THE ROUND HOUSE LONDON
The Roundhouse is undeniably a beautiful venue – a soaring, unique space, retaining traces of its industrial history but also exuding the warmth of the recent years of music and performance which have taken place within its walls.
On Tuesday 25th April, The Roundhouse hosted an event curated by Guy Garvey, musician, legendary BBC radio presenter and brilliant supporter of good music and – often – lesser known artists. It was part of the In The Round Festival, an annual series of events involving a diverse range of artists performing in a circular stage setting. The premise was that Guy would invite a number of musical guests (most of them not revealed in advance of the event) on stage to perform songs he had discovered over 15 years of broadcasting his show ‘The Finest Hour’ on BBC Radio 6 Music. But the event felt like a lot more than that.
Something of Guy’s inclusivity and down-to-Earth, humble attitude seemed to have rubbed off on everyone at the venue that night, including the door and security staff as well as the audience, who were obviously all excited to see Guy and also experience good music. As I sat looking at the stage, which was bathed in red and purple, I wondered how the sound would work. It takes some real engineering skill to get that right in such a high space and with the audience seated in a huge C-shape. I needed not to have worried; although at first it all sounded slightly distant, this was soon addressed as everyone bedded in, and we were drawn in by the positive energy being radiated from every performer.
Guy appeared on stage with about 14 others to open the show. His colleagues were young people (“The Collective”) – singers and members of the house band for the night – who had been involved in musical projects The Roundhouse. This was an amazing opportunity for them, which they absolutely grabbed and made the most of.
The first notes of the gig were played on an oboe and trumpet, while Guy stood in an iconic pose in the half light, shading his eyes to better see the audience with one hand, while the other was tucked in a jacket pocket. The atmosphere during the opening two songs as the performers, not led but guided and supported by Guy, shared frequent smiles with each other, was overwhelmingly wholesome and joyful. The musicianship and harmonies felt organic – perhaps not always smooth and flawless but entirely real, like a beautiful friendship, with its natural ups and downs, expressed through group singing. Or as Guy said a little later, “a warm ramshackle family affair.”
After a couple of songs, The Collective left and Guy welcomed his first guest, singer-songwriter Stephen Fretwell. He started by performing his song ‘Sicknote’ (“about amphetamines and Frank Sinatra”) alone at the piano. It was simple and haunting, a noticeable counterpoint to the matey and lighthearted introductory chat he had just had with Guy. Stephen then moved to his guitar, for another hard-hitting song, his voice at times barely there but all the more emphatic for it.
After a brief aside to identify the source of an unusual goose-like sound from the auditorium (an audience member called Sarah sneezing, it turned out), Guy and Stephen performed, with relaxed chemistry, a duet of Leonard Cohen’s ‘So Long, Marianne’. It was magical hearing Guy’s distinctive low tenor, combining with Stephen’s higher tones, as he sang with his eyes closed and that hand in a pocket again.
Next on stage was British Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, as part of his three-piece band LYR. This section of the evening was immensely hard-hitting. ‘Never Good With Horses’ sounded singular – Simon’s careful words floating out, backed only by piano, acoustic guitar and the high countertenor voice of Richard Walters ramping up the emotion. This band are like a calmer, more cerebral Dry Cleaning.
Their second song ‘The song thrush and the mountain ash’ was a slice of urban post folk, featuring the refrain “The way we were once, once …” which was sometimes repeated by Richard so that the sung words became almost abstract. It’s all about Covid and separation, and was very moving: it spoke directly and cuttingly to the shared experience which everyone has been touched by and yet feels so personally. Finally, ‘Winter Solstice’, where Simon speaks, “I know I’m not really your favourite person, but you’re mine.”
The mood of solemn beauty continued as Guy welcomed English folk artist Katherine Priddy, with George Boomsma. I’ve heard Katherine perform a few times now, and it was great to experience her songs again in this cathedral-like setting. In ‘Indigo’, Katherine set her words free into the air, her voice gentle and crystalline. A slight crackle from her acoustic guitar cable somehow added to the atmosphere, adding a vinyl-warmth. After three more of her own songs, Guy joined her to duet on ‘The Water’ by Johnny Flynn. Their voices are very different, but worked brilliantly together: the sublime purity of Katherine’s with the distinctive mellow richness of Guy’s. Stunning.
After the interval, The Collective made a welcome return (I counted 13 performers this time) to perform ‘Lost City’ and then ‘I want to be free’, an upbeat number made extra special thanks to the immense funk riffs produced by the young bassist.
The next surprise guest was London singer-songwriter Jonathan Jeremiah, a popular choice with the audience, who started with ‘Restless Heart’, from his most recent album, and then sang ‘Happiness’ from his 2011 LP followed by the title track from that album, ‘A Solitary Man’. Jonathan’s studio recordings are richly produced with lavish instrumentation so it was interesting to hear his songs reduced to simple guitar chords, allowing his distinctive vocals to do the heavy lifting. The duet with Guy was introduced – to the joy of the audience, again (lots of joy, tonight) – by Guy’s well-known sister Becky, aka “The Becapedia”. She gave us a fascinating introduction to their choice of song, Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a wonderful world’ before they performed what they described, tongue-in-cheek – as “the definitive cover” .
Guy’s happiness spilled out after this as he discussed his next guest, Jesca Hoop, and how he had introduced her on his radio show, declaring “Not only am I in my favourite band, I’m on my favourite radio station”.
Jesca, an American singer-songwriter who now lives in the UK thanks to Guy, introduced her first choice as “a kind song for and about someone who is asking for a really mean one.” She has a quirky and intense manner, musically novel at times, and performs with a kind of understated genius. It was the duet with Guy which stood out most to me, though, a rendition of ‘Murder of Birds’. Guy sang on the studio version of the song, and tonight seemed relaxed and completely in tune with Jesca as he provided rich, gravelly harmonies.
The surprise guests kept coming, with Corinne Bailey Rae up next. She has a timeless style, both in her voice and the way she engages with the audience, and it felt as if she had everyone in the large space rapt with attention. She performed ‘Put Your Records On’ and ‘Like A Star’ (probably her two most popular songs), and then a fascinating choice of duet with Guy, the Dinah Washington standard ‘Mad about the Boy’. It was at the same time amusing, with Guy singing lines like “Lord knows I’m not a school girl”, and engagingly serious – two professionals doing what they do best.
Finally, and for a few more joyous minutes, The Collective came back. This time, individual singers took the spotlight in turn, with some nerves at first, but spurred to push through those feelings by Guy’s reassuring and warm presence. The “last” song was a Scott Walker cover, ‘The Old Man’s Back Again’, where the young, collective voices swelled hugely in each refrain. An encore swiftly followed, with all of the evening’s performers packing the stage: an anthemic cover of ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ by Velvet Underground, one of Guy’s personal favourites. The song was transformed into something broad and majestic, if slightly raucous, imbued with an unexpected depth by the now adrenaline-fuelled group of singers and musicians.
The sense tonight was of joy, unbridled and unalloyed. Guy clearly, absolutely and unabashedly loves music – this has always been obvious from his radio presenting and other projects, and here it seemed to reach a crescendo in a single magical, wholesome and affirming experience. It was eclectic and brilliantly curated: a bringing together of a diverse group of individuals who share Guy’s passion. Many of the members of The Collective ended the evening literally jumping for joy and the buzz of nailing a live performance in front of thousands of supportive people. All hail Guy, and long may his work continue.
Words and all photos by Phil Taylor