NICK MASON’s SAUCERFUL OF SECRETS - London Camden Roundhouse 04 May 2019
With Pink Floyd now defunct (and half of the original lineup dead), and both David Gilmour and Roger Waters working in their own solo spheres, Nick Mason – the only member of Pink Floyd to play on every album and at every show – occupies the enviable status of being both the last man standing for this great band, and perhaps its most fervent cheerleader. At 75, it’s a strange time to be on your first solo tour, but Pink Floyd have never been the most conventional of bands.
In another universe, the Floyd would have carried on like The Stones, touring football stadiums every so often as an incredibly well paid job on the back of yet another greatest hits record, before one of them finally dropped dead in a hotel room in Copenhagen being almost as rich as God herself.
In this world, the Floyd simply took breaks and made solo material – inevitably one of them lasting 25 years, and then the band were no more. One can hardly accuse Mason of hurriedly exploiting the bands name for glory ; starting his first solo tour in his seventies, in theatres about 50 times smaller than the final Floyd tour, and ticket prices being at least half what you might expect from an original member of the band - having waited a diplomatic quarter century to do so, it feels like a faithful and proud reclaiming of the bands often overlooked early material. There’s a sense that this tour is the sole result of his phone never ringing, and Mason wanting to simply go and play drums on songs he loves with his friends. No song in tonights set is less than 47 years old. Frighteningly, none of these songs were recorded whilst I was alive. And I am in my lateish forties. Most of them were never played live by Pink Floyd since before I was born. And there’s no real reason I can think of why : most of it is staggeringly good, and clearly points to the melodic strengths of The Dark Side Of The Moon.
The early Pink Floyd – with Syd Barrett – is a band that ceased to exist fifty one years ago ; if you saw them then, there’s a slim chance you aren’t in your Seventies. And an even slimmer chance you remember any of it. The band Mason fronts is a convincing mixture of Floyd alumni – including their live bass player of over thirty years, Guy Pratt – alongside Gary Kemp and Lee Harris on guitars, and Dom Beken on keyboards; all of whom seem to be living out their childhood dreams that were forged by listening to Relics at school in the 70’s, and now get to play the songs with the bands original drummer. The Pink Floyd rhythm section of the past 30 or so years, performing the bands early material, on tour in small rooms, feels like fun. It’s the first tour that Mason has played without a second drummer / percussionist on stage since I was four years old. But it doesn’t show.
It feels like a fleeting glimpse of what may have happened then : every song is dispatched with a sonically pure, precise but faithful sound, with Mason pounding the drums in the way that demonstrates how whilst he always played to the benefit of the song and not his ego, his strength came in knowing when not to overplay the song. Material such as “Interstellar Overdrive” sounds muscular and powerful – the way the records never quite captured thanks to limited technology and rushed studio budgets.
The choice of songs is astute ; with a clear selection of strong material cherry picked from the first six studio albums – including three songs from the much overlooked ‘Obscured By Clouds’, including the brilliant, and pounding title track which slips effortlessly into “When You’re In”. There’s a medley of “If” and “Atom Heart Mother” which – if you close your eyes – could be any one of a million early 70’s live recordings. Alongside songs which, if you’d told me five years ago I’d be watching a founder member of Pink Floyd perform “Vegetable Man” or “The Nile Song”, I’d’ve told you to stop lying to me. The early Floyd material is – was – fiercely inventive and fun, but sporadically brilliant, and sometimes rubbish. Such was the life of a young, hardworking band who made an album every year whether they had written enough songs to justify it. By the time the set comes to a close, “See Emily Play”, “Bike” and “One Of These Days” reaches a thunderous ending, it feels like an authentic recreation of what Pink Floyd might have been like. The pensioner in a tie-dye shirt headbanging on the front row seems to agree.
Huge chunks of this are Mason fronting a tribute band to himself ; but also, if anyone has the right to play the early Floyd material live, it’s Nick Mason. Nobody else is doing it – as both other living members rarely, if ever play anything recorded earlier than 1973. And this bands material ends at 1972. Overall, it was an unexpected, revelatory treat that showed just how wrong anyone who writes off their early years is. A Saucerful Of Secrets feel like a glimpse into what these songs might once have been like and a vital restatement of the bands early work – making these songs live and breathe again on stage in a way almost all of us have not seen in our lifetimes. Miss it at your peril.
Obscured By Clouds
When You’re In
Remember A Day
Atom Heart Mother
If (pt 2)
The Nile Song
Green Is The Colour
Let There Be More Light
Set The Controls For The Heart of The Sun
See Emily Play
One Of These Days
A Saucerful Of Secrets
Point Me At The Sky
UNKLE Royal Festival Hall London 19 April 2019
As the launch of their eight (or maybe ninth album), “The Road II : Lost Highway”, UNKLE presented a strange uneven, but sproadically thrilling look through their twenty five year history. With the night split into two parts (Act 1: “The Club”, and Act II : “Afterhours”), it was perhaps not quite what I expected. I’m not sure what I expected, maybe a night of moodier more introspective material, but this was a two hour collection of a live band meshing together a multitude of their songs into a cohesive, tidal wave of sound.
Built around a core live lineup of James Lavelle on decks, mixing, and keys, with a multi-instrumentalist guitar/bass/synth wizard Steven Weston, ample live drummer Alex Thomas, and cellist Philip Sheppard on four plinths, the first hour was a representation of the bands more clubby, driving moments, with songs blending into each other and around each other (a vocal here, a bassline there) in a well-rehearsed, fluid set that reminded me of nothing so much as mid 90’s Underworld where there was barely pause to take breath. The first half raced through instrumental versions of tracks such as “Chemistry” overlaid with sampled vocals from “Restless”, “Be There”, “Reign”, “Heaven” and countless others, relentlessly presented in a solid but insistent first hour, rising to a pounding tempo where the bizarrely seated venue became a full on disco frenzy of “I Feel Love”. The visuals – a gentle mix of abstract imagery that occasionally fell into simple massive flashing lights, like a light up dance floor, or perhaps an epileptic-fit inducing strobe attack, moved like a tide through the venue. “Heaven” (originally, staggeringly, a b-side of epic proportions), is still one of the best songs by any act of the past decade or so, and the venue shimmered with the recorded vocal of the departed Gavin Clark.
After an hour of disco crescendo’s and a hard, bracing rhythm, the night paused. Having built up to a climax, the second half was a more considered, slower paced set of traditional live performance and live vocals. It’s much more of a ‘gig’ and a paced comedown after the somewhat euphoric first half.
Part II: “Afterhours” was the aftermath – the legacy of the night before. It was a measured set of guest vocalists [mostly taken from the latest record], with Thom Smith of Editors emoting effectively through “The Other Side”, Leila Moss on “More with Less” and “Days And Nights” with Dhani Harrison, Robbie Furze on “Find An Outsider”, and EKSA on “Reign” and “In A State”. There’s no sign of the estranged Richard File, who was the bands voice on 2003’s superlative “Never Never Land”, but the bands forte, that of a dense, driving rhythm with dynamic strings and soaring vocals, are amply evidenced. The set ebbs and flows through the more song based part of the bands work : setting an emotional temperature, each song building and growing, until the final “In A State”, which sends the audience out on a peak, and a climax. It was kind of like great sex, but perhaps not love.
