Adrian May at The Open Road Bookshop, Stoke-by-Nayland (poetry/ acoustic song)

Wednesday 25th April 2012

As I seem to be writing about live events again, and I just happen to have been to one in my very own village, at my very good friend Dave Charleston’s bookshop, it would seem churlishly remiss of me to ignore it — not to mention hypocritical, given my vocal public stance on localism… Since The Open Road opened it’s been host to some splendid events, and I really should have been doing my bit to big up my homey Dave before; still, no time like the present.

Adrian May’s been doing what he does for a goodly while, but this was the first I’d heard of it; such a lack of international notoriety shouldn’t be taken to correlate in any way with a performer’s quality, however, as I say at every opportunity. For every really excellent performer that the world has heard of, there are a dozen, two dozen, a gross that are every bit as good or better, that for reasons entirely unrelated to their skills or creativity, or even to the marketability of their schtick, are utterly obscure. In fact I’d go so far as to say that being famous usually undermines and trivialises whatever was good about someone’s output, while those artists that pursue their creative goals irrespective of recognition can at least claim a genuine commitment to their work. Once upon a time, obscurity was some kind of an obstacle from an audience perspective, but now we can find all that unrevealed talent without leaving our comfy armchairs, assuming that the talent is accompanied by the nous to park its outpourings in the vast and chaotic archive we call the intarwebz. And we can also find it by wandering a few hundred yards up the road to our local village bookshop…

It took me a moment or two to work out that May was specifically performing material from his new book, and that the book took as its subject a specific period of the author’s youth, spent in that hotbed of Bohemian radicalism, Braintree. Seriously, every piece mentioned Braintree: I even had to butt in and ask if he did any about South Woodham Ferrers (another place in Essex that I’ve heard of), but no, they were all about Braintree. ‘All what?’ you may ask, which would be fair enough, since I haven’t said yet. Adrian May’s performance material consists of songs and poems, which bear a certain mutual resemblance, since they share broad thematic concerns (Braintree, for example), and the poems are mostly in regular meter with consistent terminal rhyme schemes. The musical materials he employs are the standard fare of the acoustic singer-songwriter, a long established vocabulary that draws on blues, swing, English folksong and the Arcadian hinterland of pre-psychedelic popular music (his George Formby pastiche sounded entirely in context); he plays plectrum style guitar, without ostentation, but with a good enough command of his technique and language to ornament and comment upon the main thrust of his material; and he plays ukulele and banjo ukelele just as they are meant to be played, with a sprightly sense of mischief.

I don’t think I’ll be doing him a disservice to say that the primary focus of May’s songs is lyrical, but they are songs nevertheless, and as always, I’ll argue vociferously for the song’s integrity as a class of utterance in its own right, rather than a happenstance juxtaposition of some verse with some tonality. Seriously, great lyrics can sound shit when recited as poetry, and vice versa. He seems to be with me on that, even suggesting to the audience that (should they happen to buy his book) they should sing the bits that need singing, rather than reading them as verse. I might have a look around before I do that (or just avoid reading it on the bus), but I have to say I felt that his writing was specifically addressed to the three forms of practice he employed (he read us some prose as well, which could be taken as prefatory remarks to a poem, but sounded more like an integral part of it). Frankly, I’ve heard enough ‘songs’ written by poets who haven’t addressed themselves properly to the medium to last me a lifetime, and it was pleasing to discover that Adrian May knows just what he’s doing in each mode.

‘Humane’ was one of the words Dave used when he was attempting to introduce Adrian (like most spoken word artists, he wouldn’t shut up), and he had it bang on the nail. This is not a man who takes himself seriously, but one who takes his work seriously, and that’s an important distinction; there’s a great deal of humour (no, I mean, really, a lot) in all the material we heard, but there’s a big difference between funny and comedy. These reminiscences of the Rive Gauche of the Brain were sharply observant, and warmly tolerant, but for me their most rewarding characteristic was their honesty. There’s a certain kind of artistic honesty that is relatively easy to attain, assuming the artist knows their field, which is truth to the particular demands of your creative practice; but it’s a different kind of honesty, a kind of inwardly ruthless emotional nudity that is key to making the audience’s experience resonate with the artist’s.

May can do that; perhaps it’s just perspective and experience (both of which he clearly has more of than me), but he’s able to look at his younger self with both affection, and an analytic clarity most of us would find a bit uncomfortable. It does cost something to do this kind of creative work, and as someone who was both entertained and moved by the performance, I’d like to register my appreciation. The Open Road is the best thing to happen to my village in the sixteen years I’ve lived here, and if Dave Charleston keeps inviting writers like Adrian May to perform in it, I’m going to find it harder than ever to find excuses to go anywhere else!

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