NEW MODEL ARMY
NIGHT OF A THOUSAND VOICES,
Round Chapel, Hackney, London
13-15th April 2018
The Round Chapel, the capital’s magnificent grade 2 listed building in the Hackney borough, was originally – and somewhat aptly a nonconformist church and is now owned and preserved by the Hackney Historical Buildings Trust and holds a variety of music and arts events. On this particular beautiful spring weekend, this authentic and ornate venue proudly played host to quite literally a congregation of New Model Army fans who travelled from near and far and from all corners of the globe to be a part of an intimate shared singing experience never before undertaken by the band in their 37-year history, and in part this location was chosen for that reason as opposed to say, home-town Bradford.
Aptly named A Night of a Thousand Voices, the concerts comprised of 3 taking place on 2 consecutive evenings then ending with a Sunday afternoon finale. The premise was that a small stage would be constructed in the centre of the chapel with the full band playing, not an acoustic but a much stripped-back set and to allow the audience to fully participate in the show as a collective emotional experience, singing for the love of singing and moreover for the love of the wonderfully eclectic array of 50 classic and lesser-known NMA songs spanning their vast back catalogue. There were to be no supporting acts – sets were to be split into two 50-60 minute halves, broken up by an interval. As expected, this series of gigs was highly-anticipated but not without some deliberation by many NMA fans and I think even the band themselves! Nobody knew what to expect; whether this would work and upon previous discussion with others leading up to the event and from online forum posts, it was clear that there was a mixture of excitement but also trepidation.
Nevertheless, for me genuine curiosity prevailed and I’m a bit of a one for taking a giant wade into unknown murky waters! So my partner and I booked for the 2 nights and headed to the Smoke, arriving in the cultural melting pot amidst significant gentrification of the sprawling Hackney borough on the Friday afternoon, checked into our accommodation and ventured out to meet other gig-going friends for a couple of pints in a nearby watering hole before locating the Round Chapel and queuing quite early on in order to secure seats near the stage as the spaces weren’t pre-allocated. Luckily it was a warm, dry evening and the feeling of being on the cusp of summer permeated the air as people chattered and bantered, some with a beer in the queue. I really liked that the door entry staff adopted a very relaxed, friendly and non-confrontational attitude. No bags searches and hurrying people along, not even minding people drinking alcohol in the queue. Always a winner in my eyes!
Upon arriving, we noticed that the chairs were circled around the small stage at the front with additional seats at the back and along the upper balcony for a terrific view and a small pop-up bar constructed in the corner near the entrance. We looked Heavenwards to an exquisite, high, dome-like ceiling and a massive organ (no sniggers!) stood replete and proud at the back and helped to absorb the feeling that you were in a really special place, and as the long queue outside the building began to thin out and swell into the church and the almost-thousand-strong crowd began to fill the pews, you could feel the anticipation and awe emanating. Bespoke lyric books were provided for everyone, adorned with artwork from Joolz Denby and with an alphabetical tracklist of which had been kept under wraps until the event so there was an air of anticipation and sounds of appreciation (and surprise!) as people thumbed eagerly through the notebooks. The chosen songs were certainly varied and to my delight included material from ‘The Love of Hopeless Causes’, ‘Eight’ and ‘Between Dog and Wolf’ and latest album ‘Winter’ in addition to tracks from classic earlier albums ‘No Rest For the Wicked’, ‘The Ghost of Cain’ and ‘Impurity’.
No barriers or security staff cordoned off the low stage, so we really felt close to the band and felt that they were putting themselves in our hands and their trust that the crowd would keep a respectful distance in addition to being caught in the moment; placing themselves in a position of intimacy and a slight vulnerability we could also sense their nervousness and intense concentration – in this opening half in particular there was little direct interaction with the audience from Justin and the band. But from the outset I felt really touched in a way that I’d not felt at previous gigs. There was also a real buzz in the crowd but also a slight tension, a sense of the unknowing.
And so the Friday evening’s first half then kicked off with‘The Ballad of Bodmin Pill’ followed by the wonderful words of ‘Fate’ and ‘Autumn’ before a huge surge in singing as Justin and co launched into ‘Winter’ and ‘A Liberal Education’. Many people, myself included found they just couldn’t stay seated and needed to be on their feet and jig and sway, but were also swept by the raw emotion of tracks such as ‘Ballad’ and ‘Die Trying’. Such was the level of focus and conviction in amongst the audience to really absorb themselves in the harmonies, the few who were nattering during the songs received sharp looks! The singing levels seemed equally matched – it worked; whilst a strange novelty to hear the band at such a low volume for the size of the crowd, they still led the way and it was a good sound. And whilst we were hardly an angelic choir, the surround sound was far removed from a caterwaul of braying animals! A 45-minute break followed. This may sound a long time but due to the lack of toilets (except for several Portaloos set up outside the venue) and the lengthy queue for the small bar, the 45 minutes was most definitely needed; the only downside in my opinion, though it was to be expected.
