THE WEDDING PRESENT - Tunbridge Wells Forum 02 February 2018
Less than two months after I last saw them, and everything has changed and nothing has changed. The Wedding Present continue on, unstoppable, and now they are pretty much the last of their type. The Fall – the nearest living comparison to them – have become The Fallen : The Wedding Present, lead under the stewardship of David Lewis Gedge with an often rotating cast of other musicians, have a new lineup – and have changed 95% of the setlist – in the past two months.
Danielle Wadey has moved from bass to guitar (and was I think, on keyboards the first time I saw her in the band). Terry De Castro is back on bass after seven years off. Charlie Layton is still on drums. Gedge is, as always, on vocals, and guitar. The band are also back at the Tunbridge Wells Forum for the sixth or seventh time since 1996, and maintaining the usual tradition of a different lineup every time they play here. Nothing changes, everything changes.
Also, given that between The Wedding Present (and Cinerama, who share the lineup, but a different style), there’s something like 21 albums and around 300 songs to choose from, it’s superb and refreshing to see a band change their setlists frequently. You can’t rely on the band playing even one song in the setlist : and, they’ve played three albums in full in the past four months alone. There’s none of the … predictability… of knowing the last hour of the set has barely changed in 25 years. Of knowing that THAT song is always at the end of the main set, and THIS song is always at the start of the encore, and that song is… yawn. The Wedding Present are always moving forward. Even if they are playing a 30 year old album in full, it’s played in chunks through the set and not as a lump. Newer material is scattered around the night : from the obscure – such as the 28 year old b-side “Box Elder”, to the glorious and brilliant “Two Bridges” from the much, much under-rated ‘Going Going’. (though Gedge’s banter is somewhat predictable, as a member of the band lipsyncs one line of a song introduction.. and gets a big laugh)
It doesn’t take long : by the time the band are roaring through “The Queen Of Outer Space”, Tunbridge Wells has a sizable human sea of largely middle aged men in Wedding Present t-shirts, with at least a 46% glasses ratio. I, of course, am one. And there’s a lot of jumping and pushing and wonderfully offkey singing. There’s also – in “Suck” – one of the finest love songs ever written. Even if perhaps the song feels buried under all the feedback, roaring, and sound, it’s the kind of song that, in other hands, would be cheap, or even syrupy, but just as loving and romantic as anything anyone has ever written, ever. Despite the latter heckles from the crowd – when Gedge describes himself as ‘lovable’ and someone [not me] declares “Not according to the songs!”
Whilst it is a little strange to see the band playing “Tommy” in full – but spread out over an hour – it also keeps the tempo and shape of the evening alert. The risk of playing a lot of old b-sides is that the night might flag, but really, these songs aren’t A- or B-sides, more the first selection of songs they wrote that had to be divided into singles and EP’s because they hadn’t yet got an album sized budget. And, even though Gedge was growing as a songwriter, some of the earlier songs have lyrics as good and as powerful as anything he wrote later.
The final lap of the gig is a masterclass : after a thirty year wait (since I first bought “Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm” in 1988 for 50p on 7” from Hobdays in Selly Oak, next to the hospital where I was born), they finally play “I’m Not Always So Stupid” for just the 8th time since 1990. To follow it up with “Brassneck”, and then conclude the show with night with “My Favourite Dress” and a transcendent and brutal “Take Me!” is climatic : “Take Me!” often exceeds ten minutes, with a punishing, and meditative middle section where the band hit a riff, and repeat it endlessly for several minutes. In the middle of this I hit my personal nirvana – the moment at a show where everything goes away and the mind drifts and the groove teaches you and I forget it all. It’s the hit, and it’s my drug.
And then the song is over : the noise is replaced with a ringing in my ears. And everything is perfect, and nothing is real, and the real world is back again, knocking at my door. And one song at a time, the world is a better place. I hope this never ends. I didn’t chose to love music. I was called. I was chosen. We all were.
Go Out And Get Em Boy
The Moment Before Everythings Spoiled Again
At The Edge Of The Sea
The Queen of Outer Space
What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted?
Living And Living
This Boy Can Wait
You Should Always Keep In Touch
I’m Not Always So Stupid
Every Mothers Son
My Favourite Dress
FRANK TURNER, Dover Booking Hall 19th January 2018
There are two – or three – artists known as Frank Turner. On one hand, there’s the endlessly touring folk rock anthem singer who, alongside his band The Sleeping Souls, has been driving and flying all over the world the past 12 years playing to increasing audiences. There’s the singular, individual songwriter who plays as just one man and a guitar a dozen or so times a year. There’s also the wonderful, rampaging vocalist and chief screamer who ploughs a glorious hardcore racket (firstly in Million Dead, and then latterly in Mongol Horde). All three co-exist at the same time, and all three are great in their own way. On the eve of finalising his seventh solo album (since announced as “Be More Kind”), Frank took to a small 4 date tour, including the Dover Booking Hall : a converted railway station booking hall (unsurprisingly) that is now a room, a stage, and a bar.
Much as I love Frank Turner’s songs, I much prefer the solo shows – the rawer, more vulnerable side of his songs, and the heart of it. Some bands work best in creating a sound as well as songs, where the arrangements, the delivery, the passion, all combine to create something that is more than the sum of the parts – or sometimes to hide the perhaps and occasionally slight nature of some of the songs. Some songs though, work better stripped of all accompaniments, where the song itself exists naked and bare and strong enough to stand alone.
Whilst The Sleeping Souls are the best band that could deliver Turner’s songs ; and they are built on the tradition of a backing band around a leader, such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Billy Joel as a near democracy, with a Prime Minister and the band being the cabinet – these songs feel more effective to me alone as a man and a voice. It’s just a matter of taste though. A song such as “Smiling At Strangers On Trains” is just as good as a breakneck hardcore screamathon as when Frank pulls out the song out by its skeleton and plays it with just an acoustic guitar.
In the meantime, and sold out in about three minutes, tonights show is a glorious but rare opportunity to see him alone and in a relatively tiny room. He scatters four songs from the new album – some of which have been barely if ever performed before – as well as the usual clutch of well known songs. And it’s not inaccurate to suggest some of these songs have made my life much more bearable on difficult days. When life weighs ten thousand tons.
I remember very clearly, on the 13th November 2013, listening to the acoustic version of “Recovery” and knowing I had to change my life. The very next day I resigned from my job.
I changed my life in many ways – I wanted to live the resistance and fight in the song when I was in danger of folding after many years of endless (and unwanted) professional battle – and I’m not sure that, without that song, I would’ve made the decisions I did, which turned out brilliantly now.
