“…so when you get drunk Wilson, and you reminisce of the Hacienda, be told with a beautiful story of your own proper John Hall bender.“
– Leon The Pig Farmer
John Hall is missing. Scan the faces assembled by the stage and nowhere within his usual 4-feet-from-the-front can today’s man of the moment be seen. It’s late afternoon at Manchester’s Ritz where already, a wide-eyed gang of his groovy friends and acquaintances are uniting for a gala celebration and musical fundraiser marking his existence. Of John I know little; our paths first crossed in the snug of Salford’s Eagle Inn. He’d taken a liking to a friend’s socks and since then has been the guy with a grin on his face, panning his camera back and forth from artist to audience whilst filming the scenes unfolding before him (and sharing the gig footage online for fellow revelers to see). Today is a celebration of life and music in John’s honour and, like a Marvel comic power-huddle uniting the forces of his favourite musical friends met in sweaty mosh pits along the way, it’s now from the balcony where he watches. Below, legions of guests gather to revel in a bash to behold, like Capote’s Black & White masquerade ball had it been held in Manchester. Only without (pandemic-precautionary!) face masks, where rainbow is the colour, and everyone’s invited.
“oo’s missed discos?” booms a bold northern accent down the microphone. Loose Articles don’t ask questions; they demand answers, and in no time at all the audience respond to their interrogation as the local 4-piece punch through a set of X-Ray Spex style post-punk stompers, transforming the venue’s basement into their own euphoric dungeon. Doused in traffic-light hues giving each member a green-red aura, their bratty B-52’s-meets-Bis bounce, Cramps-like shrieks and whistles blown unleash their own torrid tales of grievances including a trundling bassline fuelled by the familiar frustration of the 142 bus route. ‘Chaos’ captures the party atmosphere as the band disappear from view among an increasing number of bobbing heads, almost censoring Natalie‘s beaded flame-print leotard which later, outside, catches the eye of a bouncer who chuckles with the humour intended.
Having been cooped up too long has much to answer for; it seems walking stick waving is the newest demonstration of live music appreciation as Cheshire trio Déjà Vega take to the stage. Crooked handles aloft as though a gang of rogue geriatrics have fought their way to the front, a pair of crutches happily dance in the air, bouncing each riff back to the band. Bassist Mike’s left knee wobbles, almost powering their Diiv-like propulsion as singer Jack roams the stage denting a cowbell. There are fewer stomped-out stage patterns as Liverpool’s The Mysterines thrust their metal-lite grunge upon the crowd, but singer Lia’s understated delivery allows her game face and songwriting to do the talking. “It’s always the same, life’s a bitch” she rasps in her hauntingly low register whilst taking out the tension on a battered guitar. Under red light, the band tease further tracks from their forthcoming debut album and show confidence as they embrace their heftier side, choosing to filter out lighter hits from their set like recent single ‘Take Control’.
Now performing as a 6-piece, The Blinders’ familiar opener ‘Gotta Get Through’ launches the expanded collective’s amped-up set, only witnessed so far as a stripped-back Lounge Lizard session. Latest LP Fantasies Of A Stay At Home Psychopath is interspersed with old favourites ‘ICB Blues’ and ‘Brave New World,’ with the meatier sound resonating as a band having found their stride. Some intricacies such as the shimmering tambourine of percussionist Paris and added guitar are inevitably lost within the traditional vista, but overall it’s a welcome return. “Shut the fuck up,” frontman Thomas hushes to an over-enthusiastic audience, indicating something important about to happen as the band themselves step away from their instruments, leaving just keys player Callum to accompany ‘Circle Song’. “I’m thinking, I’m thinking some, how the hero always dies young” is poignant as the lyrics are delivered towards the balcony blurring all else into the background. Picking up pace, a couple twirl each other unsteadily among plastic cups at their feet as the gloomy ‘Black Glass’ moves towards its dramatic climax, and Document bassist Max steps forth on harmonica for a rousing ‘Rat in a Cage’.
Hovering in the wings, Dave Haslam watches on before positioning himself at the decks for the night’s latest DJ set. Earlier, psychedelic scholars Astral Elevator, plus Jason Boardman and Jeff O’Toole took to the helm and now, in his Modern Lovers t-shirt, Dave steps up to flip through his CD wallet having famously bid farewell to his vinyl collection a few years earlier. Turning up the gain on bangers beginning with The Fall and Iggy Pop, a small group of Sunday night pleasure seekers force the venue’s sprung dancefloor to work overtime.
Also hard workers, Chadderton’s Dirty Laces open their own set with intent; “If you’ve not seen us before, you have now” tells singer Charlie, because there’s no time left at the end. “We’re halfway through but have just one song left”, he warns before the band plunge into the early Verve guitar sprawl and classic 70s rock refrains of 7-minute epic ‘You’. Hair now released from its scrunchie and stuck to his face, he steps down to join the front row and makes way for his bandmates’ instrumental outro. Upstairs however, it’s all about Intros. Tonight isn’t a politics party but the bard of Cabbage known as Leon The Pig Farmer is raising his own toast for our musical champion; “So deck the halls with Johnny, make your own hall of fame, make your own Lesser Free Trade Hall, be like John, don’t be the same, so let’s gather the reverb nation, applaud on all four walls, mark my words with appreciation and raise a glass for mister John Hall.”
“Life’s changed dramatically and yet it remains the same” offers Cabbage co-frontman Lee as a long-awaited live welcome whilst teetering on the stage edge. Delivering a high-energy set of delightfully grotesque anthems from latest album Amanita Pantherina including angular songs about Jeremy Corbyn and for the second time this evening, transport-inspired woes (this time it’s trains), a swaggering Leon returns and the band recall their own story of meeting mister Hall during Cabbage’s earlier incarnation. “John spied me, he said ‘You gotta be in a band, what you called?’ His response to the initial band name? “Oooh, do you want some psychedelic drugs?” and The Ritz descends into rapturous laughter and applause.
Leaving the night on perhaps an even bigger high, headliners Peter Hook & The Light briefly lure the man of the moment, or rather, an enthusiastic waving groovy arm, from the balcony for all to see. Cradling his low-slung bass with typically wide power-stance, ‘Hooky’ and co deliver a hefty Joy Division set featuring John’s ‘favourite song’ ‘Novelty’, an electrifying audience sing-along of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and, casting a light from the shadows of a tough year, ‘Atmosphere’ is dedicated to “all those not lucky enough to be here tonight”. But that’s life; it is tough, and the set serves a stark reminder that whilst there will be a time when we no longer see John in the crowd, rest assured our lovable music-lauding laureate will still be around somewhere; perhaps getting a good angle, making more friends from strangers, or even admiring another great pair of socks.
>> Concert For John has raised over £10,000 so far, kick-starting the charity John plans to establish for assisting grassroots musicians at the start of their careers. Current plans include providing free, clean, rehearsal space in Manchester. Check back soon and a link will be added here for how you can support the cause.