At Her Majesty's Pleasure

The Midlands Rocks

Carlisle’s Hardwicke Circus (aka The Hardwickes) first came on my radar via their exciting debut album, The Borderland. Since that album hit the streets, the band have undergone line-up changes which only served to galvanise the group and, as a baptism of fire, the band visited 12 prisons last autumn for a series of intimate gigs. At Her Majesty’s Pleasure captured the quintet at two of those shows and this “official bootleg” live album captures the band in all their unbridled glory.

There’s no prolonged introduction to set the scene, just the delicious riff that heralds the arrival of opening shot ‘Walking On Broken Glass’…and what a riff it is! Hardwicke Circus have a muscular, punchy sound and they soon start throwing their weight around with a sound that’s far bigger than their constituent parts. Jonny Foster’s authoritative vocals ring out, and they are nicely counterpointed by Jack Pearce's sublime saxophone as drummer Tom Foster and bassist Joe Hurst combine to create a weighty rhythm section that anchors Lewis Bewley-Taylor’s ethereal keys. With Tom and Joe also providing backing vocals Hardwicke Circus are an intriguing tangle of melodic lines and haunting harmonies that intertwine in strange and unexpected ways.

Hardwicke Circus have a sound that’s built for the biggest stages (surely it’s only a matter of time until they’re headlining Reading) but it sounds equally at home in the confines of HMP Standford Hill and HMP Elmley. You can hear some of the great British songwriters in Hardwicke Circus (Ray Davies, Billy Bragg, Mark Knopfler) but they’ve an original thing going on and they sound like no one but themselves. However, the band explore some roots on a choice cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, on which they put their own indelible stamp whist retaining the essence of the original (and that’s how all covers should be handled). It’s to the bands credit that their very own ‘My Sweet Love’ stands shoulder to shoulder with Dylan’s classic, and sounds at home in such illustrious company.

There are a few guest appearances, such as inmate Nazim Uddin who adds some nifty vocals to ‘When The Chips Are Down’ and officer Jamie Childs on the aforementioned ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, both of which add an authentic live feel. And to all intense and purposes this is the quintessential live experience, as Hardwicke Circus showcase some of their best tunes, all of which become more urgent on stage. Case in point being ‘Ballad Of The Gypsy King’, a highlight from the Borderland album, sounds just as good in the live environment when bolstered by a hundred voices singing along. Like early Stones jamming with the Faces, ‘Man Of The Town’ walks with a cool swagger and sets things up nicely for ‘The Weight’. Perhaps best known for appearing on the Easy Rider soundtrack, the context of being performed in prison is particularly pertinent and makes for a fitting closer.

At Her Majesty’s Pleasure continues to propel Hardwicke Circus on their upward trajectory but, of equal importance it stands a testament to the positive power of music. Hardwicke Circus’ prison tour left a raft of reformed characters in its wake and in that respect At Her Majesty’s Pleasure is a win/win.

Reviews from Prison Officers

HMP Coldingley 

Yes, it was great.  

The best bit of Coldingley was when a prisoner on E-Wing, a complex chap, recently on an ACCT, never socialises with others, introvert and finds it difficult to fit in. Appears to have little in the way of friends , was managed under the ‘complex case’ for a period of time. Mr X turned up for the Hardwicke Circus event , which in itself surprised me but I had heard through recent meetings that he was into music and spent all his spare time writing music. He sat at the front and brought  his own guitar (which I also observed, no one was allowed to touch) he spoke to no one in the audience , sitting in silence but appeared to be enjoying the band immensely. 

The band lead asked if anyone would like to sing, Mr X immediately put his hand up, I saw others in the audience nudging each other and rolling their eyes. I did myself wonder how I would manage the situation if he got heckled off the stage. However, Mr X confidently got up on the stage , took prize position and took the lead vocals, to everyone’s amazement (including mine ) he was outstanding, he performed a rock song with the backing  of Hardwick Circus. At the end of his solo performance, the entire audience got to their feet and gave him a standing ovation . Mr X’s face was full of pride and the audience members who I suspect on occasions had been negative to Mr X during his time held him in a different light .  Mr X  took his seat in silence once more but I could see he was pleased with himself and I was pleased for him.

It made a massive difference to someone who struggles with prison, giving him confidence and showing others you don’t have to look like a rock star to sound like one!

HMP Werrington

Hardwicke Circus performed live at Werrington on the 21/10/21 to a group of 25 children, this would have been more but due to covid restrictions in the performance area which was the chapel it had to be capped at that.

The band were really professional and polite and engaged with the children well, the performance was excellent and was a first at Werrington which was well received by the children who attended. A nice touch was getting one of the children to sing alongside the band which went down really well. Overall this was a positive experience by a really good band and I will admit to listening to quite a few of the bands YouTube videos at home!!

HMP Standford Hill

On the 9th November 21, Hardwicke Circus visited HMP Standford Hill and put on an unforgettable concert for our prisoners. This was their 4th visit to our prison and they were as popular as ever.

They played a set list that lasted over one hour with the highlight being a collaboration with several of our men singing and rapping along with the band.  A moment that many in attendance won’t forget for a long time! The band are so engaging and bring a new dimension to connecting with their audience. They conducted a question and answer session after the gig, where our prisoners had many interesting questions that all the band members got involved with. The evening was a complete success and really helped bring a smile to many of our men’s faces, as well as help motivate many of our would-be- musicians!

HMP Downview (Women's)

Just to say we had Hardwicke Circus in this afternoon.  25 women attended in the Chapel and have to say they were brilliant.  Well worth all the hard work from all to put it on and certainly a different way to spend my Monday afternoon. I hope everyone else who has them in has the same positive feedback that we have just had from our residents.

HMP Ford

I got a lot of comments back stating how enjoyable the event was. Not something inmates usually have the opportunity to be involved in but they all found it very enjoyable in. Went down really well!

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