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  • Writer's pictureJO'B

Best gigs: 50 - 41

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

In 2020, Spin magazine published a list of the greatest ever 35 gigs, which I took issue with:

  1. I was only at one of them

  2. Worse, my friend Natalie, who shared this with me, had been at three!

  3. More seriously, it didn't feel very personal, it was very American - and the reasons for the gigs being brilliant didn't resonate with me.

Marillion, live in Montreal, 2015...I am seeing them in November for the 28th time....

So, I have finally got around to writing my list of 50 (why on earth would you only choose 35?). I am sure I have forgotten a few but here they are. The order is pretty random, but hopefully you will agree with some of them.

50. Level 42, Wembley Arena, 28 March 1987

Do you remember the first time? I do, and whilst it wasn't wasn't the worst time, it wasn't brilliant in hindsight. But at the time, I loved it. Level 42 were huge then. They had gone from cool jazz funksters to pop stars. My school friend Andy wanted to go and see them, so I went with him. I seem to recall I wore a grey, flecked suit from Top Man and a blue shirt. I assumed we needed to dress up. I was 16 and clueless....

It was a big week - it was just ahead of my 17th birthday, and as well as seeing my first gig, I went on my first date. Heady, happy days and I have fond memories of that lovely girl and that gig. And Hot Water closed the gig with Mark King flying across the stage, lifted by hidden cables elevating him into the air, slapping his bass like a mad man. Though Level 42 have not aged well, it made an impact and I have seen around thousand gigs since.

49. Nelson Mandela, Wembley Stadium, 1990

The birthday gig to highlight Nelson Mandela's ongoing incarceration was brilliant - both for the cause, but also the performers and collaborations. This though was the gig when Mandela had finally been released. It was a seminal moment, having been to several protests outside of the South African embassy in my teenage years.

A lot of the music, if I am honest, wasn't really my cup of tea, though seeing Neil Young, Lou Reed and Simple Minds was pretty cool. But seeing and hearing Mandela speak was inspiring and different from any gig I will ever go to again.

48. Kate Bush, Hammersmith Odeon, November 2014

I, like most sane people, had assumed I would never see Kate Bush. But then back in 2014, as unexpected as the many musical turns of her career, she was doing a 21-night residency at Hammersmith Odeon. We tried to get tickets, but to no avail. But my friend Sarah told me her friend had bought her two tickets and she wasn't that bothered about going - suddenly, me and David, my lovely friend, had two tickets to see the hottest show in town.

The friend who got the tickets for Sarah had a little crush on her, so we all met at hers for food and drinks before we headed to the gig. As he knew she wasn't coming, he made excuses to stay longer than we planned and I was getting anxious that we'd be late. No amount of hint dropping, impatient watch staring or sighing would speed him up. And he had the tickets....

Eventually we got there, sadly missing the first three songs, including Hounds of Love. Gutted. But the rest of the show...her voice was amazing and Running Up That Hill, The Ninth Wave and Cloudbusting were just stunning. If I am really honest, I was a little underwhelmed by A Sky Of Honey, the second part of the Aerial album - in no small part distracted by the terrible acting of her son. But hey, a mother's love is blind and seemingly deaf, and it would be churlish to complain.

David and I have now seen two of our three favourite British women vocalists (La Bush and Elizabeth Fraser). Just Tracey Thorn to go and with Everything But The Girl back with a new album this year, we might, just might, finally tick that off the list too! And btw, I took Sarah to see Bastille at Somerset House - this may not feel like ample reward, but she loved it.

47. Robert Plant with Jimmy Page, Knebworth, 1990

This was a one day festival in aid of the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy charity and had a stellar line up of Tears For Fears, Status Quo, Cliff Richard, Phil Collins, Genesis, Elton John, (the dreadful) Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, Paul McCartney and Pink Floyd. Ok, pretty MOR and no indie, but still pretty cool.

But the standout for me was Robert Plant - his solo stuff was ok, but his band played two Led Zeppelin songs, before being joined by Zep's guitar legend Jimmy Page for three more Zip numbers - Misty Mountain Hop, Wearing And Tearing and Rock And Roll. Whilst it's not quite seeing Led Zeppelin live, it's pretty bloody good, and better than most.

