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Roddy Frame - 12 Bar Club, London on 5 February 2003
The 12-Bar Club is a friendly, intimate venue near Tottenham Court Road, with laid back, humorous 50-somethings manning the door and making every punter feel quite welcome. The posters outside of the club for this 'secret' gig listed the headliner as R**** F***E and had ‘sold out’ plastered across them, although the club folk kindly eventually let one of my party buy a ticket anyway after checking that not all of the guest passes had been used. Clearly, they appreciated the need to see Roddy and could not bear to deprive someone of the privilege.
Upon arrival at 8.30pm, the teeny, low-ceilinged room with the empty stage in it contained about three people. We checked out the sort of mezzanine (ie a few planks of wood dividing the 20 foot tall room vertically in half) to find a few tiny tables crammed together, the only empty one sporting a sign saying ‘reserved for Roddy Frame and guests.’ The bar had a few people, who later turned out to be Kitsch ‘n’ Sync (get it? Like everything but the….), practising their act, and we settled down in the room with restaurant tables. From there, we could hear Kitsch ‘n’ Sync, an a cappella vocal group, perform covers of songs by artists including Madonna, Fairground Attraction and Sister Sledge. Their treatment was intriguing but the loudest voice sounded like she was having an off-night and was stretching to sing out of her range, so I was shocked to learn later that they have a regular fan base, many of whom were disappointed to arrive later to find that their favourites had apparently been bumped by Roddy as a headliner and performed earlier that evening.
Next, we heard a singer with an acoustic guitar (possibly Mark Spybey), only briefly, and by the time we decided to venture back into the teeny stage room in order to stake out a place for Roddy’s performance, a tall, eccentric American beat poet was on stage, backed by a young chap tinkering with a keyboard to provide electronic club music as background. The 'performance poet', who I think was formerly half of 'machine rock duo' ChemLab (and later Wall Street trader), Jared Louche, looked a bit like a cross between Andy Warhol and Iggy Pop, with hands full of rings. Perhaps because it has been a long time since I have come across such a thing, I almost expected him to remove his mask to reveal Mike Myers taking part in Saturday Night Live or some other satirical sketch show. He spewed bitterness and bile, and eventually explained a lot by lumbering on and on through a long poem that described an endless night of trampling around New York scoring repeatedly—drugs, I mean, not women. If I were younger, I might have enjoyed his performance more. He wasn’t a bad poet. Or perhaps he was just making sense to me because I’ve been downing as much codeine as I'm allowed for the past two months after a minor injury. But I, and the others judging by the faces of the rest of the crowd that had already gathered, was eager for Roddy to take the stage and did not really have the required patience and enthusiasm to listen instead to lengthy descriptions of this guy walking around the streets of New York to sound effects.
Roddy was finally introduced by compère Brinsley Sheridan (not the poet who died in 1816 though), at about 10pm, and he made his way through the crowd and shuffled onto the minuscule stage looking like Lautrec’s portrait of Aristide Bruant, with a scarf wrapped several times around his neck and snugly donning a subdued olive topcoat. I suppose a singer’s scarf is the equivalent of a dancer’s leg warmers, keeping crucial muscles warm before they’re used again. I wonder if anyone was humming The Stripper in their mind as he proceeded to undress on stage before us, stopping of course at the shirt and trousers. The shirt did attract wolf whistles—it was a black pleated tuxedo shirt, with strips of lace on the front pleats. He looked wonderfully calm and young, as always, with his hair a bit scraggly on the back of his neck, and the hairs on the top of his head fighting over which direction to, um, head….
When Boo Hewerdine played the 12-Bar last summer, I described the performance area of the club as having a band with an audience of up to 100 people jammed inside a linen cupboard. However, as the postage stamp stage was in front of a charred brick wall with a prominent chimney signed with ‘The Forge 1635’, it put me in mind of the audience being jammed into one of those large fireplaces found in the ancient kitchens of castles and country manors. Oh, and the roof of the fireplace was about eight feet tall with low beams, to accommodate the miniature aforementioned balcony above it.
