“Sign the waiver just in case you fall off so we don’t have to pay out”- a sentence that doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence before making your ascent to the summit of the O2 arena. The guides are clearly having a joke at the expense of the assembled media but it does nothing to quell the slight sense of unease felt gazing upon the apex of the Dome- former white elephant, now ‘World’s most popular music and performance venue’.
We’re here for the launch of the live phase of Gigs Big Busk 2013, an annual competition to find the capital’s best young musicians and part of the Mayor’s commitment to supporting musically talented young Londoners. In fact, Boris Johnson will be there at every gig, wearing his favourite Clash t-shirt and getting lost in music. That may or may not be true, but he did have this to say: “I’m delighted that we can give some of London’s fine young musicians the opportunity to gain experience by playing to new audiences around the capital. There might even be an Adele or Mumford and Sons in the making.” A new Mumford and Sons. Hmm. Take from that what you will.
To mark the occasion, we are being invited to an intimate gig on the top of the O2 by rising star, Robbie Boyd, the folksy troubadour who won the competition 2 years ago. Boyd’s performance on the crest makes him only the third artist, and first Brit, to do so after ‘purveyors of Adult-Rock since 1983’ Bon Jovi and stadium botherers, 30 seconds to Mars. “It’s pretty surreal” says Boyd, “it’s definitely something to tell my grandchildren!”
After lathering on the factor 15 and getting strapped in to the crotch-smothering safety harness, we were ready to ‘climb an icon’, or at least clamber it awkwardly until we got the method right. The guide naturally has no problem scaling the springy tarpaulin but what’s most impressive is that he does it laden with Boyd’s guitar, ukulele and amp. Somebody get this guy a gig as a roadie! When we reach the zenith after an exhilarating climb, we are treated to a spectacular panoramic view of London- 360 degrees of enchantment. The glorious sun is beating down, the sky is a perfect blue and London lies before us like a patchwork quilt. This awe-inducing setting is the back drop to Boyd as he tunes his uke. Now this is a gig venue!
Resplendent in an open-necked Byron-esque shirt and blood red trousers, Boyd performs a medley of his charming, folk-infused pop songs with aplomb. His strong, distinctive vocals scale the heights like the planes that soar above us on their way to London City airport and his natural song-writer’s instinct shines through. Even more impressive is his ability to write undeniably catchy songs that tell a story whilst never losing a commercial touch. This busker would have made plenty of dosh were it not for the fact that loose coins are prohibited in case any fall from above and cause injury to those below. Just as well, really.
“I started busking about 4 years ago and it was kind of the way that I really started getting my songs and my brand known to the world,” says Boyd. Thanks to a notable online following and putting in hours of hard graft, Boyd and his band have toured Argentina, Italy, France, Germany and the UK. The band has a loyal fan base with two dedicated fans even travelling all the way from Italy to be at one of their EP launch shows. Boyd reveals that the band will be touring the UK again in October/November time. Those crazy Italians better start saving up.
Has busking helped hone Robbie Boyd as a song-writer? “It definitely is an amazing way of seeing what song works, what song is best, y’know?” Boyd explains as groups of tourists start arriving, taking their new Facebook profile pics from on high. “When you play a song and you see people stopping and turning around and really clapping at the end, you’re like ‘yeah, OK, that must be a good one!’ I take that to the band and go ‘look, this is actually quite a good song’!” Winning the Gigs Big Busk has “definitely helped in a big way” and Boyd offers these words of advice to those competing this year: “The main thing is, work as hard as possible and just put yourself out there as much as possible and that’s what busking does.”
With our time on the top of the Dome up, we make our descent on to terra firma, which oddly feels steeper than it did on the way up, and divest ourselves of the groin-grabbing harnesses. Robbie Boyd remains on the crown of the O2 performing for a selected audience. The man clearly has a head for heights, a fact that could come in handy when his star inevitably rises and he and his band scale the peaks of pop prominence. For the young hopefuls who will be playing live across London in the coming weeks as part of Gigs Big Busk, this is the stuff that dreams are made of.
www.gigsbigbusk.com / @gigsbigbusk
www.robbie-boyd.com / @robbieboydband