Two acts, diametrically opposed in terms of tone, that I will never tire of listening to share tonight’s bill.
Much is made of Boss Caine’s somewhat dour demeanour and miserablist air but, in my opinion, he is one of York’s finest songsmiths and quite probably the city’s hardest working troubadour. So much so that, unless you are able to get to one of his regular open mic nights (Sundays at Dusk), it’s getting harder to catch him play a local gig as he is more likely to be found travelling the length and breadth of country (keeping Megabus in business while simultaneously raging against the fact that the default number of passengers on their website is zero) to various venues and festivals. He must be doing something right as he was recently featured, live in session, on Whispering Bob Harris’ show on Radio Two.
Tonight there’s something different. It’s not just that the cap that seemed permanently fixed to his head (but which has now, I believe, been lost) has been replaced by a hoodie. Nor is it the bemused grin he flashes when, before starting his set, he is suddenly assailed by a loud blast of feedback. No, it’s the fact that the normally solo Dan Lucas, heart and soul of the Boss Caine “brand”, has been joined on stage by two other, un-introduced as far as I can remember, musicians – one on double-bass and the other on violin. The latter in particular brings a superb atmosphere to Ghosts And Drunks, a typically downbeat song about walking the streets in the wee small hours. I can never understand how people can listen to A Kind Of Loving and still think that there is nothing lively in Dan’s repertoire – maybe it’s just that even this more upbeat song is performed in what has been described as his “heartbreaking baritone”. Well, there’s nothing he can do about that but the song always gets my foot tapping anyway. The sound tonight is, I think, the best I have ever heard during a Boss Caine performance (we can even hear what Dan is saying between songs – the sound guy must be working miracles) and, for a change, he seems to have attracted a particularly attentive audience. There’s still chatting back at the bar but most people are paying him the courtesy of listening and the songs are getting the appreciation they deserve. With two and a half albums now released, Dan is varying the set quite a bit and I think this is the first time I have heard Man Overboard played live. Some songs do remain the same, though, and Self Medication Blues segues, as usual, into Murder On My Mind, during which the double-bass is used to provide a particularly dark backdrop to an already dark song. Just when I think I know all the Boss Caine songs, Dan throws in a surprise with one I haven’t heard before at all – something about Lady MacBeth – which will, presumably, feature on one of the two new albums he has in the pipeline (three if you count the acoustic, fully solo one being worked on at the moment). The final song of the set, the brilliant Leaving Victoria, sees the band joined on stage by Rich Huxley who adds electric guitar and backing vocals, grinning as he cheekily changes the chorus to Leaving San Francisco to another song that benefits from the almost improvisational violin line. This has been one of the best Boss Caine performances I have had the pleasure to see and hear and even one of his harshest critics admits to me that the addition of the extra musicians went a long way to improve the experience.
Hope And Social could never be described as dour, downbeat or any related simile. They put the fun into live music and it should be law that everybody has to see them perform at least once. Even Andy, who has generally avoided them since they regenerated, Doctor Who-like, from their previous incarnation as Four Day Hombre, has decided to give them another chance tonight. Unfortunately, while we moved to the very front of Fibbers, he popped out to make a phone call and, except for a brief glimpse, that was the last we saw of him until the end of the gig and so we couldn’t gauge his reaction during the set. As the band set up, frontman Simon tries valiantly to get the whole audience to move away from the bar, closer to the stage. Not for the usual reason of filling in empty space – Hope And Social always seem to attract large numbers – but, presumably, simply because it’s a better way to experience the band.
