On Sunday 9th December, the city of Bristol was treated to spoken word royalty as a stellar line-up of lyrical all-stars came to the Fleece as part of Scroobius Pip’s end of year UK tour. Coinciding with the re-release of his debut album, ‘No Commercial Breaks’, this unique lap of England was inspired by Pip’s game-changing gig at this year’s Latitude festival. On that remarkable night, the bearded bard’s headline performance transfixed a crowd of four thousand with an hour of unadulterated spoken word.
Breaking away from the safe confines of theatre spaces and poetry cafés, Scroobius Pip made a conscious decision on this tour to play venues that are usually the reserve of live music bands. Having played many of the gig spots before with either his DJ sidekick dan le sac or his 'Distraction Pieces' band, Pip returned with a show that strips away instrumental accompaniments, allowing words to take centre stage. It’s a bold move that marks yet another step forward for a scene which is slowly edging into mainstream consciousness.
Arriving at around 7.30pm, we were faced by an unfamiliar sight as an impressive queue snaked its way across the cobbled stones of the Fleece’s secluded alleyway. Shivering in the cold December air, the doors were soon mercifully opened allowing the capacity crowd to shuffle their way into the warmth of the famous Bristol venue.
As punters got their pints, my attention was instantly drawn to the stage, where a huge metal etching of the bearded lyricist hung imperiously. Attached by chains from the rigging above, a red spotlight shone through the intimidating visage causing it to glow menacingly from the rear of the stage.
With an action-packed line-up that was ready to burst, the first performer soon entered the lexical arena in the form of Harry Baker. Having risen to the title of UK Slam Champion in 2010, the following year saw him become European Champion before landing himself the World Slam Champion title in 2012. An impressive list of accolades considering that he hasn’t yet turned twenty-one!
Having seen Harry Baker perform in Bristol Old Vic’s intimate basement theatre at the inauguration of their ‘Blahblahblah’ events (having morphed from their previous ‘Word of Mouth’ moniker), I was interested to see how the gesticulating poet would fare under the bright lights of a much larger crowd and stage.
Working his way through a selection of lyrically stimulating rhymes, the crowd soon warmed to this talented young poet. His final piece, ‘Paper People’, was genius; his peppering of alliteration across waves of fluctuating tempo showed a degree of verbal dexterity that few can match. The impressive way in which he handled a notoriously tough opening slot indicated the maturity and skill that has won him numerous Championships. As his final words rolled out, a rapturous applause accompanied him off the stage to end a highly polished set.
Next up was Brummie-born Polarbear, who I later learned had been tempted out of semi-retirement for this tour. Polarbear has been a revelation for me ever since I checked out his ‘Music Is My Medicine’ video, which perfectly demonstrates his immersive brand of observational poetry. With a clear and concise storytelling style that is narrated through an eloquent array of delivery techniques, this confident poet is truly a heavy-hitter in the scene. His childhood and birthplace have clearly had a dominating influence on his poetry - both of which are referred to by vividly describing fond memories of adolescence.
From an awkward first encounter with an aggressive girl that smelt of flumps and 'CK1', to reflections on Birmingham being a “city that ain’t pretty, but I love it”, his poems are filled with rich descriptive imagery and ingenious rhyming patterns. Bowing to the audience with the grace of a master, Polarbear finished his initial slot, welcoming the fiery Kate Tempest to replace him on stage.
For those still in the dark, Kate Tempest is one of the brightest stars in the spoken-word scene today and is a talent of impressive malleability. Frequently turning her pen to poetry, prose and plays, this sensational writer has been attracting some well-deserved attention from around the globe. Her insatiable work ethic, razor-sharp wit and feisty onstage presence are offset by a tenderness and humility that give real warmth to her performances.
Pulling no punches, Tempest plunged straight into her scathing social commentary, ‘Bubble Muzzle’, which paints a rather bleak vision of a wasted life. Profoundly poignant, her uncomfortable but engaging commentary on modern-day living was a hard pill to swallow but contained truths that most people could ultimately relate to. Her final words do offer hope though by urging us to, “realise that there’s a lot more to life than the everyday struggle.”
Welcoming Polarbear to the stage once again, a back-to-back format developed with the pair bouncing poems off one another to their – and the crowd’s - great enjoyment. Swigging on a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream for ‘authenticity’, it soon became clear that these were two good friends having a lot of fun and the crowd had just tagged along for the ride. While one stepped up to perform, the other would take a seat totally engrossed as their partner spun a web of words around the hushed venue.
Polarbear’s rendition of his homage to NWA was special; he drew upon his trademark elocution to lace the poem with intricate details that were bound together with plenty of humorous imagery. Kate responded with her own personal ode to hip-hop - a genre which clearly goes hand in hand with spoken-word. Tempest confessed that the lyrical genre taught her to open her mind and to never accept mediocrity, an ethos that can be found in every one of her poems.
A final piece from Polarbear was a personal favourite of mine. ‘Jessica Brown’ narrates a relationship which spans half a lifetime and the gentle way in which he voices a teenager’s nervousness over their first kiss is something that anyone can relate to. It's observational poetry of the highest degree, his words painting a world where time leaps years with the simple turn of a rhyme. Opening his eyes, we are transported from first kiss, to marriage and finally waking up to find his young son delivering his own verses at the foot of the bed. Closing the first half of the evening, the light faded for a short interval before the arrival of Scroobius Pip.
Storming onto the stage with an immediate presence that demanded everyone’s undivided attention, Scroobius Pip started his eccentric set by singing out the opening theme song of the classic Disney television series ‘Duck Tales’. It introduced a tongue-in-cheek humour that would come to define the one-hour set, with Pip often declaring outrageous fabrications and delving into a suitcase containing the most peculiar of props. After taking a swig from a bottle of Rosè, Pip plunged into his first poem, ‘Magician’s Assistant’, which pulls no punches in its description of depression and suicide, forming a highly representative start from a poet who often strays along the darker avenues of life.
Carefully balancing harrowing material with light-hearted quips, his conversational style often felt like we were sat down in the pub having a chat to end the week. Recalling a past job at HMV where he used to write poems on the back of till receipts, then contemplating a recent request he’d received to do a voice-over for an Anchor butter advert, the evening played out in quite a relaxed, if surreal, fashion. Just as we were getting comfortable though, Pip would break into another one of his no-holds-barred pieces which shook the room back to life again. The shocking and deeply moving ‘Angles’ was a highlight as Pip 'dressed' to play the multitude of characters that clash together in this striking story of woe.
Entering the finale of his hour long performance, the bearded raconteur made himself comfortable on stage by taking a seat to commence a 'bedtime story' section, running through the epic ‘1000 Words’ taken from his debut album. “Let’s go back to the start”, begins the innovative narrative in which he talks about an almost prophetic experience of his younger years, which put him on this path of poetry. Speaking of the stammer that has afflicted him since his childhood, “the broken stammers of a youth” were cured by spoken-word poetry as it gave him an outlet for his thoughts. Demonstrating incredible technical skill, the conciseness of carefully chosen words spanned a lifetime in this thought-provoking poem. Closing the set, Pip ended with his irreverent 'Letter from God to Man' to close an extremely enjoyable evening.
The alphabet contains only twenty-six letters, and with these twenty-six letters, spoken-word captivated a sell-out audience for around three hours tonight. To see such a large and diverse crowd come together to appreciate these gifted lyricists perform was fantastic, serving as a testament to a genre that has so much to offer.
Words: Alex Saunders
Photos: Darren Paul Thompson