The resurrection of John Cooper Clarke is complete. Having drifted in out and out of the public eye ever since he first exploded onto the punk scene in the 1970s, ‘The Bard of Salford’ is once again back on the airwaves, regaling audiences up and down the land with his timeless wordplay. Under the supervision of The Clash’s legendary tour manager Johnny Green, Friday evening saw the illustrious performance poet roll up to Bristol’s Colston Hall for the penultimate gig on this current UK tour. A tangible excitement buzzed throughout the historical Bristol venue as silver-haired rockers and defiant punk-dads sipped on their continental lagers, eager to catch a glimpse of the acerbic wordsmith in lyrical action.
First to the expansive stage was Simon Day, best known for his hilarious roles in the iconic 90s sketch show, ‘The Fast Show’. Opening the evening with a light-hearted stand-up routine that rather haphazardly poked fun at 21st-century living, his set was perfectly suited for the audience’s age demographic with the ‘lad-ish’ funny-man picking apart modern technology and deploying tales of mid-life drunkenness.
Shifting from comedy to performance poetry in the blink of an eye, next up was Mancunian Mike Garry. With his face tilted upwards into the spotlight that bathed the stage in a yellow glow, heart-breaking tales of urban decay were delivered with an evocative northern drawl. Glimpses of working class culture were fused with distinct references to a city that the nostalgic poet clearly treasures. Painting locations in one stanza before populating them with characters in the next, Garry’s ability to construct these intimately detailed scenes, often filled with tragic memories, was impressively immersive.
Providing a musical interlude, the extremely talented Thea Gilmore established herself from the offset with a beautiful voice that soared across the soothing strings-section of her supporting band. With further support from multi-instrumentalist Nigel Stonier, Gilmore silenced the vast expanse of the Colston Hall with a blend of foot-tapping numbers such as ‘Start As We Mean Go On’ and a powerful acapella rendition of ‘The Amazing Floating Man’, which demonstrated the purity of her mesmerising voice. Humble in her staggering talent, Gilmore was a strong addition to an already impressive line up of artistically diverse performers.
Introduced rather enigmatically as a world exclusive by Gilmore, next up was Keith Allen (or “Lily Allen’s dad”, as he jokingly re-titled himself), strutting onto the stage with his band ‘Grow Up’. Leading with one of the greatest introductions in recent memory, Allen proceeded with, “Our lead singer tonight, ladies and gentlemen, has the voice of Richard Burton, the tone of a 1957 Chevy and the legs of Shirley MacLaine.” From stage-left emerged the spindly, slight frame of John Cooper Clarke who plunged immediately into a rather surreal mini-rock concert that incorporated a unique cover of the Ramones’ ‘Blitzkreig Rock’ and culminated with The Clash’s ‘I Fought The Law’. Although it has to be said that singing is not Clarke’s strongest quality, the somewhat farcical but hugely enjoyable performance was unforgettable. The sight of Keith Allen hammering the keys on his keyboard while Clarke crooned his way through The Only One’s, ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, was a peculiar moment in history that was enjoyable to be a part of.
Re-emerging with a gin and tonic in hand after the interlude, John Cooper Clarke charged relentlessly and often without any apparent direction through a ninety-minute set that was infectious in its delivery. Stringing together a chain of his most famous poems including the iconic ‘Beasley Street’ and ‘Evidently Chickentown’, Clarke’s performance often lost its focus to digressions - albeit hysterical digressions - yet it was clear that his passion for delicious chunks of language and razor sharp wit are still alive and kicking. Swaying under the single spotlight that bounced off the bard’s jet-black plumage, quick quips and rich vocabulary were generously applied across every line and it was a joy to see this iconic lyricist enjoying himself so much. John Cooper Clarke is a performer that exudes charisma in bucketfuls and although his hedonistic past seems to be catching up with him, glimpses of brilliance emerged time and time again; his devastating one-liners, playful manipulation of the English language and dazzling machine-gun verses still place the 64-year old in a league of his own. Long live the King.