(Planet Me)
Sunday, August 06, 2017
 
U2 - "The Joshua Tree Tour" - London 8-9 July, Dublin 22 July, Brussels 01 August 2017

If you're like me – let's hope you aren't – on 31st December 1989, you would be at home with two cassette tapes, recording U2 at Dublin onto 2 x C60's, whilst your Mum and Dad were out getting drunk.

Since then, everything has changed, and nothing has changed. I'm still that kid, just older and bigger and taller with more years on me.

You may be surprised to hear this, but for me, this tour by U2 – a “Joshua Tree #30 Tour” where they play an old album in full – is one I didn't originally want. Certainly, I get to hear several songs live for the first time. But I don't get the U2 of now. I get a U2 of now, from then, playing songs of then, now. It's kind of weird, and also, somehow, also, a way to go back and glimpse what happened. How we got here. Where we are going, and – in the words of the missed David Bowie – where are we now.

And for the first time, U2 are looking back and travelling forward, not just going forward. This tour – as powerful and well executed as it is – is a reminder, and a restatement, of how good U2 were and not a statement of how good they still are. It's been a long time since then, but it's still then. The band have long been chasing a degree of commercial relevance and currency : but rock is a young mans game, and even the biggest band of all time have to realise that there comes a time when perhaps the game you should play is Being The Best U2 You Can Be, and not anything else. Imagine, if you will, a picture, where The Beatles stayed together, where in 1997 they were touring “Sgt Peppers” in full, and where they were collaborating with The Prodigy. That's the world they could have ended in. That's the world U2 are in danger of touching but this tour is a side step, perhaps a readjustment of direction.

Despite seeing several shows on this tour, and I love seeing U2 tour, but I'd rather, if I'm honest, they be touring something else. It's on the face of it a commercial transaction rather than an artistic endeavour. It's fascinating to see, but a tour where some nights the youngest song is still 13 years old isn't always satisfying. I understand the feeling from many people of the purpose of art and music ; to some, music is the reminder of what you once were, the dreams you had you traded for work and pension plans. To me, and others, what's important and vital is not where I came from, but where I am at. Live in the now. Music and art helps me find where I am in the world today, not where I once was.

At a 30 year remove, the songs that U2 have generally written have always been – like the best songs - out of time, or timeless, beyond the confines of the year of recording, but wider. Sure, there have been cultural touchpoints to individuals that now seem antiquated, but the themes are sadly common – and repeating themselves. “The Joshua Tree” as it was is a record that seems to be fixed in certain economical, ethical, social situations, coming from a time of political class warfare between the workers and the bosses just seconds before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the air that penetrated that album always seemed to be that of a perception very clearly of the pain of inequality, - songs around poverty, hope, or the relationship that exists between people, money, and power. These days, the pendulum of politics has swung back to the same time as the Eighties – what I regard as the political dark ages in the eternal, endless battle between People and Power : these days, by design or not, the subtle war has shifted in the favour of the unequal who have more than they could ever need who still take the little left from the hands of the struggling.

Put in that light, “The Joshua Tree” feels like an album for now that happened to come out 30 years ago. It's depressing to think that for all the advances we've made the past 30 years, some of the key problems still exist : the fierce inequality of poverty, the grinding nature of the system that uses us up and throws us away, and where the journey goes on is still real.

Opening with a short 4 song set of early hits, U2 play the first 30 minutes on a B-Stage in the crowd, with no cameras or video in harsh daylight, effectively supporting themselves (and dependent on where you are in the crowd, they are barely visible dots) showing how they got here and ending with a set built on where they are going next. For each night I see, it's the established warhorses of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Years Day” - the latter of which hasn't been a setlist staple since 1998 – “Pride”, and almost always “Bad.” This early in the set, “Bad” doesn't quite belong here. “Bad” in a show feels like a song that's generally earnt its place as a show closing climax. Here the band are on for less than 10 minutes before they play it. In London and Brussels, the band then slip into a medley of David Bowie's “Heroes” and “Where Are We Now?” (recognising the huge influence he had on near enough everybody, and also in London at least, being a local boy). Bowie's influence has been big on recent tours ; “Space Oddity” was the walk in music on 2009-11's tour, and had a key visual moment on the 2015 shows. Here, the band nail “Bad” ; but it feels too soon. In Brussels, particularly, the band bend and twist the song a little, to a new shape, in the intro with a pounding, building, hypnotic groove. All of this is the band orienting themselves ; this is where we came from, this is where we were.

In Dublin, playing “Bad” is actually a huge disappointment – not because of what it is, but what it isn't. On this tour U2 have brought back 'A Sort of Homecoming' as an occasional song for the first time in 30 years – otherwise having only played it twice between 1988 and 2017. And yet, in Dublin it is bafflingly absent even though the band have a longer stage time set than normal and they're playing their hometown. Despite being played several times, and fan requests at near enough every show and interaction, the band haven't made a gesture to the large number of fans who have flown, in some cases thousands of miles, to get here. It's not that any show is bad – but every band, whether they know it or not, have a contract with the fans to please not just themselves but also others. Not playing that song may be a little thing, but it is the little things that give you away.

It may be that the band didn't like how it was sounding, or that it didn't quite 'gel' for them. The bands opinion isn't always the only one ; after all, if it didn't work – and it would have – even if they didn't think it would, it would have been over in four minutes (about the length of one of Bono's many speechifying interludes) and many, many people would have been very happy. Instead we get the same setlist as Barcelona, and aside from Bono's rambling speeches – and one moment I'll touch on later – the band might as well be playing Zurich from where I am in the crowd. I don't like moaning, for U2 pride themselves on always playing a strong show and earning their money (and what a lot of it there is), but it's fair to say that many many other bands would make a slightly more specialised effort for their hometown show, as well as the show with probably the highest proportion of travelling fans of any of their gigs.

Especially as two songs that are rarely played on the tour that fans have been vocally hoping get played 4 days later in Paris.

It's still staggeringly light, and come barely 9.20, everything suddenly and clearly goes ever so slightly bonkers. “Where The Streets Have No Name” is here : complete with a full, and angry huge wall of red – and whilst this is utter showmanship – I'm staring at U2, looking just like the cover to the “Desire” single – in Dublin. It's definitely the image that defines the tour. The guitar chords chime, the toms kick in, the bass rumbles, and about 80,000 collectively lose their shit.

(Talking in the Off-Camera podcast with Sam Jones, The Edge describes that moment at Croke Park in 2009 as being one of the best moments of his life).

A couple of minutes later, the second verse starts, and Larry moves from toms to snares, the song rises up a key, and we see something out of the corner or our eyes. Four small dots, trailing smoke. White, Green, Orange trails. A roar in the crowd. A roar in the air that I cannot remember if you can hear above the noise and the confusion.

It's the moment that defines the gig for me. The band are there, the verse kicks, and suddenly, there's a roar, there's hands in the air, cameras are whipped out, and the stadium gets a low level flyby by four fighter jets trailing the colours of the country. It's … something unique.

