George East’s Top Ten Gigs of 2011

by George_East on December 30, 2011

It is that time of year again.  Time for reviews and lists and top tens and what not.       Like last year my first top ten list will be  my favourite gigs of the year.  albums and films will follow.   2011 was a great year for live music – with some truly top drawer gigs.   Indeed it was probably a better year for live music than for recorded music.

But before I get to the list, I want to mention my two biggest disappointments of the year gigwise.    Fortunately, neither of them concern gigs I went to.   Rather they were gigs I failed to go to.  Firstly, back in May I failed to get tickets for Mercury Rev playing the whole of Deserter’s Songs – undoubtedly one of the greatest album of the second half of the 90s and possibly on their last tour to the UK.   Secondly, I did get tickets for My Morning Jacket but was too busy at work to actually go.    Both gigs were at the Roundhouse too, my favourite London venue.

So here goes:

1. Justice Tonight – Mick Jones/Pete Wylie/The Farm and guests, The Scala

Comfortably the gig of the year was the last one I went to.  Indeed it was so good that it is probably up there in my top ten gigs of all time.    The Justice Tonight tour was conceived by Pete Wylie in support of the Hillsborough Justice campaign.   The big draw for me was Mick Jones playing Clash songs for the first time since he was kicked out of the band in 1983.

I had expected a traditional gig structure with may be an hour of Mick Jones following on from sets by Pete Wylie and The Farm.   But that was not how it worked at all.  Instead after a couple of songs by The Farm, Pete Wylie and Mick Jones joined them on stage for two hours of music: first Wylie’s most famous songs and then 90 minutes of The Clash.   Pete Wylie was a funny and angry compere.  Mick Jones looked like he was having the time of his life,  boyishingly grinning throughout the entire set.

The Clash set had pretty much everything you could ask for including Bank Robber, London Calling, White Man In Hammersmith Palais, Clampdown, Should I Stay or Should I Go, Stay Free, Brand New Cadillac, Janie Jones and  Train In Vain.  Bobby Gillespie joined the band for an utterly crazed rendition of Rocks followed by him playing maracas on the biggest highlight of all – the reunion of Mick Jones and Paul Simonon for Jail Guitar Doors and Guns of Brixton.

Short of Joe Strummer being resurrected, this was about as good as it gets for a Clash fan.  A much hoped for but not really expected reunion given Paul Simonon’s antipathy towards Clash nostalgia.  It was a  huge gig in a small venue marked by a lost voice the next day after a couple of hours in the mosh pit.   And to top it all the crowd were immense – a mixture of Liverpool FC football fans and old punk rockers.  The atmosphere was electric.  It is  hard to imagine how it could have been much better.

2. John Grant, Shepherd’s Bush Empire

Having seen John Grant support Midlake last year and as a result being awoken to the brilliance of his debut solo album, The Queen of Denmark (my favourite of last year), I was hugely looking forward to seeing a full solo show.   And it did not disappoint.   It was just John Grant with that rich baritone voice and a piano as he played all the songs on the album bar one, and a couple of Czars tracks too.

The final song of the encore, an emotional rendition of The Czars’ Little Pink House dedicated to his now dead grandmother (whose house is referenced in the song) was probably my favourite single live song moment of the year.    You could not hear a pin drop.  There was barely a dry eye in the house.   I cannot wait for his second solo album due next year.

3. Gillian Welch, Hammersmith Apollo

Her first British gig for 9 years in support of her first album for 8 years, the utterly wonderful The Harrow and The Harvest was a startling brilliant performance.  Just Gillian Welch and her long term musical collaborator Dave Rawlings accompanied by acoustic guitars or banjo playing two sets without a support.   The beautiful close harmonies on the  evocative originals were matched by a brilliant choice of covers including, This Land Is Your Land, White Rabbit and Jackson.    Never has old time music sounded so contemporary.

Apparently David and Samantha Cameron were also at the gig – luckily I didn’t find that out until later, so a sublime musical experience remained untarnished.