Again though, despite this legendary performance, if I am really honest, that day my favourites were Status Quo, much to my surprise and horror...they were hilarious and huge fun...

46. Pixies, Crystal Palace, 1991

For some daft reason, I didn't get Pixies. In fact I hated them, to the extent that in my first year at Uni, when practically everyone I knew went to see them play Exeter's Great Hall, I didn't go. I finally realised the error of my ways when Stevey lent me Doolittle to give it another go.

I immediately regretted my stubbornness, and found that Pixies were playing Crystal Palace the first Saturday after our end of year exams. There was a coach trip going from Exeter so off we trekked for the day, seeing The Boo Radleys, The Milltown Brothers, Cud, Ride and Pixies.

I remember thinking we were cool as we saw Adam from Swervedriver there, so we were stood with shoegazer stars...

Pixies were brilliant, and I have seen them many times since, seeing them again in 2023. But this was a great gig, a great lineup.

45. Billy Bragg, The Forum, London, 6 December 1996

I've seen Billy many many times, but this one stands out as it was just before the Labour win in 1997. The audience all sang every word of Between The Wars and it was really moving.

It finally felt like something was about to change. And of course it did. Hopefully, things will change again soon, after 13 years of truly dreadful government (can anyone disagree? Even my Tory friends have had enough of this shower).

Billy is still great, still love him and must see him live again soon.

44. Primal Scream, Great Hall, Exeter, 26 November 1994

By this time in 1994, I had left my sabbatical job at the student union in Exeter. As well as being a great learning experience, and huge fun, it had had the marvellous benefit of allowing me to extend life as a student whilst earning the mahoosive annual salary of £8,687 per annum. That may not sound a lot, but after three years as a student with summer jobs and a bar job that paid just over £3.00 an hour, this was a major step forward in my finances. But that had to come to an end.

So, I was now in training to become an Insolvency Examiner, working for the Official Receivers’ Office in Exeter. However, I found it hard to let go of being a student, hung around too much at the student union and whilst Exeter was a great place to be, I spent the next year in limbo – starting a career, but still hanging round like a lost puppy in the student union bar. It would be a few months, before I worked out that to move on, I really had to move on. London was calling...

Speaking of moving on, a band whose finest moment had been Movin’ On Up, were coming to town and playing the 1,200 capacity Great Hall. Having crossed dance music with indie (or rather Andrew Weatherall did it for them), they were now a Stones tribute act and very “on message” for Britpop – they were the Stones to Blur and Oasis’ different takes on the Beatles.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered going, but my friends Dan, Loz and Vicki were all keen to see them and had been unable to get tickets in London. They asked about the Exeter gig and I managed to blag four tickets for the sold-out show from an old mucker at the student union.

Down they schlepped to Devon’s finest city and we hit the bars. Student prices were a revelation to them after a couple of years paying London prices again, and we were all working. Inebriated and ready to go, in we slipped into the Great Hall. Why it’s “great” I never found out, but that night it was the “sweaty hall” as my blurred memory is dancing from the moment they came on stage until the moment they left.

The set was short, tight and enthralling. I remember looking over to see my friend Jonny getting down with his bad self, as they ran through the deep south does Stones grooves of Jailbird, Rocks, Funky Jam, alongside the psychedelic trippy sound of Don’t Fight It Feel It, Come Together and Loaded, and of course the magnificent gospel rock that is Movin’ On Up.

When the gig ended, I managed to sneak us into the Lemon Grove nightclub down the road (thank you lovely Larry and the then bouncers) and we kept on dancing for another couple of hours. It was all huge fun, and it was a great time, with great friends. I remember that night with much happiness.

43. Manic Street Preachers, OnBlackheath, 12 September 2015

OnBlackheath was initially a great festival, literally 10 minutes’ walk from my front door. The first year has been a great success, with Grace Jones and Massive Attack. This year was even better.

The Saturday headliners were Elbow, then huge, just huge. The Manics’ star had waned somewhat since their heyday, though they were still making cracking albums and were a formidable force live.

They came on as effectively a support band to Elbow and just went for it. This was a master class in blowing the main act off the stage. Their 18-song set never let up, 14 of which were singles - they just tore into the stage with Motorcycle Emptiness, Walk Me To The Bridge, Your Love Alone Is Not Enough…the pace never let up – even a slowed down and acoustic This Sullen Welsh Heart was intense and mesmerising.

