The Perils of the Live Performance
Even though he has twice succumbed to a big record company after saying he hated the state of the music industry and would forever be independent, violently sworn at and threatened to bum his crowd, declared that he has ‘retired from music’ before promptly coming out of retirement, AND appears to have at one point HAD A WEAVE, I am still a massive fan of Patrick Wolf.
In December he released the first single, Time of My Life, off his forth-coming album Lupercalia, which will be released in May 2011. Lupercalia was originally entitled The Conqueror and was going to be a double album, Battle (named after the Sussex town Wolf recorded the first album in, among other things, one imagines…), combined with 2009’s The Bachelor. However, not wanting to ‘overload people with too much,’ Wolf decided to split them totally.
I went to see him a few years ago when he performed at the Astoria (when it was still the Astoria!), and I have to say he was very good. He put on a show with evident flare and excitement, throwing glitter all over the place, stomping and getting us to sing along. Given the fairly intimate size of the venue, this last part was not really necessary, as I was on all sides flanked by what were clearly diehard teenage fans, also bedecked in glitter and sequinned hoodies (as was I, partially). I’m going to see him at his Koko Gig in March, and am curious to know if his performance style has altered, partly hoping that it will have, as, what I felt he lacked the most, past the glitter and impressive armoury of folk instruments that he wielded with sonic dexterity, was the feeling, the genuine part that I had felt so intensely on his recorded albums.
In one way it seems ironic that I felt closer to (for want of a less cheesy word) his Soul – or whatever part of him his drive to make music stems from – on a spinning plastic disk or audio hosting website, when, in person, in the same room as him, it all felt like artifice, like show. But then, in the other way, this makes perfect sense. It IS a show he’s putting on, he is excited to be adored by his fans in person; the live concert is a different experience. This, I am thankful for. I hate it when an artist blithely runs through their album without derivation, as if we, the audience, aren’t there, much like Vampire Weekend did a couple of months ago at Alexandra Palace. Yet also, I wanted more, I wanted that glimpse of the Real, of the Honest, of the True.
Some artists, it seems, want to put on a show and unquestioningly receive the adulation of their adoring crowd, ticking the easy boxes by doing renditions of the songs they know to be the crowd’s favourites. Others shrink from the stage lights and run off into the wings at the first opportunity, like the famously shy Cat Power. The best kind of performer, in my opinion, I suppose must be the bravest. They are the one who honestly exposes their emotions to the unremitting crowd, brandishing their vulnerability almost, displaying it to us, regardless of how it may be interpreted. This, after all, is usually the reason we like them so much, because they reveal and extol some true, universal sentiment through their music. We glimpse insight into ourselves through their artistry.
One such artist who I experienced this with very intensely was Rufus Wainwright’s less famous sister Martha. You may remember her from such Snow Patrol Collaborations as Set the Fire to the Third Bar and such angry power-folk ballades as Bloody Mother-Fucking Asshole (incidentally, this was also the name of the album). I saw her this summer at a small folk festival in the South West of England called the Larmer Tree Festival. While having recently succumbed to the Glastonbury ‘gentrified vibe’, most notably in the incredibly spotless loos, complete with marble-effect wash basin surround, it is a wonderful festival, especially for international folk, obscure local bands, and totally suitable for you to take your kids along to. As such, I was very surprised to see Martha Wainwright headlining the Sunday Night on the main stage (we’re not talking Pyramid scale, but still fairly capacious). Dressed like a pierrot clown she chatted to us and even chastised one group of rowdy Gap Yahs for being so irritating, stopping her song just to have a go at them, stating jokingly that it was, ‘a serious song, serious artist, serious festival.’ However, the songs – primarily renditions of Edith Piaf, in French, with the back story explained before hand, ‘She’s a Parisian hooker … she waits for her lover to return from war … of course she dies from absinthe’ – were both wonderful to watch and unabashed in their melancholy, but in a way that made it difficult to turn away. As my friend perceptively stated, ‘It’s as if she needs it.’
Wainwright is famously from the troubled musical family of folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters, who died from cancer earlier this year (see the gut wrenching performance of Zebulon by Rufus, written about her illness, here). One can only assume that the show biz aspect of being a musician rubbed off on them from an early age, as is evident with Rufus, and the result is that she feels comfortable enough on stage not to care too much what other people, even her audience (especially her audience??) think. Hence the rawness, honesty and yet in no way solipsistic nature of her performance.
Patrick Wolf, I fear, does not quite have the confidence to let us in in the same way, shouting at members of his crowd like an angry child. Yet, despite all his flaws, he remains to me an inspiration on the modern music scene: his interesting and innovative sounds, his mixed mediums and genres, his eloquent and evocative lyrics. I fear though, for me, the Patrick I fell in love with has gradually morphed into this Glitter Monster, away from the kooky, introspective ‘folktronica’ that made me love him. Instead of ambling around the Fens in a homemade jacket of some kind, listening to the whispering of the reads while distilling them into an accordion back at his abandoned cliff-top dwelling (probably a spooky old church), he is riding around Soho with Peaches Geldof in a rickshaw.
Maybe in his early days he wasn’t so defensive. Maybe he was lost more in his music and did not yet believe the hype. Well, we shall see. I’ll let you know how it goes. I am at least consoled in the knowledge that no performer can ever fuck up a ‘live’ gig quite like Ashlee Simpson:
A great old Patrick Wolf song called Empress, is HERE. And another haunting, cello composition, Ignis Fatuus, HERE.