October 1996 – live reviews – The Blue Nile + Sinéad Lohan @ The Palladium, London, 8th October

10 Oct

Wait in any given place for a long time and reckon up the odds. Which are you more likely to see passing by – Bigfoot, Lord Lucan, or a member of The Blue Nile? The chances are about equal each way.

In a business that thrives and surfeits on over-exposure, The Blue Nile only sidle into view when they absolutely have to. In fourteen years of tenuous existence, this reclusive biz-shy Glaswegian trio has offered up no more than three short albums of exquisite ambient Celtic soul; stripping away the armour of the heart with cheap drum machines, breathing synths and skeletal guitars, and the scalded, mournful grace of Paul Buchanan’s desperately romantic deep-tenor voice, leaving us flat on the floor and then departing so quietly we don’t hear the door shut.

While they’ve had stiff competition from Kate Bush and Scott Walker in the stakes for lying quietly in the long grass, sometimes The Blue Nile are out of view for so long that they seem no more than the shadows of our own heartbreaks. Three phantoms whom we can fill with the overflow of our ruined, hopeless good intentions and the agonising rush of a love with nothing and nowhere to ground itself on. Every now and then, though, they surface – as they have tonight – put out a record, and those shadows take on flesh.

But first we have Sinéad Lohan; a Cork lass with beaded hair, a salving murmur of a voice, and the composure of a marble Madonna figurine. From out of nowhere to the grandiosity of the Palladium, and still she’s not batting an eyelid as she delivers her soft thrumming folky songs to a warm reception. She even invites questions, and gets them. She has that atmosphere that some quietly private people have, the stillness that invites fascination.

From up here her eyes seem sleepy, focussed inwards, and her songs are the same, ripples of feeling reflected in still pools that make you feel like a privileged eavesdropper. All of this and the quietness makes her seem like an Irish Tanita Tikaram without the air of lazy resentment. After she’s left the stage, I realise I can’t actually remember what any of the songs were about, but the impressions of the emotions involved remain etched lightly on my imagination. She’s as subtle and strong a carver as smooth river water.

After seven years out of the public eye, most bands would return to the stage in a blaze of glory. The Blue Nile don’t even turn the lights out properly first as they slope onstage like reluctant supply teachers. I mistake them for roadies until I recognise Paul Buchanan’s pained, elegant features among the men fumbling to pick up the instruments, all but flinching at the applause and the eyes trained on them. But it’s something they’ll have to deal with.

For all of their heart-stricken loneliness, The Blue Nile carry a very special feeling of empathy and homecoming around with them. Literally, in some respects: tonight’s audience ripples with the voices of Glaswegian emigres. And when one Scots voice, brought to a pitch of excitement, calls out “Glasgow Celtic!” it’s followed as fast as a counterpunch by a Rangers fan’s disgusted “fuck off!” Rather than a slit face, this results in a ripple of laughter and recognition around the auditorium. There are wry, self-conscious chuckles from the band as they finally launch into the Van Morrison-gone-synth-pop chug’n’whoop of Body and Soul.

All of this civility (and this nod to a respectable musical touchstone) prompts the question. Have The Blue Nile, for all their cult status, ended up as another branch of hoary pop tradition for the impeccably adult? Certainly they shy away from sarky pop irony, and they’ve a sheepish but determined commitment to presenting their songs unvarnished by gimmicks. Don’t even try looking for Pet Shop Boys cleverness here.

And then there’s the impeccable cleanliness of their sound – the clipped white-gold ring of it, the slow stretch of the falling-evening keyboards, even the live drums compressed to stiff Linn thuds… Or, on the other hand, the occasional hints of country in the songs from the new ‘Peace At Last’ album and how Stay’s heartbroken synth pointillism develops from a Scottish electro-pop lament to a finale with suspicious hints of rockabilly or hoedown. And, of course, there’s the way Paul’s huge voice draws from Frank Sinatra’s warm cocooning sound, rather than any from any obvious rock source.

Sinatra, though, never sounded this touched; this blown through by overpowering feelings. Even behind the theatrics of his saddest songs there was a man preening in his power; the guy who was laughing now; the honorary Mob capo whose very tone was a muscle. Behind these songs are a man who winces; who knows the scuffed concrete in the buildings he walks past will outlive him. Who’s haunted by the moments where decisions rest before they fall into becoming facts, and who’s never short of melody but is often stripped of words. And who, on this occasion, is swigging Lemsip by the gallon to beat off a vicious cold. It brings the vulnerability of The Blue Nile’s songs into sharper focus.

