One wonders if the large turnout for this Sunday night gig has taken by Martin Metcalfe by surprise.

Metcalfe was the front-man and main songwriter in the under-heard 80's group Goodbye Mr Mackenzie. They are best remembered now not so much for record sales but as being the first band of Garbage's Shirley Manson, who sung backing vocals and played keyboards with them for ten years. While they never attracted mass appeal internationally, their brand of dark Iggy Pop/David Bowie-influenced alternative rock was an enormous draw in their native Scotland and they played most of its major venues of the time. Even now nearly twenty years on from “the Mackenzies”’ demise amidst a cocktail of drink, drugs and unlucky record deals, they are still remembered fondly and Metcalfe in local music circles remains something of a cult figure.

Tonight's show – his first hometown gig in three years - in the two hundred capacity ballroom of the Edinburgh Voodoo Rooms is heavily packed, so much so that unless one is standing in the first few rows it is difficult to see much at all of Metcalfe other than the huge multi-coloured cowboy hat he is wearing or any of his new band the Fornicators.

It is a sharp contrast to Metcalfe’s last half-full Edinburgh show at the same venue with his other band Isa & The Filthy Tongues, who are currently in hiatus. Fronted by Metcalfe’s American wife, the fiery, brilliant Stacey Chavis, they played there in what has since turned out to be their last gig to date.

As well as Metcalfe on semi-acoustic guitar and vocals, the Fornicators, whom remain seated throughout their performance, also include ex-Goodbye Mr Mackenzie producer Terry Adams again on semi-acoustic guitar, Chris Tracey on bass and backing vocals and Asim Kasool on cajon drum.

Each song is accompanied by a striking backdrop of visuals. There are medieval paintings of Christ being crucified. Kennedy waving at the crowds from his motorcade drifts in slow motion day-glo through Dallas to his death. A computerized man sprints without pause on the spot, and there are re-edited clips – some repeated over and over – from ancient horror and sci-fi films.

Metcalfe has gone deep into his back catalogue for this set. He opens with a stunning raw-throated cover of Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’, which was a regular part of set lists at Mackenzies’ shows. Early Goodbye Mr Mackenzie B-side ‘Here Comes Deacon Brodie’ – about a legendary eighteenth century Edinburgh century figure who, while a respected business man by day, turned at night to burglary and armed robbery to feed his gambling addiction – is another early highlight. With its furious, hammering chorus of line of “Greedy! Greedy!”, it in this era of corrupt bankers and expenses-swindling politicians as timely as it was when it was recorded twenty-five years ago at the height of the “greed is good” Thatcherite era.

There are songs that are better associated with Manson as well. ‘Normal Boy’ – from Goodbye Mr MacKenzie’s 1994 third album ‘Five’ and one of the first songs to feature Manson on lead rather than backing vocals – is whipped out. And so too are ‘Mummy Can’t Drive’ and ‘King of the World’, two songs from Angelfish, a short-lived side project of the same era which was formed in a last ditch attempt to crack America with Manson at the fore and Metcalfe and the other Mackenzies as her band. While they were, of course, songs that he wrote, it is strange hearing him taking them back after all these years, but his soaring vocals, the band’s surging guitar lines and Kasool’s muscular cajon drumming are infectious and convincing and collectively they make them work.

‘New Town Killers’, one of the few Isa & The Filthy Tongues songs that Metcalfe has sung lead on, is thrown in the middle of the set, its chanted chorus line being picked up upon by the audience. The main set is concluded with a rapid fire volley of several of Goodbye Mr Mackenzie’s singles –‘Goodbye Mr Mackenzie’, ‘Goodwill City’, ’The Rattler’, ‘Now We Are Married’ and ‘Blacker than Black’. They all sound – and the latter in particular which Metcalfe roars out - magnificent. With Britain back in the news again for its role in Iraq and its theme of the addiction of war, it is another of those thought-provoking songs that Metcalfe does well and which is as potent now as it was when it was written in the 1980s.

It has been an electric, euphoric set – a reminder both of how good some of these brooding anthemic numbers are, and, while he certainly has a talent for nurturing fine female singers, in this return to centre stage what a strong singer Metcalfe himself is as well.

But there is more. Metcalfe has ‘Scenes’, a new 10” vinyl mini-album and book to promote. He has said online earlier in the week they wouldn’t be available tonight, but copies of the record have arrived back early from the manufacturers and are at the merchandise desk.

‘Scenes’ consists of two demos recorded in the late 1990s by the Filthy Tongues before Chavis joined the band, and several tracks recorded since then in her absence with Metcalfe’s childhood friend, the writer Paul Hullah, providing spoken word poetry to which the group has arranged music. Metcalfe is now an established artist with his second exhibition due in August, and the limited edition book, which will follow later in July, builds on this. It combines Metcalfe’s Expressionist autobiographical paintings with reflections from Hullah, who was a member Metcalfe’s first band Teenage Dog Orgy, on the under-documented Edinburgh music scene of the 1980s.

Hullah, who is now based in Japan, arrived in Edinburgh a couple of days before. He is probably jetlagged, and, as an amused Metcalfe describes it, he is as “pished as pished can possibly be.” When the Fornicators come off stage at the end of eighty minutes, Hullah and Metcalfe convene there for a short set of some of the tracks from ‘Scenes’. On record Hullah has revealed himself as a poet of both poignancy and real depth, but tonight he is emotional and angst-torn, slurring his words badly, and, what should have been brilliant, comes across instead as something of a missed opportunity. For this reviewer a few minutes are enough, and, with the venue having been throughout suffocatingly hot, he decides to leave.

Any shortcomings tonight have, however, been outweighed by the good. Martin Metcalfe has been working to a higher profile in Scotland again in recent months, and things are looking up for him. He and Shirley Manson made a brief appearance together at a charity event last November, their first gig with each other in twenty years, which drew long overdue renewed interest in Goodbye Mr Mackenzie. His artwork has attracted a lot of acclaim, and now he has a new multi-media project in ‘Scenes’. On the evidence of tonight as well it is time for him to break out of playing cramped venues like this one and to larger stages again.

Photos: Bill Gray

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