A few years ago at the Edinburgh Festival, I went with a friend to see a stunning performer whose music and wit lined the Radio 4 airways with comedy for many years. His topical songs had bite, with startling levels of musicianship that made unpalatable ideas actually worth listening to. Because it was so late, and because the trains from Edinburgh shut down so early, my friend and I spent the night wandering round Edinburgh, waiting for the first morning train home. Crazy? Yes, but utterly worth it. That gig was honestly one of the best I've ever seen- despite the performer having a sore throat, constantly dosing himself with swigs of something antiseptic. He covered every style and groove, even improvising a new song to a theme shouted out by a member of the audience (Me), and generally oozed talent. If the Festival is a trade fair, then that’s the way to do it.
Last night, we went to see him again in Newcastle... but walked out at half-time. He’s a changed man. Swearing can sometimes be funny, but not this time. The show was so full of defiant bitterness, and it felt uncomfortable for us to be there as witnesses to someone else's grief. With rage and bafflement, the man described how his marriage broke down two years ago, and how strange it was to be now living alone. His demeanour and language were understandably full of rage, and the air was frequently blue. (At Edinburgh, he hadn’t sworn once.) This show had been on the road for several months, so there’d been plenty of time to iron out the glitches- so what we were seeing and hearing were presumably, exactly what he wanted us to hear.
Grief and anger can turn people extremely bitter, consuming them until they lose grasp of who they are. Perhaps, like Tourette’s syndrome, the experience draws out parts of the personality normally hidden by convention or fear of exposure. I used to know a frustrated vicar whose sermons were described by a curate as 'bleeding all over his congregation', and last night felt just like that. Creative types don’t have it easy- and the trouble with being creative is… it can’t deliver you from life’s chasms. In fact, it can even make things worse, because you feel it more than many others, and the only way to express it is through your art.
Of course, every show has to be a crafted performance, even if someone's talking about their personal problems- so none of us watching, ever really know what's really going on inside a performer's life or head. But this evening seemed to be so full of angry despair, it was painful- except for one moment. There was one beautiful song, a touching tribute to Victoria Wood, that was so full of affection and admiration and respect.... and heart. It was the kind of song I remember hearing in Edinburgh, the sort that celebrated humanity in all its weirdness and made you feel glad to be alive and present in the room.
As it was, this gig felt like a suicide note set to music. I hope one day, he can find something good to believe in, at the end of all this- and finds himself again.