There’s a unique atmosphere at Brighton Dome tonight: a mix of excitement, curiosity and a slight unease at not knowing what to expect. It was a surprise, back in October, when it was announced that Paul Weller and Robert Wyatt would be headlining the first in a series of People Powered ‘Concerts for Corbyn’.
Now, with a dozen names added to the bill, it’s not even clear how they’ll squeeze so many acts into the four hours ahead of us. As it turns out, there are more surprises in store.
Mods of all ages are queuing up alongside Momentum members and old Labour supporters, while disparate Brighton gig-goers are joined by visitors from around the country – and beyond. It seems that lots of different pockets of people have been drawn together by this unusual coupling of politics and music.
Edgar Summertyme is warming things up as we arrive, his acoustic ‘60s psych-pop competing with the hubbub of the bar while hip hop saxophonist Soweto Kinch plays to the early-bird audience at the main stage.
Due to the tight scheduling, there’s a festival-style rush to catch overlapping sets, but we’re in good time for the start of Stealing Sheep – only to see them call off the spotlight and disappear from the stage. A little later the trio re-emerge, in matching spotted jumpsuits, to proceed with their upbeat, energetic set. This too is a surprise – when we last saw the band, supporting Villagers at The Old Market, their sound was sparser, almost folky. Without changing line-up or instruments, Stealing Sheep have morphed into a confident and sassy electro-pop band.
Fellow Merseysider Bill Ryder-Jones follows, the former Coral guitarist leading his band down a leisurely path through the pastoral likes of ‘Wild Roses’. His anecdotes are polite and almost inaudible and it’s his skilful, string-bending solo on ‘Satellite’ that makes the biggest impression.
Back at the bar, UK reggae toaster Ghetto Priest has captivated the crowd. Backed by three colourfully-dressed percussionists and a blissed-out DJ at the decks, he mixes up spoken word jams, Rasta chants and bouncy dub tunes. The one-time Asian Dub Foundation frontman delivers the evening’s first on-message lyric with ‘Every Man For Every Man’, while flashing a mischievous, gold-toothed smile. He’s later joined by Soweto Kinch who pulls off a startling mid-song sax trick which both emulates human laughter and produces a ripple of the real thing.
Far and away tonight’s heaviest band, Jim Jones & The Righteous Mind have a thundering presence that swiftly pulls the devoted to the main room while sending the more sensitively eared socialists back to the bar. Never mind revivalism, this is rock as a living, breathing, elemental force, greased-up and rabble rousing. For a moment we have to squint through the darkness to check that bassist Gavin Jay really isn’t The Clash’s Paul Simonon sent back to the future in this country’s time of need (it wouldn’t have been entirely out of place: The Special AKA’s Rhoda Dakar does a stint of main stage compering tonight). It’s maraca shaking, guitar swinging frontman Jones who holds the power though, hollering up a whirlwind of passion for the unifying potential of rock’n’roll.
Stealing Sheep’s magnetism means we missed Kathryn Williams’ earlier performance in the bar, where she was joined by friends including The Magic Numbers’ Michele Stodart, but she reappears unexpectedly on the main stage ahead of Temples. Opening with an a cappella version of the brief Neill MacColl co-write ‘All’ (“The world’s at an end because people want power”) she’s just got time for a couple of unaccompanied songs and a quick speech about how it only takes two like-minded people to stand together and you’ve got yourself a movement. And there’s hundreds in here tonight.
While Paul Weller’s presence has shifted the most tickets, chart-bothering pop-psych revivalists Temples are a smart booking, pulling in a swell of young enthusiasts who help lower the audience’s age demographic by several years. Their breezy psychedelia washes through the room with less force than the recent devastation wrought by Jim Jones but tunes like ‘Shelter Song’ are undeniable and elicit some boisterous air-punching from the Kettering crew’s fans. Temples’ sartorial devotion to flares and polyester might look daft now but when Corbyn sends this country back to the 70s we’ll all have to wear them, right kids?
By all accounts, Paul Weller was keen that tonight’s concert wouldn’t be seen as a re-run of the Red Wedge tours of the 80s. When a heckler tells him to bring back The Jam, Weller’s reply is terse and possibly loaded. “Why bring back anything?” he asks. “Why not start something new?”
