There’s a fairly wide range of punters in Whelans tonight. Some of them are aged punks who are still rocking questionable facial hair and fashion choices after so many years. Some are young hipsters rocking questionable facial hair and fashion choices after far fewer years. Many are just average folk, coming from work ready to experience the sermon. Regardless of who they are and where they come from, they’re all here to hear the message delivered from on a slightly higher stage by the legendary punk poet John Cooper Clarke. Whelans is decked out with chairs, but it’s clear that there was never going to be enough. As bums fill those seats and more bodies flow in, people begin sitting wherever they can. While appreciation won’t be diminished by standing, sitting lends the show a slightly more theatrical quality. The atmosphere here is one of quietly bubbling anticipation. Murmurs float throughout the room with a gentle jubilation; this is a night to be really excited about. While it’s only been three years since he last played this city, the good Doctor Clarke has cast such figure that for some that have been an eternity. Around nine o’clock, the lights dim and a song begins blaring out of the PA: Mike Garry (below) & Joe Duddell’s ‘St. Anthony’, their tribute to the late great Tony Wilson. A stirring and beautiful piece, it’s minimalist melodies grab the audience’s attention and allow support act Mike Garry to walk onto a stage to an already absorbed crowd.
For a man with such gorgeous words, Mike Garry cuts a surprisingly unassuming figure. His stance, style, and demeanour suggest a certain low key mentality which is immediately shattered as he opens his mouth. Mr. Garry has sublime poems in his arsenal, but it’s the nuances of his performance and his mastery of microphone techniques that make his performance this evening so special. He understands how positioning relative to the mic and a little bit of reverb can make a simple mantra melody into something profoundly haunting. His rendition of ‘Penny For A Guy’ is the strongest example of his capabilities. The poem, originally commissioned for a nightclub in Manchester, is this tonally rich voyage through a night out in all it’s highs and lows before effortless segueing into an examination of drug addiction and a youth without hope. The meat of the lyric is excellent in its own right, but how his body language shifts as he adopts a new persona and how he distantly he lets out the stanzas final cries is where the real devastating magic is. In his set, he tackles hefty ideas like his mother’s legacy, marital strife and childhood innocence with such a deft hand that it beggars belief. He does a fantastic job this evening, but the crowd isn’t here for him. Fortunately, the Doctor will see them now.
Looking as though Tommy Wiseau dressed up as a stick insect, Clarke in many ways exemplifies what punk should have meant. A truly individual persona, versed in high and low culture and an innate ability to transition from childish humour to incisive social commentary. He is the democratised voice of that generation wrapped up in a slim fit suit and a Robert Smith doo. In keeping with this tradition, the performance tonight is loose. Where Garry is focused and measured in his actions, Clarke is using every inch of this stage like desperate Vegas comedian. He lumbers around the stage in this ramshackle, seemingly random manner, while his voice floats between his distinctive Northern twang and an arch Generican accent. Proceedings zip along with such an ease and fluidity that it becomes difficult to predict where he’ll go next which massively assists the impact of his words. The show is consistently genuinely hilarious with one particular highlight being the recounting of the tale of trying desperately to meet the Dalai Lama at Glastonbury. But at a moment’s notice, he’s able to move the audience to a completely different world as he does during ‘Beasley Street’, with its tangible poverty and desolation, and ‘Beasley Street Revisited’, which examines that area’s subsequent gentrification. There’s such a magnetism on display that you’re forced to sit up and take note. When the night concludes on with a delightfully sweary rendition of ‘Evidently Chickentown’, it’s hard not be completely bowled over. The whole experience is simply a delight. Being in the presence of such a magnificent performer is a terribly humbling experience. Will Murphy
Photos by Zoe Helman