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Lloyd Cole - Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London on 26 January 2004
Although I have enjoyed the witty, wordy songs of the intellectual romantic Lloyd Cole for about 20 years now, I am afraid that I did not find myself suffocating from excitement as the date of his concert at the South Bank Centre drew near. I’ll know better next time.
Perhaps the number of concerts I attend now has me a bit jaded. Although Cole’s last album, Music in a Foreign Language, was a truly welcome return to his previous superior form, my breathless state after running to the venue was solely contributable to my having left the office late.
A bonus of arriving in that state, perhaps not for those who had to sit near my less than fresh self, was that I was able immediately to take my seat (front and centre—hurrah) in the full Queen Elizabeth Hall. Despite having a capacity of about 1,000 people, the hall gives the impression of being intensely intimate and is usually draped in a respectful silence; after all, we are all mature professional adults who would not dream of getting more excited than subtle applause allows. At least, that is what we become in the hall. It really wouldn’t be a choice venue for Status Quo.
At 7.55pm, in line with the hall’s lack of ceremony, a tall shadow emerged unannounced from the far left corner of the stage and strolled for a minute in the darkness towards the chair at the centre of the stage, as we wondered whether we should cheer for this mystery person, who could be the opening act or a roadie. When the silent figure reached his place before me, beneath the few scattered white lights above, we could see that we were gazing upon The Man Himself, albeit much greyer than how we remembered him. The new man in black (rebelliously wearing brown shoes), Lloyd looked even taller than his fairly significant height, nodding towards fashion with sleeves folded up to the elbows, ‘zhooshed’, as they’d say on Queer Eye for a Straight Guy (I know, it’s scary that I’ve watched that programme). Looking otherwise as though he had not aged for 20 years, his tidy silver hair gave him a new distinguished maturity, and he vaguely reminded me of ex-Split Enz/Crowded House singer/songwriter Tim Finn (one of the highest compliments I can pay).
With two acoustic guitars waiting on stands for him, Cole brought with him only an intense look of seriousness and two blue exercise books, which he placed on a stand to the left of the chair after opening one. His expression was nothing so severe as a Van Morrison, I-hate-you-audience-scum scowl, you understand, but an air of concentration on the job he had before him. This seriousness proved to be something of a disguise he wore, as it transpired during the evening that he had a sense of humour and did not take himself so seriously. He clearly enjoyed leading the audience through an informal, imperfect set, though I imagine he aspired to imperfection more than he achieved it, whilst playing the Jack Dee type of deadpan comedian. He did so with a subtle intelligence that could mislead those who did not grasp the irony of his understated humour or his mature acceptance of the (rather high) cards life had dealt him.
Indeed, this man had achieved the height of fame and critical acclaim two decades before as a youngster, and he could easily be sitting around, moping and whining that too much of the world had forgotten him, engineering publicity with sad, faux celebrities from a ridiculous televised world in the Australian jungle. Instead, he stood firmly and contentedly in this less manic world in a quiet hall amongst people who still appreciated that he was a songwriter of awesome abilities. So it would be appropriate, perhaps, if Lloyd were to begin the set with his song Waterline, which refers to how everything used to be fine and was all his, but ‘I threw it all away 'cause I made up my mind; I traded holy water for cheap wine, I ran out of time or something that I can't define.’
However, he chose instead a song that may well have inspired him to write that track from his 1990 solo debut. Without a word, he picked up the teak-coloured guitar, took a seat beside a little round table that had a pint of beer and bottles of water waiting, and delivered a handsome cover of Bob Dylan’s I Threw It All Away to us with a fantastic, clear and unfaltering voice. Still seeming solemn when he finished, Lloyd demonstrated that appearances are deceptive when he quipped, ‘I wrote that in 1968 when I was in detox.’
I always think it’s terribly brave to begin a set with a cover, but I was uncertain what else to expect from Lloyd. Would he be, as in a previous tour with his old band the Commotions, refusing to play anything but his latest album’s tracks? People always loved to hear their favourite hit, no matter how boring it was for the performer to crank it out for the millionth time. Fortunately, Cole had a great bunch of songs to peddle this time around, but also managed to work in a ‘greatest hits’ set, purely off the cuff, for those longing to relive their youth by hearing Brand New Friend and Lost Weekend.
Just to keep our focus where it should be, though, Lloyd moved quickly into the title track from his new, welcome album, Music in a Foreign Language. Since the album was pared down to the basics, this acoustic one-man performance was not too different from the sublime version on the album. Cole has a warm and surprisingly melodious voice that easily commanded breathless admiration throughout the hall, and his remarkably polished talents on the guitar often gave the impression that he was accompanied by another rhythm guitarist. This song has a gentility that reminds me of another choice songwriter of the past two decades, Fairground Attraction’s Mark Nevin, and manages a soft, well-constructed air of overlooked pop melody that is immediately appealing. Even the la-la-la part doesn’t weaken its credibility, although one has to wonder about Lloyd’s fixation these days with la-ing; perhaps it’s the father in him that has traded past references to whiskey for this childlike innocence at times.
