[Joe’s] lyrics are intensely personal much of the time, and there are occasions in certain songs when he unloads his painful emotions like a cathartic cleansing, but you are never too far away from him making a point with a wink and a nod rather than a furrowed brow.
It may sound very surprising, but what we have here is actually a DVD of a live show filmed in 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Not in an empty building either, with an actual audience! Admittedly, this does conjure up images of some kind of musical equivalent of a Prohibition-era ‘Speakeasy’, with would-be attendees having to knock on a door at the back of a building and give a password, but it is in fact nothing so anti-social. Rather, it is the result of perfect timing, scheduling and filming the show during the temporary Autumn partial reprieve, before the lockdown gates were slammed shut again just a week later. Catching this window was so fortuitous, as it gives us a peek into what has been like some kind of forbidden world, as we peer across the wall to freedom near a virtual Checkpoint Charlie! Okay, the audience is limited, and distanced, but at least they are there, and the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham, where this show took place, is a fine venue. So, we have the material, how is the quality? Let’s have a look through the pandemic looking-glass, shall we…
The first thing to get straight here is that this is not what you would commonly refer to as a ‘gig’, at least in the ‘okay, what song is it you wanna hear?’ or ‘let me see those hands’ sort of way. No, this is a show. It really is an important distinction to make. Prog fans, and rock fans in general will of course know Joe Payne for the years he spent in The Enid, managing the not inconsiderable task of turning the previously almost entirely instrumental act without a frontman, into one in which his own lead vocals and his presence in that frontman role was not only accepted, but embraced by most as welcome, which is no mean achievement in itself. In fact, it is probably fair to say that a great number, if not the majority of his fanbase come from that starting point. But looking at that stage of his singing career would be very misleading, as before entering the world of fearsomely overblown prog for earnest, beard-stroking men, Joe Payne had a grounding, and big interest in, musical theatre. And that manifests itself front and centre in this show, which comes over as exactly what he has been envisioning ever since he embarked on his Post-Enid solo career.
With this in mind, it has to be said that the DVD part of this DVD/CD set really is the definitive way to experience this show. The CD is, as always, great to have as a companion, for those times when we might be in the car, walking the dog, or just not actually wanting to sit down in front of a screen for an hour and a half. But while that provides a welcome alternative way to enjoy this, be absolutely sure to invest the time first in watching the whole thing unfold on the screen, as it is a time investment which will repay massive dividends. In fact, nowhere is this more true than during the opening part of the show, as the first three tracks, The Thing About Me Is, By Name By Nature and Nice Boy, are perhaps the most stunningly visual of the whole thing. The show opens with a large video screen at the back of the stage counting a percentage as the show ‘downloads’. When it reaches 100% we unexpectedly get an ‘Error’ message, and amid this chaos Joe appears on a low walkway in front of that screen clad in black hooded cloak, in which he proceeds to perform the first song. Not only is this costume entrance supremely effective, but the way he interacts with the screen over those opening three songs is spectacularly well done. During the brilliantly sardonic By Name By Nature (‘he’s a Payne by name and a Pain by nature’) and the following, similarly self-deprecating Nice Boy, he goes through a dizzying array of choreographed moves with the images on the screen: being shoved this way and that by giant hands, dancing with video dance partners in a quite hilarious way, ‘smashing’ the screen with his fists, and best of all at one point when his own alter ego pops out of himself and he picks it up, holds it aloft over his head and finally throws it away. It’s incredibly inventive, and one can only imagine the amount of work involved not only in choreographing it but also creating the visuals. You have to watch carefully to get all of the little references to the lyrics, sometimes self-mocking in the same way the words themselves often are, such as one moment when he accompanies the line ‘they tell me that I’m gay…’ by grabbing a rainbow flag on the screen, rolling it up into a ball and drop-kicking it away with perfect synchronicity.
That above-mentioned gesture indicates a key point about the music and performance of Joe Payne. His lyrics are intensely personal much of the time, and there are occasions in certain songs when he unloads his painful emotions like a cathartic cleansing, but you are never too far away from him making a point with a wink and a nod rather than a furrowed brow. In this way, he engages with everyone watching and becomes a much more universally identifiable – and likeable – figure, By his own admission, he has had extremely dark times in his own mind and soul, such as the immediately Post-Enid period during which he wrote the outpouring of emotion which is the track I Need A Change. But the thing about a Joe Payne show, and album for that matter, is that he seldom feels the need to lecture the audience about his own circumstances. As an openly gay musician, even in these enlightened times he will obviously face a great number of challenges and pre-judgements, and similarly having been in the isolated position of the man seen as ‘changing’ The Enid from the identity which so many wanted to keep as it was is something which few of us will have experienced in the same way. We might well, however, have found the same manner of issues in work environments and relationships, and this is where a Joe Payne show really wins: it doesn’t take an hour and a half bemoaning the lot of That Joe – instead it holds up a mirror so that people can see their own experiences reflected back at them, and either share that catharsis in such moments or enjoy such obstacles being treated for the scaleable distractions they should be. In short, That Joe Payne will entertain you, first and foremost. But if he can share something and help you out if you need it, you’d better be damn sure he’ll bust a gut to do that as well.
After the first three songs the interactive element of the screen becomes much less pronounced, as Joe spends more time seated at the keyboard or standing at the mic – one would imagine largely because of the sheer cost of producing that whole effect, but also before it becomes overdone. It has made its point perfectly by this time, with the dance routines with four other synchronised Paynes being a hilarious take-off of typical boy-band shows, while the whole look of it, from the dance moves to the hands-free ‘face mic’ is a wonderful parody of the sort of big, glitzy shows put on by the likes of Madonna – though thankfully not extending to the conical bra, I may add! From this point the show becomes more focused on the music, though still with the screen playing a big part displaying backdrops, video clips and lyrics throughout. A big highlight for me was a song I had not heard before, Capture Light – a collaboration with John Holden about the feuding and bad blood between ‘master and pupil’ painters Titian and Tintoretto. Handy for your next pub quiz, this even educates as it entertains, which it does brilliantly. Of course we get two twin highlights from the By Name By Nature studio album in the shape of End Of The Tunnel and the show-closer I Need A Change, but there is room as well for a couple of nods back to the Enid in the shape of two tracks from the Invicta album, Who Created Me and the encore of One And The Many – both done full justice to by the excellent band. There is also an opportunity for the bonus material from the By Name By Nature album to fit into the show in a way it would not have done on the studio album ‘proper’.
It may seem like an easy example to summon up the comparison to Freddie Mercury, but in the blending of rock and pure theatrical showmanship, it is hard to avoid the correlation. Indeed, there are moments during one of those previous ‘bonus’ tracks, the Beethoven-derived Moonlit Love when it seemed very easy to my mind to imagine that, were Freddie still alive today, he might well have moved into doing a show very much like this. Okay, much bigger, but very much along the same lines. For anyone who wants their music delivered by earnest shape-throwing traditional rock musicians (not that there’s a single thing wrong with those by the way!), this probably won’t hit the spot. But if you have an equal love for melodic, often dramatic and well-sung and played music, melded with a real flair for the theatrical – and can cope with the alarming ‘pair of curtains’ trousers donned by him during the second part of the performance by the way – then look no further. And given the continued popularity of Alice Cooper, it seems that showmanship of that nature is still well in demand. Not that Joe gets guillotined or hanged at any point during the show of course, but hey – I don’t want to spoil his ideas for the next one!
That Joe Payne – a Payne by name and a Showman by nature!