Once he finished his strip act, Roddy cheerfully took the liberty of altering Bruce Forsythe’s catchphrase for the occasion by announcing that it was nice to see us, or to half see us, as he bent over a bit to see beneath the balcony floor that was almost at eye level for him before stretching to look up to see who was seated above it. With a mischievous smile, he commented that there was a man sitting in a kilt up there, and then proceeded to tune his guitars whilst beaming like a kid on Christmas morning.
He launched directly into his big hit SOMEWHERE IN MY HEART, which raised a cheer in the room immediately. The 70 or so people crammed in there with me were clearly a solid fanbase, as they knew every song he did and immediately. At other concerts, there are usually two recognition points that encourage applause: the first few notes, recognised by the die-hards, and then the first few words, recognised by the ones who heard the performer on the radio a few times and thought they’d come along. This Roddy audience picked up on Roddy songs right away, and even coached him on the words when necessary. They were all great fun and no one around me seemed to mind the fact that I was dressed in a stuffy Margaret Thatcher suit, having come straight from work, and had a great lugging briefcase at my feet that I kept almost tripping on in my attempt to prevent others from doing so. What kind souls, though it helped that there was an easy distraction on stage.
Having always heard that he was shy, I was astonished by Roddy’s courage in looking every single person in the eye during his performance. We were just feet away, and he’d start at one end of the room, clock each person, who no doubt eagerly drank up his gaze with their own, and then he’d move onto the next. Sometimes in concerts, it seems like the person on stage is staring directly at you, but they can’t actually see anything but the lights shining at them. That would not have been the case here. So many singers I see perform with their eyes shut tight throughout, but Roddy fearlessly faces the task head-on, and never extinguished his genuine, seemingly uncontrollable smile. The room filled with a happy enthusiasm that never died down.
Hardly pausing, Roddy then pushed into DOWN THE DIP, to more eager applause. At one point, he froze in a pose to help a woman upstairs he noticed was trying to take his picture. He stopped and joked about the fact that, owing to the odd layout of the room, her photograph would just turn out with what looked like a severed head bursting through the floor. During his guitar solo, he called out instructions to the sound engineer who was camped out in the teeny cupboard at the back of the small room, and continued to coach ‘magic Alex’ until he achieved the sound Roddy wanted. I am told that many sound engineers come from large venues and have difficulty adjusting to premises that are the size of a service lift, such as this one. Fortunately, the sound was clear for the rest of the evening, and Roddy treated us to the first rollicking guitar solo of the night.
Next came the utterly brilliant classic BIRTH OF THE TRUE, which had everyone in the audience singing along, except for the woman in the Margaret Thatcher suit. This seemed to impress the smiley guy on stage, who even stopped singing at the end of one verse so that the audience could finish it for him. Unfortunately, that seemed to make the whole audience panic and bottle out, which made everyone laugh, and then Roddy sweetly coaxed them out of their silence. He carried on being a motivational speaker’s dream pupil, unfazed as he stared into each person’s eyes and never letting his huge smile drop away.
When he finished, someone called out, ‘Sit down!’ The person wasn’t rudely demanding that Roddy be dragged off stage with a hook; he was instead desperate to see the top of Roddy, which wasn’t easy from the main floor. Those of us in the first three or so standing rows of people had the unique privilege of seeing Roddy in the full form of a normal human. Those any further behind us saw only a guitar-playing torso, and those in the ‘balcony’ eight feet up saw mostly a disembodied head. But everyone was good-natured about it, and Roddy apologetically explained that he couldn’t play sitting down. ‘Crouch then!’ came the reply.
Roddy only obliged for a second, and then paused again for a woman to photograph him, asking how many of him she needed (meaning how many photographs, I assume!). A refreshing aspect of the 12 Bar is that there are no scary bouncers around preventing you from taking photographs, so the only challenge is whether you can manage to raise your arms, which are crammed against the arms of the people either side of you. I did try to sneak one myself, but feel awkward when I’m so close to the artist in question, and I know the flash is irritating to everyone. I tried to get it over with while he was looking away, but of course, he has a constantly rotating head that takes in everything….