Throughout the evening, Lloyd sang unaided in generally perfect pitch (whereas so many singers now rely on technology to tell them where they should be), alternating between singing with his eyes clamped shut and gazing out at the audience, which must have looked mostly like darkness to him. Most of the songs ended with him repeating the last line twice and then abruptly ending it. My thoughts turned to school trips to hear the symphony as a child, when the teacher taught us that we knew the piece had finished when the conductor put his arms down and turned toward the audience. Lloyd also gave a signal when he finished his songs: he would suddenly remove his fingers from the strings of his guitar and place them, so quickly that his movement was barely visible to the naked eye, on the cup of beer on the small table beside him, alternating sips of beer with sips from the bottle of Evian, responsible adult that he now is. Once Lloyd was sipping, that was our clue to applaud.
And applaud we did after his second song. I wondered whether he was a man of few words in practice, as perhaps so many spilled out of him onto paper for his songs, he had none left to speak. But then he began to chat to us a bit. He said, despite his ever-present serious expression, that the song he had just performed was evidence that he was ‘a mellow kind of geezer these days.’ He thought for a moment and added, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if, in a few years, people knew that song and sang along with the "la-la-la" part’ and he imitated how it might sound when sung en masse, as though to encourage us. ‘So bear that in mind for the future,’ he added, reassuring us that ‘it would be okay.’
That thought reminded him, he said, of staying in a large Sheraton in Glasgow while touring in 1986 with The Commotions. ‘There is no greater honour than hearing 3,000 Glaswegians singing "eh-eh-eh-eh"’, and he demonstrated the horrors of hearing that part from Charlotte Street sung roughly by too many over-enthusiastic and inebriated fans. Without pausing, he took us straight into his modern performance of that classic song from his past, off the famous debut of this promising young thing in 1984, and the audience applauded with instant recognition. The line, ‘And so I forced a smile contrary to my style’ made me note to myself that some things safely never change.
As we applauded (no cheers, mind you; this was the Queen Elizabeth Hall, you understand) as enthusiastically as our new maturity would allow, Lloyd magically produced a capo which he placed on his guitar before delicately dabbling over its strings, producing a hypnotic twinkling effect. He led us into the second track of his new album (would he be playing them all in order?), My Other Life, which surely betrays his admiration for Leonard Cohen. Dark and engaging, the song is an excellent clotheshorse for the new, still alienated, but no longer so angry introspective songwriter, complete with an elegantly rich voice and easy talent on the guitar. I suspect that another singer would not be able to hold our interest during this downplayed number, whereas Lloyd drew us all into its story and held us to attention until he was suddenly drinking water again.
Barely pausing, he moved into a trickling introduction on his
guitar, greeted by enthusiastic "yeah’s!" and applause as the fans recognised
Don’t Look Back, which was our first glimpse in 1990 of Lloyd Cole solo.
Presenting his usual take of doom on a relationship, which starts casually
before he drives her to drinking and leads her to hell, Lloyd sang of how ‘I
used to try to believe / But life seems never-ending
When you’re young.’ The song sounded delightfully less breezy stripped down,
without the echo-y vocals, electric guitar, Matthew Sweet bass and drums. Lloyd
made the effort to inject some high humming to pass for the dreamy repeated
backing vocals, carefully picking out a bright marvel on the guitar, but
skipping the (electric) solo that appears on the record. As Lloyd busied himself
with that, a late arrival took his seat in the front, an island near the stage
surrounded by space reserved for wheelchair users had any been in attendance.
Whether it was the odd seating arrangement or the cheek of someone arriving late
that caught his attention, Lloyd gazed at the man for some time, and I worried
that his new comedian tendencies might cause him to stop and publicly berate and
humiliate the man, but he carried on singing.
At this stage, I noticed that the chap beside me was possibly in need of the Heimlich Manoeuvre, unless he was merely chewing gum in a very pronounced and exaggerated way, until I realised that he was lip-synching along with every word that Lloyd sang throughout the evening. Strange, you might think, but I have been to far too many shows that have been ruined by the person beside me singing badly and loudly in order to be heard over that racket coming from the stage, so I really wish that this chap would hold courses for concert-goers everywhere. Silent singing is the way to go, unless you are the person on stage, and then only if you are John Cage. There was a brief moment, though, near the end of the evening where the same ‘gum-chewing’ seemed to catch Lloyd’s eye and he stared at my neighbour for a minute, perhaps puzzling over this unusual mirror in his gaze, before returning to eye-shut mode.
Now Lloyd reached to the stand to his left, closed one of his exercise books, pulled the other out from beneath it and placed that on top, but kept it closed. I was never certain what purpose these served, as he clearly preferred to work without a set list, and he never seemed to look over at them much, so it seemed unlikely that he was dependent upon them for lyrics. Perhaps a quick, undetected glance at the chords would be enough for him, or perhaps, like Eddi Reader, he sometimes needed to flick through his vast catalogue in order to find inspiration when choosing a song to perform. Still, a distinct lack of flicking never quite satisfied my curiosity over the books.
Without introduction, Lloyd launched into the fantastic third track from his new album, Late Night, Early Town, so yes, he was progressing through the album in order, it seemed. The first line of the song, ‘Just another bunch of torn-down college graduates trying to find a place to set down for a while’ could describe the small towns where he played on tour or the audiences themselves. This rendition of the gently played song was slightly livelier than that on the album, and his naturally deep voice chose to take the high road when singing the chorus, which conveyed a deeper sense of feeling as he marvelled at the amount of cocaine and lack of insomnia in Los Angeles and its many temptations. Between verses, he turned his guitar into a percussive instrument by thumping a precise heartbeat on its drum, and he later added a few "la-la-la’s" as he is now prone to do, but we did not join in, despite his earlier encouragement.
