Gilbert O'Sullivan - Brighton Dome
11 Nov 2007
My brother was an avid record collector before I was born, and whilst we did occasionally split duties (he got The Beatles, I got The Monkees), most of the mainstream record collection fell to him until I got into punk. One exception was seventies left-handed piano tunesmith Gilbert O'Sullivan (real name Ray), whose singles and albums I collected avidly.
Gilbert started off with a lot of TV and an image of a working class bar-room piano player with a pudding bowl haircut and a flat cap. His public image was firmly part of mainstream light entertainment, partly by association with manager Gordon Mills, who managed crooners Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. By his second album his frizzy hair grew larger and he surprised everyone with a distinctive casual look which has stuck more or less to the present day.
His songs can capture the essence of melancholy feelings, but he also has a playful sometimes crazy poetry in his words. As a fan of Spike Milligan, he finds rhymes whilst his honest natural words tease and cheat the conventions of verse. He showed versatility in his songs, from sweet ones your Mum would like ('Claire', 'What's In A Kiss?') through seventies pop ('Ooh Baby', 'Get Down') and into poignant sad songs ('Alone Again Naturally', 'Nothing Rhymed'). On accepting a Bafta for Comic Relief, Richard Curtis quoted Gilbert's song 'Nothing Rhymed': "When I'm drinking my Bonaparte Shandy, eating more than enough apple pies, will I glance at my screen and see real human beings starved to death right in front of my eyes?" Then he added in his own words "Eat your heart out, Bob Dylan!"
From the late seventies my own musical efforts distracted me from Gilbert's output. He continued except for a big break in the eighties for a major court case, recovering money from his own management. I read on his website how the use of 'Alone Again Naturally' in a Japanese animated show had kick started a re-birth of interest in his music. These days he has reached a significantly 'self-sufficient' approach, retaining artistic control and not needing to be guided by the dubious instincts of the record company establishment.
Despite knowing his early work well, I had lost touch with his music. However, a chance meeting with Jon Stewart, a photographer who works on images for Gilbert's more recent CDs, led me to this gig in Brighton.
Gilbert opened with a song from his latest album 'A Scruff At Heart'. The stage was ready for a full band, but for the first half he, on grand piano or electric piano, was mostly accompanied by acoustic musicians. He played several songs from his new album, regularly interspersed with his classics. Occasionally he would add some gentle comments about, for example, HMV getting confused when his greatest hits CD was called the 'Berry Vest', or the fact that this was his first gig in Brighton for 30 years. Then he would immediately start the next song showing that despite its relaxed feel, the live act was a tight well-rehearsed affair.
After quite a long half-time interval he came back with full band (guitar, bass, drums, sax, synth man doing horn parts) as well as the acoustic musicians, and did versions of his best known more uptempo numbers. What was particularly pleasing was that although the excellent musicians had solos and starring moments, they didn't 'grandstand', but rather took their place in songs whose resonance was bigger than the sum of their parts. He'd revisited the arrangements of some songs, including setting 'Why Oh Why Oh Why' to a reggae beat.
He described feeling like he was a Gilbert O'Sullivan covers performer when he chose from his extensive back catalogue. It was when I saw a Jam covers band I realised that some music is programmed into my psyche and it will evoke a response. Gilbert O'Sullivan's music is even further into my childhood psyche, and hearing the genuine article perform spot on versions of several of his most moving numbers was a powerful experience.
At the climax, 'Alone Again Naturally', a seriously sad song that packs a huge emotional punch, was delivered without preamble to rapturous applause. Finishing with a number about being stood up on your wedding day and surviving your parents' deaths was a brave artistic statement - eat your heart out Leonard Cohen!
Gilbert came out for a couple more encores, finishing with his uptempo big hit 'Get Down', during which he climbed on top of his grand piano to lead singing from the audience.
Afterwards a large chunk of that audience queued to meet the great man. He was softly spoken and very nice, and really showed he didn't take his success for granted. Instead he valued the appreciation he was shown, and was endlessly patient with the fans that had shown it.
As I queued I remembered that 'Get Down' was the first single I ever spent my own (pocket) money on. I realised that his words and music had set the standard in my mind for how songs were written and how important the words were. I walked away shell-shocked and excited to have heard these great songs delivered live and to have met the amazing man too!