Misery loves company
MALCOLM MIDDLETON / THE ACCIDENTAL, 26TH MARCH 2008, OXFORD JERICHO TAVERN
To describe The Accidental as a supergroup might be stretching things a tad, but the four members certainly have previous. Sam Genders' day job is in serial SWSL irritants Tunng; his fellow guitarist Stephen Cracknell was one of the founders of cult label Trunk Records; and Hannah Caughlin is the key voice of The Bicycle Thieves, part of the Fence Collective. Grinning singer-songwriter Liam Bailey, meanwhile, would be the Bez of the group (and it's hard to imagine a band less likely to have a Bez) were it not for the fact that he's actually useful for more than just "vibes", possessing as he does a gorgeously soulful voice.
Tonight, accompanied by a violinist happy to lurk at the fringes of the stage, the quartet are playing only their fourth ever gig together. On occasion it shows, with things slipping slightly out of sync, but for the most part they're spellbinding, so much so that my dislike for Genders' other band is forgotten. Spying the mirrorball suspended from the ceiling, Caughlin jokes "This is our disco set", but don't be fooled - their stock-in-trade is folk so featherlight it makes Monkey Swallows The Universe sound like Motorhead, crafted out of simple melodies, percussive taps on the guitars and intimately interwoven vocals.
The opening pairing of 'The Closer I Am' and 'I Can Hear Your Voice' set the bar very high indeed, but there's still plenty to impress in what follows, especially the single 'Wolves', 'Illuminated Red' (available to download via their website) and closer 'Time And Space'. We've got their debut album There Were Wolves, due out on 14th April on Full Time Hobby, to look forward to, but in the meantime we should just be thankful to the Green Man Festival and Adem of Fridge that Cracknell, Genders and Caughlin met at all.
Nipping down the stairs and along the corridor to the toilet, I very nearly literally run into the evening's headliner, fresh from relieving himself. The toilet's empty and I watch the steam rising up out of the urinal trough from Malcolm Middleton's piss (or should I say "pish"), reflecting on the fact that it's the sort of thing he might write a song about.
A bit of an aside. Nearly seven years ago now, when they were touring their fantastic fourth album The Red Thread, he and I interviewed Arab Strap. It should have taken place before their set, but, true to form, the duo failed to return from the pub until they were due on the Rock City stage. The exchange - drunken, unpredictable, frequently awkward, dominated by Aidan Moffat who was playing with a doll throughout whom it eventually transpired was the "Christy" he was referring to as his girlfriend - turned out to be one of the most memorable of my short career in student journalism. On that occasion Middleton - the musical one - took a back seat, allowing Moffat the platform on which to perform. But since Arab Strap's demise in 2006 he's stepped out of the shadows and now, backed only by Jenny Reeve on fiddle and vocals and Stevie Jones on double bass, is very much the centre of attention, and obviously enjoying it, though perhaps more than he'd care to admit - he's got a reputation as an agoraphobe to uphold, after all.
The early portion of the set is heavy on material from last year's A Brighter Beat, as reinterpreted by the stripped-down line-up. The title track gets things underway, soon followed by 'Fuck It, I Love You' (a nice insight into romance Falkirk-style). Genius Christmas single and album opener 'We're All Going To Die' isn't far behind, but it's 'Blue Plastic Bags', from this year's predominantly acoustic follow-up Sleight Of Heart, that first gets the hairs standing up on the back of the neck.
"It's about getting drunk, or the confusion of modern living", Middleton says. "We'll judge you on how you choose to interpret it". Well, for me it's about the universal and desperate search for comfort and consolation: "The whole world's going home with blue plastic bags / Six bottles of Stella, Jacob's Creek and twenty fags / And you know there is no shame / 'Cos we're all doing the same". And that's the beauty of it - we might be lonely, we might feel isolated, we might be listening to "downbeat shite", but we're actually all lonely, isolated and listening to "downbeat shite" together. The stirring climax - "Sing along with the sad song / Sing along, sing along" - just underscores the point. This is a communal experience, and a perversely uplifting one.
Middleton's miserabilism manages to be neither po-faced nor cartoonish - instead, it's weighty but articulated with a wry and blacker-than-black humour that can't help but make you grin rather than grimace. "Tablets to breathe, tablets to sleep / Tablets just my favourite sweet", he sings in 'Loneliest Night Of My Life Came Calling', and elsewhere: "We drank to the good times, we drank to the bad / We drank to times we never had". Madonna's 'Stay' sounds marvellous given the Middleton treatment, and he can even get away with calling a new song 'Red Travelling Socks' and still invest it with emotional poignancy.
Left alone on stage for the three song encore, Middleton ratchets up the self-loathing and self-deprecation a few notches with 'Total Belief' before the final song of the night, 'Devil And The Angel', takes it to a whole new level. Greeted with a chorus of 30- and 40-somethings hissing "Yes!" under their breath, the song tells the tale of being visited by a devil and an angel. The former knocks him down, the latter builds him up - and, on waking, guess which path he chooses? He may have gone for a slash before getting up on stage, but he evidently still has plenty of piss to take out of himself. But of course the irony is that to be able to sing self-abasing lines like "I'll never amount to anything / I'll never achieve anything / I'll never be good at anything / And my songs are shite" to a roomful of strangers actually takes an extraordinary amount of self-confidence.
It was pissing it down shortly before the gig, but by the time I step outside afterwards it's stopped. That about sums it up.