Tuesday 8 March 2016

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band at The Islington Assembly Hall Friday March 04th

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog 2016
The Islington Assembly Hall is a perfect setting for tonight’s Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band gig, it’s an impressive 1930’s Art Deco venue with a high stage, a seated balcony and excellent sight lines all round. The lighting is good and there’s a large mirror ball casting star-like patterns across the huge Violette Records back-drop. The place seems close to capacity and there's a tangible buzz of anticipation all round as I make my way to the front. The band appear on stage, Mick's wearing a cool Jamie Reid designed ransom-note lettered “God Save the Florrie” T-shirt in support of the historic Liverpool venue The Florence Institute. I haven’t seen him play live for a while and the first thing that I noticed is how healthy he looked. I wasn’t the only person thinking this as someone shouts out a compliment on his youthful appearance. “It’s all that crystal meth” he quips. It’s typical though - he tells us - although he’s fitter than ever, he came down with a dose of the flu just before the gig, his first cold in over 20 years. There’s no denying the flu has taken its toll although he doesn't complain and soldiers on regardless but his voice does crack on occasion. However, in a strange way it makes the gig even better, it might sound weird saying that but everyone rallies around Mick, particularly during "Meant To Be" where he has to leave some of the higher notes dangling only for the crowd to take over and sing along enthusiastically. 

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog 2016
The Red Elastic Band, as the name may suggest, is a flexible collective of musicians enabling Mick to play gigs in various unusual venues either as a trio accompanied by cello and trumpet, alone with his guitar or in some cases backed by a choir. Tonight, here at the Islington Assembly Hall we get treated to a full-on seven piece line-up comprising Mick on vocals and acoustic guitar, the familiar face of Shack’s bassist Pete Wilkinson to his right, two trumpet players, a cellist, a guitarist and a drummer and all are utterly magnificent throughout. As Mick introduces the musicians he admits “I just found out that we are a ‘Septet’, that’s much easier than to keep writing ‘all of us together’”. He talks about this gig being in “his manor” as he lived in Stoke Newington for a while and throughout the show he regularly name-checks friends who have supported him and acknowledges familiar faces in the crowd. Although this sometimes backfires. “You were at the Glasgow gig weren’t you?” he asks a girl standing at the front of the stage. She shakes her head a bit sheepishly. A couple of songs later and he again looks quizzically at the girl, “are you sure you weren’t at Glasgow?” She shakes her head as though sorry to disappoint him. “Well, if you weren’t there, you have a twin who was!” He seems to thrive on this interaction with the audience and often checks himself, "I can hear my dad's voice saying shut up, get on with it!" However, the interaction bit does get tiresome with people calling out their favourite obscure song titles when Mick is trying to speak. “He’s not an effing jukebox!” someone shouted, obviously more irked than I was. “Hey, that’s a good idea” Mick says “but I’ll have a slot at the front that will only take notes, no coins”. 

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog 2016
He's remarkably candid throughout the night; the cheerful banter is punctuated by some heartfelt tributes, in particular to his daughter, who is in the crowd tonight. When they play “The Prize” from “The Magical World of The Strands” album, Mick explains that “I wrote this for my daughter, she's over there and I can feel her eyes in the back of my neck. She's the most beautiful person I’ve ever met. You see I'm embarrassing her now, she's crying and her mascara's going to run!”. The song is absolutely wonderful, Pete adds some gorgeous backing vocal harmonies as “The Prize” builds to a superb climax. It’s that utterly compelling music allied with those sudden between-song moments of honesty and humility that makes seeing Mick play live so very special. It’s not just “another gig”, it always means much more than that. During "Something Like You", another stunningly beautiful Strands song, I see grown men cough loudly to relieve that lump in the throat and over-act the yawning to hide the surreptitious welling up. "Ahem, did you see the match mate..!?"

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog 2016
The set list is a delight too, a perfect mix of new material nestling alongside some familiar (and some not so familiar) Shack and Strands songs. They haven’t tried to replace or replicate John Head’s unique cascading guitars, instead concentrating on the more laid back orchestral numbers from the back catalogue. Actually, I've always thought Mick is underrated guitarist too – often while in Shack he is overshadowed by brother John’s majestic playing and tends to take more of the rhythm role. But tonight he excels, especially on the solo acoustic numbers where he plays a 12 string guitar beautifully, full of impressive Flamenco style strumming. At the end of a stunning "Streets Of Kenny" he drops to his knees for a powerful freak-out. Mick's songs have a real depth to them, they can be as evocative and cinematic as John Barry or Ennio Morricone or can sometimes seem like jaunty sea shanties or charming lullabies. During tonight's gig I pick up on strains of Jazz, Burt Bacharach, Baroque and even the Bossa Nova of Sergio Mendes and then there's The Red Elastic Band's fantastic 7” vinyl single “Velvets In The Dark” which starts off with a guitar motif that reminds me of Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” from the “Midnight Cowboy” soundtrack. 

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog 2016
In the early 90’s Arthur Lee from Love took on Shack to form part of his backing band for some live shows, this must have been a fan’s dream come true for Love are probably one of the biggest influences on Michael Head’s music. This is apparent on “Meant To Be”, which is not only one of the stand-out tracks on the faultless “And Here’s Tom With The Weather” album, but is also a definite highlight of tonight' show. They run out of songs to play so decide on “Newby Street” again but nobody minds, far from it. It might well be one of the most recent songs that Mick has written and they might have opened the show with it but it is already right up there with the classics from the back catalogue. In fact walking to the tube station after the show all we could hear was people around us whistling or humming the trumpet riff to the song. This continued down onto the platform, onto the Victoria Line and then onto the Circle Line all the way to Paddington station – we could still hear that damn catchy riff ringing out. When we finally got all the way back to our home station I was convinced that the inspector at the ticket barrier was whistling “Newby Street” too!

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog 2016
Check out the excellent “Shacknet” web-site which is a superb resource for all Mick related activities. Visit the Michael Head official web-site for info and news on upcoming shows and then don't forget Violette Records for the on-line store. More photos of the gig can be found over at the Retro Man Blog Facebook page here and you can hear “Newby Street” from Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band in Episode 14 of Retrosonic Podcast, which is up at our Soundcloud site and on iTunes.


  1. Great review! And what a night, lovely venue, and with a lovely classical interlude from Helene Caddick too. cracking bill, pretty much a dream setlist. I waited a good 12 years for it. Now just wish I had a time machine to see it again! Cheers

    1. Thank you, yes I agree it was a dream set list and what a great experience it was!