2013 was my 15th year of going to gigs, and at some point in the year I went to my 400th. I couldn’t tell you which one it was though, as I was only able to fill out my gigography on Songkick to within about five gigs – for a handful of shows back in the day, I simply couldn’t identify the date to put it on the site.
Still, Songkick lets me compare years, so before I get to some of the gigs, a little bit of statporn: I went to 33 gigs in total this year, the lowest number since 2010 (30 gigs) and down from 41 last year and 59 in 2011 (all excluding festivals). Since I moved to London at the start of 2005 I’ve been to 310 gigs in total (strictly speaking I moved at the end of 2004 and saw one London show between then and the end of the year, but I’m ignoring that for ease), giving a mean average of 34.4 gigs per annum and a median of 30. So it’s been a pretty average year – which is odd, as it’s felt like I’ve been going to gigs only a bit less often than in 2011 and 2012. Why, I wonder?
Perhaps I’m getting old and it just feels like more of an effort these days, or perhaps it’s due to a strange gap from the end of July to the end of October when I went to none at all, for no very clear reason – so outside that, the shows occurred in a similar concentration to previous years, and even allowing for the fact that one of those three months sans gigs was August, without that gap the total would be in the low 40s. One further substantial difference from recent years has been the absence of MJ Hibbett’s regular Totally Acoustic nights, which must have bumped up the tally by at least half a dozen shows per annum in most of the previous years.
Still, enough of that – what about the actual gigs? The first thing that stands out from this year is that several of my favourite bands split up, and I had the doubtful pleasure of attending two last-ever shows: The Crimea at the Jazz Cafe in (>spit!<) Camden on July 30th (the last show before the aforementioned three-month gap) and Shrag at the Lexington on March 15th. Both were splendid laps of honour, the Crimea show very much in line with their tenth anniversary celebration at the Union Chapel last year, and Shrag’s probably the best of the ten times I saw them live. Both in March and at Shrag’s January show as part of the Fortuna Pop Winter Sprinter, mere days after they’d announced live on Marc Riley’s show that they were calling it a day, Helen seemed more at ease and commanding than I’d ever seen before – maybe a release brought by the split, or maybe my imagination.
The Winter Sprinter show also featured Darren Hayman and the Long Parliament, excellent as ever, and as part of the same run Withered Hand played one of a few early-year London shows. For someone based in Edinburgh, his London shows don’t quite have the rarity value you’d expect, but I’m not complaining – I look forward to seeing a (semi-official?) launch show for the new Withered Hand album as part of the 2014 Winter Sprinter.
The year did bring a few genuinely rare treats, however, with two artists who don’t often play on these shores: Erin McKeown at the Wilmington Arms on February 4th, the first time I’d seen her since 2006 and yet more proof that she’s among the very best songwriters in terms of her ability to put her material across live and solo; and the Italy-based Sylvie Lewis at the Water Rats on June 28th, the first show of hers I’ve caught since 2007, and still delivering her beautifully crafted songs with captivating vocal delivery of the songs and a peppering of wry humour in between.
Sticking with the slightly unusual, the excellent Daylight Music shows at the Union Chapel continued to provide an opportunity for bands to showcase their music in a different setting, and sometimes different arrangements. The second of Withered Hand’s early-year shows was here on February 16th, while A Little Orchestra popped up on June 8th both to play a set of their own and to contribute to sets by Model Village and Gordon McIntyre. But probably my very favourite Daylight Music set came from Victoria and Jacob, showcasing their indie-electro album with the unusual but surprisingly successful addition of a string trio. The February show also introduced me to The Understudies, who the following month became the last band I ever saw at the Bull and Gate.
From the archetypal back-room venue to one of the big places: I went to the Royal Albert Hall twice this year, in consecutive weeks. The first time was to see Mark Knopfler, who I’ve passed up plenty of chances to see before despite having liked Dire Straits a lot when I was too young to know any better. It struck me I shouldn’t assume the chances would keep coming, but I didn’t hold out great hopes for the quality of the show; in fact I was very pleasantly surprised, and it was a great reminder of why I liked Knopfler guitar playing so much to begin with.
On rather more of a whim I got a last-minute ticket for Elvis Costello’s Spinning Songbook show the following week. I’d seen the same show last year, which had been great, albeit a bit over-burdened by special guests and slightly pushing Costello’s voice a bit further than it could really go on the night. If anything, this time had the edge: no special guests, and Costello’s voice held up throughout a set drawing widely on his back catalogue.
