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On Tour With Steve Pledger

Venue: Dunster Castle, Twigg's Digs, Pebbles Tavern, Bracknell Library, Luna - the home of music
Town: Dunster, Exeter, Watchet, Bracknell, Leytonstone
Date: 6th to 10th September 2019

I'm not sure quite when the idea for covering five gigs in five days for the same artist came to me. I've been lucky enough to be at the last two Steve Pledger album launch gigs, the last of which involved driving three hours far too early in the morning on just two hours sleep. I try never to miss a Steve Pledger Twiggs Gigs/Digs appearance either. You can't miss a gig in your own town, and if you are doing three, it seems absurd not to just go the whole hog and do the lot.

There was another more personal reason as well. These gigs fell neatly between two dates I had reason to dread; my father's 70th birthday, and the first anniversary of his death just a week later. Those two days had been playing on my mind for quite some time, and the chance to distract myself by spending a few days in great company just couldn't be turned down.

So I took an afternoon off work, hopped in the car, and drove down to the West Country. After a quick stop to pick up Mr Twigg's Gigs himself, we headed up to these scene of one of my all time favourite gigs. Somewhere Between was launched in the gorgeous location of Dunster Castle, the National Trust property near Minehead. Given how that album turned out and the awards it garnered, it's no wonder Steve decided to launch Alone In The Dark there.

If you've never been to Dunster Castle, it is well worth a visit. Stunningly beautiful, but an uphill slog from the car park, I've not been to a more picturesque setting for a live music performance. A few technical issues on the setup had not resulted in the ideal setup, but you wouldn't have known from Steve's demeanor. With no introduction, the lights went off and Steve strode onto the stage, and began his set in darkness.

The opening track was a cover of the Manic Street Preachers' If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next, pared back and full of reflection, as well as more than a little sadness. Having raised the hairs on the backs of everyone's necks, Steve then launched into The Parable Of Intent which appears on the new album, the lights then turning up as the song really kicked in. As openers go it was a good choice, highlighting Steve's skills to make you think and occasionally blow you away with the power of the lyrics.

Photocredit Adam Jenkins

The first half of the launch was mostly about the old favourites. Friends and Fathers is always a highlight, as is I Spat Fire, which is always thrown in at just the right point to bring the energy levels up a bit. Inky Fingers and Right To Be Wrong are rarer to see rolled out, and both were very well received. Back To The Beginning and The Spirit Of What Ought To Be were combined into one, again a little pared back and broken down, but sounding superb. The sole unrecorded song was The Baptist's Father, about the need to speak up and make sure your voice is heard. It has a real power to it, and hopefully one day we'll have a recorded version we can listen to whenever we wish.

The second half saw a few more of Steve's unrecorded works, including a song performed for only the second time. Sister Dear is ostensibly an apology to his younger sister for the typical older sibling bullying he made her endure, but in typical Pledger fashion is also somewhat of a commentary on gender inequality. It is intricate and gorgeous. Salt From The Sea is another phenomenal song, and depending on your levels of weariness is either about the whole Brexit debacle, or is just a song about the sea.

The Stagehand's Tale is about a seedy backstreet theatre, and any similarities to a certain Westminster institution and the denizens therein is purely intentional. This one is full of humorous venom, leading to several chuckles of appreciation from the audience, and has one of the most delightful lines in Steve's entire catalogue. And The People Sang is about the nasty guy on the other side of the pond, and the reaction of the people to him. With songs like these, I can't wait for the next studio album.

All in all the second half was perhaps a bit more political. As well as the newer songs we also had Lefty Wait Your Turn, which ended the interval in great style. Away from politics (mostly) there was Me & The Silence and Beneath The Sun. The final few songs were a master class in how to end a gig though; a superb cover of Dylan's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, followed by Creation Is Laughing, and ending with Matches In The Wind. Steve made sure to end on a high, with a note of optimism and positivity.

Not that this was the end of course. The people may not have sung, but they did demand more, and Steve obliged with two covers. The first was Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready, a great cover which always goes down well whenever he unleashes it. The other was a track covered many times by many people, but there aren't many better versions of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah out there. It was a popular way to finish, given the ovation that followed it.

Photocredit Adam Jenkins

After the performance Steve made sure to take time to speak to as many of the audience as he could, while copies of the new album were snapped up. Aided by a lovely chap called Lee who helped with the packing away, Steve looked relaxed, happy and was clearly enjoying a well-deserved post-gig high. We hopped back in the car, and set back off across Exmoor to Exeter for a sleep before we started it all again the next day.

Twigg's Gigs/Digs has become a real mainstay of the Exeter music scene over the last five years, which is quite the achievement given that it started as a one off. This was number 50, and it was quite apt to have Steve lined up for it given that he was the performer of that one off in 2014. While Steve can make any gig, no matter how big, feel like a house concert, this really was one, and a sold out one at that.

During the sound check, Steve had sung a little Blowin' In The Wind, only to be joined by Sarah Hayes (Tennysons Twin). Having liked the dynamic so much, he made sure to kick off the house gig with the Dylan cover and have the audience sing along too. He followed up with a couple of unrecorded songs, including one which is now a little out of date. Same Song Same Words may not be as relevant as it once was, but its central refrain of "Not so strong and stable now" is still sounding true.

After an interval which consisted of some delicious cakes (the ginger cake was especially good), Steve kicked off with the same one two that opened the first set of the launch. Then came not one, not two, not three, but four of the new songs. The highlight was one which currently has no name, about the media's obsession with balance over truth, and it is full of vitriol and righteous anger. As before he ended on a note of optimism, and followed up with an encore of Lefty Wait Your Turn and Hallelujah.