The second half, I felt was stronger and more confident, both for band and audience alike. The set started with a bang, with the first 4 tracks being – ‘Heroes’, ‘The Charge’, ‘Believe It’ and an all-time favourite of mine ‘Lovesongs’, along with ‘Eleven Years’ and ‘Better Than Them’ which I will admit made the goosebumps rise and tears start, along with a lump swelling in my throat threatening to devour my singing voice (some might say that’s not a bad thing!) Justin seemed to visibly relax as the band would pause between songs, announcing the next to allow us time to find the lyrics pages and take stock of the genuine rapture amongst the audience, gazing round the room. We were even treated to a smile now and again! And when this happened I could feel my heart soar. This second half seemed to fly by and before I knew it, we were at the last quarter and an energetic rendition of ‘Poison Street’. There was an 11pm curfew but it ended on a massively high note as ‘212’ and ‘Green and Grey’ threatened to take the roof off. By the end many of us were on a real high and decided to go for food and a tipple afterwards at a nearby restaurant – it was quite possibly the largest group meal ever! It was lovely to chat to others who I’d not met before, all sharing our views of the evening and bantering.
Those of us who were there for the following evening wondered what selection of material would be chosen from the listing – whether it would be a completely different set or a mixture of the previous evening’s too. Saturday’s first half kicked off with the legendary ‘51st State’, sweeping the crowd into an enthusiastic foot-tapping frenzy from the off, followed by ‘Between Dog and Wolf’s’ ‘Seven Times’. In fact this evening was liberally sprinkled with tracks from ‘Winter’s predecessor; in itself for many a ground-breaking NMA album which has had not much play during recent tours, so it was wonderful to hear and sing-along with gusto to this along with ‘Pull The Sun’, ‘Knievel’ and ‘Lean Back and Fall’. The beautiful, haunting lyrics of ‘These Words’ followed by the passion and conviction of much-loved track ‘White Coats’ brought the first half to a breathtaking close. Only a few tracks from the previous evening were played; (‘Fate’, ‘Drag It Down’ and ‘Poison Street’) but there was so much material yet to be played, this was to be expected.
The second half, much in the same vein kicked off with ‘Higher Wall’ another personal favourite and ventured into real emotive territory during the middle with ‘Family Life’(which always brings tears to my eyes), ‘After Something’ and ‘Marrakesh’. Justin and the rest of the band seemed to ease into the set today and were clearly not only more relaxed but really seemed to be enjoying it, even pretending (hopefully!) to forget the words to ‘Poison Street’ during the middle of the song and leaning over to a woman in the front row to borrow her lyric book which raised a chuckle or few! There was a slight sense of people wanting to really go for it – there were a few ‘towers’ and much dancing around, but still a much less hectic vibe and still real respect for the ethos of the concert and the unusual venue. But I could just feel the emotion amongst the audience building to a crescendo – and this was never more apparent than when they ended with ‘Vagabonds’ which really did seem the right choice to round off the night as the people from the different countries and of all ages, including children, bound together as a collective consciousness and the resonant chanting was full of emotion and pride and love and conviction during which NMA stepped back and watched for a few moments as they let the crowd take over.
The chorus of ‘We are old, we are young, we are in this together, vagabonds and children, prisoners forever, with pulses-a-raging and eyes full of wonder, kicking out behind us again’ never felt more right and as perfect in that moment.
Sadly I was not able to join the congregation for the Sunday finale – something I now very much regret as the feedback I have heard is that it was astounding and quite possibly even topped the previous 2 nights – in some ways because it was the final act of this trilogy and in part also because there were fewer people so the intimacy was even greater. The track-list (see link below) was a superb blend of the best of the previous 2 nights, with only ‘Horsemen’ being left out completely (why, I am not sure!) What this weekend has given me is something more than I could ever expected; I have met and converged with warm, friendly, inspiring people, some who have travelled from Europe, the USA and even as far as Brazil to be part of this experience. I have connected with the lyrics of each and every track played – some of which I now have a greater love for and resonance with – than I ever believed possible. It was being part of a tribe, a family. Coming home. My heart has been indelibly pierced and tattooed with a great love and respect for this band than I have ever had before. They played a gamble but hell, it worked – and then some!
The burning question is now: will this experience be repeated? Justin said on Saturday ‘it won’t but don’t believe anything we say’! It’s an experience I’d certainly wish to repeat, but perhaps it should be as sacred as the church it was held in. Still, I would love others to have the opportunity to be part of this so we shall see….in the meantime, a DVD of the gig series is expected to be released at some point as it was being filmed. And there is lots of hand-held video footage online – along with a terrific set of stills from photographer Jochen Melchior here:
More useful info:
All words by Rachel Velouria Rose. (Author archive)