He took to the stage, tall and thin in a dark suit, sporting a black walking stick. Leaned against a large amplifier which didn’t look like it was amplifying anything, but it was cooler than sitting on a stool. Within reach of his good, left hand a music stand with a book of lyrics, and in a semi-circle around him no fewer than three acoustic guitarists and a drummer with a set of congas. It was half past midnight on his 50th birthday, so really it was the 23rd. Later on there were be two rounds of ‘Happy Birthday’: one scheduled, after the last song of the encore, with a cake and candles brought on stage by his son William; one initiated by the audience, fond but less tuneful. The applause died down. He said, ‘“Falling and Laughing”. Now’. And there it was, interjected with mixing expostulations from Edwyn: ‘Up! Drums, up!’ God, I love ‘Falling and Laughing’. More even than ‘Poor Old Soul’, which followed, and with which he really hit his stride, his singing voice miraculously powerful and fluid, compared to his fragile speech. Not perfect, but when was it ever that? When was that ever the point?
In her book, Grace says that old friends took time to adjust to Edwyn after his stroke: second meetings were usually easier than first meetings. Marking the transition, I suppose, from thinking, ‘How he’s changed,’ to ‘Has he though?’ and ‘Upwards and onwards.’ Even as a fan, I remember being terribly upset, hearing him for the first time since his recovery on a Front Row in 2007. It was a good interview – with Grace’s help, he talked about his situation, his newly completed album (recorded before the stroke, of course). He sang a burst of ‘I’m Searching for the Truth’, a genuinely new song, which was a joy to hear. Coming to it cold, though, it was unbearably sad, hearing this once eloquent man struggle to put simple sentences together. Though it was not really the point that he was once eloquent, it was more that he once wrote ‘Falling and Laughing’ and ‘Louise Louise’ and ‘In A Nutshell’, and this could still happen to him. I wondered that if a ten minute radio interview was too much for me, what would a gig be like? That book, though. So generous, so practical. Disarmingly blunt, it snaps you out of it. ‘Suffering is ordinary’. Get used to that, and get on with enjoying this.
Talk about a greatest hits set. To my delight, it was weighted in favour of the glorious You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever / The Glasgow School era Orange Juice. As well as ‘Falling and Laughing’ and ‘Poor Old Soul’ were ‘Dying Day’, ‘Consolation Prize’ and even ‘Blue Boy’. From later on were ‘Rip It Up’ and ‘A Girl Like You’, and two songs from the Hope and Despair LP, which I have been coming around to recently and belatedly. The wall of acoustic guitars attacked them all with a verve which belied the homogeneous instrumentation (band intros were funny: ‘on guitar... on guitar... on guitar... and I am on... me’). It made me think of the video for ‘You’ll Never Know, My Love’: Edwyn in his studio, surrounded by a collection of guitars he can no longer play (there seem to be hundreds of them). Except that here, they were being played, he’d just got other people to do it for him.
The special guests were mixed, but mostly a blessing: the first of these, improbably called Romeo (from The Magic Numbers, apparently), took a verse and made it worse, his singing too precious by half. Malcolm Ross did a better job, on ‘Consolation Prize’: ‘He wore his fringe like Roger McGuinn’s’. The third guest, Ryan from The Cribs (again apparently – I don’t seem to have heard of anyone these days!), introduced ‘a brand new song – the three most exciting words in the English language’. Written by Ryan and Edwyn, it was about sleeplessness. As with ‘I’m Searching for the Truth’, wordplay had been replaced by something simpler, more direct. An obvious effect of Edwyn’s diminished language skills, but not a bad songwriting direction either. Then they did another new song.
‘A Girl Like You’ concluded the main set, pretty epic. He came out for the encore and we sang ‘Happy Birthday’, which was followed by a shout, ‘You’d better play “Breakfast Time” now!’ ‘I’m sorry,’ replied Edwyn. ‘It’s the dysphasia, you see.’ No unrehearsed songs. Generally his speech varied according to what he was doing: announcing songs, he was stilted, but responding to the audience he was more spontaneous and fluid. Someone shouted out indistinctly after Edwyn announced ‘One Track Mind’, and he made him repeat it. He had to ask a couple of times, but the man eventually explained that he’d thought he might mean the Heartbreakers’ song. ‘No, it’s my song,’ said Edwyn, firmly, to laughter. It doesn’t sound like much, but it showed he was in control, it was a nice moment.
After the ‘Breakfast Time’ comment he went into ‘I’m Searching for the Truth’: light, understated. ‘I will always be lucky in my life.’ What an amazing thing to sing. We’re lucky too, Edwyn.