There are few things music related that are better than a good house gig, and Twiggs Digs is up there with the best of them. The warmth and intimacy they generate is incredible, and the closeness of the audience and the rapport it can generate can really create something special. If you haven't yet experienced it for yourself, I heartily recommend it.

I have to admit at this point that I only really made it to four out of the five, and Pebbles was the one that got away, so to speak. After a couple of nights away I thought I'd better remind the kids what I looked like, and do some odds and sods around the house before Mr Pledger arrived.

It was a shame as there are few taverns quite like Pebbles. It may only be a reasonably small bar, but the atmosphere it creates is staggering. Pebbles nights are a little bit different to your average gig, with a good mixture of cover versions in with the original material. From what I've heard the crowd were well into both the music and the cider, which created an unforgettable atmosphere.

Photocredit Adam Jenkins

The next gig was something a bit different, a performance in a library. Bracknell Library puts on many different events, but there haven't been many concerts. It probably wasn't as you may be picturing it, Steve roaming round the shelves being shushed by the librarians. Instead we took to a great space on the ground floor where groups meet for Tai Chi and the like. Once the main lights were off, and a few of the wall lights were on, it looked impressively stage like. There was even a CS Lewis quote on the wall behind him, to give it a bit more of a literary feel. Even when we entered the room, there were a couple of fans hanging around, though these were of the air-generating kind and mounted on the walls.

This one was a free entry, with a pay as you feel donation on exit. The audience had an international feel to it with one lady coming all the way from Australia (presumably not just to see Steve, but I didn't ask). Considering it was Monday afternoon, there was an impressive audience, most of whom were seeing Steve for the first time. We even had a local celebrity turn up, as singer Albie J came to watch.

Set wise it was a similar set up to the launch, with the Manics cover starting, and going straight into The Parable of Intent without pause. It could be said to be perhaps a lighter first half in terms of subject matter. Pick of the bunch was probably The Spirit of What Ought To Be, which the audience lapped up, sung with an impressive depth of emotion. Ending the half in typical fashion with Pound Land seemed apt, given the location, the ode to the changing face of the high street going down well.

Perhaps bravely, a few of the more political songs got an airing in the second half. Bracknell is a staunch Conservative stronghold, albeit with a Liberal Democrat MP following Dr Phillip Lee's defection a week previously. Songs like Salt From The Sea and Lefty Wait Your Turn could have been poorly received, but these got the biggest applause of the night. There was a palpable sense of disappointment when Matches In The Wind ended, but with the library about to close there was no time for more.

Photocredit Adam Jenkins

Given nobody knew quite what to expect from the afternoon (a suck it and see event as Steve said), it was a resounding success. The audience lapped it up, and the library are already talking about putting on future events, and inviting Steve back to perform again. Given that libraries should be the community hub (despite the underfunding), it's great to see events such as these put on. Plus as a Bracknell resident myself, I'm always appreciative when I don't have to travel miles for a good gig. We did only just about resist the temptation to have a bit of rock and roll style mayhem and mess up the dewey decimal system by switching a load of books around.

That evening we enjoyed a well-earned Chinese take away, and just a couple of drinks (followed by a couple more). After a late night and lazy morning, we then got back in the car and headed for North London. Fortunately we were staying just a couple of miles away from the venue, and so we managed a wind down prior to the gig. This was achieved with the help of a four month old Pug puppy called Milo, who has to be the cutest dog I've ever seen. It was a wrench to tear ourselves away and head out again.

The final date on this mini tour was in Leytonstone at Luna Lounge, which was another first trip for Steve. At first glance Luna doesn't seem too dissimilar from Pebbles; it's not a huge place, but the love of music shines out from all corners. On every wall there are a plethora of guitars and ukes, and a host of other instruments dotted around. It feels like a special venue, especially when the doors are wide open with music blaring out.

This one was very different. Steve was meant to be performing an hour's stint as headliner, with support from a local musician. Due to a cancellation he became the sole act, and in total played for about two and a half hours. I've seen some great performances from Steve over the years, but this was up there with my favourites. He gave everything, infusing every song with an incredible depth of emotion.

Most of the songs were originals, and it was great to see people pause outside the venue, and then come in off the street to watch and have a drink. Steve played a full set without a break, covering the same amount of songs as he'd played at any of the previous gigs. Then after a quick slurp of water, and a conversation with some of the audience, he went straight back on stage and performed a number of covers.

Photocredit Adam Jenkins

All in all a great way to end the tour. Luna is a cracking little venue and hopefully they will continue to attract artists from all over the country on their mission to put live music on seven days a week. If anyone is on the lookout for a London venue to perform in, Luna is well worth a look. Hopefully Steve will return there in the not so distant future.

Being on tour isn't the easiest thing in the world, and that's just from the perspective of someone listening and occasionally carrying stuff. My energy levels were dipping all over the place, but Steve kept on going like the Duracell bunny. Lack of sleep, back twinges, being attacked by a puppy… he took everything in his stride and gave five great performances like the consummate professional that his is. I certainly felt for him though when he was driving back to County Durham, and I was sat nodding off on the tube.

For my part the mini tour was perfect. It was certainly mission accomplished in terms of taking my mind off the birthday and anniversary, and helped me get through both dates easier than expected. Music is such a wonderful help in making the hard times just that bit easier to get through, and live music is the best tonic of all. Watching Steve pour his heart and soul into every line was a privilege to witness, and I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who does this night after night.

While I listen to Alone In The Dark on repeat to recapture the magic, Steve has very little time off before he starts the next leg of the tour. He's back in Scotland from 19th September with seven shows in eight days. If you find yourself beyond the wall this month, do go and check him out, I guarantee you a great evening or seven.

Adam Jenkins words and pics

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