It is the kind of moment that deserves a photograph. Not every moment does. Not, for example, “With Or Without You”, which is largely seen through the screens of iPhones.

See the stone set in your eyes
See a sea of cameraphones
I wait. For U2.

Of course, there's the rest of the album to follow. Some might call playing the second side of the biggest selling album of all time a “Deep Cut”, but when The Joshua Tree has sold more than every other album etc., even the darkest of songs sound like a greatest hit. Certainly, when presented live, “In God's Country” sounds like an unstoppable glorious song that should never have left the live repetoire. With luck, some of these songs will come back to regular rotation – and in particular the final two songs of the album are stormingly effective live.

Before we get there, the first side of “The Joshua Tree” is well known and has been largely a staple of live sets for three decades. Side two has one song never played live before - “Red Hill Mining Town” - which is ok live, but in a concert context isn't as successful as some of the other songs. One of the risks of the Album-in-full shows is that albums are designed to be listened to at home or on the move on your own ; not with 80,000 people standing around you in a football stadium on a Saturday night. “Red Hill” sees a considerable rush for the bar and the toilets : every gig has what I call a 'bog break' song, and “Red Hill” – like it or not – is the one for this tour. There is probably a tangible rush during this. Following this up is “Trip Through Your Wires” which again is good, but with a back catalogue as strong as U2's, it's not a song that they often play, nor one that particularly stands out in the live experience. What playing the whole of this album does show though, is that U2 can play near enough any song live – if they want. The final two songs of the album though, are “Exit” and “Mothers Of The Disappeared”.

Set inside a live context, “Exit” is a song that perhaps U2 could bring back and play much more frequently : here it is as effective, as powerful, as biting – more so in fact – than “Bullet The Blue Sky”. Whereas “Bullet” has been played on 8 of the past 9 tours, and it has been, to be honest, boring, predictable, and tired at some shows.. it's good – but not as good as U2 think it is. Every last vestige of interpretation and life has been wrung out of “Bullet” over the past 900+ performances, and it needs a break now. “Exit” though burns and shimmers with a fire that I haven't seen from the band in a long time. It's a song that should replace “Bullet” in live sets in future, born again with new meaning and excitement. I wasn't sure U2 could do justice to it now that they are older, but I'm not sure its ever sounded better.

Finally comes “Mothers Of The Disappeared” : rarely played in Europe [there was a brief performance in Dublin in 2009, but that's pretty much the only time], this song is a monster live, that combines all of the bands influences in something new, a pounding bass and a half-reggae groove coupled with a plaintive lament to create some new kind of genre – the intimate anthem. The stadium fills with a starfield of lights. This song also provides the narrative link to the 'encore', centrepinning one of U2's key causes of equality to a beat you can dance to.

The final forty minutes is a much better thought-out section, geared around a much wider choice of material, that works in the central themes of how all humans are One (man, woman, rich, poor, old, young) into something that makes as much sense as a very loud art gallery. No longer tied to a 30 year old running order, the encore sees for London and Dublin, the first ever performances of “Miss Sarajveo” in these towns. It's a gorgeous song – U2 at their most placid and thoughtful, that covers the fact that even in war, we are all ourselves, hoping, loving, dreaming, still people, not merely fighters or survivors. It's the song that has been played the most that hasn't yet been played live in Dublin … yet (at 183 performances), as well as the song that has the longest gap between release/first live performance, and appearance in London or Dublin – at 20 years. Given the content, the set is tied by lyrics, to put old songs in new environments, where this song draws a clear line between the inequalities and heartbreak of political mass murder in unmarked graves, to that of death camps and warzones, to modern day refugees. Yes, Bono can speechify at the Olympic standard, and the shows have never needed that – all the themes, all the big ideas, are all in the songs. The band have always been striving for the big idea, the next lightbulb. Some artists seem content to find a box ; a gorgeous box of their own making, and never venture out. U2 don't mind trying new stuff – even if there's a whole bunch of old stuff in it.

But every speech is a song I don't get.

On a performance level, the band have changed, the songs have changed, and Bono's voice has changed : he can no longer hit the high notes of “Running To Stand Still” or “Ultraviolet” or “Miss Sarajevo” so effortlessly, and so, the songs are different, down in key, and “Miss Sarajevo” now has Pavarotti's recorded vocals for the end, rather than Bono singing his heart out as he did just six years ago. It's still a show with the same fire, the same intention as any before, but the flesh is starting to show its age at the edges.

But also, it's entertainment as well as some form of mass populist art. People like the hits. And even when there's deep cuts in there, there's also the old biggies. Any set that presents between 13 to 16 hit singles in it can hardly be anything but. Lyrically there's no place for “Vertigo” in the set – but it's a big fat racket that makes the room bounce like demented ducks – and the last genuinely huge crossover hit U2 ever had. Maybe their time now is far beyond the world of mass communication and hits but in being a huge, self-contained artistic entity that doesn't try to get on the radio but should concentrate instead on getting into your mind and heart instead. They're 20 years past “Pop” now and definitely post-pop in their careers.

Perhaps the biggest gripe is the legitimate one that the show is the first backwards looking tour the band have done, the first one where on some shows the freshest song is still 13 years old, and where significant parts of their work are ignored. And there's still nothing off over half the albums they have made. On the other hand, there's 80,000 people playing air guitar to “Vertigo” and “Elevation” so that's not … always a bad thing. After an hour of being told Poverty Is Sexist, War Is Bad, We Are All One, it's refreshing just to cut loose.

As we come to the end though, there's a sense – justified or not – that perhaps this is a money driven tour, being placed as a springboard to propel the band back into consciousness before the next album which is being readied for probable launch, and the next tour following that. Always one eye on the future. Maybe U2 don't even know themselves exactly where they are going next, but one of the great things about growing older is seeing how we still fit into the world (if we do), and how we make the world the place we want it to be. In Brussels they close with a raucous, adrenalin rush of “I Will Follow”, a tasty and biting slice of post punk that is both aware and sincere, and still sounds as thrilling as the first time I ever heard it. It's a way to end, with where we started, ending where they began, four boys playing rock'n'roll with crazy ideas to make a difference but it also is a message to the audience who may have deserted them in times of strife. If you walk away, I Will Follow. Whilst nearly 50,000 mostly-Belgians dance around happily.

With that, the European leg is over- for now – and over the several shows, and friends old and new, we scatter to the edges of the world, waiting for the time this will happen again, be it next year or the year after, or whenever, disbanding temporarily the family and kinship built out of a common love for the same songs. This is this, and this is here and now, and there will be other shows, other nights, other moments, because even if we are nearer the end than the beginning, this is not over – yet – and we have the pleasure of seeing moments like this with our own eyes rather than reading about it in books in the future. We have to live in the here and now.

We said hello and goodbye to many songs for what is probably the last time - the old friends will be missed. Many of these songs have found new life this year, and I hope to see them again on future tours : but if not, we had this. A glorious and unexpected reframing of the songs to make old feel new again.

The future beckons - What a swell party it is.

