Feeling disenfranchised with British guitar music? Aren’t we all. Apparently… Though the six strings tied to the widely reviled instrument have long since stood onetime Orange Juice crooner Edwyn Collins in pretty resolute stead. And although he can no longer play the thing himself, with James Walbourne on “guitar, saxophone and harmonica. Ooh!” there’s little likelihood of this ceasing to be the case this evening.
Of course there’s little of Collins’ existence that hasn’t already been heavily documented, and indeed effusively extolled – not least his less than stable bill of health in recent years. Yes, it makes his every show an inspiratory experience – not least in the ecclesiastical confines of Islington’s Union Chapel – though while all the unremitting talk of the demise of guitar music must one day die away, so too should we for once centralise our attentions upon the songs Collins continues to produce with an ineffably miraculous ease. So to synopsise and throw the precisely explicit out into the open, seeing Edwyn in the flesh this evening as ever rekindles some distant optimism for a propitious future for us all. He’s an incontestable revelation; a great British treasure, and as such it’s unspeakably thrilling to see tonight’s pews quite so packed.
I digress one further moment, to perhaps somewhat pessimistically reckon that he may not have turned out thus and the Depression Alliance ads plastering the makeshift blokes serve as a timely reminder of how he could’ve come out the other side of a double brain haemorrhage some eight years ago a pale imitation of the man who tonight so brazenly stands before us. A prescribed airing of ramshackle OJ gem Falling and Laughing suggests he’s come out comparatively unscathed, and so too strengthened by experience. For his is a recent past not without its trouble and strife, though all of this would surely have been impossible without the aid of wife and manager, Grace Maxwell. She too is a modern-day wonder; a hero tonight oddly unsung.
Though it’s a gloriously rambunctious title track from previous LP Losing Sleep which most strongly insinuates that the journey hasn’t been without its bruising bumps corporeally, as well as cerebrally of course. “I’m holding on, I’m insecure/ About my life, about my work/ But now I know the things I hold/ Are the things I miss about my life” he seethes with a scowl harking back to the indignity and ennui he admits to having felt in the aftermath of the then debilitating incident though as he continues, he tidies himself up, dusts himself down and in turn sets the record straight: “I must believe, I must retrieve/ The things I know, the things I trust/ The things I treasure, the things I need/ Are the things I miss about my life.” His present may be unidentifiable when set beside his previous, though he looks no less brimming with vim than he did even then.
Though what a difference a few years and an LP can, and indeed have made as it’s material from the musically nostalgic, if thematically progressive Understated album of last month that allows us to concentrate absolutely undistracted on the contemporary. The glitzy shimmy to Dilemna tonight sounds arguably superior even to that song, while the inert acoustic lolloping of Down The Line makes for a subtly barnstorming waltz of indomitable potency. The pews duly bob, as Edwyn’s words take a turn if not for the self-effacing, then the overtly self-aware. “Don’t need a gun to shoot you down/ Just understand I’ve lost some ground/ I’m down the line” he soothes, and we swoon in unerring unison for he’s seemingly been in no way hindered creatively by the fates to have befallen him.
Though the thing with Collins’ live show is that each and every song contributes in its own idiosyncratic way to what is a consummately joyous experience for all involved. There’s absolutely no pretence whatsoever with the alas, bombastic humbug of much so-called guitar music replaced with humility, finely interspersed ingenuity, and unanticipated humour. The talking? It’s “a bit dodgy to say the least!” he chuckles, his verbal dyspraxia employed as a perennial get-out clause for his every cheeky quip.
And similarly, there’s an instance in the dying moments of a quietly sublime Make Me Feel Again at which rabid applause precedes a mischievously extended coda. “Wait! Wait!” he demands, commanding the place as Orange Juice press What Presence?! no longer can. It’s a mildly superfluous blues romp stomped all over by a funked up, if still incisively post-punky Rip It Up redux. The song has undergone something of a makeover in order to sound as it does tonight, though times have of course so too changed quite dramatically for its author and as Collins rises to his feet with the aid of his trusty cane, he makes an implicit nod to those now altogether unrecognisable days of yore.
But as I say, the present is also pumped full of commensurately pulpy brilliance, and “caught between a blues jam and all that shit” Too Bad (That’s Sad) positively fizzes with it. Featuring Collins and Maxwell’s son William on perfectly impassioned backing vox, it’s a joyful family affair. And if Edwyn’s come some way since those indisputably saddening events past, then his son has come on equivalently from his father’s lowly MySpace administrator, reeling off a series of bona fide frontman stances with infallible aplomb.
Hilarity and absurdity again combine, as Collins Snr. turns to introduce that song aforesaid. “Here’s A Girl Like You. Imagine that!” It’s been both a blessing and a curse for the songsmith: it’s afforded him a far wider appeal than he may otherwise have achieved, having soundtracked everything from Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle to M&S ads, though so too has it simultaneously sparked a protracted legal battle with Warner Music Group and led to many heathens believing Collins to be a putative one-hit wonder. It’s an irrefutable wonder in itself, if far from his one and only of the sort and although its lustfully salacious central themes may not be best suited to such consecrated confines as these, it resounds about the room with devilish guile. “You made me acknowledge the devil in me/ I hope to God I’m talking metaphorically” he sneers as though undergoing a gruesome exorcism, before rising to his feet almost as though cured by undying rapture. He flicks his stick, hoisting it overhead in recognition of the glee he so effortlessly instils within us all, and proudly departs. He’s that same vigour intrinsically engrained in his being – it’s merely now been incorporated into an altered, though no less able body.
And perhaps his defining feature resides in his overwhelming ability to evoke the openly human sensation that informs we’re lucky to be alive – every last one of us. It’s a sentiment which was so wonderfully encapsulated by the tonight, lamentably neglected Forsooth from his latest, Understated, but has he tonight comported himself thus? Maybe just about, but what a statement it is that Collins is continuing to make these days and the all-pervasive standing ovation he receives speaks palpable volumes of just that. Carry On, Carry On Edwyn.