To Whitstable on Saturday night, to see Martin Stephenson and Helen McCookerybook.
It was a beautiful, mild evening. We parked on Middle Wall and crabbed through Squeeze Gut Alley to the Horsebridge. On the beach and the sea wall near the Pearson's and the Royal Oyster Stores there were clusters of people standing with drinks and cameras, watching the sunset over the estuary, as if it was the tropics. We bought a drink and it was almost perfect and to complete the moment, to the SS's chagrin, I blagged a rare cigarette off a couple standing nearby. They wouldn't take anything for it, but wound up next to us at the gig, our new best friends (thanks Michelle; here's to Limerick and original sin!).
Helen opened, quickly winning over the audience. For Freight Train she pulled the promoter/sound man on stage to accompany her; he looked thrilled and terrified in equal measure, clutching a guitar as if it was a fig leaf and singing rather well. Martin Stephenson joined her for several songs too. It was the first time we'd seen Helen perform, beyond parties and people's sitting-rooms; she was confident and relaxed, and her set was flawless.
In the break we visited the bar and looked down from the Horsebridge Centre's balcony at the fizz of laid-back provincial night-life below. (I once wrote a design brief for new development in Whitstable. It suggested weather-boarding, seaward-facing gables, balconies and external staircases, and maybe someone read it, because much of the newer stuff has these and the town has hung on to its quirky character).
Martin Stephenson gave a stunning performance and provided a masterclass in audience-connection. The stage had been erected between the two doors, so that any comings and goings couldn't easily be ignored. And there seemed to be many comings and goings, individual and group. No one escaped Martin's quick (but malice-free) wit. A smiley man with protruding teeth sitting near the front had a magic phone which leapt repeatedly out of his pocket and clattered on the floor like a spawning salmon (we saw him later on an ancient bicycle, wobbling home down the High Street on the wrong side of the road, shedding things). In the front row a small boy slept on his mother's lap. When he woke near the end, tired and disoriented, Martin turned whatever song he was doing into Postman Pat and sang it right through in a magical little concert for one, and no child has ever smiled more widely (there is something strangely endearing in a rock musician knowing all the words to Postman Pat).
You can't pay an audience a bigger compliment than to give the impression that you are enjoying yourself and don't want to stop, and that's the impression Helen and Martin gave us.