Finishing with Everything Must Go, You Love Us, Show Me The Wonder and A Design For Life, Elbow just didn’t have a chance. Don’t get me wrong, Elbow played a fabulous set and were, as they always are, hugely engaging on stage, they just couldn’t match the energy and pace of the Manics.

I’ve seen them several times since and remain convinced, there is no such thing as a bad Manics gig. But this particular show was a beautiful thing to behold.

42. James Brown, V Festival, 1999

The Godfather of Soul was playing the V festival, relegated to a tent rather than a main stage. The indignity! This man was a legend! Oh the vagaries of the modern music festival…

Anyway, my friends were not bothered about seeing him (which still flabbergasts me). So off I trundled on my own. But I fucked up the timings and he was already on stage when I made my way to the tent’s entrance. Worse still, the tent was rammed, absolutely rammed, and as I pleaded to be let in, the security were having none of it (and in these more health and safety aware days, quite right too – Brixton Academy might still be open if these guys ran the door).

But, but, but…I could not miss James Brown, It was highly unlikely I would get another chance to see him (I never did). What to do, what to do….I then noticed round the side of the tent was fairly shabbily put together. Would I? Should I? Yes, yes I would and yes and I should….I dropped to the ground, and discretely crawled through a gap (I was so much slimmer then, it's untrue…). The ground was dry so I was covered in dirt, but not mud, and in I rolled. It wasn’t graceful, it wasn’t classy, but I was in. And I saw….

Well what did I see? I saw a tight as fuck backing band, some magnificent backing singers and…an old man in a wig, occasionally just about singing and frequently yelping like a madman…It wasn’t his finest hour, but it was still huge fun. And Living In America was really quite brilliant.

So, uncomfortable, dirty, dusty but totally worth it. A legend was ticked off the gig list.

41. Ride, The Forum, 9 November 2017

Ride were one of the first bands I saw at Uni, and the very first band I ever recorded on a cassette recorder to make my own bootleg (recounted elsewhere on this blog). They were a big part of my Uni years.

And then they lost their way, and by 1996 they had disintegrated into broken friendships and a pretty weak last album. Mark Gardner disappeared surprisingly quickly, as did bassist Steve. Drummer Lawrence would later appear drumming for Gaz Coombes, but Andy Bell thrived initially as Hurricane #1, then joining Oasis for those last few, terrible albums…

And then the unexpected happened. Ride played some gigs. And the gigs were good. In 2015, I saw them play Field Day and it was excellent….but my head was not there, I was in an odd place and I left before then end. I was just not into it – my issues, not them. Though Mark was wearing a jaunty trilby, which was not hiding the hair loss the way he may have hoped….I love a hat, but this wasn’t working…

But in 2017, my former boss Chris wanted to go see them, so tickets were procured and off we trundled to the Forum in Kentish Town. I was in a much better place in life then, just recovered from pneumonia and newly engaged – a happy boy. And Ride were in a good place too. The reunion hadn’t fallen apart and against the odds, Ride had made a new album. Not just new, but also REALLY good.

The gig was fabulous – given Andy and Mark had once upon a time made an album where they had songs on separate sides and could barely talk to each other, here were two old friends beaming and making some of the best music of their careers. Charm Assault is one of my favourite Ride songs, and Lannoy Point, Cali and All I Want are true returns to form.

The band were tight as fuck and it was a real pleasure to watch old friends, not just reconciled but connecting better than they had done 21 years before.

40 - 1

So that was 50 - 41 - the first ten. I'll work on the remaining 40 in the next few weeks.

Stay safe, and if you enjoyed this, please subscribe (see link below), x

1 Comment

Chris Barrett
Chris Barrett
Oct 22, 2023

Now that Ride gig at the Forum was epic. The best return to form since Ian Rush came back from Juventus... So John... I'm waiting on the next instalment. I need to know if I've been at as many as three gigs that could make your epic list. I need to know if the Manics are allowed in twice. Are Duran Duran allowed in once? Where do New Order sit and did they get bonus places for playing Joy Division tracks? (I still think it's your mobile btw when I hear Transmission).

Enjoy NYC dude.

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