SECRET GIG 22: ‘ONE BIG FAMILY’ (incorporating SG23)
Knebworth Park, Hertfordshire
Several pilgrims have come unstuck in time.
What time is it? Chronologically, it’s 6 September 2014 A.D. Conceptually, it’s every time and no time – all at the same, er, time.
You see, these are pilgrims that have ventured into another Embrace huddle that is the group’s unique Secret Gig (SG) series. However, this time it’s a secret festival, which is designed to incorporate every SG that has gone before – a paradoxical hidden store composed of nostalgia and anticipation. Welcome to Cache 22.
Aptly subtitled ‘Extraction’, participants are encouraged to create a kind of thematic genus that makes up the DNA of the SG strain. Put simply, the anatomy of this festival is comprised of all the elements of SGs of yore – and all have dressed accordingly to pay homage. Some of your more fervent nutters have even created exhibits (the SG5 cave tribute being a particularly inventive one). Having only attended one previous event myself (SG21 – the corps vs the corpses zombie fest in Holmfirth), I’m given a crash course of previous themes, which are peppered all over the place with Trekkie-like verisimilitude. Indeed, it seems a species from the planet Geek has inherited the Earth.
Another theme encouraged by the cryptic Embrace administration (instructions are hush-hush and delivered via Gestapo-like email aliases) is the welcoming of extra-terrestrial life to our little planet. The idea here is to display to any prospective interstellar visitors what represents the best of this world. For my part, I anticipate the arrival of the Tralfamadorians from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, a species with no concept of time and, as a consequence, mortality. Whenever death or an ending is mentioned, the phrase “So it goes” follows. Thus, being the morbid mortal I am, my outfit is designed to welcome the people of Tralfamadore with our harshest truths – time and death: my ‘skeletal jeans’ representing our finite, decomposing nature, and the tallies being the marks of time to which we’re bound until our inevitable snuffing of the proverbial it. So it goes.
Nobody notices/gives an arse about such obscure referencing, and said costume is pronounced dead on arrival. So it fucking goes.
Elsewhere, more convivial costumes are being paraded (my only maudlin allies are the slew of SG21 zombies shambling around) – people made up in garlands of flowers (or actually as flowers), garish make-up, onesies (beats me), and alien hats fashioned from tin foil like superconductors. Luckily, no lightning storm arrives to cook up a head barbeque.
But the primary costume here seems to be no costume at all. No, don’t get excited: ‘SG’ doesn’t stand for ‘Sans Garments’ or ‘Showing Gonads’. I mean that there’s a sense of commonality here that’s free of the kind of ostentatious posturing you can get at other festivals. The costumes being sported are not enough to camouflage the affiliation that abounds here. True to its title, the festival really does feel like a One Big Family – minus the bitter recriminations and latent hostility.
A case in point, upon arrival, our retarded efforts to pitch a tent – one that has been kindly donated by a friend who neglected to mention its architecture was conceived by Erno Rubik – are salvaged by a couple of fellow campers in shocking red wigs, under which lies more common sense than either of us (take a bow, Grant and Zee).
So now it’s festival time. With an itinerary as obscure as all previous instructions – the line-up consists of Embrace and various ‘surprise’ guests, including a headliner (the band are not, it turns out, fronting their own festival) – it shouldn’t come as any surprise that, well, another surprise was lurking.
Sure enough, no sooner had we constructed our canvas Rubik’s Cube than the familiar sound of “Ahhh-ohhh ahhh-ohhh” drifts out across the verdant countryside from the direction of a small copse of trees at the base of the field’s incline. Something’s going on already.
And so, to the sound of Follow You Home’s now ubiquitous tribal chant we follow it home to an enchanting enclosure of trees straight out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where hundreds of more savvy festival-goers have already congregated.
On a small stage in the clearing, Danny ‘Puck’ Namara is the enchanter, conducting the gathering through his band’s call-to-arms anthem One Big Family almost like a narrator. The song’s “We got family” refrain, normally a rousing larynx ripper among the crowd, here emits a more emollient choral togetherness, like a Christmas carol being shared around a family piano. But in a wood. It’s a charmingly subtle way to begin the party, and a pleasant Russian doll-like surprise in that we get an even more secret gig within a secret gig. Shame muggins here knew sod-all about it and only caught the last song. There were a few clues on site, apparently, but this reviewer was too busy being clueless with his bastard tent.
The fact SG22 is inaugurated by SG23 seems apt, seeing as we’re all unstuck in time anyway.
