It is classic Edinburgh Fringe. You’re standing in random venue the Mash House waiting to see some comedian or other when a bloke gives you a flyer for a lunchtime event he’s hosting, and it turns out to be the drummer from Shed Seven. Well, obviously.
Yes, this year Alan Shed – as he’s known – has finally scratched an itch and taken the plunge, with the catchily-titled Music, Comedy and Everything Else Interactive Quiz Show. And the person most delighted about it is the girl also flyering for him nearby, who has a kismet-like connection – turns out her folks subjected them to car-stereo Shed 7 on every driving trip (people have been locked up for less).
As always, across 4,000 often weird and wonderful Fringe shows, there are precious nuggets that represent the pop and rock experience too, from band to fan. The magical and moving You’re in a Bad Way, for example, is the latest spoken-word piece by John Osborne, who made his name with the show John Peel’s Shed a few years back. The new one is about life and aging and festivals and how loving a certain band can connect those dots.
“I've always loved 'You're In A Bad Way' by St Etienne,” the quietly-spoken Osborne explains. “I was touring a show a couple of years ago and I put the song on the pre-show playlist, and I'd always really look forward to it coming on, and hearing it through the theatre's speakers. I guess I created a show just so I could keep hearing the song in that way.”
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A solid reason, and a love of particular artists cropped up across various genres this year. Comedian Kai Samra plays Arctic Monkeys at either end of his show, Underclass, as that’s the band he rocked out to with his elder brother, before both of their lives took a downward turn. Samra ended up homeless before the excellent Centrepoint charity put him on the road to stand-up: he went from begging outside Soho Theatre to being produced here by them.
A couple of New Zealanders laud varied talents. One of the breakout stars of this year’s Fringe, Rutene Spooner, strums a gorgeously heartfelt Hurt-like lament in the cabaret show Super Hugh Man – which is actually about Wolverine. Spooner is a huge Hugh Jackman fan, you see, and the X-Men star’s other career as a song-and-dance man inspired the young Kiwi to reject trad male stereotypes. Which is pretty great, whatever you thought of The Greatest Showman.
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And Frightened Rabbit are playing over the PA before New Zealand stand-up Luke Nokise hits the stage: his show God Damn Fancy Man features a lengthy section about what that band’s songs - and Scott Hutchison’s lyrics – meant to him. The two performers’ stories then tragically converge, as Nokise admits to several suicide attempts.
Last year the remaining members of Frightened Rabbit reconvened to contribute music to a Fringe play which also tackled toxic masculinity: Square Go. It returned again this year, starring Game of Thrones’ Daniel Portman, and a mixed bag of bands also tackled Fringe theatre. The Pet Shop Boys provided six original songs for the show MUSIK, about a veteran pop star; Belle and Sebastian’s 1996 album If You’re Feeling Sinister has been reimagined as ‘a play with songs’ (rather than a musical); and Maximo Park’s Paul Smith wrote new songs and appears as an offstage DJ in the play Hold On Let’s Go.
You can well imagine a certain much-loved indie-pop act doing something similar one day, having branched out into filmmaking and documentaries already. Indeed, some of St Etienne were supposed to be visiting one of Osborne’s pre-Fringe run-outs, and “I'd love them to see or hear it,” he says, although “if they were doing something similar themselves I guess I'd have had to step back and work on something different instead.”
“There isn't that much of their music played in the show now,” he explains. “I was listening to their albums over and over while I was writing it though, so hopefully there's a sense of what they've created within my show. I once wrote a storytelling show called The New Blur Album for BBC Radio 4 and Graham Coxon tweeted how much he was enjoying it. That's one of my absolute career highlights! He seems nice.”
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Blur do crop up in a big show that made a Fringe return this year, and which heads to London soon – and it brought another indie drummer to the theatrical stage: Cathryn Stirling from the band Darlingheart, who were briefly hot in the early 90s, before a vicious NME review and dodgy manager helped shatter their dreams, and lives. What Girls are Made Of is singer-turned-thespian Cora Bissett’s acclaimed play about life in the band, and beyond, which transferred to the huge, grand venue this year: live, loud indie-rock in a hall like Hogwarts.
Many performers double up during almost a month in Edinburgh. The rap-jazz duo Harry and Chris features poetry slam champ Harry Baker and jazz musician Chris Read, who both also did solo shows. Their work together is a bit family-friendly for us but the aftermath of their recent attempt at US reality show fame is worth hearing. And beatbox wiz SK Shlomo is happily back performing after a lengthy break due to his mental health: he did both a kids show and a much more adult affair – Surrender – about grief, addiction and depression, which ‘starts as theatre and ends as a rave’.
Other notable music stuff: two of The Hoosiers appeared in a comedy play called Felix and the Scootermen: Self-Help Yourself Famous. Intriguing. Activist duo Johnny and the Baptists returned to the Fringe after five years away, and were very nice about us accidentally wandering backstage pre-gig due to dodgy directions. Tim Booth from James was seated near Clash at a buzzed-about comedy show by faux US hack Jack Tucker, who blasts out Lenny Kravitz’s American Woman after every punchline (Tucker, not Booth). And real US stand-up Desiree Burch did an epic bit about working out which Michael Jackson albums we’re still allowed to like.
Back to Osborne, finally, whose show is largely about whether we eventually grow out of festivals, particularly Glastonbury. If he could only do one of these two fests then, Glasto or the Fringe, which would he go for?
“Edinburgh. Definitely,” he says. “You have to be there to understand its vastness. One of the special things about being there for the whole month is you see the collective excitement and nerves, people experiencing huge successes and mega-lows.”
“Then, by the end, people's lives have changed and they've made friends they'll stay in touch with forever.”
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Words: Si Hawkins