He then began to announce his next song: ‘Your Smile……’ and the audience interrupted him with spirited cheers, so he finished with ‘……is like a red, red rose.’ It was perhaps fitting that Roddy himself created another mutation of the title, as everyone who mentions it on the list calls it by a different name. Also, on the back cover of the US version of Surf, the last bonus track is listed as ‘Your Smile Stops the Hands of Time’, but the title over the lyrics inside is ‘YOUR SMILE HAS STOPPED THE HANDS OF TIME,’ which is actually one of the lines in this slightly jazzy, lounge lizard number. The audience listened in awe-struck silence as Roddy delighted them with ‘The heavens above encircle you, straining to catch a glimpse…….’ and the rest of the beauty of the song. They gushed when Roddy finished by commenting that that title (whatever it may be) was probably the longest one he had ever written.
He then began to tune his guitar, and filled the time by entertaining us as a comedian rather than just a stupendously talented songwriter/musician. He said that, if he seemed nervous (which was the opposite of what he seemed), it was because he was on Denmark Street. That area is known for guitar shops, and there was one right next door to the club. Roddy said that playing in the area brought back memories of so many years of him entering the shops as an eager young aspiring musician and being intimidated by all the snotty guys working there who played fretless bass. Roddy then amazingly used his guitar to imitate a fretless bass so impressively. He had the audience in stitches and continued to say that he thought they were still like that, and he’d go in to buy plectrums and they’d be looking down their noses at him. His vivid description reminded me of the superior attitude of Jack Black’s character in the film adaptation of High Fidelity, who would torment anyone asking for Barry Manilow and then chase him from the record store. (Nick Hornby’s character, by the way, is rumoured to be based on Cambridge singer/songwriter Boo Hewerdine when he worked at Andy’s Records as a yoof.)
After all that jocularity, Roddy changed the mood with OVER YOU, at times finally closing his eyes and delivering a performance where he seemed genuinely to relive some terrible, aching pain. The line ‘Ah, get over it’ was punched out with such desperate sadness that I felt gutted, and I remembered that the first time I heard Surf, I really wished I could throw my arms around him and offer him the comfort for which his songs seemed to cry out. That is pretty powerful manipulation through a little spinning disc, since I’m such a cold and heartless person normally. Now here, a few feet in front of me was the most heart-wrenching delivery yet of this painful tale of a break-up one party could not come to terms with. Fortunately, I had no overwhelming desire to leap onto the stage and make a fool of myself (remembering that he has said in a few interviews that he’s happier now than ever and comfortably coupled, and I suppose he doesn’t necessarily write based upon his own feelings).
Instead, I took a great deal of pleasure in noting the astonished looks of veneration on the faces of the two friends who had come with me that night. Neither had ever seen Roddy live, and one of them had heard part of Surf and, bizarrely, did not fall for it immediately as I think it was a bit too quiet for his noisier tastes. I knew that they would be moved by seeing Roddy live, but sometimes when you want friends to be enlightened by something you so enjoy yourself, it all goes wrong on the night. Fortunately, predictably, Roddy won them over right away, and they really were completely bowled over by his talents for songwriting, singing, guitar playing and making a room full of squished people feel welcome, comfortable and regularly amused. This gig was also the first I had attended in years without some irritating person near me talking throughout; everyone was practically hypnotised by the performer on stage (must be all that eye contact).
Even Roddy’s laborious guitar tuning sounded impressive, although he apologised for making us listen as he tuned his guitar, saying that he hated tuning more than we hated hearing tuning. Someone called out that we love the sound and someone else said he’d buy it if it were a single, and Roddy looked surprised and said that the friendly hecklers must be in the music business.
