Writer’s note: It’s almost taken me a week to get this review together, but you’ll maybe understand why. Some things are far more important. It’s been a trying seven days, the situation changing from day to day. But this might have well been my last live outing for quite some time, so I came back to it. We’ll get through this, all being well. And hopefully we’ll be all the stronger for the experience, people realising what’s truly important in life. Live music is a key part of that equation for many of us. But not right now. In the meantime, if you have a guaranteed wage and can get by, perhaps do what you can to support those scraping a living. In fact, that goes for anyone feeling the pinch right now. Let’s all look out for each other, right?
‘We’re happy to be here, for one night only’
I wouldn’t say the streets were deserted in central Manchester last Monday night, but it was as quiet as I’ve known it after 7pm, your reviewer and his youngest daughter not convinced we’d be headed straight back on arrival on Lower Mosley Street.
There was certainly plenty of over-thinking in approaching those sharing our space, extra care taken not to brush shoulders, cough, sneeze, blow noses, shake hands or inadvertently snog venue staff and fellow punters.
In a year which for one reason or another I’d only managed two live music outings – cracking nights in the company of recent WriteWyattUK interviewees The Amber List and West on Colfax at The Continental in Preston, then the ever-entertaining (and my August 2018 interviewee) John Bramwell at nearby Penwortham’s The Venue, I was certainly ready for my next fix. But concerns were there long before, and we sort of hoped an announcement of postponement was coming, taking any decision out of our hands.
It wasn’t to be though, and I understand why, with little in the way of leadership offered by Captain De Pfeffel, the Butlin’s Churchill (copyright Louder Than War’s John Robb, I believe) on his opening COVID-19 TV address that night, by which time we were on our way out of the door anyway. It was the venue staff getting it in the neck as a result, frustration also directed King Creosote main-man Kenny Anderson’s way, by accounts. He doesn’t do social media, but there was still plenty of online flak.
Jason Manford spoke in general terms on the subject as a musical he was appearing in continued to be staged, talking about ‘forceful‘ messages, theatre-goers patronising him about the seriousness of the pandemic. The bottom line, here as there, was that with contracts to honour, musicians and backroom staff to pay and others potentially adversely affected at the venue, any cancellation without the Government’s say-so would leave insurance terms null and void, with knock-on effects. Clearly not ultimately fatal, but certainly financially challenging.
So the show went on, and as it was the last date of the tour, that made sense. And King Creosote might as well show up and entertain us seeing as they were en route between London’s Barbican Centre and a return home, north of the border. As long as we didn’t have symptoms, acted responsibly, kept the right distances, and washed our hands like we’d unwittingly shaken them with Britain First, Brexit Party or UKIP candidates, perhaps we’d be okay.
It was oddly quiet in the main auditorium from the moment a friendly staff member held the door open to the left stalls and pointed us towards our seats. Back of fag packet maths calculations suggested about four-fifths of 1,350 tickets sold, yet only around a third of those who shelled out showed up in light of a fast-developing story. And I couldn’t argue with those figures judging by how many of us were around at the start of the opening set. Looking around at the end I noticed more though, so maybe a few hadn’t done their homework and sussed that support act Fence Collective was also Kenny’s band, the same ensemble appearing later.
The man himself, leading that nine-piece outfit, was quick to thank us for coming out, joking that we’d probably be safer here – self-isolation wise – bearing in mind chasm-like gaps between audience members, suggesting we were the ‘cool ones’ for turning up. And he introduced his band more or less straight away, as if half-expecting an edict to get off stage part-way in, with martial law imposed. Or maybe it was just pride at having this impressive set of multi-instrumentalists in tow, each playing a key part in an entertaining if tentative opening six-song set.
Either side of Kenny were accordion/pipes player Mairearad Green and violinist Hannah Fisher, both adding vocal contributions and leading here and there, the bandleader seemingly happy enough blending in, strumming guitar and enjoying the collaborative approach. In fact, several bandmates pitched in with vocals, Mairearad opening with ‘Pibrock’ before Hannah led on ‘This Town’, Kenny’s role more about directing operations, part-saving his own pipes for later.
‘By the Way, By the Way’ kept us enthralled, before guitarist Lomond Campbell took centre-stage on ‘The Lengths’, from his debut LP, Black River Promise. I say centre-stage, but he was nestling at the back really, another fine song choice perfectly delivered, as was the case for Sorren Maclean on ‘Watch’. All too soon, they were away, but not before a rather apt closing statement, Mairearad’s 2016 track ‘Star of Hope’ just the ticket in these trying times, looking to the future and better days to come.
After a week of self-imposed self-isolation – not for any detrimental health reasons, just that I work from home most days anyway – I risked all that by venturing towards the bar for a pint then grabbing a coffee for my daughter, sensing concern all around but a sense of calm all the same, bar and café staff pulling together, chipper despite any worries. We’re not talking supermarket sweeps for bog roll and chicken nuggets here, but community spirit, as soon accentuated by the band.
Soon enough, I was back in seat G16 and they were back, this punter quickly immersed in a very different visual and sonic landscape, courtesy of Kenny’s songs and one of the most engaging archive documentary films of recent times, skilfully put together by director Virginia Heath and producer Grant Keir.
While my closest Caledonian attribute probably involves my first name, something about From Scotland With Love truly resonates, and while I have no personal links to the majority of the people and landscapes featured, it’s a film touching on our collective pasts, and easy to identify with. What’s more, aren’t these moments always better on the big screen?
