I’ve been thinking a lot about why we still go to see our favourite artists live after spending time with two of the ones that mean the most last week (Jesse Malin, and the Weakerthans’ John K Samson). Like, when you have your favourite songs in high fidelity in the house, what would possess you to spend a rainy Tuesday night in December in a sticky venue, sitting on a beer-covered floor and almost losing your phone under the stage (yes, all of this happened)? This was part-prompted by a friend of a friend, who’d never seen the Malin live before and didn’t have the best of introductions, but who spent the entire night at the bar complaining about it.
Here’s the thing: Jesse was sick, and his voice was shot; and that might have been why the mix was so off you could barely make out the lyrics (he played a bunch of new songs from an album due out in March, but I couldn’t tell you what they were). There’s an argument that if you know you’re not going to be able to give it your best then maybe you should just call it off, but I think those of us who had been waiting three or four years to see him live again would have disagreed – assuming, of course, that if you’re over from the US you have the flexibility to do so at all. Sure, I’ve seen him better, but I still had a great night even if I didn’t hear my song.
Now much of this, in the case of the Malin at least, is because of what both he and his music have meant to me over the years. I wrote a thing for Podcart recently in which I explained that he was the first artist who was truly ‘mine’ in the sense that I was there right from the start – at least of his solo career, although I have a signed Heart Attack 7″ somewhere – and grew up at those shows. I’ve sat on the stage, on the floor and hung out backstage at King Tut’s under the guise of “journalism” while he played songs by the Hold Steady months before they ended up part of the live set and on a covers’ album. I’ve been fan, reviewer and merch lady; I’ve shared his tequila and (as of last week) brought him some while he played. I’ve seen him eight times in a single year (2004, if you’re interested), and some of those nights have been incredible while others – last week included – would have gotten three stars and that for effort had I been working. But some of it – and perhaps the biggest part, although I don’t suppose it would matter if I didn’t love the artist – is something that Malin himself often preaches about, as do the likes of the Hold Steady: this idea of music as a means of connecting with people who would otherwise be strangers and becoming parts of the same ‘unified scene’; at least for an hour and a half.
Malin is actually the king of this to the point of hokiness: getting everyone to put their phones away and join him on the floor for “Solitaire”, or a Neil Young cover, or a new song that Stringer says is really just a rip of “Street Life”, has been a part of his live shtick for years (note to self: do something about gubbed knees in the new year if poss, because you shouldn’t require two people to haul you off the floor at the age of 32). But we fall for it every time. He knows that the Scots call him “Big Jesse”, and he plays up to it even when the first shout comes before he barely makes the stage.
The John K Samson show though… man, that was something else. I had stupidly agreed to DJ the night before at the last minute, after my first full week back at work, as if a catnap would postpone the inevitable – but even then I didn’t expect a migraine that, by the time I got to Manchester, would be plotting to destroy me. I got to my hotel, took a tonne of painkillers and threw up a litre of McDonalds in the toilet, and then woke up at 8pm half-delirious and convinced I’d missed the show. Not so! Kraak Gallery – the little space where my old friends at Gizeh Records had put on the show – is laid out in such a way that even when it’s sold out folk will naturally gravitate towards the back of the room, meaning that even though I got there about five minutes before the headliner I was able to snuggle in right at the front without coming across as a tremendous arsehole.
And then, oh, well I guess it’s only to be expected when the frontman of the only one of your all-time favourite bands still in existence that you have never seen live plays a rare UK show but it was the sort of setlist that has long been scratched into my soul. I’m surprised that my face didn’t crack open from the width of my smile and the best part was there was a girl directly opposite me whose face mirrored my own the whole night. By the time John stepped away from the mic to end with an unamplified “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure” and we all sobbed back the line, you know the one, I was undone; emerging blinking into the night for a slice of pizza from a late-night hipster haunt and a cool glass of composure.