With no more preamble than a quick, “Two, two” into his microphone, Boss Caine kicked off tonight’s proceedings with what I assume was a new song – I don’t remember hearing it before – singing about yearnings to return to the “town where good friends go to die”. It was another of the singer-songwriter’s melancholic tracks which, somehow, still seemed to celebrate the life he and the people he knows live. Perhaps another chapter in his autobiographical output and maybe that town is London. (Or I could be speculating wildly…) Whatever, as the track finished it got another good reception from an already busy and, for the most part, attentive crowd. Dean Street Devils and the sombre Lady MacBeth slowed the pace down slightly, and Dan’s vocals were as clear as ever, something that couldn’t really be said about the between songs chat, at least from where I was standing. Hope & Social’s James Hamilton made a brief, cheeky appearance on stage with his trumpet after one comment but I had no idea why. Kind Of Loving, as usual, lightened the mood, as did Dead Man’s Suit. Then I did manage to hear that the set was going to close, all to soon, with a new song. Again it was slower, another character driven track featuring that entertaining melancholy that I have grown to love. Six songs wasn’t enough – this is only the second time I have seen Boss Caine this year – but the quality, as ever, was high.
Every so often, a performance just clicks and a gig ends up even better than I expect it to be. I have never been disappointed after a Hope & Social gig. In a preview column I write elsewhere, I recently said, “There hasn’t been a Hope & Social gig that I haven’t laughed during, and sung-along to. Nor has there been one that I haven’t walked away from smiling.” There was something about tonight’s, though, that made it not only the best gig I can remember from them, but quite possibly my favourite gig of the year.
On their own website, the band state, “We like to involve people” and, “we create events to remember”. The latter might refer more to the more madcap stuff they do throughout the year, rather than the bread-and-butter live performances, there is little doubt in my mind that tonight’s audience – the biggest I can recall for a Hope & Social gig in York – will remember the evening for some time to come. As to involving people, the band, full of their own energy, also seem to feed off the energy of a good crowd (and vice versa). And tonight’s was a very good crowd. Audience participation at some bands’ gigs consists of a Lacklustre sing-along to a track or two, perhaps some reluctant hand-waving or clapping and maybe some moshing. With Hope & Social, the audience becomes part of the set for most of the songs and they seem pleased to be so. There’s none of that “we’re here to see you perform, not us” feeling that I have come across sometimes. Whether it’s jogging on the spot while James and Ed run around the stage during Pitching Far Too High or, arms in the air, waving their whole upper torsos during Red Red Rose, before crouching down and slowly rising as the song built to its climax, everybody seems to know just what to do and when. A relatively early, “Anybody feel like singing?” from Simon was greeted by what he described as an “alarming positive response” and he was soon frantically conducting the audience throughout One Way Home. An hour into the set, referring to the fantastic energy coming from the crowd, Simon told us, “I feel like I’ve been here all day. You lot must be exhausted…”
I recently, while searching for a joke I had heard, found a webpage that transcribes episodes of QI. I remembered it tonight, wishing that somebody would do the same for Hope & Social gigs although, much like the TV programme itself, it would lose something without the delivery. There’s too much that goes on between songs to take in, let alone to remember. Much of it tonight came from Simon as he told us he didn’t know their trombonist’s name, reminisced about the last time they played Fibbers, re-telling the story of Rich’s on-stage face-plant during that gig (“encore,” came a shout from the audience…) and announced, “I’m not playing that one, it’s too hard,” before even attempting a note of whatever track it was. “I don’t know what to play,” resulted in one audience member asking for “Ripples” (Rock Your Boat). He got his choice, he also got some good-natured abuse about his size. “If you get on stage and put your hands in the air, people might just be able to see you.” He duly did. That song even saw a return to a trope from Hope & Social gigs of the past when Simon declared, “This starts very quietly… which is sort of code for ‘shut the f**k up’” Those that were still talking did. Those that noticed the slight change of lyric to “I’m trying hard to believe in our one big hit” cheered.
And then there were the special moments during tonight’s set and it could well be these that help the gig stay lodged in memories. Simon, picking up an acoustic guitar, moved to the front of stage and the audience started shushing each other. Could it be an audience-pleasing track that we haven’t heard live for a while? One that used to be played in the middle of the audience? As the crowd became silent (and soundman Craig Rothery pointed out that Fibbers has “the world’s f***ing noisiest aircon unit” prompting somebody behind the bar to turn it off) he started playing the opening to Looking For Answers, suddenly looking down and, turning to Rich, saying, “This isn’t my guitar…” “It is now,” grinned Rich before pointing out to the audience that it had taken Simon three songs to notice. Somehow Rich had replaced the old, somewhat battered guitar with a new one, an early birthday present apparently, which led to some brotherly love on stage. Looking For Answers eventually re-started and the audience needed no prompting to join in, receiving much deserved applause from the band afterwards.
Later, after explaining that it was, in some ways, about York and moving on from the excesses of a rock and roll lifestyle, Simon invited, Dave, one of the band’s York friends onto the stage during Family Man. While the and played on Dave, through a series of message cards (in Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back style) told how, at a Hope & Social gig back in 2012, he had met and asked out Natalie, how they were still together and had a beautiful son, and how it was her birthday today, wishing her a happy birthday. Each card drew a louder cheer from the crowd, especially “Oh, and one more thing…” and the inevitable “Will you marry me?” Natalie joined him on stage, with the band still playing, and, after a series of hugs, he turned that final card around to show “She said yes!” to more cheers from the crowd and congratulations from all on stage. A lovely moment.
I haven’t even mentioned that, like Boss Caine, they opened their set with a song I hadn’t heard before, presumably one from the forth-coming album. Or that new bass player Simon Fletcher, tucked away in a corner of the stage, looked like he was enjoying every minute as much as I was. Or the five-part harmony that replaced the full choir during Sleep Sound. Or the eventual speed of Pitching Far Too High, during which James coped admirably with the difficult task of playing a fold-up xylophone, despite Simon trying to make it hard for him. Or, based on a quick audience poll of who had ever eaten at a certain chicken restaurant, Simon declared that the band have more fans than Nandos. There was probably even more worth noting and I probably missed it.
All good things have to come to an end and, sadly, Simon announced the “fake last song” before explaining the encore process to anybody who hadn’t been to a gig before. Rolling Sideways, with its Blue Pearl Naked In The Rain interlude was that song and as the band made their way back to the green room Rich held up Dave’s “I love you” card to the audience. Of course, they weren’t off for long and returned for an encore which consisted of Saints Alive and A Darkness Now Is Coming.
With the house lights up and, after a gig during which I laughed and sang along, I left the venue with a smile on my face…