Sunday Bloody Sunday
New Years Day
Bad / Heroes / Where Are We Now?
Pride
Where The Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
With Or Without You
Bullet The Blue Sky
Running To Stand Still
Red Hill Mining Town
In Gods Country
Trip Through Your Wires
One Tree Hill
Exit
Mothers Of The Disappeared
Miss Sarajevo
Beautiful Day
Elevation
Vertigo
Ultraviolet (not London #2)
Mysterious Ways (London #2 only)
One
The Little Things That Give You Away (not Brussels, or London #2)
I Will Follow (Brussels only)
Don't Look Back In Anger (London #1 only)


Monday, July 10, 2017
 
U2 : "The Fire Brigade Rehearsal" : London Twickenham Stadium, 07 July 2017

Most gigs you go to, if you go to as many as I do, you come out thinking “That was really good”, or “That was great”, or – if you're really lucky - “That was the best one of theirs I have seen.” It's very very rare you come out of a show thinking That Was The Best Gig I Have EVER Seen. I've had the same gig as my number #1 gig for 18 years, 11 months, and 20 days. Today it got replaced with this.

What could be better than seeing a secret warmup show by New Order after a 5 year split in a club in their hometown?

How about an invite only show for London Firefighters and their guests, to about 50 people, the night before U2 start a tour, in a football stadium? With free pizza and champagne?

Yeah, that would do it.

So walking to work this morning, I get a text message from a friend of mine who works for the London Fire Brigade. “Do you want to see U2 do a rehearsal tonight?”

My response has rude words in it. “WTAF?” is a summary.

From there, in a few short minutes, nights out are rearranged. Babysitters are called in. Promises of free curries fly around my inbox. I can go to the ball. I'm to arrive at Twickenham by 6.30pm with photo ID and my name is on a list. At the last minute I re-read the email, check something, and manage to arrange for Mark Peterboro (who has managed to be at even more U2 gigs than I have, which is actually possible) to take up an unused space. This is the kind of thing that dreams are made of. I'm heartbroken for the people queuing outside who can't get in to see this, but it's not my call to make.

I'm probably not able to tell anyone anything until we're in the stadium itself. Too much to lose. A few minutes after the first tweet, my notifications shoot through the roof, and I manage to attract about 300 new followers in a few minutes and 534 notifications overnight. That's not why I did it – it's just that this is a rare, rare thing and why be selfish and keep it to ourselves?

It's also probably only the 7th 'rehearsal' show they've ever done *

[* - others, from memory are Vancouver 2015, Barcelona 2009, Brussels 2005, Miami 2001, Rotterdam 1993, and Hershey 1992 ]

Names and photo ID are crossed off a list of around 50 names. We are given wristbands, and escorted into the stadiums by the bands PA. There's a free bar, free pizza. There's 20 or 30 minutes of standing in the empty stadium, just 48 of us who can't believe our luck, the bands techs, and around 69,952 unoccupied green chairs. Collectively, I think there's a quite stunned air of Is This Really Happening? This is just another night in a stadium tour as they set up the show.

The drumkit sits casually unoccupied. It's just another day at the office for U2, and they're just pottering about. There's Joe on sound, and Willie on lights, and Stuart, and Dallas all just doing their jobs. And then there's just that moment of walking around thinking about just how rare this type of thing is. Of course I want to see the biggest band in the world play to the smallest crowd they have in a very very long time. But U2 are a thing that exist only on TV screens and record covers. They're not actually real, or human. Even when Bono comes over for a chat with us before hand.

And when Bono does that, there's the really strange moment when I see Noel Gallagher standing over there minding his own business, and I think I can talk to either Noel Gallagher or Bono... and the choice is mine.

Bono meanwhile does handshakes and selfies, and talks a bit. I forget exactly what he says, but he explains that it's a very visual show, and it might not be so good in sunlight. And the whole show of everything is designed : “If it doesn't work for someone in the back row, way way back there, it doesn't work at all.”

This is a side of Bono I've not really seen. The artist who cares about his work. Who wants it to be understood. Who talks clearly with people. At one point, a Fireman and his daughter go for a photo ; he asks her name, and then replies something like : “That's a lovely name. Not like Bono, that's a silly name.” If of course I misquote anyone or anything, can you expect to remember all of this in precise detail? There was too much to take in to both feel and experience to get all of this.

Surrounded by selfies, I just ask “Bono? No selfie but a hug?” And we do, because we could. And it seemed fun. And more meaningful. He smells very very nice. His deodorant probably costs more than I earn in a year.

Three minutes later, and all of U2 are on the second stage, performing “The Little Things That Give You Away.” If I were a betting man, I'd say only Mark and I knew this song apart from the crew and band. It is so very very strange. Not surreal... but super-real. We're standing here, with the whole of the stadium floor to ourselves (near enough), and U2 are playing a song that hasn't come out yet three feet away from us. I can see every movement of every hand, the hair on the arms, the fillings in Bono's teeth, and the way the muscles in the neck bulge as he sings and it is real. This happened. It can never be taken away.

I have had an amazing, privileged life. This is one of those moments.

The band bring the song to a close, and the opening chords of “Streets” fade in. The band walk up the ramp, and four of them stand there. Because I've watched this show on YouTube before, I guess and Mark and I are the only people in the whole of the pitch who isn't working here when Bono raises his fist and the Edge begins chiming out that riff. And fucking hell, that's a thing to remember. Its just a wonderful gesture, for a band, that they don't need to do this, to play a private show for firefighters and their guests. And make no mistake, I'm not a firefighter, I'm here by luck and chance that I know someone who works for the Fire Brigade, and this is a beautiful moment. The kind of thing that many, many other bands don't do. They wouldn't even think to do this.

There may only be 48 people here [I counted them] ; but the band play as if there were 48,000. It still sounds glorious. U2 don't put a show on just because people are watching. This is just who they are. This is where we are now.

Sure, this is their first backwards look. But it feels fresh, and new. There's the goosebumps moment of seeing U2 play “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For” for a handful of people with the same fire as they would a stadium. There's a run through the relatively obscure “Red Hill Mining Town” - a song, if I am honest, I never connected with : and in the live context I get it. A song written by young men old before their time, but it suits the older men that U2 have become. As “Red Hill” ends, the band move to “Miss Sarajevo” - one of my favourite songs by anyone, ever – which this weekend will get its first live performance in Britain, and also ; at 22 years after release, its the longest gap yet between recording and eventual performance in the town it was recorded in for any U2 song. As the song ends Bono stands on his own on the B Stage, just watching the screen, checking the visuals, and his bandmates. There's a sense of, even now, Bono is a U2 fan who sometimes can't believe his luck even though he worked for it, and a pride and care in the performance – he owes it not just to you, but to him : don't be crap now. U2 became what they are, whether you like them or not, because they don't go for half measures. Death – or glory. And they reached glory.

