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Max McNally's Birthday Bash (A Family Gathering)

The Red Shed, Wakefield
Saturday 19 May 2007

As I drove to Wakefield on this fine May evening, with not a hint of cloud in the sky and the sun beating heavy on the windscreen, I wondered what sort of night was in store. It's not every day you are asked to play a song for your friend at a very special birthday party. Nor is it everyday you are asked to play a song in front of your favourite singers in the world. I imagined what it must have felt like to be a Scissor Sister performing at an Elton bash. I perished the thought, me and pink lycra don't go (anymore!). One thought was most definitely in my mind, that I would not be doing a review of this gig. It is a private affair and should remain so. But the last thing Max said to me tonight was 'I want my write up!' So, here goes.

Adrian McNally, Max's son (and incidentally, Rachel Unthank's partner), invited me to the surprise party to help celebrate his dad's 60th birthday. It's not the sort of request that requires a second asking and true to my nature, as well as my unshakable disdain for fashion, I intended not to be fashionably late, in fact I was the very first person there. Eager beaver. Hot on my tail were Adrian and Rachel, who had hot footed it over from the Shepley Festival, where the Winterset had played an afternoon gig. I offered a helping hand and found myself organising the seating, blowing up balloons and fiddling with a slide projector in no time flat.

Half way through the room preparations, Max appeared in the carpark with various family members and the other members of the Winterset, and ways of diverting his attention were quickly contrived. He basically was ushered into the bar at the other side of the Red Shed, the venue for this evenings' soiree.

After the surprise was sprung, Max was treated to a memorable evening of great music, fun and surprises, and was also subjected to an abundance of lovely tributes from family and friends. Max is a well loved human being, and rightly so. The first performers of the night were Rachel and Becky Unthank. One of the other reasons for not wanting to 'write up' tonight's gig was that my thesaurus has been stripped bare of all it's superlatives that I have spent on these two singers to date. Really, what more can I say? 

Meghan Barber is one of Max's favourite singers and he makes no bones about this fact at all. Fronting the band Fawn, Meghan has all the flair and confidence of a true performer and a voice to match. Her manditory flamboyant outfits were put aside tonight for a low key, yet heartfelt tribute to her friend and supporter. 'What do you want to hear Max?' she asked. 'Anything' came the predictable reply. During the night Meghan sang one or two of her own songs, of which Max is all too familiar with, as well as singing an utterly beautiful rendition of Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now. Sometimes, in the right hands, an old established song can breathe afresh, as if it were an infant song once again, and tonight Megan did just that.

I was asked to follow Meghan. Gee thanks. Was ever 'a hard act to follow' coined for a better reason? I had rehearsed Loudon Wainwright's Motel Blues for the occasion, simply because I knew Max liked the song, but I soon realised what company I was in and at the last minute decided upon Nick Drake's Northern Sky as a good alternative. There were children in the room and I'm sure they didn't want to hear lines like 'in the club she bit my tongue', in fact, I reckon people of all ages would rather not hear that coming from me! 

I can imagine only too well what it feels like to have your own son get up on stage and sing to you. In the case of Adrian, the wizard behind the mixing desk with his backside firmly on the producers seat, getting up and performing in front of an audience was until now alien territory. Fear not though, for his couple of songs were one of the highlights of the night. I for one would love to hear more. Being relatively new to Max's circle of friends, I can be forgiven for not knowing some of the people in the room, but it was a pleasure getting to know them a little better as the night wore on. Even a stranger like myself would have to be asleep not to recognise the importance of a friend called Chris Price, who got up to sing next. Chris sang a couple of covers including Radiohead's Creep.

By contrast, it was great to hear some jazz as well as all the folk and rock stuff, and some rather tasty tenor sax, in the manner of Sonny Rollins, came courtesy of another friend called Jez. He clearly knows his instrument backwards and although I imagine he is probably more comfortable with a band, a small quintet maybe, his solo tonight was quite inspiring. To a failed saxophonist, this is defnitely music to my ears.

A very special surprise for Max during the second half was the arrival of Rosie Doonan to the party. Another amazingly good and totally confident singer, Rosie sang one of the outstanding songs from her sublime MILL LANE album, which she made with erstwhile parter Ben Murray, Need You Around.

At one point during the interval, I was being served pepperoni pizza simultaneously by both Becky and Rachel Unthank and I considered momentarily that I might be having some surreal dream and would no doubt wake up at any moment to the sound of my sodding early morning alarm. Nope, it was really happening. I was being fed by my two favourite singers.

Three quarters of the Winterset were present at the gig and between Rachel, Becky and Belinda, the trio treated their audience, and Max in particular, to some of his favourite songs from their repertoir, which included one or two from the new as yet unreleased album. Becky sang Antony and the Johnsons' For Today I am a Boy better than ever in my opinion. She later told me that it's because it's the first gig she's done in ages where she was allowed to have a few drinks. Alcohol does wonderful things to a voice that was essentially made to sing a little later at night.

As the night drew to a close, there was really no point in looking any further than Belinda O'Hooley to start rounding things up. Belinda had already appeared a couple of times during the evening, first with Heidi Tidow, her partner and member of Belinda's own band, and secondly with the Winterset. On her own however, Belinda is a different entity altogether and transforms herself from the sensitive musical maestro - ever with a careful ear for detail, watching every move of her fellow singers and musicians, finding and identifying every nuance of sound and placing it precisely where it should go - into an entertainer who knows her audience. Bel has a way with these things and songs such as The Kinks' Sunny Afternoon and Abba's Money Money Money are just the thing to get everybody in the room singing (and dancing, at least in the case of two generations of Max's family). The room divider at the back of the room was drawn closed to give us more intimacy and it felt just like what you imagine sitting around the piano used to feel at home, ya know, in the good ol' days.

I came as a relative stranger to this family gathering, but left feeling very much a part of Max's extended family. A really, truly joyous affair. Happy birthday Max.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky