Sparky and the Misfits, Columbia Road, East London

Sparky and the Misfits, Columbia Road, East London, February 27, 2021

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
Not available

Sparky and the Misfits, Columbia Road, East London

Sparky and the Misfits, Columbia Road, East London, December 19, 2020

It’s a few days before Christmas 2020 – the loneliest year of my life and now also the loneliest Christmas of my life. Not being able to travel to spend the holidays with family and New Year’s Eve with friends has hit home, and I spend my days in a haze of long walks, working overtime from home and watching fucking Netflix. It’s fair to say that this Pandemic with lockdowns coming and going, Tier-systems that contain us in the confinement of our local neighbourhoods, and social distancing that keep and tear us apart from friends and family has got the better of me. Some days it feels like my new best friends are the people working in the various cafes that have stayed open and from which I buy more takeaway coffees than I’ve ever bought in my life, partly to have an excuse to talk to people, even if they’re strangers.

Today, as I walk in search of my daily coffee fix and, hopefully, an accompanying conversation with the person selling me the coffee, I notice a band setting up their instruments in front of a pub – long since closed, of course – on a street corner on Columbia Road. An upright piano, double-bass, acoustic guitar, and trumpet. Oh yeah, and a tap-dancing singer. This is Sparky and the Misfits, a band that has played Columbia Road many times over the last few years. Their music consists of old jazz standards, Irish-style folk music, old-fashioned dancehall, and good vibes.

They launch into a version of Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, sung by the bass player. Though it’s a song I would categorise as a family-friendly song suitable for this time of year, he still ends the song with an apology to nearby parents standing with their small kids: ‘Sorry I played that in front of your children.’

In between songs, singer/tap-dancer Jess does her best to promote the nearby shops telling us we can buy wine ‘over here’ and cheese ‘over there’. Times are hard for many; lonesome homeworkers, shop owners with empty shops and bands with no venues to play in. This certainly seems more like a case of ‘riding out a storm together’ than when celebrities bray on about ‘we’re all in it together’ on their precious social media accounts.

It’s cold and grey, but the dreary weather accentuates the joyful warmth of the band. Several people stop to listen to the whole 30 minutes, or so they play, many wearing masks, keeping their distance, but all joining together to enjoy the music and togetherness that comes with sharing a live musical experience. I’ve bought a mulled cider for the occasion. As the hot alcohol spreads through my veins by way of my mouth, so does the music by way of my ears. The music itself is endearing. The tap-dancing adds another dimension of quirky charm that is guaranteed to cheer up even the most frosty hearts and makes most of us, if not quite tap-dancing along, then at least tapping our toes along to the infectious beat.

At a time when people are being isolated and kept apart, the furthering isolator, Brexit, is heading towards a possible no-deal, and rumours of an even stricter lockdown are looming; Sparky and the Misfits provide us with a much needed musical relief. Christmas just got a little bit less lonely.

Sparky and the Misfits setlist
Not available

The Felice Brothers, Islington Assembly Hall

The Felice Brothers, Islington Assembly Hall, London, February 1, 2020

This is North London. But tonight, it might as well be the Catskills in Upstate New York from which the two original members of The Felice Brothers, James and Ian, originate. After a string of different lineups over the years, the latest band members, Jesske Humme on bass and Will Lawrence on drums, join the two brothers. Together they play us through an affecting and lively collection of folk-roots-rock-style compositions. 

There is something endearing about a band of musicians who seem like they came straight from the lumberyard and will be going back home to their porch rather than to a fancy party at a private members’ club. Hardworking, blue-collar people who happen to play music in their spare time, That’s the vibe coming from the stage, and it’s refreshing.

For most of the songs, James sits behind his keyboard while Ian sings lead in the middle of the stage, but James almost steals the show with his appealing honey-voice and whenever he gets up and showcases his very mobile accordion playing.

The most moving moment of the evening is also the shortest song of the night, Nail It On the First Try, sung by James doing double duty on the accordion with Ian on keyboards. The song is a change in gear from the rest of the set’s tunes, and it makes me wish the song was longer. Such simple beauty. Such haunting lyrics: ‘I’ve never been so scared in my life, but then again, I’ve never died, I think I’m gonna nail it on the first try.’

The raucous and lively Penn Station makes for a great showstopper – an ultimate sing-shout-along anthem, the perfect soundscape for those revellers at the late-night bar ignoring the ‘last orders’. Luckily it’s not time for the last orders yet. Ian comes out for an encore, alone at first, singing the excellent Ballad of Lou the Welterweight before the rest of the band join him for the last song, White Limo, which makes for the perfect anarchic, chaotic ending to a wondrous concert.

What a fabulous band The Felice Brothers are. I never got to see them in their original lineup, but I hope there’ll be another chance to see them again somewhere down the gravelly, rocking road.

The Felice Brothers setlist
1. Holy Weight Camp
2. Jack at the Asylum
3. Aerosol Ball
4. Let Me Come Home
5. Wonderful Life
6. Salvation Army Girl
7. Whiskey in My Whiskey
8. The Kid
9. Nail It on the First Try
10. Special Announcement
11. Love Me Tenderly
12. Days of the Years
13. Plunder
14. Silver in the Shadow
15. Rockerfeller Druglaw Blues
16. Lincoln Continental
17. Frankie’s Gun
18. Penn Station
Encore
19. Ballad of Lou the Welterweight
20. White Limo

Brothers Moving, The Islington

Brothers Moving, The Islington, London, January 21, 2020

It’s hot in the tiny backroom of this Islington pub conveniently called The Islington. We’re around 50-60 people in here at tonight’s sold-out concert. It’s cold outside, bitterly so. But in here, there’s warmth and no sign of bitterness. This gig is a party that could just as well take place on a summery beach at sunset, Union Square in New York on a cloudy autumn day or a field full of blooming flowers in spring.

Brothers Moving are no slouches. They have perfected the art of playing on streets and town squares, on mountain tops, at festivals or, like tonight, in a small pub venue in North London – any type of location imaginable. Their music is straightforward, on the verge of being predictable sometimes. Simple chords. A bit of rock and roll. A bit of blues. A bit of reggae. Finally, adding a sea shanty-vibe, with vocals reminiscent of Louis Armstrong or Dr John. It’s a charming blend brimming with life, straightforwardness and extroversion.

The band consists of two brothers (I think there used to be a third brother in the group at one point): Aske (vocals, lead- and rhythm guitar) and Esben (vocals, rhythm guitar, kazoo) Knoblauch. Further members of the band are Nils Sørensen (bass, mouth-organ, backing vocals) and most recent member Leonard Kiel (drums), who is so new that tonight’s gig is his first with the band.

It’s also the band’s first-ever gig in London. At first, they mainly busked in San Francisco and later New York but have since expanded to playing in Russia, at the Grand Canyon, and now also a pub gig in London.

The set consists of acoustic compositions expressed through hard strumming and coarse singing. They also play a handful of cover songs, some of which I’m not sure whether they were on the original setlist or not. For instance, when Esben’s string breaks and while a roadie (or friend?) restrings it, the band plays what seems like an impromptu version of With a Little Help From My Friends (more Joe Cocker than The Beatles) before Esben gets his guitar back and they can start playing the next song as planned.

The guitar still needs a bit of fine-tuning, though. While Aske plays a solo on his guitar, Esben’s tuning adds a few off-notes that give the music a hint of avant-garde jazz for a moment until Esben is back in tune and the four musicians ease into the song as it should be played. It’s a great moment and an excellent example of what a tight band can do. Instead of taking a break while waiting to fix the problem, they play through it while simultaneously sorting it out, making the ‘problem’ a part of the performance. It’s endearing and the way it should be.

They hammer this point home a few songs later when it’s Aske’s turn to break a string. Conveniently enough, it breaks towards the end of the song, Can’t Deny, in which the lyrics go, ‘You can’t deny what’s happening here is so sad, so sad… It’s so sad what’s happening here’ – which he turns into a joke about feeling sad about the broken string. Aske strings the guitar himself while the others continue showing they’re a bunch of musicians used to playing in the street and dealing with whatever technical issues you might face while keeping going on. There’s no time to take a break in the street ‘cos you’ll lose your audience, so why not keep the music going while restringing and tuning back up?

Esben gets his kazoo out (this is not a euphemism) several times to great effect. The innate noise that a kazoo makes could get tiring, but he somehow pulls it off, partly ‘cos the music lends itself to that particular sound, as does his silly, madman personality. A touch of a ragged jazz show tune, Cab Calloway style, is part of this band’s musical uniform.

As I only know one of their songs in advance, the last one, Sorte sigøjner (one of the few songs that they sing in Danish), the only songs I’m familiar with are the cover songs: Minnie the MoocherWith a Little Help From My FriendsOne NightRoxanne and Satisfaction. All of them get the crowd singing along in perfect call-response style. But to be fair, most of their original songs also get the crowd singing. I seem to be the only one here who doesn’t know most of the tunes in advance.

All the covers are great, except Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones). I don’t think the band manage (or maybe don’t even want) to capture the raw, sexual energy that someone like Mick Jagger can bring to a song. The original song is so sexualised, and Esben doesn’t add the sexuality to the song that it needs to thrive. They somehow make a sexual piece asexual, almost comical, and that treatment of this particular song doesn’t work for me. Brothers Moving are at their best when they can be a little bit silly and goofy – the life and soul of the party complete with costume changes, as illustrated by Esben changing his sweat-soaked t-shirt after a few songs. However, it doesn’t make much difference as the second t-shirt gets soaked with sweat within a few more songs.

And this is symptomatic of the whole performance. No one can accuse Brothers Moving of being afraid to sweat and getting their fingers dirty. There’s barely a moment of standing still, especially Aske, and Esben look exhausted when the concert ends. It has been not only a concert but also an athletic effort. It’s a band with undeniable energy and thirst for life and eager to share their positive vibes with anyone coming their way.

Brothers Moving setlist
Not available

Patrick Wolf, St Pancras Old Church

Patrick Wolf, St Pancras Old Church, London, January 16, 2020

Patrick Wolf is a sick man. Braving the flu and a fever sweating through his pores, it’s a wonder he’s even here tonight. Employees have called in sick for less. But here he is, intent on getting on with the show – after all, as he says, the only gig he has ever called off was once when a cancelled plane prevented him from travelling.

We arrive early, as we know from a previous gig at this venue (with Erland Cooper) that the venue is small and there’ll only be seats for the first-comers. We wait in the rain for 30 minutes; then, we sit in our seats for about an hour before the gig begins. I will forever prefer concerts with numbered seats to avoid these kinds of queuing-waiting situations, but sometimes, you’ll have to grin it and bear it.

It’s not only the performer on stage who’s ill tonight. So is one of his audience members. Me. I am at the tail-end of a cold from hell and luckily the cough I’ve endured in the last few days has magically gone away in time for the concert. Illness aside, this turns out to be a great concert. This is the fourth time I’ve seen him live and the first time since 2012 at the Old Vic.

Has anything changed since then? Well, his physical appearance is different. I used to think of him as lean and lanky, but he’s beefed up since I last saw a picture of him. His hair hangs down like straggly threads that he repeatedly curl and pull during the concert. He’s dressed in a dark kind-of-toga outfit, and his appearance instantly makes me think of Anhoni (formerly Antony of Antony and the Johnsons) – the resemblance, at least from the fifth row, is uncanny.

He pulls at his long, wiry hair throughout the concert. I usually wouldn’t write a whole paragraph about someone’s hair, but it gets to a point where I wish he would brush it behind his ears and just be done with it. It gets distracting after a while and makes you wonder if it’s all a studied pose or just hair hanging down inconveniently. Maybe it’s a nervous tick or some kind of ‘good luck’ ritual, like tennis player Rafael Nadal, who adjusts his hair before every ball of tennis he plays. But enough about hair.

