Wednesday night I flew to London, arrived the next day, and took a train to Leamington Spa to see the John Foxx and the Maths gig at Leamington Assembly. At the end of the evening, John asked me, "Brigid, what did you think?" I informed him that I would be blogging my opinion of the show, because there was too much to say in one sentence. He replied, "Oh yes. Your blog." He said it with that punctuation. I don't know if that's good or bad. At any rate, here is my review of the evening.
There was not much time for anything when I arrived at my hotel. I had time for a quick shower, change, and to run off and meet a friend at a nearby pub for a drink. Later, before the doors opened, I spoke with some very nice folks outside the Assembly. I saw Steve and Rob, and had drinks with Rob and some others before the start of the show. The show started around 8:15, and by the time I got into the room, there were very few seats left. (Yes, there were actual seats, surprisingly enough).
Tara Busch opened the show. I've never heard anything by her before, so this was my first time hearing her. I'm not entirely sure what I think. She has an amazing voice, and played very beautifully. Whether or not I can relate to her material I can't say. I'd have to listen to it more before deciding. In general, I thought she was quite talented, but perhaps not exactly my "thing" musically. I was surprised to realize that she is an American, and it makes me curious about how she got interested in synths. Synth music never took off in a big way in the U.S. the way it did in Europe (we were about guitars for oh so many years).
John Foxx and the Maths came on about 20 minutes after her set finished. The Maths on this tour include Benge, Serafina Steer, and Hannah Peel. Here is a photo of the setlist, with the caveat (per Chris Curran) that it is not exactly correct:
I was a bit taken aback by the start of the show. John began with "Shatterproof", and I recognize that the song is supposed to have a certain harshness of tone. But it seemed like the first few songs in the set were like that--he sang very fast, at a higher pitch, and with a kind of vehemence. At the same time, he really didn't show a lot of emotion to the audience when they applauded; he might give a slight nod or a terse smile. The sort of frozen expressions and language coupled with the very dramatic singing left me with strange impressions. It almost seemed like he was so determined to do a perfect set musically, he'd totally lost any sense of interaction with the audience. The best analogy I can think of for how it felt that isn't sexual--it was like two feuding family members in the same room trying to pretend that everything is wonderful between them, yet the tension is still there. For all the emotion in the singing, it felt like a lot was held back. The net result was an uncomfortable sense of barrier between the performers and the audience; Serafina and Hannah seemed to be affected by the vibe, as they seemed like they were holding back in their own ways, even though all the playing was brilliant. (Benge was in the back looking unaffected by any of it. He may be a bhodisattva). There was a bottleneck on both sides--performers and audience.
Then John performed "Catwalk", and everything changed. Members of the audience got up and started to dance, and that started to put the thaw on everything. John still retained his demeanor through the song, but as the rest of the set went on, he became more natural, and more interactive. That was also the first time I'd really noticed the two women onstage really getting into the performance--the audience energy affected the performers in a very good way, and it felt more like everyone was part of the experience. (Of course, following that song with "Summerland", and then "Just for a Moment" temporarily killed the dance vibe, but it was recovered).The most memorable shows are the ones where you really react to the performance--singing along, dancing, crying, whatever--it should move you. Everyone was moved, but there was an initial lack of expression. Once that broke, there was a wonderful flow that really allowed their stunning performance to come through. At the end of the show, John finally spoke to everyone--first with a "thank you, good night", then after the encore he said, "thank you all for having a good time". I suspect he may have noticed that change in energy as well.
The net result was amazing, making the concert feel like a life-changing psychological breakthrough. Maybe that's exaggerated, maybe it's more a reflection of where I'm at than where anyone else is or was at. Nonetheless, others agreed after the show that some kind of "barrier" was broken after "Catwalk". I do wonder if the presence of chairs in the hall when a "standing room" situation was assumed affected initial behaviors. One never really knows these things. But when they happen in that way, it's wonderful.
I don't wish to suggest by any of this that the first half of the set wasn't good--it was excellent, but that tension does affect things. It's not necessarily anyone's "fault"--sometimes it just ends up that way. In the days when Sleater Kinney was together, I remember that there was a huge difference between shows in Philadelphia and shows in New York. The audience members in Philly were like zombies, and it really sapped the energy of the show. In New York, it was like an ecstatic religious experience--there was no differentiation between the audience, its movement, and the music. Everyone there contributes to the atmosphere. The technical aspects of the show are only a very small part of the larger concert picture.
After the gig, I didn't talk to John for long, as he is en route to the next gig in Poland (I marvel at people who can function without any sleep). He asked me if Steve had given me a copy of the Maths new album (Shapes of Things--and by the way, go buy it. Now. Well, not now--it's only available at the shows. But as soon as possible.). I told him that I had a copy that I'd purchased. "Steve just wasn't fast enough," I said. (Note to Steve: I was joking. I did not expect anyone to give me a copy). "Oh," said John. "You really deserve to have gotten one." I told him I didn't mind contributing £15 to his personal income. I did not mention that I have encouraged others to buy "Interplay" by suggesting that it brings lasting happiness and cures male pattern baldness. But he doesn't need to know that.
So, I'm back in my room after an overall pleasant and rather amazing evening here in Leamington Spa. I will be blogging this entire UK trip--I will be here for 16 days, so be prepared for lots more Brigid-abroad-goodness, as well as reviews of 7 more John Foxx gigs that I will be attending (Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool. Glasgow, York, and 2 London dates).