When you’re a support act, your gig isn’t a ‘show’ in the complete, arching way a headline is; the job is vaguely to set up the crowd from cold-ish, while trying to make friends with an alien audience (though I’ve had an optimistic, heartwarming number of mates and fans at these gigs). So on one hand, you’re freed to experiment, challenge yourself (especially when it’s just one tour in many), yet on the other hand you have a more complex bunch of responsibilities towards people who don’t know you.
The tour I’m finishing now (opening for Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo) has an older, more folk-literate (and small-c conservative) audience than mine, with a range of ages (some gigs are 18+, some full of families). It’s a healthy challenge that has almost entirely been excellent fun and (I emphasise) a large number of hugely inspiring gigs to many lovely people. But this isn’t a blog about that, this is about the night that went very odd for me, perhaps even badly awry. In Cambridge, of all places.
The 40 minute setlist I kicked off the tour with, driving around north Scotland, back at the start (feels like months ago but was early October), was too lightweight and warm; almost no politics and just one or two darker songs – and only one on piano. It was heavy on the A.A. Milne poems in the first half, to put people at ease but this wasn’t quite right, so after we came down from Scotland, after we’d done Brighton (getting my hometown show out of the way, which is different anyway) and arrived at Shepherds Bush Empire, I shook it up: dropped a Milne poem, switched to a more challenging, downbeat opener – doing Tunguska on piano. This made room for a second piano song later on and, best of all, I realised I could trust Emily’s audience to get a lot out of Tall Woman (from Love Is Not Rescue) on piano.
So from then – and for a while – I felt I’d established a set that worked for these shows and the Red Clay Halo audience, with light and shade but not too many T-T extremes.
However there’s something tricky about all this and it’s definitely thrown me off: not quite being a ‘real me’ onstage. Maybe the prioritising of people who know me less, above those fewer people who really know my stuff, or maybe just a limit on the pure truth when compacted into 40 minutes. But however pretentiously I frame it, what happened was, as the tour rolled on, I caught myself stretching out jokes and dicking around between songs, even to the point of dropping a song to leave more room for stupid interaction. This has happened a few times before and it’s become a warning sign (for example near the end of my tour with Franz Nicolay back in 2011) – that something is up somewhere in the music itself.
Then came a late night tour bus conversation that totally threw me. I got challenged about under-selling the material, about the opaque nature of my songs, in contrast to this ‘open’ character singing them. Also, a couple of live reviews have seemed to ‘write down’ the quality of songs, with a hint that I’m ‘enjoying myself’ too much, perhaps just along for the laugh. We’re mainly getting reviewed by (largely amateur) folk scene bloggers who’ve never heard my stuff and I wonder if the ‘taster’ support set is simply too far outside their comfort zone.
Anyway, whatever the reasons, as we arrived in Cambridge I (almost automatically) made a decision (set firm rules) to perform without fun (!), to drop any Milne, pick as dark and weighty a setlist as humanly possible and see if I could find a route through the set without a single compromise to personality. To not smother any fragility.
With hindsight, writing it down, it’s fucking bonkers: definitely self-destructive, though in the hours leading up to the show, I felt almost deliriously liberated by this plan. The result (of course) was hugely pessimistic: a bleak-as-shit song selection and performance. Through the middle, probably the bleakest run of songs I’ve ever done, especially without introducing them or lightening the tone in between. Ankles is particularly tough on an older, crowd (with more powerful taboos in place about domestic violence) and I did it as slowly and quietly as I ever have, without a warning or explanation. It got a couple of walkouts and three people also mentioned on the merchandise that it was too much for them.
I do believe the audience was appreciating the music (confirmed by friends I had there – who also texted later to check I was OK!). But (no surprise) the crowd certainly didn’t “like” me personally in the way they might at a normal show. So I wonder about this: I wonder about artists who are enjoyed for their perceived vulnerability and what that gives them, sharing it onstage, Elliott Smith, John Mury, bloke from Brian Jonestown Massacre. It was possibly a taste of being that character – but not so empathic – since that’s no more my true persona than the over-cheerful one on previous nights.
Oh, for the socially disastrous nature of performative personality. What it felt most like was people came to see Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo and first had to sit through a punch in the stomach – which is definitely, 100% the wrong way to approach a support set!
In my case, the most immediate result was almost no-one (I didn’t already know) approached me on the merch stall*, so I sold far, few fewer CDs than any other night and I was punished in the pocket. Fair play!
There was a big positive outcome: every live set since has felt like much closer to the correct balance between authentic (non-schtick) dicking around and the serious moments within the songs. Fundamentally, it solved the original problem – but at the cost of a show. I simply have no idea how I could’ve fixed that trouble without screwing up one gig.
Sometimes I think this whole game is about looking for yourself onstage, your true self, in parallel to the difference between loving song and just loving the idea of song.
*totally unrelated but it’s fun that WordPress auto-corrects ‘merch stall’ to ‘mercy stall’. Apt name!