X-sTatiC comes of age
The Dublin Castle, 21 June 2003
Getting nervous before a gig is something that stopped happening to me about five years ago - about the time when it stopped being fun and became a job. Around the same time that I realised that gig punters shout out for 'Brown Eyed Girl' because to them, the stupid ditty is the epitome of good taste and it means a lot to them.
But it came as no surprise when, as I loaded up the car with guitar gear for the short journey to Camden, those butterflies started flying free once again. The last time I felt this was during the drive to Swindon, for the last X-sTatiC gig in March. The time before that was at the Hope and Anchor in September 2002, for the first X-sTatiC gig.
And of course, this particular occasion was the third gig - back in London, this time at the Dublin Castle, our biggest venue yet (capacity 140, apparently), and I was no less nervous than I was upstairs at the Hope, 9 months ago.
These nerves work on many levels. Principally, will anyone turn up? Well, we were all asking ourselves that at the first gig, and were pleasantly surprised. Of those that do come, will they enjoy it, will they find it a fitting tribute to their heroes or an insult to the memory? A question that was answered in Swindon, as we were being called back for our second encore.
But that was then and this is pop. Had we over-egged the golden goose? Should we have quit when we lost our heads the last time? Should we have changed the set completely, so as not to bore the returning punters, or refuse to fix what didn't seem to be broken?
Because, as any reader of the long-winded non-tour diary will know, X-sTatiC's remit was never to be a touring, boring tribute act. It was a one-off experiment, to see if it could be done, and a celebration, because there should be one.
Most importantly of all, it was never going to be a job. Firstly, I didn't see it making any money (correctly - want to see rehearsal room receipts?) and secondly because, when it becomes a job, you lose the butterflies and then you have nothing to convert to adrenaline the instant the drums kick in.
I go through the motions on every gig, three times a week, and I implicitly want to avoid the same feeling during Radios In Motion.
As it turned out, the gig was fantastic. For the first time we actually had working monitors, so we could hear ourselves singing out of tune, as opposed to just guessing we were. The crowd was in good attendance and fine voice - 105 of you came just to see us, according to the door sheet. Not the sell-out event that the other gigs were, but then, it was a bigger room, and a searing hot Saturday in June. I was just incredibly grateful that it wasn't an empty room, like so many of the other gigs I've played at the Castle.
As with all our gigs, there was an extended bout of discussion and wrangling over what form this show would take. I argued that, seeing as it was only our third gig, there would be no harm in sticking to pretty much the same formula. The last half of the set always seems to flow so well, and there didn't seem to be any point in changing that, especially if there were going to be audience members seeing us for the first time.
The opening few songs always seem to work, so we kept them in, only dropping Meccanik Dancing in the medley due to time constraints. Ball and Chain was also demolished to make way for new material (only to be resurrected during the third encore).
There were the usual heated debates on the new songs - we all had favourites, but there simply wasn't room in the set for all of them.
Ed had been waving a flag for The Disappointed since the first rehearsal, and he dragged it through every session despite protestations from Mick and myself. It didn't sound half bad at the final rehearsal although I still say there are better songs from Nonsuch to look at.
Funk Pop a Roll was another new one, though no one had a problem adding that to the list. A Dukes contribution was always on the cards, and Little Lighthouse won the democratic toss.
In order to put these three in, there had to be casualties. Beating of Hearts, Books are Burning and a really good version of Reign of Blows failed to make the cut.
There's a funny thing that happens when you're on-stage with X-sTatiC. It seems, no matter how hard or often you've rehearsed it, things just leave your control. Time puts on its running shoes and sprints away. Little bits you've rehearsed over and over just vanish from your mind. Snippets of info, prepared banter and dedications to people slip over the horizon. Your fingers and limbs move as if controlled by a puppeteer, and your voice comes back at you like some kind of foreign overdub.
You spend hours thinking about certain sections of certain songs, about the impact it will have on people, about making it as genuine and as close to the real thing as possible. And yet, when the lights go down and the intro CD finishes, the music just takes over, and you are dragged along. The correct lyrics may or may not emanate from your mouth. You have your amp up full, and yet yours is the only instrument you can't hear. At some points it seems that the bass, the other guitar, your own guitar, the main vocals and the backing vocals are all one semitone out of tune with each other. And still it moves forwards. An unstoppable force.
