The Stables, Milton Keynes 14/09/2014
Nik Kershaw was always different to his contemporary Eighties chart-botherers. With his first two albums – ‘Human Racing’ and ‘The Riddle’ – he proved himself to be an erudite songwriter with a casual knack for writing enduring pop songs that towered above many of the more throwaway hits of the decade. It appeared that Kershaw had spent his formative years reading Cervantes, Canetti, Nietzsche, Freud and Roger Ebert; these were songs in thrall to Hollywood legends like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, songs that looked at the very essence of human existence, and, in ‘The Riddle’, a song that possessed a strange, mystical, vaguely ‘Wicker Man’ folkish quality. Oh, and very few people rocked a mullet and billowing shirt like Kershaw did back in the day-glo decade.
During the course of his set, the 56-year old Kershaw regaled the audience with tales from three decades of songwriting and performing, proving himself to be a self-deprecating soul quite happy to dispel the myths that surrounded his songs. At various junctures hroughout the set he responded to questions submitted by the audience ahead of the show. Somewhat inevitably, one of these questions enquired as to what ‘The Riddle’ was all about. Resting on his blue guitar, Kershaw blew away any notion that this song was about some great Celtic mystery, recalling that the pressures of putting together a second album so close to his first meant that his opportunity to spend ages composing lyrics was severely limited, the lyrics to ‘The Riddle’ coming together the day before being recorded. The fact that the song’s intrigue and heathen strangeness largely arises from a record label marketer’s need to shift product, along with Kershaw dismissively shrugging that the song was really ‘a load of old bollocks’ in his distinctly Essex accent, is of no consequence – even pared back to an acoustic arrangement without any of the electronic sheen and big production that the single had back in 1984, ‘The Riddle’ remains a classic, clever pop track. And as for ‘Don Quixote’, the track that seemed to suggest the young Kershaw had spent his formative years reading the great works of literature? ‘I only managed three pages,’ he confesses tonight, with no shame whatsoever, just ahead of an improbable – but entirely true – anecdote about Miles Davis giving him props for his songwriting chops.
Acoustic shows have the capacity for heightened levels of intimacy, and this set on Kershaw’s ‘My, Myself & I’ solo tour had confessional moments in abundance: he explained that the tender ‘Red Strand’ from 2012’s ‘Ei8ht’ was written for his wedding, the song recounting an intimate evening’s walk along an Irish beach with the future Mrs Kershaw; ‘Somebody Loves You’, the track from 1999’s ’15 Minutes’ that was intended as Kershaw’s celebrated return to making music after almost a decade of writing and recording for others, was presented alongside a story that showed the whole thing as a bit of a damp squib as it failed to dent the lower echelons of the charts; when asked whether he regretted giving Chesney Hawkes the track ‘One And Only’ instead of recording it himself, Kershaw said he found it hard to have any ill-feeling toward Hawkes’s success with the track when he was sat in his armchair drinking Merlot while it sailed up the charts, presumably giving him enough royalties to keep the cellar stocked with many more bottles of red. His performance of that song tonight was greeted with rapturous audience singing, so perhaps Chesney wasn’t quite as derided as we always remember him being back in the day.
The acoustic set – Kershaw on guitar with pre-prepared sections which he insisted was ‘not cheating and not witchcraft’ – was interspersed with plenty of such amiable stories, recollections, reminiscences and the occasional interruption of two video characters, Frank and Rupert, representing respectively the bad and good parts of his conscience. The devilish Frank, who looked a lot like Bill Bailey, teased Kershaw about his fluffed performance at Live Aid, and was promptly sent up on the humorously cathartic ‘Die Laughing’, which Kershaw explained he wrote in an effort to shut that nagging, negative voice up for good.
For all his light-heartedness, that worldly-wise seriousness that pervaded his Eighties work still came through vividly on the poignant ‘The Sky’s The Limit’, a lesson that the future is what you want it to be, while the classic ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ was revealed as a bluesy, defiant and ultimately optimistic song in its stripped-back arrangement. Luck and good fortune might have got Kershaw his breaks, but that essential optimism shines through in lots of the stories Kershaw presents tonight. He nevertheless describes himself as a fundamentally lucky man, and it’s not hard to see where he’s coming from; he comes across as a positive, contended soul, comfortable with himself and his success, and admits that he’s glad to have left the craziness of the Eighties behind relatively unscathed.
While it was undoubtedly the big Eighties singles that received the best reaction, Kershaw seemed most comfortable with performing songs from his less well-known later albums, those songs possessing a black sense of humour as well as some typically deep, stirring themes – ‘The Bell’ is his attempt to capture only the memories he wants to allow into his dying moments, rather than seeing his entire life and the moments he’d prefer to forget to occupy his last mortal moments; the transcendent ‘Have A Nice Life’ was written on the occasion of his son’s tenth birthday and ruminates on the irrepressible passage of time.
Kershaw performed two covers as part of his set, both of which, when taken together, serve to explain much about the unique songwriting approach that has made Nik’s work so special for three decades. The first, David Bowie’s ‘Drive In Saturday’, was used as an opportunity to explain how Bowie made Kershaw want to be a singer after seeing the elder statesman on a Nationwide documentary in the early Seventies, but it also shows why a Bowie-esque intrigue and strangeness was common currency in early Kershaw songs. The encore, a complex live arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Wish’ – no cheating, no witchcraft, just live looping and layering of his guitar – highlighted an essential soulfulness in his singing that isn’t immediately apparent in the period electronics of the likes of ‘Dancing Girls’ (here presented as a waltz on the grounds that the dancing girls, like the singer, had gotten a whole lot older) or ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good’ (at which Kershaw took umbrage with its being described as miserable in a poll of the most melancholy songs of the Eighties).
As he made his final video appearance, the impish Frank stuck two fingers up at the audience before making a winged departure. Though Kershaw had taken action to eliminate the nagging negativity of his alter ego, the two finger salute felt like Kershaw’s own gesture – it was one of defiance, one of not wishing to conform to any preconceptions, one of cheeky insouciance in the face of getting older. Singing about not letting the sun go down on you is one thing; living your life with that goal in mind is quite another, and that’s what Nik Kershaw appears to have done very successfully indeed.
ANDOVER – THE LIGHTS, 11/9/2014
Fiction / Somebody Loves You / Wide Boy / Wounded / Red Strand / Don Quixote / Have a Nice Life / Die Laughing / Drive-In Saturday / The Riddle / Oh You Beautiful Thing / Dancing Girls / The Bell / The One and Only / Fools and Lovers / Wouldn’t It Be Good / The Sky’s the Limit / Billy / I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me / Human Racing / I Wish
Review by Mat Smith (Milton Keynes Show). Photographs by Andy Sturmey (Worthing Show).
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