Words by Damien Russell / Pics by Michelle Martin
You know that moment when you find a band and think ‘I really must go and see them sometime’? Do it. Go and see them. Don’t ‘catch them next time’, or wait until you’re not ‘too tired’ for a non-work night, or whatever else it is that you tell yourself to give you an excuse to be lazy. Go out of your front door, down the road by whatever your chosen method is, and see them.
This is the lesson I have been teaching myself, painstakingly, over the last 12-18 months and never was it more poignant than with Goodnight Lenin.
I first came across the musical strains of Goodnight Lenin in 2015 and the video I found online had been up for two years already at that point. I liked it, got the album and kept an eye on their social media for when they might be about. Sometime later, after nothing had materialised, I had stopped being so diligent in my approach and waited for something to just pop up in the ether and grab me which, of course, it never did. And now in August 2017 I have finally made it to a Goodnight Lenin gig for the first and probably last time.
Not for lack of quality or enjoyment, you understand, but because I left it too long and this gig is currently set to be their last. The creative flame is a delicate thing, to be nurtured lest it fade away out of sight, and while I don’t know all of the reasoning behind this hiatus in the Goodnight Lenin story I sincerely hope that lack of support isn’t part of it.
All of these things and more are running through my head as I make my way to the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath and up the stairs to the far room. This taller and more impressive of the Hare & Hounds stages is already fully set up and the lights (full disco ball included) are heightening the atmosphere of anticipation. Very fitting, and while the room is surprisingly only about a third full it’s early and there’s still a feeling of electricity in the air. Predictably, I move to the bar and get a pint while I wait for the inevitable rush and for the proceedings to… well, proceed.
About 15 minutes later Katherine Priddy takes the stage. She is to perform seated, which is a nice low-key start to the evening and working to my expectation that musically the event is set to build with each act. As she starts I become acutely aware that she has a very good voice (clean and clear, slightly ethereal) and a complex finger picking guitar playing style – the combination of which make her songs seem both simple and intricate at the same time. A hush settles over the room as she plays, receiving enthusiastic applause at the end of each song.
While I admit Katherine Priddy is an excellent opening act for an evening headlined by a full band, I can’t say that she would be out of place as a headliner and I could easily imagine her on the Cropredy Folk Festival or Beautiful Days stages. Priddy’s set is well thought out and, even containing two songs based around Greek mythology, manages to be relatable and engaging. Doing some YouTube searching post-gig, I’m pleased to find a cover of ‘Beeswing’ that justifies the fact I was comparing Richard Thompson and Katherine Priddy in my head during the set.
After a short break, Boat To Row start to plug in and tune up. Lead singer/rhythm guitarist, Michael King, joined Katherine Priddy for her final song so I have an idea what to expect. Although now King has changed into his gig outfit and is joined by the full band, so it’s a fresh introduction and a fuller sound. A bit too full if I’m honest.
I find Boat to Row provide that particular brand of folk where the songs are quite busy, with several different melodies present at once. I can’t deny that as a band they work very well together, and the precision in such detailed song writing can’t be understated, but I find it hard to grab a ‘hook’ in most of their songs and found them too ‘art for art’s sake’ for my taste (‘chorus, for God’s sake’ I find myself thinking, stealing 10cc lyrics). My favourite song of theirs is the penultimate in tonight’s set – a new number called ‘Fairies Flaws’, I believe, that has a funky undertone and quite a driving tempo, standing out as the most accessible to an uninitiated listener.
And then, of course, our main event. The room has been filling up more and more over the course of the evening and at this point it’s roughly three quarters full. And by full, I mean having your toes stood on and breathing the hair of the person in front of you because that’s the only space left in the room.
*At this point, I would like to take a moment to thank the three women by the bar who were loudly and relentlessly cackling and bumping into my friend and I. Without your inconsiderate rudeness, we would have stayed put by the PA and not moved further into the crowd. We got the best of the atmosphere where we moved to so you did us a favour, in a way. I hope you got your money’s worth of being shushed and glared at because I know I wasn’t the only one who called you out on your nonsense.