Each of us have stories that sit with so many of the songs. You’ve all seen someone singing every word to a song and clearly something important inside them is happening. You might be in Brixton or Hebden Bridge, but you aren’t there anymore. You’re somewhere inside – and outside – of yourself at the same time, at a time that is not now, and maybe never existed. The best songwriters communicate – and even if that is something as elusive as an emotion, or a feeling, or a memory – something that can never be touched, or seen, or tasted. Art is communication between humans. Trying to make sense – and add some kind of structure – around what is random noise, random reality.
By the second song, “Get Better”, it does that to me. There’s a line – May I always see the road rising up to meet me and my enemies defeated in the mirror behind. And whilst I hate to say I have ‘enemies’, because I just like almost everyone – I know it’s not mutual. I know some people can’t stand my guts, and hate me. I’m not sure why. Even if I did, I’m never going to change who I am. I have to live with me for the rest of my life, and look in the mirror and know who I am and live with that person.
I’m Marmite. But I can’t be anyone else.
Isn’t it funny what something so simple, so small, as a song can do? And up there, unaware (and rightly so) or any of this going on in my head is Frank Turner singing songs. There’s also quite a few people who think they are seeing Def Leppard in Sheffield in 1993 judging by their behaviour. This isn’t the gig to take your mates glasses off his head, or rest a beer can on your hair, or try to kick off a mosh, or go to the bar during the penultimate song and come back with shots. This isn’t a night with Poison in 1989, mate.
This is the night you lose yourself in the music. It’s a bloke and a guitar : don’t going be a twat now.
There’s all the old songs. And there’s new ones : “1933” in particular is the kind of song that needs to be shouted from the rooftops. There’s an eternal battle between the scientists and the stupid ; between people trying to push mankind forward, and those wanting to hold us back. Those who can only feel rich by making others poor, and those who are trying to conquer inner and outer space. It’s an eternal battle. And “1933” captures this : ...dammit, we already did this!
There’s rare airings for “Mittens” and “Tattoos” and a cover of The Levellers “Julie”. I get the impression that Turner could sing almost any song he’d ever written (and many he hasn’t) if you gave him 5 minutes warning. Whether he would I have no idea. Some people don’t like some of their old songs. I definitely don’t like some of the old ones I wrote many years ago.
The new songs are equal as any he has written before. “There She Is” is an unashamed, romantic song. And like Frank, oh, how I have stumbled on the way to where I am today. There’s no shame in love, none at all. There never will be. To see the best in everyone, and hope. Hope is a superpower. And this, all of this comes from a song. And there’s another 14 left to go.
At the end of it, he is one of the best songwriters in Britain with no sign of any dimming of the creative flame. Album 7 (or 11, depending on whether you count Million Dead, Mongol Horde and Buddies), is likely to be as good as anything else. The great thing about most really great artists is that they grow old as we grow old ; their songs reflect the march of time through life, and both we – and them – grow old together, seeing ourselves in each other. Great artists make life better. And that is the most I can ever hope of anyone. That life gets better. Because we’re not dead yet.
Get It Right
If Ever I Stray
Four Simple Words
There She Is
21st Century Survivalist Blues
To Take You Home
I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous
The Opening Act Of Spring
The Ballad Of Me And My Friends
The Way I Tend To Be
I Still Believe
PETER HOOK AND THE LIGHT : Camden Roundhouse 18 December 2017
I’ve long been a vocal – and possibly outspoken – critic of Peter Hook’s touring of Joy Division albums. His current band, The Light, are effectively Monaco, and whilst he’s managed to play near enough every song recorded by Joy Division and New Order from 1977 to 1987, The Light have still managed to release absolutely zero original songs in their seven years together. It’s a shame to be damning, but I miss the songs that could have been written, the albums I could have heard, and the new material that would pull Hook away from a comfortable self-reverence to continuing to be a valid artistic identity. Taking a mild break from his two year tour of Joy Division/New Order’s “Substance” albums, tonight he reverts back to an evening of Joy Division. Ish. Revisiting Joy Division so prolifically still feels a bit… unclean, even if Hook – and the other members of the band – are right to be proud of the work they achieved then. If say, Krist Novoselic was to sing an evening of Nirvana songs, would that be … palatable? But then, I always feel very uncomfortable about monetising the work of someone in such acute despair.
The opening set is New Order’s “Movement” album, in full, and in order – which Hook hasn’t done in three years. Unfairly disowned by the band after around 1986, it’s a good album that sonically and stylistically is the awkward transition from Joy Division to New Order, with lyrics that just don’t match the material. On stage, these songs are stronger and better than the recorded versions – and it is a rare treat to see songs like “Doubts Even Here” live : songs New Order themselves haven’t played in a long time. With the benefit of time, the songs are better than history might tell you. Not great, but few bands make a debut album as promising, even if those songs are a debut, and, at the same time, the last breaths of what was left of Joy Division the band were learning to grow beyond. This set also fits the mood of the show, which is not so much a celebration than a remembrance.
After a short break, we move to the history : Hook performs “Digital” from 1978, then Joy Division’s “Closer” ; again in full and in order. What is perhaps most obvious to me is that Joy Division held in their hands an alternate future which was, and will always be, unknowable, but verged on a greatness that comes along once in a generation. For a long time I avoided these Joy Division-themed shows, because they felt wrong and somehow prematurely monetising the past – ten years on, with Hook over sixty, and having seen a few of the New Order-themed shows, I’ve relaxed a little, but to me the New Order shows are better. New Order are a band I remember from the time, a band I have genuine nostalgia for, and a band whose music, and sonic invention, I enjoy more. Joy Division are a great band, but they are a history lesson, and not a memory. Joy Division songs also, for their strength – but which is also a weakness – lack light, and present nothing but shade. The only joy in the band was in their name. By the time to you get to side two of “Closer” it feels like an audio apocalypse of despair. Not a celebration ; Songs like “The Eternal”, “Wilderness”, “Decades”, are recitations, not celebrations.
It’s a long way from Joy Division though. The passion and intensity that that band exuded from stage (on the basis of what I can recall from old VHS tapes, and, of course, the LP’s) are not here : there’s something different, more measured, and Hooky is dedicated and proud of his work with that band – and rightly so – but he’s not the same man he was then, let alone the same presence anyone else was. His voice is similar – and nearer – to Ian Curtis’ than Bernard Sumner, so it sounds sonically very close, but … and there will be a lot of buts in this… The Light are not Joy Division. The band play the material precisely, and faithfully, but it misses the spark that lights the flame. This show is a slow burn, and not a forest fire. And that’s not to criticise. We’re older, wiser. We can’t be the same. Everyone and everything changes. And playing around 100 3 hour shows a year can be a big task by any standard.
