LIVE REVIEW: Marc Almond at The London Palladium

LIVE REVIEW: Marc Almond at The London Palladium
Credit: Marija Buljeta

“It’s been a hell of a journey…”

As the band drift onto the stage, there is a real sense of occasion to this gig – the first night of the current tour. No doubt this is enhanced greatly by the grand surroundings of the Frank Matcham-designed London Palladium, with its Corinthian-columned classical facade and sea of red velvet seats, which are cosseting us away from the October rain that is falling outside, in central London and beyond.

The sense of excitement is heightened still further by the unusual yet relaxed little session of sound checking and instrument tuning that the band – all ten of them – commence as they wait for their figurehead to appear. They seem at ease and confident. The anticipation grows.

Marc Almond soon appears, strolling nonchalantly on to suitably respectful fanfare from the capacity audience. He proceeds to check in with each of the band members, presumably to make sure that everything is okay – and to help calm any nerves they might have, too probably. It’s a nice, respectful and charming touch – almost like a mother hen checking on her chicks. After all, few performers are as relaxed on stage as Marc Almond, so it must be good to have some of that calm rub off on you, as a fellow musician, just through such a small, simple gesture.

LIVE REVIEW: Marc Almond at The London Palladium
Credit: Marija Buljeta

Once it’s established that everything is in order, they launch straight into a surprisingly rocky cover version of ‘I’m The Light’ – Blue Cheer’s anthemic 1971 track, from their Oh! Pleasant Hope album. This may sound like an incongruous choice when you read this, but sonically, it’s a perfect fit for the chameleon-like Almond and his band – it could almost have been written for them, so masterful is their interpretation. It’s more straightforward than the sitar-heavy original, but this psychedelic bluesy tune benefits from the huge sound of this ensemble, with Neal X’s punchy guitar work leading the way. This salvation-themed stomper is immediately counterpointed, though, with Marc’s own incredibly moving epic ‘Black Sunrise’, its range of altogether darker cosmic metaphors contrasting starkly with the vivacious joy of the opener.

With ‘Black Sunrise’ being the lead track from 2020’s Chaos And A Dancing Star album, it is a fitting time for the ever-affable Marc Almond to have the first of his regular between-song chats with us, the audience. “It’s been a hell of a journey…” he says, thanking us for our continued patience, as the gig was rescheduled and relocated, migrating away from its original venue of the Camden Roundhouse to the altogether plusher surrounds of the Palladium. But such a luxuriant venue is totally fitting for Almond and his band. After all, few artists can truly claim that to fit Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, more than Almond, with his journey from his Southport home, via Soft Cell’s inception-place of Leeds to these storied surroundings, where The Beatles trod the same boards on another October Sunday night, back in 1963. He also reminds us that this should have been the tour to promote Chaos And A Dancing Star, but – with the Covid-enforced lockdowns – this tour has actually ended up much closer to the release of the new mini-album, Things We Lost, on the 28th of October, on Cherry Red Records.

LIVE REVIEW: Marc Almond at The London Palladium
Credit: Marija Buljeta

It occurred to me that the last time I saw him solo was actually at one of London’s other music halls – the altogether more diminutive Wilton’s, which Almond has almost adopted as a cause of his own, playing a series of intimate shows there, over the years, to help fund that venue’s restoration to somewhere near the grandeur of the Palladium. Few artists have that reach of Almond, from the arty to the earthy or immerse themselves in pop and rock iconography the way he does too. Maybe Ireland’s own Gavin Friday is the one example that springs to mind, whose own vaudevillian masterpiece album, Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves, would surely dazzle and delight many fans of Marc Almond who may not have already heard it. Marc’s next song – 1988’s ‘The Stars We Are’ – encapsulates this Idol worship that he is so fascinated by, and the crowd respond ecstatically, singing along with every word.

There is no gold lame shirt tonight, though, unlike that night at Wilton’s and many since. Tonight, he is relatively subdued, in a black velvet jacket and open-necked black shirt. The music provides all the glitter needed. Similarly, he tells us how his mobility is limited by the combined hip and knee issues that he is having. In fact, there was one horrible moment when he merely strolled across the front of the stage when his right leg seemed to almost give way, and he grasped at it. I’m sure it was very subtle and unnoticed by many, but it confirms his concern whilst simultaneously highlighting his dedication to his showmanship. Lesser artists might have cancelled altogether, but for Almond, the show must go on.

