Edinburgh’s Fringe has long been a platform for musicians who have morphed into comedians. We look at a few appearing this year
Music takes a funny turn at this year's Edinburgh Fringe
This may be a bold assumption, but Rob Broderick is surely the only comedian at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe to have supported Ed Sheeran on tour, and called him up as a backing guitarist.
Broderick, aka Abandoman, is now a popular comedy rapper, with an enviable gift for onstage improvisation. But before discovering that niche he wrote serious rhymes, and befriended Sheeran on Britain’s rap circuit, which led to a support slot on the budding star’s first tour. And Sheeran also provided live accompaniment for some early Abandoman shows. One London gig proved particularly memorable.
“I was doing a fictional song to an ex-girlfriend,” the Irish rapper recalls. “At the end, I looked over and Ed said ‘We’re all going to sing to Rob’s ex, so loudly that they’ll hear this in Ireland’. And he played a hook, and I swear, I was in awe. ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.’ It was insane, insane.”
And so he left the serious music to Sheeran, switched to comedy, and never looked back. This month Broderick will begin his “seventh or eighth” Edinburgh Fringe, where he regularly sells out a large venue, every night, for three weeks. It’s a schedule that most touring bands can only dream of. “It makes sense to hunker down,” says the rapper, “stay in one place.”
In recent years a number of notable musicians have taken the Fringe plunge. One talented singer making his Fringe debut this year is Gruff Rhys, best known as the frontman for the acclaimed Welsh band Super Furry Animals. He will perform his Resist Phony Encores! for eight nights. The show features classic songs, but also stories, partly about overcoming his onstage shyness.
“I’ll have a slideshow too, so there will be some kind of narrative to it,” Rhys says. “It’s going to be pretty autobiographical – it’s taken 48 years to prepare. I’ll use cue cards to help the audience as I have zero charisma.”
His Fringe shows follow his recent solo album, Babelsberg, which was well received by critics. For most modern musicians, though, making a living is all about live performance, so the Fringe is an intriguing experiment. The slideshow might feature in his band show, for example, “but I’ll test it out in Edinburgh first on my own”, he says.
Gruff is in good, varied company. Other Fringe-going musicians this year include Chris Difford, of the acclaimed band Squeeze, who performs for seven nights. His show Some Fantastic Place features “stand-up, stories and songs”.
The contentious American singer Amanda Palmer is staging four Evening With events, where anything could happen. And over three nights, the Italian composer Claudio Simonetti reprises his score for the cult horror movie Suspiria. A mixed bag indeed.
Jetting in for a meatier 20 dates, meanwhile, is the guitarist John Sheldon, who may have invented a whole new format – “musical monologue”. His Fringe show is anecdotal, and educational. How did it come about?
“About five years ago I was performing in a small club near my home in New England, and started telling the story of how I learned guitar, while my fingers played the things I learned at the same time,” he recalls. “On the way home I decided to name it Red Guitar, after the Fender I bought for $100 (Dh367) from James Taylor when I was 14.”
Taylor, the world-renowned singer-songwriter, is a significant figure in Sheldon’s autobiographical show, which had a successful run at the Fringe in 2016. Jimi Hendrix also appears, “but the thing that most people seem interested in is my stint in Van Morrison’s band when I was 17”, says the guitarist.
While rock throws up great stories, rap lends itself to other genres – dance, musical theatre and the spoken word. One of the unlikeliest Edinburgh escapades was by the brilliant Rhode Island rappers Sage Francis and B Dolan, who developed a more comedic, theatrical act – and a new audience – during two full Fringe runs, in 2016 and last year. Both were billed as ‘spoken word’ but went way beyond poetry. They return for a one-off gig this year.
Comedy stages have certainly proven fruitful for Rob Broderick, who admits that he might otherwise have quit hip-hop. Instead, he continues to innovate, verbally and musically. This year his always-improvised Abandoman show features cutting-edge devices – a big wall of Kanye West-style reactive lights, and a remote-control necklace for manipulating beats and vocals. Sheeran would now struggle for a role.
“I knew I didn’t want to go back to acoustic guitar, as that limits me,” says Broderick. “This year what I’m hoping for is that concert feel, where during the songs it feels like you’re at a hip-hop show. Well, I’ll see if it all works in a week’s time.”
For truly radical musical reinvention, though, Paul Vickers remains the Edinburgh Fringe’s cult hero. For more than a decade, Vickers fronted the visionary alternative rock band Dawn of the Replicants. Now, he performs as a bizarre character, Mr Twonkey.
“It started because I was talking between songs, and quite a few people said ‘you should try doing stand-up comedy’,” says Vickers. “When the band went pear-shaped, I thought I may as well give it a crack.”
That route has famous forerunners. The great Scottish comedian Billy Connolly began in the Humblebums folk duo, before the stories took over and he dropped the songs. Vickers did too, but “people started saying ‘I like it when you sing as well’, so it made sense to utilise my full skillset. That’s how the show evolved into its current state – funny stuff and quirky songs.”
Quirky is an understatement. With homemade props and surreal storylines, Twonkey is arguably the oddest character on Fringe comedy stages. Listen carefully, though, and there are some experimental sounds in the background. Vickers’ old bandmates still help out with the music. Comedy is keeping that collaboration going.
Edinburgh is a welcoming environment for musicians wishing to explore new territories. And more will undoubtedly try it. “Writing songs is a form of storytelling,” says Red Guitar’s John Sheldon. “It seems natural to expand into speaking.” Beyond the Fringe? That’s a different story.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs from August 3 to 27.