It’s a sunny day in lockdown-London, and several people are out for a walk on Columbia Road in East London in search of coffee and a snack and to stretch their legs. Though the arts and crafts shops are closed, and there has been no Sunday-flower market for months, there are enough cafes to keep coffee-drinkers caffeinated. On the short stretch of road, at least five cafes compete for customers who want their lattes, cappuccinos, flat whites, and perhaps a sugar-fix in the form of a croissant or bagel to go with their caffeine-fix.
But there’s something else happening – something unexpected. There’s a band setting up on a street corner; upright piano, double bass, acoustic guitar, and… tap shoes. I’ve seen this band before over the years. They’re the most recent band I saw playing in December 2020, just before Christmas. After many years of attending a couple of concerts each month on average, 2020 was not surprisingly slim pickings; two concerts before the lockdown, one street singer on Brick Lane over the summer, and that was it. So, Sparky and the Misfits now not only have the honour of being one of a handful of bands I saw in 2020, but they are also the first and only musical act I have seen so far in 2021.
A reminder that ‘the arts’ still exist even though we’ve been deprived and starved of it for what seems like a lifetime. I’ve had conversations with friends about how I missed going to concerts, but along the way, I got so used to not going that it felt like I didn’t miss it anymore. But seeing Sparky and the Misfits playing their brief gig in front of a couple of dozen spectators and whoever might be passing by, the sound of LIVE music reminds me of the feeling I get when going to a concert, and it makes me long for a world where art and culture and performances can come back to the fore again, though I fear these kinds of events might get more expensive in the future as those industries have lost so much money during the pandemic that they’ll have to make up for it somehow. Like travelling – which I also fear will be more expensive in the future.
When I saw Sparky and the Misfits in December, they had a different bass player and a trumpet player, but otherwise, the line-up consists of the same guitarist, pianist, and tap-dancing singer. The repertoire is of old Victorian-style dancehall songs and old jazzy standards. They begin today’s set with Shimmy Like My Sister Kate, an upbeat delight that gets the tap-dancer tapping so keenly that it seems like the shimmying ‘sister Kate’ that the piano player sings about is her.
I’m not the only person on Columbia Road today who find relief in this rare case of live music. The people around me are smiling and bobbing along to the music, and three children in yellow raincoats dance merrily along to the music. This moment signifies community and joy. It’s like coming out of our caves after hibernation or out of the dungeons after an air raid. If this sounds like hyperbole and overdramatization, it isn’t. Lockdowns and pandemics are no joking matters, and the art-starved citizens are hungry for entertainment that isn’t digitalized but alive 3-dimensional and not just streamed entertainment from a computer screen.
I go to the nearest cafe to buy a bagel to break my ten-pound note so I can give the band a fiver. This is more than I would typically give to a street band, but I’m so grateful for this moment that I think a fiver is worth it. I have to leave before they finish their set, as I have to meet a friend for a walk in the sun, But I leave feeling energized in a way I haven’t been for the longest time. It’s not just the sun shining down on me. It’s the occasion. The togetherness. The spirit. There’s a sense of hope and optimism to be found in moments like these, moments that are priceless and impossible really to convey in words.
Sparky and the Misfits setlist