London, The Lexington
“It’s been a long time.”
When Billy McCarthy says this to me outside the Lexington’s band entrance, it’s as if his eyes are focused on the three years since indeed we had last met. In an instant I see it: he’s in the zone. A brief hug ensures the moisture embalming his person in this freezing February night makes its way onto me. It can’t be sweat – this is pre-gig greetings; the ‘zone’ is a thing into which he’s about to enter, ready or not. It’s possible his customary nap prior to performance seems now to require being water-bucketed awake. It works; he’s flying about the place like a wet nun. His mumbled “Goddahgo” is not taken the wrong way: this zone is a rampaging storm not to be denied, and it has William McCarthy’s green eyes. I watch him go, smiling to myself. It’s been a while, for sure, and it’s nice to see some things are in full disorder.
“It’s been a long time,” he rediscovers, to the crowd this time. Is everything a long time from Billy McCarthy’s universe?
Onstage, against a black and white seascape backdrop with a distant ship, his exile seems to have been lost at sea: he looks like Robinson Crusoe who hates Fridays. His wet hair is matted like seaweed against his forehead; his eyes blaze with unchartered, savage wonderment like the caveman who discovered wanking; his flies are undone. Billy McCarthy looks dangerously at large.
At first he doesn’t seem to even notice the sweating packed house waiting for him. He’s much more preoccupied with his drenched follicles, which are causing some arguments on his forehead. A truce is called as the hat comes out. Underneath this Indiana Jones headwear, he looks as if he’s peering out from a cave. It’s a rare outing for him as a solo performer – the other two-thirds of Augustines are present only in spirit (and anecdote) – but standing alone on a stage armed only with a guitar and a hat to hide under, there’s something weirdly cosy about his demeanour that makes the sparseness of the stage irrelevant.
Billy McCarthy pretty much commands your attention from the outset.
As if aware of this, he launches straight into a new song. Instantaneously subcutaneous, its buoyant melancholy pummels its way under your skin like an old favourite. That’s not to say there is anything remotely formulaic at play here; this boy simply has a way with a tune, and the urgency with which it’s delivered is almost invasive – an impertinent stranger, it wipes its feet and enters with a nonchalance you barely notice and a presence that lingers. By the end of it, we’re reminded why Billy McCarthy’s music is so essential – it’s haunted. It’s been a long while, but there’s a presence here that feels like a welcome return.
“It’s great to be back in London,” he says genuinely. “Fucking love this city.” The city roars its approval, and with that off comes the hat – he’s home.
Launching into Augustine, the reaction from the room illustrates just what familiar surroundings Billy McCarthy finds himself. The song’s urgent call-to-arms verse rustles the audience like a sharp breeze through a cornfield: the crowd are all ears. If Billy McCarthy decided to now hold his breath until he went blue, the crowd would likely follow suit. As it is, they appear breathless anyway – a silent, swaying sea of grape-heads turning blue, like a vineyard about to pass out.
From our (disad)vantage point amid this semi-vintage bouquet (old and young, there is no age bias with Augustines crowds), the stage appears sliced into two sections with a big black bit in the middle where a pillar stands, behind which often hides a singer. Luckily, McCarthy’s not in static mode. Prowling panther-like from left to right and back again, his demeanour seeming to get meaner each time he passes the divide, it’s like looking at stills from the transformation scene of a b-movie horror. Certainly more Phantom Of The Opera than Friday the 13th, whatever ails him is graceful, and more than a bit romantic.
Conducting the audience, which is already tuning up but soon becomes his full-blown orchestra, McCarthy’s hypnotic vocals undulate like a current, the words “Keep your head up, kid; I know you can swim, but you’ve gotta move your legs” like an incantation to the immersed group of heads and arms treading choral waters – waving and drowning.
With such sparseness of onstage accompaniments, offset by a barrel-load of charm, McCarthy fills the room with an energy that couldn’t be outdone by the biggest pyrotechnics. When he moves, the whole room seems to shift on its axis; when he’s stationery, the muscularity of his facial expression has its own dance, as does the clumsiness of his movements. During Augustines favourite Chapel Song, the stampeding rhythmic heart of the track takes on a life of its own, McCarthy’s vocals soaring like a sermon, and the rousing sentiment of moving on becomes a mantra for supplicant hands: “It’s a bright blue sky”. It’s actually an oppressively low black ceiling, but it feels like freedom. That fucking roof is coming off tonight, thinks I briefly.
