New Model Army have a loyal, almost cult-like, following. Seeing them live is an experience, for sure. The fans passionately belt out every song with hands raised. Venture near the front and it’s a mosh of sweaty bodies. Although, the majority of the audience have aged with the band, there are plenty of younger people discovering their music with equal enthusiasm. It seems that much of what they have written over their almost 40 years remains pointedly relevant today.
So, NMA had an interesting concept: to put on a community singing event where the audience could join together as one, united with the band. The venue selected was The Round Chapel in Hackney - an elegant church building built in the 1800s, with a reasonable capacity for 1000 people - and invited fans to be a part of a three day event (including a Sunday matinée) christened 'Night of a Thousand Voices'.
They held a forum with fans beforehand so that appropriate songs from their canon of over 250 could be chosen. They narrowed it down to fifty songs and produced a song book that would be given out at the event for those who may not remember every word.
A first from a 'conventional' band, excluding contemporary Christian rock bands where the audience even pack out stadiums to sing united in worship. It was no doubt an interesting concept to bridge the somewhat spiritual experience that NMAs music, lyrics and live performance is for many of their devoted fans with the metaphorical surroundings of a place of worship.
The stage was central, with the band set up as a round. Imagining what it could be like before arriving to the venue, I pictured low lights – candles even – and an acoustic set up. However centre stage was the 'arc reactor' light beam (see photo below) and the sound system, although stripped down, was sufficient enough, which it needed to be once everyone got going.
Many had travelled far to be there. NMA have a large European fanbase and there were plenty who had made the trip from Germany and beyond especially. There was even one guy I met who had scheduled in his trip from Brazil to Spain a stopover to be there on the Sunday afternoon.
The compilation of songs chosen generally leaned towards strong melodies and easy vocal rhythms, including passionate ballads and some classic NMA anthems, carefully spaced across the Friday and Saturday. Over 25 songs were played each night, with a few repeated on the Saturday evening. As lead singer Justin Sullivan reminded everyone, the success of this event was down to the audience’s committed and heart-felt involvement, and there were emotional instants for all I'm sure. Quieter songs like ‘Ballad’ (a lament to man’s indiscriminate treatment of nature) and Family Life (reflecting on those broken and lost) to name but two, were moving moments. Whereas, the more rabble-rousing and anthemic songs, such as ‘51st State’, ‘Poison Street’ and ‘Vagabonds’, lifted the roof.
Come Sunday and all but one song from the songbook had yet to be played (incidentally titled ‘Someone Like Jesus’). With intermittent biblical shafts of sunlight from the balcony lighting the band, and with a smaller crowd, there was a unique intimacy that leant itself to making this an extra special experience. Old fans and young, including quite a few kids of all ages, stood shoulder to shoulder, singing songs of passion and justice in the unlikely, but somehow pertinent venue, of a beautiful old church.
The set list included (open to debate) possibly the best from the previous two nights, and despite the 6pm curfew and the power off, the demand from the audience for an encore brought the band out for one last number, one last sing along to ‘Poison Street’.
This was a welcome celebration of great songwriting and the lyrical genius that is at the core of NMA. An event to remember for all involved.