“Sarajevo” ends, and transitions, quite seamlessly into “Beautiful Day”. It's a short but powerful evening : shorn of the thematic connection that links the songs together, it's not – objectively – as whole as the big gig, but emotionally, there's a moment : where I am the closest person in the whole stadium to the band, as they play “Where The Streets Have No Name”, where Bono reaches out to touch the flame, and I reach out too, and I think, is this really happening? Is this real? This is the type of thing U2 do (and have done, in total, six times in their lives, played a rehearsal to a handful of fans in a stadium), and they don't have to, but they want to. Yes, sure, my eyes grew damp with the privilege and the specialness of the experience.

But the band are there, playing “Beautiful Day”, and Bono is just kind of staring at the screen like a fan, and reaching through, emoting the song as he means it. It's no rote repetition. This is no dream. Always give the best you can even if not that many people will ever notice.

Given the strict curfew of 9pm by the council, the band are both relaxed, and passionate. You'd think, given that they've performed “Mysterious Ways” 588 times and “Vertigo” 406 times, that perhaps it might occasionally sound tired. But the band still go for it. Even now, they're still working through it – The Edge requests a second run through the last 8 bars of “Vertigo” to perfect the ending (and I saw the first time they ever played it, in a London carpark). “Mysterious Ways” is gloriously reworked to include the slow building beginning and Edge's glorious only-ever-played-live slide guitar solo, and whilst Bono is out on the other stage and dances with Louise, I stand under The Edge and just stare at his hands peeling out a solo. It's one of my favourite guitar solos of all time – to stand 5 feet from its creator as he plays it is worth … well, more money than you can imagine.

After “Vertigo”, it's just gone 8.30, and so, the band draw the short set to a close, and come down to talk to us, for selfies, and handshakes. I hear a Welsh/Irish voice say “Thank you so much for coming”, and I turn around, and The Edge is waiting to shake my hand. It was probably only a fraction of a second, but still... that wasn't the plan. I just listen to the conversations, before I have a minute with Adam – I thank him, then list off some of the shows, to which he says … charmingly, “You're a repeat customer – I like you, we should give you Airmiles.” Which is fairly crazy, really.

After 9 minutes, the band move on – but not before Mark Peterboro asks each member to play “A Sort Of Homecoming” in Dublin. The Edge wryly replies “That makes sense”. Bono says he's simply The Edges representative and gets 10%. These are practiced lines – but good ones. No wonder Bono is practically a black leather politician with answers that slippery. Before 8.45 we're asked firmly, but fairly to leave, and there's not much argument we can put up to that.

Before we go though, we notice an extra line on the setlist. “Work on 'Don't Look Back' with Noel G – PA Off”. But that is tomorrow.

Wow. That was a literal, once-in-a-lifetime evening.



Setlist :
The Little Things That Give You Away
Where The Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
Redhill Mining Town
Miss Sarajevo
Beautiful Day
Mysterious Ways
Vertigo


Saturday, June 24, 2017
 
KRAFTWERK : Brighton Centre 06 June 17 + London Royal Albert Hall 22 June 17

This might be the last time. With Ralfbot at 70, and even the newer* members Henning Schmitzbot and Fritz Hilbot past 60, Kraftwerk are a touring museum. Age moves forward one day at a time, and whilst Kraftwerk have seemed mercifully free of the ravages of time, this is their largest tour in 35 years, and they are neither immortal, nor invincible.

*though 'newer' means they have both been in the band over 25 years, and both were studio engineers for the bands starting the 70's and 80's.

Presenting a 2 hour performance that isn't so much a concert as a huge art installation, tonight is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a playful presentation of a complete work of art. The show drips in understated, dry humour ; from absurd and deliberate audio glitches presented utterly straight faced, to the minimalist graphics that comprise the huge visual backdrop. And it is a staggering show, built on state of the art 3D graphics, sympathetic lighting that sees the Albert Hall lit up in the thematic colours of each song (blue / white / red, for “Tour De France”), and a rumbling bass louder than Leftfield ever were that makes me feel like I am in a techno earthquake.

Ever evolving , ever changing, yet rooted forever in a permanent concept that never changed but was merely refined, tonights show is probably the pinnacle of the Kraftwerk live experience, though miles away from the rampant and raucous crowd-surfing I saw their shows in the 90's ; and certainly the best show of theirs I've seen since the first a quarter century ago.

The show is by now, a traditional glimpse of a nostalgic future : in effect a condensed version of the “Catalogue” box set, the show sees the band present – mostly chronologically, most of most of their albums in order, with a mastery over every song from their established albums, and several songs that have only recently been played live. And they've never sounded so good live.

They open with the huge, immaculately precise “Numbers/Computerworld”, and ends, 134 minutes later, with a 15 minute romp through “Boing Boom Tschak / Techno Pop / Music Non Stop”. Sure, it looks like four blokes with laptops, but its really four craftsmen at easels, creating art before our eyes, and presenting something that isn't a concert, or art, but a gorgeous hybrid of the two. It's the type of music where you sit and feel and think and your brain just goes off there, and you end up thinking “That looks like a Superman movie”, or “The newer cars with higher numberplates always overtake the slower ones” during “Autobahn”. Or where you remember that the first synthesisers cost the same as a car in 1973, and that's why the song was about motorways, using the Volkswagen Beetle as a metaphor for the liberating power of technology.

> and hence a graphic of a car radio <

As an audio-visual presentation that cuts across multiple mediums ; sound, vision, light, art, and words, around key themes, we're invited to absorb, to contemplate, and to feel - but every day the arrangement is altered ; subtle variations arrive between Brighton and London, the addition of various percussive improvisations, lyrical switches between the German and English language versions, and minor visual tweaks, all of which adhere to the central theme. Alongside the inherent silliness of a huge banks of computers all tweaked to pull out immaculate sounds designed tor remind you of Cartoons, Batman, and old Science Fiction. It's like a kids playset for geeks who never grew up, complete with robots, trains, cars, bombs, spaceships, all thinking of an alternate future for mankind when Man>Nature>Technology all kind of worked out.

The band seem to be having a great time : subtle inflections indicate so, a tapping leg, eye contact, a smile. Sound buffets and rolls across the auditorium. The audience are clearly repressed – actually feeling that they want to dance and release – given the frequent whoops, claps, and responses, that culminate in mass co-ordinated clapping and … yet, we all seem glued to our seats until the final encore, which sees each member luxuriate in a solo section : Falk is the first to exit, and gets a standing ovation, that rapidly turns into a full, stoodup gig for the next six minutes.

The remaining members (Fritz and Henning) pick up their customary improvisatory section (16 bars, no more no less), Ralf actually stops playing, and watches with a big smile on his face. By Kraftwerk standards this is possibly akin to him breaking down in tears mid song saying “I love you all”.

As Henning leaves, he bows, smiles widely, and gestures to Ralf as the architect of all this. And, as it ends, and I see the final moments of what might be my final Kraftwerk show [and that is a weird feeling after 30 years of gigging], Ralf pauses, and clasps his hands together and places his fist over his heart. It's the nearest I've seen to an act of emotion ; possible then, as this work fo art near the end, even these small gestures are their way of recognising and acknowledging that we've seen the sum of a life's work here ; and it was worth it.