When Lloyd reached the point where I expected to see his arm darting for a beverage beside him, he surprised me by continuing to play but speaking as he did so, subtly educating us about his inspiration for the song. Talking rhythmically over his own accompaniment, he spoke of how, in every North American town, the motels could be found where the ring road meets the motorway. We might be familiar with them if we had ever travelled around them with a rock band, he said, sparking some gentle laughter, and he described the rooms to us, in a past age of ‘pre-Ikea spartan-ship’ complete with clean linen with cigarette burns. He seemed to be fondly reminiscing about these horrors as he explained that ‘you’d be in the middle of nowhere—unless the bus driver was up for it’ so guests were forced to turn to the motel’s pay-per-view movies for entertainment. These inevitably featured Lethal Weapon as the first choice, ‘The Piano or The Pianist—whichever for that year’ as the second, and the final choice should be subtitled ‘for the sad and only lonely: really badly edited, just awful, soft porn.’ And these pay-per-view boxes, Lloyd said, about to reveal the key, are by Spectravision. With that, he returned to his singing voice long enough to end the song with the line ‘a Spectravision girl’ before darting for the drink beside him, gaining massive applause from the enlightened audience.
Leading us quickly away from Lloyd the Droll Philanthropist to Lloyd the Doleful Philosopher, Cole took us through what might be loosely labelled as the medley of the evening, and a mournfully touching one at that. Singing first his own song, Butterfly, his quiet, entrancing delivery took us deep into the song. I thought it had Leonard Cohen-like lyrics laced with Lloyd’s trademark art: ‘You were an innocent child before I laid my hands on you / And all that pain that you held inside / Was just waiting to bloom in a darkened room….Well you'd never known love and you'd never known pain / But you found out that they were just like wine and champagne, / You could drink a little more, then you hurt a little less….’ The audience was easily drawn into this song from Lloyd’s 1991 Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe, an album that is sadly lacking from my collection.
As I wasn’t familiar with the song and Lloyd had hypnotised us all with its haunting melody, it was a surprise when, after the soft, sad solo on his acoustic guitar picked up a bit, I noticed that Lloyd was once again singing about the mysterious recurring Jane. I eventually realised that he was singing the lyrics to one of Leonard Cohen’s most famous, mysterious and fascinating numbers, Famous Blue Raincoat. Lloyd looked clearly moved, twisting his head and furrowing his brow as he poured his energy into a stunning interpretation of this equally haunting song, an excellent conclusion to Butterfly.
It took me 30 years to come across the wonder of Cohen’s intriguing song, when director Alan Parker chose Jennifer Warnes’ version as one of his Desert Island Discs. Unaware that I already had the Tori Amos version on the Tower of Song tribute CD (proof that I have far too many CDs; nah, there’s no such thing), I rushed out to buy Warnes’ 1985 album of Cohen songs, happily unaware that she was the singer of various appalling soundtrack duets in the 80s. The rest of the album was a significant disappointment, and the real holy grail for me would be a copy of Lloyd performing this song as stunningly as he did on this night. (I seem to recall that the South Bank Centre often records gigs from the sound desk and makes them available to the performer for an extortionate price, so I will sit and dream for all of two minutes of the unrealistic prospect of ever hearing this cover released).
Lloyd seemed truly moved by the lyrics, and particularly caught my attention with his intense delivery of the line ‘And what can I tell you, my brother, my killer?’ which Warnes omitted from her version, as well as changing the closing of her version of the song to ‘Sincerely, A Friend’ rather than ‘Sincerely, L Cohen’ as in the original. Lloyd delivered the last line as, ‘Thanks again for the song, Mr Cohen.’ Only then, after such an impassioned delivery that I froze in my seat in absolute awe, did Lloyd let slip the slightest wry smile, which then vanished almost immediately, less we start to think of him as cheerful.
Leaving us all a bit weak at the knees, Lloyd stood and changed guitars, telling us that his show would be divided into two halves so we would have time to stretch our legs later. How thoughtful.
He began another song from his new album, albeit one recycled from his previous album, The Negatives: No More Love Songs. I adore the first line, ‘Rather than you, she said, I prefer solitude,’ as I am a heartless die-hard loner who could easily tell someone as much. My fondness for this sensational song is so strong that I can even tolerate Dave Derby’s steel guitar on the new album version, despite my being the world’s leading anti-steel-guitar activist, but I must admit its mournful cry works here. Nevertheless, I was thankful to hear Lloyd’s even more minimalist performance of the song on stage this night, particularly as his unencumbered voice steered us to more focused concentration on the portrait painted by the lyrics of yet more condemned or dysfunctional relationships. These lyrics included the habitual references to LA and whiskey, as well as the oozing smoothness of ‘I’ll drink to harmony, peace and disarmament / I’ll dance the victory waltz’. At one point, Lloyd played the wrong chord, or more accurately, just played too many of the same chord so it actually sounded fine, but he stopped crooning for a moment but continued to play and said, ‘whoops’, before pounding away at the guitar in order to wipe from our memories the previous minor error (uh, except for my record of it here). Suddenly, we saw that his fingers had silently moved to his beer, and the hall erupted in applause.