Speaking of which, we’re back at the festival site and immersed in memorabilia and homage as if time is in a state of flux. In terms of support for Embrace, time is pretty much irrelevant. After an eight-year hiatus, there are few bands that can re-emerge and still draw this kind of devotion. There are stalls and exhibits constructed by aficionados – the cave of SG5 from uberfans Darren and Liz is particularly spectacular – and the band themselves are interacting with autograph signing and general mingling. Keyboardist Mickey Dale, who is fast becoming the band’s Del Trotter, has again set up his own merchandise stall, and bassist Steve Firth has created his own Danny’s Arms pub sign (which was unceremoniously nicked by one person clearly oblivious to the spirit of the event).
It’s pretty much an egalitarian experience – there are no parameters here. That seems to be the essence of this band – Embrace truly embodies its own name.
It’s both surprising and fitting that Embrace should choose Knebworth as the setting for their miniature festival – a place that has staged absolutely huge mega-events in its history, not least the shambles that was the million-plus-attended ego-circus for Oasis, a band to whom Embrace were once inexplicably compared. It seems almost poetic that this understated affair should be set here, free as it is of ostentatious bombast, in harmony with its beautiful surroundings (the crowd even cleans up after itself), and completely devoid of egotistical posturing.
Now, there’s a comparison if you want one.
With such a plethora of events happening, this reviewer has to admit to missing many of the supporting acts. What we did catch, the welcome surprise of The Magic Numbers (nice touch, that), was a buoyant and playful performance that saw the brother-sister partnership perfectly align itself with the familial atmosphere that’s emerging. Great as their set is – particularly a touching rendition of Forever Lost – you have to feel for The Magic Numbers, because the anticipation for the (non) headliners is reaching boiling point…
Step forward Embrace.
The encroaching darkness makes for a perfect setting to the opening chords of Protection – a portentous monolith of an opener that feels like a cultish induction. And despite all the inclusive how-do-you-dos the band engaged in earlier, up on stage the five high priests of Embrace are elevated.
“It wasn’t perfection I was expecting…”
Danny McNamara’s voice has come under some scrutiny over the years –particularly since their re-emergence – but those first lines are the most apt words ever uttered on stage. Even the die-hards are speechless. It certainly wasn’t perfection anyone was expecting, but what emerges from Mr McNamara’s mouth, and reverberates across this glorious landscape as the last embers of dusk kiss the skyline, is hauntingly sublime.
Rumours abound that Danny McNamara had made a jaunt to America to have severe vocal training. Other tales are circulating that this could be something of a Dolly Partongate.
While I can’t confirm or deny the former, this reviewer can unequivocally disconfirm the latter. Though it’s easy to think the singer, who has been plagued by a lack of confidence and scale, might have opted for miming rather than howl at his devoted fans for two hours, is most definitely live and singing his heart out. And in perfect pitch. The transformation in his voice is remarkable – there seems to be a palpable return of confidence that’s been absent for some time.
This is confirmed when the band’s cathartic anthem All You Good Good People is played in the original key of F-sharp – most live versions since Glastonbury 2000 have been tuned down by two semi-tones, diluting the grandeur of the song’s skyscraping chorus –and the whole of Knebworth is reaching for its rejuvenated heights.
Further evidence comes in the fact certain tracks that have proved an Achilles heel for the singer are reintroduced into their repertoire. The fragility of The Love It Takes has no hiding place for a singer with no confidence, and is delivered with febrile, emotional delicacy – there are a few watery eyes in the audience when this rare gem is rolled out. Likewise, by Danny McNamara’s own admission, the opening track from 2001’s If You’ve Never Been was always a vocal mountain to conquer; that he is up on stage now, without a sherpa, scaling the precarious terrain of that song proves his insecurities with Over are well and truly that.
With the same titular parallel, Come Back To What You Know – historically a bit of a vocal stumbling block – really comes back into familiar territory, in that it’s also played in its original key, and not a single note is misplaced. An appreciative faithful are also in fine voice. Not least when what has now become the band’s anthemic calling card is brought out – Follow You Home requiring no prompting, preceded as it is by the choir from the church of “Ahhh-ohhh” in the crowd (a sect that has been previously confused with the cult of the huge mistake, though devotees of the church of “Uh-oh” deny any association). This song, and its irresistible call-to-arms coda, has now become the staple vocal diet of the Embrace faithful, who are chanting it well into the night like hiccupping owls. They even greet an onstage wedding proposal with it (someone called Zach insisting a girl called Kirstie has got to say ‘yes’… though they could feasibly have been chanting “No-ohh no-ohh”).
With everyone in a virtual group hug by now, it’s time for the festival’s anthem, One Big Family – a song that has always outshone its recorded version, by virtue of the fact it needs to be screamed into the sky. With Danny and brother Richard sharing vocals and giving their larynxes a good pummelling, the entire crowd are one amorphous family and hugging their way through the song’s sentiment. It’s apt that this track should be the subtitle to this festival, and evidence that this is one of the songs that truly defines Embrace and its following.
