You may or may not know that I am involved in promoting gigs. Some pals and I do a job of booking acts to play the Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine, a tiny 100-seater venue that is, humbly, the greatest wee venue in the country. We do this unpaid. We’re volunteers and do it all for the love of bringing music to our town. When we were younger we had the Magnum Leisure Centre. Any band you care to mention played there (Thin Lizzy, The Jam, Chuck Berry, The Smiths, The Clash, Madness….) and we grew up thinking that every teenager in every town had this sort of stuff on their doorstep. For the more clued-in Irvinite, it was quite normal to go to the skating or the swimming and then negotiate the labyrinth of tunnels and squeaky leisure centre corridors within the Magnum in order to sneak into that week’s gig; UB40, perhaps. Or The Human League. Maybe even Spandau Ballet. That smell of Charlie Classique and chlorine – a potent combination.
Magnum gigs eventually spilled outside onto the bit of ‘beach’ next to it. The Radio One Roadshow was a regular attraction. Oasis famously played two spectacular shows one summer weekend in 1995 just as they were about to go stratospheric. The following year saw Bjork, Supergrass, Julian Cope and a raft of others roll into our town and entertain the locals and out of towners who’d packed the trains from Glasgow for the half hour journey to the Ayrshrie coast. Big touring bands turning up in Irvine were as regular as Bruno Brookes’ weekly chart countdown…until Willie Freckleton, the fella who booked all the bands, retired and died and the council left his position unfilled. There’s just no place for culture if there’s a saving to be had.
So we volunteers put on a one-off show. Called Freckfest in Willie’s honour, held in that self-same Magnum and headlined by The Magic Numbers, it led to the council asking if we’d like to programme events once a month in the town’s tiny arts centre. Almost ten years later, here we are, bringing all manner of ‘names’ back to Irvine; Glasvegas… Glenn Tilbrook… Nik Kershaw… BMX Bandits… Alan McGee… all have performed on the wee area we quaintly refer to as ‘the stage’… and all have loved every minute of performing in such a unique space.
Saturday night was a particularly lofty peak in the proceedings. We’d booked Gerry Love, the mild mannered and unassuming ex-bass player with Teenage Fanclub, the best third of a prolific songwriting team, the curator of some of the finest songs written in the last 30 years. Since leaving TFC he’s played at most a handful of shows but, with recording sessions imminent, he was keen to grind the gears into action, and coming through on a promise made to us almost four years ago, he arrived ready for action, a hastily assembled four piece band by his side.
One of the absolute pleasures of putting on gigs is that I am afforded the chance to sit in at soundchecks. Ordinarily pretty dull affairs – ‘Can I have less vocal in my monitor? Can I hear more guitar in mine? A bit more reverb on the snare, thanks...’ – Gerry’s followed a similar pattern, until we got chatting about effects pedals (I know, I know) and he absent-mindedly played the twanging intro to Sparky’s Dream while we talked. As I tried not to make it obvious I was picking my giddy jaw back off the floor, he and his band then fell into a lopsided run through of Bandwagonesque‘s December, its two chord arpeggiated riff triggering 30-year-old Proustian rushes of joy. Slightly under-rehearsed, they debated the length of the ending, flute solos ‘n all, before turning and asking me what I thought. “Stretch it out all the way to January,” I suggested, much to the amusement of the band. My finest moment.
Teenage Fanclub – December
Another beezer follows, with Gerry suggesting they try and sort out the arrangement that opens Don’t Look Back, the wistful mid-paced harmony-fest that helps elevate the Grand Prix LP from being merely great to undeniably outstanding. A couple of false starts led to Gerry – Teenage Fanclub’s bass player, lest we forget – playing the opening guitar riff for the others to fall in behind. Now, Don’t Look Back is a song I’ve heard hundreds of times, dozens of those in concert, but apparently nothing had prepared me for the possibility that it might ring out loud and true in the tiny environs of ‘our’ venue while the band soundchecked to an audience of just me. I won’t say I cried, but, damn! From straight out of nowhere I totally welled up. Don’t Look Back has a great melody welded to its fizzing guitars and as it clattered to a ragged end, I was a wee bit overcome.
“Oh man,” I said to Gerry. “I was almost crying there.”
“We weren’t that bad, were we?”
The actual gig saw more of the same, Gerry and his band alternating the set between one of Gerry’s stellar TFC songs; Star Sign, Ain’t That Enough, Speed Of Light, Thirteen‘s Hang On (replete with its note-perfect T Rex-inspired intro), bloody Going Places! and some of the tracks that made up his Lightships project from a few (make that ten) years ago; Sweetness In Her Spark, Silver And Gold, Girasol… pastoral and autumnal tracks one and all, the seeds of which were first sown through Gerry’s songs on those later TFC albums.
Lightships – Girasol
It was a wonderful show, Gerry’s band understated and nuanced, playing sympathetically and quietly. For all the impressive backline of Vox and Fender and what that suggested, the show was not at all sore on the ears.
“We used to play these radio things in the states, acoustic things they’d be billed,” said Gerry earlier on. “Norman had the full-on beard at the time, so we’d get our mandolins and acoustic gear out and totally look the part, y’know…and all the other bands would turn up with their full electric set-up. No-one could ever hear us. This set-up is electric, but we’re gonna play subtly.” Which, in a ‘Teenage Fanclub Have Lost It‘ kinda way, they more than did.
D’you know those ’70s rock documentaries you see, where hairy guys in bell bottoms are standing behind Marshall stacks, or hanging around the fringes of the stage and you think, ‘Who are these people? Why are they allowed up there?‘ – well, that’s me at HAC gigs, ready to jump in and plug in a pedal or hand someone a misplaced capo, but mainly just standing there with the best view in a house where there isn’t a bad view at all.
I watched intently as Gerry and his band played their quiet storm of chiming electrics and butterflying flutes, Paul Quinn’s tasteful percussion ‘n all, shifting my gaze from band to audience and back again as the dust motes in the HAC air shifted slightly in time to the music. I may also have joined in to enhance proceedings with a Norman-aping vocal harmony or two of my own, much to the displeasure of the guy seated an arm’s length from where I was standing. Ain’t That Enough, he might’ve thought. Glock ‘n roll, I remarked, as the tinkling percussion was lost in the roar of 100 voices showing appreciation for the gig of the year.