Money And Run
Looking For The Rain
Cowboys Or Indians
I Feel Love
Crucifixion (with Thom Smith)
Days and Nights
Find An Outsider
The Other Side (with Thom Smith)
Lonely Soul (with ESKA)
Feel More With Less (with Leila Moss)
Touch Me (with Leila Moss)
Reign (with ESKA)
In A State (with Leila Moss)
POP WILL EAT ITSELF / NED’S ATOMIC DUSTBIN / MILES HUNT – London Shepards Bush Empire 06 April 2019
(photo by Jemm Lough)
With the near enough annual gig cycle of touring, this years Love With Stourbridge tour sees Pop Will Eat Itself, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, and Miles Hunt playing on the same bill for the first time in London in at least 30 years, if not ever.
Without a suitable anniversary (for some), it’s just an excuse for the bands to have a few weekends off in the school holidays, play a few live shows, tour most of the UK, and make a big noise. Miles Hunt opens with a solo acoustic set before dipping into a retro DJ set. It’s an excuse for dozens of friends who are now scattered all over the country (and the world) to get together and see the music they grew up listening to.
We never thought we’d get this far. I never did. And if we ever got to 2019, I always thought we’d be in hovercars and commuting to the moon. Here we are now. Entertain us.
Miles Hunt opens with a short, and sharp 30 minute acoustic set at 7.30, so we’re treated to a 8 song set that draws (mostly) on his songs for The Wonder Stuff : Opening with “Unbearable”, the set covers half hits, a solo song in the shape of the wonderful “Everything Is Not OK”, a couple of LP tracks, and much loved 1994 b-side “Room 512”. It’s a fun, punctual start to the night – and there’s more to come.
Next up is Pop Will Eat Itself. With 4/5ths of the original classic lineup back in the fray, there’s something intangible and magical that happens when it’s this close to the best known lineup. Like all Pop Will Eat Itself gigs, it’s a glorious shambles of noise by the most under-rated band of their time. I’ve always thought that this band was as important and innovative culturally and musically as The Beastie Boys – and to me, personally, far more so because when The Beastie Boys were still running around like fucking idiots with inflatable willies, the Poppies were making a nuclear apocalypse danceable. But since PWEI didn’t come from Brooklyn but from a place near Birmingham, everything they did was discounted by stupid snobbery. Make no mistake, this band were undoubtedly musically one of the best of their formative years – and still one I’ve seen almost more than anyone else. Tonight they’re brilliant. Probably the best I’ve seen them in 14 years.
There’s lots of reasons : not least of which is this that they are playing their seminal (and groundbreaking) “This Is The Day… This Is The Hour… THIS IS THIS!” album in full on tour for the first time. Many songs have never been performed in 30 years, if at all. It’s a wonderful relief and change for the band to bring back songs they should play more often – and to have a degree of variety in the song choice. Opening with “PWEI Is A Four Letter Word” is a novelty – but it shouldn’t be. The show then opens up with a perfectly sequenced, smooth groove of embryonic, pioneering rock-with-computers, with the one-two suckerpunch of “Preaching To The Perverted” / “Wise Up! Sucker” next to each other, the two songs separated solely by a seamless morse-code signal that turns the two songs into two sides of the same coin, moving together to create a glorious whole. The buzzsaw guitar riffs and pounding rhythms, made flesh by the metronomic, unstoppable Fuzz Townsend on drums, make for a driving beat that seems to never pause and take breath. Somehow these songs feel shorter, faster, more powerful live. And then there’s the tiniest of breaths, and we’re deep into side two with “Poison To The Mind” and “Def Con One.”
(photo by Jemm Lough)
Normally, when bands perform album-in-full shows, it feels wrong. The dynamics of playing to a crowd are very different from a heard-in-headphones-on-your-own experience of the record. Here, there’s no such disconnect : it feels like these songs must be next to each other in the natural order, the way things must and should be. There’s the quite wonderful resurrection of “Satellite Ecstatica” (which later apparently was borrowed to be the title of an unreleased Aphex Twin album), and the chaos that is “Not Now James, We’re Busy”. All of these songs sound like every instrument is somehow all fighting each other at the same time in a very crowded bag of sound. I’m not quite sure, but for me, years, worries, they all slip away and I become who I once was, and who I sometimes get to be again, the child inside the man. As the album comes to a close with an apocalyptic “Wake Up! Time To Die.”, there’s a shift in tempo to a short, sharp greatest hits set of big hitters from their other albums, in the shape of “Get The Girl + Kill the Baddies”, “Dance Of The Mad Bastards”, and a final, defiant “Ich Bin Ein Auslander”. It seems staggering to me that we’re still fighting the same battles, the same wars, battling the same terrible monsters of Phobias and Isms, that racists, homophobes, sexists, transphobics, and the rest are still enemies and that we still have to define ourselves not just by what we are but what we are against, and that there are still, staggering asshats who can only feel safe when they oppress other people, that only feel good when they make others feel bad, and won’t just let others be who they are. The battle is eternal.
And then the best PWEI show I have seen in over a decade comes to a close.
There’s a brief break, and then it’s Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Being born and braised in Birmingham, at the time that this band, and PWEI, and The Wonder Stuff were huge, it felt like I was in my very own zeitgeist. These were bands I saw in the pub, and on the bus, and talking to people I knew as friends. It was weird, but also, it was just my normality. I had no idea how unusual it was that people you sort of knew appeared on television and on front pages of the music press. Or how weird it was to grow up with my school inside a Chocolate Factory. It was just my normal. Whatever that was.
What Neds had, that many of their peers didn’t,was a musical vulnerability. Like all the bands I love, the music has to be great, but I can’t love a band with bad lyrics. And this band have very good, honest, insightful words. The band play passionately, but without a new album in the past 24 years, and only three new songs in that time, the Neds are a musical museum. I’m fascinated and interested in hearing bands track and reflect where they are now, how they see the world now, and always connected to artists whose work spoke to me. Music was a map that helped me navigate my way through this world, and a lack of new art – especially where once it was prolific – makes the band, for me, a memory that is front of me. No matter how good they are, or how well they play, or how good the songs are, the band are a memory and a museum in front of me.
But it all got lost in a fickle and stupid music press that was run by snobs. There was much fawning over second-division indie landfill just a few years later, with grasping desperation trying to make artistic amoebas such as Cast and Shed Seven in some way credible or tolerable. Anything that came out of Manchester was lauded, and much that was mere laddish repackaging of the thuggish elements of The Rolling Stones and The Who was somehow regarded as brave, and vital, instead of the babbling of idiots who’d borrowed their Dad’s record collections and know the words but don’t know what they mean.
Certainly it’s fun and fabulous to jump around dancing to old songs like the present never happened… but I want more. I want to see how people are growing old, and how they interpret that through their work, to help me, now, as I get older. Somewhere in a corner of a crowded O2 venue, there is a dancefloor that is forever 1993.
And I wouldn’t want to be normal for all the money in the world.
Miles Hunt :
Caught In My Shadow,
Can’t Shape Up,
Everything is Not OK,
Give Give Give Me More More More
Pop Will Eat Itself :
PWEI Is a Four Letter Word,
Preaching to the Perverted,
Wise Up! Sucker,
Sixteen Different Flavours of Hell,
Can U Dig It?,
The Fuses Have Been Lit,
Poison to the Mind,
Def Con One,
Shortwave Transmission on 'Up to the Minuteman Nine’
Not Now James, We're Busy... ,
Wake Up! Time to Die
,Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies!,
Dance of the Mad Bastards,
Ich Bin Ein Auslander
Ned’s Atomic Dustbin :
Not Sleeping Around,
Until You Find Out,
Walking Through Syrup,
A Leg-End In His Own Boots,
Two and Two Made Five,
Grey Cell Green,
Kill Your Television,
IDLES, London Camden Electric Ballroom, 05 April 2019
Are Idles a band, or a movement?
