Do you have one of those brains that comes pre-equipped with an internal jukebox? Personally, every morning, I wake up and my mind immediately fires up that jukebox, flips in a dime, and on comes some track; a soundtrack as I fix my breakfast and coffee. This morning, the track was ‘Green Eyes’ by Arlo Parks.
There are various reasons for this choice, and not only that it was one of the final things I heard last night, when Parks performed the first of two nights at Manchester Central for the Manchester International Festival. The main reason, though, that this song is on high rotation in the whirling Wurlitzer in my mind, is because it’s absolutely gorgeous. Arlo Parks, a recent addition both to the landscape of British singer-songwriters, and to my own cognisance, has made an immediate impression on both, garnering critical plaudits and commercial sales of her first and only album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. (It’s hard to accuse her of slacking when she has done all that and is still only 20). But anyway… about last night:
The lights dim in Manchester Central and I am, not surprisingly, forced to think back to a time, a time ‘before’. I was in almost this same spot on this floor of what was G-Mex, around Easter of 1990, only then I was in a body scrum of people, my uni girlfriend on my shoulders, watching The Happy Mondays debut their new song ‘Step On’. Now… now I am sat down alone, with no one in the seats around me, as though I am persona non grata, the rows of seats spaced out luxuriously, so you can stretch out your legs with business class flight elan. This is not to be pejorative of course. We all know why we are here, and why we are like this. But.. we are, at least, here. We made it, and to be together, listening to live music again is enough, a point that Parks makes herself. The rest can come later.
The band come on stage in stages… the bass kicks in, drums, keys, guitar combining to create that lush, warm deep young soul sound… then Parks herself, low-slung and vibey as she adds vocals for the opener ‘Hurt’, moving straight into ‘Cola’, then digging into Collapsed in Sunbeams for ‘Just Go’. The songs are elegant, unhurried, soulful cuts of contemporary young British experience. And they all just groooooove… bouncing like a Riva hitting a wake, or rolling like a beaten-up old car, top down, cruising streets late at night. These songs tell eternal stories of young life – love, loss, relationships… relationships going wrong, anxiety and doubt. Hey, why let the young have all the fun… these are eternal topics, right? Concerns we have to deal with all through our lives. Take ‘Black Dog’, which Parks introduces as a “pandemic song” about the black dog of depression that hunts, and haunts, many of us. But let’s keep things in the light. We’re still here, still sharing music, and as Parks puts it, “we survived… we’re in a room full of people!”
Parks performed her first ever live gig only back in May 2019. She is that box-fresh. She started a European tour in February 2020… and then. And then. She tells us this is her first gig in 19 months, her first live show of her 20s (another will follow on the 9 July) and that she is nervous. She doesn’t look it, gliding round the stage as though it were a dancefloor, between the fauna and flora that stand in pots on the stage, as though part of the band. Also a poet (she says poetry is incredibly important to her), she slips effortlessly into spoken word during her songs, and also stops to recite the poem ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ that opens the album. Her lyrics are well constructed. Take the opening couplet from ‘Black Dog’: “I’d lick the grief right off your lips / You do your eyes like Robert Smith”. Brilliant.
The set continues, at times at the same pace as the album – ‘For Violet’ into ‘Eugene’ for instance. And the crowd behave – most grooving contained in the shoulders, and head, as the two guitars swap licks and arpeggios (one guitarist in a beret that means serious business), and the fabulous female two-piece horn section take solos in instrumental breaks and groove-dance more than anyone.
For the second half of the set, the band are joined by a three part strings section from the RNCM, and those lush strings just lift the music even higher, right into the comfy curved roof of this erstwhile train station. Some tracks are formed of just Parks and guitar; at times there’s an interplay of pizzicato from the cello, and guitar; then others have the whole band involved. Overall, the slightly more jazzy improv interpretations of the tracks, when played live, really adds something.
“It feels so good to play these songs,” says Parks, adding: “You are the first people who have heard these songs live.” It’s a privilege. The set is just over an hour, another consequence of an artist at the beginning of her trajectory. A trajectory that will, inevitably, be “up”. There’s an encore formed, suitably, of the track ‘Hope’, with its chorus “you’re not alone” because that’s what we always had… and that’s because we never were. Parks concedes she’s never done an encore before, admitting that backstage she’d asked a bandmate “what if they just don’t want another one?” But we do. And could do more. Tonight and the next morning, when the neon lights of my inner Wurlitzer will snap on.
Arlo Parks was reviewed at Manchester Central on 8 July 2021 as part of the Manchester International Festival 2021.