4. Belle and Sebastian, The Roundhouse

The keepers of the true C86 indie flame returned to London for the first time in half a decade to play a brilliant gig in May.   It was the usual cast of what seemed like thousands on stage as Stuart Murdoch led the band through a set which overbrimmed with pop genius and spanned their entire career.   I hadn’t seen Belle and Sebastian since about 2003 and had forgotten just how great they can be live.    My only regret – failing to get to the gig in time to see The Woodentops in support.

5.Chuck Prophet and The Spanish Bombs, The Garage

My second Clash related entry.  Chuck Prophet (formerly of Green on Red) and his band played the entirety of The Clash’s London Calling in probably the most fun gig of the year.  It had the potential to be terrible or at least a bit karaoke as one of the greatest albums of all time was played in order by another band (and an American one at that).  In fact Chuck pulled it off brilliantly, reminding everyone there (if they needed reminding) what a truly stunning album it is.    The reading by Johnny Green (former Clash Stage Manager) from his memoirs of life with The Clash, before the band came on   was funny, irreverent and a perfect set up for a thoroughly entertaining set.

6. Richmond Fontaine/Laura Gibson – The Scala

Portland’s Richmond Fontaine are a band who have been ploughing the same furrow for a decade and a half without any appreciable success, beyond the critics at least.  In Willy Vlautin they have one of the great narrative song writers currently operating.  His songs are richly evocative of blue collar American life – of loners, drifters and chancers.   In September they played a fantastic gig at The Scala both in support of their latest album, The High Country and with a full play through of the greatest album, Post To Wire).

In support was a superb folky singer songwriter called Laura Gibson – I’d never heard of her before but came away having made a new discovery and will be watching out for her in the future.

7. Steve Earle, Royal Festival Hall

Steve Earle’s gig at the Royal Festival Hall was a wonderfully engaging and superbly entertaining run through of his career, with a dash of politics sprinkled over the top.   As a result of assuming (wrongly) that there was a support act, I missed the first 30 minutes of the set.   However, the 2 hours or so I did see showed Steve to be in fine form and his wife, Alison Moorer, as having one of the best female country voices currently around.   Moorer’s cover of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come was probably my third favourite single song moment of the year.

8. Fleet Foxes, Hammersmith Apollo

Fleet Foxes are a band who are clearly growing in confidence live.  I saw them on their first album tour in late 2008 and the harmonies and beauty of the music were everything you could ask for.  But there was a certain amateurishness about them – long tunings up between songs with the drummer cracking jokes to fill the dead space, that kind of thing.   Not so any more.  On the tour for the second album, Helplessness Blues they were tighter, more professional and the songs were every bit as beautiful.    Oliver James, Helplessness Blues and Mykonos in the encore were particular highlights.  The gig was only marred by an overly reverential audience.

9. Pulp, Hyde Park

This year’s big summer gig was the Pulp reunion in Hyde Park.  Jarvis and the band were in great form as they played a populist set heavily focused on material on Different Class. Not in the same class as the Blur reunion of 2009 but there was still a great singalong party atmosphere, not least in the rousing final song, inevitably Common People.   Jarvis dedicating Babies to his mother was a bit weird, mind.

10. Jeffrey Lewis, Heaven

It is impossible not to come away from a Jeffrey Lewis gig smiling, even if sadly he appears to have abandoned his live only History of Communism series.  The replacement though – the Life of Marco Polo was equally inspired.  The highlights included the hilarious autobiographical new song, Cult Boyfriend and the simply inspired Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror.  Geeky sci fi, comic books, punk rock and introspective folk songs made for another night of quirky genius.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ray North December 30, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I can offer very little to the sumptuous list of gigs – but I did enjoy The Arctic Monkeys in liverpool in november far more than I’d dared to hope – a wonderful gig!

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George_East December 30, 2011 at 4:01 pm

No insult meant to the DBT gig – as I said 2011 really was a very good year for live music. After a lot of deliberations I had that gig twelfth. I guess the Richmond Fontaine gig came higher because it was the first time I’d seen them and it had the added bonus of introducing me to Laura Gibson. As for Pulp it was an event and I never saw them at their Different Class peak, only before. I also struggled in omitting the Bill Callahan gig at The Barbican and Seasick Steve at Hammersmith Apollo.

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