In the way that The Clash were just a band, Idles are just a band. Just a band. But not just a band, but a way of being. Unlike many other bands, it feels like Idles are a band that don’t just make noise, but that there is somehow a purpose, a higher calling, and a need to create. To make music. To make sense of this madness that is Brexitland, 2019.
Instead of being a band because Daddy Was In The Police, Idles are a band born of love and necessity. Having existed in various part time forms for at least nine years, and only recently becoming a major, full time touring entity, Idles have come into this world the hard way. From years of working minimum wage job, or being dentists, working shifts, getting up and getting the bus to town five days a week, 48 weeks a year, Idles are a band that have lived the life they sing about, and know it.
Now though, on the back of a colossal sophomore album – “Joy As An Act of Resistance” – the band have managed, somehow to capture in 12 songs the spirit of the age ; the joy, the resistance, the call to action, and the confusion of these times.
The show isn’t a show as such ; there’s no showmanship, but there is a honesty. The band existed too long, and meant too much, and didn’t make enough money for too long, to be anything but a labour of love. Now there’s three shows at the Camden Electric Ballroom, in a row, each of which doesn’t feel like a normal “gig”. It doesn’t feel like just a bunch of people going to see a band on a Friday night. It feels like something happening.
It feels like someone made this infamous bit of graffiti, and made it real. You’re Not Strangers If You Like The Same Band. We’re all friends – people who seem to feel the same way about the world, who perhaps feel a bit lost in a world of madness – united by a common voice that speaks to us and for us, but not to us.
The venue is very crowded. The atmosphere is electric. In fact, there is nothing tonight reminds me of more – in terms of the crowd and the spirit – than Morrissey’s first solo tour in 1991. A very long time ago, when many people were very different. But that sense of tension/release, of cleansing, of finding music that helped make sense of the world.. that is there.
Idles open with “Colossus”. There’s a sense of a coiled snake waiting to pounce. When Joe Talbot sings I was done in by the weekend – the weekend lasted 20 years, there’s that moment of decoding ; the moment where he wasn’t referring to a literal weekend, but the sense of an extended adolescence, that of never quite growing up that sometimes lasts a whole lifetime. Lyrically the songs may seem minimal but they are precise and intone the multiple meanings through repetition. There’s a paused, poignant line – “I am my fathers son / his shadow weighs a ton” and I feel every ounce of that ton : my father was a role model, and he taught me in many ways who not to be. That shadow weighs a ton.
The room goes quiet, and a shouted “1-2!”. And everything explodes. And even though the music itself is abrasive, loud, brutal, it’s a kind of tender brutal. The kind that reminds me of frantic sex with tenderness in the heart of it. In fact that we’re not shouting at each other, but with each other, together in a chant and a refutation, in a joyous celebration of the fact that we are here, we are now, and we are resisting what we are told to think, what we are told to feel, and what we are told to believe. Humans are smarter and more complicated than we are given credit for. There’s a sense of unity in all of this, that all of this energy is going into a common direction.
“Never Fight A Man With A Perm” is next. It’s a silly, and serious song at the same time ; the coiled riff and the tense, claustrophobic lyrics remind me of growing up in cheap, desperate streets in poor suburbs – the threat of violence never more than a minute away, fuelled by the simmering rage that comes from not ever having enough money. I can name pubs that this song is practically the National Anthem for, and you probably can too. If anything, this song for me is the sound of my Eighties Birmingham childhood, and the sound of concrete, leather, and Ford Capris. I know that world still exists – I see it everyday in the headlines. Anyone who think that this is the sound of the something that doesn’t exist anymore needs to step outside the gates and smell the lager.
From the lyrical theme of a drunken night out, the band then slip easily into “Faith In The City”, the sound of the morning after, and perhaps also a job. I mean, I could go on and on and on, but all of the songs sound like articulate fragments of the often boring, hard life we have to live. I’m lefty, I’m soft, I’m minimum wage job… I’M SCUM.
And unless you’re double barrelled, and wearing two monocles, that’s probably what the populist politicians think of you. What they think of us. Potted plants. But we are different. And in the following songs, there’s “Great” (possibly the most immediately vital song refuting small minded Little England), alongside the inclusive, group hug that is “Danny Nedelko”.
The great thing is that almost all of these songs sound like timeless anthems that could have come from any time in history, but also could only have existed now, could only have meant what they mean now. “Danny Nedelko” is not only musically vital, but there’s something wonderful about a broad range of humans of many ages all in a loud room shouting “COMMUNITY!”. We are better than fighting amongst ourselves.
The band also break down barriers off stage : both Lee and Bobo on guitars frequently wander into the crowd, and there’s no sense that the band are on stage performing to us, but a sense that they are perhaps ringleaders or conductors of a room sized orchestra. The rest of the set is equally riotous, equally as passionate, equally vital, a directed, unified shout of resistance. It’s a short, exciting 90 minutes that seems to go in the blink of an eye – over, before it began – and then they are suddenly in the last seconds of “Rottweiler”, the crowd are still bouncing up and down like children full of sugar, singing every word, as the sound turns into feedback, turns into an echo, turns into tinnitus, turns into a memory. It wasn’t just a gig. This was something far better than that – it was a cathartic, joyful celebration of all that is good in humanity in a world that is an often terrible exploration of the worst my species can offer. We all, I think, came out of it feeling more hopeful, better, happier. The best art makes life seem a better place to be.
It’s fitting the last word that came off the stage was a word that sums up the band overall : “UNITY!”
Never Fight A Man With A Perm
Faith In the City
Divide & Conquer
Where’s My Ice Cream?
All I Want For Christmas Is You
THE TWILIGHT SAD – London Camden Electric Ballroom 28 Feb + Glasgow Barrowlands 02 March 19
To see a band visibly make The Great Leap is a rare thing. Few bands get to do such a thing and even fewer of us get to see it happening with our own eyes. After 12 years, the ever changing Twilight Sad meanwhile, have managed to somehow step up a gear artistically and creatively – and brought people in with them on the way. It’s exciting. It’s intoxicating. It’s beautiful. The great leap has seen them take a huge step in both their visibility, and more importantly, their work. The latest album “It Won/t Be Like This All The Time” is probably my favourite album of the past 25 years, and to experience this is a night that will not be forgotten by anyone who was there.
The crowning glory, as such of this, is a Saturday night headline at the legendary Barrowlands in Glasgow – and for a band that came so close, so many times, to not being around anymore and often played to empty, small rooms and openly wondered if this was the end, the fact that they can sell out the best venue in the country (if not the world), in their home town, in a few minutes is a moment to savour. The secret it seems has escaped.
Exposure is a terrible word ; and yet exposure is what has opened doors. For all the high profile support slots, never forget that the band got here through two things ; the quality of the songs – and a dogged determination, of hard work, and persistence. It doesn’t matter how much exposure you get if the core songs aren’t good enough, or don’t connect. What this bands music does to some people is a magical thing. For the band, part of it is that they too believe in this. Because if you didn’t believe in this, and did it just for money, sometimes there isn’t that much money in this.
Nonetheless, tonight victory is The Sad’s to lose : but they triumph. In Glasgow they are supported by Fiskur and Michael Timmons – handpicked, local acts that mine similar territory. In London, it is probably the final London appearance by A Mote Of Dust, which is, in itself, a sad moment to see such talent simply unable to continue because of money.
The Twilight Sad never do things by halves. There’s no real showmanship as such, more a fluency in the music that becomes something else. And, in the shape of vocalist James Graham, there’s an obviously emotional, and conscious focal point who is both very aware of what this means, and absolutely not taking it for granted. Years of playing and songwriting have culminated in this night.
