XOM and the question of music, part 3

In Review: XOM’s classic Rockyoke

Part Three: Another Overload
The Boar’s Head, Kidderminster, 23 March 2019

Kidderminster, described by Pevsner, the art and architecture historian, as “uncommonly devoid of visual pleasure and architectural interest”, can claim some musical heritage as part of the Midlands scene. Robert Plant played some of his early gigs here, while attending King Edwards Grammar School in nearby Stourbridge, and went on to buy a farm just outside the town. Stan Webb, front man of the blues band Chicken Shack, and rhythm and blues singer Mike Sanchez, both lived in Kiddie – as it’s known locally – as well as Ewan Pearson and the late Tony De Vit, prominent producer-DJs.

Enhancing this history, X0M made their Spring 2019 sing-along appearance at The Boar’s Head, a Kidderminster pub which has distinguished itself as a live music venue and art gallery.

I’d last encountered the band for their Stirchley Christmas Sing-along, at the end of a stressful year. This spring event found me in a happier place. I had just finished a rewarding, but rather exhausting stint performing in Birmingham Opera Company’s acclaimed production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. With my birthday coming up, I was sorely in need of a knees-up, and where better than a town seven country miles from my birthplace?

I encountered the band in the beer-garden, and was warmly welcomed, with the caveat that the sound-check had been problematic. As the band took the stage, Mr Sandilands warned us to expect high volume.

They began reprising the encore from winter’s solstice, Linda and Paul McCartney’s Live & Let Die (probably not my favourite Bond theme but certainly one of the better movies), followed by U2’s Vertigo. If these were intended as two belting crowd-pleasers, they were followed with two perhaps lesser known songs.

XOM performed Queen’s Now I’m Here, written by Brian May. It was originally released after Queen’s breakout ‘power pop’ hit Killer Queen. Freddie Mercury felt Now I’m Here

was just to show people we can still do rock ‘n’ roll – we haven’t forgotten our rock ‘n’ roll roots. It’s nice […] I enjoyed doing that on stage

Freddie Mercury,1976 (cited on Queenpedia)

By this point I was dancing my heart out. In the opera I’d had a chance to try out what I hesitate to call pole dancing (see video), but the Boars Head venue had these pillars that seemed ideal for developing that particular art. And so the next song, Elbow’s Mirrorball, had me using them to help me dance in the most seductively responsive way I could muster.

I was not familiar, or even aware of Elbow and their music until this point, which reiterates the point I made in my first review:

good artists lead and educate an audience as much as merely entertain


So it was good to see XOM continue to vary and diversify their set. This to me unknown, ethereal song captured me, so beautifully played and sung.

Elbow seem great to dive into: I recently discovered their name was inspired by Dennis Potter’s dialogue in The Singing Detective, in which the hero considers ‘elbow’ the loveliest word in the English language.

I’ve noted XOM’s commitment to music as a way of ‘defining community’, which this gig exemplified. Speaking to Jon Sandilands, lead guitarist of the band, back in in 2018, we discussed the ‘Rockyoke’ name. Jon didn’t want this to imply anyone might have a go at singing on stage, as with karaoke. Avoiding this impression may have conditioned a change in emphasis, from ‘Rockyoke’ to ‘Sing-along’ for the Christmas gig. This event however advertised itself once more as “XOM’s Classic Rockyoke”.

In the event, the gig did feature a couple of guest singers in the second half. Mish Maybe provided the vocal for All Along the Watchtower, not a song I’d heard XOM perform before, and a welcome addition. For Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, the venue’s proprietor came on stage to sing, and with Jon’s help gave a very creditable performance. It was noticeable once more how Jonathan fulfils his lead role, visibly conducting, with a generous sense of musicality, lifting people with him. It was genuinely joyful to see the landlord palpably enjoy himself, joy on his face: a memory I treasure.

It’s not hard to vibe with XOM. During the interval, Mish complimented my dancing to Mirrorball, reasoning I ‘obviously knew the song’ from the rhythm of my dance. Yet, I did not. I was just going, as they say, with the flow.

There were two more numbers I wasn’t familiar with. Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman, recorded originally by Glenn Campbell, has a musically interesting structure. It reflects the contrast between the lineman’s workaday life with his inner feelings. It’s been called the first ‘existential country song’. I never read much of that, but I practice Buddhism, after a fashion, involving the development of positive emotional vibrations for self and others – including people we barely know. One is encouraged to recognise friends, strangers and enemies alike as people with an equal claim to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Easy to say, harder to do, but reading about Webb’s inspiration for the song reminds me of this practice:

“There’s a place where the terrain absolutely flattens out,” he told the BBC. “It’s almost like you could take a [spirit] level out of your tool kit and put in on the highway, and that bubble would just sit right there on dead centre. It goes on that way for about 50 miles.

“In the heat of summer, with the heat rising off the road, the telephone poles gradually materialise out of this far, distant perspective and rush towards you.

“And then, as it happened, I suddenly looked up at one of these telephone poles and there was a man on top, talking on a telephone.

“He was gone very quickly, and I had another 25 miles of solitude to meditate on this apparition. It was a splendidly vivid, cinematic image that I lifted out of my deep memory while I was writing this song.”

“I thought, I wonder if I can write something about that? A blue collar, everyman guy we all see everywhere – working on the railroad or working on the telephone wires or digging holes in the street.

“I just tried to take an ordinary guy and open him up and say, ‘Look there’s this great soul, and there’s this great aching, and this great loneliness inside this person and we’re all like that. We all have this capacity for these huge feelings’.”

Here’s an entertaining and informative interview with Campbell, from the year 2000, including a beautiful performance of this wonderful song.

The other cover I was not familiar with, Blackest Eyes by Porcupine Tree, intrigued me. Porcupine Tree appear to be a now defunct postmodern ironic take on (although rejecting the term) progressive rock. Blackest Eyes has a pleasingly nostalgic yet ironic heaviness to it that feels familiar yet different. Another one to investigate.

I had to leave early on this occasion, so as not to miss a promising Birmingham rendezvous. But I left with some regret. In some ways I think this has been my favourite XOM gig: great venue, great song choices, and a sense of generosity and inclusiveness that’s such a part of XOM’s unique take on the familiar and not so familiar. I left the pub, with its art and its music and its excellent beer and cobs. Kidderminster, devoid of visual pleasure, enclosed me, the past close behind, the future uncertain. I embraced the present, intent on clubbing the night away back in Birmingham. The night, once again, was young.

You can read more about XOM on their site, https://xom-music.co.uk/

This post’s featured image by Elliot Brown, 2016, and is used under license.

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