I wonder if Caitlin Rose will end up playing venues like the RAH. With her second album The Stand-In her star is firmly on the rise, although much as I’m open to a smoother production when it’s done well, my abiding feeling was that the sheen on the record got in the way of the songs somewhat, or at best didn’t add anything. She played the Shepherd’s Bush Empire later in the year, but back in February played a sold-out show at Dingwalls, where the new songs were more than able to stand on their own two feet in their live form. It takes a lot to tempt me into Camden these days – if it’s a gig by an artist who regularly plays in London I’ll probably catch them the next time – but that was well worth the trip.
I feel similarly about Heaven as a venue to be honest, but I made a couple of trips there this year: firstly to see a pleasant but somewhat subdued set by Camera Obscura, and secondly to catch a band who had eluded me for far too long: I always regretted not seeing McLusky live, so I shouldn’t have left it so long to see Future of the Left, who were awesome. It’s a ferocious bombardment of noise, but very pointed and precise. And I hadn’t known they did the odd McLusky cover, so hearing To Hell With Good Intentions was a treat. Showmanship-wise, the highlight was the guitarist inviting members of the audience on-stage, gaffer-taping an open can of lager to their forehead, then picking them up bodily and holding them upside-down so the beer poured into the mouths of the crowd below.
Among my 33 gigs were of course many of the reliable favourites – or perhaps, in light of this year’s splits, it would be better to call them survivors. Tigercats showcased new material while headlining a rewardingly diverse Oddbox Weekender on April 5th, which seemed to signal a more laid-back direction, but we’ll see what the album holds in 2014… Allo Darlin’s Halloween set at Islington Assembly Hall (the end of my odd three-month gig drought) also had lots of good new material, while sensibly avoiding all bar the choicest few cuts from their second album – I hope they’ll be headlining Indietracks next year, as after that they’ll be three albums into their career and we shouldn’t take it for granted they’ll be around to do it the year after.
Two Scottish bands I always see when they’re in town were among the predictable highlights of the year: Bis showcased on July 25th a 7-months pregnant Manda Rin and their first ever live performance of the Powerpuff Girls theme in a warm-up show for their Indietracks headlining slot the following day. On December 7th the Just Joans played a typically delightful show in Dalston, including all the live favourites, promising new song Johnny Have You Come Lately and a superb version of Card From A Multipack.
Finally among the old favourites, Art Brut played a couple of par-for-the-course excellent London shows: in May at the Scala to celebrate their tenth anniversary and launch their best-of, and at Village Underground in November with their new line-up.
Another act punctuating the year for me was the frighteningly talented Raevennan Husbandes, who provides a delicate take on folk that I find rather more palatable than a lot of other folk-ish acts for some reason. In May she played the first Collisions gig night at the Albany pub (intended to showcase contrasting genres alongside each other, the series opened by partnering Raevennan with some jazz, which I think I’m glad I saw but beyond that cannot sensibly express an opinion on), while in June and December she was supporting and playing dobro for Adrian Roye and the Exiles, first at their album launch show at the Borderline and latterly at their Music for a Winter’s Night Christmas show. The latter event returned for a third year after taking a break in 2012, and I was very glad to see it back – the line-up of acoustic-ish acts and Christmas theme together always seem to suit the church venue (St Pancras Old Church this year), and it’s a reliably lovely event. It usually throws up some unique collaborations and cover versions too, and this year Adrian’s inspired – and, from the look on his face, unexpected even to him – call to segue a singalong version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen into Free Nelson Mandela was a moment of genius.
That show was the middle one of three Christmas shows in four days, which together wrapped up the year in gigs. This time last year I commented that the new songs showcased at Slow Club’s annual Christmas show sounded excellent and the album was sure to be a highlight of 2013; in fact it hasn’t yet emerged, but there was abundant new material at this year’s show – including some of the previous year’s songs in strikingly different arrangements – and surely to goodness the album’s going to be one of the highlights of 2014.
The year ended as it began, with a Darren Hayman show (ish… that was the second Winter Sprinter evening I went to, in truth) – specifically the latest in his themed Occupation series of shows at the Vortext in Dalston, this one both supported and backed by the Wave Pictures. It was definitely a good way to round the year off. I already know that 2014 heralds Withered Hand, Evans the Death and others at the Winter Sprinter, and a small-ish show from the Hidden Cameras at Bush Hall. So I look forward to another average year’s gig-going, which if its anything like this year should have plenty of great evenings in it.