“Here’s a song you’ll all know.” It’s an oft-repeated phrase at gigs which usually leads me to chuckle internally. The things is, I go to gigs because I like live music and like to discover new music. Quite a lot of the time, I know hardly anything about the bands I see, nor am I as familiar with their output as most members of their respective audiences.
Even Chris de Burgh, a household name (maybe not so much now) compared to most of the acts that I have seen, was almost a blank slate to me. I don’t think I’ve heard any newly-released music from him since he released The Lady In Red, back in 1986. And for the record, I have nothing against that song and have never really understood the populist disdain for it. I did have one – maybe two – of his albums on tape way back when, and I do remember playing it almost to destruction, but it is a mark of how much he had dropped off my radar that, when talking about it with my wife, I got the name of it wrong, calling it Runaway rather than The Getaway. Off course, I’m fully aware of A Spaceman Came Travelling, but even then I invariably forget who sang it when it comes up as a quiz question.
So, I was quite surprised to actually recognise the song that everybody would know. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, given it was Toto’s Africa…
Anyway, de Burgh’s current tour sees him playing two albums in full, along with what I think was described as “a few favourites”. Guess what, I hadn’t heard (or indeed, heard of) either album, so this was me discovering new music, albeit by a long-time performer. First up was a full rendition of 2010’s Moonfleet & Other Stories or, more accurately the eighteen track, including narrations, Moonfleet portion of that album, a concept piece based on J. Meade Falkner’s 1898 novel of smuggling. With the stage decorated with barrels and lanterns and de Burgh and his band (I wasn’t planning on writing this, so didn’t note their names when he introduced them later, apologies) wearing various items of faux period dress, the set had an almost theatrical feel, helped by the fact that a backing track featuring a whole host of strings appeared to be in use. There were a few bits of between song talking, mainly to explain the story (although that was allowed to unfold mainly through the songs themselves) but with asides about the rugby world cup (I didn’t even know de Burgh was Irish) and the occasional snippet of political commentary, acknowledged with good humour from the crowd.
After a brief interlude, during which the stage was cleared of the maritime detritus, the quintet reappeared, redressed in more contemporary outfits, this time to play through Into The Light, from 1986. This set had a more modern feel, with a full light show. Again, I expected to know none of the tracks, so it was a little surprising when, a handful of tracks in, I recognised the opening the The Lady In Red – I would have put money on this track being at least part of any encore. Even more surprising – remember, I’ve never seen de Burgh live before – was the fact that he wandered off stage just after starting singing the track, appearing a few seconds later to make his way up one set of the Barbican’s steps, across the walkway between stalls and balcony and back down to the stage on the other side, perfectly timing the walk to match the length of the song, while being greeted by adulating fans, mainly women, shaking hands, hugging and accepting kisses on the cheek. Subsequently, I have seen this part of his act described, in the past, as “toe-curling”, but I can’t say I share that view. Maybe some in the audience did, but those who rushed to greet him and a good part of the audience who were standing or swivelling round in their seats to watch seemed to approve, if the “ooh”s and “aah”s were anything to go by.
With band and singer reunited on stage, the set continued with the rest of the album, the highlight of which was a stunning finale of what I believe was the triptych of The Leader, The Vision and What About Me? at the denouement of which, de Burgh’s comments about their being more lunatics in the world who could start a nuclear war and how dangerous they were was greeted with heartfelt applause.
A brief, solo medley, which included a snippet of A Spaceman – Ooooooh, it’s him who sings it…, saw de Burgh’s twelve string guitar finally allowed to be heard – I love the sound of a twelve-string but this one, while being used as rhythm guitar for a good portion of the night so far, had been swallowed up by the noise of the band. Then the band returned and de Burgh announced that it was “time to join us”, inviting the audience to leave their seats and stand right up to the stage. Many did and anybody in the first few rows who wanted to remain seated must have lost their previously good view as audience and singer were suddenly a matter of inches apart. Further back from the front we stood, clapped along and danced (or maybe shifted awkwardly from foot to foot, hopefully in time with the music) as the band played those aforementioned favourites, including that cover of Africa and two of the tracks that I remember from that taped album – Borderline and my personal favourite, Don’t Pay The Ferryman, again a track I would have bet would be encore material. I still find it amazing how easy it is to remember lyrics from songs you haven’t heard for many years. As it was the encore was fully new to me, except for a brief reprise of one of the tracks from the opening set. Two and a half hours of music later we were done and I left the venue having been thoroughly entertained.
I don’t know exactly what it was… the audience, who, while enthusiastic didn’t seem to go over the top in their appreciation like some I have seen at the Barbican; the music – being unfamiliar with most of the source material, I can’t say for certain, but pretty much every track felt like it was a live rendition with the musicians being allowed to stamp their own interpretations on the songs, rather than the “by the numbers” versions that Belinda Carlisle’s band had played a few weeks earlier; the songs themselves; the overall performance – at seventy-one de Burgh still has a powerful voice and yet is soft-spoken during his entertaining spoken asides, keeping them to a minimum while still giving a sometimes humorous insight into his writing and life …but, surprisingly, given my predilection for more progressive- or heavy- than pop-rock I came away thinking that this was one of the best gigs I had attended in some time. Not bad for one I almost forgot to go to.