Ginger Wildheart’s Birthday Bash @ The Garage, Islington

Date: 17th December 2018
Review By: Beandog

We all get one day a year when our whims and desires carry a bit more latitude than normal. Birthdays are the days when we get to do what we want. We get to postpone our daily chores. We get to choose the music. We get to choose what we’re having for dinner and if we want champagne and cake for breakfast, we can jolly well have it.

For Ginger Wildheart, it seems there is no better way to spend his birthday than by filling up a London venue with a few hundred rowdy rock fans and playing music for three hours. It’s a format he’s followed every year since 2009 and as such, “Ginger’s Birthday Bash” is a big date in the calendar of every serious Wildheart(s) fan.

Each year, as an extra candle on the cake, several old friends and fellow performers are invited to join in the festivities and help make the event a show to remember.

Tonight is completely sold out – which is testament to the regard in which Ginger is held by his fans. Those who follow his career are rewarded with an extensive and prolific body of work. Impressively, in 2018 he has released three albums as a solo artist: Ghost In The Tanglewood, GASS Mk II and The Pessimist’s Companion. Also this year, Ginger has written and started recording a new album with The Wildhearts, who have been enjoying a recently reinvigorated period of activity and seem to be on a very positive trajectory.

This is actually Ginger’s second visit to London this month – The first being a barnstorming set with The Wildhearts at the beginning of December. It’s likely many in attendance this evening were at that show too – such is the loyalty of his fans. Reward for that loyalty comes with the promise of a vintage set tonight, performed by the 1991 Wildhearts line-up; featuring their old drummer, Bam (who has since played for Dogs D’Amour).

As far as I am aware, this is the only part of the set that has been advertised in advance. The other “surprise” guests are unknown, other than a strong rumour that Michael Monroe from Hanoi Rocks is set to make an appearance.

Regardless, there is a celebratory atmosphere in the busy venue tonight and for many there is an extra level to the celebration. Ginger‘s fluctuating mental health problems have been clearly apparent this year. Aside from reports online, several solo shows have been cancelled and a brief Twitter statement with very few subsequent details indicated that in September, the songwriter was “dead for eight minutes and on life support for a following 36 hours.”

When Ginger addresses the crowd, stating that he is “happy to be here,” it carries a significant weight. When he follows this by saying he’s “happy to be anywhere,” there is a palpable sense of respect in the crowd, and some relief that Mr. Wildheart has faced his demons this year, and survived.

Significantly, the set opens with The Daylight Hotel (from Ginger‘s folk influenced Ghost In the Tanglewood album), a song that paints a picture of life inside a mental health treatment facility – In contrast to the bleak theme, the song is built on a set of uplifting chords and performed by the assembled musicians with an energy that defiantly sticks two fingers up to depression. Similarly, Golden Tears encourages the crowd to turn tragedy into motivation and “build your courage from the cauldron of these molten, golden tears.”

Ginger has a knack for presenting his songs in such a way that the melancholy is often infused with an optimism. Even the way they are performed tonight, by a band that for much of the evening is predominantly female, carries a message of positivity that yearns for an improved future.

The first musical “treat” of the evening comes via a live debut of Sweet Wanderlust. It’s the only song of the gig performed from the starkly exposing The Pessimist’s Companion album, and it marks the point where the band and crowd seem to click in a way that ushers off the initial tentativeness of the first few songs. Ginger in particular still seemed to be finding his feet in the earliest moments of the set. Stripped of the bombast that an electric guitar provides and laid bare to sing such personally revealing songs, this first section has a heart-in-the-mouth fragility to it that was perhaps inevitable. Despite this, the songs build towards a rousing rendition of Paying It Forward that gets an enthusiastic roar from the audience.

It’s possible that the songwriter feels more comfortable exposing his vulnerabilities on record rather than on stage. He expresses some relief at the opportunity to step back into his comfort zone, strapping on a different guitar and inviting the first “rock” line up on to the stage.

Interestingly, Ai Sugiyama (who had given her drumming skills to the last few songs) doesn’t stick around to have a familiar bash through Hey! Hello!‘s, How I Survived The Punk Wars. However, Ginger is joined by some old bandmates from previous musical endeavours. The Rev (from H!H!) steps up, along with Ginger‘s go-to rhythmic powerhouse, Denzil (last seen thrashing it out on Mutation’s last tour).

More guests arrive to fill up the stage; Share Ross from Vixen takes the low end, while Kavois Torabi from The Cardiacs joins in on second guitar. Givvi Flynn from The Dowling Poole sticks around from the first part of the set to continue belting out her vocals; joined by the vivacious paring of Kelli Compulsive and Eloise Kerry (who receives some well deserved kudos for her spirited lead vocal on Don’t Stop Lovin’ The Music).

Eloise isn’t the only singer to give Ginger an opportunity to hang back and play sideman; The Rev takes a lead vocal on Perfect (from Hey! Hello! Too). It’s a pure rock and roll blast that energises the crowd for Ginger‘s return to the mic when the band plough into the fervent AC/DC meets Cheap Trick groove of Yeah, Yeah, Yeah (from Valor Del Corazon). The crowd response is phenomenal and heads are thrown back so that the assembled fans can holler out the song’s powerful chorus.

