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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

KEVIN AYERS The Arts Theatre, Soho, London, October 15th 2006

By a strangely strange coincidence there was an article about Britain’s famous ‘Canterbury scene’ of the late 1960s and early 1970s in yesterday’s Guardian, accompanied by a striking photograph of a rather androgynous-looking Kevin Ayers in a Paisley-patterned dressing gown. Ayers got one mention in the piece, in the same breath as Wilde Flowers, Soft Machine (which he co-founded), Gong (Ayers was a member for a year or so) and Caravan (come on, everyone remembers In the Land of Grey and Pink).

No room here for the “along with Syd Barrett the most important artist in the creation of the British psychedelic movement” which you’ll find in many books and articles, or any consideration of his later (or even current) career. You may even have thought, that like the recently and sadly departed Syd, he was dead. No doubt that’s partly (mainly?) because Ayers seems to have spent most of his career walking away from projects just as they seemed to be becoming successful, preferring instead (as some suggest) a lazy and louche lifestyle in Spain and France.
A new album in the late 1980s (Falling Up), and another in the 1992 (Still Life with a Guitar) mark about the whole of his recent original work, although there’s little shortage of reissued material and newly released archive stuff from the BBC and others. However he’s recording a new album (Unfairground) and touring, albeit briefly. And did you know Serge, that he was awarded the Ordre de la Grande Gidouille by your very French Collège de Pataphysique?
I tend to buy concert tickets like others buy books, in front of a computer, after-dinner, with a glass in my hand and a few magazines and newspapers by my side. It’s one of those habits that makes life a wonderful lottery. So as we sat in the middle of the front row of the tiny and largely empty Arts Theatre in the centre of Soho on a Sunday evening when I could have been at home enjoying a glass of claret with some rare roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, the thought “what the hell am I doing here?” was writ largely on my mind. But we very much enjoyed support act John Redfern, a soulful voice, complex and accomplished acoustic guitar and a satisfying suggestion of the Blue Nile all means that it might be worthwhile looking out for his forthcoming album May be Some Time. And after his thirty minutes or so the place did fill up with maybe 60 people or more, many of whom looked as though they could well have been Canterbury survivors, although I’m not sure that could be said of the inebriate immediately behind us with the painfully loud comedy shout (“Whey hey hey heeeyyy”) that greeted the start and end of every subsequent song. No, he was just a pissed-up moron.
Ayers came to the stage with accompanist Max la Villa, a versatile guitarist who straddles both classical and contemporary music (he’s worked with Jah Wobble) with ease. He’s also got good eyesight, which is pretty crucial as the stage is almost pitch black (could it be, we wondered, that Kevin is trying to hide the effect of time on those once beautiful British public schoolboy features?). Hence no photographs. Kevin can’t see the set-list, and is reluctant to wear his spectacles (more vanity?), so it’s Max who calls the songs.
And now I’ll tell you something – almost from the moment the first song started the clock stopped –in fact it went backwards, and I swear the Arts Theatre just for an hour or so was whisked through a time-space continuum, or whatever they’re called, to about 1970. I suppose it could have been the pataphysics, but the principle reason was Ayers’ voice, that rich, slightly posh, rather diffident, somewhat regretful, somewhat ironic and very knowing baritone. He didn’t play the guitar too well, couldn’t remember all the words, but he sang like, well … Kevin Ayers, and as you should know, it’s one of the most unique voices in contemporary music. We got about fourteen songs (each of course accompanied by an increasingly irritating “Whey hey hey heeeyyy” from the moron, who hadn’t, or so it appeared, joined the rest of us in the time warp) starting with ‘Too old to die young’, and including ‘Eleanor’s cake which ate her’, ‘I don’t depend on you’, ‘Lady Rachel’ (perfect), ‘Blame it on love’, ‘Didn’t feel lonely ‘till I thought of you’, ‘Something in between’, ‘Whatever she brings we sing’ and a final, brief ‘See you later’.
All over in less than an hour, but perfectly charming. And really the only conversation centred on Ayers’ increasing anxiety about the lack of alcohol in his glass – “This is not what I call a drink!” he complained, displaying the bottle of water that had been brought to the stage when he complained of thirst. “I know I really should be talking but I really don’t have anything to say except the songs” he told us later, happy with a large Scotch in his hand. And not even a goodnight, just a languid wave as the clock rushed us back to the twenty-first century. “Whey hey hey heeeyyy”! - Nick Morgan

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