Within the sonic mess, there is time to enjoy little parts. Like nailing Optimism's Flames (very tricky guitar and vocals), or the guitar solos in Language in our Lungs and Towers of London. I remember half getting the words right to Little Lighthouse, and I'm more than half pleased with that.
For this reason, the "acoustic" part of the show is the bit I really look forward to and enjoy. It's funny, as it's the early XTC material I really like, and was my initial inspiration for creating the band. Yet, by time we reach for the acoustic guitars, I'm always relieved. It feels like we've just assaulted the audience's ears with full-on punk rock, and I want to give them a break. I also want to take a breather myself.
So it's during these few numbers that I get a chance to really look past the spotlights, and see if our audience is into it or not. And seeing people swaying and singing along to Yacht Dance is just so completely moving.
Those are the moments when I remember my reasons for wanting to start an XTC tribute band: because I wanted to hear these songs brought to life on stage, and it seemed that no one else was going to do it. During these moments, as people cheer, I know they aren't cheering us: they're cheering the songs and their creators.
While the gig was just as fantastic an experience as the others, there were some subtle differences, which struck me as quite interesting.
The crowd, for instance. In my experience, a crowd of Londoners will show different characteristics to those outside. For a start they are cooler. Looking around the room during Life Begins at the Hop, I could tell the Swindonions - they were already dancing and cheering. The locals, however, were watching carefully and their appreciation was measured in polite applause.
This can be off-putting for a band that's used to the hollering of, "Play something I don't know, I'm knackered", between numbers, but it doesn't mean you're dying. Being a Londoner myself, I know that these experienced punters like to be taken on a bit of journey, and whipped into a frenzy - but a band has to earn that first. And we got 'em in the end.
I felt the upside of this during the quieter moments. Memories of Swindon include a gabble of conversation over the "sensitive" bits - the start of Complicated Game, or the acoustic reworking of Seagulls Screaming for example. But here in the Castle, you could hear a pin drop as the hushed crowd waited to recognise the tune - and then a cheer when they heard the words, "It's raining on the beach...". That attention was really appreciated.
There were subtle differences for the band too. Both previous gigs felt very much like we were hanging on by our nails - a rollercoaster ride where the next turn might be a C#, or a Bb, a middle 8 or a repeated chorus. We were never quite sure, and that made the experience all the more rewarding.
This gig was rewarding for different reasons. I felt, there on stage, a sense of mastery over what we were doing, and a connection between the bandmembers. We were tighter and made less mistakes. It felt efficient, professional and slick. That was because it was the third time we had delivered essentially the same show.
Talking to the boys afterwards, I realised that I wasn't alone in this feeling, and everyone acknowledged the risk involved in playing the same songs over and over again - imagine if Towers of London became our 'Brown Eyed Girl'? The thought of getting bored of any XTC song is a horrifying one.
Add to this the idea that most of the people there appeared to have seen us before. Would they come back a third or fourth time, if we just played the same show again?
As I said before, this isn't supposed to be a hard-working touring cover band - it's an experimental project, a salute to the good work of XTC. And, seeing as it's worked so well so far, it seems a good time to move it on, to see what else we can handle.
We owe it to ourselves, the returning audience, the original remit of X-sTatiC and XTC themselves to make the next gig different. We don't know how yet, but it will be different. An acoustic show? An entire album covered, beginning to end? Or maybe just a completely different set of songs? God knows, if there's one band that has enough strength and potential to warrant this kind of exploration, it's XTC.
Thanks again to everyone who came, you are the lifeblood that makes it all worthwhile, and our appreciation has no end. Let us know your thoughts on how we should move forward, and we'll see you at the Victoria Inn (or is it Arms?), Swindon, on 20th September 2003, to see if it works just as well.
Love from X-sTatiC.
Dan Barrow, 22 June 2003. firstname.lastname@example.org