Time to mix it up again… The Mission/Pete Murphy/Primitive Race‘s Mark Twaites arrives to play guitar and the now vacant bass spot is taken up by the ex-Buckcherry four-stringer, Jimmy Ashurst. Drums are handled by UK Sub’s Jamie Oliver, and Ginger leads this line up through two songs from the recently issued GASS MK II album, Friends of Bill and Alverado On The 2

At this point there is absolutely no sign of a lull in the momentum. As if to prove no matter how exciting things can get, they can always get better, Ginger invites a man onto the stage whom he describes as, his “old boss”. It’s reference to the Sensory Overdrive album they recorded together and just as anticipated, the legendary Hanoi Rocks frontman, Mr. Michael Monroe steps to the centre of the stage. What follows is a masterclass in rock and roll that sees Monroe striding across the stage, leaping from the drum riser and alternating his punkish vocal sneer with filthy blasts on a harmonica. It’s an exhilarating section of the evening that climaxes with a cover of the MC5‘s Kick Out The Jams.

As if any of the above had left people wanting more in the way of punk rock credibility, Ginger pulls out another ace for the last song of his solo set as Jamie Oliver‘s bandmate from UK Subs, Charlie Harper joins the band for a snotty charge through the 1982 classic, Endangered Species.

Considering the integrity of entertainment on offer tonight, you just can’t argue with Charlie as he shouts out, “We are the endangered species, we can blow you all to pieces!” It’s a statement of intent that has been proved time and time again tonight…. and we still have the most anticipated moment of the evening to go.

CJ, Danny and Bam walk onto the stage to a hero’s welcome. Along with Ginger, this is the line up that recorded the much loved Mondo Akimbo A-Go Go and Don’t Be Happy Just Worry EPs in the early nineties. Tonight will mark the first time these men have played together in a quarter of a century and I have no doubt many of the crowd – old fans and newcomers alike – are pinching themselves, convinced that this is something they would never see.

The intro to Turning American builds on its familiar steady crescendo before everything kicks off and we are reminded once again what a ferocious live band The Wildhearts are.

Listening to these older songs, it’s interesting to acknowledge what a fully formed band they have always been. From day one, The Wildhearts took their cues from a wide set of influences, exuding a musical confidence and wealth of ideas that, for better or worse, set them apart from their peers (let’s go with better – what I meant is they have always been a difficult band to pigeon hole which presents difficulties in a commercial sense… but none of us ever really gave a hoot about that!)

There isn’t much more I can say about the songs played tonight other than to marvel once again at how charged up and ahead of their time they were. The shifting time signatures and progressive arrangements still seem at odds with the sing-a-long choruses. It shouldn’t work but it does. It’s pop music but with riffs even the heaviest of bands can only dream of writing.

This is best evidenced by Danny‘s bass sound on the monstrously crushing Liberty Cap – the second song in a set that also includes Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes, Crying Over Nothing, Something Weird (Going On In My Head) and Dreaming In A.

For obvious reasons, many eyes are on Bam tonight. What he brings to proceedings is a heavy backbeat with a little more swing to it than the style of longstanding drummer, Rich Battersby.

He is on point throughout and proves more than capable of giving these songs a thrust that ensues this reunion lives up to expectations. It marks a triumphant moment in an evening of highlights. Most could probably go home now and not feel short changed at all… but there is still more to come.

For the last set of the evening, Bam says his goodbyes and the drum stool is taken up by Rich, who repositions and adjusts his kit while Ginger jokes to the crowd: “When we swap guitarists, they just plug in and play… with drummers, it’s like moving the furniture!”

The crowd gives a traditional and hearty rendition of Don’t Worry About Me, to pass the time. Once everything is ready, Ginger‘s riff to TV Tan kicks things off into a “fan favourites” set that has everyone in the building jostling to the front and singing loudly.

There is something magical about hearing a sold out Wildhearts crowd howling, “Woooah, oh, oh, oh” to Sick Of Drugs, or chanting, “Headfuck! Headfuck! Headfuck! Headfuck!” when the band are playing My Baby Is A Headfuck. It never gets old, and only serves to demonstrate the passion and commitment that the fans of The Wildhearts have for the songs. By this stage in the evening, everything is complete audience participation and the entire room has become a part of the performance. Impressively, Ginger still has some surprises up his sleeve.

Folk-punk singer Frank Turner is invited on stage to lend his voice to an impassioned thrash through Suckerpunch and Greetings From Shitsville. Looking absolutely overjoyed to be there, he makes a point of telling the audience how, as a teenager, he would queue up to buy Wildhearts albums on release day. He bounds across the a stage with such enthusiasm, anyone would think he was the birthday boy!

During the climactic coupling of 29 X The Pain and I Wanna Go Where The People Go we are treated to a scenario that seems so inconceivable it could surely ONLY occur in the ramshackle context of Ginger‘s birthday celebrations. Michael Monroe is invited back on stage for one final contribution to the evening. There is something about seeing the disparate and unlikely mix of Monroe and Turner sharing the stage with Ginger, CJ, Danny and Rich providing the backing that just seems to sum up the underlying message of the evening.

Tonight has been about positivity and togetherness. It’s been about friendship and shared experiences – and it’s all been soundtracked by the greatest songwriter of our generation.

Happy birthday, Ginger!

Same time next year?