mon 19/08/2019

Marc Almond, Shepherd's Bush Empire | reviews, news & interviews

Marc Almond, Shepherd's Bush Empire

Marc Almond, Shepherd's Bush Empire

The electropop torch singer celebrates his birthday with a night worth remembering

No need for a hard sell from the former Soft Cell starMichelle Robek

The first time I interviewed Marc Almond back in the late 1980s he had a pet snake with him, just one of the many things that sets him apart from today's stars. These days the only reptiles one sees around chart-toppers are the publicists. Almond has been part of the pop furniture for three decades but it was still something of a surprise to discover that he was celebrating his 55th birthday last night. Tempus fugit and all that. Or as the still-nimble black-clad crooner said to his mostly similarly-aged audience, "we are all in it together, dear".

A decade ago Almond might have celebrated by doing something a little more transgressive than performing on stage in West London, but Monday's gig found him more comfortable in his skin that I have seen him for years. The motorbike accident near St Paul's Cathedral in 2004 that almost killed him seems to have made him more appreciative of being alive. One of the early songs in his two-hour-plus set was "Redeem Me", the first written after his accident and one in which he claimed not to "miss the depravity". He might not be a saint these days but there is certainly more of an inner peace about him where once he seemed like a lost soul who had dropped from the pages of a Jean Genet novel.

There was an ongoing tension as the gig tiptoed between torch singing and good-time pop

The bulk of the evening concentrated on his solo self-penned material. He only occasionally strained to reach the high notes and only once forgot the lyrics, having what he jokingly called an "Alzheimers moment". He was backed by a large band including two vocalists and a brass section. I recently met guitarist Neal X, formerly of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, in a rather different context. He has a useful sideline doing musical shows for children in Belsize Park, but that's another story.

The last band I saw at this venue was Dexys and, like Kevin Rowland, Almond has a curiously compelling voice. Nobody could say it was a conventional soul timbre, yet it works fantastically well. But then there are all sorts of contradictions to Almond. The audience was made up of an odd combination of Smash Hits-weaned mums, gay men and post-punk blokes. All, however, appreciated the Bond-theme power balladry of "Under Your Wing" and its references to the passing of youth.

The lyrics on songs such as "Trials of Eyeliner" alluded to seedy behaviour in ports or, in "Sandboy", seedy behaviour in his hometown of Southport – "you never meant to play the tortured soul / but you cried your way into the role." There was an ongoing tension as the gig tiptoed between torch singing and good-time pop. Someone lobbed a teddy bear onstage at one point. Almond seemed in such good humour I thought he was going to serenade it.

 

After 90 minutes of his own material, however, he decided to flip into hedonistic party mode and deliver a half-hour footstomping Northern Soul tribute. As he readily admitted, Northern Soul had given him a fair number of hits. As well as more obscure choices, he essayed an impressive take on "The Night", which was a big hit for Frankie Valli. But there was only one Northern Soul cover this audience wanted to hear and sure enough, "Tainted Love" was given the big band treatment, as was the later hit, "What", before he left the stage. Almond might have been an electropop pioneer alongside silent-but-deadly keyboardist Dave Ball in Soft Cell, but here he was more a cross between a rock star and a cabaret star.

The gig looked as if it was over, but the best was yet to come when he returned for a rapidfire rendition of Jacques Brel's "Jacky". This was the continental chanson side of Almond that I missed last night. He has previously performed a fantastic showstopping version of Charles Aznavour's "Yesterday When I was Young" and it would have been great to have heard that. Instead, he closed with a song by another Marc, T Rex's "Hot Love". Bolan, as well as being a big influence in his own right, was the partner of Gloria Jones, who originally recorded "Tainted Love", so this was a kind of double payback. Golden glitter was fired from cannons and the singalong finale was more holiday camp than high camp, with Almond taking photos of the audience on his iPad. A night worth remembering, no snakes required.

Follow Bruce Dessau on Twitter

Watch Marc Almond perform "Jacky"

Comments

I came from Sweden to see him that night... And it was worth it! Thank you, Marc! I love you forever!

We arrived from Hungary.I think it was the best show in the last few yeras with brilliant songs.

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