Next, after a resplendent introduction on the guitar, Lloyd performed Mainstream in such a way that I simply did not recognise it. Others in the audience did, and they laughed a bit and applauded as soon as they heard the first line ‘When am I ever gonna kick the curse?’ Somehow, I was not with them; I heard the unique lyrics (loads of his songs talk about whiskey and wine but only one talks about swimming being easy when you’re stuck in the middle of the Mississippi). Perhaps it was his new, bolder, voice of experience, or just a fresher, raw treatment without the imposing percussive rhythm as on the 1987 album of the same name, but the song was transformed. Although he still managed a funky, thundering guitar part, the song was honestly something truly special to behold. Rather than delving in the deep tones alone, as on the album, he was raising his voice to his upper register, having fun varying the tune a bit, and he somehow brought its lyrics to the fore and made it more captivating and moving, with ‘all you have to do is crawl’ sounding so much more profound. Then his hummingbird hand grabbed his beer, we were applauding, and he whipped out a capo and placed it across the guitar’s strings for the next song.
Before playing the next tune, he mentioned that he had made a couple of records in the early ‘90s that had basically been invisible in this country. He said so without curling his lip in disgust, bitterness or frustration, but managed to convey calmly the impression that he felt these lost albums deserved more attention than they got. One of those albums, he said, was called The Negatives. Probably one person cheered when he said that, so I guess he was right. Though no doubt there were many of us in the house who were not the outspoken type but who are proud owners of this (2001) album, on which Lloyd was accompanied by a guitar-based band, including David Derby on bass guitar, Eve’s Plumb’s Michael Kotch on guitar, and Jill Sobule, herself a fine singer/songwriter (known widely for her song ‘I Kissed A Girl’), contributing guitar and vocals.
Unsurprisingly, he treated us to a track from that record, the simple poetry of I’m Gone, sung with an aching, vulnerable vocal over a thumping beat on the guitar. I once read a suggestion that this song was about the narrator walking out on a relationship, but I always saw it as a simple on-the-road song, leaving one hotel in one town—and possibly but not necessarily leaving one one-night-stand—before travelling anonymously to another town where he’ll be the star of the show for a few hours. But then, sometimes I have narrow vision. In any case, Lloyd’s vocals came across as though he were half-whispering in the ear of each member of the audience, which had me stopping to note with appreciation the dependably fine acoustics of the South Bank Centre. There were only four small speakers visible on the stage facing us, but they carried the sound beautifully, undoubtedly with hidden help throughout the hall.
As we applauded after that song, Lloyd stood and moved stage right to the higher mike, as the stage had been set up so that he could either sit and play into one mike or stand beside that and play into another, depending on what mood took him. He warned that the next song was even more obscure, from a record called Etc. Looking as serious as always, he joked that he worried that the song would be ‘illegally light-hearted’ for the venue, and if a man in a white coat came to take him away, we would know why.
Remaining standing, he burst into an upbeat number called Love Like This Can’t Last, filling the hall with fun, as promised, and fortunately no men in white coats came to drag him away. He sang, with an apparently touching appreciation of the beauty of his situation at the time, ‘I’ve got a beautiful thing going on with a beautiful woman’. But again, the song hinted at a one night stand, or at least a defeatist attitude, with the line, "She’s going to love me ‘til tomorrow, then, well, she’s only human." However, the painted situation seemed to be more of a man thrilled with his luck to be with a woman who wowed him, and he couldn’t ask for more, not even expectations for the future. Despite the numerous tales in his lyrics of doomed or discarded relationships, he often lets escape a little boy sweetness with secret hopes for bliss. Later, the song has a country feel as he’s ‘half way to Phoenix for the 17th time, I’m on my 59th rewrite of Leaving On Your Mind.’ Let’s hope the woman wasn’t LeAnn Rimes.
Based on that example of the ignored album, there seems little justification for its lack of promotion. The truly delightful and catchy song had Lloyd almost smiling; I wish I had captured that rare moment on film, but I was conscious that there had been only about one flash all night. Even though there was no Camera Gestapo as there had been when Ray Davies played a neighbouring hall in that venue, I just didn’t feel that I could justify ruining the quiet mood Lloyd was creating. I was seated right up front, exposed, and it seemed that a flash would blind Lloyd and disturb the audience too much to allow it, so I refrained from taking any photos until he was leaving, which I must admit I regret a bit, but it was the right decision at the time.
Lloyd told us that he would love to brood all night, but he was afraid that he didn’t have enough brooding songs (I’m sure he didn’t mean ‘broody’ songs.). He remained standing but changed guitars and burst into an amazingly upbeat Four Flights Up. Lloyd’s skills as a guitarist filled the hall with the sound of a full band, and had we been in another venue, we might just have jumped up to dance. As he sped through the fond acceptance of ‘Yes, I know that’s your charm’ before plunging into the exasperated criticisms enveloped in the argument in the song, I simply could not imagine why I haven’t been playing this tremendous old favourite every day for the past 20 years.