Goodnight Lenin are a wall of sound. It’s the only way I can describe it. The sound has been good all night, but Goodnight Lenin are a cut above and their depth and ‘fullness’ is noticeable against the other acts on the bill this evening. I listen hard and I can pick out every instrument individually, which is my test of a well-mixed band. Impressive work from Jon Nash on the desk too.
The band are in good form and seem to want to send themselves off in style. They tell us they have an extended set planned including some covers and all the ‘hits’ from the new and old original material. And they’re not kidding. Goodnight Lenin move through the set smoothly and confidently, and from their In the Fullness of Time album I pick out the familiar strains of ‘The Constant Lover’, ‘Weary’ and ‘Cautionary Tale’ among others.
In particular, ‘The Reason’ was blindingly good – a song that is a real treat to listen to live. As was ‘Old Cold Hands’ with its anthemic ending, a near ‘lighters in the air’ moment. Sadly they don’t play my personal favourite, ‘Tell-tale Heart’. But it is quite slow one and I didn’t really expect them to. They can be forgiven.
There are songs I’ve never heard in tonight’s set as well, perhaps not being as much of a die-hard fan as I might have been; ‘Wenceslas Square’ being an easy one to pick out as it was an audience request. While they may well have played it anyway, the fact that Goodnight Lenin asked for requests and then actually played one is a nice touch and not something all bands do.
From the newer material we are treated to live versions of ‘Desire’ and ‘Portrait of Youth’, with the fresher faced tracks standing up against the tried and tested classics. Were I bolder, I might venture the opinion that perhaps the new songs don’t quite cut it as well. But honestly, I think that’s only because I’m so familiar with the older ones.
Covers-wise, we are treated to Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’, where Goodnight Lenin are joined by Katherine Priddy and Boat to Row for a huge multi-band rendition and a nice rock oriented version of ‘Come Together’. A solid nod in the direction of the bands that have inspired them over the years.
There’s a lull in the set somewhere in the middle, when some technical issues occur, and Liam is forced to use a guitar kindly lent by Boat to Row. No idea what happened to his as it just seemed to give up between songs (although it was very considerate of it to wait until the previous song had finished). John did a good job of keeping the set going with his comfortable patter and a couple of solo songs, but it is an inevitable come-down in an otherwise high octane set. A shame but nothing that could have been helped, I imagine, and these things do happen.
Ending with ‘Without You’, the band invite their sound technician, Jon Nash, onto the stage wielding a black Telecaster – bringing the lesser-spotted member of the Goodnight Lenin family into the limelight for this swansong.
And then it’s over.
Goodnight Lenin put on a cracking show and despite the technical issues kept things flowing very well. If I had to offer a criticism, it would be that the set went on too late and people had to leave before the end for buses and trains home. A shame, in a way, but one not easily combated.
For some reason it was one of those gigs where I thought I knew what to expect; I had it in my head that it would be packed from the outset, that musically it would build and build and then Goodnight Lenin would hit the stage hard, smash through their set to rapturous applause and then do two, maybe three, encores before bidding us a fond farewell. But it was so much more than that. So much more personal.
Tonight was more than just a last gig, it was a real goodbye. I’m sure every Goodnight Lenin fan would join me in wishing them the very best of luck in whatever they choose to do from now until the reunion (fingers crossed) and while I can’t stop feeling the edge of sadness, I’m glad I’ll be able to say I was there, the day a chapter in Birmingham’s musical history closed.
For more on Goodnight Lenin, visit www.soundcloud.com/goodnightlenin
For more on Boat To Row, visit www.soundcloud.com/boat-to-row
For more on Katherine Priddy, visit www.soundcloud.com/katherine-priddy
For more from the Hare & Hounds, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.hareandhoundskingsheath.co.uk
For more from Moseley Folk, visit www.moseleyfolk.co.uk