He suddenly gloriously crooned out the first line of REASON FOR LIVING in a stunning deep voice with the power to melt us all. Even played acoustically, this song is quite powerful, and as he built up to the thunderous chorus for the first time after singing, ‘But don’t give in,’ he stopped abruptly and explained that he was just going to roll up his right sleeve. ‘If there’s one thing that annoys me more than people tuning guitars…’ he explained. The audience laughed fondly as he carried out whatever adjustments were necessary to continue such marvellous playing. When he’d finished the should-be hit, a man behind me called out ‘Re-release it, Roddy! You’ve got a hit there.’ Roddy’s response was a modest one that he had given Michael Gallagher in his interview when Michael raised tracking down the Aztec Camera back catalogue, and Roddy expressed surprise that anyone who wanted it wouldn’t already have Dreamland, I think. Here again, he said that he thought anyone who wanted Reason for Living had it, then he alluded to his now revealed lifelong secret fear by referring again to the people who worked in shops having it, and produced another fascinating imitation of fretless bass played on his guitar. Someone in the audience explained to Roddy that some people did not yet realise that they wanted the single, so he should re-release it. Roddy basically noted the suggestion and filed it as appropriate.
I missed the release of that single, presumably because I was struggling a bit with various things and poorer than poor then, but even if I had heard it played a trillion times over the past five years, I cannot imagine tiring of the song. Although it is lovely when performed by one man on acoustic guitar, the more busily layered album version is beautifully produced and could win over many millions. Sometimes the ‘pop’ songs of my favourite artists are easy to frown upon, the way the Van Morrison fans stick their noses in the air (like guitar shop staff) whenever he performs Brown Eyed Girl. It is easy to tire of them when they are played on every radio station, in every shopping mall, on every television advert. But this one, like Crowded House’s fantastic Don’t Dream It’s Over, has staying power and would survive even over-exposure. But Roddy didn’t seem too keen to pursue that, and he’s moved on. Frankly, he’s not a Cheeky Girl or Will Young (thank goodness), so now might not be the right moment. Interestingly, I thought the title track of Roddy’s first solo album also had instant radio-friendly appeal, but no one ever seems to praise that and I have not heard of him performing it. Am I alone in enjoying it?
Roddy then strolled over to the far corner of the little stage to check the setlist he had placed on the floor. I assume it was a Van Morrison-style set list, in that it must have contained a list of various (much-loved) songs he might choose from rather than a specific list to be strictly followed. He thrilled the small audience by announcing that he wanted to try to play some songs that he did not usually play. Implying that he might have forgotten some of them, he encouraged us to join in if we liked, especially if there were big gaps in the songs. Several of those assembled there quickly took him up on the offer, joining in as he began a lovely, smooth performance of BIG BEN and a hush fell over the rest of the room. Roddy then almost unnoticeably started to mutter a brief line or two and turned for help to the audience members who were singing, who delighted in guiding him back on course.
Here is another often overlooked but truly dazzling song, which was such a joy to hear live, particularly what I would refer to as wonderfully crafted lyrics had I not heard Roddy at the ULU gig despair of the idea of songwriting as a craft. When he finished the song, Roddy laughed and said it was easier to write these songs than it was to remember them. Then he made a few jokes about old age and the deterioration of his brain, but of course no one could possibly believe that about the man who recently created Surf and continued to stun us with magnificent performances.
After consulting his set list again, Roddy changed guitars and played a lively rendition of what must be one of his favourites, the fun-filled SMALL WORLD, with its ever-enticing reference to MustDestroy.com . Next, he chatted a bit about the fact that there was meant to be a band coming on after him, but they might have gone on before him instead (it seemed that everyone else did, we’d waited so long for him.)
His next song was the absolutely heavenly BIGGER BRIGHTER BETTER, another that I could have on ‘repeat’ for weeks and still not tire of it, and I’m always so impressed by the depiction of something perfect with the lines ‘no messy birth or dirty death, just the in-between’. The predominant thought in my head during this song on the night was a blissful ‘Wow!!’, as it was truly sparkling. Almost everyone in the thrilled audience was singing along, and whereas that can be irritating at some concerts if people near you are singing badly and drown out the person you came to see, this audience reeked of talent; they were terribly impressive. Throughout the night, I was repeatedly impressed by the enthusiasm and talent of the audience as backing vocalists. I am not being immodest as I did not join in myself. Upon hearing my inept screeching, the club owner would have evacuated the building immediately, and it was just so embarrassing last time that happened, I definitely don’t need to be cautioned twice.
