingered ivory tinkling, cheered on by Roland Rivron and the baying horde of Hootenanny Z-listers (Hootenanny!!!).
Fear not, one might say, we’re safe in The Greystones. Ordinarily, the Dark Lord would need a ticket to cross the venue’s threshold, but alas, he can also be summoned. If there’s a keyboard in the room and some poor fool incants Jools’ name three times, before the pungent stench of brimstone hits your nostrils he’ll have driven a twelve-bar blues riff straight through the middle of your folk-based reflection on the plight of the British education system. If you’re really unlucky, he’ll bring jazz’s own Jamie ‘Salacious’ Cullum with him. Then you’ll really be in the shit.
That’s why I watch the gig through the crosshairs of my M82 rifle.
The gig begins with the drawing of lots, and we have our first playing order. Roth, Duo, Play, David. The artists occupy the back wall of the stage, like a musical coconut shy, staring out at the audience.
The first surprise of the night – it isn’t David Lee Roth at all, but David J. Roch! In many ways, this is a relief. Firstly, I’d been concerned that Roth’s high-wire antics could put him into my line of fire; Roch has much more disciplined stage presence, though later in the evening he takes liberties and performs off-stage, a health and safety nightmare for a jobbing marksman. Secondly, Roch is an undertaker – his services may be invaluable later. Finally, Roch is a captivating performer. His voice is pure and true, making the transition to echoing falsetto without the hint of a break. It is easy to understand the recent popular interest in an artist with material such as ‘The Lost Child’, ‘The Devil Don’t Mind’ and ‘Yours’ in his armoury. ‘Don’t Let Go Yet’ is his standout number, the powerful and resonating repetition of the chorus haunts you with the turmoil of every heart-wrenching break-up that you’ve ever experienced.
The second surprise of the night – midway through Roch’s first set, a huge dark shape flickers across the stage. I swing the rifle and prepare myself for a moving target, only to realise that it is not Holland but Sheffield’s own acoustic Hagrid, the towering Neil McSweeney, rescuing Roch from a slowly collapsing mike stand. Disaster is averted, and a folk hero created.
Low Duo is up next. Singer Leigh acts as compère for the night and has a mischievous Daniel Kitson-esque patter. He’s comfortable to laugh at the pair’s reputation – their first gig was played in the ‘Gary Neville of fetish clubs’, and he lays down a challenge for the title of Most Depressing Song Of The Night with ‘Ambulance’, which – to be fair – would make a fitting soundtrack to the now inevitable oven-based suicide of Casualty’s Charlie Fairhead. Each of Low Duo’s songs is a complete and precise expression where emotions are explored meticulously but delivered succinctly. Adam’s guitar occupies the minor ground, in ‘Born into a Spider’ clean metallic chords are interspersed with staccato punk chops and distorting reverb, and the occasional slap of an open hand. It takes us to the night, to darkly lit rooms where you are alone with your tortured thoughts and the thudding of your heartbeat. Leigh narrates that space, his quivering high notes in ‘No Happier’ articulating the pain, shame, the despair with an almost angelic beauty. The audience dare not make a sound or sudden movement for fear of breaking the spell that the brothers cast. An errant tear trickles down the telescopic sight of my rifle at some point, but I digress.
To see See Emily Play play or not to see See Emily Play play, that is the question. Dressed like it’s Christmas, in glinting green sequins, she’s hard to miss. Ripping into her first song, ‘The First Time Someone Has Ever Broken My Heart’, a voice richer than roasted coffee beans accompanies high-tempo rockabilly guitar, and there is a visible stirring amongst the audience. Emily’s set is buoyant, effervescent with youthful daring, which leads her straight into my crosshairs behind Holland’s weapon of choice, the Roland FP-7 keyboard. But there’s no jingly-jangly twankle here; instead the juxtaposition of the menacing – almost thunderously so – soul-searching of ‘Four Feet From the Door’ with the sparkling reflection on new-love ecstasy in ‘The Best Day’. For ‘What To Do’, Emily is back on guitar belting out a perky, quirky track, its lyrics inventively playful (reminiscent of a young Alanis Morissette), with strong Linda Perry-esque vocals. She closes the night on keyboard for a rollicking late Prohibition-era swing number, ‘Miss Penelope’, with lyrics sung at moments with scat rapidity. A talent? A force? A phenomenon? Whatever she is, Emily Ireland does it with incredible joie de vivre.
Tail-end Charlie for the first set is Pete David, a sole Unionista this evening. For those who have not had the fortune of seeing The Payroll Union play live, they’re a bit like a Rottweiler on a long lead: going from bark to howl, snap to snarl, without warning, they mesmerize you with their dominant stage presence. When these guys go, ain’t no leash in the world that will restrain them, so you just better be the one holding it and let them take you along for the ride.
Slim and trim, Pete looks like Mad Men’s Don Draper transported back to a time that razorblades and protein-shakes forgot. On his lonesome, seated in front of a microphone, he reins in the power and backs off the husky growl, and produces something… well, unforgettable. In this stripped-down format, Pete’s historical storytelling comes to the fore. From the Salem Witchtrials to the Second Great Awakening to a car in the water in 1960s Massachusetts, we are touched by the voices of those dead and all-but forgotten, except by Pete, who breathes life into their stories once more. In his very first track ‘Cawing Cuckoo’, Pete’s voice imparts an emotional vulnerability over delicately plucked strings; it is as if a stranger is sharing his innermost secrets with you, and you alone, across a flickering campfire. That’s not to say the set is delicate; ‘Bedford Den’ (I think!) is a new song from the Payroll Union’s current Philadelphia project which motors along with Chuck Berry licks and a preached bass refrain, and ‘Chappaquiddick’ (the best unrecorded song I’ve ever heard) gristles with deep, dark regret, with its intelligent use of loud-quiet a la Pixies. ‘Ghosts’ epitomises the intimacy of the performance; a lonely tale of an American frontiersman who confesses deeply personal fears about his own mortality, confiding in you that “Only under a night’s sky will I die”.
As you can tell, I have curtailed events. For the statisticians amongst you I can confirm the second and final set/ encore running orders (David, Play, Roch, Duo; David, Duo, Roch, Play). Despite rumoured sightings of his car, Holland does not show up. Leigh jokes nervously about its licence plate – ‘Boogie’ on the front, ‘Woogie’ on the back – but we all sense his unease; infringements of the Road Traffic Act are no laughing matter, and only serve as evidence of the friends in high places that this man has.
Later…Without Jool Holland is a resounding success. With advance tickets costing £3, this must be the best value entertainment anywhere (to be repeated, according to Leigh). We have seen musicians at the top of their game; the night passed without a fluffed note, a dodgy chord, a broken string or a yodel.
As I strip down my rifle, I realise how lucky we are to have such a wealth of musical talent in Sheffield. In the future, I suspect each of tonight’s acts will need to make their own deal with Mordor’s bandleader in the pursuit of a wider audience and greater artistic opportunity, on a journey that will inevitably lead them away from our city. But for now they are ours, and we should cherish, support, and protect them.
Words: Brother Gorillaman