These songs may be old, but their meanings are eternal,and the passing of time has deepened mere songs into something far bigger around the nature of the relationship between man, nature, the planet, and each other. How cool is coldness?

Numbers
computer world
its more fun to compute
home computer
computer love
the man machine
spacelab
the model
neon lights
autobhan
airwaves
news intermission
antenna
geiger counter
radioactivity
electric cafe
tour de france
etape 1
chrono
etape 2
vitamin
trans europe express
abzug
metal on metal

-

the robots
-

aerodynamik
planet of visions
boing boom tschak
techno pop
music non stop


Monday, June 05, 2017
 
DEPECHE MODE Global Spirit Tour : Nice, Charles De Erhmann Stade 12 May 2017

Every Depeche Mode review I do now, I talk about the passing of time. They were the first 'proper' band I saw. How I was a carcrash child at 17, in Block 11 of the Birmingham NEC, and yet, somehow, all this time later, I'm still seeing them. How I'm still the same person I was then; but better.

When I was younger, I felt acutely the exclusion of youth. Like this band? Well, you can't see them. You can't afford the records. You can't participate. You – outside, away, not involved. And these weren't crazy, unrealistic dreams, like wanting a goddamn yacht and feeling the injustice of normality. I simply had to consume voraciously and devour what little I could be part of.

Some people get their kicks on Route 66. Others by sportball. Me? I live the life I hungered for when I was a kid : being able to go somewhere. Being able to see a world beyond my street, not marrying the girl next door, not working at the Chocolate Factory and not taking the first options life gave me. Going to somewhere abroad, to see a band I love? When I was 17, that was about as realistic to me as being The First Man On Mars.

And so, we meet at a bus stop on a French Riveria. The old routine, of having to be at an airport two hours before the flight is tedious and boring. Wait here, queue there. Documents and papers. Unpack your bag. Laptop out. Phone off. Christ, what utter tedium this security theatre is. Take off your belt. Wait 10 minutes. This is why I hate flying ; the unproductive, dead time as Human Cattle. It's why, if the train is under four hours, I always take the train. Any longer than four hours, and well, flying is probably quicker.

Going to Nice is a little odd. The French Riveria, as it is, is a place I thought couldn't be actually real. Sure, I'd heard of it, but it's a strange place. With all due respect, aside from weather, and incredibly rich people's homes, I'm not sure exactly what it has in it. There's food, and there's wine, and there's all the other stuff, but I don't really know what there is here. It's like a place with the personality surgically extracted from it. It's beautiful but boring. Then again, I feel like I am and will be a Londoner forever – even if I was forced out by the absurd monetisation and brutal exploitation of the basic human need to have somewhere to sleep, whereby space became an asset to be sweated by the rich. For 12 years, I commuted to the town I couldn't live in, and spent (by my estimation) around £54,000 and 8,855 hours because some rich fucker had a portfolio of properties he wanted to rent out for profit.

Money doesn't talk, of course. It swears. Everything counts, in large amounts.

Just remember.
"Leftwing and poor? = Politics of Envy
Leftwing and rich? = Champagne Socialist Hypocrite."
(as Matt Beestonian probably said)

We take the bus to Eze, up through gorgeous hills and mountains that go above the crowd line. We walk through a mountain top village, then take a battered and ruined path down several thousand feet to the beach. We stand on the sand next to Bono's house : I don't know quite why, except that, whilst we're here, we might as well, because I've never been here before. And won't ever be again. Even though he's not here ; the tax dodger is in Vancouver launching another tour.

It is a once in a lifetime experience, for me, to walk down a mountain to a beach though : to take the train to Monte Carlo. Or Monaco. Or whatever it is called. And in Monte Carlo, the money drips invisibly in the air. In every step. This individual country, this secular paradise of affluence. This land of stone, steel, glass, and low taxes. This place was a mythical paradise of ice cream, of boats, of legs and racing cars, when I was younger. A land that couldn't be real. Couldn't really exist.

So we walked alongside the viewing stands for the Grand Prix ; and it looks just like it did on TV, but now it's real. And much taller. We walk through the bay of millionaires and billionaires yachts. The money is there. The names are meaningless. The places of registration baffling. (Georgetown, anyone?). It's a life I will never see. Maybe even one I'm not sure I'd want to. But it's superreal : a heightened version of reality. You can, after all, buy special share trading options packages so you can make millions whilst sitting on a yacht named after a Greek God, moving money around from one place to another. Money, and the accumulation of it, has become a game. You need not worry about any of the basics anymore : you will always have enough money for a great standard of living, for a roof over your head, a meal in your belly, a car on your drive. It's now no longer about the mere security of survival, but the status. The biggest car, the largest berth, the nicest view and the most bedrooms. It's meaningless though. You can become addicted to chasing money, not life. Chasing your own inadequacy, trying to be more when really... once you are past your first £10m, it doesn't matter. So I am told.

(Incidentally, Nice Airport has the largest and most expensive private jet in the world parked there).

I would laugh at the politics of envy. Sure, I wouldn't mind being rich, but not at the expense of changing who I am. My idea of rich isn't a yacht or chasing status. Imagine being so furious at having never to have work again, having your own yacht, and having prosperity beyond that puts you inside the top thousandth of richest people in the world, and it's still not enough to come second place in a race of billions?

It's bizarre. And, as I turn a corner, I remember. This strait. This tunnel, that I have memorised from a thousand laps of an arcade game whose name I can't recall (GTI Club!) in the Pot of Beer in Aston, Birmingham, and I'm walking down a road I have only have seen on a pixelated arcade screen yet memorised. I have to take my foot off the accelerator and glide through this corner, by muscle memory. These bends made of legend. Accelerate, brake, turn into the corner.

A hundred yards away come the bends. And at the top of that hill, the famed Casino (that, by the way, has a pivotal role in Pixar's Cars-2, so I half expect a haunted Popemobile to pass me). Roger Moore's house is somewhere near here ; but he died between the moment and the writing. Monaco is crowded and it just doesn't seem that nice (to be honest), or that cultured. There's money and luxury, but it seems there's little heart here. What there is is an abundance of low tax schemes and accountants. There's an emptiness, replaced instead by an accumulation of wealth. Most places I go to have some kind of soul : I'm not sure Monte Carlo did.

The train takes us back to Nice. We pass Eze, and Bono's house. We skirt the sea. We land back in Nice, and make our way to the Charles De Ehrmann Stadium. As a stadium it is a bizarre and beautiful venue : uniquely configured for indoor or outdoor shows, with a removable wall : face one way, and the band are inwards to a smaller indoor arena. Face the other way, and move the back wall, and the band face out into a huge outdoor atrium designed for sporting events and a racetrack. It's a lovely place to be.