My friend and I sit behind what we believe to be members of Patrick Wolf’s family, which results in him looking in our direction several times as if he’s singing to and smiling at us. Though it’s obviously his family members he’s looking at, it adds an extra sense of intimacy to some of the songs that he sings them seemingly aimed at us.

The concert begins with the overwhelming sound of a church organ playing on the level above and behind us. Everyone turns towards the sound, and moments later, Patrick Wolf enters the church from the entrance through which we all entered the venue earlier – let’s call it fashionably late. He walks towards the stage and sings with his dramatic baritone voice. Once safely on stage, he picks up his viola and starts playing and plucking away.

Despite a few technical problems here and there, some instruments that need tuning and Wolf leaving the stage for ten minutes because he’s unwell, he sings and plays like a trouper. He’s so talented that a few hiccups won’t present too much of an obstacle. Though some songs sound unfocused, Wolf’s singing is mostly brilliant, and he plays his chosen instruments (guitar, autoharp, viola, piano) splendidly. It also seems to help him that his sidekick, Jack, is there. Aside from playing the piano, bass and organ, his mere presence seems to support Wolf enough to get him through the show.

Since Wolf doesn’t have a new album to promote, the gig is a hearty blend of older(er) songs. Tristan comes early in the set, but it isn’t the best version I’ve heard of this song, just played on viola. I think this song works best with a strong backbeat that tonight’s version lacks, and not just plucking away on a stringed instrument. Having said that, I understand a musician’s urge to experiment with different ways of performing their songs.

Other songs, like Bluebells and Bermondsey Street (one of my favourites), are spot on in their beautiful execution. Wolf plays a moving and fragile Pigeon Song with romantic lines about going alone to the cinema and stealing food from Electric Avenue (in Brixton, South London).

Wolf gets emotional when he introduces a song that he associates with his mother, who passed away. He strums the chords of a song by Sandy Denny, Who Knows Where the Time Goes? and manages to sing a couple of verses before he stops himself. At first, it looks like it’s too emotional for him to sing it, but he says he’ll have to leave the stage for a few minutes because he’s unwell and will be back to play some more songs. No one could fault him for stopping the concert at this time. Still, about ten minutes later, Jack returns to the stage and starts playing an introductory piano piece before announcing Patrick Wolf back to the stage to very appreciative applause. 

The duo plays a few more songs, including one with Jack back on the organ. Patrick plays the last couple of songs solo on his viola. An alternative version of one of his dancier, more commercial songs, The Magic Position. This is not a song I like very much in the recorded version but stripped down like this, the song has more depth. The clapping along from the audience doesn’t add much value to this song, but if clapping along feels supportive for the performer on stage, who am I to complain? The fact that Wolf’s voice has gotten croakier during the concert adds to the song’s urgency. After finishing The Magic Position, Wolf tells us, ‘That’s what that song sounds like when you have the flu.’ 

I don’t know how Patrick Wolf felt about tonight’s gig. It can’t be fun singing and playing and performing while ill. Maybe he got through on adrenaline (and Lucozade). Perhaps his love of playing music and being on stage is a comforting remedy in itself. Regardless, by the look of it, St Pancras Old Church was full of satisfied customers after tonight’s concert.

Patrick Wolf setlist
(Note: This is the setlist as intended but some of the songs were played in a different order and a couple may not have been played)
1. Ghost Song 
2. Teignmouth
3. Tristan
4. Jacob’s Ladder
5. Watcher
6. Blackdown
7. Hard Times
8. Bluebells
9. Bermondsey Street
10. The Days
11. Wind in the Wires
12. Damaris
13. Paris
14. Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (Sandy Denny cover – incomplete)
15. Theseus
16. Wolf Song
Encore
17. The Sun is Often Out
18. Augustine
19. The Magic Position