(No, not an incredibly belated review of the second Bloc Party album, but a reference to an actual weekend spent in the city it references with a very dear friend of mine. Oh, and the gigs we went to, of course…)
Patrick Wolf @ London Palladium, Sunday 15th November 2009
Tonight is Patrick Wolf‘s night. Yes, he may have bolstered his usual live band with a 6-piece string section, a 4-piece backing choir, and a smattering of special guests, but he is unquestionably the star of the show.
The traditional grandeur of London’s Palladium Theatre may not be the most conventional setting for a gig, but for an artist who emphasises storytelling and spectacle as much as Patrick Wolf does, it makes a lot of sense. Indeed, for well over half the gig this feels like the perfect way to experience his music, each song like a miniature piece of drama in itself. ‘Overture’, sweeps in on a wave of strings, like the opening of some sort of wonderful musical. The ‘Voice Of Hope’ (not Tilda Swinton herself, but a tall, striking blonde lady) appears in a floaty dress and shiny headpiece to add to the hammy theatrics of ‘Oblivion’. ‘Who Will?’ transcends any accusations of mawkishness and becomes a genuinely affecting moment.
But what’s truly wonderful is the fact that, rather than make this a predictable run-through of his ‘greatest hits’, Patrick makes the most of the opportunity provided by the string section to play some tracks he might not normally include. Sure, we get some of the big hits – specifically, stunning renditions of ‘Wind In The Wires’ and ‘Bluebells’, the latter of which leads seamlessly on from a plaintive solo rendition of ‘The Shadow Sea’. But we also get jaw-dropping rarities in the form of ‘Pigeon Song'(!), ‘Wolf Song'(!!) and ‘Paris'(!!!) – and frankly I could easily forgive the fact that one of ‘Paris’s synth lines appeared to be missing because it’s PARIS! Performed live with a full band! And a 6-piece string section!!
Erm, yes, sorry. Critic. Impartial. Objective. Right.
Equally, it’s easy to overlook the fact that about half the night’s set is taken from the The Bachelor when it includes rarely played cuts from that album, such as ‘Thickets’, which again takes advantage of the string section. The title track also gets a unique airing, with surprise special guest Florence Welch doing an admirable job of performing Eliza Carthy’s role. Ok, admittedly it wasn’t as much of a surprise to anyone who’d caught the clues in Patrick’s Myspace blog like Euge and I did, but it was still a great performance. Crucially though, her voice never threatened to overpower Patrick’s as much as Eliza’s does on the record. After all, this is Patrick’s night, remember? Even when the ‘Voice Of Hope’ returns to perform on ‘Theseus’, she’s suitably reined in, only talking over the intro and chorus – and the song is *so* much better for it. Seriously, if I could remove Tilda’s vocal track from the album version, I wouldn’t hesitate to.
After Florence leaves the stage, Patrick also departs for a lengthy costume change, while the strings are once again put to good use, filling the interlude with the beautiful instrumental ‘Epilogue’ from Lycanthropy. And then, the moment that I’m sure as many people were dreading as were looking forward to – a large black box is wheeled onto the stage, covered in all sorts of synthesisers and a spaghetti-tangle of wires, signifying that Alec Empire is about to arrive. He arrives to a chorus of cheers, but they obviously weren’t loud enough for his liking, as Mr. Empire gestures for a bigger response from the crowd after playing just one note. I was skeptical about his appearance at this gig, and the fact that he then spends the next few minutes forcing some fairly indeterminate synth noises out of his equipment doesn’t particularly do anything to help matters. Finally, after twiddling our thumbs for a while, we eventually hear Patrick’s voice again – and shortly after, the black screen at the back of the stage is lifted to reveal him standing on a podium, dressed somewhat like an eccentric granny (no, really). He then proceeds to throw himself around the stage to ‘Count Of Casualty’, while Empire spends the song producing some barely audible noise that does little to add to or detract from the original.
