A Beautiful Day Out
Levellers. The Waterboys. Billy Bragg. Dreadzone. Beoga
Manchester, Castlefield Bowl
Sunday July 2nd 2017
A Beautiful Day Out – you couldn’t wish to find a more aptly named gig. Five quality bands on a glorious sunny afternoon in the best outdoor venue I’ve ever witnessed.
Irish folk quintet and Grammy nominated Beoga start proceedings, fresh from playing with Ed Sheeran at Glastonbury. As bodhran player Eamon Murray says, they like to give these upcoming artists a start. It’s a perfect start to the day as the lively (I believe Beoga means lively in Gaelic) foot tapping reels echo across the bowl.
The venue is starting to fill up as Dreadzone take the stage, a band who inexplicably have passed me by all these years. Forerunners of dub and bass but I have to confess ‘Little Britain’ was the only tune I really knew prior to the gig. What a tune though! MC Spee walks with a cane and sits on a high stool throughout following knee ligament surgery some years ago yet is still more animated than many a singer you will see, conducting the crowd with his cane when not using it as percussion. Their electro reggae is infectious. This is a band who fully love what they do and they do it so well. Us newcomers are firmly welcomed into the “Dreadzone Family” after an outstanding set.
You can’t discuss Billy Bragg without mentioning politics. As someone growing up in a mining town in the ‘80s The Bard Of Barking has always been relevant to me. In the current political climate he is more relevant than ever. (Even if you don’t agree with the message you can’t, and shouldn’t, ignore him). He starts with a reworking of Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’, brought up to date for the Trump era ending with the announcement that Downing Street have invited Trump over. The crowd boo. “Don’t boo. Buy a f***ing ticket. He won’t come to you”. Every track comes with a story and/or dedication. “In 2017 I can’t believe I’m having to dedicate Sexuality to Arlene bloody Foster”. We get a snippet of White Stripes 7 Nation Army with the anticipated ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ chant. “What was that you said about Jeremy Clarkson?” The police, firefighters and nurses get ‘Power In A Union’ dedicated to them. Before ‘Between The Wars’ we get an impassioned plea, “The war on empathy, accusations of political correctness, virtue signalling, are attempts to stop two forces coming together – empathy and activism. Put empathy and activism together and you get solidarity, the key driver to social change”. It is truly moving. ‘Handyman Blues’ goes out to “all those men who have to accept that they will never be as good at DIY as their fathers”.
You forget sometimes just how much fun Billy Bragg is, the political tirades go hand in hand with his humorous, often self-deprecating speeches. You can never accuse Mr. Bragg of fence sitting. I love, and have always loved, him dearly for it. “Never had you down as folky singalong crowd. Let’s do some singalongs’ – cue ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’. It’s a truly joyous set, ending with ‘A New England’. The extra verse from Kirsty MacColl’s version is dedicated to the brilliant and much missed Kirsty. To a person the crowd roar the chorus back as we’re asked to “sing for your Uncle Bill”.
Some 34 years ago (give or take) a friend lent me a tape of an album he thought I might like. I have absolutely no recollection of what it was. Can’t have been that memorable. On the other side was a band I’d never heard of. I flipped the tape over out of interest and listened to The Waterboys for the first time. I fell instantly and head over heels in love, a love that still burns strong to this day. I went out the next day and bought everything I could by my new (and still) favourite band and have continued to do so ever since.
Mike Scott has always been something of a maverick. On the back of third album ‘This Is The Sea’ and a tour that blew the roof of every venue it visited the musical world was at his feet. A similar follow up would have guaranteed U2 status. The story goes that rather than promote ‘Whole Of The Moon’ on Top Of The Pops Scott was in his flat jamming with Bob Dylan. Bemoaning the fact that he was down to three chords he upped sticks and headed to Galway, coming back 4 years later with the folk tinged ‘Fisherman’s Blues’. He has always done things his way.
