A debut performance by a band who’ve not yet released anything would not normally be attended by quite so many music industry insiders; not to mention the likes of Neil Hannon, Hilary Summers and Chrissie Hynde. This, however, was a gig by a band formed by one Dr Joby Talbot. He is already known as a protege of Louis Andriesson, as a former BBC Young Musician of the Year who later went on to write a new theme tune for the show, and as the composer of, amongst much else, the theme music for The League of Gentlemen. That Joby has also been a mere keyboard, cor anglais, oboe player, co-writer and orchestral arranger of another band called The Divine Comedy for the last seven years is, this evening at least, incidental.
Tonight, however, despite Talbot being joined by Divine Comedy members and co-writers Rob Farrer and Ivor Talbot on stage, is a gig by a band called Billiardman. Also featuring Simon Pearson, Julian Pais and Martin Elliot (the latter from The Michael Nyman Band), musical pedigree was on display for all to see. Yet hardly anyone had any idea what to expect, except perhaps the inevitable expectation of something more high brow than that propounded by the latest incarnation of Neil Hannon. We are told to expect a combination of “classical and pop with minimalism, funk, techno and expressionism” – which loosely translates to “just about anything”. The anticipation levels were rising.
The evening is opened – at 9:15 – by The Duke Quartet. Most famous for appearing on Morrissey‘s Viva Hate album, despite the name they are this evening a seven piece, with three violins and a cello joined by a double bass, drums and a keyboard. Somebody in the sound department had some sense about them and had placed a glass soundproof screen in front of the drum kit, helping the overall sound balance. A varied collection of tracks, some overly long, ranged from minimalist atmospherics, featuring a keyboard and a violin only, for several minutes, through to a full band effort which slew dangerously close to jig territory. Some murmurings – about the third violin being out of time in places – aside, The Duke Quartet warmed the audience up nicely; all except Mr Hannon, who was busy being smiled at on the stairway just outside the main room and getting in the way of people who wanted to go to the loo three floors down. Such must be the celebrity life.
With such a relatively late start and fairly long set by The Duke Quartet, there were mumbles from some about having to catch trains, feed babies and sober up in time for work tomorrow, so it was perhaps in one way a blessing that, when finally Billiardman took to the stage, they played just seven tracks. As we were quickly to discover, however, this only left us wanting much more.
Utopia was the first track of the night and was nothing at all to do with the recent Goldfrapp single of the same name. With Joby on keyboards (at least two, one of which was played with his back to the audience), Ivor on guitar, Rob on percussion and an alternative rhythm section of drums and bass, experimentalism gave way to something as unclassifiable as the description vaunted in the venue’s programme. It was neither classical nor pop, certainly not rock and nowhere near jazz. That it was instrumental music of some sort was undeniable – but only in the sense that instruments were played. Croydon Grand Prix came and went and, as it finished, the unusually talkative Joby introduced Asexual Reproduction, which was apparently written by Rob Farrer. Iliac Crest and Arc-Light followed – and then Joby asked for the audience to welcome The Duke Quartet back to the stage.
The three violins and cello appeared as if by magic through the audience’s applause and, for the rest of the set, added emotive layers to Joby’s wild keyboard backdrops. These were made to appear as easy as ever by the virtuoso nature of his live playing. Dead Space and Incubator finished off the set.
It was late and there were no encores – presumably because the band hadn’t yet rehearsed any or because the venue’s staff wanted to close up. What we ended up taking away was a desire to hear Billiardman recorded, for these instrumental pieces were never going to be vocal-led pop stomps in the National Express tradition and needed to be heard many more times before they could be appreciated fully. That said, Joby Talbot’s flamboyant keyboard playing, combined with a string quartet and some inventive guitar play from Ivor Talbot made for a memorable evening. The band have clearly put a lot of work into this music, suggesting this gig will be anything but a one-off. Keep an eye out for anything about billiards in the coming months.