It’s been interesting watching the leading figures of new wave hitting their middle years. Bob Geldof became a media mogul via sainthood, Adam Ant came unglued via a massive chart career, and they’ve all had a go at acting. In fact for Hazel O’Connor, well you might say that her whole career began with a movie (Breaking Glass), and whatever you think of its cinematic merits, some of the songs she wrote for it were belters. But where is she at now?
The Beacon Court Tavern is packed tonight with a crowd that is the very definition of eclectic. Youth culture loses its plumage over time and reduces down to a few tells and a certain attitude. And if you can remember Hazel O’Connor from the 1980s you probably left your feathers in the gutter a long time ago my spiky ones. Which is not to say that there isn’t the odd survivor here who severely damaged the ozone layer before coming out. There always is. And more power to them.
It struck me later on that the tunes we would here tonight were, for the most part, survivor’s songs. And that goes just as much for the supporting act too. Didi Bergman seems to have sound-tracked so many of my favourite days out since I came to this river a few years ago. I have always enjoyed hearing her, and tonight was no different.
Accompanied by a talented flautist whose name I did not catch, Didi kicked into gear seated and hatted as usual and let loose that soulful harp of a voice that always gets me. I cannot go into specifics about what she sang as the P.A. was pitifully weedy and introductions were drowned amidst the general beer fuelled hubbub. I do know that she finished with ‘Happy Song’ though which frankly should become a Medway national anthem if I have anything to do with it. The set was good then, received politely by someone else’s crowd. It was ever thus for a support act.
And so to the main event. Hazel O’Connor has been gigging for some years now as a stripped down trio which began with ‘The Bluja Project’, featuring Clare Hirst on sax and Sarah Fisher on keys. Oh, and you know who on vocals. It feels very much like a real ‘band’ right from the off, both Hirst and Fisher have distinguished session careers and can drop big names, but this is a tight unit.
Another thing they both have in common is an essentially jazz background which shines through tonight, but the fire of 1980 is still there. Oh yes. Hitting the stage to the strains of the fist punchy ‘Writing On The Wall’ (from Breaking Glass natch) Hazel is into her windmilling full-beam stride from the off. Do my eyes deceive me? Oh yes, the crowd seem to have woken up!
When you take away the baubles of guitar and drums from songs that originally had them, the song has to stand up and be counted. Hazel was to prove that her lyrics could do this time and again as the evening marched on. She has a story to tell, and is an accomplished ‘tween song raconteur much like Geldof is these days. It would be easy for this kind of show to become a kind of ‘evening with…’ style of thing, but her anecdotes illuminate rather than bore, such as the one about her globe- trotting exploits prior to launching into the furious intensity contained within ‘Runaway’.
We are then back in Breaking Glass territory with the storming double header of ‘If Only’ and ‘Blackman’, the latter featuring great sax work from Hirst and a ska bounce that has the front rows rocking. The middle section of the set then settled down into a more jazzy groove with a Nina Simone number ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ followed by another autobiographical story, ‘My Friend Jack’ about a Venice Beach war vet sleeping on the beach.
There is no doubt that Hazel is wearing her considerable heart on her non-existent sleeves tonight (and every night). These are personal songs, a record of a life in interesting times.
The band then veered away from that movie mid set, exploring other areas of Hazel’s back catalogue. ‘God Bless The Child’ is a nice jazzy number which is an original of this line up, followed by ‘Decadent Days’ featuring some fine rag piano by Sarah Fisher. If I have to me critical some of the covers drift by a little. The Stranglers’ ‘Hanging Around’ and a later outing for ‘Chasing Cars’ by Snow Patrol, the latter so beloved of advertisers and the man in the Barbour jacket stood at the bar singing every word are favourites of for O’Connor but I can take or leave them honestly. Her own work stands up much better.
A pleasant folk number that I missed the title of washed over the crowd but was well received by the hardcore down the front. There then followed a heart crushing story about making a snowman for Hazel’s dying mother prior to a beautiful song entitled ‘I’ll Give You My Sunshine’ which is the first time I’ve ever heard a performer tell a crowd to shut up so she can be heard. And there is good reason. If someone you knew tried to tell you about such a thing and they started chatting idly to a neighbour instead you’d be pissed too I’m sure.
O’Connor is not here to kiss anyone’s ass for sure. The following Breaking Glass number ‘Big Brother’ is prefaced by a little 80s history, Thatcher 101 essentially, which is always going to be divisive in a pub that has meetings to support ‘our nation’s flag’ on other nights. Needless to say the headliner stood her ground admirably and it was never more apt. When I get my chance I’m going to kick him in a,a,a,a,a,arse too.
And then they played it. Among the torchiest, most spine tingling 4 minutes and 49 seconds ever committed to tape. And the best use of saxophone since Baker Street. It is a credit to the power of O’Connor’s other material and the strength of this band that ‘Will You’ hasn’t become an albatross to be sneered at as Geldof does with ‘…Mondays’. And it was sublime. The throwaway musings of Mr Lightbody on the aforementioned Snow Patrol track that followed paled in comparison.
We had been romanced and lulled then we had our eyes and ears smashed out by a storming ‘Eighth Day’ and the air was much punched. This machine is not upset. An encore of Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ properly hit the spot and summed up the evening. Sarah Fisher was left to carry most of a call and response sing-a-long called ‘Keep Breathing’ before her line manager returned to join in and take the bows she fully deserved.
Keeping breathing. There’s no finer ambition. This had been a night of survivor’s songs. An aural finger raised with a smiley face painted on the nail. Well done madams, well done.
Words: Barry Fentiman