There are gigs, and then there are gigs. The former range from the bad to the mediocre to the really quite excellent, you know the ones where you come home and think, ‘I really enjoyed that, everything was more or less as expected, will see them next time they pass through town’. I’m not damning with faint praise, it’s just that not all gigs can be of the latter variety. Now, these rare beasts are not something you can force into being, no they usually depend on a special cocktail of ingredients coming together, and that’s not always going to happen. A case in point, a few days before the Holy Joy show I saw Van Morrison for maybe the 15th or 16th time. Next to me was a fan who, when pressed, estimated his Van gig count in the 200 plus zone. But he, like me, was seemingly searching for the same thing, a minute or more of transcendence. You know those moments where the walls melt away and disappear, the outside world becomes as remote as the furthest planet and the pause button is pressed on life at its more mindless mundane level.
Van gigs you hope will include a moment or more on that level, and yes he did it that night, not for 90 minutes though.
And this is where The Band of Holy Joy enter the picture, because they specialise in the latter type of gig. I hate to say that transcendence is guaranteed because I wouldn’t want to lay that burden of expectation on Johny and the band, but I don’t doubt them.
So, at 9.30 on a damp Thursday night in Bristol at the wonderful Thunderbolt
TBoHJ are the best band in the world playing the only gig in the world that matters, the place everyone should want to be, if only they knew it. Lucky for me and the rest of the crowd we knew.
Hyperbole? Allow me some artistic licence, but you know what? For 70 minutes it was true.
Here’s Johny Brown, the essence of Holy Joy but not the whole of Holy Joy. Behind and around him the beautifully taut, richly melodic, sometimes Vox Continental, garage band fierce, music created by the wonderful 2017 line up. Many pass through the ranks of BoHJ and the sound evolves but the core quality remains. Echoes of early to mid period Go Betweens appearing fleetingly, and that’s never a bad thing. Meanwhile Inga’s always fitting choice of images spill across the back wall.
But back to Johny, from the first minute, he comes alive. A Revivalist Impulse, opening track from the new album, slams into us with a message set to shake us out of our lethargy. On the surface it seems nostalgic, but you know Holy Joy are never as simple as that. As Johny sings, ‘I’m only looking for tomorrow…’ as of course we all must.
But of course Johny knows life is not the journey of modern cliche, but rather a state of constant arrival and departure. The business of life: it’s tough even for comparatively safe and comfortable first worlders. One, not so very long effort to avoid falling from the tightrope. So it’s fitting that the gig finishes with a lump in throat version of Funambulist We Love You, a highlight from the glorious album of the same name, as Johny marvels at a crowd finally setting aside their iPhones, you find yourself unable to resist singing back, ‘we hope you don’t fall’, maybe we’re singing to ourselves. But hey, this is a gig review not psychoanalysis…
In between, a brilliant mix of the new, the fairly new and the very old.
If we’re going back to look for the essence of Holy Joy maybe it’s within songs like the Song of Casual Indifference and A Connecting Ticket. Johny seems to castigate himself as much as society at large, for a lack of compassion, ‘liberal but indifferent’, and then seeks some kind of escape, ‘to be anywhere out of this world’. But it seems clear the driving force behind Holy Joy is that self same compassion mixed with an understandable anger and, as a wise man once said, when those emotions come together change usually follows and that’s the hope contained in this music. Sorely needed now, but probably always.
I’m left musing on the 28 years since I first saw the band live, life moves on inexorably, you try to understand what you’ve lost and gained, the differences that have accumulated incrementally without you noticing, until you realise you can’t find your way back. Maybe as the path vanishes behind you there’s a thread in this music that you can hold on to.
And then out into the night.
Until the next time.