“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
History is full of warnings and Marcel Proust’s quote makes me aware that there are dangers in nostalgia, in looking back at even the recent past uncritically.
Saint Jude’s Infirmary have been such a huge part of my past in so many ways. From the early scruffy demo tapes and handwritten letters, to live performances that veered from the ramshackle to the elegiac, sometimes in the same song, to the ways they built their own mythology of the band but ultimately backed it up with two sublime records, Happy Healthy Lucky Month and This Has Been The Death Of It.
In those two albums, they came good on all the passionate talk of what a band, an artist should be. They talked a good talk and even better, they produced beautiful records that were pure yet profane, delicate but rambunctious. Perfect even in their imperfection.
And then, on a cold November night in Liverpool in 2009 they imploded in anger, unkind words, frustration and possibly tears. They left a small but splendid legacy and moved onto new things, new lives, even in the case of Mark Francis, new continents.
And yet something stirred quietly in the embers and ashes. A small flame fanned and rumours of a quiet, private reunion circulated.
Then, on another freezing cold night in November, seven years from their demise, this time in Edinburgh, a Phoenix arose. New born. Proud and strong.
Old conversations picked up from where they were left seven years ago, ten years. However many years ago and new acquaintances were made. Tears were shed but of joy rather than sadness at the news that Saint Jude’s Infirmary were back in business.
There was no way that I was missing this show and made the trip through darkest Fife for it. As always, with these things, I felt a degree of anxiety and doubt but I felt a pull. And, if nothing else, it would be the chance to catch up with old friends and comrades.
The Allen Ginsberg Trio- Photo by Andy Wood
Sneaky Pete’s was filling up nicely for the opening act, The Allen Ginsberg Trio. Essentially Sarah and Simon from the excellent Wozniak’s project, accompanying a filmed reading of Allen Ginsberg set to a sympathetic soundtrack built out of the two guitarists providing an atmospheric setting to Ginsberg’s words.
The build-up is gentle, strummed chords building slowly, and it moves into more strident passages, beautiful, epic and, at times, soothing. The musicians create a lovely setting to Ginsberg’s words and performance, never over-egging things or drowning out the cadence or mood of the words.
Hamish Hawk – Photo by Andy Wood
Hamish Hawk takes a little while to win me over. Accompanied by a bassist, drummer, keyboard and violin player, the suavely dressed, youthful Hamish Hawk is quite an assured performer.
The first couple of songs are a little too raggle-taggle, folk pop for me, a little too knowing but as the set progresses I find myself smiling and enjoying myself and the songs start to hold together more elegantly with a gorgeous solo acoustic song about, of all things, being brought up in a cul-de-sac, being the highlight.
Ashley and Emma Jane, Saint Jude’s Infirmary – Photo by Andy Wood
The main event though is Saint Jude’s Infirmary and the venue is now pretty packed. They come on to a strident burst of noise and launch into ‘Of Scottish Blood And Sympathies’ and, instantaneously, any lingering doubts are shattered and dispelled. They sound so beautiful and perfect.
‘Tap O Lauriston’, taken from the second album (I’m hoping so hard already that I never need to say from the final album again) is preceded with Emma Jane recalling the story of a friend who stole the sign from the legendary, long gone, watering hole, when it closed. It’s an appropriate introduction, given the way Saint Jude’s Infirmary pieced together their own personal history of Edinburgh on This Has Been The Death Of Us. A series of counter-narratives to both the city of castles and rock and to Irvine Welsh’s Edinburgh of schemes and junkies. The reality, as in most places lives at not just the extremes but in other places and spaces, real and imagined. Different margins and people but just as important.
‘Taxi To The Ocean’ is equally dream-like. Emma and Ashley’s voices intertwined with new recruit Elvis Valentine’s deeper voice. With its references to drink and Jesus, it occupies what may seem to be polar opposites but are in fact, intricately intertwined themes. Loss and redemption. Pain and joy. It rolls along sweetly with little swerves like a slightly worse for the wear celebrant stumbling down Leith Walk looking for redemption. As ever, it sounds hypnotic and gorgeous.
Ashley, Emma Jane and Elvis – Saint Jude’s Infirmary
‘Oh Scotland You Can Bury Us’ is a brand new song that fits in perfectly with the more familiar songs, picking old scabs and worrying new wounds.
There’s been a muscularity to the performance tonight that sometimes wasn’t always there in earlier Saint Jude’s performances and, in part, that’s down to the guitar playing of Ashley and Elvis but also, as a band, they seem more confident and almost telepathically in touch with each other.
‘Happy Healthy Lucky Month’ from the debut album is still one of my favourite songs ever and it gains new life this evening. It has an elegiac, hymn-like feel. It feels all the more splendid with its dreamlike chorus, Ashley and Emma’s voices complementing each other as they sing ‘If you love someone, give them away.’ They follow it up with the final new song of the night, the fine ‘Dead Champagne’.
Then on the final stretch, we have a blistering version of ‘Tacoma Radar’ with Elvis and Emma sharing the vocal and its fierceness driven by Grant and Jamie’s rhythms which swerve into its girl-group breakdown for the final section of the song.
‘The Church of John Coltrane’ is another of my all-time favourite songs and it is totally magnificent, a companion piece to the dreamscape of ‘Happy Healthy Lucky Month’. Where in the past Mark took the spoken word section, Emma gives a new reading to fantastic effect.
The rowdy Saint Jude’s Infirmary
There’s a brief change of positions as Grant passes the bass to Emma and takes the microphone for ‘All My Rowdy Friends Are Dead’. As the band rage threw the song Grant twitches and jerks in his own little world as he throws out the words, part heartfelt paean to lost friends, part surrealist narration, throwing in Gary Kasparov, the Boys Brigade and other verbal hand grenades. And then, the song climaxes in a frenzy of noise and the repeated ‘Goodbye’ the set is all over. It’s flew past in the blink of an eye and the room erupts in appreciation.
I’m absolutely buzzing after the gig and so are those I speak to. There is no encore, not tonight, but a second act has begun in the story of Saint Jude’s Infirmary and I can’t wait to see how it rolls.
It may all end in tears again but for now the sheer joy is something to behold. I have my memories but my eyes and ears are on the future. May it burn brightly for Saint Jude’s Infirmary, patron saints of desperate causes and purveyors of bruised and sublime songs.
Other photos from the show: