Forty years ago, trading under the name “Premises”, the Norwich Arts Centre opened its doors to the good folk of Norfolk. Shortly after, it moved into the deconsecrated shell of St Swithin's church, where an unrivalled local affection for this tiny venue has kept it going ever since. It’s extraordinary to think that during all that time the Blockheads were on the road with their unique blend of lyrical ingenuity and musical excellence. Fitting, then, that as 2017 draws to a close, the two came together to celebrate their joint 40th anniversary.
Ben C Winn, a local performance poet, warmed the evening up armed with a keytar and a baking tin, which he played and hit respectively. Winn occupies a space somewhere in between John Otway and John Shuttleworth and is hugely personable. He is very funny too, though his examination of the minutiae of life was not only hilarious, but also pertinent and surprisingly insightful. Much of his stuff was also infuriatingly catchy. I found myself singing “Bag in a Tree”, a song about a bag in a tree, long after he had left the stage. Its infectious refrain was an earworm that was only cleared by the mighty Blockheads playing “Wake Up And Make Love With Me”, their opening number and first of many classic tunes.
Derek “the Draw” Hussey has had the daunting task of standing in for Ian Dury since his untimely death back in 2000, but while there were fleeting references to the great man, it was clear from the outset that Hussey has been firmly ensconced, and warmly embraced, into the band for years. A close friend of Dury’s, there’s no denying his delivery is influenced by his predecessor, but he is no mere impersonator. Insouciant from the outset, with his reading glasses discreetly hidden by shades, he unashamedly read the newer lyrics off his iphone, as his fellow band members expertly plied their trade. This was a unique cocktail of music hall, whimsy, jazz, rock, funk, and straightforward brilliance and could come from no other band. And what an idiosyncratic crew they are. Norman Watt-Roy prowled around the stage, dripping in sweat, played his bass like a lead guitar, frequently with his back to the audience, as his complex rhythms syncopated with the drums of John Roberts. John Turnbull on guitar proper just looked delighted to be there, inexplicably indulging in some improbable voguing when not swapping lead and rhythm duties with Chaz Jankel – who grinned infectiously throughout, while flipping effortlessly between guitar and the keyboards he shared with Mick Gallagher.
Some half dozen songs off of the newly released album were showcased during the evening, many of which stood up remarkably well when set alongside more familiar material. They are right to choose “Hold Up” as the single, though “Tear it Up” (with more than a hint of “Reasons” about it) is just as good, while “268” and “Fact or Fiction” show Hussey to be a worthy lyricist. The band were obviously pleased at how receptive the audience were to the material, but it’s hard to deny the visceral pleasure of hearing “What a Waste” or “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” when they finally arrived. Sounding as fresh and distinctive as the day they first came out, these were just two of the old favourites given an outing, culminating in an unimpeachable double whammy of “Reasons to be Cheerful” and “Hit me with Your Rhythm Stick.”
The Blockheads were never simply a backing band, but this really was something special. While waiting for them to return for an encore I pondered on what turns a good gig into a great one. Memorable songs, competent musicianship and an enthusiastic audience are all necessary components, but what really elevates proceedings, and what the Blockheads had in spades, was an evident love for what they were doing and each other. In a venue as intimate as the Arts Centre, that love quickly tips over and out into the audience, where it is nurtured and fed back. They may be advanced in years (Mick Gallagher quipped that there was a fortune in Winter Fuel Allowance up on stage) but that translates into a confidence that translates into a kind of telepathy between them, yet never tips over into arrogance. On the contrary, the whole band beamed from ear to ear though out, sharing those smiles between each other, as if he couldn’t quite believe they were responsible for music this good.