Gig review: Beans on Toast @ The Portland Arms

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It’s not often you’ll see the mobile phone of an audience member drowned on stage at a gig, and nor is it often you’ll see a performer abandoning songs half way through, asking to be reminded of his lyrics by the crowd, or even less likely asking them not clap along as he’s really bad at timing. But then it’s not often you get someone like Beans On Toast. For those of you who know of Beans On Toast, the aforementioned events won’t have raised any eyebrows – for those of you who don’t know Beans On Toast, well what the hell have you been doing for all this time? The Braintree born folk hero has been plying his trade across the pubs of Great Britain for some time now, and if there’s one thing that’s consistent about his gigs, it’s that they’re inconsistent. Chaotic would be a good word to describe one of his shows; disorderly and at times anarchic would be two more. What they are also however is wonderfully laid back, relaxed, and above all, friendly, and on Tuesday night in The Portland Arms there was plenty more of the same.

The first task of main support act Will Varley is to silence the somewhat boisterous crowd for long enough to be heard, and he does this impressively well. Before he’s even started he’s eyeing the crowd menacingly – “who the fuck is talking through my set? I’ll find you, you know, I’ve got spies among you” – before launching into a set which was as wide ranging as it’s probably possible to be in a 30 minute slot. From bemoaning modern culture and Simon Cowell, to his love of self-service supermarket machines and then satirical swipes at Blair, Cameron and Nick Clegg and​ his Gameboy advance, he has the crowd won over with ease. Aside from the humour however Varley’s songs can run deeper – ‘King for a King’ is heart breaking and achingly bleak, and it was a measure of its effect that from having the place in hysterics moments before there was now utter silence. As a warm up he was perfect for the main event here, but Will Varley is very much one to watch out for, so consider yourself warned.

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Now I’d normally do gig reviews in some kind of chronological order, but to be honest there’s really not much point here. First off, Beans On Toast has no set list. Throughout the evening he asks for song requests; if he likes it, or perhaps more likely if he remembers it, then in it goes. If not, well then he’ll try something else. Performing either on his own with an acoustic guitar or sometimes with much travelled accomplice Bobby Banjo covering the instruments, Beans moves between stage and crowd like he’s in his own front room. And that’s the beauty of it; he feels like your mate and he makes everyone feel comfortable. You might not quite agree with what he says sometimes – the monarchy, religion and politics all get a repeated bashing– but regardless, as he cracks up at another quip from either himself or the audience you can’t help but like him. It didn’t matter when some idiot couldn’t keep his voice down during songs; Beans On Toast has a laugh with him and lets him do the rolly-polly he wanted to do. Not many performers would have the patience to then give the same idiot half a dozen more chances to keep quiet, including the offer of a seat on stage to behave himself, before the crowd finally drive him out themselves – but you get the feeling he’s probably seen it all before and he casually takes it in his stride.

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All the favourites were there; ‘Angry Birds’ (which led to the phone drowning incident), ‘Beer & a Burger’, ‘Old Grunge’ and ‘Don’t Believe the Bullshit’ amongst others, but it was as he regaled probably his most famous tune that you realised just what it is tha​t makes his songs work. ‘MDMAmazing’ is a song based on a story Beans has from a festival​ he attended​ (you can guess the subject matter), but as he sings it he stops between verses to regale the crowd with two other stories that have arisen as direct result of that original song (are you still with me?). Then from that, from the story of ‘MDMAmazing’, he moves on to his next song which came about from a story that occurred as a result of his previous song, and so​ was born the wonderful anti-drug song called ‘The Children of Bedford’​, and the process continues. He sings about normal stuff that people can relate to, and he sings songs about the stuff that matters to the people who’ll listen. The increasing decline of traditional gig venues, his love for his girlfriend, songs about being skint and his derision of Jimmy Saville; they’re all covered and quite frankly, they all make sense.

As far as entertainment goes, he ticks all the boxes. There’s sing-alongs through-out, including some old ones getting reworked with a modern take – ‘Can’t Take Another Earthquake’ now covers the recent ‘super-storm’, or lack of, and his conspiracy theories behind it. There’s Rastafarian and posh Cambridge accents for his rendition of ‘Charlie’, while from time to time he wades back into the crowd to dance “like a pikey at a wedding”. On stage for well over an hour, there’s never really a point where you don’t get the feeling that he’s enjoying himself and in spite of his lyrics advising “don’t take folk singers as role models”, you do wonder if that if everyone did, then the world might just be a much better place.

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