Sunday, March 7

‘A one-man mosh pit’: Big Jeff on the art of surviving the lockdown | Music


TOAt the beginning of the first confinement, Big Jeff developed a new habit. He would schedule his daily outing to coincide with a live broadcast concert, and as he walked the empty streets of Bristol, he would watch the birds “react” to the music playing through his phone. One night would be the relaxing folk rock of This is the kit, the next, Mother Moroconfrontational poetry of the spoken word. The type of music didn’t matter, as long as it was live. “If you can’t be in the show, that’s the best you can do,” he says.

If you’ve been to a music concert or festival for the past three decades, you might have noticed Big Jeff. Pre-pandemic, he would often fit multiple shows in one night, making him more known locally than many of the acts he goes to see. At six foot four, with her distinctive head of blonde curls, Jeffrey Johns has become a figurehead on the UK independent music scene. “A one-man mosh pit with equal amounts of zest and festive bracelets” is how Tim Burgess of the Charlatans describes it, referring to the multi-layered strips of fabric on Johns’ wrists (and sometimes embroidered on his jacket), a testament to a prolific concert career.

Big Jeff's portrait of folk musician Gaelynn Lea.
Big Jeff’s portrait of folk musician Gaelynn Lea. Photography: Oliver Edwards

His obsession inspired a creative outlet: bold and dynamic paintings reflecting his exuberant personality, mental health struggles, and love of music, depicting artists from Outkast to popular musician Gaelynn Lea. Johns used to come home after concerts to paint what he had just seen, working from sketches or blurry photos taken with his tablet. Other pieces are more personal, like his two self-portraits, Are you okay? and I, the King. He planned an exhibition for 2020; when it was postponed it restarted it as a virtual exhibition: Big Jeff Johns – Welcome to my world presents works from the last five years, which he refers to as “a religiously prolific period.”

The staging of the exhibition has been an uplifting experience. “When we did the filming, I felt tears come to my eyes. I’m usually my biggest self-critic, but when you come across something in a different light, you can say, ‘Actually, no, this is good.

Growing up in Horsley, Gloucestershire, in the 1980s, Johns was surrounded by music. The car rides had the soundtrack of an eclectic mix of Grace Jones, the Beatles, and ZZ Top, and her mother called the local ceilidh. It was here, and in the school discos, that she realized that she loved to dance. “I did it more with enthusiasm than actual technical skill,” he says.

As a teenager, an accidental encounter with Skunk Anansie at Bristol’s Ashton Court festival sparked his obsession with live music and changed his life. “For your second gig, seeing a bald, bisexual black woman leading a rock band, there was that mix of fear and some energy that means my brain gets overly stimulated and I probably can’t calm down for hours.” Johns has. Asperger’s syndrome, which means that the sensory stimulation can be overwhelming, but in a live music setting you felt immediately comfortable. “It is having something that is a central focus. I struggle with party situations a lot, whereas as soon as someone sets a stage, I know exactly where I’m going to get. “

Since then, music has been at the center of Johns life. He plays drums, raps, and briefly ran a promotional business, but is best known as a gambler. The concerts became a source of community and routine, especially during a difficult period in his 20s: a failed appendicitis operation put him in a controlled coma for several days, and he experienced dyspraxia and depression. “Very often, the only time I left my apartment was to go to shows,” he says. “I didn’t have the standard life, I didn’t have a standard job, but I was like, ‘Okay, I have to go right now because this show is happening.’

He realized his reputation when his name was mentioned in the Bristol Venue listing magazine in the mid-2000s. “It sounds obvious, but I think people noticed that he had a dedicated passion,” he says. Alastair Shuttleworth, frontman of the post-punk band Lice, and editor of the musical fanzine The Bristol germ, echoes this sentiment. “I think Big Jeff’s ‘cult figure’ status is due to the fact that he doesn’t have an agenda, he just loves music and takes the time to publicly praise the music he loves. I always thought Jeff’s initial enthusiasm for us was critical to everything we had to do afterward. “

'A one-man moshpit' ... Big Jeff at Brisfest, Bristol, September 2012.
‘A one-man moshpit’ … Big Jeff at Brisfest, Bristol, September 2012. Photograph: Adam Gasson / Alamy

His position on the Bristol scene has made him a local hero. His favorite place, the Louisiana, have a entry stamp that says “Big Jeff approved.” When Colston Hall promised to change its name to remove the tribute to a slave trader, there was a request to change the name of the place as Big Jeff Hall. (Johns objected to the idea, telling NME: “There are a lot of people who have fought harder to make their voices heard.”)

It has also created opportunities beyond the city, including a series of podcasts to Independent place week, a documentary that was screened at the Edinburgh film festival and a speech at the 2020 SXSW, canceled due to Covid-19. He has been a DJ at the Green Man festival since 2017. “I knew our audience would embrace the idea, being fans of him, so it was just a matter of him being up to the challenge,” says Ben Coleman, the festival’s creative director. “He stood up.”

“It was scary,” says Johns, “but then again, you won’t accomplish anything unless you’re a little scared. In the last five years I’ve gone from ‘Maybe I can do this’ to ‘Fuck it, what have I got to lose?’ “

That’s the spirit behind his new foray into art, which is bringing it back until the concerts return. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the live music industry – local Louisiana venues and the Exchange have joined forces to raise funds for its future. “I just hope the places survive,” Johns sighs. “These places are more than rooms and a stage, they are communities.”

The resilience of these communities has proven to be strong, whether in the comment section of a live broadcast, where Johns offers “virtual hugs,” the #saveourvenues campaign, or one of the many socially estranged concerts that took place last summer. . “It wasn’t the same,” he recalls seeing a local experimental artist theskyisthinaspaperhere back in August, “but I remember almost crying from feeling the sub, the live feedback, the hype, saying, ‘Wow, I took it for granted.



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