Free gigs, open to all comers, are always tricky blighters. Inevitably if it’s being held in a bar you’re going to end up with some people who are just there for a drink, in fact they probably haven’t got the faintest idea who’s playing, perhaps they’re even unaware that there’s a gig going on. This was, in part, the story of tonight’s gig. A remarkable night from an equally remarkable artist.
Opening act Chris Tye (backed by Jayne Powell) started things off in a mellow mood with the Jack Johnson-ish Walking In The Sun really hitting the spot, partially courtesy of the rather striking ‘appreciate what you’ve got’ lyric “Even a blind man can tell he’s walking in the sun”. Wise words. By the time Gerard Starkie came onstage the bar was busier...and noticeably noisier. Let’s face facts, this isn’t the perfect backdrop for an acoustic gig and whilst Gerard got on with it the more respectful atmosphere that such material demands was distinctly lacking. As the former lead singer of late 90s alt rockers Witness Starkie’s an experienced performer with some decent songs and a cover of that band’s single, Scars, plus the solo The Kid Got Electric both somehow made it through the chatter.
On then to Patrick Duff, an artist I’ve personally admired for almost 20 years now. If ever there was a life story worth telling, then Patrick’s is it. A former busker he was spotted on the Bristol streets, joined a band called Strangelove and went on to chart success and sell out gigs at the London Astoria and Shepherds Bush Empire.
At that point they seemed destined to make the leap to stadium status but the band split with Patrick battling alcohol and drug addiction. Then he went to live in a forest. For two years. Lord knows what hell and heaven he went through there but he was eventually tracked down by Thomas Brooman and coaxed back to perform at Womad (the festival Thomas had co-founded with Peter Gabriel). In the space of a few years he’d gone from playing to thousands to performing for a handful of people in a tent. It was here though that he heard an 81 year old African artist called Madosini who, despite the huge generational and cultural gap connected with him like no one else had. Before long he was living with her and her 11 grandchildren in a “cement box” in the Cape Town township of Langa. Back in the UK he released a solo album on Harvest Records (home to one of his musical heroes Syd Barrett), Luxury Problems, then self released The Mad Straight Road. Both remain lost classics ripe for discovery. Nowadays he plays live sporadically and I make a point of seeing him every time I can. Why? Some years ago Richey Edwards, the missing Manic, carved the words 4 Real into his arm with a razor blade during an interview with Steve Lamacq. Shocking images of the resulting gore were splashed all over the music press. On the one hand Richey was clearly deeply troubled. On the other however it left you in no doubt that this wasn’t an act. For Richey music wasn’t a way of earning a living, it was life itself. This total belief and raw, sometimes painfully so, passion is rare. That’s not to dismiss other performers at all. You can still put on an amazing show, you can still care about your performance but it’s not the be all and end all of existence. With Patrick however the feeling’s different. You really do get the sense that this is someone who is literally pouring his heart and soul into every single note. And, if you choose to listen, it’s simply one of the most powerful performances you’re ever going to see.
Some tonight were listening. Others were not. Like I say this was an open gig and whilst every artist deserves respect the nature of this kind of event was never going to result in the most attentive audience. Patrick, clearly sensing this, began with a speech about his grandfather and father who gave him his love of poetry and music, dedicating the gig to them. On paper (oh alright then, screen) this seems an inconsequential thing really, people dedicate gigs and songs to others all the time but the passion that burned...almost literally...when he spoke these words was frankly unbelievable. Note by note, song by song this passion continued to build throughout the set, with some in the room still oblivious to what was going on. I’ve never seen an acoustic guitar played with such force, it was like that moment Hendrix set fire to his axe, but still the talkers chatted away whilst a man was up there giving everything he had. Dead Man Singing remains one of Patrick’s most powerful solo songs and there was something even more poignant and heart breaking about hearing it performed against the background noise. An impassioned...and thoroughly well deserved in my opinion...speech against the chatter eventually silenced the room, leaving us to enjoy Maria and a totally acoustic, unplugged Thank You, with Patrick standing on the edge of the stage...literally and, I guess, metaphorically too (NB: video below taken from a previous performance).
Music’s sadly littered with people who didn’t receive the appreciation they deserved until it was all too late, Nick Drake, Gram Parsons and Syd Barrett spring to mind (although Barrett perhaps had the opportunity eventually but, for the sake of his own sanity, chose to reject it). Patrick Duff is up there amongst them. One day, if there’s any justice in this mad old world, his time will come. For now though for those of us who know a great thing when we hear it he remains one of music’s best kept secrets. A truly special night from an equally special human being.