Michael Head And The Red Elastic BandHarvest Sun @ Grand Central Hall 15/12/18
What is it? How do we begin to explain it? Understand it?
Where does it come from, this devotion, this almost slavish, rose-tinted obsession with MICHAEL HEAD? So many are seemingly held under his spell, drawn to his light almost by nature’s own demands, as though they have no choice. They’re compelled to be here.
You can see it in the bars and pubs within a well-sung chorus of the doors of Grand Central Hall on this December Saturday night in Liverpool. It’s in the excited chat, the smiles and hugs of friends, the handshakes of acquaintances, the nods and the let-ons across the bar. Faces of the ages pulled together in a single, reverential pursuit. There’s a nervous energy on their faces. Caught in the moment. That staunch affection, founded in song and driven by loyalty. It’s so much bigger than the word ‘cult’ – often the default word of choice for commentators – could ever evoke. But then, it’s more than just a gig. More than just a band. It feels like something more. It’s in the feeling of community. Of connection and shared experience. It’s unity. It’s in the air, on the faces and in their hearts. Whichever way you describe it, its unmistakable and undeniable. One thing’s certain: it’s nothing new.
No matter when you started following the career of this most treasured and widely respected artist, whether an early starter Pale Fountains fan at 80s gigs in venues like Mr Pickwicks, the heady days of Shack, or stumbling across 2017’s acclaimed and long awaited Adiós Señor Pussycat, you’ve felt it. You’ve felt that thing, been touched somehow by that magic. Maybe that’s what it is: magic. Some untouchable ethereal connection between singer, song and the listener, maybe?
And the songs. For over four decades, Michael Head has brought us songs of truth. Don’t look for rage. There isn’t anger in his writing. That’s not what you’re there for. Head sings of truth. He writes tales rich in character and charm. They’re open. Raw, even. They’re honest. In Head we find timeless, soulful and emotive writing, with an air of classicism and few truly worthy comparisons. In time, these tales and the people in them have woven their way into the consciousness. We’ve grown to know Natalie and Heidi, Jimmy Price, AJ Clark, Josephine and Rumer. We know Daniella and Mr Appointment, Mrs Johnson and Sian, The Queen Of All Saints.
We’ve learnt of those places. In Hocken’s Hey and Newby Street, Lavender Way and Letitia Street. The Streets Of Kenny, and Kilburn High Road. The connection is there for everyone, as it is in Grand Central Hall, as the Red Elastic Band take to the stage. Michael Head, forever humble and appreciative, but less driven by nerves and more assured these days. He is healthy, happy and wise.
He’s evolved over recent years. Back where he should be, back to where he was long ago, at the beginning chapters of this ever-twisting tale.
We note a small detail that tells the big story between then and now: he’s wearing a watch. For too long, time will have meant little to him. It will have served no purpose, was of no consequence whatsoever. Now, he’s been welcomed back into a world where time matters, and he’s clearly relieved to be making it matter once more.
It’s an achievement worthy of huge respect, given the journey he’s taken, but he’d be the first to admit that without the support of everyone in the room, onstage and off, he maybe might never have completed it. There’s that deep connection again.
And so he finds himself playing with a band that features two brothers, a father and son, a brother and sister, and a host of friends so close, so bonded through music that they have become family. Maybe that’s the magic? Family. Maybe this is one big end of year family celebration. It’s been said before. Five years since Violette Records was created as a vehicle for this renaissance, there was certainly much to celebrate. And celebrate they did.
For those among our number who remember the days in the early 90s when Shack playing an eight-song set was considered a bonus, the surprise and thrill was in the fact that the Red Elastic Band and their triumphant leader bring no fewer than 21 songs in their bag, plus an encore of three more. An evening of treasured moments, long to be cherished, etched into the hearts and minds of the fortunate ones who secured tickets for this sold out show.
Few will remember any live renditions in past gigs of Shack’s Up Against It, or Faith from the first album, Zilch, an often unfairly overlooked collection of shimmering, earthy songs not necessarily aided by the heavy-handed polish of 1980s production. Here, those songs stand well, and take their rightful place alongside later wonders such as the criminally overlooked, swoonsome Somethin’ Like You, perhaps the most perfect paean to love ever written. Or the sheer spirited elevation and unbridled joy of Meant To Be, with the crowd taking on their now to-be-expected role of mass singalong on the Tijuana flavoured trumpet breaks. Similarly, Newby Street, voices and hands raised aloft in a united essence of singularity. An almost tangible sense of oneness descending over the crowd of smiling faces, the outside world and its dark uncertainty, for all too brief a moment, to be abandoned in the warmth of this blissful feeling.
A cover version in the shape of My Favourite Things, from The Sound Of Music, is given extra bounce and pulse by the choir stage right. There is the touchingly tender dedication of a doting father to his daughter in the audience, the subject of The Prize. He’s got The Prize, alright. A poignant moment. The dreamy, floating waltz of Stranger, from the magnificent Waterpistol album, is all visionary psychedelics under the vast Victorian circus dome of Grand Central. A song uniquely suited to that place and that time. “There’s just one way to get it in the city”. Is right.
The full family – a 15-piece band now including Nathaniel Cummings of Peach Fuzz – come together for Comedy, one of many which highlights Mick’s finely tuned sense of song, story and melody. The dynamics in the build and drops, the layers of guitars weaving in and around each other, and the chorus. That chorus. Big hearted, open and joyous, the entire crowd joining in throughout. And a confetti canon to seal the moment, the huge sound of the band repeating the refrain as confetti drifts down on us all like 50 million Rizlas.
So what is it, we asked. Simply put, it’s everything. Music, joy, elation, beauty, family, friends… to everyone at every Mick Head show, it’s everything.