Five and the Red One are a German covers band. It’s probably the most uninspiring name for a rock band I’ve ever heard. Every July they come to the same French village for a one-off appearance and every year they play exactly the same set of rock classics. Young and old turn out to sing along and groove under the plane trees in the village square.
The village rock concert is Catriona’s social event of the year. She starts looking forward to it around Christmas. Every year, she pushes her way to the front and dances for two hours, and every year the village postman makes a move on her. Apart from the postman’s annual overture — she doesn’t fancy him one bit — it’s the best rock gig she’s ever been to, she says. They played again last week and I went with Catriona for the first time.
In the car on the way there she decided at the last moment that her knickers were going to be far too uncomfortable for the mosh pit, and she wriggled out of them and stuffed them in the door pocket. We arrived early. The stage was erected in front of the former public washhouse and beside it was a beer tent staffed by volunteers wearing commemorative T-shirts. Tots, children, adolescents, parents and grandparents were eating bratwurst and chips off polystyrene trays. That’s what Catriona likes most about the village rock concert, she says: it’s an old-fashioned family event. We ate the same and washed it down with a couple of beers, the latter served by the woman who presides, white-coated and sacerdotal, in the chemist, and who was now surprisingly informal and smoking a fag.
The solo warm-up act, an Irishman with a long beard, black T-shirt and a small, reversed black cap took the stage. An immense beer gut spilled out over his belt and hung down over the front of his jeans. He tuned up this stubby little guitar unfussily and approximately then launched into a bluesy rendition of J.J. Cale’s ‘Cocaine’, violently plucking the strings with such stunning virtuosity that nobody, not even the little kids, could quite believe it. We looked at one another questioningly, as if to say: ‘Ought we to know who this is?’ When he left the stage after 45 minutes, he’d not only drawn an audience to him, but about half of it was throwing sweaty shapes. It was a free village concert, yet here was one of the best blues guitarists I’d ever heard in my life. Between songs he accepted our wild applause diffidently, then lifted a brimming glass of rosé and drank deeply and with a kind of soul-baring reverence for drink that bordered on shameless fanaticism. Johnny Gallagher was his name, I found out afterwards. I hope he comes back to warm us up again next year.
Then the village mayor came on stage to supervise the draw. A mayor in France wields a certain amount of power and authority, and this one seemed reluctant to identify himself. I heard an otherwise saintly neighbour utter an expletive under his breath that shocked me. And then the German lads trotted in jauntily from the wings, bearing their instruments, and without further ado they kicked off with ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ and immediately we were head-banging in unison as though they were Guns N’ Roses. But now I needed another drink. You know it’s going to be a great village gig when you go to the beer tent and everyone you push past is dancing, and singing as they dance, and everyone at the bar is dancing, and the bar staff are dancing, and total strangers with unfocused eyes and faces dripping with sweat bawl incomprehensibly in your face, and there are individuals who have peaked too early but show no outward sign of drunkenness other than a general paralysis. It was like that, except everyone was French.
What a night. You could have opened a book on which crowd-pleasers they were going to play, and cleaned up — ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Twist and Shout’, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, ‘Freebird’, ‘Satisfaction’. In spite of visiting annually for a decade, the lead singer knew only two words of French — merci and beaucoup. But he put everything he had into it, played six encores, and was as bathed in sweat and soggy-haired as the rest of us.
‘It’s very cheesy,’ apologised Catriona in the car on the way home. ‘But you enjoyed it, did you? Or didn’t you?’ Apart from visits to the bar, I’d just danced non-stop for three hours and not gone to the toilet even once. And I’d have paid a lot to see the warm-up act alone. My shirt was sagging with sweat and I felt slightly off my rocker. ‘What do you think?’ I said.