Everything was wrong about going to this gig, from getting on the wrong bus to being served undercooked food for tea, getting into the murky and cigarette-fugged venue to waiting an unseemly amount of time between the brief support act and Leven himself’s appearance. But the moment Jackie Leven sung his first line I forgot about all of that.
Now a craggy mountain of a man, Leven is a strange combination of twitchiness and confidence, mopping his face repeatedly between numbers, swigging from a bottle, his voice sometimes falling away during the anecdotes that interleave the songs. But when he opens his mouth deep and beautifully modulated vocals some out, and one senses that here he feels completely at home and confident of what he’s doing.
He warps his voice for Elegy For Johnny Cash, from the 2005 album of the same name, in which he tries to imagine the thoughts running through the dying country singer’s head, following it with another song from the same album, Museum of Childhood. Many of the songs have stories attached, like Here Come The Urban Ravens, a track he wrote as a tribute to Kevin Coyne, and Moscow Train, which was inspired by a chance remark of Bob Dylan’s during a shared European train journey.
The less folky and more guitar driven numbers like Moscow Train translate surprisingly well to the small venue thanks to the expert playing of Michael Cosgrave on keyboards and Kevin O’Foster accompanying Leven’s acoustic guitar with his electric one. In fact they seem much livelier affairs, the lyrics crisp and the imagery incandescent.
Jackie Leven gigs aren’t terribly formal affairs – it’s particularly hard to be formal when you’re singing from a four inch high stage with waitresses emerging from the kitchen every ten minutes and crossing in front of you, singing to a room half of whose occupants can’t get a view of what’s going on. Tonight there was banter aplenty from old hands who’d probably been around when the former Doll By Doll rocker turned folk singer last played the Club, 25 years ago.
In between songs he regaled us with impressions, scurrilous stories about bumming Gordon Brown, and tales of pedantic train passengers; if he ever gives up music he will surely be in demand on the after dinner speaking circuit (although he may have to tone down the offers of letting people feel his cock and describing Amy Winehouse‘s latest album as “the finest Jewish record made in 30 years”).
Leven asks solicitously if he is playing the kind of thing the audience want to hear, but refuses to take a stab at some of his older material without preparation. Clearly most of the audience know his back catalogue backwards, but it wouldn’t have mattered because every number was clear and compelling, whether heard once or one hundred times. He gives us several songs from the new album Oh What A Blow The Phantom Dealt Me, including the haunting and complex Vox Humana and the soulful Another Man’s Rain, as well as much older material like a cover of Jackson C Frank’s The Blues Run The Game, which he heard sung at the Troubadour by its author so many years ago, and is joined by Deborah Greenwood for the blues classic Did Somebody Make A Fool Out of You?
Stumbling out into the night, I’m left to reflect that there were so many highlights. It was such a well-rounded performance on all levels, that it’s impossible to pick favourite parts. Given the chance I suspect most of the audience would have sat there all through the night listening to observations and snippets of gossip, to tall tales and those sublime vocals.