Next to me, an affable chap named Mark is so replete with the vibes he’s spilling over onto me. But he’s not possessed of a pisshead’s leprous camaraderie; his is a fully-conscious state of grinning and of happiness, brought on by maddeningly ticklish music and McCarthy’s impish abandon. He’s feeling infectious. “There’s just something about them,” Mark says… of one man on a stage. He’s not seeing double; he’s talking Augustines. “You can’t always hear what he’s saying, but…” He looks at me; I look back, synchronising. “You can feel it,” we say, finishing the thought in tandem and becoming best friends for a bit.
As vertiginous, quasi-religious rabble-rouser Now You Are Free sparks a choral love-in, with High Priest McCarthy brandishing guitar over head like a lightning conductor, the music and audience become almost one homogenous, amorphous mass. And it becomes clear what makes Augustines and McCarthy’s music so vital – a feeling of understanding and being drawn irrevocably towards without necessarily understanding how or why. This is the sort of music that whispers chords at you in the Field Of Dreams: if you build it, they will come in their pants. And while that is undoubtedly crude, it fits the picture: the ‘something’ instabuddy Mark identifies about this music does tend to access the body with not so much a carnal ‘knowledge’ as a PhD.
And onstage, madcap professor McCarthy is the pedestal pedagogue issuing instruction on how to mesmerise to a classroom of hungry learners – the hymnal and savagely tribal Cruel City inducting the undergrads into a choral cult as the “oohh-ooohhh-oohhhhhhh”s of the chorus reach the kind of apotheosis that usually makes a mess. The raised hands are a group of students who suddenly understand the answer. They’re also dying for detention.
Sexy stuff is afoot; McCarthy himself looks like a shipwrecked Brat Pitt and sounds like a hitch-hiking, poetry-spouting, utterly romantic Springsteen, the bastard. Seriously, you’d need to a S.W.A.T. team of swatters to fight off the female flies around this piece of shit. Having said that in largely justified male resentment, men are not completely impervious (er, Mark told me). Add to that the fact he can also tell a story like your dad, all assured and comforting, you might as well write off all the ladies in the room and the world beyond, and some of the men for that matter (See ya, Mark).
The ‘stories’ he shares are loosely linked segues between songs, a series of seemingly autobiographical and completely unlikely events Billy has happened upon, each one progressively less credible than the other, but somehow, paradoxically, more believable in their sequence (the story of the Australian lesbian stripper and the dildo will linger long). Told from a very personal point of view, with no exceptions (he chronicles very matter-of-factly the illness and subsequent death of his brother James with touching candour), when McCarthy is on stage, there are no parameters, no boundaries between him and his audience. After all, the songs say it all, with painstaking honesty; what’s to hide?
Mixing humour and pathos with proficient comic timing, McCarthy shows himself to be quite the raconteur – yet another hidden corner in the multi-talented bastard’s inner labyrinth of brilliance and aceness. While his timing is not always spot on – some stories go on a bit; jokes are sometimes milked – his ability to roll with the crowd and ad lib under such scrutiny bears a nonchalance that’s almost professional. It soon occurs there’s a healthy resemblance to another multi-faceted musical Billy.
Having seen the Bragg at the Hackney Empire with pretty much the same set-up – amp; guitar; hat-titude – the comparison is stark and worthy of note. While not as politically charged, McCarthy harbours a humanitarian heart but is still young enough to stave off the Braggian social invective. It may yet come in later years. For now, a weary but hopeful Billy McCarthy cuts a fine figure as a social commentator (of life squared) in his own right.
As he relates an incident where he visited his brother in prison wearing a dress, the comic scenario ends with the unsentimental revelation that this would be the last time he’d see James alive. “It’s OK to laugh,” he assures a dubious audience juggling awkward giggles amid his naked candour. With less genuine people, this might come across as mawkish or grandiose. With McCarthy there really is no fanfare; his heartbreak is not exclusive to him, and he makes no time for sentimentality: it just is. Segueing into a song in which the melancholy of life mellifluously flows, you see where the conduit lies. The song is king; the playing’s the thing.
The inclusion of a projector – a faulty one at that – would be a superfluous accompaniment even if it weren’t fucking up; the stories and the way they’re told are enough on their own. In terms of the music, even though with some songs you crave the feral urgency of the Augustines rhythm section, McCarthy’s stripped-back deliveries bring whole other perspectives. It’s like glimpsing the man behind the curtain.
