My first live music experience, I believe, was watching the Bachelors at Bournemouth Winter Gardens when I was very young. I had no choice; my parents made me do it. I started watching gigs with gusto when I was nearing the end of my teenage years, with an early appreciation of local (Bournemouth) bands, notably The Spoons, The Swis, The Vibration Doctors and The Agency, the latter enhancing my rapidly expanding love of funk and soul. Glastonbury Festival was first experienced in 1984, when it was easily plundered, non-policed, drug-infested and beautifully friendly. Your car could be parked and tent pitched literally within shouting distance of the Main Stage too. Seeing New Model Army in 1985 as a still naïve 19 year-old at none other than the Bournemouth Town Hall was another early baptism of fire, being as scared by the crowd as I was inspired by Slade The Leveller.
During a career as a live music manager for four years and a music promoter for over five I saw more gigs than I had hot dinners. Not hard. I barely cooked. During about twelve years as a manager of music retail shops (three companies, three redundancies) I went to hundreds. At times going to a gig has been like going to the pub for a pint; music venues were like a home from home. Picking out a top five, despite this, was fairly easy as these gigs were some of the best moments of my life.
My top five live music experiences…
- Jeff Buckley – Wedgwood Rooms, Portsmouth, 1995
I was working at MVC at the time. Buckley’s Grace was released in August 1994 and a keen-eyed Assistant Manager was soon screaming about the album, alerting staff to its genius. Until this gig, in front of a few hundred at a nearly full Wedgwood Rooms, I had begun to devour Grace but was yet to be fully won over. Jeff Buckley brought the album to life with stunning passion, incredible beauty and unbelievable intensity that ebbed and flowed throughout the 14-song set. During ‘Lilac Wine’ and set closer ‘Hallelujah’ you could’ve heard a whisper in the crowd, whilst when the four-piece launched into ‘Eternal Life’ and MC5’s ‘Kick Out The Jams’ it was gloriously heavy. I’ll never forget the sight, sound and incredible aura of Jeff Buckley on stage. Grace was a stunning debut album; witnessing it live in such an intimate atmosphere was a sensory overload and an absolute privilege.
- Neil Young – Hop Farm Festival, 2008
I’d been a Neil Young fan since the early 90s since discovering After The Goldrush on a campsite in France. I love his music, but almost more I love his attitude; his singular, focused, self-obsessed approach to songwriting, his constant ability and determination to make the music he wants, regardless of record label, public, or media pressure. I’d had one or two previous opportunities to see him live, but stupidly passed them up. Then he appeared on the bill as headliner at the first Hop Farm Festival. He was stunning, playing everything I hoped he would whilst an artist painted on stage. The over-riding memory from the set, apart from his glorious rendition of The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’ was how his Les Paul, the Old Black, rumbled through the mountainous speakers for a good minute after each song had finished, like the aftershock of an earthquake, not wanting to die.
- Elvis Costello – Glastonbury Festival, 1984
I was eighteen. We’d arrived in a friend’s 2CV, young, innocent and fucking excited. Within hours we wasted a large sum of money on a lump of hash that was, quite possibly, solid rubber. It rained loads, but we had an absolute blast. I remember World Party being fantastic with Karl Wallinger smiling constantly through the downpour, I recall Van Morrison boring me (I was yet to be a fan), but it was Elvis Costello who blew me away. He played solo for somewhere near two hours, including two encores and had it ended it would have easily been the highlight of the festival. The crowd started to disperse as his backdrop rose to reveal The Attractions and BAM!.. straight into ‘Oliver’s Army’. Jaws dropped and within seconds it was a whole new gig with thousands singing whilst fighting stunned grins. After 45 minutes of euphoric bonus time The Attractions ended. Victorious.
- Paul Weller – Phoenix Festival, 1995
As a teenager I was a huge Jam fan. I liked most of the Style Council stuff too, for a while. Then for five or six years Paul Weller went from being a teenage hero to a musical recluse before re-emerging in the early 90s, seemingly re-fuelled and re-inspired. I saw Weller as a solo artist for the first time in 1994, and over the next ten years saw him maybe twenty times. Not once (though I have since) did I leave anything other than amazed at his unrivalled passion for playing and his sheer skill as a live performer. I saw him at The Phoenix Festival just after the release of Stanley Road, when in my opinion he was at his peak, wallowing in the glory of his Modfather status, sharing stages and highs with the his Britpop buddies. One such fella, Noel Gallagher, joined him at Phoenix, but I could’ve done without. For ten years Paul Weller was untouchable on a live stage, and Phoenix 1995 was his pinnacle.
- Booker T & The MGs – Redondo Beach, Los Angeles 1991
Good fortune took me to the United States in 1991, to live with an all-American family in Los Angeles. I worked three or four days a week driving a van around Hollywood, Beverley Hills and the many beaches from Malibu down to Huntingdon, making deliveries and picking up cheques. One day I was at Redondo Beach, and noticed a billboard promoting a concert for none other than Booker T & the MGs. I’d been a huge fan since my late teenage years; shuffling best I could in a mod style to ‘Green Onions’, ‘Tic-Tac-Toe’ and ‘Red Beans & Rice’. The line-up was, deaths apart, the original featuring Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn. I couldn’t miss it. In a jazz bar setting they were perfect. So often when watching an iconic band playing so long after their main success, the passing years bring a lethargy to the stage. Not Booker T & The MGs who were impossibly groovy, the epitome of cool.