This review was originally published by The Stinger here
Kevin Armstrong’s guitar playing has accompanied stars including David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Morrissey, Prefab Sprout, Sinéad O’Connor, Roy Orbison, Brian Eno, Grace Jones, Paul McCartney and Gil Evans. For one night only Kevin guides us through his legendary career.
As a child Kevin Armstrong grew up with Beatlemania. By his teens he was buying his first guitar and living and breathing music. Experiencing life as a professional musician in the post-punk scene of the late 70s/early 80s he then found himself in a band that suddenly got dropped by their record label and, looking around at the changed Duran Duran/Spandau Ballet era-music scene, it became, in Armstrong’s words, “all c*nts in suits singing about their holidays.”
A new opportunity arose, however, when Armstrong was ushered in to Abbey Road studios to do a session to find out he would be working with David Bowie on songs for the Absolute Beginners film. Although the film would be critically panned on release, the title track was a commercial success and, importantly, got Armstrong noticed by Bowie as a musician he could work with and was asked to put a band together for Bowie’s Live Aid appearance. Breaking from his easy chat tonight, Armstrong reads out a passage describing in detail the emotions running through his head on that momentous day. Highlighting Bowie’s generosity, Armstrong talks of him taking the trouble to introduce each member of his band on stage at Wembley that day, knowing full well the impact it would have on their careers; as well as personally thanking Armstrong for the role he played in putting the band together in interviews afterwards.
In spite of being a Beatles fan Armstrong’s collaborations with Paul McCartney proved less personally rewarding, however. “We had to sit around all day listening to these very long Beatles anecdotes that never seemed to have a punchline,” he reveals to tonight’s audience, emphasising the importance of a personal spark in a relationship for a musical collaboration to really work.
What did turn out to be a very enduring collaboration though was when Armstrong was invited to play guitar on the Bowie-produced Iggy Pop album Blah Blah Blah and to subsequently tour with him. That musical collaboration was rekindled in recent years with Armstrong putting a band together and touring with Iggy once more. There are many amusing anecdotes this evening but one of the funniest is Armstrong’s description of the metamorphosis that the normally urbane, well-spoken James Osterberg goes through in the hours leading up to a show as he transforms into the crazed madman called Iggy Pop.
Armstrong is one of rock’s archetypal great side-men, a musician with that instinctive feel for what the headline artist needs and delivering it with style and creativity rather than ego and me-too-ism. By way of illustration, he plays us a clip from the Tin Machine tour that Armstrong was briefly involved with, which was the sound of every musician on stage competing against one another in a wall of noise and pretty much drowning Bowie out completely.
I’ve seen many of these type of artist talk events over the years. But with a mix of live songs, film clips, spoken passages and lots of relaxed informal chat this was genuinely one of the most thought-provoking, funny and insightful that I’ve experienced. Gavin Martin (renowned former NME journalist and now music editor for the Daily Mirror and himself, like Armstrong, a local Hastings resident) is a skilled operator at teasing out revealing nuggets from his on-stage guests at events like this. But he hardly needs to say a word as host this evening. I was surprised afterwards that this was Armstrong’s first ever gig of this type. However, if it was a case of starting out with a friendly home crowd he has absolutely nothing to worry about in taking this format elsewhere. An evening with Kevin Armstrong like this is going to be well-received by audiences wherever.
Photo: artist publicity
Mike Garson performs Aladdin Sane at Birmingham O2 2017