A strange and beautiful debut gig for Aqualung

Review by Heather Metherell

PICTURE the scene; we're at Aqualung's debut gig, on November 6, 2002, just as they started their first song (the new single Good Times Gonna Come), there's a kafuffle in the stalls and a lone figure leaps forward to join the band on stage.

Much to everyone's surprise, not least a bewildered Matt Hales, it's the irreverent, gruff-voiced rap star, Ja Rule, who begins to jam wildly with the band.

Half through sheer surprise, and half just for the hell of it, the band carries on, so lost in their musical bubble that they fail to realise the whole audience has left in absolute disgust.

I really wish I could say this was true, but, unfortunately, it was all a product of Matt Hales' over-active imagination, or as musicians like to call it ' the pre-gig dream', and was just a small example of Hales' nervous charm, that won over the audience last Wednesday night at The Playhouse Theatre in Covent Garden.

The mood before the gig could almost be likened to that of a first date; nervousness, excitement, hope and curiosity. The audience was an assorted bunch, from young children and families, to upper-class 30 somethings, and the usual student crowd. This, along with the venue, which at first seemed a rather strange choice, made you feel more like you were waiting to see a play, or a classical concert, as opposed to a rock gig.

The curtains rose to a stage packed full of instruments and, in the centre, a magnificent grand piano. The theatre was dark as Matt took his place at the piano, adjusted his stool, and took a very deep breath, before beginning Good Times Gonna Come.

They chose their first song wisely, as, not only is it the most powerful track on the album, but it works much better live, played by a five-piece band. In order to bring his music to life on stage, Hales had enlisted the help of, among others, his brother, Ben, and girlfriend, Kim Oliver, who also contributed to the album.

Hales seemed as curious about the whole evening as many of his newfound fans. After playing the first few tracks, he got up slowly from his seat, wandered to the front of the stage, and peered into the audience, before asking: "Who are you?"

When the question was met with laughter, he merely repeated: "No, seriously, who are you? I've been wondering who on earth you are!"

For the first time, I felt like we were really able to see how scary and overwhelming it must feel to be thrown, so suddenly, into the public arena, with absolutely no idea of who has really put you there. I wonder if he saw the group of 12-year-olds on the row in front of me?

The reason for such an unusual venue became apparent when they moved on to the quieter tracks of the album. Not only did it compliment the delicacy of the music, but the silence, not normally found in a larger, less intimate location, allowed the band to communicate to each other; the result was tight, perfectly timed music.

There was, however, a feeling that they were trying too hard to stick to the exact sound of the album, as there was little or no improvisation - which is, undoubtedly one of the main joys of seeing a band live.

Falling Out Of Love worked particularly well, with its soul inspired bass line, reverberating around the theatre. Hales seemed to have two voices, the first being a croaky, broken sound in his lower register, and the second, the voice of an angelic choirboy.

Though his voice wobbled regularly, there was something in its fragility that suited his music, and the audience were only too ready to forgive him, given that there was a certain charm in his anxiety.

Unfortunately, one of my favourite tracks from the album, Can't Get You Out Of My Mind, just didn't seem to work live. The backing vocals were out of tune, and the slow building momentum, found in the original album track, sounded plodding and boring. It is worth remembering, though, that this was a debut gig, and mistakes can be fine tuned with time.

There were already new tracks, which had the same wistful quality as those on the debut album, and made you wonder just how much is going on in Hales' head. This is a man who produced an album, single-handedly in five weeks, and is now playing to packed venues all over the country. I just hope that this enthusiasm and motivation grows, and we don't see all he has to give too soon.

The most moving moment of the concert came with the performance of If I Fall. Having already cited the lyrics as being very similar to how he feels about his sudden fame, Matt took his place at the keyboard, facing out towards the audience, and sang to us, with a half smile on his face.

This was probably the only song where he opened his eyes and looked out at his fans, singing 'seems to me, I'm exactly where I dreamed I would be… if I fall, will you catch me'. Judging by the following burst of applause, I think the answer is, yes.

RELATED LINKS: Click here for the band's official website...
Click here for Indielondon's verdict on the debut album...
Click here to listen to the new single, Good Times Gonna Come, in our A/V Room...