Sometimes it’s good to push your own boundaries. For some, the idea of a spoken word gig is a daunting one. It’s a unique medium, offering perhaps the most direct relationship between performer and artist. There’s nowhere for either party to hide – no music to get swept up in, no wall of noise, not even a guitar to shelter behind. Even a comedy gig, when it’s going well, ebbs and flows as a communal experience. When it’s all about the words, however, the experience is laid bare. There are plenty who are happy to open themselves up, though, if the success of the inaugural Lingo Festival is anything to go by. For three days, a variety of venues are buzzing to the sound of people speaking – from David Norris to Temper-Mental MissElayneous. The big show of the weekend is a rare live appearance from Steven Camden, aka Polarbear, at Smock Alley.
What follows is simply astonishing. We get a ten minute preamble that tells how he went from performing his first piece at an open mic night in his native Birmingham to playing Glastonbury in the space of three gigs, before we’re into the heart of the matter. An hour listening to stories largely based on the same subject – one man’s life – might sound a potential trial but there is not one second that isn’t enthralling. Veering from childhood to the present day, often within the space of one poem, he can make you laugh and then cry with just one well crafted sentence.
Ironically, it’s also a very musical evening. Finding his way into a record shop job after being caught shoplifting a Clash album, a listen to Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest opened him up to a new world, one where hip-hop would become his guiding light. You can hear it in his delivery, a natural flow forming from the the rhythm of speech. Reminiscent of Mike Skinner before he lost his way in a mess of celebrity, these are tales of the real streets. Highlights include a tale of how NWA’s Straight Outta Compton helped him through the news that his parents were to celebrate (complete with his mum taking the part of Dr Dre), his eight year old son’s own attempts at rhyming and his first kiss at 15 – with the girl who is his partner to this day.
We emerge, if not with our lives changed, then certainly having experienced a moment of clarity. One man, a few sheets of paper and a series of stories have opened our eyes to something new. Perhaps it’s all that we’ll ever need.