Music Highlights from Edinburgh Fringe 2023: A Full Round-Up

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It’s odd to think that the Fringe experience for many people – myself included, on early trips – is mainly just watching standard stand-ups tell jokes for an hour. Whereas nearby, maybe even in the same room straight afterwards, there’s wild and wonderful stuff going on that you’d probably never come across in a million years, back home. 

How about a jukebox musical about postnatal depression? Bring it on.

No Love Songs is set in Clash’s original heartland, Dundee, and is the brainchild of musicians Kyle Falconer – of Dundonian rockers The View – and Laura Wilde. It’s based around his acclaimed 2021 solo album ‘No Love Songs for Laura’, and tells the semi-autobiographical story of an aspiring rock god/absent father who buggers off on tour while his partner holds the baby back home, and is blissfully unaware of the mess he left when he went away. 

It may sound a bit bleak but the two leads here, Dawn Sievewright and John McLarnon, are so engaging – and the music so strong – that a whole lot of joy flies back and forth. Well, apart from the guy in the suit directly across from me who’d clearly had a hard day at the estate agents or funeral directors, nodded off five minutes in and wandered off after 20. How did he get here? One of this month’s big questions. 

That’s at the Traverse Theatre, one of two lovingly-curated Fringe locations a little off the beaten track. The other is the sprawling veterinary college turned arts centre Summerhall, and most notable there this year is Club Life. It’s a whole new happening from Fred Deakin, best known down south as one half of trip-hoppers Lemon Jelly

Before that he ran several much-loved clubs in Edinburgh, then London, and this is him essentially reliving them, live. Deakin talks us through his eventful club years, then spins some relevant tunes while evocative images and in-costume dancers encourage we punters to relive it too. Two and a half hours then a standing ovation? It’s like Oppenheimer but fun.

Back in the heart of town – well, a backstreet near Waverley Station – the Voodoo Rooms is a hidden gem of a cocktail bar/live venue. Sadly we leave town before rapper B Dolan starts his latest Fringe run there, but do catch another festival highlight, DJ Yoda’s Tarantino AV Show. It’s all your favourite Quentin cuts, and clips, and tracks you’d forgotten, sexily cut together. But then Yoda also dips into some of the awkward Quentin questions; his use of language, and blatant steals from other flicks. But still you come away absolutely pumped to watch that whole oeuvre all over again. Well, most of it.

A one-man show of a different tone now. A Manchester Anthem features a fabulous performance by Tom Claxton, as a working class lad coping with his imminent move away, and the ghosts left behind. FAC imagery abounds as he winds up in a HAC-like nightclub and all hell breaks loose. Edge of the seat stuff, and yet all so familiar. 

Another interesting discovery at each Fringe is which musicians are doing talk-based shows, following the likes of Gruff Rhys and Scroobius Pip. Sadly we miss the ones by Dexys original member Pete Saunders (Not on Eileen) and former Atomic Rooster front man Nick Graham (So You Think You Can Write a Song?), but do catch Chris Difford, from Squeeze, at the famous old Frankenstein’s pub. 

And the format absolutely suits him, as he strums through hits and newer bits and swears profusely about the bands who kept Squeeze off Number One; meanwhile old pal Boo Hewerdine provides accompaniment and droll asides. Who knew that he lived next door to Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits, one of several decent bands – REM, U2, The Police – who supported Squeeze early doors, Difford recalls. It’s quite a tale.

Also name-dropping with a mighty clang, because it’s a big one, is Jack Docherty, once of cult sketch show Absolutely, then a chat show host, where he got to bring on his long-time hero: David Bowie. So this is the story of how Bowie influenced his life, from childhood dress-ups to that fateful interview – and the surprisingly substantial hang-out afterwards. 

Somewhat less reverent, although he frames it as a tribute, the US comic Chris Grace does a whole hour about Scarlett Johansson, and her occasional tendency to play parts that should really be taken by actors of different ethnicities. It’s wickedly funny, and one memorable bit tackles her 2008 album of Tom Waits covers, ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’. Grace is particularly fascinated by the weird way she pronounces ‘Thames’ in the title track, and the whole army of producers, label and promo people who presumably decided against pointing it out. That’s power for you. 

Other shows that got away: we miss the intriguing Lewis Capaldi is Invited and Absolutely No One Else, but do see Otto and Astrid’s Joint Solo Project, which is basically: what if the White Stripes were European? It’s all very silly, but they clearly have quite a following. People queue for merch after and everything. 

And now, clowntime, and three of the best comedy shows this year; none of them traditional stand-up. The Vinyl Countdown is ostensibly the dapper-suited Dan Lees recreating old charity-shop album covers, which may sound dry but turns out to be gut-grabbingly hysterical, as the guitar-wielding Lees leads ludicrous singalongs. Also getting communal, the hirsute Aussie heartthrob Josh Glanc’s loveable best-of show Collections features a random pop-punk pickup-band, a glorious Tracy Chapman moment, and how that bloke from Aqua found his creative voice.  

And, finally, the best thing we saw this year. The inspired Estonian Julia Masli’s already award-winning ha ha ha ha ha ha ha is an unforgettable late-night trip of voice sampling, brilliantly eerie lighting and an ever-evolving soundtrack (Max Richter et al) as her ethereal mad-hatted angel floats around solving the audience’s problems, which can get pretty heavy. The show has proven such a phenom that she ends up adding extra shows – at 1.30am. Which is quite a way to end your Fringe. Who needs regular jokes anyway?

Words: Si Hawkins // @SiHawkins