What is undeniable is that in three years, two albums and a handful of singles, Joy Division achieved more than some of their peers ever did in a lifetime. And Joy Division never devalued their early promise by turning into the bloated and irrelevant Simple Minds of 2017. The Light are probably the closest and most authentic recreation of Joy Division you can ever experience now, but they’re not the same. And in some ways, Hook knows it – even though at one point he says “Back when we were called Joy Division…”, implying that The Light are the same band. They’re not.
The band then rampages through Joy Divisions debut “Unknown Pleasures”. Given that this is only the fourth time the band have played most of these songs this year, and they can play 106 songs with little rehearsal, it’s no surprise than occasionally they get a bit wrong : such as they do when “Day Of The Lords” falls to bits. Proves its live.
This is less a recreation of the live Joy Division – which was all fighting to be heard over the suburban din as a great rock band – and more of the records which are more deft, considered, and timeless. By the time we get to the encore, it’s Mark Lanegan singing for “Atmosphere” and “Dead Souls”, which is unexpected, and his voice is gloriously rich on these songs. Those two songs were the high watermark of Joy Division, and I’ve been watching New Order, and their component members, perform these songs for 20 years now – and its never not important and powerful.
The final two songs are perhaps, the ‘hits’ as such. The under-rated ‘final’ Joy Division song, of “Ceremony”, and a final, expected, lighters-in-the-air romp through your Frank-Sinatra-gone-punka-singalong of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. It’s a powerful and keen three hours that sees the band perform three whole albums, and six additional singles. By the end though, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a song I don’t think I need to hear at every show. Good as it is, it felt whilst this was probably the closest you can ever get to experiencing a modern day Joy Division, it wasn’t in any way a substitute, but a momentary glance inside of what it might have been like.
This is a glimpse.
“This is not the greatest song in the world – yeah. It’s a tribute.”
THE WEDDING PRESENT - "George Best 30" - Dover Booking Hall 06 December 2017
It’s been many cities, many years, and many lineups : tonight for me, is “George Best” for the last time after 30 years. Coming from one of the hardest working bands in music, the band are still playing it – just. There’s three more performances after tonight, culminating in Leeds where the album was born, and then it’s all over.
I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with ‘album in full’ shows, and I’m still not. But a huge chunk of that comes down to my approach to art ; I’ve been living in the present day – the here and now – all of my life, and I don’t want to look back, and I don’t want to pretend that it isn’t today, I don’t want to live in the past. Good as old songs are, I do also miss the current place bands I love are, and with last years “Going Going”, The Wedding Present made an album as good as anything they have ever released.
Over the past year, the line up have solidified into a glorious noise that makes me very very happy. It’s the sixth lineup I’ve seen of the band in near enough as many years, but while Danielle Wadey (on bass, who also played keyboards before she moved to bass last year), and Marcus Kain on guitar aren’t my favourite configuration of the band, they effortlessly make a glorious racket of feedback and noise that sounds like a bunch of angry chainsaws and this band certainly still is The Wedding Present.
The opening half hour sees the band offering a neat and compact precis of their work – not a greatest hits, because you could easily moan about the 20 or so hit singles they don’t play in favour of relatively unknown, but still fucking brilliant, songs like “Deer Caught In Headlights”, “The Girl From the DDR” and “Broken Bow”. Unlike many many bands, Gedge still writes great songs as good as, and often better than, anything he’s written, and is still trying new ideas – including this years instrumental release “Home Internationals”. To an extent, the lack of newer material is frustrating and seems to come from a near endless supply that shows no sign of drying up.
But what about the gig? The Booking Hall is fast becoming one of the my favourite venues in the world – a small, intimate converted train station booking hall at the edge of the sea, that refreshingly specialises in no nonsense live music. If a band can’t cut it here, they can’t cut it anywhere and they shouldn’t be playing. The crowd is refreshingly keen, even sporting middle-aged crowdsurfing and a full on mosh pit, matching the band’s fierce sound.
By the time “England” comes to a close, the band move into the “George Best” set ; as an album, “George Best” shows that The Wedding Present started off as a band with a very very good songwriter – but still on the edge of what could be achieved. By his own admission, this is Gedge’s least favourite Wedding Present album, trying to achieve something and failing, and almost juvenile in approach. After this album, the band hit their stride with a formula of tempo shifts, key changes, and depreciating lyrics that are criminally under-rated, rather than “George Best”s focus on speed and power.
The songs are somewhat one dimensional and lack the finesse and shade ; but the potential is still there, and songs like “My Favourite Dress” and “Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft” edge on to the maturity, restraint, and utter glory they tipped over to mere months after that album was finished.
At the time, it felt like the band came up with snappy titles first then wrote songs afterwards, shoehorning the joke into the song, but that’s uncharitable. The Wedding Present do have some of the best song titles of all time, and that’s pretty much the end of the debate. But here, the band are a determined machine delivering some of the finest songs there are. But like any band, the dynamic is between listener and band, creator, and audience, seeing the communicate between each other, each seeing themselves in the audience.
Always the same, always changing, even if its yer granny on bongos and David Gedge, it’s The Wedding Present, but more importantly than that, the band have become one of my favourite bands of all time over the past few years, and more than that, one of the best and most unpredictable live acts I’ve seen, with endlessly varied setlists that have seen the band play near enough every song they’ve ever recorded at some point in the past few years, and sets where there is not one song you are guaranteed they will play at every show. They set an example to the rest.
Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah
Deer Caught in the Headlights
The Girl from the DDR
Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft
What Did Your Last Servant Die Of?
Don't Be So Hard
A Million Miles
All This and More
My Favourite Dress
Something and Nothing
It's What You Want That Matters
Give My Love to Kevin
Anyone Can Make a Mistake
You Can't Moan Can You?
Kennedy (not on printed setlists)
DEPECHE MODE London o2 Arena 22 November 2017
There’s a feeling somewhere in the middle of “Useless”. A sense that.. this is final. That this is near the end. An idea that this is the last time round. They’re all in their late fifties now, and I’ve been seeing this band since I first saw them on this very day, twenty seven years ago, on 22nd November 1990.
Everything changes. Nothing changes. Everything counts. Nothing counts. It’s just music, of course. But in this age, music has become part of identity. We align to bands are artists because we see some of ourselves in them – at whatever level that might be. Some of us might grow out of this, or perhaps not align so closely to the music and the concept of sound-as-identity, but all of us look in the mirror, we see who we are, and what has made us – and whomever we were at the age we first found this – music, sport, whatever – is something that can never be undone. We all came from somewhere. And we all like a good night out.
27 years since I first saw them, Depeche Mode have settled into an artistic holding pattern – what they offer are songs, not innovation – and it’s a consistent and interesting approach, with songs addressing the who what where and why of here and now and also the what next? But also, it feels very much like Depeche Mode have decided to drop the pretence of a ‘new album’ and instead give people what they want. There’s a shamelessness about accepting your role as both artist and at the same time entertainer, around knowing what people want, and giving it to them.
