That Joe Payne - photo by Martin Reiman

That Joe Payne / Ms Amy Birks

The Court Theatre, Tring
Saturday, 7th March 2020

This showcase at the Court Theatre in Tring is effectively the launch of That Joe Payne’s solo career. Although he has played a few shows since his time in The Enid, this is the real deal, a fully realised production with a full band. The few solo gigs and EP releases have hinted at what we might expect from Joe, but are we ready for the full immersion experience?

Well we should be of course, after all, did we not survive the shock of Joe’s first appearances with The Enid? His five-octave range and operatic flamboyance was such a contrast to the gentle romanticism we were used to, and yet those open minds who embraced this new direction were amply rewarded with riveting performances. So, fore-armed with the knowledge of Joe’s vocal abilities and power to shock, we won’t be too surprised at what happens next, will we?

The Court Theatre is apparently home turf for Joe, and it’s a compact and fairly modern theatre, well-appointed and intimate. Whilst this show isn’t a sell-out, it’s very well attended, and there are many familiar faces, all eagerly waiting in anticipation. The support slot tonight is a bit special, Ms Amy Birks from the Beatrix Players treats us to half a dozen songs from her forthcoming debut solo album, All That I Am and All That I Was. She is augmented by Moray Macdonald on keys and Oliver Day on guitar, who are both members of Joe’s band, and both complement her songs beautifully. Opening song and single Jamaica Inn is typical, a beautifully crafted song that beguiles and entertains with its folky feel. We know that she has a golden voice, rich with power and emotion, but also tender and gentle; what we learn here is that her songwriting prowess grows rapidly. She tackles difficult subjects, such as divorce, suicide, even assault, and sings with such honesty and integrity one cannot fail to be moved. When the album appears next month, it promises to be essential.

One might have expected a brief break between Ms Amy Birks’ set and the headlining act, but it rapidly becomes clear we will move seamlessly on to That Joe Payne and his band. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a headlining band begin before the dust has truly settled after the support set, but this is going to be a night of surprises it seems, so we roll with it.

Something which comes as no surprise is that there will be a theatrical element this evening, since the stage has a giant electronic back-projection screen of some sort, and a ramp from the stage floor to screen level. The screen looks very much like the one Joe used with The Enid on the Dust tour, and that show was pretty impressive. The band take to the stage and Joe enters draped in a cloak, all very theatrical, and very rock’n’roll. When Joe dispenses with the cloak, we get our first jolt. At first glance, he appears to be wearing nothing but a pair of trainers! Has he taken leave of his senses? Ok, it’s actually a skin-coloured bodysuit, but as he sings By Name, By Nature (Payne by name, pain by nature!), with the screen in overdrive and band in full swing, one cannot help but get the impression he’s naked. And in many ways, he is. This is That Joe Payne being himself, no camouflage, nowhere to hide, no half measures, just unadulterated personality. It seems as though having spent years facing down his demons, he is now confident and comfortable being himself. The effect is powerful and entertaining.

That Joe Payne - photo by Martin Reiman

Next song, Nice Boy, has more self-deprecating humour – and it’s disco! Joe goes for his full Freddie Mercury, leaping up and down his ramp, jumping, air-punching and grinning from ear to ear. I realise that I am grinning too; everyone is. Joe interacts wonderfully with the projection screen, taking the choreography used on the Dust tour to another level. The rehearsal required to appear to ’touch’ the images must have taken hours of patience. It’s an assault on the senses in many ways, totally over the top, overwhelming, and an absolute blast.

Having pinned us to our seats for several minutes of non-stop action and energy, we can now have a break, and images of sixteenth-century Venice appear before us, and an introductory narration tells the story of intrigue and rivalry between artists of the day Titian and Tintoretto. This is the prelude to a beautiful song, originally by John Holden, Capture Light, which Joe sang on John’s album. It is a great piece of prog storytelling and has us spellbound.

That Joe Payne - photo by Martin Reiman

Using images of recently flooded Venice, and clips of Greta Thunberg as a segue, we flow into the final song of the first set, What Is The World Coming To. Against a backdrop of environmental disaster, Joe has produced a song of power, a rallying call for us to meet the problem head-on. It’s the burning issue of the age, and the song burns suitably brightly.

One wonders how this momentum can be maintained after the break, but the second act is every bit as strong. Joe has changed into a glittering suit, and it looks like we are in for some cabaret. End of the Tunnel is a simple song of hope, and it is becoming clear that the quality of the songwriting for the forthcoming album is very promising. Who Created Me, the Enid song from Invicta, follows, and was always a crowd-pleaser at Enid shows, so no surprise that it goes down a storm here. It probably helps that the rhythm section of the band are former Enid players. Josh Green on drums and backing vocals has the right balance between delicacy and solidity and drives the band on. Nick Willes is masterful as ever on bass. He was something of a multi-instrumentalist during his tenure in The Enid, and always impressed, and is a very welcome sight tonight. In fact, it has to be said that, once you get used to the visual onslaught of the show, the tightness and musicianship of the band becomes more noticeable. They need to be spot on of course with such a choreographed presentation, but they find room to breathe life into the songs within the structural elements, and they are a fine unit. Oliver Day is a great guitarist I had not come across before, and he produces a quietly confident performance, making every note count. That leaves keyboardist Moray Macdonald who is something of a revelation, a great presence opposite Joe when he is playing keys, balancing the flamboyance on each side of the stage.

That Joe Payne - photo by Martin Reiman

It was a kind of open secret that Ms Amy Birks would make an appearance with Joe, so it’s not a surprise when she is announced, and what a duet this turns out to be. Love (Not The Same) is an outstanding piece, a show-stopping moment in a show packed with highlights. They incorporate a bit of It’s A Man’s World, and trade vocals, pushing each other to ever greater heights. It’s a brilliant interlude, proving that both are stunning vocal talents born to be on a stage.

The set concludes with I Need A Change, a song familiar to those who have followed That Joe Payne since he left The Enid, and a wonderful song it is, with a sentiment that seems both melancholy and yet hopeful at the same time. After that, it seems the whole theatre is on its feet giving this band an ovation they deserve. For the launch of a new project and phase in That Joe’s career, it is astonishing, and I suspect most expectations have been exceeded tonight. Of course, there’s no way they’re getting away without an encore, and perhaps unsurprisingly we are treated to another Enid song, and Joe’s signature piece, The One and The Many. It sounds as good tonight as it ever has, and I must have seen him sing it a dozen times before.

That Joe Payne - photo by Martin Reiman

As the band take their bows, soaking up the love from this enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowd, it’s like a family occasion somehow, a room full of friends sharing a special moment. I can only say that if you get the chance to see this show, jump at it. Who knows when the scheduled tour will be rearranged in these tough times, but irrespective of that, one thing is for sure; That Joe Payne has arrived, and he’s going places.

[Photos by Martin Reijman, used with his kind permission.]

Act 1:

The Thing About Me Is (intro)
By Name, By Nature
Nice Boy
Capture Light (John Holden cover)
What Is The World Coming To

Act 2:
End Of The Tunnel
Who Created Me (The Enid cover)
The Origin Of Blame (Methexis cover)
Moonlit Love
Music For A While
Love (Not The Same) (feat. Ms Amy Birks)
I Need A Change
~ Encore:
The One and the Many (The Enid cover)

That Joe Payne – Vocals, Keyboards
Moray Macdonald – Keyboards
Josh Green – Drums & Percussion
Nick Willes – Bass
Oliver Day – Guitar
~ With:
Ms Amy Birks – Guest Vocals

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