Sunday, 31 October 2010

Mitch Benn and the Distractions - for goodness sake go and see them!

The last time I saw Mitch Benn live was the better part of a decade ago.  He was the only memorable one of three comedians booked one evening at the Bristol university bar where I worked.  I went up to him afterwards and made a complete fool of myself by telling him how much I liked his work on the 11 O'Clock Show.  The few of you who actually remember that, most notable for having introduced Ali G to the world and a hilarious sketch (in very poor taste) about Henri Paul, will remember that he had nothing to do with it.  Of course I meant The Now Show, a mainstay of Radio 4's Friday night comedy slot, for which Benn writes two satyrical songs each week.

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How then, would this back catalogue of songs, which can slip out of date faster than, well, some of the celebrities or news stories they're mocking, fare in the concert hall.  The answer is very well indeed.  In large part this is because much of the set was unfamiliar to me, despite being a pretty avid listener to The Now Show.  They had several things in common: they were funny, often very, very funny, generally fairly timeless and well programmed.  In some ways it was a bit like the difference between the main body of Tom Lehrer's catalogue and the That Was The Year That Was stuff.

The Interactive Song made an excellent starter, not least as it provided a showcase for just how talented a group The Distractions are, flitting seemingly effortlessly from one musical style to another.  So it was that we got such things as Benny Hill chases in the style of Madness until it ended with a shaggy dog story in the style of Springsteen, complete with a pun punchline so wonderfully laboured that I cannot bear to spoil it for you, but it involved the death of a rabbit.  In other songs they gave us Elvis, the Stones and more.

The gems kept coming: in the lead up to the interval we got a monologue of the thought process of one of the more special people who try out for The X-Factor.  It pulled a multi-faceted trick of not only being very funny, but primarily mocking the way the show takes advantage of people in its earlier stages while also making you feel rather sorry for the song's subject.  But this was nothing to the genius that followed in retelling Macbeth as a rap.  I laughed until the tears came.

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Before going off, he pulled a Showstopper type trick, requesting topics from the audience to create a topical song during the break.  The result mixed dirty footballers with the eternal debacle that is Edinburgh's tram project (to howls of hollow laughter) and even the recent fox attack.  Benn declared afterwards that he thought it wouldn't last in the catalogue but in my view, with only minor modifications, it will go down well in Edinburgh for years to come!

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The band are, as I've mentioned, a fine ensemble, and a there was a lot of entertaining banter between them (drummer Ivan Sheppard coming on and milking the applause at the end of the song he hadn't played in was especially nice).  So too the quality of Mitch's links between the songs, which ensured the momentum never flagged.  Bassist, keyboard player and female vocalist Kirsty Newton also impressed greatly, most prominently in her lead role in Now He's Gone, a hilarious and psychopathic mockery of 60s songs pining over dead lovers.

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Perhaps their finest hour came midway through the second half with Moving Around, a song designed to show how poilticians constantly steal each other's tunes, neatly illustrated by the band members rotating round each other's instruments.  The slickness with which they made the changes, not to mention the fact that they could all do more than creditable turns with bass, drums, guitar and keyboards, was seriously impressive.

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For the grand finale he first referenced Jeff Wayne's genius and iconic War of the Worlds, for which respect, and then announced his intention to do similar for another great literary work.  Obviously, due to time constraints, it would have to be shorter.  So it was that The Very Hungry Caterpillar got the treatment.

The audience wasn't capacity for the hall, but they cheered as if they were and we got several encores, including his wonderful pastiche of west end musicals done by the numbers and his tribute to John Peel.  Over two hours of well played and hilarious music for £13.  Bargain, quite frankly.

If I'm going to split hairs, there were one or two moments where the lighting wasn't quite there (and looked like it was being made up as it went along) such as during Size Zero.  Also, the sound balance, while generally good, could have done to favour the vocals slightly more, since if you miss the words you often miss a some of the humour.  Still, such reservations were minor.

And while one or two of my favourites cropped up, such as Ikea, which had me more or less singing along (there's something wrong with you if you don't want to cry out "eye-key-ah" in that chorus) I would have loved to hear some of the epic (though long past topical) saga of the German polar bear Knut or Benn's glorious Die Westlife Die (die, in that case not, as far as I'm aware, being the German).  Much the same goes for 'cause he was mean to my daddy (still amongst the most convincing explanations for the Iraq war).

There was a fair bit of plugging of merchandise mixed in, but he did it so nicely that you couldn't possible object.  Perhaps the biggest plug was reserved for one of his most recent songs, Proud of the BBC.  The title is pretty self-explanatory and the song is very simple - a chorus "it's part of you and it's part of me" is the scaffolding that supports what is no more than a well chosen (and cleverly rhymed and matched) list of BBC shows, most of them great, which remind you just how great the BBC is.  True, you may not love them all (Spooks is rubbish, in my view, especially when compared to the really great spy shows).  And even if there are some things on that list you don't love, the sheer tonnage of what the organisation has produced that is amazing is, for me, more than worth the cost.  And it doesn't even mention this blog's favourite thing about the BBC: Donald Runnicles' work with the BBC SSO.  As if to illustrate, admitting he was being unfair, he repeated the trick for ITV listing only The Prisoner (I'm assuming he meant the original and not the disgrace of a remake!) and then a John Cageian silence for Sky.  And fair enough since its contribution to British culture is confined to importing some albeit very good shows from America.  That it got one of the loudest and most prolonged cheers of the night should cause those who would dismantle the Beeb pause for thought.

The song is out on Monday and the plan is to get it into the charts.  I for one will be giving my £0.79 to support it.  In the meantime, or afterwards, I can put it no more plainly than this: if you get the chance to see Mitch Benn and the Distractions, for the love of god, go!

Oh, and as those who know me will attest, I was complete unable to identify with the song I Love My Phone and its chorus "Baby I love you, but not like I love my iPhone!" Honest.

Thanks to The Queen's Hall for providing the photos. Click on any of the photos to see the full size image or take a look at The Queen's Hall's entire Flickr stream.

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