Interestingly, when Lloyd sings his more recent or his ‘brooding’ songs these days, he does so with a mature, rich steady voice that leans toward crooning, but is much more understated. However, when he returns to the songs of the 80s, he returns to his 80s voice, i.e. that quavering, punchy, clipped Roy Orbinson fun treatment of grasping and clinging to each syllable, complete with occasionally injected whining sounds, which flagged up that you were listening to the unique voice of Lloyd Cole. It was terrific fun to hear the old Lloyd sing the old Lloyd songs, but his mature, experienced modern voice is a bold and welcome force.
Since he couldn’t reach the table from the standing mike, Lloyd had to walk over to sip his beer, which gave us time to realise the tune had finished and begin applauding before he got there. He folded his ‘zhooshed’ sleeves up a bit more, to the elbow, and then effectively answered a question that had been in my mind, as he wore no wedding band but I was certain that he was married with a family now. He said that his youngest son was really into dinosaurs and palaeontology. I am not certain whether his son simply spoke of fossils or actually used that word, perhaps with a knowledge gained by watching Ross on Friends, or perhaps he shared his Dad’s apparent high IQ (or perhaps his son is 20, for all I know, though I doubt it).
In any case, the discussion was relevant because Lloyd drew a comparison to the study of his songs and being able to place them in a particular age based upon the language he used at the time. For instance, he said, if he used ‘on account of’ in a song, that would have been during a period of absorbing too much Bruce Springsteen (which I would never have guessed), placing those songs in about 1984/85. Any songs with more than three or four "babe’s" would be circa 1991/92. He introduced the next song as one having far too many "babe’s" in it. He said that people used to shout requests for the song and he didn’t know how to play it, and now that he had learnt it, probably no one would ask to hear it, so he was going to play it anyway.
So, still standing and with applause from much of the audience who recognised the opening chords, he performed 1991’s Weeping Wine (Babe count = 4, with one additional ‘baby’), with the lovely refrain of ‘you're drinking on borrowed time and the last thing you need is me and my weeping wine.’ Boy, has he learned the piece; his delivery was fabulous. He added some "la-la-la’s" at the end (thus consigning the song to his 2003 period, or the ‘Lalazoic’ Aeon), then stopped abruptly and, perhaps appropriately given the title of the last song, said ‘have a drink and I’ll see you in a while.’ He then grabbed his secret exercise books and walked off stage, the opposite side from whence he had come. I noticed that he trusted us with his guitars, which remained on stage, but not his precious books, which remained with him at all times.
After a thirty minute interval, as we obediently waited, well-watered and reeking of cigarette smoke from the foyer, Lloyd and his two blue books returned to the stage. He placed the books on the stand near the beer table, picked up his teak coloured guitar and took a seat without a word, then immediately plunged into the beautiful, memorable Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?, probably my favourite of his songs. Once again, he played as though he were an orchestra filling the hall, carefully picking a trickling tune from the strings. When sitting, he never wore the guitar strap but let that dangle by his side. When the song sadly had to come to an end, Lloyd added four more bars on the guitar and ended it with a slight flourish. I suppose, being a man on his own playing acoustically, he had to perform more like a folk singer, and that caused him to end most of the tunes with live folk-y tricks such as repeating the last line again to draw each song to a close, but it always worked.
Whilst we were still in a dreamy state after being wowed by the previous number, Lloyd referred to fliers that he understood to have been distributed during the interval, when in fact most of us had seen none. So thank goodness Lloyd mentioned what they would have said, announcing the wonderful news that he and his original band, The Commotions, would be playing a reunion gig on Friday, 15 October, at the Carling Apollo in Hammersmith. Everyone cheered enthusiastically, and one person was so overwhelmed by the news that he acted as though he were alone in a room chatting to his friend Lloyd, calling out, ‘I didn’t know that! Yes!!’ Soon enough, he was chatting across us all to Lloyd, who replied that said audience member must have got to the hall before the fliers arrived, adding, ‘You’re keen!’
As our excited applause at the prospect of hearing Lloyd Cole and the Commotions together later this year died out, a few new strains of hand-clapping arrived as some people instantly recognised the poppy tune Like Lovers Do from 1995’s Love Story album (and its narrator’s odd diet of juice, tuna and Dairy Queen; it ain’t Atkins). Despite the tune’s rapid rhythm, Lloyd varied things a bit by slowing the notes on the guitar between verses, before thumping out a beat at the end on the body of the guitar. He sounded amazing and the tune went down incredibly well with the audience, which cheered enormously when he finished.
Still seated, Lloyd picked out a lovely, subtle intro on the guitar and gained more applause from those who recognised Pay For It from the 1991 album, Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe (NB ‘babe’ count = 3, ‘baby’ count = 12). Lloyd sang this one full of feeling, focused on someone in his mind, it seemed, as he clamped his eyes shut as though searching deep into his memory. Perhaps, as the line says, he was ‘still wearing scars I got from being your fool.’ According to the song, this person definitely messed him up real good, so perhaps he relives the pain when he sings about it, assuming the song is autobiographical, which is not always safe to assume. When he plunged his voice to sing, ‘knowing that you passed your best and you got nothing to show’, he almost went a bit flat at the end, which I was beginning to think he was incapable of doing, so it was good to see that he was a human performer as well as an intensely human songwriter. He finished up by ‘rocking out’ on the acoustic guitar, perhaps spitting out pent-up emotions, or perhaps just enjoying the moment. He deserved the huge applause that greeted him when he finished; at a less civilised venue, we would have been roaring and whistling to express our awe properly.
