Christmas is a time for giving. A time for raising a few glasses, dancing like an idiot and letting your hair down. Beans on Toast arrived back in Cambridge last week, and kicked off the festive season with generous lashings of all of those elements, and then some. In fact, a Beans on Toast gig is quite easily comparable to your average Christmas party; rowdy, controversial and beer soaked, there’ll be at least one person hideously offended and a whole host more waking up the next day with a sore head and a few gleeful memories of the night before. Like a Christmas party, things happen at a Beans on Toast gig that just wouldn’t be deemed acceptable elsewhere – heated arguments, bad Rastafarian impressions, discussing the necrophilia habits of Jimmy Savile – you know, stuff that just isn’t normal. Thursday night had all of those, it was as familiarly unpredictable as ever and this one had the unexpected bonus of that other oh so important Christmas tradition, a family reunion.
Braintree born Jay McAllister had decided that in the absence of a tour date in his home county, this was to be both a Cambridge and Essex gig in one. He’d invited Mr and Mrs Toast along, who sat up “in the royal fucking box”, watching keenly as their son led the sing-alongs. The audience clearly contained a load of other family members and long standing friends and just to emphasise the fact that this was really just a family knees up that a load of us strangers had also turned up to, he even had his Niece’s band ‘Little Robyn and the Mob’ as the first support act for the evening. They started off the party well – angst ridden lyrics set over indie blues style sounds – with lead singer Robyn’s bobbing afro and stage demeanour just as impressive as a few of the lead guitar solos. Also Braintree based, there was a definite look of pride on Uncle Beans’ face as he looked on, and with good reason.
The second support act was even more inspiring. With the return of a beardy bloke with curly long hair, another Christmas theme was ticked off, and with it came probably one of the finest songwriters in the country right now. A year ago Will Varley was support the same gig at The Portland Arms, and within minutes had captivated a drunken audience with ease. On Thursday night he exceeded that with his usual blend of comedic and life questioning lyrics, and had the crowd here spellbound. Flitting from tales of supermarket based theft and seduction in ‘The Self Checkout Shuffle’ to coverage of the country’s decline in ‘These Are the Days’, and then to the heartbreaking ‘King for a King’, Varley is one of those rare wordsmiths who perfectly exemplifies the craft and simplicity of song writing and storytelling.
The same can almost be said of the evening’s main act, Beans on Toast.His style of song writing and storytelling is quite like no other; and he manages to leave you wincing, cracking up and more often that not, thinking – often all at once – and this show was no different. The opening track from his new album, ‘Folk Singer,’ is a perfect way to open the set, showcasing the highs and pitfalls of his trade, before moving onto another new one, ‘War on War’, which as he explains is essentially about him giving up chemical drugs, while also touching on such trivial subjects as world peace, politics and organised religion in an attempt to bulk the song out. He’s never one to shirk a subject. As mentioned earlier, we also had ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ which covered the horror of Jimmy Savile, ‘A Whole Lot of Loving’ – an attack at UKIP and another call to down arms and enjoy life – and a mid-set rant about the government’s failed attempt to monitor pornography. It was before this rant that Beans had hurdled the front barrier and waded into the crowd to sing, citing he feels more comfortable there than up on stage. It’s this familiarity that makes him so endearing – he’ll happily mingle with the crowd before and during gigs, stop mid song to voice his opinions on something often completely unrelated, fluff his lines or forget lyrics, and then laugh it off and carry on.
As with most Beans on Toast gigs, the set list is a mixture of pre-planned songs and requests from the audience. Doing so makes each and every gig an event of it’s own – pairing up love songs to his fiancée with his “most aggressive song of all” ‘I Shot Tupac Shakur’ – and means no one in the room, especially him, knows quite where the evening will go. Songs are fitted around stories, some more relevant than others, though all are generally hilarious, while topics are picked up and dropped within a few lines. By his side for much of the set is his long standing accomplice Bobby Banjo on guitar, banjo and mouth organ, providing a perfectly well suited background to Beans’ lyrics. This is no better exemplified by ‘Fuck You Nashville’ and the Toddy Snyder cover ‘Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern’, two country heavy songs set to wheezing harmonica.
It was apt though, that the set highlights were in fitting with the family reunion element of the evening. Little Robyn returned to the stage for ‘Can’t Take Another Earthquake’ and ‘Don’t You Think They’ve Sold out Rock’n’Roll’, while ‘Peter Pan’s Playground’ was a homage to his upbringing in Essex, name checking his parents who were proudly looking on. ‘Flying Clothesline’ and a duet with Varley for ‘Stinging Nettles’ were both nostalgic looks back upon his youth and the strength of family and friendship, while ‘NOLA Honeymoon’ was a touching and public proposal which thankfully, he informed us, resulted in an acceptance. It was the final song of the night however, ‘The Price of Rice’ which he dedicated to his Dad, that was a reminder that behind all the revelry and drunkenness, Beans is a man with the kind of values perfectly befitting this time of year, closing off his set by urging the crowd to “Start treating everybody, how you’d like to be treated yourself”. And I think we can all raise a glass to that.
Review for Slate the Disco
Photos by Jamie van Dyk