But then they’ve never suggested that the business of being adult is supposed to be easy, or even make much sense. ‘Peace At Last’ made that as explicit as anything ever is in the Blue Nile universe – a middle-aged album (Paul Buchanan turned forty while recording it) which showed youthful, domestic and spiritual certainties past their flush and breaking down into a unflattering mirror of doubts and shaky illusions. A new testing ground after their landscapes of young men’s fears had slipped away back into the years. While The Blue Nile don’t go so far as to drag middle-aged trappings – such as chipped crucifixes or well-dusted-yet-unloved three-piece suites – onstage with them, they wouldn’t need them. The words to these songs swim to the surface in flashes; brief snatches and sketches of anguished images that settle into the heart’s eye as if their places had been waiting for them forever.

A couple of songs from 1989’s peerlessly lovelorn ‘Hats’ album illustrate this – Over The Hillside fumbles through the burden of day-to-day failure and the pull away from home; Headlights On The Parade sees Paul lose himself in night-haunted reverie, borne on by the serpentine romantic curve of the melody over the mechanistic drumming. Tonight’s rendition of Happiness, a song already riven by doubt (“Now that I’ve found peace at last, / tell me, Jesus, / will it last?”) has to replace the soaring black gospel chorus that boosts it on record with three uneasy white men murmuring into shared mikes. You wouldn’t have thought that it could reach the same hymnal level, but it does, albeit becoming more of a private prayer.

Another ‘Hats’ classic, The Downtown Lights, has the transcending, unresolved journey-feel of a crying fit; heart-stricken keyboard swells giving way to beautifully sad reflection and back again, rising to a frantic crescendo of loss. The atmospheric abstractions of A Walk Across The Rooftops don’t give away much in the way of clues, but they do give a night-time stroll a tint of darkest foreboding.

And Family Life just overwhelms – a mid-life crisis set to song. Echoes of Tom Waits, Randy Newman and crumbling Hollywood Christmases coming together in the heartbroken drunken pleas of a man whose marriage is unravelling, whose boyhood innocence is rising to ask bewildered questions. Paul, singing like a man suddenly and shockingly shrunken, plays the role to the hilt. But there’s no storytelling, no plot; just feelings and the alcohol dissolving reasoning down to more questions and a blurred, blundering comprehension. “Say, you know, / no honeymoons, / just separate chairs in separate rooms. / Jesus, please, / make us happy sometime – / no more shout, / no more fight…” As the last scraps of piano dissolve in the hush, the frenzied applause seems to spray tears of recognition and relief.

It’s still as un-showbiz as you can get. All of these emotions are being let off on a very tight leash. The magisterial Robert Bell doesn’t crack his stern kirkman’s expression all evening, whether he’s forcing compelling crabbed funk lines out of a bass, keening his rare backing vocals into Buchanan’s mike, or crouched cross-legged onstage beating out patterns from the tiny synth in his lap. Over on stage right, P.J. Moore plays with an abstracted serenity as the Blue Nile’s bare, effective colorations flood out from his keyboards. The supplemental three on drums, guitar and synths play with their heads slightly bowed – more quiet men. So it’s the hunched, embarrassed Buchanan that’s the reluctant centre of attention; muttering wry Glasgow “let’s-get-this-over-with” asides between the songs, but singing his heart out of his chest and punching it up at the sky every time the music rises.

I guess that even with embarrassment weighing at his coat-tails, he can’t help it. There’s often a desperate strand of hope-against-hope in The Blue Nile. The near-delirious Sentimental Man ascends out of a jumble of chippy funk facets to hit gospelly heights; the intently energised strum of Tomorrow Morning rushes towards the light as if Buchanan was trying to beat the pain off by hurtling towards hope. Tinseltown in the Rain – which belts along as if it was the peak of some uncompleted Glaswegian street-opera – bursts up to a plateau of emotion, aggressive certainty struggling with a sense of doom. (“do I love you? Yes, I love you! / Will we always be happy-go- lucky?… / But it’s easy come, and it’s easy go. / All this talking – / talking is only bravado”) before exploding in a carillon of stammering, tear-jerking guitar.

And on Saturday Night you can feel the blessed surge of relief at a simple romance – “an ordinary girl” hymned with a incredulous delight, an everyday date turned into a haven from the wracked, exhausting, damn-near-religious romantic angst of the Nile songbook – turning out right for once. As the last swooning joyous chimes mount the air, I hear a ecstatic voice screaming “Yes!”. It’s my own. I can’t help it either.

Later, Bell and Moore take up positions at the synths on each side of the stage, waiting to play Easter Parade. White-clad, calmly watching each other for the cue, they have the assured and tranquil air of surgeons waiting to lay on the hands and bring out the pain. Then the song comes – plangent clutchings of piano, gushes of night-breeze synth and Buchanan singing of being alone in a rapt crowd, carried along like a solitary bubble in their exhilaration. And the empathy is summoned up and floods through us like medicine.

They can still touch the pressure points of the soul like no-one else. In another few months they’ll be hiding from us again, but that touch is going to stay with us until they feel able to venture out into the world again, blinking with trepidation at the looming feelings waiting to catch them.

The Blue Nile online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music

Sinéad Lohan online:
Facebook MySpace Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music
 

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