Most people kept applauding as they recognised the beginning of Rattlesnakes, which of course has been covered by the aforementioned Tori Amos. Lloyd’s version on this night was yet another interpretation, much slower than the version on the debut album of the same name. He continued soul-searching on this one, shaking his head and clenching his eyes as though cherishing the image of someone who looked like Eve Maria Saint in On the Waterfront, as you would. Here Lloyd sings of a Simone de Beauvoir-reading rainhat-wearing character who possibly had an abortion, and it made me wonder how Lloyd came to end up with so many quirky women all his life, or was it the artist in him that simply looked at ordinary women and painted them as fascinating characters? He belted out the la-la-la’s at the end, just before his hand darted for the beer, indicating that it was time to let out our pent-up applause, which thundered through the hall.
Moving to a delightfully gentle trickle of an intro, Lloyd began quietly singing Trigger Happy from Love Story, with the charming, ‘I love the way you hold your head because you`re young / there ain`t nothing you can`t do.’ At the end of this song, which was clearly written for his son, he added to the closing line of ‘how you’re not the way that we were’, a comment on his son’s taste for rap: ‘with your Eminem, you’re not the way that we were, with your 50 Cent,’ before adding slowly, half-speaking ‘Which is not to say we got it right.’
After sipping some water, he wiped his hand on a cloth in a bowl on the table, as someone called out a request for Hey Rusty, saying ‘play rusty,’ which made me think of maids getting stabbed lots, as it reminded me of the film Play Misty for Me (the original Fatal Attraction). Lloyd looked unimpressed, kept his eyes on the guitar and casually replied with a non-committal ‘maybe,’ before adding an instructive, ‘remind me later when I’m on the other guitar.’ He slowly began singing Mannish Girl, with more references to (Spanish) wine, unusual females and ‘feeling lost, alone, misunderstood’.
As we applauded, he stood and quickly moved into Why I Love Country Music from Easy Pieces, continuing the Spanish wine theme in another song that name- checks Jane, a dysfunctional relationship and whiskey bottles. Naturally, Lloyd’s now stronger voice sang the tune more forcefully than the recorded version, and he altered the line ‘But she would rather be any place but here’ so that he repeated ‘anyplace but’ four times before tagging on the last part, which I hope wasn’t a hint that he hated where he was at the time.
When he finished, he treated us to more rare conversation, which I had half expected to be tinged with a trace of a Scottish accent (although I know he’s English born), but he merely sounded well-spoken and almost free of any accent. Perhaps his time in America had worn it down. Referring to the previous song, which of course mentioned the frequently named Jane, he said that he might have told us this before—as though we were old friends who chatted with him often—but after he became a bit famous, everyone he had known before, such as from school, then got in touch. Although he made that statement without any sort of sneer, the predictable facts of human nature had the audience tittering, which prompted Lloyd to add generously but unconvincingly, ‘which was nice!’ Then he added, significantly: ‘everybody…except the girl whose name was Jane.’ At last a smile, albeit an ironic one, appeared on his lips.
Keeping with the Jane songs, Lloyd began singing about walking ‘with Jesus and Jane,’ returning to his 80s wavering, whining/growl vocal style whilst treating us to Brand New Friend. He slowed a few parts of the song, increasing their emphasis, and delivered a marvellous, fresh pared-down performance of this bright song, ending it by repeating the refrain an extra time.
He moved quickly on to the fantastically catchy No Blue Skies from his first solo album, but this version was far more powerful. Applying a deep, powerful voice that sometimes scaled new heights, which he seemed to press his eyes closed to reach, he made the second verse positively soulful. During the chorus, he began to sound particularly unnervingly like Roy Orbison, with guitar playing to match.
After our applause for that wonder died down, Lloyd told us that he never used a set list these days, that he just played what he felt, and that he endeavoured to play at least one song from each record, even the one universally accepted to be his worst one. That presumably was his 1994 Rykodisc release, Bad Vibes, because he began playing Mr Wrong from that album. I actually have read some good things about this album I do not own; perhaps it is one that needs to grow on you, one before its time. The lyrics coincidentally could have been addressing his critics and fans on the subject of his supposedly dodgy output: ‘I know that I’ve been wrong / And I have no one to hang it on / So I take you by the hand / And I ask you please to understand / I just want to see you smile / But all I ever do / Is make you cry.’ Adding his own take on some Chris Isaak high wailing, Lloyd presented a delicately executed, moving tune over a steady beat with a rhythm reminiscent of The Cars, with bursts of brilliance on the guitar. If this is a sample of Mr Cole’s worst output, he can hold his head high forever.
Lloyd stood to change to his darker guitar, then took his seat again and spoke of something he recently did for the first time: go to Germany. And play support. He opened for the fantastic singer/songwriter Heather Nova (whom I highly recommend). Lloyd said she’s quite popular in Germany. Frankly, I would kill for one of those tickets; shame they didn’t tour the UK together, perhaps with their positions reversed. Lloyd said that finding himself in the position of being a support act made him think about what would be the best songs to play for people who knew none of his work, which he concluded would be a significantly different set list from the norm. He said he did not have to put any sentimentality into it, which grew titters from the audience, so he half-defensively said, ‘Well, there wasn’t! They didn’t know Brand New Friend.’