But for all his Oz-like wizardry, McCarthy can’t magic away a venue’s curfew, nor the encroaching scarecrows here to enforce it. One of his stories leading into the final segment has gotten carried away with itself, and we’re running late. A minor conference between McCarthy and Lexington staff reaches an impasse. Even his winsome little-boy-lost smile can’t hold sway with straw-stuffed security. After quite reasonably offering to go unplugged, and being brushed away, McCarthy unplugs anyway and heads into his cornfield audience.
“OK, we’ll finish it outside,” he announces. Unfortunately, he’s not offering the brain-seeking staff out for fisticuffs. What he’s actually doing is inviting the entire venue outside. Undeterred by restriction, McCarthy is apparently getting this show finished no matter what. If that means going al fresco, fucking smoke em if you got em.
“Is he serious?” a friend asks incredulously.
Having known him in sporadic bursts over a period of time, many things have changed in the interim. The only unrelenting constant is that William McCarthy – a man who coaxed me onstage to introduce his band to a packed venue because nobody else was on hand; who hopped into an interview because the missing shoe had been sent hurling after a discourteous driver; who attended prison as the belle of the ball – is somebody who will just make do. Whatever the situation. If the Lexington were airborne, tonight’s encore would be on parachutes. Is he serious? Never and always seems about right.
“Only you could do something like this.” I say this as Billy comes rolling, sweaty and grinning, towards me, audience in tow. He looks insane and benevolent, like he might attack me with a love hammer. He’s glad to see a familiar face; in fact, his is the look of a man who loves to see the whole world right now. Quite apt, really, since the whole world is now following him, Pied Piper style, out of this explosively hot venue into the chill February night. Wait up, mate…
Once on the street, steel guitar in hand, he instantly looks more comfortable as a rapt audience envelops him in a huddle. Plucked from the platform of the stage, McCarthy is now physically on the same level, and it’s what suits him best. The night is beautiful; the warmth and love generated inside grows defiantly warmer against the cold; security are shitting themselves. This party is far from over.
Launching into a sparse version of Book Of James, the opening lines “On a park bench sat a crimson beating heart” like electrical pulses trigger voices into explosions in the frosty night as sidewalk karaoke kicks off. Teasing his guitar in and out, from rousing to a capella, the choral crowd undulates like the swaying ears of corn McCarthy has sewn, and the night breeze is like a harvest of beautiful noise, inside of which farmer William of Oz revels in the fruits of his organic crop. Scarecrows look on bewildered.
Mid-verse, he stops. “Is it Friday?” he asks, transforming the Thursday night crowd into a chorus of Friday night-style whooping. “Who’s gonna call the cops?” He looks up at the windows of the residency houses above the street – all of which remain implausibly unpeopled by occupants. With a shrug and a mischievous grin, he bashes at his guitar, opens up his larynx and chaperones his choir of street urchins from the gutter to the stars, Book Of James’ “Oohhhh-ohhhhh” outro sounding out like the whalesong for lost souls. All around me are grins so wide they’re in danger of parking fines.
And then the authorities, sensing that everything is alright with the world, decide to remind everyone of their version. The itchy-limbed Lexington scarecrows, feeling a last straw coming on, are adamant McCarthy ceases his guitar-based shenanigans. Billy, being the peace-loving man he is, gently complies. Then Billy, being the life-loving man he also happens to be, says fuck-it to the guitar and goes full-on a capella with a song so bruised and broken it belongs right here in the darkened doorways. “A pale blue afternoon in a deathtrap town” is the picture he paints for us; in a starless night in a loved-up city street is the acoustic gallery in which the colours now shine, McCarthy’s tortured vocal strains hanging on the night like a siren for lost souls. Stripped of venue, electricity, and then guitar, his one remaining facility cries out with raw emancipation, freezing notes in the night air and making shards of them – shards that shatter their glass with crystalline music upon the cracked paving. Only Shakespeare plays should have this kind of finale.
And with that, he’s gone, stolen back into the night. An echo lingers, and lingers some more, forever. The night slowly starts to fall apart; life unravels again with gentle nonchalance as a crowd drifts dreamily away and a suddenly quiet city holds its breath.
Did that just happen? Quite possibly; and I may well have just seen one of the greatest gigs of my life.
*An edited version of this article appears in Record Collector in the UK and Flood magazine in the US
**For Augustines biography: https://stephenbrolan.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/augustines-biography/
***Augustines live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire: https://stephenbrolan.wordpress.com/category/we-are-augustines/