Manchester Royal Northern College of Music, 20/12/16
As the turbulent ride of a year that was 2016 drew to a close, the music world’s prime spokesperson for the gutter, pop troubadour Marc Almond, saw the year out with an extra special Christmas show at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, performing a selection of Jacques Brel classics followed by the whole of his seminal album from 1987, Mother Fist and her Five Daughters.
I can think of no other person in the music world more suited than Marc Almond to end 2016 of all years with a special Christmas concert. It was a year that was difficult and turbulent on a global scale, and I cannot recall any previous year that so many people were glad to see the back of by the time it drew to a close. With the high rate of deaths of much-loved public figures and music stars, and the rise of right-wing politics in the Western world with Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US, 2016 was a rough ride for many, and certainly part of a dark period of modern history. So as such a dark and difficult year drifted into its twilight stages, there can be no singer more appropriate to see the year out than Marc Almond. A true torch singer, the voice of the underworld, the oppressed and the downtrodden of society, his songs’ themes of death, tragedy, lost romance and the endless flame of hope necessary to light the darkness of being, Marc is the very man to carry us into the New Year on a dimly hopeful note whilst lamenting the tragedies of 2016.
Tonight’s setting of the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester is an ideal Almond venue, the all-seated, formal setup of the auditorium complementing Marc’s stage setup perfectly, together with the excellent acoustics allowing for pristine sound. Marc is accompanied tonight by a full band of mostly classical and jazz musicians together with his usual guitarist Neal X, with the legendary husband and wife team of Martin and Kimberley McCarrick- the former who infamously collaborated with Marc on many of his classic albums of the 80s, as part of both the Mambas and the Willing Sinners- providing cello, violin and multiple other instruments.
Entering to rapturous applause, Marc begins by summing up the tragedies of 2016, alluding to the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and Zsa-Zsa Gabor, adding that he has suffered his own personal difficulties during the year (although he does not go into this during the show, this week he had suffered the loss of his beloved pet parrot, who he had kept for years) but had had a good year in spite of this, and while he is feeling rather ill and exhausted tonight, he will give us all he has to round off 2016 with this special show. Appropriate to the year, he promises us many songs about death, but assures us he will nevertheless leave us on an up. He then launches into the first section of tonight’s show, which is a selection of covers of songs by Jacques Brel, the legendary master of chanson whose influence on the likes of David Bowie, Scott Walker, Alex Harvey and of course Almond himself has rendered him a profound fixture in contemporary pop culture.
Beginning the set with “I’m Coming (J’arrive)”, Marc’s unforgettable voice is on top form from the get-go, his current illness and exhaustion showing no inhibition on his vocals as he immediately mesmerises the audience with a superb rendition of Brel’s classic. Sumptuous renditions of “The Bulls (Les Taureaux)” and “The Desperate Ones (Les Désespérés)” follow, with both Marc and his band shining supreme as Almond proves he is still among the finest English-speaking artists to reinterpret Brel’s legendary masterpieces. The fourth song of the evening is a poignant rendition of “My Death (La Mort)”, apt in the wake of the multitude of celebrity deaths in 2016. Marc introduces the song as a song that’s not really about death so much as about life, and the necessity of living for the moment and making the most of every day. A reminder of the precious nature of life itself and its very fragility, the song conveys a message we can all do well to remember as we wade through these dark cultural times, and anyone present in tonight’s audience would find it a challenge not to be thankful for being alive in the here and now as we witness such a beautiful and moving rendition.
“If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” was a quintessential inclusion in tonight’s set, with its status as a pop standard, covered by so many influential artists, with Almond having initially covered this song memorably and beautifully on 1983’s seminal Torment and Toreros album. Tonight’s performance sees a rewriting of the lyrics in deviation from the standard English translation, to be more in line with Brel’s original sentiments, a move previously undertaken by Momus and Barb Jungr on their own interpretations of the song. This heart-wrenching ode to unrequited love is performed beautifully tonight, and the audience is well and truly stunned.
Another widely covered Brel song, “Amsterdam”, another essential component of tonight’s set, is given a glorious rendition by Almond and band tonight. Known for its mesmeric build-up from its slow start to the effervescent, almost maniacal rant of its final verses, Marc’s version of this much-loved song is for me the definitive version by an English-speaking artist. Marc perfectly captures the hedonistic, self-destructive mania of the lyrics, his wild theatrical gestures and impassioned vocal perfectly capturing the essence of this ode to the activities of lecherous seafaring men in true Brel style.
