I’ve always found it intriguing how certain bands and artists are able to inspire absolute devotion amongst their fans in ways that others who, subjectively at least, seem to put on just as good a show and release similarly impressive records cannot. What strange alchemy occurs that compels a room full of 300 people to belt out every single word of an hour-long set? Whatever it is, tonight’s headliner Jim Bob, formerly of cult early nineties indie heroes Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, has it in spades.
Before we get onto unravelling that mystery though, there’s the enticing prospect of an opening set by Chris T-T, whose 2016 album Nine Green Songs should be gracing many a best of the year list over the coming weeks.
There aren’t many support acts that can win over a crowd quite so quickly, but with his mix of surreal humour, serious politics and great songwriting, Chris has the crowd singing along to the chorus of ‘Worst Government Ever’ by the second tune in and from that point never looks back in a set that takes in tracks from across his fifteen year back catalogue. In a startlingly brave move for an opening act, he puts down his guitar halfway in for a vicious spoken word take down of contemporary society, ‘Cutting a Longbow’, which is followed by the a capella ‘M1 Song’. The audience, save for one lone heckler, falls silent.
And then it’s time for our headliner – a tangible ripple of excitement spreads throughout the crowd as his entrance music, a cello rendition of ‘A Prince In A Pauper’s Grave’, pours out of the PA and Jim Bob is greeted with a hero’s welcome as he seamlessly breaks into an acoustic rendition of the same song; from that point onwards there’s not a syllable of his set that isn’t bellowed back at him.
As a relative outsider it’s both impressive and perplexing – taking me back to my original question: what is it about Jim Bob that created so fanatical a following?
Is it nostalgia? Perhaps in some part – people often forget just how huge Carter were at their peak; they were second on the bill at Reading in 1991 and even appeared to a TV audience of millions at The Smash Hits Poll Winners’ Party – the sprinkling of USM tracks, including ‘Sheriff Fatman’ and ‘The Only Living Boy In New Cross’ all get a massive reaction from the crowd, but no more so than some of Jim’s own.
Stage presence? There’s no big show to see here. No light show or projections. No pogoing around the stage throwing shapes or diving into the front rows. Just a man in a Glen check suit and bright red shirt with a microphone, a guitar and an easy-going charm.
So it must be the songs then? Well, again the songs are good, peppered with the down to earth humour and word play that has seen Jim Bob carve out a successful career as a novelist and featuring catchy chant-along choruses, but are they that much better than any number of other singer-songwriters ploughing a similar furrow?
All of these factors play their part, but as the crowd chuckle at the between song in-jokes and sway arm in arm as longstanding roadie Mr Spoons fills the venue with bubbles from a toy gun to the refrain of ‘Touchy Feely’, it all becomes clear. The connection between stage and crowd is undeniable – everyone here feels part of something bigger. The songs speak directly to their own lives and bring them together in shared experience with a room full of strangers. And that, particularly in these fractious times, is something undeniably special.