I should make clear that I am not one of those people who bemoans the loss of vinyl, I’m more one of those astonished by its return. To me, vinyl is like flared trousers, I am old enough to remember how dreadful it was the first time round and have no desire to relive that particular element of the past. I willingly embraced the CD – though am less keen on the plastic cases they tend to come in. Luckily, a fair proportion of my more recent CD acquisitions come in a much nicer cardboard alternative: it takes up less space, is much comfier in the hand and is probably better for the plant (or at least the main raw material for cardboard can be replenished more rapidly than it can for its plastic counterpart). As a dweller in a small flat, I have also welcomed the digital download and its even more modest demands on my available physical storage space. To the horror of musical purists, I then route my MP3 music via Bluetooth and a DAC to my hifi. What an impoverished soundscape I must be supplying to my poor benighted ears. I fear I can’t tell the difference: though I do revel in the absence of hiss and the immunity to scratches. However, perhaps it is the losses occasioned by all this data compression that continues to drive my love for, and frequent attendance at, live music.
And so, as if by magical, we are delivered to the main topic of today’s thesis. I have of late (well the last 6 months) attended a number of live performances in spaces that frankly struggled to contain the musical forces at play. A number of these have taken place in the rather fine crop of craft ale bars that the Southampton area can boast in re-purposed commercial premises. The Overdraft in Shirley – which as its name suggests is in an old bank – has wisely stuck to the single performer, usually wielding nothing larger than a guitar. It is a lovely space and has an aesthetic that brings to mind how I imagine a similar venue would appear in the trendiest corner of Brooklyn.
The Butcher’s Hook, just over the Irwell in Bitterne, is somewhat smaller and sited in an old butchers – complete with much of its beautiful original tiling. It was here that I went to the last Playlist gig. This boasted Olivia Jaguers on a full-size concert harp, which I sat in very close proximity to. Ambitious enough you might have thought, but the next act on was the local Gypsy jazz band the Manusa Project (very local, one third of the band lives directly above me and gave me lift home). They include a full-sized double bass (and player) plus two guitarists – quite the squeeze with the harp and an audience.
I’m not sure what the Olaf’s Tun in Woolston used to be as its interior betrays fewer clues as to its past life. It is a small space, but bravely invited the 6-piece folk and ceilidh band Monkey See, Monkey Do to perform (with smaller than usual toy monkey). This was the tightest squeeze yet, with the bassist and one of the violinists having to move each time a member of the audience (or just bar patron) wished to micturate (or more).
I must admit I do love music in a tiny space: it does make the whole experience very personal and direct. MSMD have also promised to bring some Welsh folk to their next gig as it was the only one of the home nations neglected at the Olaf’s Tun.
Gigs pushing the available space to the limit are not always in small craft ale bars. As part of the fund-raising for Comic Relief, the Turner Sims concert hall staged an Orchestral Decathlon. This was made up of ten well-known favourites from the orchestral canon – including five symphonies and two piano concerti – performed by the same orchestra in a single day. As audience, we arrived a little before 2pm and escaped just before 10pm. The day was divided into three “concerts” each with a normal 20 minute interval and a 45 minute gap between them. The wise concert-goer bought a packed tea and other snacks: I am a wise concert-goer (in this respect, and probably very few others!).
Turner Sims seats around 400 people, I’d estimate, but doesn’t normal host anything larger than a chamber orchestra. For the Decathlon they must have had an orchestra of around ninety which left the stage area pretty full. For the piano concerti the stage was very full! For Shostakovich’s second, I was sat in the middle of row B (row A being under the Steinway) and effectively listened to the piece from inside the piano which was quite an experience. For Rachmaninov’s second, I was still in row B but a little further across – so could readily have helped out playing any high notes. I could also see, though not entirely focus, on the music. There were an awful lot of notes, but I did discover that I could have accurately page-turned the piece a good 75% of the time – probably more with my glasses.
My most recent musical experience in a small space was at Hundred Records in Romsey: a very fine and friendly record shop. I was there for the launch of the latest EP by A Formal Horse, a local band I “discovered” at a recent Maple Leaf Session. This was once again a tight squeeze, so much so that the drummer could only watch from the side-lines. It was a real enjoyable experience, boosted I feel from the critical input from the guitarist’s very young daughter who I fear may not entirely approve of daddy’s musical direction.
Others may prefer their music surrounded by mud and twenty thousand of their closest (and not recently washed) friends or professionally produced in a stadium with impressive (and expensive) staging and light show. Given me the real up-close and personal performance, preferably slightly shambolic and in not quite enough space, every time. If you can throw in a home-made raffle, forgotten until slightly too late (as was offered by A Formal Horse) then you will have a fan for life!