This was Martin Stephenson and The Daintees’ 10th Christmas party at the Jumping Hot Club in Newcastle. And, yet again, demand for tickets was so high a second night was added. It too sold out.
Monday’s special guests were a new local band called El Cid, which coincidentally included Stephenson’s daughter Phoebe on bass. Playing tracks from their soon-to-be-issued début album, the young quartet showed enough promise for me to blag a pre-release copy “for review purposes”. With guitarist Rupert Hughes manfully wrestling his classic semi-acoustic into staying in tune, the rough and ready alt-country of “Church Boy” really stood out, which certainly bodes well for the future.
With time being of the essence, as El Cid cleared their guitars and drums off stage left, Helen McCookerybook was making her entrance from stage right. One time front person of Punk icons The Chefs, McCookerybook has been a solo singer-songwriter for more years than her girlish good looks would suggest.
She opened the short set with the wonderful “Temptation” — a modern love song based on the story of Adam and Eve. But, sadly, her next couple of songs were virtually drowned out by the constant buzz of chatter from the once-a-year visitors to the club, who don’t appear to have any respect for the supporting cast. Mixing songs from her punky youth (“London”, about loneliness) and her newest album Anarchy Skiffle (Sugarhill), McCookerybook eventually won the crowd over. But it breaks my heart when professional musicians get treat in this manner.
Following another quick turnaround, Martin Stephenson — wearing a bright red lumberjack jacket, brown corduroys that were a size too big and a pork-pie hat at a jaunty angle — took to the compact stage with a couple of original Daintees and two assorted friends before opening with fan favourite, the charming “Lilac Tree”. In 30 years, I’ve never seen Stephenson do a poor set. When he’s on top-form he is one of the best and most memorable performers ever to emerge from the British roots music scene, and tonight was one such performance.
Without ever appearing to break sweat (unlikely when you remember the jacket he was wearing), Stephenson and The Daintees gave us a wonderful evening full of rare oldies like “Home” (a love song dedicated to his late mother and aunt), “She Left Me” (featuring some beautiful Western swing fiddle from the “other” Jim Morrison), “Goodbye John”, and a song about the suicide of a friends brother when they were all just kids. These songs came alongside Daintees classics like “The Greenhouse (My Grandfather and Me)”, “Crocodile Cryer”, “Little Red Bottle”, “Left Us To Burn”, and the sing-along “Salutation Road”, which ignited long lost memories. One sucgh memory was a scurrilous story featuring Roy Buchannan during a tour of Germany — a hilarious story about a drink-addled Friday night bus journey, sitting between Boy George and Bryan Ferry, why we should all hate Meryl Streep, and how difficult it was being a punk in a pit village. Occasionally, these introductions could drift off into unchartered territory, but more often than not they leave you holding your sides with laughter as tears of sadness fill your eyes. Then a beautiful bittersweet love song is performed, igniting your own memories of youth.
Only a couple of new songs from Haunted Highway made an appearance tonight: the dark and slightly countrified “Ride” and the gorgeous “Black Eyed Rose”, which evolved halfway through another song. Even though 150 or more people were crammed into the venue, MG Stephenson disappeared into a world of his own as he serenaded his lover/muse/girlfriend Helen McCookerybook, who was sitting at the side of the stage, before returning to the original song.
I first saw the (then monickered) Penny Daintees in 1985 when they stood head and shoulders above the three other acts on a Kitchenware Records showcase (including a fledgling Prefab Sprout!). Now, 30 years later, they are still one of the finest bands on the planet. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?