So the sun sets, planes fly overhead, and Depeche Mode perform a show very like the one I saw six weeks prior in Glasgow (just with more songs). As is often the way, they indulge themselves* with new material, and old. It's more than half way, and 13 songs in, before they enter the predictable greatest hits part : and of those first 13 songs, 10 of them are from the most recent half of their career – the era perceived to be the bit where “Alan Left And Now They're A Bit Rubbish”. The new songs fit just as well as anything else into the work, and seem almost exclusively as good as the older ones. But every band's later material suffers slightly, as the thrill of the new has paled slightly. Sure, the audience perks up for “World In My Eyes”, but it's a quick and short thrill before the audience deflates slightly with the new stuff.

In the stadium context, these new songs are tolerated by the huge crowd : who appear to be waiting patiently for some great reward of the songs that remind them of their youth. I understand 'tuning out' of bands as you grow older. As the listener, we might change direction whilst the band carry on, or we might grow apart. Certainly I've lost touch with some bands ; but they weren't very good to start with.

It's refreshing to see a band not beholden merely to the hits of the ancient past. Like every band, there are a handful of big hitters that would upset the customers if not played. And Depeche aren't exactly Pearl Jam : the first 18 shows of this tour had an identical setlist. It's a machine of delivering emotions and music that has been finely tuned over the past 35 years.

Personally, I might not like “Poison Heart” (but I understand why other people do). Every song is accompanied by a visual identity that matches the song.

[* slightly, the new ones are very good, just not very familiar]

The best bands are the ones that we grow older with. The ones who map our changing time on the planet : not the ones frozen forever in amber as a pop fossil from 1981. Sure, much as I and many others would like a more varied setlist with more older songs in (but not all of them, “A Photograph of You” was always a rubbish song). Depeche Mode have managed to become the kind of band that know what people want, and strive to provide it, as much as they reasonably can. We can't get into a time machine and go back to 1990, so recognising how we got here will be as good as it can be : the hits are all present and show that on stage, Depeche Mode are a very different band from on record : a powerful, rocky behemoth selling convincing pre-packaged introspection. These are songs written in small rooms about emotions, played in football stadiums about the size of a small town.

It ends (near enough) where it started. David Gahan's first audition for the band was singing Bowie's “Heroes” in a small room in Basildon in 1979. Tonight, the band play the same song in tribute to David Bowie : in a stadium on the French Riveria. It's a long way from home. No matter where we are, never forget who you have been and where you have come from.

Going Backwards
So Much Love
Barrel of A Gun
Pain That I Am Used To
Corrupt
In Your Room
World In My Eyes
Cover Me
Home
A Question Of Lust
Poison Heart
Where's The Revolution
Wrong
Everything Counts
Stripped
Enjoy The Silence
Never Let Me Down Again
Somebody
Walking In My Shoes
Heroes
I Feel You
Personal Jesus


Sunday, May 28, 2017
 
KRAFTWERK : 3-D : THE CATALOGUE

As an artistic entity, Kraftwerk have been redundant for the past 30 years : they've released only one new album of material since 1986, and have largely converted their studio perfectionism into becoming a glorious touring retrospective of a future that never happened. From an artistic perspective, Kraftwerk spent so long predicting the future that when the future finally arrived they are now historians. And this is nothing but history.

“The Catalogue” then is an updated, modern companion to 2009's studio reissue box set. This presents the current (2012-2016) Kraftwerk live experience in a complete work of art, recorded at a set of residencies at modern art museums as a concert art experience rather than anything as basic as live performance.

With a near complete lineup change, only Ralf Hutter remains from the bands classic lineup ; long time studio engineers Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz joined 25 years ago, alongside a nominal replacement for co-founder Florian in the shape of video specialist Falk Grieffenhagen. Though really, for all the personality demonstrated here, Kraftwerk could be four IT programmers called Norman.

Kraftwerk became the Ralf Hutter show sometime ago, and no matter how good they are, it is now impossible to imagine this set of German techno pensioners ever releasing any new material. This then, is a enormous final slice of recorded work and very probably their last release. And if I may be so cynical, a post-event rewriting of history by making all of their work modern yet ancient.

And whilst every song, from every one of their final 8 albums, is presented, the running orders and sequences are changed ; arrangements are reworked – sections are truncated and others extended, and two songs frequently become one, with “Franz Schubert” now no longer at the end of an album, but at the beginning and intertwined with “Europe Endless”. “The Telephone Call” is now an instrumental melded with b-side “House Phone”. What was, on the original studio release, a 7 minute percussive experiment – such as 'It's More Fun To Compute' – is now for example, a 2 minute coda to another song.

And whilst it is ostensibly a live album, it is... barely so. The audience are inaudible and there's little evidence these were recorded with thousands of people in attendance apart from the ambient hum of the venue on the vocals. Visually, the audience only exist as distant anonymous heads seen occasionally holding camera phones.

Also, given the bands ancient analogue equipment has long been obsolete and barely functional, the entire of their body of work has been recreated on modern and bespoke audio software. This is to all intents and purposes a complete replacement of their existing body of work with new, modern recordings on up to date equipment with a full set of visual imagery.

What do you get? After a baffling array of formats, you get either a 77 minute double vinyl (or a 77 minute DVD / Blu Ray package) : both of which feel slight and anorexic in their content.

You can also get a very affordable 8CD Box Set which runs to around 5 hours : each CD is designed to fit and present a modern and updated recording of the accompanying album . Whereas “Autobahn” on the original 1973 LP was 22 minutes, here it is 14. (The “Autobhan” album itself is in the form on this release, just 26 minutes long!).

The final format is a 4 Blu Ray set that features 2 nearly identical sets of video content (one which occasionally features shots of the bands onstage : the other does not – and that's the only difference I can tell), alongside a huge book, for an absurd amount of money. It's overblown for the cost, and would be far more palatable if it were cheaper or concentrated on the audio/visual content rather than repetition and packaging.

As a presentation, “3-D : The Catalogue” is a definitive, glorious final word from the band.

Nonetheless, whilst this is for the Kraftwerk completist, it is undoubtedly a luxury object that also is indulgent. Oh, and it sounds wonderful, and I recommend you listen to the sound of a future that never happened. It is the closest you can get to being there, and being there is an experience everyone should have at least once in their lives.


Monday, April 03, 2017
 
PET SHOP BOYS with Johnny Marr + Royal Philharmonic Orchestra : London Royal Albert Hall 02 April 2017

In a practical reprise of 2012's BBC Show at Salford – which made up half of the tour to promote the “Elysium” album – Pet Shop Boys bring a unique(ish) show to the Royal Albert Hall for a one off Teenage Cancer Trust performance. And whilst I have loved this band for oooh, at least three quarters of my life, and the combination of Johnny Marr, and an Orchestra, is a magical promise tonight sees the Pet Shop Boys play probably their most indulgent (song wise), and underachieving (in terms of audience response), show I've ever seen.

It all comes down to the songs. The songs that brought us into their fandom weren't aimless ballads, or unsuccessful attempts at depth. The songs that brought us in touched us, spoke to us, meant something to us. Songs that discussed what and who we are, now and then. Songs that made us see and feel the world differently. And so few of those songs were played tonight. Not every song any band writes is brilliant ; even The Smiths and The Beatles fell foul of that.

Maybe I was expecting too much : certainly, there is a unique power behind seeing them perform so many rare songs with an orchestra. When it hits – when they play songs deserving of the scale – it's staggeringly effective. When it misses – when an orchestra is used to buff up deservedly unappreciated stinkers like “Hold On”, and “Breathing Space” - the effort falls depressingly flat of the target, and I'd've rather the show been shorter than waste the time on such insubstantial material. Especially when songs like The Theatre, Being Boring and Go West, sublime, perfect for the moment, built for an orchestra, are inexplicably ignored.

It's an evening with a handful of hits, and too many misses. An evening where It Couldn't Happen Here is played live for only the second time, and it is mindblowingly good.

There is a majesty when they tower through Jealousy with Chris Lowe there, playing parts on a grand piano that have, for so long, just been sequenced as he only has two hands. There's no doubt how much they both do in the studio that can't be replicated live on stage : the popular conception is that Neil stands around looking bored whilst Chris just does much the same and other people do all the work – and it is wrong.

But also, this is practically a carbon copy of two previous one-off orchestral shows, and there's little 'new' that hasn't been heard before at those two shows. Little indeed. Not one song is less than 5 years old, and nothing from the past two albums is represented at all. It's as if they just reloaded the “BBC Salford 2012” and “BBC Mermaid 2006” Hard Drives, shuffled a few songs around, and let loose. I guess I got to see the “Elysium Orchestral” tour, five years too late.

There's a lot of obscure material in here, most of it taken from 2012's underwhelming “Elysium” (in fact, earlier on we signaled out our two least favourite Pet Shop Boys as being 'Hold On' and 'Requiem In Denim And Leopardskin', only on the grounds I'd forgotten the existence of 'Breathing Space'). In fact, there's four songs taken from that album in the night, alongside the yet-unreleased 'He Dreamed Of Machines' from the Alan Turing song project* and For All of Us from the mostly forgotten “Closer To Heaven” musical – all rare and unusual choices, but they lose most of the audience, and it is difficult to get them back. .

*no one should ever call anything a project. Art isn't a business plan.

And many of these songs have been played once once or twice before : The Survivors, Later Tonight, Tonight Is Forever and It Couldn't Happen Here, are powerful, effective, under-appreciated and simply not played enough. Later Tonight gets its first performance since 1989. You cannot accuse the band of taking an easy route, choosing the obvious songs and playing some obvious choices I'm Not Scared, My October Symphony, Pandemonium, Being Boring and ... but I do wish they had.

Whilst the orchestra play their parts effectively, and it's glorious to see (but not always hear) Johnny Marr adding that perfect texture he contributed to the albums, it's an evening where I feel the crowd are seemingly pulling in a different direction ; where there's definitely two people sleeping on my row (one is, I think, snoring, which is impressive), and where by the tell tale glow of your phone, there's a lot of distraction.

That, combined with a very underwhelming sound mix where neither the electronics, nor the orchestra are loud enough – and where you can talk at normal conversational level and be louder than the act – and it's not going to be a great show by an absolute standard.

It's a downright perverse choice of material that emphasises the chinstroking, thoughtful side of the band, but also, when you've paid for a show – even if that is exactly what you got – there must be a kind of trade off between band and audience : an understanding of the social contract. There's an expectation of a sort around the promise and the delivery. Even we got what we paid for, some of us got everything we didn't want and less. I can't pretend I was enraptured for large parts of the show, I did try, but the pacing and structure of the show was uneven, veering between lively, dramatic material deserving of the scale of an orchestra, and mid-paced, second division ballads hoping for depth but falling short – you can't add meaning to something with an orchestra, only emphasise what it already there. Whilst it was undoubtedly unique, and an experience, the night was underwhelming in some respects – which is a great shame, as there was so much potential, and many different songs crying out for the occasion, that this wasn't quite made real.

Left To My Own Devices
Tonight Is Forever
This Must Be The Place
Rent
Later Tonight
New York City Boy
Miracles
The Survivors
Leaving
Jealousy

- Hold On
It Couldn't Happen Here
For All Of Us
Can You Forgive Her?
Breathing Space
He Dreamed Of Machines
Requiem In Denim and Leopardskin
Indefinite Leave To Remain
West End Girls
It's Alright
It's A Sin


Friday, March 31, 2017
 
DEPECHE MODE Glasgow Barrowlands 26 March 2017

On the heels of another album, their 14th, Depeche Mode return to Glasgow's legendary Barrowlands for their smallest show to a paying audience since 1988 – and their first here in 33 years. It's a very different band now from then, and a very different world. In that gap, Depeche Mode have become seasoned, and mature miserable stadium headliners, released ten albums, and the idea of them ever playing anywhere as small as this ever again seems to have vanished to a distant speck on the horizon.

So this is the best Depeche Mode show I've seen in 27 years of seeing them. It's the smallest, but also, the most... fervent.

Enough hyperbole about exclusivity. Depeche Mode are a band that some people love more than food, or their cat. This is one of those shows which will be etched in legend as, for fans of the band, you hadda be there. This isn't a wet Wednesday in a 3/4's full stadium in Portugal that that's just another day at work for some millionaires and an extra room in the mansion.

This is also the beginning of a long tour, and a public birth for most of the upcoming tour : the four songs from Spirit are new and barely a week old. It's also a determindedly forward looking set : for a band with 39 years history, only a third of the set comes from their alleged bulletproof phase that ended when Dave Gahan died for the second time in an ambulance or when Alan Wilder left the group in 1995. Two thirds of the set comes from the last half of their work : and not many bands can really say that – and none it feels like it doesn't belong. Some bands, after all, desperately shoehorn subpar newer material – long after the muse has evaporated – in an attempt to stay relevant. Others actually write new songs that reflect what it is like to be older, wiser, here and now but from there & then, and make those songs useful and meaningful, about aging in a young world. And those songs don't suck. And those songs belong with the others.

The newer stuff tonight - “Going Backwards”, “So Much Love”, “Cover Me” and “Where's The Revolution?” feel like they could have been made at near enough any point in the bands history, but with a clear line to now, and like the only new stuff that should exist, it sounds like there is a point to these songs. They are angry, socially conscious songs that don't tell us how to think, but explain how many of us feel. There's a sense of these songs, lyrically, being caught in a transition, of the outside world forcing its way in. The urgency underpins the music – unlike previous records, Spirit seems emboldened with an urgency that some of the other albums don't quite have. It's in every second of the album, and the songs seems connected in a way that sometimes, the abstract musing of well-off rich people don't quite have.

And there's a moment in “Cover Me” that even after less than two weeks in the world, I know will always cut to me in a way : I dreamt of us in another life – one we've never quite reached. We all, sadly, probably know that feeling.

Of the other songs, “Barrel Of A Gun” and “Home” are greeted with warmth – it has been a while since either was a setlist fixture – and “Corrupt” is played for the fourth time ever (which is baffling). There's also a sleek, streamlined revisit for “A Pain That I Am Used To”, played in a compelling and urgent remixed fashion. Aside from the one drunk tosser who doesn't seem to grasp there's a bit of dancing at a Depeche Mode gig, everyone is in high, friendly spirits, and the crowd is the liveliest I have seen in ages. Barrowlands deserves a legendary reputation.