I missed out first time around, in 2014, so was determined to get along to savour a rare opportunity of witnessing Kenny and co. live-scoring. And again, as per the support set, there was no ‘look at me’ posturing – it was about playing a collaborative role rather than any notion of puffed-up importance. It’s the faces on the screens – unknown to the majority of us – that are the stars; everyday folk from across the 20th century going about their work and play, these priceless images respectfully retrieved from decades of preserved film.
Of the footage, I’m not familiar with many, the main exception – used to great effect – John Eldridge’s wonderful 1948 study of Edinburgh life, Waverley Steps. In fact, I was gone within barely a minute and a half of the opening credits, the moment the A4 loco, Union of South Africa thunders towards its terminus and the piano and bass came in.
The soundtrack is sublime on its own, let alone when married to the accompanying images. And while there were surely artistic headaches a plenty in achieving the feat of the seamless fusing together of those elements, there were no outward signs of panic over potential glitches and mistakes, the job professionally executed from the opening bars of ‘Something to Believe In’ right through to its reprise, ‘A Prairie Tale’, some 70 minutes later.
‘Two to sing, two to pray, two to carry my soul away’
We were hooked long before ‘Bluebell Cockleshell 1-2-3’ and ‘6-7-8’, small details like the footage of the boys playing on the tenement stairs and the wee girl uneasily tottering in a grown-up’s high-heeled shoes truly evocative, while social history unfolded on screen via poignant slum clearance and workers’ parade footage.
By the time of ‘For One Night Only’ – with its Blue Aeroplanes meets Can vibe over further eye-catching sequences, the black and white footage occasionally complemented by splashes of colour – the viewer is heavily invested and truly mesmerised as the dancing, drinking and fairground riding provides true snapshots in time.
‘So who cares if nothing comes out of this morning
But an earful of sea and a neck-full of sun
And a deckchair always broken when sunbathed upon’
Throughout, scenes of love and loss rub shoulders with those of resistance, migration and heavy industry in pre-health and safety at work days, audience smiles building by the time we reach the beach scenes on ‘Largs’, generations hard at their labours and at play. And from there to the farming and fishing scenes, we’re left in no doubt as to how hard life was, but see how this nation made the most of its situation. It makes for difficult viewing at times, but the humour and loving spirit is never far below the surface, as expressed in Kenny’s line on ‘Cargill’, his character revealing, ‘I’m the finest catch that you’ll land’.
Stirring throughout, there’s a sense of swelling pride as we mentally join marches against inequality and poor conditions on ‘Pauper’s Dough’, Kenny leading from the front, proclaiming, ‘We’ll fight for what is right, and we’ll strive for what is rightfully ours’, the audience as one rising above the gutter with those standing up and striki8ng out for their futures on the screen. Yet Virginia and Grant’s skill – like Kenny’s – is in not preaching. This isn’t some vague exercise in rhetoric and polemic. The characters are richly drawn, as on ‘Favourite Girl’, where social history – not least telling scenes of women assembling guns their loved ones will fire in anger – is skilfully interspersed with human stories and traits.
Harrowing and harsh amid the humour and bonhomie, Virginia pulls no punches in her depiction of the evils of war, the scenes of returned one-legged Great War servicemen on remembrance parades just as powerful a century later, as in their own manner are those balletic ice skating and curling scenes amid glorious scenic backdrops, suggesting the freedom those men felt they were fighting to retain.
The peat-cutting and harvesting scenes also perfectly catch the mood of the music on ‘Leaf Piece’, Kenny arguably at his most personal, confessing, ‘Until the sun it melts on the horizon, that’s when I clap eyes upon my lass, and I find I’m singing like a lark’.
‘At the back of my mind I was always hoping I might just get back’
‘Miserable Strangers’ certainly tugs at the heart-strings, images of sad farewells – from the leaving of St Kilda to the mainland, to those heading for new lives in New York – begging plenty of questions and suggesting many a sad story, Kenny’s character professing a need to ‘try to raise a hearty cheer’. At a time when we’re being told, almost matter of fact, about the inevitably of losing many of our more senior generation, it’s hard not to replicate the tears in the eyes of the assembled on the quayside and on board those outgoing vessels.
Alternatively, ’One Floor Down’ offers a more optimistic vision of fresh opportunities in a modern Scotland, moods brightened by the smile of the young lass watching a Punch and Judy show and in following a female bus driver about her city route, before another memorable scene from Waverley Steps sees us closer to the finishing line.
And there I was, so wrapped up in what I was seeing that I’d forget myself now and again then look down from the big screen and catch the band right before me, realising what a treat and privilege it was to be there.
‘Dreaming without sleeping; It’s morning, are you leaving?
But our story it has only begun, and are you willing it to end?’
I checked the next day and the Bridgewater Hall, like many more venues up and down the country, had closed its doors. But what a way to go out … for now. And while we’re confined to home, if you’re not yet familiar with From Scotland With Love I’d highly recommend grabbing a copy on DVD, hunkering down and making the best of enforced self-isolation. Besides, we all need something to believe in right now.
For this website’s recent feature/interview with King Creosote’s Kenny Anderson, head here. With thanks to Lomond Campbell for the opening setlist, and Rob Kerford for word back on King Creosote’s visit.
This review is dedicated to NHS and emergency workers up, down and across the UK, and artists and venue staff here and around the world struggling to make ends meet. Stay safe.