This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show.

It’s funny what floats up to the surface of the memory when you’re bored. I was stuck on a train the other day and the words I couldn’t get out of my head were the repeated cry of a poet three thousand years ago: “How long, O Lord, how long?” Now, I guess his plight was more existentially challenging than mine; but, they were the words I couldn’t shake off.

A bit like the blues, really.

I well remember sitting in my car on holiday listening to Eric Clapton’s album Pilgrim. I was haunted by one song in particular which went by the miserable title of River of Tears. That perfect combination of weeping guitar and a voice wrenched from the depths of the heart tore through my soul. It still does nineteen years later.

What is it about the blues that cuts through the rubbish and distractions of a busy mind and brings tears to the eyes?

The other day I was driving through the Yorkshire Dales on a gorgeous sunny day – someone has to do this job – listening to the new Imelda May album, written after her divorce and coloured by the sadness of loss. Where did my tears come from?

I think what’s going on here is quite simple – and common. Life is a rollercoaster of joy and sadness, hope and despair, creativity and loss. We all know what it’s like to run through the daily routine only to have it disturbed by unwelcome news or worse. We discover that we are not in control after all and that we are more fragile than we thought we were. It’s as if the veneer of self-sufficiency is stripped away and the rawness of reality exposed.

And that’s why the blues get straight through the skin and move the heart. It’s why the words of the poet, the Psalmist, offer a vocabulary for when words fail us: how long, O Lord, how long? And, I think, we can find amid the pain that we are never alone in this experience – that it isn’t to be feared – that even God cries out in cross-shaped grief.

Or, in the words of Imelda May: “I’m damned if I show it but I can’t shake this feeling away.”

If you have a problem, why broadcast it to over ten million people? Good question.

I was back in the Chris Evans studio at BBC Radio 2 to do Pause for Thought this morning after a six month break while I settled in to Bradford. I’ve missed it – not because I’m a groupie, but because (a) it is unfailingly enjoyable and (b) it’s an interesting challenge to write and deliver scripts that work in that environment. Chris and his team were very friendly and welcoming despite the pressures of running an auction for Children in Need.

In this morning’s script I wanted to connect to today’s ‘Dine and Disco’ theme. Basically, I can do the ‘dine’ bit, but the ‘disco’ gives me the wobblies. Some people can dance, some can’t. I try, but I’m hopeless. Unfortunately, at the end of the slot Chris asked me to show him how I dance. He stopped me pretty quickly. Now he knows… (Radio is always better than telly for activities such as this.)

I referred back to the two gigs I got to last week: Imelda May at York and Jools Holland in Bradford. Both were fantastic, but you can’t sit still to either of them. Rockabilly, rhythm and blues, boogie woogie – even I had to get up and … er … dance … sort of. Fortunately, it was dark…

But, one of my favourite Imelda May songs ( which she did in York) is Proud and Humble. I think it’s really a prayer in which, with her extraordinary voice and cracking band, she wrestles with the attempt to live right while also trying to make life happen for herself. Addressing herself to God, she recognises where she fouls it all up, but pleads that at least she’s trying to get the most out of the life God has given her in the world which he created and loves.

And my point in this morning’s script is that I think this hits the button. We all need to own up to our failures, but not fail to celebrate the good stuff. We need both.

I think this is why the two gigs last weekend were full of joy. (I tried to find a less cheesy word than joy, but I couldn’t.) Even songs about loss and longing made the audiences dance – perhaps because somewhere in us there is a deep recognition that, as Bruce Cockburn once sang, ‘joy will find a way’. It comes when we know we’ve got nothing to fear – because the God who made us still knows us, beckons us, loves us, still holds open the possibility of a new start.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: music hits the soul and demands a response. I concluded my script with the following profound observation: Several thousand years ago a Psalmist wrote: “You turned my grieving into dancing.” Many of us know the feeling. Even though, I fear, my dancing would have made him grieve.

And that’s when Chris asked me to demonstrate. And then played Genesis’ I can’t dance. Very funny. And very accurate. How sad is that?

(Chris also clearly knows Bradford and bigged it up. Good to hear such positive stuff about the place.)