The new album ‘Spirit’ is about eight months old, and the songs from it are already being regulated to the subs bench. At best, they played less than half of this live, and tonight, only 23% of their latest album is in the setlist. Normally this band are quite forward looking and stick with too many new songs, but tonight, despite playing more songs than you might expect from their past – only one song in the whole night wasn’t a single – tonight feels like both a Greatest Hits show, and not at all. If I mentioned that, say, “Wrong”, “I Feel You”, “Policy of Truth”, “Behind The Wheel”, “Just Can’t Get Enough” aren’t played, you might also, justifiably think how could this be a hits show? And then, at the same time… how could it not be? You still get “Where’s The Revolution?”, “Precious”, “The Pain I Am Used To”, “Barrel Of A Gun”, “It’s No Good”, “Useless”, “Home”, “In Your Room”, “Walking In My Shoes”, “World In My Eyes”, “Enjoy The Silence”, “Personal Jesus”, “Never Let Me Down Again”, “Strangelove”, “A Question Of Time”, “Stripped”, “Everything Counts” and more. It’s a surfeit of glory for the band, in one respect, they have too many hits – and at the same time – they always play the same old ones. The last time they played “People Are People”, Justin Bieber’s mum was 12. That’s how long ago some of these songs are.
Depeche Mode are two bands – and have been for a long time : a trio in the studio, and on stage a five piece band ; both lineups of which have been stable now for 20 years, and have become fluent, and conversant with each other. Dave Gahan, once a frontman who was just a voice for anothers vision, has become his own artistic identity. Martin Gore, who wrote almost every song for the first twenty years, seems more at ease now, whilst Andrew Fletcher is still the laziest man in rock and seems to do absolutely nothing all night long. On stage, the engine room of Christian Eigner on drums and Peter Gordeno on keyboards, vocals, and bass drives the show ; it feels like a synthpop AC/DC that rampages tirelessly through the hits. Alan Wilder, who left the group 22 years ago, shows no sign of returning – and this then is Depeche Mode, and has been for a very long time.
The first half of the set is, despite the small number of songs from the latest album, still newer material from the past 20 years – and it still feels like a greatest hits set. The latter half largely concentrates on the hits from 1983-1993, and offers a number of great moments from music history. Certainly, having seen Depeche perform “Stripped” something like 30 times in my life, it does get quite boring [what more can you add after 30 repetitions of the same joke?], but for people who don’t see bands with the same tedious stubbornness I do, it’s probably great to get your every-four-years dose of “Stripped”. Thankfully, Depeche don’t tend to stand still – they rearrange the songs, add new intros and elements, and keep the songs fresh (of a sort) ; presenting the songs as they might if they wrote them today and not thirty five years ago. So “Everything Counts” is the same song its always been and yet its different and new and I don’t feel young, or old, or male, or female, I just… feel. And dance a bit.
In the best way as all music does, everything outside of the heart slips away ; money, work, health, it all disappears. There’s just the song, the idea, and sure, the moment. But it’s an unstoppable juggernaut of great songs, from a resurrection of “Strangelove” after being largely absent from setlists since 1990 to the most recent single “Cover Me” – which has a heartbreaking moment where he sings “I dreamt of us in another life / One we've never reached” – which is a song that means more than many of us would ever like to admit ; what if we’d turned left instead of right, up instead of down, spoken to him one night instead of her? … All points inbetween, there’s hits and well, its just music, but also, somehow all this is around how we see the world, the world in my eyes. And Depeche Mode aren’t trying to plug a new album anymore, but just be shameless entertainment, owning their role as the nearest thing to an electronic-rock version of Queen, with a bucketload of self-loathing, hits, and danceable navel gazing. They are who they are, and we all know it. Sometimes it takes your life to find out who you are, and why not dance and sing whilst you are finding out?
Its No Good
Barrel Of A Gun
Pain That I’m Used To
World In My Eyes
In Your Room
Where’s The Revolution?
Enjoy The Silence
Never Let Me Down Again
Walking In My Shoes
A Question of Time
U2 Songs Of Experience
In a late career rebirth, U2 appear to have become keenly aware of the passing of time. Three years between albums is a long time – but also – it’s the shortest gap between U2 records since 1988-1991, and the band have also toured most of the world twice since then ; not, this time round, four year gaps of absolute silence. Maybe they’ve been listening. Maybe they can stop navel-gazing endless mixes and variations, and just feel, not overthink.
After 2014’s “Songs of Innocence” which was parachuted into your iTunes library, and therefore avoided the need to count chart positions, they now have to work – and are risking meeting the same low sales that everyone else has to live with. U2 are now back at working hard for this. And “Songs Of Experience” was always described as the older brother of that preceding album – and it is all in here.
Cleverly, the band take existing motifs from a small number of songs from that album (lyrical themes, brief moments), and expand on them ; the closing lines of “Iris” are reprised here in “Lights Of Home”, and one that will clearly pull a link between both albums. A throwaway line in “Volcano” becomes the chorus of “American Soul.” The chorus of “Song For Someone” becomes the closing reprise of “13”. And the end of “Walk On” is practically reprised with new lyrics for “The Landlady”. It’s a clever move that ensures this album is not just connected to, but an integral part of a wider whole. In effect, they are designed to work well together ; you could also argue that Bono has run out of lyrics.
Whereas 2014’s “Songs of Innocence” was the best album U2 had made in a long time, this may just better it. “Innocence” was all around the context of then, and now, tracing where we came from to where we are now. Looking back, in your fities asking… Well, How Did I Get Here? This seems a different beast, focused on Now and not Then. It’s easy to be lost if you don’t know where you came from. Songs like “Get Out Of Your Own Way”, “American Soul” and the brooding “Blackout” are subtle evolutions of the U2 template ; and lyrically seem far less insular, more outward facing, connected to the wider world and the divisive politics in it. Well, Now We’re Here… Where Next?
“Experience” also draws on mortality : the march of time drips through every moment, including Bono’s 2014 hospitalisation following a cycle accident and another, unspecified 2016 health incident. The shadow of what is coming sits heavy here. From the opening line of the second song - I shouldn’t be here, I should be dead – to the last, “Songs Of Experience” is a tougher, more mortal, beaten up band. It’s less abstract, and sees the band writing fearlessly rather than with an eye on not-being-embarassed as such. A straightforward love song like “You’re The Best Thing” would always have been hidden in bluster and irony years ago, and its refreshing to see the band being sincere but not being tediously preachy about it ; as well as having some of the best riffs I’ve heard from Edge in years.
On the downside, there’s a lot of mid-paced, airy rock with lots of backing vocals ( some of it that sounds a lot like Coldplay, to be honest), and a couple of songs that could, in years to come, be seen as lightweight filler. Time will tell. Certainly “Book Of The Heart” is b-side level, and “Summer Of Love” is somewhat forgettable ; but considering the inessential choices they have made for some of their albums, this is a better strikerate than they have achieved consistently since 1993.