And then… well, we all knew as soon as Alec Empire was announced as a special guest that it was coming, so we might as well get it over with. ‘Battle’. Oh, ‘Battle’ – that ugliest of blemishes on Patrick Wolf’s recording career. Granted, I’ve listened to it enough that it’s gone from ‘utter abomination’ to ‘almost amusingly bad’ in my mind, but nevertheless it’s easily the worst thing that he’s ever written. Still, the situation is made unintentionally amusing by the venue itself – when you stop to take stock of the situation, you realise that there are hundreds of people sitting politely in an upmarket theatre, listening to someone spouting angsty teenage poetry over a thumping digital hardcore pastiche. Surely, that has to raise a wry smile at least – and if that doesn’t, then the contrast between Patrick’s fervent enthusiasm towards his hero and Empire’s apparent mixture of disdain and disinterest just might.
But even when the ‘Battle’ is over, Alec Empire isn’t quite done yet. “Give us some more!” cries Patrick, with the wide-eyed fervor of a teenager who’s had his life changed by an Atari Teenage Riot LP. And so Empire adds more fairly anonymous noise to ‘Hard Times’, which finally sees the crowd take to their feet – sporadically at first, but quickly reaching that critical mass where everyone has to stand up, for fear of having their view completely obscured. And with the demur beauty of the gig’s first half truly abandoned, there’s nothing for it but to go for broke and lay on the high-energy numbers and the big hitters. First, a slightly rockier version of ‘The Libertine’, then the lovelorn drama of ‘Damaris’ – suitably theatrical, but it would have seemed a bit too much in the earlier stages of the show. Here however, it makes perfect sense alongside the equally dramatic, but much darker lyrics of ‘Tristan’. Finally, one last sublime string-based rarity – the poignant ‘Eulogy’ from Wind In The Wires – an overwhelmed Patrick thanks us all dearly for our participation, calling the gig the best night of his life. Putting on a sparkly hat and a happy face, he leads us through the ever joyous ode to love that is ‘The Magic Position’ – even if there wasn’t any more to come, it would have made a fitting ending to the show.
Thankfully, Patrick has a couple of songs left for us. First, ‘The Sun Is Often Out’, touchingly dedicated not only to the man who was the original inspiration for the song (a friend of Patrick’s called Stephen who committed suicide last year), but also to another friend who recently passed away. In deference to the fragile tone of the song, the crowd sits back down for the first time since ‘Hard Times’, listening with rapt attention as the song reached its poignant climax. Then finally, after once again thanking us all and rushing off for another costume change, Alec Empire returns to the stage, and as the band launched into ‘Vulture’ the black screen at the back of the stage rose one last time to reveal Patrick stood on a spinning podium, complete with half a disco-ball adorning it.
Patrick had joked that this was a “family show”, inferring that he didn’t want to reveal too much when suffering from a costume problem earlier. Well, during ‘Vulture’, he pretty much threw that out of the window, adorned only in a silver neckpiece, liberal amounts of glitter and a precariously thin pair of white trousers that did little to disguise the fact he was wearing a thong, thus somewhat exposing his not-so-pert buttocks to the public. ‘Vulture’ itself is an absolute riot, proving far more entertaining than on record and immediately getting the crowd back on their feet. Alec Empire’s contribution was notably anonymous once again, but by this point that fact is just ramming the point home. Patrick’s show. Patrick’s big night. A celebration of all that we love about Patrick Wolf.
I could make a few minor gripes – although I didn’t realise it at the time, the set was perhaps weighted too heavily in favour of The Bachelor (not wanting to labour this point, but ‘Battle’ certainly could have been replaced with.. anything else really). I could say “oh he didn’t play [song]” but to be honest if I started doing that I probably would end up doubling the size of the setlist. The point is, despite any petty quibbles and the jokes you can make about Patrick’s slightly flabby arse, there is one fundamental thing that makes Patrick Wolf’s shows so special (and I’m going to give it its own paragraph):
He always leaves you wanting more.
Even factoring in the time taken for costume changes and everything else, he still played for almost two hours – easily the longest show I’ve seen him play to date. And yet I could have sat there for another hour or more, engrossed in the wonderful music and imagery he creates. Hell, even if he’d have played his entire back catalogue I’d still want him to do it again. Simply put, he is one of the most engaging performers alive today, and he has surely touched the lives of many. If you are one of those people, you owe it to yourself to see him play live – and if you know and love one of those people, you owe it to them to make sure that they do.