Actually, that’s the title of a song by Clive Gregson. I’d heard of him before, but not heard him. Last night he was the support act for Jools Holland at the brilliant St George’s Hall in Bradford. I know two gigs in three days sounds excessive (Imelda May supported by Big Boy Bloater in York last Friday), but I had a couple of days break – the only break between August and post-Christmas – and it was my birthday!

Clive Gregson was fantastic. Like Bruce Cockburn, you can’t hide when you are playing acoustic guitar in front of a live audience. Great songs, great musicianship, great chat to the audience – Clive set up a great evening. (Sorry for the superlatives, but it just was great.)

I have seen Jools Holland every year for the last decade or more – usually at the Royal Albert Hall or in Croydon. Last night he had the usual suspects with him: Ruby Turner, Louise Marshall and, standing in for the cancelled Shane MacGowan (ex-Pogues), the inimitable and always understated Chris Difford (Up the Junction, Cool for Cats, etc.). Other tour dates have Sandy Shaw and the epic German rocker Herbert Grönemeyer (who I once saw live in a stadium in Linz, Austria – long story…) with Jools, but I was happy with Squeeze‘s Chris Difford who has supported him many times.

This gig is worth every penny. It is sheer energetic joy from beginning to end – an evening devoted to brilliant musicianship from people who clearly love what they are doing and draw the audience (however reluctantly) into a serious bit of bopping. From the moment Jools walks onto stage the music doesn’t stop – boogie woogie, blues, ska, etc. See here for previous posts on these gigs. Sheer unadulterated joy. Even an embarrassment like me can’t help but try to dance.

I realise this is a bit of a tenuous link, but it was in my mind while writing. Yesterday began with the Remembrance parade at the Cenotaph in Bradford – always a moving event, but especially when a photograph of someone’s son killed in Afghanistan or Iraq is placed among the wreaths. Remembrance isn’t simply about history or the past. It brings the past into the present and reinforces the responsibility to deal justly in the present in order to vindicate the sacrifices of the past in order better to shape a common future. But, memory is not restricted to wars and the military; it drives us back to the whole of life’s experiences.

Much of the music played yesterday had its ultimate roots in the experiences of the slaves. Black music didn’t just give expression to the misery of loss and humiliation, but it also confounded that subjection with musical exuberance and joy that promised a future. The language of Exodus fired the hope of a people who knew that empires come and go, that ‘now’ isn’t the final word, that ‘justice will out’. It defiantly dances in the face of the miserable oppressor who above all fears losing his status or possessions.

Or, as Clive Gregson puts it on his album Bittersweet:

The door is open, somewhere, somehow,

There has to be a better life than the one we’re living now,

I won’t believe it’s for a chosen few,

The door is open, let’s go on through…

 

Dance, that is.

I’ve posted about her before, having first come across her when she supported Jools Holland at the Royal Albert Hall in London a couple of years ago. She is the only support act I have ever seen who could have gone on all night – the audience loved her. Last night we went over to the Barbican at York and she was brilliant.

Imelda May not only has a great voice, but she also can sing. From the high-energy Johnny Got a Boom Boom to the poignant Too Sad to Cry, she lives the song. From rockabilly through to ballad, she commands them all. And from the moment she walks on stage she commands the space with a charisma that is at once bigger than the venue and yet intimate in her connection with the audience. Bizarrely, you come away thinking the gig is not just about her – when she thanks the audience for coming out, hopes they are going home happy, generously thanks not only the band, but also the crew and venue management, you know she means it. This is an artiste who knows her audience, doesn’t take them for granted, and repays every penny (and more) of the ticket price.

But, it’s the music that is just brilliant. Her band are superb: tight drummer, excellent double bass player (how does he do that stuff?), evocative trumpeter/guitarist, and fantastic guitarist (and writer of some of the songs). Clever, entertaining and totally engaging, her approach is summed up in the song Humble and Proud: she struts the stage with charisma and confidence, belting out these wonderful songs, yet never overreaches herself.

Just go and see her. Don’t book a seat – stand where you can dance. OK, sort of dance.

The support yesterday was Big Boy Bloater. As I tweeted, I’d never heard of him before. But he and his band (the drummer and keyboard players reminded me for some reason of the Proclaimers) were entertaining, funny and promising of more to come. I didn’t get the CD. But, I will.