After opening with Cotton Wool, Simon announces that the next song might include an impromptu segue, before asking the rest of the band if they know what a segue is. Although I have been right at the front for other Hope And Social gigs, this is the first time I have been at Rich’s side of the stage and he is brilliant to watch. For most of Swaddled In Dark Clouds he seems to play guitar on one leg, the other foot hovering indecisively over his rack of pedals and buttons, frequently stabbing down at one as if trying to find out what effect it gives. The band’s instruments always seem that little bit more battered than others and tonight Simon’s keyboards have a “thing”, sometimes cutting out and needing a wiggle to get it going again, as happens during One Way Home, the first of tonight’s sing-alongs. Before Sleep Sound, Simon takes time out to thank Boss Caine for his support slot, mentioning the then upcoming radio appearance, which prompts the usual brand of ad-libbed banter with references to the voices of Dan and Whispering Bob blowing speakers, Dan needing to work on his top end a bit more and a threat that if he becomes famous before them that they will hunt him down. There’s another Rich-revelation during the song – he sings on tip-toes. Motorhead’s Lemmy used to sing into a higher microphone in order to, I believe, stretch his vocal cords and achieve his distinctive vocals but I’m not sure what effect stretching his ankles achieves for Rich. While you often get insights into the various band members’ illnesses or embarrassing situations, you rarely get an insight into their personal lives. So it comes as a slight surprise that Simon introduces Family Man with a story of how, when they first played Fibbers over thirteen years ago, he met a girl and how they are still together. Hope And Social often give the impression that they don’t actually know what they are doing (how much it’s true can only be speculated on) and the usual (semi)organised chaos seemed to take over at the beginning of Boxer’s Blood, with Simon forgetting that he was supposed to be playing guitar rather than keyboards. Most of the brass section were given a break during this song, with just James involved, hunched over a glockenspiel showing how versatile you have to be to be in this band. I didn’t even notice him move but Simon pitched up in the middle of the audience, as usual, for his solo acoustic rendition of Looking For Answers, another song which makes the audience an extra member of the band while at the same time, giving their ears a rest from the lively onslaught on stage. I always wonder what a first time fan thinks as the rest of the audience join in without any signal or encouragement, but I know from experience that at least one ended up thinking it was one of the best songs he’s ever heard. Back on stage, James takes over the keyboards for Sleep Sound, only to be asked how much of the song he actually wants to play this time. Apparently, the previous time he completely forgot his section. This time he seems to get through it okay, and Simon’s vocals can only be described as beautiful. “Do you want to hear us play a song we’ve never got all the way through?” asks Simon. Of course we do, and we get the ragtime jazz sound of By The Morning Dew at the end of which he proclaims, “That was alright, actually.” Like we ever had any doubts. The keyboards start playing up again and we’re told that they are “f*cked”, Rich rips into Simon for saying that’s “like a metaphor” only to be get the obvious reply – “f*ck off, clever arse” – straight back, much to the delight of the audience. This is a band made up of a bunch of good friends, totally comfortable with banter and mickey-taking. It’s just one of their man charms. Pitching Far Too High sees the brass section playing colour-coded hand bells, seemingly concentrating hard and being directed by James all while jogging on the spot. A handful of the audience foolishly join in with the exercise, exhorting the band to “C’mon” during an extended musical interlude. It’s almost a challenge to see whether the band can extend the song longer than they can keep jogging. Next comes the revelation that James desperately wants to cover Madonna’s Material Girl (and has been seen composing an arrangement for brass in the back of the tour van). He gets his opportunity, along with the rest of the brass section and, briefly, Rich on vocals. There’s more brief cover bursts during Rolling Sideways as somebody (I can’t remember who) plays a snatch of Apache during a chaotic instrumental section and Simon decides to sing snatch a couple of choruses of Blue Pearl’s Naked In The Rain. It’s like a particularly unrestrained practice session in front of an audience and, let’s face it, that audience are lapping it up. The set seems to be going quicker than expected and Simon asks what we want to hear next. Somebody shouts for Ghostbusters, Roj gets an acknowledgment from Simon as he asks for Mr. M, a reference to their Four Day Hombre days. Eventually Back To The Green is settled on – “One of ours and we know it. A double win…” Even then, they can’t resist messing about, John slips in a snippet of Feeling Hot Hot Hot on saxophone and there’s a snatch of Free Nelson Mandela.
There is, of course, an encore. Simon once again goes acoustic, foregoing a microphone and moving to the very edge of the stage accompanied by Rich, who straddles the stage barrier, and bass-player James on violin for Eurospin, with the audience once again knowing exactly when to pitch in with the repeated “Hold your chin up high” and quite happy to keep going, changing the volume at Simon’s direction. “One more,” comes a shout from the back of the audience and the band oblige with Saints Alive. James takes to the keyboards again with Simon, playing guitar, staring at him incredulously as he bashes the already fragile instrument to within an inch of its life, necessitating running repairs and, eventually a sort of resignation from the frontman as he brings his foot down on it. Luckily James’ fingers weren’t in the way. Whether the keyboards survive remains to be seen.
I’ve said it before, but no write-up (especially one of mine) can possibly do a Hope And Social gig justice. All it can do is give you a flavour of what goes on. The best way, the only way, to fully appreciate just what a unique experience one of these gigs is is to get yourself down to one. I’m almost willing to bet that you walk away with a smile on your face.