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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

RODDY FRAME Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, June 2nd, 2006

It’s a warm Friday night in London, and the Bush is strangely only half full. The restive audience chat their way through support Martha Tilston’s set, and become even noisier during the interval. With a single microphone stand up front and in the middle it looks like a big old stage, and I’m beginning to wonder how anyone can really fill it just by themselves, let alone command the attention of this increasingly boisterous bunch. I shouldn’t have worried. From the moment Roddy Frame walks on stage he has the audience in the palm of his hand – at times the quiet is astonishing (during a very hushed lull between songs a fan shouts out, earning the rebuke “Look man, can’t you just enjoy the silence, it’s beautiful man”). Frame calms down a fight at the front of the crowd, takes a love poem from an outstretched hand, begins to read it, begins to critique it (“one blue would have been enough man”) and then refuses to finish it – “just buy her something expensive man”. He tells a wonderful joke about nut roasts, and a familiar apocryphal Glaswegian story about knife wounds.

Altogether he’s engaged and engaging, and when, right at the end of the show he says “I’ve had a lovely time playing for you” you know it’s true. You almost felt you could have been sitting at home with Roddy on the sofa playing and chatting while his pal the wonderful Edwyn Collins (who was sitting not far from us) retuned all his guitars into unplayable tunings (another funny story).
And all that despite the fact that Frame is un peu pissed off. He knows why the place isn’t full – we all do. “Who’d have thought the two laziest, most shiftless poets in Scotland would end up playing in London on the same night” he complains. He’s talking about Paul Buchanan, who with what’s left of Blue Nile is playing at the Barbican as he speaks. Now it’s true that between 1983 and 2006 Frame, as Aztec Camera or solo has only produced nine albums, but that compares poorly to Blue Nile’s four albums over a similar period. Moreover, whilst Frame is a relatively regular visitor to the Capital’s stages Buchanan and the band tour only rarely and are guaranteed to sell out. In fact I cursed myself having bought tickets for Frame when I later saw that Buchanan was going to be in town, and even more so when I saw the five star reviews he picked up for the three nights they played in Glasgow. But I should have had a little more faith in Roddy.
Born in that monument to Scotland’s post-war planning frenzy, East Kilbride, young Roddy was something of a prodigy, and was only nineteen when Aztec Camera registered their first hit with ‘Oblivious’. Initially stable mates with Collin’s Orange Juice, Aztec Camera were at the forefront of a marvellous mini-renaissance in Scottish rock and roll. While the band lasted through ‘till 1996 it had for many years been nothing more than a showcase for Frame’s song writing skills, with a restless throughput of musicians. Since then he’s been a ‘solo’ performer, receiving rave reviews for his ‘solo’ acoustic album Surf (2002) and deservedly for the recently released Western Skies.
And tonight he’s performing a set of songs largely from this later period but with a fair helping of older material – particularly most of the Camera’s hit tunes from the 1983 album High Land, Hard Rain. Now in case you don’t know you shouldn’t expect anything earth shattering in Frame’s subject matter – his songs are largely about love, unrequited love, lost love, guilty love, the pleasures of love, the pains of love and, err… more love. But he twists this well trodden path round with wonderfully constructed lyrics, never too clever or contrived, but perfectly crafted, with the help, I observe, of a great deal of well chosen weather and sea related imagery.
Frame has three lovely acoustic guitars (one a monster of a twelve stringer) whose sound is fantastic. He moves easily between finger picking and plectrum styles, with hints of flamenco thrown in for good measure. He stalks around the stage, full of energy, covering as much ground as a five piece band and his voice is almost perfect (listen to his singing on Surf or Western Skies – it’s as good as that). Kicking off with ‘The sea is wide’ from his first solo effort ‘North Star’, we get ‘Small World’, ‘Black Lucia’. ‘Dry land’ and then “two songs that didn’t make it onto the Surf album, but I think they’re better than anything that did”, ‘Your smile can’t stop the hands of time’ and ‘Crossing Newbury Street’. A little later we get a handful of tunes from the new album, ‘Rock God’ (“I started writing this song when I was watching a television programme about Marc Bolan”), ‘Western Skies’ and ‘Worlds in Worlds’, and then the truly memorable ‘How men are’.
The tempo rises as he moves into hit mode with songs like ‘Oblivious’ and ‘Somewhere in my heart’ as his first encore, but he finishes with two from North Star, ‘Hymn to Grace’ and ‘Reason for Living’. The audience don’t want him to go, but after 22 songs and an hour and a half of heavy duty guitar playing I think the guy deserves a rest.
This was a truly impressive show with everything that you could have wanted. And afterwards I began to think, how would you score it? To be sure there’s the immediate sense of pleasure, the visceral feeling that only live music can give you, there’s a bit of emotion, pathos and laughter, a few thought provoking lyrics. And that might get you up to an immediate score in the high eighties. But that’s not really a true reflection of the impact of the evening. There’s only a week and an Islay Whisky Festival between them, but I’m still thinking about Josh Rouse’s great gig at the Bush as if I’ve only just left. And of course if I care to I can easily conjure up the sense of awe that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds generated at Brixton Academy or for that matter can put myself in a seat in Birmingham Town Hall watching Family back in the 1970s. So there’s another criterion to think of – the gigs that give something that never leaves you. And I think you can tell at the time which ones they are – like Roddy Frame tonight. And you know, you simply can’t give enough points to that, or put a value on it. But I know it’s worth a lot more than a fifteen quid ticket. Thanks Roddy. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

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