Several years ago I was at the Royal Albert Hall for the annual Jools Holland gig. Support acts are sometimes a bit hit and miss, but that year it was stunning.

I’d never heard of Imelda May, and this was her first performance on the big stage. From the moment she walked on she had the audience of 7,500 people eating out of her hand. Not only was the music fantastic and her voice immense, but she commanded the stage with a charisma that, I think, took everybody by surprise. It’s not every support act that you want to keep going at the expense of the main act, but in this case she could have done another hour.

I’ve just (finally, and after meaning to do it for a year) got her album Mayhem. It is superb. The songwriting ranges through love and loss to eternity and sadness via a psycho and a prayer. Even a waltz finds its way through the energetic rockabilly and her voice is perfect. But, what struck me (as it would) is the insight you get from one song into spirituality. Proud and humble is a prayer, a confession, one that stands in its simplicity with the openness of a Leonard Cohen. Here’s a stripped down studio version of it:

Like Cohen, she holds together the honest reality of human living in which we try to be godly, but get it wrong a million times. It’s Cohen’s ‘holy and broken hallelujah’ – the two held together in a confusing life that drives us through passion and prayer to some sort of muddle. But, again like Cohen, she doesn’t make excuses for ‘living’ and all that’s involved in milking life’s opportunities for love and laughter – even when they lead to pain and tears.

Oh, I made the most from what I knew then / But if I lived it over I’d do the same again / I try, I try for You to please / But you know I’m only human, You created me.

She recognises humility at failed attempts to be holy, but can look God in the eye and say, “But, at least I lived.” There’s something here about the parable of the talents in which the guys who risked losing their deposits got praised and the one who buried his in order to protect it from harm got damned. The song concludes:

Well I’m humbled by You and thankful oh Lord / Istudied Your life and Your holy word / But I hold my head just a little high / ‘Cos I’m proud that I got on with this given life.

That’s not arrogance; that’s honesty. Life is for living. And Imelda may have understood it better than some of us.

Whatever. The whole album is brilliant. Not one weak song. And Marc Almond’s Tainted Love is painted in fresh colours while Johnny got a Boom Boom just makes you want to dance.

One of the best nights of the year in my little life has to be Jools Holland at the Royal Albert Hall in London. We get there each year courtesy of a mate of mine and it is just brilliant. Every time. Without fail.

Not only do you get the huge sound of Jools himself on piano, but also the most amazing array of musical talent you could hope to see. Three great trumpeters, four trombonists, five saxophonists enjoy their way through a beautiful noise. Gilson Lavis takes my breath away as probably the best drummer I have ever seen – his long solos bring the audience to their feet. Dave Swift is the coolest bass player ever. Mark Flanagan is the Scouse guitarist who makes playing the blues look easy. Chris Holland brings the organ alive with a never-intrusive finesse. The sound is huge and you can’t help but get up and dance. Even in a box.

And not only does Jools give a couple of hours of totally enjoyable and flawless entertainment, but he gives spotlight space to the wonderful voices of Louise Marshall and Ruby Turner (the Queen of Boogie-Woogie). They best their way through song after song with a joy and energy that has to be seen to be believed.

The other great thing is how Jools nurtures new talent and gives space for younger musicians to learn their trade and play to huge audiences they could never command for themselves at this stage of their career. Look where the wonderful rockabilly Imelda May is now. This time it was Rumer in support – great singer, lovely voice, but a bit samey…

However, it is the main guests who do the challenging stuff. In the past we’ve seen Paul Rodgers, Jimmy Cliff, Lulu, Marc Almond, Solomon Burke and other greats. This time it was Alison Moyet and she didn’t disappoint for a single second. No prima donna showmanship – just excellent music from excellent musicians at the top of their game.

Can it get any better than this? Well, try Rico Rodriguez doing a ska version of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. One of the creators of Jamaican ska, he doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks and just sings his way through. He gives another go in the first encore with the glorious:

Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think. Enjoy yourself while you’re still in the pink. As years go by as quickly as a wink, enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

(Which is parodied by one of the crew as ‘Endure this song, it’s longer than you think…’)

Jools tours most of the year. Go to the website. Book for a gig near you. You will not regret it. Whatever your taste in music, this is musicianship at its joyful best.