Photography: Paul McCoy / @photomccoy

John Head

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  • The Circus Minds
St George's Hall 6/12/19

The drive in to St George’s Hall, from the north end at least, has suddenly become a thing of genuine wonder.

The sudden absence of that monstrous flyover exposes the end face of the museum, shows us the direct route to the tunnel, opens up the entire entrance to town and presents a grandeur that we kind of knew was always there but had taken for granted.

It could be easy to take JOHN HEAD for granted. It probably has been easy for very many people to take John Head for granted for a very long time; easy to view him as a junior partner in his elder brother’s adventure. The George to Mick’s Lennon and McCartney in Shack’s storied tale. (And to totally misquote Steve Coogan’s portrayal of Anthony H. Wilson: “If you don’t know who Shack were then that’s fine but you should probably listen to more music.”)

Let’s assume that everybody here is more than familiar with Shack, with The Pale Fountains, with all the stories, and not bother repeating them all for the millionth time.

As I’m leaving the hall later I overhear conversations (I write, that’s what I do, what we all do, we listen to you speak, all of you, all the time).

“Are you glad you came then?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Well, he was always kind of second fiddle…”

And that’s kind of true. A phenomenal guitarist, we all knew that. A beautiful voice. A dazzling song here and there, slipped into Shack albums, a Cornish Town, a Miles Apart, a Butterfly, a Carousel. All gorgeous, all shining in their own right. All present tonight.

There’s a moment that gives the lie to the sentiment halfway though John’s set, though. We’ll come to that. First we need to talk support.

"The next five minutes of just John and vocal might be the most impossible, most staggeringly beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. And we have no idea whether we’ll ever hear it again" Ian Salmon

And tonight’s support is ROY, the local legend who may possibly not be operating under his real name to deliver his tales of dark whimsy. We know what we’re getting with Roy now; streams of consciousness that take place in a fantasy underworld version of Walton filled with larger than life plots that may or may not (mostly may not) have their roots in truth.

That’s not what we get. Not until the end where there’s something that may or may not be a ghost story about betting shops and chippies.

What we get tonight is THE CIRCUS MINDS. The man called Roy accompanied by somebody on guitar who might not be operating under the name of NICK ELLIS tonight, but doesn’t half play like him. We’re out of story mode and into something that might (or might not) be poetry. They’re the meeting point between Allen Ginsberg, Half Man Half Biscuit and John Fahey that you hadn’t realised you needed until now.

John Head, though. We’re here for John. Only a few months since his sudden re-emergence at two very quickly sold out Parr Street Studio2 dates, the man is now selling out St George’s Hall’s Small Concert Room. A beautiful setting for a beautiful sound.

John Head Image 2

There are things I think about the sound. Sinuous, that’s one. Dreamlike, obviously. Pastoral. Bucolic. Acoustic. Very much acoustic. One guitar, one bass, a keyboard, drums, two pieces of brass. There’s some jazz in there, too. Some late-60s folk. There are beautifully fractured rhythms. There’s space. There’s lots of space. And everything supports the songs, supports the vocals. And the vocals are beautiful.

The band number six, then four, then three, then one. Whatever they number, the emphasis is always on the vocals, filling the marbled hall with ridiculous clarity.

I think of Fred Neil, Tims Hardin and Buckley; once I think of Nick Drake, but only once and only briefly. Mark Hollis comes to mind because of all that air in the music, John Martyn for the same reason and the version of Van Morrison that made Astral Weeks.

None of theses names arise as influence. We’re not talking influence, we’re talking lineage. There are songs from the fabled, mythical John Head solo album that might or might not exist in the real world but is certainly present enough for those assembled to sing along with 1967 and Crocodile. And there are new songs.

Which is where the moment comes in.

“I’ve got a new idea that I’ve been working on,” he says as he takes a solo moment mid-set. “It’s a bit rough and ready, but if you’re OK with that?”

The quote may not be exact because the next five minutes wipe the room out. The next five minutes of just John and vocal might be the most impossible, most staggeringly beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. And, given that the mythical solo album has never really made its way to the real world, we have no idea whether we’ll ever hear it again. A song so perfect that people forget to raise their phones. There may be no record of this song, it may have existed only for this moment. But this moment was perfect.

And that’s the kind of night this was: magic and beauty and silence and joy. A night of genuine wonder.

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