Deluxe Edition fans get an extra four songs, including an unexpected reappearance for “Ordinary Love” (making it the biggest gap between first release in 2013 and first studio album appearance four years and six weeks later), and a handful of alternate mixes and versions.
Overall, “Songs Of Experience” is certainly the best and most consistent album U2 have made – with the possible exception of “Songs Of Innocence”- in the past twenty years, and no band at this late stage, really tries as hard as U2 to be really good. U2 have been guilty of complacency and indulgence on record in the past ; not here. The end is coming – and it may even be here. But this isn’t clearly the result of a hard battle to stay in touch with their artistic vision. The future is now. Where next?
U2 Trafalgar Square 11 November 2017
Falling less than a month after the final show of the Joshua Tree 30 Tour, U2 have slipped straight into what feels like a slick but efficient ploy to launch their next album “Songs Of Experience” that they birthed (mostly) in 2016 during a tour break. “The Joshua Tree 30 Tour” already feels like a somewhat cynical restatement of their history as a reminder of who they once were, built on the fact that they have – for the first time in a decade – have an album to sell (rather than one to give away). After 2014’s “Songs of Innocence” which was parachuted into your iTunes library, and therefore avoided the need to count chart positions, they now have to work – and are risking meeting the same low sales that everyone else has to live with. U2 are now back at working hard for this.
Therefore, a Saturday night in London sees them at Trafalgar Square : the free show – which sees entrance by competition winners to a 55 minute set – also doubles as a video shoot for upcoming release “Get Out Of Your Own Way”. It’s a cold November night, but U2 are - and always have been – canny businessmen, and combine this with a show played to mostly hardcore fans, as well as a later MTV broadcast of at least part of the show. We are fools, and travel down to London from 9am in Somerset where we were at a gig the previous night. We arrive at Trafalgar Square at 2pm, in time for a hurried fish and chips at Chandos, and catch U2’s brief six song soundcheck that was visible from the street : “Get Our Of Your Own Way” was played twice, alongside “You’re The Best Thing About Me”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “Beautiful Day” and “Get Out of Your Own Way” was played again.
We break for coffee, join the GA queue at 3pm, and are let in around 5pm ; and oh boy, it’s very very cold. After an hour-and-a-bit of waiting, U2 take the stage at 7.15 to a short and punchy set that reprises the bookends of their most recent tour, and replaces the middle with new songs from the album out in three weeks.
Up close, and with less screens, less lights, less tricks, and so forth, U2 are simply a really bloody good rock band. I’ve seen thousands of bands over the years, and well over a hundred in 2017 alone, and these four guys have been playing together for 41 years now without a break or a lineup change – and simply, they know how to do this. There’s nods and grooves, and a confidence that comes from assured, knowledgable ability. It’s good – and refreshing to see U2 as a band, not just a huge corporate entity. The fact they are 4 guys making a racket with planks of wood and computers shouldn’t be underestimated. Everyone is here for the music, and everything else is just wrapping and magic. There’s no big screens, there’s no choreographed speeches (as such), just four people and a stage and some lights and some sound.
They open with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride”.. These two songs might be, overall, overplayed by the band with nearly a thousand performances of each of them over the past thirty years, but they are played as if they are fresh. (I’ve heard and seen some performances of “Pride” which have felt tired, and even, a little bored – tonight is not one of them). They are stalwarts of music, as much in the air as hayfever, and its hard sometimes to think there was a time when these songs did not exist. There was a world where “Beautiful Day” didn’t exist – and I remember it. There’s a greatest hits period near the end, where the band play proportionally the largest number of ‘newer’ songs they have in recent memory, with “Elevation”, “Vertigo”, and “One” in quick succession. Even though “One” is now, staggeringly, 26 years old, it is still as fresh as it ever was. In the meantime, there’s also two new songs – the first European live performance by the whole band of “You’re The Best Thing About Me”, and a first-time-anywhere-in-the-world for “Get Out of Your Own Way.”
It’s great to hear U2 play a simple, honest love song. Most of their material is so densely thought through, that sometimes, you need to say what you know but have forgotten to say. To strip back the arch doublethink, and cut straight to the matter at hand. What is more important than love? Why are we here, if not love? What will survive us, but love?
After the summers determinedly retrospective, nostalgic “The Joshua Tree : 30th Tour”, the new songs are necessary in moving U2 away from a novelty act, necessary to show that the band are still doing new things. Sure, there’s an element of pop, an element of still trying to be relevant. But U2 here shouldn’t be followers, but leaders, showing the way, marking the path in being old yet new, in addressing what it is to be old, and mainstream, yet also, kicking back. Asking questions.
For too long, U2 have rested in creative paralysis. This is a necessary step ; feel more, think less, create more, and think less. Sincerity is nothing to be scared of. Embrace honesty. There’s no point chasing relevancy : chase brilliance and you will be relevant anyway.
Sunday Bloody Sunday
You’re The Best Thing
Get Out of Your Own Way
Get Out of Your Own Way (encore)
MORRISSEY "Low In High School"
It’s difficult being a Morrissey fan these days. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to disentangle the creator from the created ; and I’m starting to feel like a fan of Indie version of the rightwing military-ball-playin’/pussy-gropin’/pantomime-capitalist rawk bands in recent years. Taking aside Morrissey’s questionably closed political views and everything that goes with it – including the cognitive dissonance that the man who penned “How Soon Is Now?” could then also say some of the things he has said, and where did that man go? Is THAT Morrissey still in THIS Morrissey? And if not, how do you know, where do they even go? Well I wonder – how could an artist that soared so high fall so dramatically?
Tombs are full of fools who gave their lives on command
“Low In High School”, Morrissey’s twelveth solo studio album (and including live releases, compilations, and The Smiths, his twenty ninth album in all) suffers from the same problem every aging artist has. Where do you fit? Are you relevant? Are you a dinosaur watching the world pass you by, or are you offering an experienced view upon a planet gone mad? Identity has always been at the core of everything Morrissey has done, even now. Who are you?
How does he sing? He sings as well as ever ; albeit his voice has changed and deepened over the years, he still croons with a melodic power unmatched by his then-peers. His lyrics? Oh my God. Lets not be blunt here ; the talent that recorded for the first fifteen years of his creative life has been cruelly and slowly replaced by a far less effective lyrical position. The artistry, the wit, the power and the deft turn of phrase that changed worlds is absent, and there’s no trace now it was ever here. Lyrically, these are the type of songs that Morrissey would have made, at best, b-sides in a previous decade. The insights here are somewhat banal, the rhymes are basic and the words are… my God, do they have to be dull? Every song has at least one line I pause and wonder “What were you thinking???”
Honour-mad cannon fodder
Honour-mad cannon fodder
Honour-mad cannon fodder
Honour-mad cannon fodder
Musically, it’s the same type of music Morrissey has been making for a decade ; since the departure of the deft Alain Whyte, Morrissey’s music has lacked a jaunty flourish, and instead his six piece band is now a powerful but unsubtle machine that paints in broad brushstrokes. His band are accomplished and capable, but there’s a sense that the music is almost always written to command, and bent to be subservient to the voice. Morrissey needs someone who pushes against him, to have a “No” man who forces him to work harder and better and sharper. He needs someone in his team that will tell him that no this will not do. By no means is “Low In High School” a bad record, but its an unexceptional late period Morrissey album – and lyrically some of it is obsessed with war, oil politics, but in an inarticulate, blunt, and uninformed way in a way that is almost embarrassing. The lyrics here are the type I would keep in my folder of bad poems. But it’s Morrissey’s name on the record, and a reflection of his vision, from the ill-advised cover art to the banal lyrics. Making no mistake of it, were the lyrics better, it would be a serviceable rock album made of midpaced somewhat pedestrian tracks, and what I am missing is the sheer Grab-You-By-The-Throat glory of old Morrissey, the sense that these songs absolutely must be written, and cannot and will not wait, the type of death-or-victory that encompassed even songs are relatively new as “You Have Killed Me”.
Ultimately, it’s just another solo Morrissey album, for good and bad, which sees a great voice matched with songs that don’t really deserve the voice, and lyrics that would not win a local poetry slam, let alone be the voice of a generation. But still, I am a fan. Oh well, I’ll never learn.
NOEL GALLAGHER'S HIGH FLYING BIRDS - London York Hall - 01 November 2017
Has there ever been a better time to be Noel Gallagher? Well, probably – Noel after all was in Oasis, and headlined Knebworth twice as often as Queen. But now, Noel Gallagher seems to be king of his world ; leading a solo band, unshackled from an abusive relationship with his brother, master of his own destiny and it seems happier than he’s been in a long time. Tonight’s show at the York Hall in Bethnal Green sees him premiering most of his new songs live, alongside around 7 older songs, at a competition winners event in a boxing hall in what is, I think, his only headlining show of the year.
It’s different from other gigs. Our phones are all locked up in snot green pouches to prevent bootlegging the new songs, and so the inevitable home release isn’t just full of idiots filming the show with their bright screens. The audience is somewhat less rowdy, and an introductory DJ set by David Holmes sounds like a broad and fascinating romp through the influences you didn’t get in Oasis : I can hear something of every song he plays in Noel’s solo songs.
OH SHUT UP MAN, TELL ME ABOUT THE NEW SONGS NOBODY ELSE HAS HEARD YET!!!
So, here we are : in tonight’s set there are five new songs, and two of them are played live for the first time. Noel and his band (occasionally expanded with a second keyboard player, a Scissors-Player, and various backing vocalists and hornspeople). Of the five songs – “Holy Mountain” is a rollocking, bright and breezy romp – all horns and sunshine and celebration – which sounds like a kid tumbling down a hill endlessly for four minutes and laughing his head off at how silly and great life can be.
Aw, bum, I’ve got to pseuds corner. There’s also “It’s a beautiful world”, which is the most positive song Noel’s put his name to in a long time ; it’s a straight up loveletter to the world. We all define our own reality, to an extent – and our happiness is as much in our own mind and our own perception as it is in the material. This is an instantly memorable song, which is almost predictable, but that’s no bad thing. There’s a few seconds heading into the chorus where you know you’re about to get buzzed by a jumbo jet sized adrenaline rush as the chorus hits, as it’s gorgeous.
We also get live premieres of “Be Careful What You Wish For” and “Black And White Sunshine”. The former is a more delicate and intimate song – and dedicated by Noel to his kids who are in the balcony, and who are … heartmeltingly… singing along to all the songs whilst simultaneously going ‘That’s my Dad!’. It shows you the inside of a life which looks very happy ; the kind of thing that no one sensible would ever begrudge another human being.
“Black and White Sunshine” is more difficult to describe, but to me it’s utterly unpredictable, and that is surprising and enjoyable to experience. One of the great joys of new songs is you’re seeing something new, you don’t know what exactly will happen next or how, and that’s wonderful.
Finally, of the new songs comes “She Taught Me How To Fly” which is a urgent, driving song, with pace and vision and accelerates to a speedy conclusion with a key change that sounds like a black vinyl orgasm.
(Hey, I’m not paid by the word – or paid at all. I just think these songs are really bloody good).
The rest of the set is well known ; there’s three Oasis songs (“Little By Little” and “Don’t Look Back In Anger”, as well as Noel’s take on the Liam-sung “Champagne Supernova”.) And the way they are treated shows that really, these are Noel’s songs, and he can do what he likes with them. They are still the same songs they always were. At the heart of all these songs is a hopeful cynicism, even down to the way most of the hall sings words like “Going to get away for the summer”, or perhaps in the ultimate example of Dad-rock in a line that has changed over the years from being told, to doing the telling, “Take that look off your face.” In Oasis, Noel’s use of common parlance was one of the best kept secrets, to take phrases we heard coming out of our Mum and Dad’s mouths, and make them new and fresh. Oh yeah, and the tunes.
There’s also three songs from the previous Noel solo albums, and they are like Oasis, but better. You may find it weird, but I prefer solo Noel to Oasis and am very happy that we get to experience both of the brothers as solo identities without having to compromise. Oasis was a fantastic vehicle, but Noel was the driver, and I’ve not seen a band compromise more than them.
Publically, the world is currently facing a Noel vs Liam battle that makes Oasis vs Blur look like peanuts ; in one corner, the assured songwriter who wrote some of the best selling albums of all time with his tenth album under his belt (and a Scissors-player), and in the other the foulmouthed gobshite (and estranged brother) who sang on some of the best selling albums of all time. For two grown men, it’s rather sad. Though, to be honest, it’s just one side having an endless pop like a spurned ex-wife, and the other side shrugging it off as bluster.
Nonetheless, at the release of the third album by him and his ever changing band called The High Flying Birds, Noel Gallagher has entered what I regard as the third act of his life ; beyond the rampaging bluster of early Oasis, the later, more considered post 2000 Oasis (which was effectively a different band with the same name), and now, finally solodom. In some respects, even though Noel wrote almost all the songs, it reminds me of the artistic evolution of an artist like Bowie, or of Pink Floyd – as people change, their songs change, and like everyone, we change over time, our relationship to the songs change, and to an extent, the songs artists play now also reflect the parts of them they feel close to now. With a Noel Gallagher gig, sure he may have written “Live Forever”, or “Wonderwall” or (well, you get the point). The point is, he doesn’t have to play them, and doesn’t feel the need to. There’s so much more to Noel than those songs.