Thus, there is none of his usual bouncing across the stage, encouraging the audience to greater heights of ecstasy. Instead, there is a stool provided for him, and he resorts to perching on that from time to time, resting there for the duration of some of the slower, quieter numbers, including the magical ‘In My Room’, where he is accompanied solely by the McCarricks on cello and violin, plucking gently at their instruments as Almond is bathed in golden light, centre-stage. But – typically, for a master of his art, like Almond – he manages to use this lack of mobility to his advantage, the simple purity of the performance enhanced by the unembellished approach.

There are no projections, gimmicky stage sets or even flashy lights tonight. It is purely Marc Almond commanding proceedings. There was a time when Almond’s vocals were a thing of media scorn. Those old enough will remember how one TV sketch show did a skit mocking his vocals. Whether he was stung by that, I don’t know, but there is no doubt that Almond mastered his voice, and tonight it is fantastic – the best I have heard it in many years. He can hold the long notes like few others in pop; in fact.

One theme he returns to repeatedly when he chats throughout the evening is his “cornucopia of curiosities” – the more obscure or unusual tracks that he has performed over the years. So, interspersed with the hits, we are treated to such rare gems as ‘Urban Velvet’ – the track which, he tells us, should have actually provided the title to the album that was eventually released as Fantastic Star. There is ‘Moonbathe Skin’ and Rod McKuen’s ‘Trashy’ – a glorious stomp that Almond says he feels a particular affinity for.

But it is his beautifully and subtly arranged versions of ‘Bedsitter’, the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Rent’ and their collaborative recent No.1, ‘Purple Zone’ which are the truly stunning highlights of the set for me: effortlessly moving and perfectly executed, it’s worth the ticket price just for these tracks alone. The only times I’m not whooping my approval between the songs is when I’m having to choke back the tears!

As he reminds us, he – like a lot of us – is a survivor. There was his famous motorcycle crash, which not left him hospitalised for weeks, his jaw and skull wired back together with a latticework of metal, which for a while, used to be visible at his shows, glinting at the back of his mouth, whenever he threw back his head for those aforementioned long notes and the lights caught it. His hair turned white overnight with the shock of that crash, and he was unable to speak for a fortnight, I think, due to the stammer induced by the psychological trauma, too. But he’s also had his spleen and gallbladder removed, too, I am reminded! He truly is a survivor!

LIVE REVIEW: Marc Almond at The London Palladium
Credit: Marija Buljeta

As the show draws to an end and Almond, with typical honesty, refuses to leave the stage – “I f*cking hate encores!” he proclaims – we are treated to three more classics: a beautiful and, for Almond, semi-autobiographical version of ‘What Makes A Man A Man?’, a rousing rendition of Bowie’s ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ and – inevitably – a magnificent ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’, with the stage bathed in Soft Cell’s signature neon blue and pink hues. I am rendered literally speechless with emotion. It is pop perfection!

Perhaps obviously, yes – I am a fan. But with all honesty and without hyperbole, I can tell you this: you have to see this show! It is immaculate. This is Marc Almond at a new peak. And this man is a treasure. Yes, he may have been acknowledged with an OBE, but he deserves more still. He is a national treasure! He may now qualify for a bus pass, but he deserves a gilded horse-drawn carriage! And with those ailments mounting, there is no telling when he will have to call time on his live career, as his partner in tune, Dave Ball, seemingly has. So get out there and see this utterly joyous and masterful show while you can. You won’t regret it …unless you stay at home. Say hello before you have to say goodbye.

Marc Almond at The London Palladium Setlist

I’m The Light
Black Sunrise
The Stars We Are
Urban Velvet
Under Your Wing
Moonbathe Skin
Golden Light
Hollywood Forever
Light Sleepers
In My Room
Little Dreamer
Even A Fool Learns To Love
Purple Zone
You Have
The Days Of Pearly Spencer
What Makes A Man A Man?
John, I’m Only Dancing
Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

1 Comment

  1. Great review, thank you!
    Am so regretting not travelling to London for this. The set list is fantastic, great to see some risks being taken with the selection of rare or unexpected songs. Sad that most artists play it safe, but not Marc.
    Hope his mobility issues don’t preclude a similar tour next year, I’m going!

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