What we do get is a committed, passionate performance by a band that have utterly grown into everything they ever promised they could be. James sings at the peak of his abilities and powers with a passion that most bands could only hope to hit. Andy McFarlane on guitar acts as a sort of aural ringmaster, stoic and barely moving whilst creating a beautiful squall of noise as a dark texture over everything else ; almost, in many ways, similar to the way The Jesus And Mary Chain slathered “Psychocandy” with tonal noise over the top of these brittle, great songs. The bands engine room of Jonny Doc, new drummer Sebastien Schlutz, and Brendan Smith create a solid and powerful bedrock. Jonny’s basslines act as the melodic lead – he’s a sorely under-rated bass player, whilst at the same time Brendan creates rhythmic textures and atmospheres that match the guitar tones and complement them. At the heart is new drummer Seb, who pushes the songs with a technical fluency the band needed to make these songs what they have become. Seeing them with him now, even though I have seen other lineups, makes me wonder how the band could have ever done without him. They probably, truth be told, not been able to do this.
London opens with a powerful triple hit from the new album ; the music is built on dynamics with tone and tempo shifts, ebbs and flows, tension and release – veering between a tightly coiled spring and a joyous expression. The opener “[10 Good Reasons For Modern Drugs]” is a slow build that casually spends its choruses like a millionaire on a gambling spree. As soon as there’s a chant from the crowd of “I called you. I called you all night.” There’s the double barrel line, that the first moment I heard it, I just knew this band had become everything I hoped they could :
“Do they understand you?
Do they call out your name?
Do they even miss you?
All these boys look the same.”
In the current world, and the refreshing tide against toxic, and stupid masculinity there’s not many songs that so obviously rubbish fuckboys for being the utter idiots they are. And yet, here it is, addressing it, and being openly vulnerable and emotional, in a way that the best bands do. Alongside Idles, this band are unafraid of showing their emotions and their humanity.
This song, like many of the others, achieves what all great art does. The best art opens our eyes, helps us see the world in a different light, and makes us understand life a little better than we did before.
And what is the point of art, if not to feel? If not to see? If not to access insights and emotions? To experience life differently? And for me at least, The Twilight Sad are a band that provides me with a map through the terrain. A way of understanding and decoding emotions. The confusion, sadness, joy, that comes with being alive. Their niche is ecstatic misery, in recognising both sides of the coin, and how true happiness cannot come without struggle. My life has been an uneasy path, and there is a bittersweet comfort in knowing that its not just my path that is difficult. Not that I would wish some of those struggles on anyone else, but to feel that sense of community in that it is a battle and not a lone trek through the wilderness is sometimes a consolation.
Also – and forgive me for indulging – the Sad fan community is one of the friendliest I have encountered. There’s a sense of belonging and likemindedness amongst the people here, with shared and common experiences and battles. Life doesn’t always come easy to some people, and maybe that’s one of the common elements amongst us. And down here at the gig, it’s very definitely a sense of “us”, instead of being alone in a crowd.
With barely a seconds pause, the band have revved up and are deep into “Girl Chewing Gum”, and aside from “Last January” (which is a pounding, powerful song), the first half hour is all new material. There’s also their best song yet – “VTr”. It’s the perfect combination of tension/release, built on a throbbing bassline, and stuffed with more hooks than a fish’s mouth. The lyric clearly addresses a matter very close to my soul – the redemptive power of love and community to overcome the adverse – and in one key line, an urging to find joy wherever it may be in whatever shape it may come. There’s no love too small.
In bands I love, I cling to the lyrics, to find nuggets and fragments of truth, to find designs for life, and commandments, of insights that are tossed from minds of others, signs that point to ways through this thing called life that might make it easier.
On previous nights of the tour, the band have played the whole of the new album in full : In Glasgow, James has strained his voice and they play almost all of it – not that the night feels shortchanged as a result. His voice can’t hit the high notes of “Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting”, or “Girl Chewing Gum” and cancelling your biggest headline show yet isn’t an option, so the band take some of songs out of the set which push the voice to its limits.
In the course of the night, the band also touch upon the key points of their history, with “Last January”, “Reflection Of The Television” and “Girl In The Corner”, as well as a final triumphant closing segment which is, to put it mildly, emotional, and designed perhaps intentionally, to make us all feel. Some of the older songs are absent – these are the first time, I think, since release that the band have taken “That Summer At Home I Became The Invisible Boy”, and “Don’t Move” out of a headline tour. But the night doesn’t feel less by their absence, and you may only miss them if you know they were once there.
There’s not a Sad gig yet that I have not felt things at. Tonight is no exception ; and I feel perhaps more than I have at most. “Cold Days In The Birdhouse” may be about many things, and nothing, but tonight its about one thing : the crowd singing together. And not mere terrace chant nursery rhymes about Wonderwalls or whatevers, but deep, heartfelt, enormous explorations of love and hope that feel like they were taken from my collective, unexpressed unconscious.
There’s the powerful, muscular “The Wrong Car”. This non-album single was only ever released on vinyl, and it floors me. I’m not sure exactly what its about, but as someone who has spent more of their life over-thinking and with anxiety as a superpower (just well hidden), I’ve spent what felt like many nights of my life staying in at night, because its more than I can bear to show. And of course, making the wrong decision, being wrong before, getting in to the right side of the wrong car. The lyrics are obtuse, even impenetrable, but to me, they cut right through to mean what I need them to mean. It’s about – to me – making mistakes, and learning from them.
And then there’s the next song. And like everytime, this song breaks my heart and remakes it at the same time. It’s Frightened Rabbit’s “Keep Yourself Warm”. It’s too much and yet not quite enough ; and what do I feel? A thousand things at once. A reminder – as if I could forget – of the joy, of the life music gave me. Life never made sense until music came in, and songs like this became my guides when I was alone, or provided a light when I was lost. Songs like this helped me see in the dark. And yet I survived, and Scott didn’t, and it’s a survival song, a song of protest, a song that to me symbolises my life itself, and a sign of the eternal battle I fight between the sad, (the blues, whatever you want to call it) itself and the light that has steered me through the dark nights. I cry and weep and lose myself, and find myself, and here I am, fighting, living, and being alive itself is a victory because there were days when I wasn’t sure I would be doing that until I hit old age. I didn’t always think I’d make it to here and now. It’s quite literally the battle of, and for, my life, and it’s exhausting some days, and oh, how I wish it wasn’t.
The final song is “And She Would Darken The Memory”. It’s a transcendent blow out ; a firework ; a final cacophony of sound and defiance against the silence for me, that builds to a hypnotic trance of release.
Of course some bands have fans. And some bands have people that either love them or are indifferent. If you could judge a band’s greatness purely by how much a band is loved by their most fervent, The Twilight Sad might just be one of the best bands in human history ever. I would not argue that assessment.
Friendships were made. A intercontinental marriage proposal was made. This band changes lives. For one night, people travelled all across the world to be in that perfect room for two hours. There’s not many shows where you might think You had to be there. This was one. Magic happened here.
[10 Good Reasons For Modern Drugs]
Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting*
Girl Chewing Gum*
Reflection Of The Television
Sunday Day 13
There's A Girl In The Corner
I/m Not Here
Keep It All To Myself*
Let's Get Lost
Cold Days In The Birdhouse
The Wrong Car
Keep Yourself Warm
And She Would Darken The Memory
* - not played in Glasgow
THE TWILIGHT SAD “IT WON\T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME.”
“It Won’t Be Like This All The Time” is a promise, and a threat. And right now, I need to hear that it won’t be like this all the time : because here and now, I’m – like many people – fucked in Brexitland. If you have any kind of anxiety, or even common sense, the concept that somehow the fragile life we have spent all our lives buildings will be thrown over the cliff edge of a no deal Mad Max Brexpocalypose is a form of terrorism and I need to hear that It Won’t Be Like This All The Time. Because I don’t know how much more of reality I want to be around.
And this is exactly what I need. It’s been four long years since their last album, and so much has changed, and nothing has changed. Feelings, emotions, eating, sleeping, they are unchanged. Immortal.
Starting with “10 Good Reasons For Modern Drugs”, the album sets out its stall early – and assertively. It’s a pulsing, angry beast, which fulfils all the promise the band have ever had. These are the best songs they have written. Sonically, it’s immaculate – if My Bloody Valentine and Jesus And Mary Chain had somehow become stadium filling rock gods and learnt how to write the best songs of all time, and on top of which sit strong, powerful, heartfelt songs about love, loss, loss of love, and the shining beacon of hope in all of them.
And lets not forget that all of this beauty and the serrated, perfect guitar tones mean nothing without the songs. It’s dripping in unforgettable vocal hooks – The urgent, pleasing “I’ll call you. Call you all night” of “10 Good Reasons” become, somehow, more and more important and meaningful through a repetitive, compulsive demand. This whole album cuts through to the sound in my head of what it is to love, and to long, and to lose.
The next song is “Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting”. First time I heard it I realised that this band were poised on the edge of the next great leap forward – and that they had made it. I thought they couldn’t get any better, and yet somehow, they have. It’s a stuttering, threatening coiled beast, rotating on a feedback riff loop, and make no mistake, it means as much to the band – this raw honesty – as it does to some of us.
Like the rest of the album, the underrated Jonny Doherty provides pulsing basslines – reminding me of the much under-appreciated Andy Rourke’s sense of melody (where they could have been lead guitar), that counterpoint the guitar and keyboard textures like the band has deep, low rhythmic lead guitarist which reminds me, often, of New Order’s unusual rhythms. The drumming is precise, efficient, and beating ; each song sounds simultaneously claustrophobic, and embracing. I get lost in these dense soundscapes, and then a voice cuts through as the guitars come to a crescendo.
And each song seems designed to sit comfortably, perfectly, next to the other. As if, somehow, the ebb and flow is designed to maximise the effect. Like an action movie, sometimes you have to breathe – to make the whole work even better.
“VTr” is track 4, and I have waxed lyrical on this many times. But it is the best Twilight Sad song ever. Ever. It’s a pounding lesson in tension and release, in power and glory, all wrapped up in lyrics that seem to address the monster of mental health, about a monster inside of you, someone that we didn’t choose, and how we all have to live with our invisible demons, and how we fight them, and how sometimes, we win. You have genuinely no idea how much I love this song.
“Sunday Day 13” is a delicate, and heartfelt moment of pause. Even inside the power of love, which is a glorious thing, this album never forgets that that power is a blessing and a curse.
At all points, and all sides, every song is about the weight of love – how its power can set us free or destroy us in the same movement – and how it’s amazing, and must be embraced. Because it will hurt, but it will heal. That’s what I take from this album.
In every line of every song.
“I can’t believe you hurt me. I don’t know where to go. I can’t believe you hurt me. And it will never show.”
If you’ve ever had feelings, you probably know exactly what he means. The first time I heard “Auge Maschine” my jaw actually fell open. Especially when the words cut to a refrain of “you saved my life” seconds later, as somehow the feeling that saved your life has gone away, and you have to carry on anyway. You can’t die of a broken heart. God knows some people have tried to prove that theory wrong. And then comes “Keep It All To Myself”, which feels like a direct sequel – in the way that every song on this album seems perfect for the song before and after it, creating an album that feels like one, long, perfect song made of multiple parts. “Let’s Get Lost” is classic Twilight Sad, yet better. Any traces of spindly indie rock are banished forever in a band that are so, so much bigger and better than I dared hope they could be.
The final song is “Videograms” – an old technical term for a media delivery system like a DVD or a VHS player, drawing attention to the artifice of recorded music in the very title. There’s no sense at any point in this album that the band are anything other than utterly in control of their powers, and able to wrap the whole album up in a finale that sounds like both a veiled threat, and a controlled, precise radio-controlled bomb straight to the soul. The walls of noise are still in there, but they’ve learnt how to control it, bend it, guide it, and how to cut right through everything, like a surgeon to get to the soul of feeling and articulate the elusive speech of the heart.
I needed this. In ways I didn’t quite know. And there won't be a better album all year.
Dead People Can’t Sue.
“Between the fact and the legend, print the legend.” – Tony Wilson
“Fuck it. Who cares for the truth anyway?” – Me
Bohemian Rhapsody is both brilliant, and bullshit. But the four most important words relating to this film are simple : Dead People Can’t Sue.
The artistic licence, and utter callous disregard for fact and reality that this film shows are those that makes Donald Trump look like Jesus. Since neither Paul Prenter, Jim Hutton, nor Freddie Mercury are here to counter the film, anything can happen, even if it didn’t.
No, Freddie Mercury didn’t meet Smile after the bands bassplayer walked out. He lived in the same apartment as the band long before that. No, Freddie didn’t find out he had AIDS in 1984 before Live Aid, and no, Freddie didn’t tell the band in rehearsals for LiveAid. No, the band hadn’t split for several years before LiveAid. They had last played together seven weeks before in Japan. No Jim Hutton wasn’t a waiter at a party of Freddies in 1982. No, Freddie didn’t fire the bands manager by throwing out of a car in America in the mid 80’s. No, Paul Prenter didn’t appear on television in 1985 calling Freddie a “Paki boy” after being sacked in a rainstorm for not telling Freddie about LiveAid. It’s all lies. Unless everything the band have told us before the film is lies. Though somehow, if Paul Prenter had done that TV interview, it would have been on YouTube.
So, lets ignore the fact that the last hour is obviously delusional nonsense and Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, Maybe Living or Almost Definitely Dead, is Purely Coincidental, apart from the fact that some of it, sort, kinda happened like that about forty years ago, and lets just… enjoy it? The casting is accurate, definitely. The attention to detail in the costume design, awful hairstyles, and so on is correct. It’s just… it didn’t go down like that. Freddie didn’t knock on the door of a butler he’d made a terrible pass at years ago in his Rolls Royce on the morning of LiveAid, then on their first date the same day, introduce him to his estranged parents before going off to play a football stadium on global television. It. Just. Didn’t. Bloody. Happen.
Sure, it’s a fascinating tale of a gawky kid who somehow became a huge megastar, who was goofy and an opera nerd, and somehow also possessed with immense talent, who managed to rule the world with a failed dentist, an astronomer, and an electrical genius who all met at University. It’s a compelling tale, told with surprising sensitivity – and it doesn’t exactly hide away from the bands collective or individual failings (and failures). And when it gets it right – it’s wonderful. And when it plays fast loose, and flippant with the facts, it falls over. It feels emotionally correct and has the classic redemptive arc, with Freddie as the errant lost soul lead into darkness by horrible people who exploit his naivety to get rich, who find the blah blah blah of his predictable musical family etc etc., and get to conquer the world through being one of the freaks. Or something.
Make no mistake, it’s very well done. And I, with more than your average interest in Queen – though also, at the same time, very aware both how incredibly daft the band are/were and how they were rescued from their certain fate as the London version of Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts by having Freddie become their guiding light, was unimpressed with just how relaxed this film is with the truth. I kept getting drawn in then pulled out with the realisation that It Didn’t Happen Like That!
Buy the ticket. Enjoy the ride. Leave your brain – and your history books – at home, and enjoy it. It may be many things, but it isn’t the truth. It’s a show. It’s a business. It’s showbusiness.
ORBITAL - London Hammersmith Apollo - 15 December 2018
Hot on the heels of their latest album – “Monsters Exist” (or “Monster Sexist”), Orbital have evolved. Last year was a pre-album come back gig, replete with all the hits you can imagine and a huge wave of euphoria as you recognised each song. This time round, the new album looms large in the set, with half the set being songs that have been out about three months. Not that there is a noticeable quality gap as such : the new stuff sounds just like the old stuff, and the only reason the crowd isn’t quite as keen is all to do with the fact that no one really knows the new stuff that well. Aside from “Impact”, the first forty minutes are all post-reformation songs, and it’s not that noticeable to be honest.
As ever, the material is a dense, beat heavy rampage through songs old and new, with dynamics, stuttering rhythms and huge synth blasts that remind me of atmospheric movie soundtracks for car chases, but played on retro synths and dancing to.
As a ‘show’, Orbital are very little to do with two geezers crouching over laptops and synthbanks. The focus of the show is all outside of them. On lights, on visuals, on pointed documentary collages that make clear the themes and ideas behind the songs, and on the inevitable drop of the beats, when the sound clears, and the gorgeous dopamine and serotonin rush as it all starts again. To break it down into individual songs is a bit pointless, as the set is constructed on ensuring there is a strong rhythmic and thematic flow that kind of tells a story.
The main set is surprisingly short – there’s a considerable encore to follow, with a triple whammy of “Doctor Who”, “Chime” and “Where Is It Going?” that pushes the night on. And then, like *that*, it’s over. It feels so short, so quick, and yet two hours have passed. And like so many other things, where does the time go? The night is a memory, and another glorious one at that.
There Will Come A Time
Tiny Foldable Cities
Hoo Hoo Ha Ha
The End Is Night
Where Is It Going?
UNDERWORLD - Shoreditch Village Underground 02 December 2018
Returning back to the kind of venues they last played twenty five years ago, this short Underworld tour (six shows, small venues, in Manchester, Amsterdam, and London’s hip Shoreditch), feels like the kind of show that actually never happened. The Village Underground is a relatively small venue, with room for 500 or so people, in what looks like a railway arch.
It’s what bands call a ‘club’ gig, complete with – if you are seeing them on the weekend – an inappropriately late end time of 2.00am. Since a 2.00am finish would result in me having to get a hotel and stay overnight on a Saturday – or perhaps, drive back until 4am – I ditch that stupid idea and make the Sunday show where the band play at 10pm, and end at 11.30pm, and where I still have to leave early or be stranded in the capital.
From a purely human, real-world, have-to-go-to-work in the morning perspective, it’s pointless to have a late gig where you don’t need to. Because some of us – i.e. me – don’t go out clubbing til 2am these days, and I don’t live in London anymore. Even if I did, a 2am cab or nightbus would cost more than the gig ticket. And there’s child-sitters, or favours from friends and grandparents to call in. Because kids don’t want to stay up until 2am in a club to see a band Daddy likes. I’ve seen parents dancing whilst their children snore in their arms with huge yellow ear protectors at gigs before : know your audience.
You can’t go back to what cannot return.
And anyway, at 12.10am in London, there’s two bands I’d like to see, both playing ‘late’ gigs, both starting past midnight, both of whom I’m not seeing. (And, yes, it’s been a staggering 15 years since I saw a Nitzer Ebb headline show solely because of this reason).
Nonetheless, and stripping aside what exists outside, is the gig any good?
Mostly. The venue is clearly oversold : it’s an L shape. And a third of the space can’t see the stage. So it’s very, very crowded. You can’t move. If you’re prepared to stand for say, an hour before stage time, and be quite crowded, and be at the far end of the venue from the bar, you can probably get a good spot. If you aren’t, then you’re going to feel the kind of crowded that happens when the train companies close a station at rush hour.
Underworld then, are not as enjoyable as they could be. They open with the rush and roar of 1996 : “Juanita – Kiteless – To Dream Of Love” is a rampaging beast of a song, all building and collapsing patterns and rhythms, snatches of vocal, where the vocals aren’t really melodies so much as punctuation, stream of consciousness words that fly where somehow it doesn’t make sense and then it does. On its own, the instrumental portions of these songs would be classic dance/electronic tracks anyway, and yet somehow, with the voices, they become bigger, better, more human, and the audience connect with them more. Maybe that’s why I love Underworld more than Orbital and The Chemical Brothers, because the voice connects. The next song is “Pearls Girl” – surprisingly I haven’t managed to see Underworld play this song live since 2003 – and it tears the roof off the venue. Well, not actually. But there’s pockets of crushed dancing, alongside some detectable tension at the crammed room, where’s no room to roam. But all things are equal now, if you can find a way to stand inside yourself and lose yourself in the music.
Things settle to predictability with “I Exhale”, first – and only track tonight – from the most recent album, Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future. There’s the new – pounding and fun Dexters Chalk which seamlessly melds into rarely played b-side (and utter banger) Cherry Pie which was last a setlist staple in 1996.
There’s another outbreak of glory with Two Months Off, then the final ‘new’ track with Another Silent Way from the Drift EP. As it goes on, I keep an eye on the time, and at smack on 11.00 there’s one of the most transcendental, powerful songs I’ve seen in a long time : There’s “Rez/Cowgirl” ; one of the best songs of all time. And, here, for the first time in twenty of so years, the original live intro is back, which is a pulsing, slow and immense set of seemingly random notes and bleeps that slowly fill themselves in, speed up, and elevate the night to the glorious hold-and-release buzz rush that practically timestamped the entire Drop The Bass genre. It almost impercetably melds into the hands-in-the-air rush of “Cowgirl”, and everything happens. The rush you’re chasing? The thing that makes all the standing and waiting, the supermarkets and the racist relatives and the job worthwhile? I find it here. In some other places too, but right here, right now, it is here, before me. As ever, chasing the perfect moment.
Juanita - Kiteless – To Dream Of Love
Two Months Off
Another Silent Way
King Of Snake
Born Slippy / Nuxx
THE TWILIGHT SAD : Brussels Botanique, Brighton Dome, London Bush Hall, Edinburgh Liquid Rooms 18-29 November 2018
You are, no doubt, sick of me talking about this band. But I am not. On the cusp of releasing their upcoming album “IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME”, The Twilight Sad have become one of the most important bands to me. Across four shows – three headline appearances and one to support Mogwai – I see the band become even better than I think they have been before.
But why? Why come back? Why see a band so many times in such a short space of time? Why, if you want, keep picking at the scab of these feelings? Because we must. Their songs lean to the darkness, in the same way flowers don’t. But these songs also glow with a mixture of passion and despair : almost underlining a belief that somehow trying will help overturn the state of the world.
I’m not quite sure how to describe what this band do to me except in abstract, absolute terms, discussing things like feelings and emotions. The set is constructed around tension and release, around how each song ends being closely related to the start of the next one, and around the glorious sound they make. In some respects even though these are separate and discrete songs recorded – in some cases – a decade apart – they are also all part of a whole. For me, its not just the music, but the lyrics ; each song has a carefully sketched emotional temperature that speaks to my life in a way no other band really has ; “I want you, more than you will ever know” sums up years of my life. Since the lyrics are abstract, and non specific, they can apply to almost anything, but the songs speak the language of how I experience life.
There are four new songs played tonight, and surprisingly, the band are getting even better : “I/M NOT HERE” is a huge, rampaging beast around the strain of a relationship that any couple who has ever argued will relate to, “Videograms” is another pulsing song of tension and release, but the best of the new songs is “VTR” which – to me at least – speaks to me of the battles I personally have with mental health and hope, and in five lines sum up almost everything about how I experience depression :
“There's a monster inside of you
Someone that you never knew
And someone that we didn't choose
And he won't leave us alone
And please don't leave me alone “
It also helps that the music is glorious : a combination of incessant rhythms, atmospheric keyboards, basslines that are good as most bands main riffs (and, to be honest, very reminiscent of The Smiths strong and memorable basslines that were the envy of every band of the Eighties), alongside a fierce but precise squall of melodic feedback that drones like a horror movie soundtrack and sounds exactly like the roar in my head when the world goes away, or perhaps the mating call of some otherworldly monster. Oh, hyperbole! But it isn’t. Not to me. The band are wrapped inside the music, and – from the front row – I can audibly hear the singer lost off mic over the PA. I’m lost in the moment – and that is what I personally live for ; when money, health, and The Orange Fuhrer all fade away and nothing exists but art, feeling, emotion, and release. I feel lighter after every gig ; that I have in some way lost some of the weight of some fairly damn traumatic stuff.
And if I am honest – I think it is only those who have known heartbreak that comprehend art in its most effective way. I hate to generalise, but these songs feel like they are about loss, and hope, and battle, and sometimes to feel the art, you have to have lived through it ; otherwise it’s a distant intellectual concept, and not real. And oh boy, the feelings are real here. I’ve been hopebroken, heartbroken, and lived through the kind of wars and trauma that would break many people, and I made it, and I picked myself up, spat on the floor and growled to reality : “Is that the best you can do?”*
*well, I didn’t.
And eventually, life stopped fighting me. What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but every battle felt it was taking a part of me away, and it is only recently I’ve started growing back. The world tried to change me, and make me cruel, and it didn’t work. But I didn’t forget the battles. I survived the war, but at a cost. Which is why “Keep Yourself Warm” reduces me to a husk many nights, because I cannot listen to it without feeling a whole bunch of Survivors Guilt ; guilt that I survived my life, and other did not survive theirs. It doesn’t get easier, but it becomes more bearable : I know what’s coming, and it’s a long few minutes. I’m not alone in this crowd either. There’s plenty of bawling and feeling.
Every show is important ; every show is different. Brighton is a compact but exhausting race through a truncated set. London is a mixture of devout and the curious. Edinburgh is a fervent homecoming that borders on cathartic : and the best of the lot. At every show I am lost : lost in a way that I last was when I was seeing Underworld pull 3 hour latenighters in the late Nineties when all that really exists is the feeling, the moment, the here, the now, and the raw, and glorious release from the world that we all need in some way or other. You know that moment? The one we all chase. The one, if we are lucky, we find in family, friends, love, sex, alcohol, or music? That. That is what this band does to, and for, me.
There’s a Girl In The Corner
That Summer At Home, I Became The Invisible Boy
I/M NOT HERE
Reflection of The Television
It Never Was The Same
The Wrong Car
Keep Yourself Warm
Cold Days In The Birdhouse
And She Would Darken The Memory
U2 – “Experience And Innocence Tour” – Manchester Arena (19-20 October), London o2 Arena (23-24 October), Dublin ThreeArena (5-6 November), Berlin (13 November) 2018
It feels like the beginning of an end. But I’m not ready. Not yet.
The past four years will be seen as a golden age of this band to fans : two studio albums, three tours, 217 live shows, 91 different songs played live, four American tours, three European ones, and a rare visit to South America, and – if I am honest – some of the best, and most intimate shows I have ever seen them do. As they draw the Innocence/Experience Tour to a close, the band seem to have reached an artistic peak. In fact, these might be the best shows I have seen them play in my life.
This time around the band seem more focused, more effective, working with a stronger vision than they have on some previous tours, as if, somehow, they know that this tour the stakes are high. Bono has had a couple of near-fatal accidents and stared his own life in the face – and I guess, when faced with mortality staring you in the face, if you have to play music, you have to make it matter. None of us are getting out of this alive. “No such thing as spare time, no such thing as free time, no such thing as down time, all you got is Life Time.”- Henry Rollins
If is the middle word in life, and if this is the end for U2 – not impossible given their age, health, and the fact that playing live is physically punishing in terms of both the miles, and the mileage, then this is perhaps the best way to bow out. I get to see seven shows in three weeks – in Manchester, London, Dublin, and the final closing show in Berlin. In Dublin, it ends as it started three years ago ; Bono walking through the crowd, singing “The Miracle of Joey Ramone”. It comes full circle. It opens, as the show has done for a few months, with a rousing speech from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”, reimagined as a modern day, contemporary statement of intent, a call to rise up, to change, to challenge the world as it is, to make it a better world. In Berlin, the redesigned visuals work to a final, perfect effectiveness. Even now, at the final show, the show is being refined, redesigned : with a tour debut just three shows from the end and new elements added just for the final show.
The opening quarter revisits mortality : since the opening is populated with MRI footage consistent with a transient ischaemic attack (or a mini stroke), it frames the show about facing the end. “The BlackOut”, on the face of it, about the end of the world, can also be seen as a personal tale. Is this an extinction event we see? It’s both a violent call to arms, a rabble rouser, a defiant moment, and a statement of intent that these stakes might never have been higher.
For me, at least, U2 have a way about them that creates a great lyrics that could mean anything to anyone, but to me, these words are universal, they create meaning, and they work on multiple levels. : personally, few song lyrics some up my journey through life and time, as it’s clear / who you are will appear . This song – the band playing in a moving stage above the arena – calls back to a burst of unconsciousness and both individual and overall mortality. It’s followed by “Lights Of Home” : another song where the band address age, death, and the fact that we all die alone in the end. Another road you can’t take with a friend.
In its way, this tour is what I needed : spiritually, the five years that ran from early 2012 to early 2017 were very, very difficult, as I faced near certain destruction. It took every inch of me to survive that, when it would have been easier to surrender to the brutal elements. It’s clear – who I was did appear : and I was a survivor. Being a victim means things happen to you – and plenty did happen to me – but also, I fought back. I may not have won every battle, but I survived the war. It’s followed with the “Lights Of Home”, which is the most blatant and obvious song about death U2 have ever tackled. As you age, your body tells you things and you would be wise to listen. At the far end of the stage, Bono joyously sings free yourself to be yourself, almost reborn. There’s been times when this band haven’t felt this alive. I have feelings, about tonight, about this, about the fact this might be the last time I see them, or the last time anybody sees them, for all I know.
Because U2 are going on a break. I don’t know how long for. Or if there is a next time. If they want to come back, will they be able to? Will all of us be here next time around?
The following trio of “I Will Follow”, “Gloria” (or “All Because Of You”), and “Beautiful Day”, complete this – each song is themed on a sense of life/death, of spirituality, or birth and rebirth. This tour makes more sense when viewed next to the 2015 “Innocence Tour”. Both shared a common sense and sensibility, explored the same themes, and freed the band from the need to play certain songs. If you got those songs then, you might not get them now.
The second quarter is a long overdue, and effective, reclaiming of the bands Zoo TV era – the period where the band had shed their innocence, become cynical, heartbroken, become men. This period was the first time, I suppose, this band had become experienced. There’s little of the sense of naïve wonder that the band had in their earlier songs – but here is the wisdom of experience, and the knowledge it brings.
For me, the importance of Achtung Baby/Zooropa cannot be overstated. By the time Rattle & Hum came to a close, with its hectoring and overly sincere preachiness, I had begun to tire of the band. When I was 14, and full of hormones and FEELINGS, I felt the absolute punch-in-the-face sincerity of the earlier stuff perfectly. But as I changed, somehow, they changed, and the sense of humour, of mockery, of nuance, that I had grown when U2 weren’t looking, they had also grown. And so, for me, Achtung Baby/Zooropa is the apex of their creative experimentation. (And, also, the maturity of a record that dripped with heartbreak and divorce, served as a warning even in the title. Both a warning about children and love, and the destructive power both contained). When they took a left turn and retreated into the more direct period of All That You Can’t Leave Behind / How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, I felt that the band had put down some of their most effective, most powerful weapons, trading skill for sincerity.
Tonight, the set that runs from Dirty Day > Zoo Station > The Fly > Stay > Wild Horses is a half hour reprise of a bastardised, grown up, Zoo TV. “Dirty Day” sees a return after a twenty five year gap from the stage. Redesigned, and narrated by Bono as a tale about both the bands fathers, and their own fatherhood, “Dirty Day” takes on new, powerful aspects. And seems odd that they didn’t play it for so long. The imagery recycles some from their previous tour, but adds in the context of time and the change from boy, to man, to fatherhood. It’s a perfect addition, and the show now feels incomplete without it. Naturally, the band leave it to the last three shows to play it. But it should always have been there.
The next four songs are a rampage through their best era. “The Fly” sees the venue divided by the band members playing on a stage that cuts through the length of the arena – and the screens above them bombard the crowd with a wall of words and letters that pick out specific phrases of importance. It’s the best presentation of that song I have ever seen.
As a concept, “Experience + Innocence” addresses the same elements as 2015’s “Innocent + Experience” tour, but this time as men : aware of the past, but facing the future, and journeying through it. This time, the band address their future. Even though it was introduced with just three shows to go, “Dirty Day” sees the band marking their point between being sons, their fathers, and fatherhood, in a way that it should always have been in this show. Thankfully, the reprise of the middle quarter has been replaced with a stunning mini-ZooTV set : with huge screens turning into a kaleidoscope of visuals, tickertape words, and messages that capture the sense of being overwhelmed that is exhausting and numbing. These days every time I see the news it feels like being assaulted by madmen who have too much power and not enough thought. “Stay” is brought back as a full band performance for the first time in 25 years. And it is glorious. The main body of the first set closes with “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?” which had become a tour staple for the first time ever : it was an irregular appearance when it was released, and very occasionally played since. And live it sounds better than ever. They’ve nailed the song. It’s never been so good.
One of the things that this tour has done is quite clearly state that U2 don’t need some of the songs they always used to play. U2 aren’t a band where you can take any song for granted in the setlist these days : for example, some of these songs have been absent from setlists for the past quarter century, yet they sound so good that they should be played at every show. Not many bands can say that.
Yet, somehow, I feel you can start to see and sense that this heavy schedule isn’t easy for the band anymore. They play with the passion of young men they aren’t anymore. You can see in how Larry plays that it’s not easy for him anymore : the playing is sparser, very efficient, and very regimented. Being a musician is akin to being an athlete, and there’s a physical limit to what the body is capable of. There’s only so many hits a body can take sometimes.
The second half of the show is the same as the Berlin shows. Stripping away the thematic narrative of the songs, that the band choose songs to sit well together and since each song carries within it multiple themes and ideas, and putting some songs together strengthens the bond and makes each one better by association. What is clear by seeing the band now is that they are working as well as they ever have, and are locked into a fluency, a groove that only comes from being together a long time. Each song flows well into the other, and creates a crescendo.
But this is the last night of the tour. This is being filmed for home release. This is a high stakes show, and the band – and the crowd – both bring something special. Something … more. I’ve not seen a bad crowd at a U2 show, not seen a lax, or unenthusiastic crowd. But this crowd, given how many people have travelled across continents to get to here to say goodbye to their band until who knows when, this crowd, this crowd are somehow more than any other U2 show I have seen. Only the Dublin shows – the original closers to the tour – match it.
Seeing this tour multiple times makes each individual show better though : this is a major production with a strong visual and thematic element as well as a confident, assured performance. Visually, the band have further refined the show for the final show, with new and different visuals for a number of songs, and during “City Of Blinding Lights”, a mosaic of visuals used over the rest of the tour as a thematic arch and reprise of the rest of the tours, including bending back to the visuals used on several songs on the previous tour, making connections between then and now, between innocence of the past, and experience, and the entire era. In some respects the 2015 tour was loaded with earlier songs – innocence – and this tour is loaded with later songs – experience, with last years Joshua Tree shows being the period between.
If you’d said to a U2 fan that over the next four years, we’d see some of these songs as staples of the next three tours – “Zoo Station”, “Fly”, “Wild Horses”, “Red Hill Mining Town”, “Trip Through Your Wires”, “Exit”, “Staring At The Sun”, “Zooropa” – they’d think you were a little optimistic, crazy even. Instead, we’ve had (creatively) a thorough journey through the bands work and history, with many long lost songs returned to the fray, and thankfully, both a full replaying of The Joshua Tree, and a long overdue resting of workhorses like “With or Without You” : they may be great songs, but also, with Pride reaching its 1,000th performance, and Streets on 892 times, Sunday Bloody Sunday on 928, and With Or Without You 826 times, these past three tours have seen a time where there was no guarantee that any of their eleven most played songs was going to be played every night. (It’s only “Beautiful Day” that appeared at every show, and they have played it at every show since they released it).
The final quarter of the show moves into a call for unity, with an imploring “Pride” reimagined and made relevant again, “Get Out of Your Own Way” calling keenly to mankind to remove its own, self-imposed barriers, “New Years Day” being a thematic demand for unification (first, co-opted by a divided Poland but not call for a united Europe), segueing into “Ode To Joy” – the EU anthem before it turns into “City of Blinding Lights”. The use of “Ode To Joy” is canny and wise : the anthem has lyrics around the unity of man under a common ideal :
Thy Magic Power re-unites
All that custom has divided
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings
The final encore sees “One”, “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” and “13”. Bono seems to have cut a bit on the speechifying and the lectures, turning instead to the music to provide a clear and unambigious narrative about the nature of mankind. Not so much recently, but some of the U2 shows have felt more like a political rally than a gig, and here the band have managed the perfect balance than turns the moralising into a nearly subtle art statement, and also an uplifting night of joy and celebration. “One” becomes a sort of hymn, between couples, countries, even band members, and whilst it is obvious, the last two songs are both from the new album, and again, a clear statement. They aren’t old songs or necessarily crowd pleasers, but clear statements of currency and the need to stay connected to the new and the now, not nostalgic recastings of times past. ”Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” is a song written by the band to their children, a thematic passing of the torch to the next generation, and “13” closes the show, to an extent where it started three years ago, inside Bono’s bedroom, with just an idea staving off the darkness, as a scale model of a stylised terrace house illuminated by the roads of their childhood beams out to the arena, and a single lightbulb ascends to the roof : Bono sings clearly that “Darkness gathers around the light”, the lightbulb being a key element here, the idea that saved the lives, changed the band, changed the world in some way, the idea of unity through music, the idea that there is something better out there if we work for it. The lightbulb rises, (and in Dublin at least), Bono sings the opening themes of “The Miracle Of Joey Ramone”, the opening song of the tour three/four years ago, and somehow the tour – and a huge portion of my life – is over. But it is not the end.
Sure, there are other bands, and many of them are brilliant, but none bar one, I think its fair to say connect with me quite the way that this band have, and brought so many people, from so far away, all into my world and made it richer. The nights, all of them, have been an ode to joy, over the past few years. A celebration. I’m not ready for it to end, and maybe this isn’t the end, but a pause before the next thing, the next day. A beautiful day.
You millions, I embrace you
This kiss is for all the world
! Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving father.
– “Ode To Joy”