Barrowlands is also the smallest paying Depeche gig in 29 years : the audience then aren't just people going to see a band.

They are people who are going to see this band – and travelled a long way to do so.

Many gigs have a problem with their audience to be honest : many of them don't want to be here, or they're here in dragged-along-husband/wife/significant-other capacity. Some of the crowd are always here because it's something to do. Others because they like – not love – the band, and this is the only time they see them. Finally, sometimes, it's people there because someone else can't go, or because their so incredibly drunk they don't know which way is up. But for tonight, I would say 99% of the 1800 capacity crowd are here because they love Depeche Mode, they want to be here, and they know how rare a show like this is.

All of my friends who are there – 8 of us – have come from England to see them : [also, judging from the number of accents and Depeche Mode shirts there are at the airport, there's a lot of tourism in town tonight]

It's a long way from seeing the band as it was 25 years ago, but times change, we change, the world changes.

Alan Wilder has moved on, and the core trio who first played together in a bedroom thirty nine years ago are still here, school friends made successful artists, and businessmen (I hesitate to call the 'rock stars', because they aren't), aided by Christian Eigner on drums, and Peter Gordeno on keyboards/bass, both marking 20 years since they joined the live incarnation of Depeche Mode. It's a different incarnation than popular history tells you, but it's as authentic a version of the band as any other.

The closing strata of the set is a mini Greatest Hits set, with the ever glorious “Walking In My Shoes”, the urgent “Personal Jesus” and a final “Enjoy The Silence” - which, like all the best songs, seems to cover all human emotions at once : joy and sadness, pain and bliss. It may be the smallest Mode show in a long time, and one of the shortest, but given that they are just returning after a three year absence from playing live, and a way yet from the arenas and stadiums that they normally breathe in, but Depeche Mode at the Barrowlands shows that whilst everything seems to change, nothing changes, and when all the video screens and fancy staging is stripped away, they're still a band that with passion and conviction, still trying new things and exploring eternal themes, still worth paying attention to, still important and exciting, and eschewing nostalgia and global stadium karaoke. Not forgetting where they've been, nor going backwards, but hoping to go forwards. Believe me, if they were crap, I'd tell you. And I could name bands that have gone crap. But well, there's nothing to be gained by doing so exactly at this moment.

And whilst the eye of television programmes and game shows may have moved on from Depeche Mode, they've instead just become probably the things most bands aspire : self-sufficient, fully realised, operating on their own terms of engagement, and still producing songs of worth.

Or, of course, you can just dance your socks off and sing along : I'll join you.

Going Backwards
So Much Love
Corrupt
A Pain That I Am Used To
World In My Eyes
Cover Me
Home
Where's The Revolution
Barrel Of A Gun
Walking In My Shoes
Personal Jesus
Enjoy The Silence


Thursday, March 02, 2017
 
PET SHOP BOYS Birmingham Barclaycard Arena 24 February 2017

Where are we now? Pet Shop Boys are getting old. Not that you would know it. The disco Gilbert & George still stick to their guns, avoiding the nostalgia route, maintaining both their commercial appeal and artistic integrity, constantly moving forward and never letting us forget where they've been – or where they are going. Tennant / Lowe are the finest songwriting duo of all time. Yes. Better than Morrissey / Marr. And Lennon / McCartney. Most bands have a first flush – what Tennant has called the 'imperial phase' – and some don't survive it. This act have not only done so, but have continued to remain relevant, and thrived.

Time moves on. We move on. The 13 year old I once was who listened endlessly to “Please” and “Disco” is still in me ; in the way that the band themselves still carry their past selves and incarnations with them now, and change, and evolve, and learn, and refine that now as a band with an average age of 60. There's still their inner selves in there – and it runs like a golden thread through everything they do. That 13 year old is now 43. And I'm still me, but more so. What makes art and music and films and anything matter is that they still speak to us, and as we go through life, the music still speaks to us now. Pet Shop Boys songs are universal ; if you are open to them.

Seeing the show several months down the line from its opening night, there have been some changes : “Opportunities” and “Heart” have been added, “West End Girls” has moved from second place, and the pacing is still a little fragile and uneven. “Twenty Something” has been rotated out, and others moved in. The staging has been expanded, with a deft combination of functional and form. The musicians streamlined slightly, but its still a show where you clearly get your money's worth. A night where, thanks to deft career advice and great songs, Pet Shop Boys once again avoid being a nostalgia act and remain in the here and now. There, but for the grace of Heaven 17, go I.

Oh, and lasers. More lasers than a Star Wars film. Much Laser. So wow.

There's a determindedly historic feel to the show : they know what you came here for, and are unashamed entertainers : there's only a third of their new record here, a steady flow of material through the rest of their career, and an abundance of older hits. But the older hits have been rebuilt and revisited. It's not nostalgia, but a history lesson.

The material is also prepared thematically to follow the course of a night out – hope, romance, and dancing : aside from a opening salvo, there's a middle section focused on love – from eschewing it as a concept to, a few short songs later, giving in : “Love Comes Quickly” is still one of the finest songs of surrender to emotion that I've ever heard. Instead of building a mystique, the band lifted the veil with only their second hit, and being sincere before anyone really worked out how much of it was a artistic conceit.

Moving on from this, “The Dictator Decides” opens a more subdued segment that touches on the complex political situation – the same themes they've been exploring for decades, but as commentary, not polemic. That in the midst of this, there's a world outside. And we know this. But let us not forget a world without dancing, or art, or love is not a world worth having. The final part of the set, moves from dancing to what, in the 1800's, was called 'horizontal refreshment' : where sex is sinful and decadent, and lovely. Was it worth it? Yes, it's worth living for.

It's difficult to read the crowd though : some shows I look at the public before, and I know who is going and who isn't. Here the PSB's appeal is so broad I can't tell. It looks like they could be waiting for a bus or in a restaurant. There is no predefined fan as such, just a wide range of humans. And the crowd are difficult, they all seem to want a version of the band that really only appears towards the end ; a relentless hits machine. Around the time “Vocal” begins with a deafeningly gorgeous bass drum, and the lasers go into overdrive, and then, we're all here, we're all at that moment, after the peaks and troughs, the release, the euphoric, silly costumes & lasers part of the show that turns these old men of electronic entertainment into a forcefed irresistable pop machine : assuming you like them of course, tonight is another evening that makes all the other stuff worth it.

Never got old. Never went down the dumper. Still super.

Inner Sanctum
Opportunities
Pop Kids
In The Night
Burn
Love Is A Bourgeouis Construct
New York City Boy
Se A Vida E
Love Comes Quickly
Love Etc
The Dictator Decides
Inside A Dream
West End Girls
Winner
Home And Dry
Enigma
Vocal
The Sodom & Gomorrah Show
It's A Sin
Left To My Own Devices
Go West

Domino Dancing
Heart
Always On My Mind
The Pop Kids (reprise)



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