Despite a new bass player, Aongus Ralston, this seems to be the most settled Waterboys line up for some time and with long time cohort, fiddle player, The Wick - Steve Wickham, Scott appears to be enjoying his music more than ever. Live they are still as spectacular. As if to emphasise Mike Scott’s eclectic career they start with ‘Still A Freak’ from 2015’s ‘Modern Blues’. The pounding, fiddle driven ‘Medicine Bow’ follows and the crowd are lapping it up. Two songs in and we are fully aware this is a band truly on fire. Mike Scott saunters over to his piano to hammer out the opening of first single ‘A Girl Called Johnny’, his tribute to Patti Smith. There has been some criticism levelled the bands way at The Wick’s fiddle taking over the sax parts from the early songs. “Play that sax Brother Steve” Mike shouts during Wickham’s fiddle solo. Brilliant.
Fisherman’s Blue’s epic ‘We Will Not Be Lovers’ follows next (first time I saw it live it was dedicated to Thatcher – showing our respective ages now). On record it’s 7 minutes long. Live it’s even longer with Scott and Wickham head to head like rutting stags. It is frankly awesome. We get all eras Waterboys with ‘Nashville, Tennessee’ from upcoming album ‘Out Of All This Blue’ next. I think (I may be wrong) it’s a tribute to keyboard player ‘Brother’ Paul Brown. It seems to be since Brother Paul joined the band that the band have really took off again. The man is a force of nature, with a staggering career behind him.
It’s a 75 minute 12 song set that is over far too soon. ‘Whole Of The Moon’, which for years they were reluctant to play is a massive singalong with the band milking the ending for all they’re worth. Steve Wickham’s fiddle as the song reaches its climatic ending may well be my favourite snippet of music ever. Another mass singalong of ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ ends the show. I get the feeling they had more for us but extending some of the songs due to the pure enjoyment of playing may have curtailed the set. Today they reminded me once again why I fell so much in love all those years ago.
Waterboys Set List
Still a Freak
A Girl Called Johnny
We Will Not Be Lovers
Rosalind (You Married the Wrong Guy)
The Raggle Taggle Gypsy
Stopping By The Woods
The Whole Of The Moon
The Levellers have matured into one of this country’s most popular, and best, live acts. On the back of last years ‘Levelling The Land’ 25th anniversary tour they are still
playing their 2nd seminal album in full. It means we kick off with ‘One Way’ complete with some seriously energetic confetti cannons. We’re half way through the song before I can see the stage again. The crowd front and centre already pogoing and crowd surfing. I’ve seen bands do full albums live before and often they seem to race through the tracks, almost forgetting they’re gigging. Not so The Levellers. Both Mark Chadwick and Simon Friend always find time for a chat with the crowd in their casual, laid back manner. I’ve always found it very endearing. It’s the perfect foil for bassist Jeremy Cunningham and fiddle player Jon Sevink who whirl around constantly, often swapping sides of the stages, never once missing a beat. ‘Fifteen Years’, ‘The Boatman’, ‘Liberty Song’, ‘The Riverflow’ et al. The album finishes with the beating folk/punk of ‘Battle Of The Beanfield’ reminding us what an inspiring and important album it is before Mark introduces didgeridoo player Stephen Boakes with “Well that was ‘Levelling The Land’, this is a man dressed as a girl’.
2012’s ‘Truth Is’, a personal favourite, fires across the packed Castlefield Bowl as dusk falls, an impressive light show in full effect now. Looking down on the crowd is like looking down on a sea of rainbows, a vivid moving throng. All across the venue people are dancing. It truly is a beautiful sight.
We’re asked to demonstrate our singing voices. A loud cheer erupts. “Well that was your hello how are you voices, now let’s hear your singing voices” demands Chadwick and receives an even louder cheer before leading the band far back into the midst of time with debut single ‘Carry Me’, the crowd given full lead vocal duties for most of the song. Charlie Heather (drums) and Matt Savage (keyboards, percussion, great shirt) tap out the intro to ‘The Cholera Well’ before Jon Sevink’s fiddle kicks in and it feels like the whole site itself is reeling as every single person there (literally from 7 to 70) give it their all. Naturally ‘What A Beautiful Day’ closes proceedings, another mass of confetti fills the air. It is the perfect and only way to close such a show.
We all have a list of our top five gigs and naturally it is forever changing. This one is firmly planted in the top five. Was it the best gig I’ve ever been to? Five acts at the top of their game giving it everything. A superb venue with excellent sound. A crowd up for it right from the off without ever becoming rowdy. Yes, this was the best gig I’ve ever been to. A truly Beautiful Day Out.