Recently I attended what may have been the least financially minded gig in history. A group of wonderful musical Brighton minds had put together an evening in the basement of a local restaurant to provide an wandering friend with a good concert to play on one of his rare visits to his adopted home town. Word was put out and dire warnings given as to the severely limited ticket numbers; I got in there teacher’s pet early and bagged a place, intrigued and excited about this unconventional format, wondering what the devil a musician could do when there were people upstairs eating their dinner.
Watching live music when I was young meant dragging oneself through the recesses of Hertfordshire commuterville to a dark, excitingly dirty hole in a strange nondescript building, sets of slipmat steps taking you through to a deceptively large but oppressively dark space, stacked with thick black stage gear and greasy once-velvet benches peppered with cigarette burns. It never quite looked right with the lights on; the place looked gawky and unnatural in daylight, exposed and embarrassed, but illuminated by coloured laser-beam pictures cutting through the smoke glow it would come into its cigarette pheromone own. To my young eyes everybody there seemed impossibly cool. The crowd were dark and rowdy, talking in loud voices and foul language, crowded in clumps and bumps until the music began and we would meld into a sweaty lump, staring sweetly up at the stage with idol eyes.
This evening’s atmosphere wasn’t quite the same. Our entrance was a brightly-painted restaurant front, greeted enthusiastically by colourful proprietors who ushered us past happy customers and tasty smells down a terrifying painted spiral staircase. Shuffling the twelve inches of space between stair and desk we paid up for our reserved tickets with difficulty, the long-haired chap sat with the cash and responsibility more or less before him seeming as startled to be somehow in charge as to be confronted with a living human being who wanted to exchange currency for entrance. Between us we completed some manner of exchange that allowed us the further two metres into the room, to find a perch among the bright cushions and 20 or so knee-bumping seats. Watching the inevitable awkward negotiations for chairs and spaces and somewhere to put the musical instruments I found two messages on my phone from frantic friends who had forgotten to reserve, asking if there were tickets left. I suspected not.
As a teenager, I did love that old grisly darkness, the glamorous grime and hive mind. I was a teenager. I wanted nothing more than to dissolve into any given haze, to give myself up to the wills and wants of any given stage maniac thrashing up above, showing to us the adoring audience only the coolest kinds of weakness. At the end of an evening I would smell the cigarette smog permeating every layer of my clothing and somehow I hoped it would seep right through into my soul, cure it darkly into something more savvy, more mature, more cool.
But these days the smokers huddle outside in bitter groups, stamping feet and screwing eyes up against the exposed elements. The warm confident haze is punctuated regularly by pathetic heat lamps, drips, scrabbles for jackets, puffing stilted exchanges whose brevity feels forced and unnatural; seats are lost, conversations move on, rounds are missed. The ban on smoking indoors is a ball and chain on smokers’ social lives but one that trips up all those around them as well, the healthier dregs waiting on hold for their group to reform, the band waiting to play to a half-empty echoing box that suddenly feels that much dirtier and cheaper than it had seemed when filled with warm bodies, the poor bar staff retching up orders in the sweet sick and stale beer smell that used to be masked mercifully by the smoke.
People say the smoking ban and tax on alcohol has destroyed the local pub, the one inclusive British social institution that we ever managed in this drizzly island. But what about live music? If a pint of an evening with the cross-section of lifeforms who share your air and your grass verges has been replaced by a few special offer supermarket bottles in front of the TV then spare a thought for those musicians who have hashed together some instruments and a certain feeling about the world and just want to see if anybody else might share it, baring their souls on a postage-stamp stage above a pub to all of three dedicated listeners, two of whom are going out with members of the band.
Folk are still paying to see their real favourites, thank god, channelling all those pounds saved by replacing shattered plastic rattly jewel-case £15 CDs with the good old illegal download into an up close and personal experience with the organism that made the sounds that they love. I’d love to know how artists do out of their live shows; Steve Albini’s heartbreaking article about what good a record deal ever did anyone has made me resent every legitimate penny I’ve ever spent on music and I’d love to believe that a live show sets up some kind of better exchange between fan and artist.
One piece of good news has been the slight rethink of licensing laws, after a private member’s bill put forward by Liberal Democrat Don Foster. This constitutes a relaxing of the blisteringly prohibitive 2003 Licensing Act. It allows venues with a capacity for under 200 people to host live music without a license provided everybody shuts up and shuts down before eleven, and for live unamplified music to be played in any location with similar limitations.
A sane change like this is what made this strange primary-coloured gig possible. In we all squeezed, negotiating space, a guy in the front row moving 2ft to come onstage for an appearance on a muted beautiful song. We had Animal Magic Tricks, scratchy and sweetly painful, inhibited to a detailed intensity, too tender to touch; we had Palomica, literal songs about literally going up a ferris wheel and literally coming down again with a drummer who was doing her very first playing drums and the show was her looking under dark brows with a sheepish teeth grin to see if this was the right bit, but it wasn’t, it was the next bit, and the awkward of that and the awkward of the quiet voice almost speaking about the coffee machine that needs to let off steam all blended into one sheepish eyebrow sideways squint, cultivated but charming; we had Rowan Coupland, el Inglés Errante, our wandering foot-stamping angel faced and voiced alternating folk soaring vibrato ecstasies with a consultation with those assembled on when it might be appropriate to wear his cape and on the cat piss smell of his harp case for which I hang my head to say I, or rather my animal charge, am responsible.
Each act took the space completely in a heart-rush but so self-consciously that every one of us was completely there, not lost in any kind of hazy mass but alertly, consciously, cerebrally, there. I feel almost uncomfortable passing comment on the music in the usual music reviewer objective us-and-them way, talking about how they behaved and who as an observer did I identify as their influences. I feel like every member of the audience became a part of the whole weird self-conscious experience, even the musicians and audience members who I didn’t personally know collaborating to create a whole who looked at one another through lowered eyelashes and laughed at their own silliness.
It seems to me that the new cool is taking ownership of uncool. Not the outcast status, rebellious, rejecting as much as rejected, that is now so miles into cool that it’s barely logical to talk about; the new subversion is self-doubting and unsure, verbally insecure and lost not because that is a problem to overcome but because it’s in all of us and it’s where we want to be. These musicians are not fighting their discomfort, they are exposing and owning it and allowing us to own it in ourselves, because the new idol is not sure of themselves, is not big and loud and certain, is not making grand huge gestures that tumble down when taken to their logical conclusion like Jack Kerouac’s wine-soaked progression from On the Road to Big Sur, is not rebellious and stupid, does not act as though they are certain because we now feel as if nothing is certain and those that shout the loudest think the least. We don’t believe in big stages any more, big record deals, big flashing light mobs of hot bodies. We believe in our friends and our friends’ houses and our friends’ back rooms. We will conduct our business like small animals that slip under the searchlight governmental gaze, we will write our songs about ourselves and each other and we will watch each other playing them and it’s possible that some of us will smoke.