So Nanci Griffith died, and my mind inevitably went back to the first time I saw her live. The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh in about 1987. I remember I had just returned that very day from outdoor education at Carbisdale (not, of course, that I did anything actually outdoors). Tired and sticky, I imagine I wondered why exactly I had bothered going, but when she launched into ‘Lone Star State of Mind’, I knew I had made a new and enduring friend. RIP Nanci – ‘and she will fly away to heaven/come some sweet blue-bonnet spring’.
A fortnight ago, I went with my friend Fiona to watch Chrissie Hynde performing, again at the Queen’s Hall. She sang her new album of Dylan songs in its entirety and then some other older stuff (who knew that Ray Davies wrote ‘Stop Your Sobbing’?) Chrissie was 70 yesterday. I hope I am as sassy and vital and sexy at 70 as she was, or indeed had been at any time in my life. Of course, the music was good, but it was being at a live event again that was the truly exciting thing. Listening to something of a legend performing, while in the company of other people. My goodness me. I had hoped that Chrissie would invite me on stage to sing ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ with her, with me playing the ukulele. It is a very easy song, which I have just about mastered.
Going to live concerts has been an occasional, rather than frequent part of my life and sometimes I have been fairly bored, waiting for it all to end. I think I might like to go to a festival sometime. My mother thought she had lived through the American Civil War in a previous life (I forebore asking on which side she was) and my father believed he had died in the First World War – and truth to tell, he was always much more affected by that war than by the Second World War, through which he had lived. For me, I feel an odd affinity to Woodstock and I wish I had been there, not aged 12, as I was at the time, but maybe 19. Ah, 19.
The first live concert I was meant to go to was Nina Simone at the Usher Hall. Personally I think that is quite cool. 12 and Nina. She had been in the charts with her astonishingly brief hit single ‘Ain’t Got No – I Got Life’ from the musical ‘Hair’, and I loved it. The only other song I had heard her sing was the follow up (also a hit), her version of the Gibb brothers’ wonderful ‘To Love Somebody’; Nina singing that still makes me shiver (sadly, it is not really a ukulele song). Anyway, much as I pleaded, I didn’t get to go, because the date fell the day before my S1 Maths exam. My poor old dad, feeling guilty, went to the Usher Hall to get tickets for the next concert; this was Fairport Convention, rather a different kettle of fish. It was 52 years ago, but I can remember how excited I was. Of that group too, I knew little – only ‘Si Tu Dois Partir’ which was played on ‘Top of the Pops’ on the night my grandfather died. Funny the things you remember. I had to wait 25 years to see Nina, in the Royal Concert Hall in Amsterdam.
I’ve not been to lots of gigs, unlike many of you; I have seen Dylan twice, Joni Mitchell surprisingly dressed in full leathers, Joan Baez several times, Judy Collins forty years ago and again very recently – she is over 80, but still spoke somewhat lasciviously about Leonard Cohen (‘when he came through the door, I suddenly didn’t care what his songs sounded like’) and I’ve seen Leonard too (brilliant). James Taylor, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Webb, Jane Siberry (weird but good) Emmylou Harris, The Beach Boys (and Brian Wilson solo); Iris Dement, Ricky Lee Jones, Willy Nelson (Mr F the youngest person there); John Stewart (one of my very favourite acts); Mary Chapin Carpenter (next to a man in Glasgow, very drunk, shouting ‘sing “COME ON, COME ON’ over and over again, which she rather pointedly did not do). Similarly, just before lockdown at Celtic Connections in Glasgow at a concert which might have rather frightened me had I not been with my friend Barbara who is from Glasgow, several very drunk men, shouting ‘Frankie’s Gun, Frankie’s Gun’ at the Felice Brothers – one of them turned to me and said ‘If they dinnae sing ‘Frankie’s Gun’ there’ll be trouble’. Thank God they did – there’s a song I could hear every day till I died. Elton at Easter Road (with Lulu); Springsteen at Wembley; Lou Reed (obviously out his head); the late Glen Campbell, with dementia, very moving, playing amazing guitar (and making me cry on ‘Wichita Lineman’ – is that the best single ever?), starting off by turning to the audience and shouting ‘HELLO GLASGOW’, then after the roaring ceased, saying ‘I know it’s Glasgow because it says so on a huge piece of paper right here’. Sigh. RIP Glen (‘I want you for all time’). Carole King doing ‘Tapestry’ in Hyde Park, with the huge crowd all singing along like one big happy karaoke, with Ms King alternately weeping and laughing with incredulous joy – what must it be like to be so loved by so many? Will I and my ukulele ever find out?
And possibly best of all, maybe five years ago, Sufjan Stevens doing all of ‘Carrie and Lowell’ at a pitch-perfect Usher Hall, every brilliant word crystalline.
And then there was Burt Bacharach. Now Burt is, of course, a genius; it is not an exaggeration to say that he and Hal wrote much of the soundtrack of my youth. I found out late that he was playing so could only get tickets in the gods at the Usher Hall. There was a group of Leith ladies behind us, clearly in love with the octogenarian Burt (I did a school assembly three days later on the words of ‘Alfie’ which he sang solo, him and the piano, oh my goodness, my goodness). Anyway, shortly after the lights went down, another group, this time of large men with lagers, came and sat behind them. They talked a lot, and the ladies lost no time in telling them to be quiet, eliciting the audible response ‘Keep yer hair oan, hen, it’s no Beethoven’. Time passed and the situation calmed, until close to the very end.
Burt stood up and said, ‘For our last number, I would like to do a song which I wrote with my fourth wife, Carole Bayer Sager…..’
One of the men said loudly, ‘Great. I ken what this is gonna be!’
And simultaneously as Burt said ‘It’s called ‘That’s What Friends Are For’’, the leading Leith lady screamed ‘Can you fucking shut it, pal!!?’
Ah bliss. This is why I go to concerts.