The lesson of The Clash: MJ Hibbett live

Music can be desperately complicated, joyously cacophonous, profoundly moving and spectacularly retarded, all of which are fantastic in the  right time and the right place. But despite all the posh, noisy and complicated stuff, it’s still hard to beat a good singer-songwriter with nowt but a guitar on a small stage in a good boozer.

If you’re not aware of him, MJ Hibbett is one of those good singer-songwriters (if you are aware of him, well, you knew that already – just go tell some other folks, would you?). About 40 of us gathered in The Portland, Cambridge a couple of weeks back to see him perform not one but two great sets; one solo playing his standard stuff (often performed with full band, MJ Hibbett and the Validators) and as a finale his 2011 Edinburgh Fringe show, Moon Horse vs The Mars Men of Jupiter (with Steve Hewitt).

There’s a couple of things you really need to get right if you’re going to get up on stage and play your songs to an expectant public. You need:

  • Songs
  • Stage presence
  • Lyrics
  • The ability to make the three above things believable as being you

The following traits will help, but are by no means essential:

  • Remembering the words
  • Being able to play the songs
  • A sense of humour
  • Good looks

I can’t count how many singer-songwriters I have walked away from during their second or third song, but I’m sure it’s hundreds by now – even if they ticked all of the second four traits. But if you have those top four, I’m there for the duration. MJ Hibbett has the top four in spades (and humour, plus another couple of the bottom four on a good night).

He opened the evening with a really lovely set of tunes from his solo career, which now spans more than a decade and five to ten albums (depending on what you count as a ‘proper’ album). It’s classic singer-songwriter stuff: chat, funny intros, crowd participation, respect from the crowd during the songs and a warmth around the room that positively radiates from everyone.

Tonight’s topics include being in the scouts in Peterborough, dinosaurs, being happy, being easily impressed, realising The Smiths aren’t shit and boom-boom, shake-shaking the room (props to Paul Goodwin for helping remind a drunken me what he’d just played!) . Most have poignant moments and comedy littered about the place, but the glue that holds them together is the absolute belief in the person singing them. These are real emotions, real life moments, genuine thoughts that he wants to share. Plus dinosaurs.

Here’s a bit of ‘The Lesson of The Smiths’:

You see, I didn’t have that great a time in my later years at school
I didn’t really like anyone, least of all the kids who were cool
I had to hate their music, and therefore
The Smiths became the epitome of all that I abhorred
But in later years, at Indie Discos, with jumper stretched and specs akimbo
All I lacked was a quiff and a pocket of daffs
I could have seen them playing live, but alas
They split before my foolish pride decided not to be so daft
And when I contemplate the great mistake I made
A little voice pipes up to say

Remember the lesson of The Smiths
Just because a bunch of wankers like it, doesn’t mean that it’s shit
And remember the lesson of Take That
If a pile of pillocks pretend to like it, doesn’t mean it’s crap

I think that’s a great example of what he does best; it’s a bit self deprecating and cringingly honest, while being funny, uplifting and easy to relate to. And, most importantly, it absolutely oozes his personality – you believe every word. How many singer-songwriters do you here that just warble out love/political drivel which doesn’t have an ounce of them inside? To them, I say piss right off.

MJ finishes with his classic acoustic cover of Jazzy Jeff classic ‘Boom! Shake The Room’, a genius choice for a slightly nerdy looking and bespectacled middle-aged Midlander. We head to the bar happy, smiling and ready for more of that, please.

Instead, we get Moon Horse vs The Mars Men of Jupiter. Performed by MJ (and Steve) throughout the Edinburgh Fringe this year as part of Peter Buckley Hill’s Free Fringe, it’s an hour packed full of daft. There are songs, space, gags, intrigue, pathos, a magic horse (on a stick), some hats and Thatcher (BOO!) – all in a realistic sci-fi setting (ahem). Yeah, daft.

But, thankfully, it’s not wacky. The songs are good (if daft), the story well thought out (if daft) and the performances suitably am-dram to give it that perfect late night Edinburgh feel. Plenty of really big laughs too – a lot more than I was expecting. And my big smile was back too, perhaps even bigger than during his earlier set.  All in all, if you get a chance to see them perform this, I’d thoroughly recommend it.

The evening ended, as all good gig ones should, around the pub table. MJ and Steve were good enough to join us for a quick pint before rushing off for takeaway pizza and a train home. The conversation swung from Olympics tickets (yes, they’re looking forward to them – as am I, you miserable bastards) and possibly being in the opening ceremony (not me, mind) to – of course – music.

I didn’t really have a chance to get into slagging off The Beatles, because Hibbett dropped a bombshell: The Clash are, apparently, rubbish. Sadly there wasn’t really time to get a good argument in before they snuck off for grub, but it just goes to show that even pop stars can be wrong sometimes. and as Steve Macallister so rightly said (for a change), “Next time he’s here he’ll be singing ‘Remember the Lesson of The Clash’.” What he said – cut the crap, Hibbett, but come back soon.

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