Sunday, 6 October 2013

PolyFest at The Half Moon, 5 October 2013

Last night I went to PolyFest at The Half Moon in Putney, the long overdue tribute gig for Poly Styrene. Poly left us in 2011 so it's been a while coming but better late than never. I had no idea what to expect or how it would work with so many folks on the bill but it was for Poly and the proceeds were going to Cancer Research so I had to go.

I got there at about 8:30pm to see a big sign saying it was sold out (which is a good thing). I'd missed a few acts but, just as I went in, Diane Charlemagne was saying a few words about Poly and then gave a touching version of 'Electric Blue Monsoon', just her voice singing above the murmur of conversations and laughter. I sang along quietly.

More people arrived and the place got fuller so I grabbed a space near the stage only to find I was in the route to the stage when someone pushed past me saying 'sorry' only to see her go up the steps to the stage and realised it was Anita Harris. Yes, *the* Anita Harris from the 'Carry On' films and song and dance shows in the '60s and '70s and she's still going strong.

Anita said she'd never met Poly but admired her for opening doors for other singers and mentioned Siouxsie (which isn't quite accurate, but never mind) and said she was going to sing one of Poly's songs called 'Exploited' which had been specially arranged for her style by her pianist. Colour me puzzled at that point and then I realised she was singing a gentle version of 'I Live Off You'! I wonder if she sings it as part of her cabaret show? It worked really well and it was a delight to hear this raucous punk song tamed and given a new lease of life. Anita then did her version of 'Route 66' rocking out with just a piano accompaniment.

The evening was punctuated by various people getting up on the stage and doing short readings, sometimes with music and sometimes not, as well as the host getting up to ask where someone was and would they kindly come to the stage because they were due on. Youth was up and down laughing and posing for us. It wasn't quite shambolic but the DIY nature of it felt rather punk to me and, in that way, quite fitting.

Jona Lewie was on next, sitting behind the keyboard plonking away at a couple of songs that were fun enough but I couldn't see what the link to Poly might have been. I don't think he mentioned her either. His final song was 'You Will Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties' and it was nice to hear it played live for the first time, but then it went on and on. I stuck with it for about five minutes for the sake of Kirsty MacColl who was one of his backing singers 'dancing in a new way' on Top of the Pops long ago. Then I gave up and went to the toilet to escape, came out and it was still droning on, morphing into 'Seaside Shuffle' at one point (which he wrote yonks ago), queued at the bar and finally got a pint and it was *still* going on. Led Zep eat your heart out, Mr Lewie trumped you last night!

Next up was Jennie Bellestar and she gave us some serious rock moves on the stage in-between the seven or eight piece FFA Band including some Hare Krishna devotees - she seemed to be quite pleased that she was 'playing with the Krishnas' as she called it. She opened with the war cry of 'Identity' and flung herself around the stage, scarlet hair flying all over the place. She was in great voice and put her whole body into the song. Then we had a seriously muscular version of 'Wild Thing' before she spoke the immortal words, 'Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS!' and she was off again, forcing us to sing along (which I did, obv). Well done Jennie, you did Poly proud!

The band was really good, solid guitars and drums with added horns to bring out the sax of the Spex sound. The FFA (Food For All) Band included some Krishna devotees (are they all devotees? I don't know) and they were great. The odd thing was that, despite playing raucous punk songs, they looked peaceful and gave off a feeling of calm and happiness which isn't the usual vibe coming off a rock stage. It was a bit strange but very appropriate.

As the crowd cleared a bit when Jennie left the stage I glanced over and saw a profile with an unmistakeable smile and there was Celeste, Poly's daughter. A minute or so later she was invited up on stage and said she was going to sing a song about Brixton where her mum grew up, just five miles from where we were. She sang 'Warrior In Woolworths' unaccompanied, just her voice, and she sounded excellent. I hope someone recorded her. She smiled at the applause and stepped off the stage back into her place in the audience as people came on to set up for the next act.

Next was Kevin Rowland and Madeleine Hyland who did a couple of new Dexy's songs which got a good reaction from the crowd. The final song was, of course, the perennial 'Come On Eileen'. That was rather predictable but got everyone singing and dancing along - let's face it, everybody knows that song. I'd seen Kevin in the crowd when I first got there so it's good that he was mingling and chatting but I've got no idea what his link to Poly might have been but it's good that he was on the bill since, from the reaction of the crowd, some people were there to see him.

During the break after the stage cleared I saw Celeste again, still at the front of the stage chatting to people and I put my shy self away, put on my brave face and went up to say hello and say how much I'd enjoyed her version 'Warrior'. We chatted for a minute or so and she asked where I lived and when I told her she said it wasn't far from Brixton that she'd been singing about. I told her I liked and had downloaded her songs with The Tabloid Queens and she said that was just a hobby really. She kindly let me take a photo of her and I did the terribly British thing of shaking her hand. Why do I always do that?

The stage was cleared for the final performance of the night - Doctor & The Medics. Now, all I know about the good Doctor is that he had a big hit with his version of 'Spirit In The Sky' in the '80s. That's it. So imagine my surprise when he, his guitarist and bass player (no drums) launched into a hard rocking version of 'You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)' followed by 'White Wedding' which were pretty fab. I was very impressed with the bass player who kept the same rhythm going across both songs without stopping. He got bonus points for wearing bright red tartan trousers in contrast to the Doctor's black and white gear and the guitarist's black.

The Doctor said he didn't know Poly but that his first live gig back in the day was seeing The Who, his second was The Jam (who he said were a Who tribute band) and his third was X-Ray Spex and they were a breath of fresh air.

He brought on Charlie O'Connor to sing the new version of 'Germ Free Adolescents' she recorded as the tribute single from the event that went on sale on 5 October. Glen Matlock played on the single but wasn't at PolyFest. Charlie was on the far side of the stage and here's the best photo I managed to get of her. I quite like the new version - it's not an imitation of the original - and you can listen to it on Soundcloud and then download it from iTunes, Amazon or your favourite downloady site.

The good Doctor then brought on Anita Harris to sing along to the final song of the evening, his own 'Spirit In The Sky' of course. I couldn't hear Anita in all that noise but I shook her hand when she came off stage into the audience again. And, y'know what? Doctor & The Medics were great fun! Raunchy, jittery guitar, solid bass and songs we all know - I wouldn't mind seeing them play live again.

And there we have it, the first - and hopefully not the last - PolyFest! I didn't see Tessa Pollitt but I've seen from Facebook photos that she was there. It was an odd line-up, particularly since there were no original Spex there and few people seemed to have really known Poly but it was fun nonetheless. It would've been nice to see some of the first wave of punks there, even if just to share some memories of Poly rather than play or sing. I'd also expected more Poly songs to be covered rather than people doing their own stuff - some songs from 'Generation Indigo' would have been good since that album is full of great pop songs.

Stars of the evening for me (other than Celeste) were Jennie Bellestar and Doctor & The Medics with Anita Harris coming a close third. Jennie was very fab and threw herself into it on stage, commenting that she hoped Poly was watching. At the end when Jennie came out to say goodbye to people and head off I had to go up to her to say how much I'd enjoyed her performance.

According to the Half Moon website, the gig was going to be filmed and recorded for release as 'The Day The World Turned Dayglo' so watch this space. The proceeds from the CD/DVD will go to Food For All, a Hare Krishna charity that feeds homeless people. I hope it is released so we can all see and hear Celeste and Jennie and Diane, the Doctor and Charlie, and, yes, Anita. Well done people!

I hope you were watching Poly.

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