LIVE: Jamie Lenman @ Signature Brew Brewery, London

By Ash Bebbington

‘This is weird isn’t it?’ says Jamie Lenman moments after taking the stage, ‘But it’s weird in a good way’. It’s hard to sum up the gig much better than that. This is the second of a three-night run of shows for Lenman, but for many fans in the audience, this is their first gig since March – maybe even longer. Being back at a gig, surrounded by strangers, all brought together by a common shared interest, is as glorious as ever. But given the context of the last five months, it is – as Lenman rightly says – inescapably weird at the same time.

For musicians, promoters, and fans in the UK, the cancellation of gigs and festivals has been tough. A necessary step in combating the spread of Covid-19, certainly, but it was a step that in one single stroke removed underground musicians’ main source of income, plunged grassroots venues into financial hardship, and took away a cherished pastime from music fans.

However, five months since the live music industry was mercilessly shut down by the government, the lockdown has begun to ease, and life has returned to something resembling normality. With that comes the return of gigs, just not in the format we might be used to. Artists and promoters alike have had to get creative, offering experiences to fans that are both fun and safe, while remaining financially viable for everyone involved in putting on shows.

While the financial viability of the show remains uncertain, the organisers at Walthamstow’s Signature Brew Brewery have undoubtedly done a fantastic job of ensuring that the set-up feels both safe and fun for ticket holders. The stage is set up outside, in a yard surrounded by a corrugated iron fence. Throughout the yard, there are multiple rows of benches, with a bar at the back, reminiscent of a typical pub’s beer garden. Upon arrival, the person working the door lays down the ground rules: Take a seat at one of the benches, and don’t move to a different one after you’ve sat down. One way system at the bar. Keep your distance from others where possible. Sanitise your hands. A simple set-up, but one that works well. Everyone in attendance has plenty of space, and it never feels crowded or unsafe.

Lenman’s set begins at 7:30, with no support act – slightly different to what most in attendance would be used to, for sure. As he steps onstage and opens with the new song ‘Summer of Discontent (The Future is Dead)’, there is a palpable sense of apprehension among the crowd; a feeling that most people there don’t quite know how to react to being at their first gig in such a long time, and under such bizarre circumstances. This feeling lingers for a while, and doesn’t seem to completely disappear until slightly later in the set, when Lenman helps everyone dust off the cobwebs by instigating a call and response singalong to the song ‘Friends in Low Places’. The 18-song setlist is well curated, and surely sends the majority of the audience home happy. It spans the entire length of Lenman’s discography, with songs from Reuben’s debut ‘Racecar is Racecar Backwards’, songs from his as-yet unreleased mini album ‘King of Clubs’, and plenty inbetween.

The yard backs onto a road, so throughout the gig, a few passers by clearly take interest in what was going on. People on a run, walking to the shops, or walking their dog did double takes, stop and stare at the gig happening in the yard of a brewery, in an industrial park in Walthamstow. It’s a reminder that live music has been gone for so long, and that for passers by, stumbling upon a gig had become something weird and alien, even in a city like London where 6 months ago that would have been completely ordinary.

Midway through the set, Lenman invites his wife Katie onstage for a few songs to provide backing vocals for a few songs from 2013’s ‘Muscle Memory’, including a stomping rendition of the bluegrass inspired ‘If You Have To Ask You’ll Never Know’. This portion of the set is rounded off by a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’, met with a strong reception from the crowd, and it’s during this part of the set, the sun begins to set, leaving the stage illuminated only by a few portable lights, and strings of fairy lights. At this point, the gig picks up that festival feel, when the sun goes down and all you’re left with is dim lighting and music, and with the mass cancellation of festivals this summer, it feels like a real privilege to experience this in 2020.

Towards the end of the set, Lenman gives a devastating reminder of why it had been so long since we’d all been able to attend a gig, dedicating the song ‘Pretty Please’ to friend and collaborator Tony ‘Sax-O-Tone’ Whennell who has recently passed away, explaining that Whennell was responsible for composing the iconic big band jazz sound that the album version of the song has. ‘Pretty Please’ is usually the joyous high point of any Jamie Lenman live set, but this time it feels extremely bittersweet.

The set ends on a rousing rendition of Reuben’s ‘Let’s Stop Hanging Out’, which garners one of the biggest singalongs of the night. By this point any apprehension or inhibition from the crowd has completely evaporated, and fans are enthusiastically singing along, just in time for Lenman to wave his goodbyes and step off the stage, the yard returning to your standard beer garden once more.

If this is the future of gigs for the foreseeable, that’s no bad thing. While fans, promoters and artists alike are all desperate to get back to gigs being hosted in packed out rooms and fields, that’s just not feasible right now. If it’s financially viable for the artist, the venue, and the promoter, Jamie Lenman’s gig at Signature Brew Brewery might just have laid out a blueprint that will allow music fans to safely enjoy live music in the months to come. And in a time when good news is in desperately short supply, that is a wonderful thing indeed.