Even if his band is 2/3rds of Oasis (Chris Sharrock on drums, Gem on guitar, and Mike Rowe on keys all first played with Noel in that band), this is the nearest thing to Oasis you can get these days. And it’s glorious fun ; at times it’s practically watching the later period Oasis do the bit where Noel sang his songs and the other fella had a fag backstage. But it’s better than that ; the worst thing about Oasis was respectively the then-singer who reminded me of the kids that bullied you at school, and half the audience, who also reminded me of the kids that bullied me at school. There’s none of that edge tonight.
We all bring our own baggage to a show, but I don’t think I’m unique in this assessment. As a night, it’s a celebration of being here now, not that you were there then – and from the arms aloft sing-your-heart-out of “Don’t Look Back In Anger” to the new songs, that Noel may be any one of a million things but he’s always looking forward.
p.s. I've borrowed the photos from the Internet, but since i) you couldn't take cameras into the gig and ii) I'm visibly in both the crowd shots, I don't mind using them.
PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING Hammersmith Apollo 26 October 2017
This wonderfully British band cap off their biggest tour yet with their biggest headline show yet ; and it’s a work of art, with a 2 hour show of conceptual, danceable art rock and approximately 412 special guests. They play almost all of their latest album “Every Valley”, and get every guest from it on stage (with the exception of James Dean Bradfield from the Manic Street Preachers) for the show.
The nearest comparison I can probably reach with them, conceptually is a modern day rock Kraftwerk, effortlessly melding spoken word interview segments from history around a danceable framework of grooviness to create a sum more than the parts : for tonight, the set is constructed in such a way as to enhance and add to the existing material as much as it is to present the new stuff. From the first record, which was built around the struggle of war, and the next, around the innovation of space, the new one – “Every Valley” touches on something much closer to home – the nature of identity, work, and labour, using the closure of the Welsh pitmines forty years ago as the key in the lock.
Whilst watching these songs, the old footage of derelict Welsh towns I know well from spending many years in Wales, and feeling the same, nationwide loss from the time these are just songs about Welsh miners. They’re songs about my childhood as well – a world that no longer exists – a world where you could buy a house on a single income (or buy a house, at all), a world where the women did the house work and the men went to work, and the identity was in that, and where the books just about balanced and where Dad worked and Mum didn’t. This is the world that has been swept away by rampant capitalism, and a coldness that isn’t in the weather. Part of the songs though, now build a third level into the past – all of the industry is mankind, as a whole, building towards something – advancing technology through work at war, advancing mankind through conquering space, and advancing survival through energy.
As a show though it’s assured : the stage set is made of multiple projections, and two huge prop Steelmill turnwheels, alongside an assortment of suspended lightbulbs, to create an atmosphere, aided by a lively set of fluently executed instrumental rock that sounds simultaneously futuristic, retro, and utterly of the moment, whilst also reminding me of the best TV soundtrack theme tunes you never heard. It’s utterly Mark Catnip for me, and where the heck have that band been all my life?
The hits – if anyone has hits anymore – are all delivered authoritavely – in “Spitfire”, “Go”, “Everest”, “Night Mail”, “Sputnik” – as well as new songs that will become live staples in future. The show ends, surprisingly, with the Male Welsh Voice Choir (I think) performing “Take Me Home” – the albums finale, before the band come out and shake the hands of the front row in an emptying venue. It’s quite a victory really, for an act as determinedly singleminded of vision to slowly rise to this point as an autonomously entity, but it’s a better world for it, and a great night with friends new and old. Art communicates. It brings people together. It opens minds. It makes the world a better place. It cheers me up, and makes me dance. What more can you ask?
Theme From PSB
The Now Generation
Theme From Korolev
People Will Always Need Coal
They Gave Me A Lamp
The Other Side
You And Me
Take Me Home
METALLICA London o2 24 October 2017
Good god, these tickets are expensive. But then, Metallica tour every 8 or 9 years. So I can kind of divide the year by the pounds. And, most years they only do about 50 or shows. When you're a band that are that big in near enough every country in the world, there's only so many shows left ; and too many cities. And whilst Metallica are still themselves these days, the thrash metal Rolling Stones, they're also a ruthless and efficient business. Like U2, Metallica have become far bigger than they actually are, and Metallica can put their logo on something and sell it to you, they will. If its a skateboard, a beer flask, a fridge, or even, god forbid, music – they will. And the music seems to have become, almost, irrelevant sometimes, or perhaps a small part of what the huge Metallica machine offers.
These tickets by the way, aren't by any standard the most expensive. You can spend £2,000 for a meet-and-greet. Or £300 for “The Whiplash Experience”, whatever that is. Presumably with sandwiches and a complimentary drink. Which is utter bullshit, but if peoplepay it, more fool them.
It doesn't make the show any better, of course. On the back of last years overall unexceptional “Hardwired To Self-Destruct”, the remove of a year has made those songs better : like many great bands, their material takes a while to unlock every intricate depth and flavour. At first listen, “Hardwired” felt like a backstep to the 90's era Metallica, where the band were straddled between thrash metal gods and standard hard rock megastars. With the benefit of a year on the road, “Hardwired” is a better record. And it shows : tonight the band play seven songs from it – more 'new' songs than any previous tour in 25 years – and none of those songs sound as if they don't fit.
It's also, resolutely, a fan-friendly set ; but not a set for the casuals. If you want “Until It Sleeps”, or “St.Anger” dream on. A large number of their hits are now in rotation ; that is played, but rarely. “The Unforgiven”, “Wherever I May Roam”, “Harvester Of Sorrow,” “Fuel”, “The Memory Remains”, or “The Day That Never Comes” - some of them get played some nights –but less than half . Not at all. Tonight, on the second night, the band bring out some of their rarer choices. As is often their way, Night #1 is the more conventional set and Night#2 is always for the rarer material. This lineup of the band can play probably 90% of their large catalogue with minimal rehearsal, aside from the handful of songs they've never played live.
Even in the enormous O2 – the largest indoor venue in Europe – Metallica make it feel intimate ; primarily by not standing at the far corner of the room, but by placing the stage in the centre of the room. Sure, there's huge chunks of choreographed and rehearsed moments ; a huge drum solo with all four members of the band on portable drumkits in “When We're Dead”, or a drone display during “Moth Into Flame”. Also, and perhaps more depressingly, the predictable between song banter contains 3 references to the 'Metallica Family' in the first twenty minutes, 3 references to 'being alive', and we're also asked 4 times 'Can you feel it, Lahndawn?”. There's also the usual flashpoints, lasers, and fire ; all of which exist to prove to you where your money has gone. There's also 48 mobile video cubes with 192 sides hanging from the ceiling that show a mixture of live footage, preshot film, and imagery. It's all slick and professional, and ultimately, quite surprising – yet not. Metallica are one of those bands that dogged powered through with energy and alcohol for about 20 years, and then slowly turned into a precise business surrounded by industry pioneers to become a practiced and determined money making behemoth. The band would have got nowhere if they didn't have the songs, though. They coulda been contenders, and coulda been as big as Great White if the songs just were terrible.