After being taken on a journey through the tortured musings of Brel, the first act of tonight’s show is concluded on a more upbeat note, with a pulsating version of his signature tune “Jacky”. Previously covered in 1991 by Marc, who took the song into the UK top 20 by giving it a dance makeover , tonight’s rendition is done in full-on jazz style, complete with horns et all, nicely celebrating both Brel’s legacy and the versatility of Marc himself and tonight’s band members.
Following a short interval, the audience returns to its seats for the second act of tonight’s show- a performance of Marc’s seminal 1987 album Mother Fist and Her Five Daughters. For die-hard Almond fans it is an extra-special treat to see this much-loved album performed live in its entirety, heralded by many as his finest solo album. In between acts, Marc has changed his attire, from his trademark black suit to the sailor shirt infamously worn on the cover of the album itself. He commences the act by announcing that he will not talk in between songs, so that this performance may work as a ‘visual record’; a straight live translation of one of his most influential albums.
From the first bars of the infectious title track “Mother Fist”, Marc and band proceed to deliver a stunning reinterpretation of one of his finest albums. The album’s European cabaret stylings are reproduced elegantly by all performers on stage, each band member adding their own distinct twists to the songs. “There Is A Bed” sounds splendid as ever with its intricate piano lines, while “Saint Judy”, the intense, sleaze-fuelled ode to the sordid life behind the screen of Hollywood icon Judy Garland, is an undisputed highlight, drums pulsating as Marc delivers the lyrics with a sexually-charged veracity. The audience remains captivated as each song is delivered to perfection- and at some points, glorious imperfection as Almond struggles with the whistling solo that concludes “Mr. Sad”- always the true professional, he willingly embraces human flaws alongside his many strengths as a performer. From an emotive rendition of the gorgeous “The Sea Says” to a rousing performance of the classic single “Ruby Red”, a song that in a perfect world would have been a smash hit, and the triumphant finale of “The River”, Marc and his band deliver a solid and emotionally charged performance that just leaves the audience wanting more.
And more we certainly get. After taking a bow and leaving the stage with a bouquet of flowers presented by an audience member, Marc and band return to see out the night in the most appropriate fashion- with a Christmas-themed encore, starting with a heart-wrenching performance of the Marlene Dietrich classic “Candles Glowing”. There’s still time for one more song, and as die-hards wonder what we’re going to get, with some of us hoping for a rendition of Marc’s understated Christmas tune “Christmas In Vegas”- instead, true to his word at the start, Marc leaves us on an up. Marc dons a Santa hat and proudly proclaims that he’s not ashamed to look silly at Christmas, and then suddenly it’s out with the jazz, in with the Glam Rock as Neal X blasts out the legendary opening guitar chords that segue into a rendition of the classic Christmas hit by Slade, “Merry Xmas Everybody”! It would seem far from a typical song for Marc to cover, but cover it he does, and brilliantly- like a true professional, he makes it his own, nailing the vocal melody perfectly as he ventures into the audience to see the night out in true festive spirit. Very few artists could pull off the feat of beginning a show with a selection of Brel covers and ending with a pure slice of pop cheese such as “Merry Xmas Everybody”, but a true artist does not turn his nose up at cheesy pop, and Marc and his band accomplish the transition from existential musings on death and mortality to pure festive cheer brilliantly.
With the height of the stage, Marc has to be helped back onstage by an audience member, before he and the band finally take a bow, wish us Merry Christmas, and promise to be back in the New Year. As the fans exit the auditorium on a surprise high, we feel the excitement of wondering just what surprises Marc will have in store for us in 2017. As an artist who has pressed on throughout a 35-year music career and has battled on through record company disdain for his individualistic style, together with drug addiction, media harassment, several close brushes with death and all manner of the shit that life just loves to throw at us, he remains on top form, looking to the future while celebrating his remarkable legacy and sense of adventure. It’s the perfect way to sing out a year that has been fraught with turmoil for much of the world, reflecting on death, mortality, oppression and false promises, before looking to the future with strength and hope, revelling in the pleasure of just living in the moment. Like many of the artists who tragically passed away in 2016, you just know that Marc Almond will still be going strong well into his final days, which are hopefully a very long way off right now. Marc Almond is a British national treasure, and a true shining light in the music world, and his star still burns brightly and leads us into 2017 with a sense of optimism and renewal among the dark times we live in.