Britain’s got talent in pubs

It’s amazing what you can find in an ordinary British pub. Top class levels of musicianship, for example.

I once read an interview in which the brilliant Randy Newman unwisely said, with more than a trace of entirely justified bitterness, that if his name had been Bob Dylan his last album would have sold millions more than it did. Because Dylan had widespread fame and he didn’t. It’s ironic that Randy Newman, one of the most brilliant writers of songs for sophisticated grown-ups, should have only stumbled on serious mainstream success when he started writing songs for Pixar’s animated children’s feature films (although he did also write the wonderful theme tune for the equally wonderful US TV series Monk, currently screening in the UK on ITV3 and on the Quest channel).

On Thursday night I went to the Wickham Arms pub in Brockley, South East London, for a second consecutive monthly visit to see Paul Astles and Bobby Valentino perform together – they appear there fairly regularly – their next appearance is in a fortnight.

I figured last month might have been a freakish success. But this time it was definitely not; it was pure talent and experience. The punters in the Wickham Arms are so fascinating and individually unique they would tend to detract from and outshine most performers – I’ve seldom seen such a collection of odd headgear, facial hair and faces straight from Renaissance paintings or a Hogarth print – but not last night. It’s equally seldom I’ve seen a member of the audience in the saloon bar of pub actually get up out of her seat and bop. It was like Glastonbury gone local.

Before my visit last month, I hadn’t seen the amazing Bobby Valentino for maybe 20 years. I saw him perform back in, I guess, the mid 1980s with The Hank Wangford Band and then, around 1990, solo with his own backing band.

He was always talented – a great fiddler and singer who was a distracting lookalike of actor Clark Gable from Gone With The Wind. Now, after 25 years, his fiddle playing has a subtle, seeming effortless flow to it, the sound moving from violin to mandolin to ukelele and to an almost mini-orchestral sound on some songs.

And, on Thursday night, he played ornate backing to the wonderful voice of Paul Astles. Like Randy Newman with the inferior and vastly overrated Bob Dylan, if Paul Astle’s name were Paul Weller, he would be selling albums by the lorryload and playing arenas around the country. His voice is that good. And, with Bobby Valentino complementing him, it was an astonishing night. He switched from Johnny Cash to Neil Young to Merle Haggard to his own songs as effortlessly as Bobby Valentino’s violin swooped around him – and he made each song his own: none a copy.

The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent throw the spotlight on wannabe semi-talents or non-talents with the right hairstyles. Meanwhile, real talent goes un-noticed. ‘Twas ever thus.

As with comedians, so with musicians – it’s often British pubs which are showcasing world class acts. The bullshitters get on TV.

The good news is that Paul Astles and Bobby Valentino may have a CD out next year. Though not, of course, on a major label.

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Filed under Comedy, Music, Television

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