There’s a lot of singing along involved at a Tom McRae concert. And humming. And whistling.
What is it that makes us return to an artist again and again? What is the endorphin released in your brain that makes you think it’s a good idea to spend more of your hard earned cash than would usually be considered wise to buy plane, train and other transport tickets and to book a room in some flea-infested hotel in some bizarre part of central Europe you’ve never had any inkling to visit before? And all because some artist/band has announced a gig in an abandoned concrete bunker on the outskirts of town, just past the abandoned abbatoir? What is it? Who knows?
What I do know is that, in many ways, music fans are related closely to football fans, only they are usually slightly better behaved (aside from Nick Cave fans, who can be quite unruly indeed). Once you’ve felt that ‘connection’ with an artist, it doesn’t go away – or at least not without a fight. (I know of many musical ‘break-ups’ between fans and artists that have resulted in rage the likes of which you’ve never seen before! Seek out old school Simple Minds, Stevie Wonder and Chameleons fans for example, and be careful what you say!)
The life of a devoted music fan is a strange and often bank-balance-ruining existence. A true ‘supporter’ of an artist will declare blind loyalty to their appointed hero/heroine/tribe and follow them anywhere and everywhere, even if they decide to tour with a brass ensemble or a troupe of Morris Dancers. I know many music lovers who shower more love, affection and dedication on their artistic heroes than they would their loved ones at home but the less that’s said about that the better because I don’t want to upset those relationships any more than they have been already. (Sorry honey!) But still, as far as a fan goes, there’s an unspoken vow that connects them to their favoured artist; Through thick or thin, till death do us part, or at least until you have an artistic meltdown and start writing 3 disc ‘epic-concept’ albums.
Tom McRae has many such fans. I know this simply because at many of theTom McRae gigs I’ve had the pleasure to attend (and this very gig completed my baker’s dozen) I always recognise faces in the crowd. I don’t know them particularly and they don’t know me but I recognise them from gigs past, in different locations, and if you’ve ever followed the man on a social network you’ll have seen how his pages are filled with comments from people who have just flown in from Sweden, Paris, Hannover and other such far off places, all to be a part of the small group in attendance on that particular night. There are French, Dutch and Norwegian fan forums on his site, filled with devoted followers, posting setlists, arranging get-togethers, analyzing lyrics and so forth. There’s nothing particularly unique about this, but for artists like Tom McRae, that devoted following are the reason they can carve out some kind of living from doing what they do – and as much as Tom would like to thank them (and he does, regularly) I would too, because if there weren’t such a captive audience prepared to put the effort in, nights like this simply wouldn’t happen.
And what is it about Tom McRae himself that inspires such devotion? For me, it’s the duality that exists in almost everything he creates. I know that if the music is getting bright and beautiful, lyrically things are going to get dark and slightly sinister. His ability to mix the sharp, scathing lines in his lyrics with flowing, enchanting guitar or cello lines in his music is second to none. It’s the calling card that first made me a believer years ago when a friend of mine gave me Just Like Blood to listen to and tonight, witnessing Tom perform in a former Catholic Church, made that duality more pronounced than ever before.
Fans will already have read, time and again, about Tom’s childhood. It seems no interviewer can get past the ”So, your parents were Church Of England vicars?” question, even now – and, yes, I once fell into that trap, I will admit.
In fact, I think I’ve read more interviews discussing Tom’s religious beliefs, or lack of them, than I have about his music – but such is the way of these things. Anyway, as a lapsed Catholic myself, it’s been a LONG time since I took my place in a pew and began singing to the rafters in unison with a choir of worshippers, but that’s what it felt like tonight. Even if the fifteen year old boy within me found great pleasure at being asked to swear in Church. So what if we were swearing to a Greek God? (Fuck you, Prometheus!) that just made it all the more surreal and childish and satisfying. The knowledge that we could also buy and drink beer in such a place would be enough to make those nuns who taught me years ago shift uncomfortably in their graves, that’s for sure, but strange things happen in Amsterdam sometimes and many of them aren’t logical.
“I must stop being so sacrilegious about it,” Tom said at one point, obviously feeling the weight of those childhood teachings once again. I have to say I felt it too. At all times it felt like there was an unspoken presence in the room, a weight sitting in the back of my mind that made me feel slightly uncomfortable, no matter how much I was smiling, applauding or singing along. And there’s a lot of singing along involved at a Tom McRae concert. And humming. And whistling. (Applause to the crowd for being slightly better at whistling than the group of us gathered in the downstairs room of the Patronaat last year. I tell you, if that recording ever gets out into the world there will be dogs howling in anguish all across the continent.) Still, that baggage was something I brought along with me and there’s no doubt, none whatsoever, that De Duif made for an interesting, nee stunning location for a highly memorable evening. What a place!
The domineering, overpowering, ridiculously extravagant tabernacle, the crumbling frescos on the otherwise white-washed walls, the stained glass windows of St Willebrord smiting demons, the beautiful, elegantly carved pulpit and that gigantic and frankly stunning organ! All of those combine to a create a space that could so easily be overwhelming for many artists. It’s not a place many artists would feel comfortable in and Tom certainly seemed unnerved by the constant glaring of Saints Francis and Willebrord behind him but the less that’s said about that the better.
What should be said is that this setting made the lyrical content of Tom’s music all the more prevalent and alive, something which often diminishes in a live performance. Tonight, the bitterness, the spite and the pettiness of some of his more choice lines felt as if they were sharpened and more precise because here, in this vast room, they were put under high scrutiny. The fact that he can play doesn’t hinder things either; whether on guitar or keyboard, he’s always in charge. He’s not a flashy player but he is powerful and again it’s the precision of everything that hits you. There’s nothing wasted in Tom’s music and when his songs are distilled down to one man and a single instrument, where they’ve got nowhere to hide, they feel stronger than ever. The fact that those songs hit home so powerfully pays testament to Tom’s talent and ability. But also, his wit and charm help to balance things out perfectly. Whether he’s deprecating himself, which he does on many occasions, or dragging us into a mock Springsteen moment – arms aloft, over-the-top cheering and everything else that comes with it, he has us, his audience, at his beck and call. Towards the end of the gig he merely asks us to stand up and it feels like a liberation! Suddenly the crowd are truly alive, the aisle that separates us like bridal families disappears slightly, the temperature in the room seems to increase by a handful of degrees and by the end of the show the crowd are applauding in the traditional manner, yelling and stamping their feet in recognition of a man of real talent and clamouring for a well-deserved encore.
We leave enlightened. The weight of our world lifted ever so slightly from our shoulders as we emerge into a clear, warm spring night. We’re happy, sated, satisfied and left wondering what flea-infested hotel we should book into next.