I was thrilled with Roddy’s next choice: MIXED UP LOVE. Its delicate fluidity in the second verse, the delivery of ‘Pennies, scattered wishes ‘neath the ripples……’ is so appealing, and one of my favourite parts of Surf—---amongst so much competition---—is the last part when the moon spills down the street etc. Here again, if Roddy writes songs about his own feelings and experiences, this song reveals a vulnerability that no doubt makes people everywhere want to run to his side to comfort him. However, I Can’t Start Now hints that, in person, he is nothing like so open and expressive as he is in this song and others such as the amazing Tough.
Upon finishing Mixed Up Love, Roddy laughed and explained two things that freaked him out about the evening: the aforementioned scary guitar shop memories, and the fact that the guitarist from the Queen/Ben Elton musical We Will Rock You walked in to the balcony part of the club at this stage. Roddy was full of praise for this apparently great guitarist Alan and the musical itself, which he highly recommended, although he complained that it did not include You’re My Best Friend (an old favourite of mine, but perhaps not popular with the harder rock fans). Roddy quickly and impressively played a moment’s excerpt from the show on his guitar. He then moved back to consult his set list again.
As he gave his choice some thought, people in the audience called out requests for Sun, Tough, Song for a Friend and his cover of the Beatles’ In My Life. What a fabulous audience this was. Not only were they extensively talented and good-humoured, but they had impeccable taste, as well. Mind you, that was clear as they were at the 12-Bar on this night in the first place. Roddy said he wasn’t sure what to play next, so he might just play with the knobs on the neck of his guitar (please don’t be overwhelmed by my impressive knowledge of the lingo). He then returned to the running joke about the arrogant guys in the guitar shops, which the audience thoroughly enjoyed, and he criticised them for always saying harsh things like ‘don’t touch those things’ when a customer neared a guitar rather than ever handing someone the guitar and saying, ‘Knock yourself out like Joe Strummer.’ Someone then called out ‘God bless Joe Strummer!’ which Roddy eagerly seconded.
Roddy chose to play a superlative HYMN TO GRACE next, perhaps the most gorgeous song ever written. I’m pleased to report that my knowledge that he scribbled that down at dinner with friends rather than feeling inspired to write those words when looking into the eyes of his loved one has done nothing to diminish my overwhelming appreciation of it. I have a lot left to achieve in life, but hearing this exquisite melody performed live by that matchless voice means I am one step closer to dying a happy woman, not that I wish to do that any time soon. As if to test how much beauty we could handle within a few minutes, he played MATTRESS OF WIRE right afterwards, splendidly. Again, the audience sang along with him.
But despite their excellent performance during that beautiful song, nothing could top their incredible display of talent when joining Roddy during the next song, OBLIVIOUS. Their delivery was amazingly perfect, so upbeat, and they rounded off the sound of the song exquisitely. After Roddy sang, ‘I hear your footsteps in the street,’ they would come in perfectly with ‘Oooh!’ and later, at the appropriate time, ‘ah-ah’ almost in three-part harmony. I tell you, I was impressed when Neil Finn and Graham Gouldman joined Roddy on that Songwriter’s Circle programme, but they just sang along with the ‘obvious/oblivious’ part, and I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I think the version of Roddy Frame featuring the 12 Bar Club audience surpassed that recording of the professionals. This one is now my favourite. Sadly, I have none of this evening’s performance on recording, but I shall always remember the dynamic atmosphere when everyone joined in so enthusiastically and sounded so wonderful.
Roddy’s own contribution was pretty admirable, too, of course. He stopped mid-song to comment on how surreal the gig was, with the top half of the room (the tiny ‘balcony’) getting a full view from above, but the bottom part of the room was full of people all bent over trying to see more than just Roddy’s legs. Referring to his impressive backing vocalists, he asked whether they could sing chords, and paused to joke about whether that was a Major 7 or ‘are you just happy to see me’, before playing an astounding guitar solo. It’s wonderful to watch him play; I’m not a guitarist so it’s nothing but flying fingers to me, but I know I love to hear the result of all that mad movement. One of my friends at the gig said that he had never seen an acoustic guitarist play so many chords, that even some jazz guitarists would be unable to keep up with him.
