First up was Helen Rhodes. (You can follow her on Twitter: @ThinkingChimp ) She is based in Wakefield, but this was the first time I had heard her. She began with an anti-fairy tale. I do like a good anti-fairy tale (search on this blog for Fairy tale, if you don’t believe me). It was well-crafted, with rhyme and metre effectively used, but not according to a rigid scheme. She did a poem about self-doubt, and two political ones. You may have heard me saying before that I do not usually like political poetry. Politics, and self-doubt, are very frequent subjects in contemporary spoken word, and they are also frequently mishandled. Poems about self-doubt have a tendency to implode in a way that makes the audience think, “Yes, you aren’t very good at this, are you?” Poems about politics tend to produce a lot of sterile shouting about things that the audience already gets, or they inadvertently convince the listeners that the person speaking doesn’t know what they are talking about. All Helen Rhodes’s pieces worked. The self-doubt poem had the audience nodding with recognition and approval. The political poems used poetic technique to make them stand up, rather than a mere, selfish appeal to the audience’s sense of justice. Helen definitely left the audience wanting more, and I will be looking out for her next performance.
Helen, wife of The Bleeding Obvious’s Jess Rowbottom, began selling raffle tickets in the interval. This was for the benefit of Mermaids UK, a charity which supports transgender children, and their families. I bought two strips.
Next up was the inimitable (and I use that word advisedly) Lee McHale, from Castleford. Those of you who are familiar with the ‘Mr Gum’ series of children’s books by Andy Stanton may be interested to know that Lee McHale looks uncannily like Mr Gum, himself. It’s a combination of the beard, the cap, and the wild-eyed expression. I have never yet seen Lee stick a picture of a scary shark on his beard to make himself look more frightening, but it would not surprise me if he did.
Lee started with ‘Ted, the Teabag’. He then picked up a ukulele, which appeared to have been made out of a cigar box, with the bit of cord that Compo Simonite used to keep his trousers up with, instead of a strap. The cord, and its unpredictable behaviour, were an unscripted contribution to the act. He started a musical version of ‘Jeremy Kyle Is A Wanker’. I am familiar with the unaccompanied version, but not this one. Lee can certainly play the ukulele, but he gave up on the instrument two verses from the end, because the unreliable trouser-cord was giving him gip. He returned to reciting, unaccompanied, without any diminution of the effect or the audience enjoyment.
His last piece was announced as, ‘a hobby poem’, again set to the ukulele. It was called, ‘I Like To Kill’. The audience laughed out loud, though some people looked a bit uncertain at the injunction to “J O I N I N !”
Whereas Lee did words with musical accompaniment, Louis James, who I mentioned in my last review, did guitar playing accompanied by singing. Louis has a highly accomplished, complex finger-picking style, which includes a lot of moving his hands onto and off the strings, so that he can do things like strike the sound box, or play harmonics. (If you don’t know what harmonics are, ask somebody.)
His first three pieces were his own compositions. While his instrumental technique is breath-takingly sophisticated, I don’t really get his songs. He is too young, too thin, and not sweaty enough for my taste.
Almost as if he were reading my mind, Louis finished with a cover version of ‘Ace of Spades’. It was innovative, and it worked.
A late addition to the programme was Jasmine, from The Black Horse Poets. She appeared under her pseudonym, which I didn’t catch. She did a piece called ‘Spiderwoman’, which delighted the audience, including the bit where she stuck two fingers up.
As Geneviève Walsh was getting ready to go on, Helen Rhodes and Lee McHale had to go out into the cold, to travel to The Snooty Fox, for another benefit gig, a Christmas food drive. “I’ll try not to take it personally,” exclaimed Geneviève, as they were leaving.
It was another effortlessly accomplished set from Geneviève. Most of the pieces I had heard before, but I enjoyed them all the more for that. The intro to ‘Contradiction’ (the piece about the beautiful woman in the library with the recalcitrant child, called Bradley) said that she was performing it in recognition of the casting of the new Doctor Who as a woman with a Yorkshire accent, and, so I was told, a male assistant, called Bradley.
The main thing I took from this performance of Geneviève’s was from the intro to ‘Dance Of A Thousand Losers’, and it was, “Life is about finding your kind of weirdo”.
The headline act was, of course, Jess Rowbottom in her guise as The Bleeding Obvious.
For those who have never yet enjoyed the blessing of visiting The Red Shed in Wakefield, it is, literally, a shed. The – for want of a better word – “auditorium” is a room that has to be extended by opening a folding partition. It tends to attract people who are looking for the bar and open the wrong door; it has 1970s-style, fireproof ceiling tiles, a self-assembly wardrobe in one corner, a granny carpet, and a laminate dancefloor and piles of stacked chairs, which give it the air of a low budget wedding reception. Jess made it feel like Madison Square Garden. Just about every seat was taken.
I am not going to go through the whole set list of 14 songs. The performance began with some keyboard playing which reminded me of how Animal from The Muppets plays the drums.
One of my favourite pieces of unscripted banter was, “I didn’t used to be like this: I used to identify as a software engineer.”
I did not realise, the last time I heard Jess perform, that her instruments all have names. I didn’t catch all of them, but the melodica is called Sven (which I always thought was the name of a Swedish hit man). The gold keyboard with the shoulder strap is called Judith. Don’t ask me why.
Louis James returned to the front, with his guitar, for a song called (I think) ‘Gender Babylon’. They engaged in what I believe is known in some circles as, “getting down”. It was very good.
The 13th song was ‘Keith Chegwin For A Day’, which Jess said she had written in 1991. When Jess announced this as the last one, there were howls of protest, and so she finished with ‘One Foot In Front Of The Other’.
The raffle was drawn, and I won the naff Christmas compilation LP (yes, a vinyl LP) that had recently been contributed after a trip to a charity shop.
As I was on my way home, there were two middle-aged lesbians in the taxi office. One of them asked me about the record. “I love vinyl, me. What’s that? Christmas songs? I wish I had that. I’d love that.” I gave her the record.
When you have been unemployed as long as I have, the opportunity to attend an event devoted to self-realisation, with well-crafted music and words, in the company of people who are mostly familiar, does you a power of good. The things I took from this event are that we are who we are, and anyone who doesn’t like it can fuck off, and that the exercise of talent, especially in an atmosphere of human warmth and solidarity, can keep austerity and prejudice at bay.
Merry Christmas, everybody.