A Shoe In

In its relationship with live music, intimate has become corrupted. It can happen, words lose their impact through constant misuse. I am equally guilty of suggesting that a band who can sell 30,000 tickets are playing an intimate gig when they appear in a venue with, for example, a 2,000 capacity. Of course, the experience is anything but intimate.

Perhaps I only understood what an intimate gig was when sitting in the upstairs function room of a small pub with 20 or so others. In the direct eyeline of musicians playing softly whose songs were interspersed with stories of experiences, places, and people with whom I am familiar – intimately so, since some of them included me.

Post-Covid gigging is strange. Audiences differ between reticence and reverie, caution about being in crowds or uninhibited delight about being allowed to be. The distinctions may be across age-lines but those lines are distinctly blurred. 

At a certain level though gigging has always been an uncertain enterprise, a roll of the dice. In the lofty function room of Birmingham’s Craven Arms musician and promoter Gary O’Dea  has been trying to create a ‘scene’, or at the very least a place for musicians to play and be appreciated. It’s a thankless task and not one he’s unfamiliar with, having played and promoted across Birmingham and the Black Country for many decades off and on. 

The pub is an authentic real-ale haven, a historical gem in the shadow of more recently built palaces to commercialism. It is centrally located, though perhaps you wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t know where to look. Aesthetically, it feels right. On a monthly basis O’Dea has been programming and promoting artists there under the banner of The Songwriter’s Sessions. Generally, he will also perform, as he is more than entitled to do.

On the face of it he’s executing the steps perfectly - establish a regular routine, curate high-quality line-ups that fit a brief and will appeal to the audience he wants and set a low ticket price. He even has a friendly late afternoon start time. If we believed in the mantra, ‘build it and they will come’, he has certainly built it. Do they come? That’s a little harder to answer, but sometimes.

On a Sunday in September when many other events were being cancelled, I was able to step into a friendly space in the company of Gary and the esteemed Red Shoes. We all go back many years, further than we care to remember – even if we could. In another lifetime I’d even managed Red Shoes, as recorded here, but I had somehow contrived not to see them play since 2014. Inexcusable.

The congregation was cordial. Musicians mixed with audience, tales were told, reminiscences shared, and mutual friends discussed. Gary took to the stage, which was merely a space at the front of the room, a raised seating area with some of the seats and tables removed. Playing with Jim on minimalist percussion, Gary’s folk-blues ambled through his career and influences alighting briefly on a startlingly sparse cover of Slade’s ‘Cuz I Love You’ with audience participation. 

An over-long interval was probably only a small set-change, comfort-break and ale-refill. It just felt longer to me as I missed 3 of my intended trains home. Then, Red Shoes. Stripped to three playing acoustically: the essential duo of Carolyn and Mark with the welcome return of Derek on bass. I declined to consider how long it had been since I last saw the affable bassist, though he appeared not to have aged. 

Songs old and newish washed over the audience sparking recognition in some. Standards and classics, carefully carved and precisely honed, drifting through time and place though inevitably universal, as only great music can be. Harmonies underpinned by beautiful playing and the warmth of the bass.  
All gigs are unique, even if the songs do not change the experience is different each time, new impressions and discoveries, the balance of audience and performer. The two are symbiotic, an often-misunderstood alliance. We take them for granted and should be more careful not to do so.

Intimate is a feeling, a relationship, a connection. If you see an opportunity to experience it, I recommend you take it.


The Songwriter’s Sessions take place monthly on Sundays at The Craven Arms. Red Shoes can, and should, be found here.