The crowd is welcoming but rowdy and clearly in the mood for something big. It’s an understandable sentiment given the reason for the gig and the sense of anticipation that’s been pegged on the line-up. However, anyone expecting to hear some golden oldies tonight is likely to have come away disappointed.
By a strange coincidence, Weller’s former bandmate Bruce Foxton is doing a sold-out show down the road at Concorde2 tonight, performing a ‘greatest hits’ set with his band, now called From The Jam. Here at the Dome, it’s a different story. There’s no ‘Going Underground’ or ‘That’s Entertainment’; the closest we get to a Weller classic is The Style Council album track ‘A Stones Throw Away’.
Weller is joined on stage by Steve Pilgrim and Ben Gordelier (both youngish musicians who have been involved with Weller’s recent solo work), with Pentangle’s Danny Thompson providing virtuosic and sympathetic double bass. Robert Wyatt, who has more or less come out of retirement for tonight’s show, joins the others to much applause. The famously reclusive singer has an unaffected manner which helps to soften the edgy vibe – and a singing voice that somehow sounds innocent and fresh as well as rough around the edges.
It’s a three-way collaboration with the band taking turns to play tracks by Weller, Wyatt and Pilgrim (as the relative unknown, the inclusion of the latter’s songs is pretty generous). Wyatt sings two numbers – a faltering ‘Blues In Bob Minor’ and the beautiful ‘September In The Rain’ – from his 1997 record ‘Shleep’, an album which featured Weller on guitar, and gets the crowd onside with a couple of self-deprecating remarks and an introduction to the prescient, MSM-baiting ‘Mass Medium’ that ends with him denouncing the gutter press.
This aside, there’s a notable lack of any rabble rousing and even the song choices seem largely apolitical. “Get fucking angry!” shouts another heckler. “I’m not here to get angry – I’m here to play music,” replies Weller, angrily.
There’s only one band left to go and people are heading back to the bar when the compere announces a special guest. And there he is: Jeremy Corbyn walks on stage to delighted applause. It might not seem much of a surprise in hindsight, but it’s a moment nobody here wants to miss.
“I didn’t much enjoy the Thatcher years,” he says, an understatement that works as a joke in itself. “But it was a great time for music, music that spoke of people’s struggles.” He gives a shoutout to local songwriter Robb Johnson for releasing a lefty Christmas single and references the Blind Tiger vis-a-vis a policy to protect music venues and promote arts in education. Though he tries to theme much of his speech around music, the biggest response comes when he mentions the plight of refugees and the privatisation of the NHS.
It turns out John McDonnell is also in the audience somewhere (Corbyn gives him a wave, which is cute), and Corbyn has a good time mocking David Cameron for claiming that The Jam’s class war anthem ‘Eton Rifles’ is his favourite song. Corbyn is working against the clock, and he’s surrounded by a swarm of roadies setting up the next band, so his lack of showmanship could be excused even though we all know it’s not his style.
The final surprise of the night comes when The Farm launch immediately into their big 90s hit ‘All Together Now’, accompanied somewhat extravagantly by a stage-side choir. The socialist Scousers were meant to round things off with a few numbers, but due to the impending curfew their set is reduced to a single song. It’s still as catchy as ever and the WWI lyrics are easily repurposed as a grand, if somewhat cheesy, call for solidarity. Given what preceded it, we have to wonder why the tune was never adopted as an official Labour Party anthem.
Some of the bands we’ve seen go on to do DJ sets at an afterparty round the corner at Dead Wax Social. All night there’s been a wealth of northern accents in and around the venues, no doubt due to the strong Liverpudlian presence on the line-up. The last eighteen months have made many in Brighton feel that the rest of the country has drifted inexplicably into rightwing resentment. But the nature of tonight’s gig and the diversity of the crowd serves to burst the Brighton Bubble in the nicest possible way – with the realisation that we’re not alone.
Naturally enough, the next Concert for Corbyn is set to take place in Liverpool – and there are rumours that both Echo & The Bunnymen and The Stone Roses are involved. The Brighton instalment was an audacious and improbable success which must have been madness to organise. The event wasn’t without its hiccups, but we’ll choose inspiring over slick every time.
Concert For Corbyn, Brighton Dome, Friday 16th December 2016
Words by Ben Bailey and Stuart Huggett
Photos by Xavier Clarke