One of his choices in that situation apparently was, I believe, Another Lover, which he introduced by saying that he had a problem with it in that he couldn’t play the refrain as well as play rhythm guitar. So he struck up a deal with us in that he would play that part first, so we would know what it sounded like. Then, when he got to where the motif should happen in the song, he would nod his head, and we could visualise what we should be hearing. ‘It’s as simple as that—you got it?’ We played along, only giggling slightly when he paused his smooth singing to nod at us wherever the part in question would normally appear.
After his habitual sip of beer, then water, he mopped his head for the first time, then introduced the next song as being his first mid-life crisis song…which he wrote when he was 26. As promised earlier, he played Hey Rusty, a stunning version stripped of any 80s production, leaving just a gorgeous, raw song full of feeling and memories, with Lloyd’s voice particularly evocative during the ‘I feel so young’ protestations. Lloyd’s guitar strumming gained momentum and he added almost an additional instrumental verse at the end, before whispering ‘tramps like us, etc’.
As our applaud roared as much as applaud without cheers can, Lloyd changed to his teak guitar and moved to the standing mike. He asked us to hang on for a second as he fiddled with tuning the guitar, until he decided it didn’t need it and abandoned his attempt, saying ‘what do I know?’ He played a busy introduction to the next song, attracting instant applause from those who recognised Unhappy Song from 1995’s Love Story. Lloyd sang a wonderfully clear rendition, picking up the tempo as he moved along, turning it into something a bit like Dylan on speed, which made the song enormously entertaining. Here again were more of his latter-years trademark la-la-la’s at the end, which inspired him to comment on the recorded version. Continuing to play guitar, he began speaking: ‘As you’ll have noticed, some little bits have been adhered to the songs tonight. Despite all the regrets in my songs, I am pretty regret-free in life.’ He said that perhaps some records and gigs had not gone down as well as he might have hoped, but he didn’t hurt anyone. Continuing to count his blessings, he casually offered, slightly smiling, ‘My wife is just as beautiful as you would expect.’ Rather than gloating in a boast, he was speaking as though to a friend, having no pretensions about the fine things that his fame and talent had afforded him. ‘But I do regret…’—we waited in anticipation for the key to his regret, which was, ‘…having schoolchildren sing on this song. That wasn’t the height of my intellect.’
I agree that the children demote the song to a lack of credibility when it deserves more. ‘It might have made more sense to invite some pals from around the bar,’ Lloyd continued, ‘and have a Tom Waits ‘Dogs chorus type of thing.’ Surprisingly, the smooth tonsils of Lloyd Cole then imitated how the la-la-la’s of this song might have sounded if Tom Waits were singing them, and he did a marvellous, throat-scraping gruff Waits impression, which earned huge cheers from the audience. ‘You’re very kind,’ Lloyd said, ‘very indulgent.’ After pondering the subject some more, he added, ‘I was singing that the other day and it occurred to me that maybe Tom Waits has a normal speaking voice.’ Perhaps he should check out Jim Jarmusch’s fine film Down By Law.
Clearly feeling more comfortable now and including us in any conversations going on inside his head, Lloyd wondered what he should play next, saying ‘Let’s see, what do I have?’ Some requests braved the serious silence of the hall, and someone called for Lost Weekend (hear, hear). ‘I do have that,’ Lloyd casually muttered, with no indication that he intended to play it. ‘Hey Jennifer,’ someone else called out. Lloyd didn’t look up or seem to hear the last request, but suddenly he began playing Jennifer She Said, still standing. During the ‘forever she said’ parts, his voice soared quite high and he sounded a lot like Lindsay Buckingham. At the end, he started the ba-ba-ba-de-be-dah section, and asked if we thought we could do that with him, as it might get us all bonding for life. The audience joined in immediately and rather precisely, freeing Lloyd to sing the harmony part of ‘you change with the weather.’ He paused to congratulate us on the quality of our performance and suggested that we must all be Welsh, before ending with ‘this is the rain,’ when the hall resounded in enormous applause for the man.
He began to introduce the next song with some introspection apparently on its way, saying ‘I wrote this—‘ when someone from the audience shouted out ‘Undressed!’ It could be they thought they were accurately finishing his sentence for him, but Lloyd took it as a song request and paused before saying, ‘yeah, why not?’. Someone else felt encouraged to shout out Andy’s Babies! Lloyd just said, ‘No, not.’ Perhaps now, a golfing father in his 40s, he has a new appreciation for children and would feel wrong groaning about Andy’s Babies as the young person in the song did.
Still, Undressed was a treat, and it’s hard to picture the evening without the song, really. He performed it brightly, gently picking away at the teak guitar as he remained standing, tapping his foot quite considerably to the beat. His voice towered above us all on some parts, letting out the odd whoop, as was subtly audible on his debut album, and during the bridge of ‘Is it really such a sin?’, he mercilessly attacked the guitar. After the reference to embarrassment when seeing one’s partner on the toilet, and the line ‘How do married couples cope?’, Lloyd continued singing but changed the lyrics to, ‘this wasn’t the smartest song to write when you’re just about to get married’ before letting out another whoop, seeming much more at ease than he had been all evening. Mind you, after 30 songs, I suppose a performer begins to warm up!