Another track that benefits from the fresh air, and is possibly their best and most muscular live song, is Save Me (yes, it came earlier in the set, but remember, we’re unstuck in time). A virtual booby-trap of musical pyrotechnics, this track is a series of explosions set to go off within a deceptively breezy and jaunty verse. With similar volatility, the audience are hurling their limbs around with epileptic enactments of explosive death throes. So it goes. And even though the entire gathering is aware of the combustible nature of this song, the chorus still retains an utterly atomic power to surprise.
Equally, the band’s true call-to-arms anthem Ashes ends the set with heart-thumping, soul-soaring grandeur. That it should follow the band’s weakest link – the Coldplay-penned Gravity, a popular but comparatively substandard track – lends it an even more incendiary element, like a true phoenix from the flames. The words “Watch me rise up”, chorused by everyone here, echoes across the landscape like an implacable war cry.
It that moment, watching a devoted crowd hollering the words into the night sky like banshees, it’s clear that Embrace, despite an eight-year absence, are not the kind of band that can ever truly disappear. The music is indelible.
And speaking of never buggering off, it’s encore time, and the absolute best has been saved for this moment. Quite how the first song in tonight’s encore didn’t make it onto the new album is mind-boggling, but the live debut of the genetic genius that forms the strain of DNA, perhaps the best song Embrace have written, is a truly captivating moment. Danny McNamara has never looked more severely focused, his normally inclusive stage presence confined to himself, darkly shrouded in solitude and delivering the words as if his life depended on it. A collective shiver seems to ripple through the crowd when he sings the lines: “I will want what I can’t have ’til I’m dead in the ground”. So it goes.
A testimony to not only the power of Embrace’s music but their frontman’s sincerity, this monolithic download-only song is the clearest indicator of the band’s future direction: the top of the world. And on this stage tonight, as he clutches onto the soul of his music for dear life, Danny McNamara is on higher ground than he has ever been.
But it’s not all the Big Mac’s show – younger bro Richard’s colossal rendition of lead single Refugees scales similar heights, but it’s more release than realisation – a firework exploding from the meditative fire.
Quite apposite that one of the best ballads ever written should emerge from the furnace of Richard’s performance. Fireworks was always an emotive track, built as it is on such earnest sentiment, and Danny McNamara’s voice fairly tears people’s heart to shreds on this penultimate track; there are group hugs all over the place, making evident the fireworks in this band are nowhere near extinguished.
And so we come to the ultimate closer. The Good Will Out is one of the most rousing rally calls ever recorded, but in a live setting – at the band’s own festival, with a collective of singularly devoted fans facing stage front – this becomes a song that can move mountains. When the singer hurls himself to the front of the stage and pounds out the words: “There must be a time, between the well-meaning, when the good will come out and start the healing”, it becomes almost like a sermon. As if to enforce this, the Reverend McNamara draws out the song’s “la la la” outro like a mantra, the whole band completely silent while he conducts the congregation through one more rousing chorus – raucously confirming their undying devotion.
After a five or six a cappella crowd choruses, the band kicks in with the final outro, Danny McNamara declaring: “We’ve still got it, oh yeah!” And you help but think that the ‘we’ in that sentiment includes each and every person here.
After the band finally leaves the stage, the biggest surprise of the night comes in the form of headliners The Beach Boys – well, at least the nearest approximation of them we’ve ever seen. So accurate is this rendition of California’s finest that this reviewer has to edge closer to the stage to make sure that really isn’t Brian Wilson up there. But bollocks to the truth, best just to make like you’re on a sandy beach somewhere knocking back cocktails and picking up good vibrations. To which Embrace themselves return to the stage to join in with a party-closing rendition of Good Vibrations, the band encircled in a group hug on the far side of the stage and Danny stage front unleashing the inner Beach Boy we always suspected he wanted to be.
By the end, it’s as if a magical vision has been expunged, but the crowd we’re amongst are the sustaining factor, full as they are of the spirit and fervour that we’ve just witnessed. As if to symbolise this, we take ourselves to the side of the main stage, just near where we’re camped. Here, there’s a bonfire still burning, which was earlier lit by Danny McNamara. Long into the night we watch as the flames burn themselves to embers, but the warmth they throw out lasts long after the final sparks have died out.
So it goes.
Stephen Brolan, September 2014
* To vote for the Embrace Secret Gig as best UK festival of 2014, please go to: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/Z85F2BB. The festival is nominated in four categories:
– Best New Festival
– Best Small Festival
– Best Family Festival
– Best Grass Roots Festival
Please feel free to vote for them all.
**An edited version of this article is published in Record Collector magazine in the UK and Filter magazine in the US
In The End
The Love It Takes
All You Good Good People
Follow You Home
Come Back To What You Know
One Big Family
The Good Will Out