After the success of the previous sing-a-long, as Roddy considered which song to do next, one of his amateur backing vocalists requested that he sing another one that they knew, as though it were karaoke. A few requests came up for WALK OUT TO WINTER, which Roddy agreed to do provided someone shouted out the chords to him. Everyone sang along with him right from the start, and he seemed to remember the chords unless someone was signing them to him. Again, the sound was good enough so that we could hear Roddy clearly over everyone else who was joining in, as well as his striking guitar playing, so we got the benefit of a magnificent performance with the joy that comes with participating in something brilliant. It was such an ensemble piece that, at the end when everyone applauded, Roddy stood there applauding the audience for some considerable time.
What next, Roddy asked. As he moved softly into the stunning KILLERMONT STREET, everyone cheered wildly before settling down to listen to him with awe and adoration. When he finished, he said ‘cheers’ and prepared to leave, but eventually gave in to desperate calls for STRAY. Here, the singalong ended; everyone listened in stunned silence. I now know this song well; when I heard it at the University of London Union, along with many others that were new to me, I’d not yet got my hands on the Aztec Camera albums I had been missing, so I initially misunderstood what it was about. It’s yet another special song by a man whose potential setlist can easily contain 50 superior songs that anyone would almost kill to hear.
When he finished, Roddy thanked the crowd and begin to dress for the cold outside as a man came up unnecessarily to urge us to cheer for the fabulous performance we’d just experienced. He then told us that Roddy had waived his fee for appearing tonight and it would all be donated to a charity of his choice. Of course, that got the cheer of admiration that it deserved. But here it was 11.20pm, many of our last trains left at 11.30pm from stations a fair walk away, and Roddy was standing there with that scarf wrapped several times around his neck, ready to go, but no one could possibly let him leave. The audience begged for one more song. He started to give in, but when various songs were called out to him--—including Sun---—he justifiably said that it would have to be something easy, if he were going to do it last minute whilst dressed for the frosty night outside.
As he pondered what to play, he was prompted to thank ‘magic Alex’ the sound engineer, and while he changed guitars, a girl behind me offered him free tickets to see We Will Rock You. Roddy referred to the stage effects of the musical and joked that he had thought of having hydraulics in his show at the 12 Bar that night. The little things mean a lot when you go acoustic, he added.
Despite my terror of missing my last train and having to sleep on a bench that night (although the Kirsty MacColl memorial one was nearby, and if one must sleep on one….….), I could not possibly leave while Roddy was performing such a magnificent song as SUN. Particularly whilst performing it when wrapped up so snugly in a scarf. It was a fabulous finish to a perfect evening, but an evening I had to abandon before the clock struck twelve, so I ran out as quickly as possible as soon as he finished.
Apologies to anyone I accidentally hit with my briefcase in my desperation to escape the crowd and hit the pavement at top speed. I saw that everyone leaving the room ‘had’ to file past Roddy, which I thought was quite kind of him and generous of his time, and he understandably had a queue of people waiting to chat to him, perhaps offering their services as backing vocalists at future gigs. I got the impression that he enjoyed the gig as much as we did, though he worked slightly harder! Once again, I have to admire, amongst the many obvious things, his special talent for choosing a brilliant setlist that sent everyone home feeling totally fulfilled.
Roddy had come onstage an hour and a half earlier just bursting with smiles, and we all left looking pretty gooey ourselves, like Ned Flanders lookalikes, after a truly terrific evening. I guess Roddy managed to prove that old sickly adage about a smile being contagious (and it stops the hands of time……..) Tonight saw an irrepressible infection of epidemic proportions. I hope I can be exposed again soon.
Copyright © 2003 by TC.
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have visited this page reviewing Roddy Frame performing live at the 12 Bar Club since 26 March 2005.