After the final repeat of, ‘The coolest thing I ever saw / You were sitting there smoking my cigarettes / You were naked on the bare stone floor,’ Lloyd ended the song literally on a high note, adding an interesting variation to his own song, and then quickly and rhythmically said into the mike, ‘Don’t smoke anymore!’ The audience erupted in cheers at last.
Lloyd remained standing, tapping his foot half-madly as he plunged straight into a song that seemed to have more graphic lyrics than his own wordy poetry, when I realised that he was performing his cover of Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel. Even Cohen regretted the lyrics of the song, written coldly about his brief affair with Janis Joplin, and he refers to the song as an ‘indiscretion.’ I wonder whether Cole’s affinity for Cohen has something to do with sharing a monogram? In any case, he carried the song off as though it were his own.
Pausing for only a second, he moved straight into the delightful, boppy introduction to the heavenly pop of Lost Weekend. This rendition sounded amazing, with some particularly fine guitar playing creating a thumping beat throughout, and Lloyd’s new deeper, richer voice combined with the Eighties Mode that naturally kicks in with these songs simply worked magic. In the middle of the tune, he softened his playing and muttered into the mike, ‘I guess I should stop bitching about that piano solo.’ Actually, I rather like the piano solo on the original recording; it’s certainly preferable to the children singing on that other song.
Then he stopped suddenly, again treating us more like friends with whom he was chatting at this stage about whatever popped into his head, and said, ‘Wanna hear something scary? It will have to be this high in October:’ and he produced a capo, placed it on the strings and then performed the first verse instead of the last, this time in a much higher key, as on the original record. Presumably that indicates that they will be purists at the Lloyd Cole and the Commotions concert in October, playing everything as it was originally recorded or performed at the time. Or perhaps the other Commotions are incapable of playing in a lower key, but I doubt that somehow.
We were caught up musing over that when Lloyd abruptly stopped and said, ‘thanks, goodnight!’ and walked off the stage with his trusty blue books as we cheered madly, having shed our inhibitions as well. We carried on cheering for a bit as apparently we felt that 32 songs were not sufficient entertainment for our money. Fortunately, Lloyd surprisingly seemed to agree, as he returned to the stage after about four minutes. He picked up the teak guitar and took a seat, presumably expecting to play something broody. He asked for requests, but when someone called out ‘the sweetest thing you never do,’ which I assume was for Sweetness off the Commotions’ debut album, Lloyd dismissed it by saying they would perform it in October. So we must not only be patient, but we must book our tickets right away.
Someone else asked for I Didn’t Know That You Cared, and Lloyd just smiled and began plucking out the gentle first notes of the easy 2CV, the song that introduced me, as an American teenager with a German car, to the world of Citroens. The audience cheered when they realised what was coming, then sensibly silenced themselves to listen to the beauty of this performance. Lloyd played a brief but dynamic solo on the guitar before moving to the closing lines about wasting precious time, and the audience was thrilled with the whole subdued masterpiece.
Barely pausing, Lloyd strapped on the teak-coloured guitar and crooned like Raul Malo of The Mavericks over the initial applause from those thrilled to recognise Forest Fire. His voice particularly shone during the ‘do-do-doo’ section, and he seemed to get progressively more into the song, enthusiastically tapping his right foot and bashing away at his guitar. We were joining in his enthusiasm, when he suddenly and abruptly finished, grabbed his sacred blue books and said good-night with an air of finality this time. He stopped to give us a wave as we roared our approval for his amazing performance of 33 songs, and then he disappeared into the shadows upstage.
The house lights remained off, so several of us were applauding in the greedy hope that we might be treated to more, but most of the audience had little faith and disappointingly gave up after a few minutes, after which time the house lights came up. I guess we’re older now, we have trains to catch and kids to put to bed. Or perhaps we realised that a one-man show that lasted almost two hours, producing so many magnificent songs, was enough treasure to last any human…for nine months, at least.
This concert had not been an Eighties nostalgia trip, like some of the concerts I’ve attended over the past year. Lloyd Cole, like Roddy Frame formerly of Aztec Camera, is producing some of his best work in this century. His intelligent, non-conformist mind and catalogue of witty songs that are intricate dialogues of curious characterisations and engrossing, emotional, intimate tales no longer have the adulation of the masses, but when the masses adore Tatu and Britney, he should be proud of their indifference. This modern success may be sweeter; he has everything he needs in his life now, surely. He seems at peace with his own restrained persona, having shed the self-importance of youth and replaced that with an elegant, dignified confidence. He might not be playing Wembley to screaming girls but I have a feeling he’s in the right place now.
My close friends know that I used to refer to Lloyd as having a Ginormous Head. Physically, it always seemed to be the case. Now, up close, he is subdued and ruminative, and his head is perfectly proportioned. Maybe he’s humbled, or maybe we just got bigger. No doubt a healthy, regular dose of brilliant Lloyd Cole songs helped me grow to be this sensible adult with a shrewder vision than before.
Copyright © 2004 by TC. All rights reserved.
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