It’s a slick business operation and a ruthless one. Probably the only band that sells so much useless tat with its logo on apart from this lot are Kiss, and were The Beatles. They even have their own record pressing plant for all their vinyl editions.
Thankfully, Metallica aren't playing the same 18 songs in the same set order for 113 shows in a row. This time round, for example, we get “Leper Messiah” (10% of shows), “Confusion” (about 15% of shows), "Last Caress" (2% of shows), "Creeping Death" (10%), and the first time ever performance of “Spit Out The Bone” (1% of current shows). It may not sound like much, but keeping it fresh, changing the song choices around, and presenting something that feels different every night matters – especially in the age of instant broadcasts and accessibility via Periscope and Mixlr and Setlist.fm and YouTube. And since every show is recorded, mixed, and released by Metallica.com, it needs to be different. I love the idea of not knowing, of being surprised. That's why I avoided the Internet – I want to see what it is, and not to be able to predict every last moment.
As it stands, by playing much of the newer material Metallica inspire and annoy. The new record is as good as the others, but newer and not so loved. There’s also a dearth of ‘big hits’ ; with just a quarter of the set being radio hits mostly loaded towards the end. But Metallica aren’t really the kind of band that have hits these days (is anyone?), but instead a self contained, oblivious entity that doesn’t play the chat show game and knows its audience are secure and mostly found. They could play two hours of LP tracks with no huge hits and the audience would probably be just as happy. What’s strangest is seeing this band carry on – 35 years in now – without ever compromising musically [or, by and large, commercially] as a huge business and a huge band. I wouldn’t’ve thought this was where the band was going 30 years ago when I started listening to them ; but then, who was thinking about the future, in the past?
Given the overall scarcity of Metallica tours (this is just the second tour of UK indoor dates in 22 years), I may never see them again. I can’t say for sure if this is the end for me seeing them; probably not. But if so, they put a show as good as any of their past ones I have seen, and keep their reputation intact. Sure, they’ve changed, but the world has changed, we’ve changed, and we keep changing. Always changing, always the same.
The Ecstasy of Gold
Seek and Destroy
Fade To Black
When We're Dead
For Whom The Bell Tolls
Halo On Fire
Moth To Flame
Sad But True
Spit Out The Bone
Nothing Else Matters
MANIC STREET PREACHERS - London Camden Roundhouse - 18th October 2017
Where do we go now?
The Manics are a lifetime into it now. The core faces on stage may have been the same for their entire career (mostly), but it's not the same, and the Manics have become everything they set out to destroy – a careerist rock band, playing nothing but old songs, to diminishing returns.
Ostensibly, this is to mark them winning the Q Award for being an Inspiration. But with only two songs in the set less than a decade old, and with only one new song released in the past three and a half years, the Manics aren't inspired. The past two tours have been nostalgic old-album-in-full shows, alongside a sproadic set of greatest hits shows this year in strange and relatively obscure places like Bingley, Overton, Penrith, Llangolen. What exactly are the Manics up to now?
They came out of the gates so hard, so urgently, so fast, that the state of the band today is almost the sound of artistic defeat : have they anything left to say? Do they want to say... anything? Every song here might be fabulous, and in some cases, rarely played, but there's too much looking back, too much coasting, too much resting on laurels, not enough artistry, not enough creativity.
So really, it's 'just another Manics gig' (and their first in London that is just the songs, and not an album-played-in-full retrospective in nearly four years), and whilst just another Manics gig is a glorious experience, this is also becoming long in the tooth. Staid. Predictable. Boring, even, with 93% of the set comprising their hit singles – near enough one from every album – alongside “No Surface All Feeling”, and, for the first time in Britain for 13 years (and only the eighth time ever), the wonderful “A Song For Departure.”
The old songs (and they are all old songs now) are executed with a familiar and practiced ability. The Manics have clearly become a very, very good band and have been for a long time. But they aren't the band they used to be, even if the core lineup hasn't changed in 28 years. Some of these songs are lifechanging, and by my standards, wonderful. But the Manics are fast falling over the horizon of relevancy. And for a band that, at one point to me, seemed directly hardwired into the spirit of the times, that they have become largely a hermetic, sealed and contained insular universe, is the beginning of the end.
It's not too much to expect a headline set to last over 65 minutes is it? Or to expect a band to have new songs? Unlike others, The Manics never went fallow, or had several years off, or split up, or had a falling out with an incompetent and useless record company : all that happened was that the muse has mostly deserted them. I can't keep going if they become a museum.
What a glorious past they have ahead of them.
Everything Must Go
Your Love Alone Is Not Enough
Walk Me To The Bridge
You Stole The Sun
A Song For Departure
Little Baby Nothing
You Love Us
Show Me The Wonder
A Design For Life
MOGWAI Every Country's Sun
Fiercely prolific, Every Country's Sun is yet another Mogwai album : in some respects, I don't even know where to review it – or how. If you like the other Mogwai albums, this is just as good as any of those. If you like teeming, pulsing, instrumental math-rock, built on atmosphere and riffs, you'll like this. With barely any vocals, their songs shimmer like the long fade out of the sun on a summers day. There's an elegance anda beauty in there ; and “Coolverine” is a name for a song that doesn't officially, mean anything, but it doesn't need to mean anything – does it? A name is just a 'tag' to identify an object – a way of differentiation from others : and therefore, also a degree of seperation.
It's difficult to hang this on anything as straightforward as a 'song'. Mogwai have them, of sort ; they have movements, codas, they have motifs, and effect are a rock band playing a set of instrumental themes and imaginary soundtracks to films that will never be made that exist only in your mind. The album is another, generally superior, Mogwai album that captures the ability to look inward and self-explore with a soundtrack. Other acts try and fail to achieve this sense of self, this assured, confident fluency where it appears there is no gap between the player and the instruments, and – on the grounds of what I saw at Primavera – their new configuration seems invigorated and hungry again. A new dawn and another solid experience of evocative, post-rock glory.
DAVID GILMOUR Live In Pompeii
At 70, David Gilmour is already older than David Bowie ever was. And that, at this point in his life, Gilmour has nothing he needs to prove to anyone. Even if you were the type of person with something to prove, he's done that already. “Live at Pompeii” might be his final statement, and as such, it's a glorious reminder – and capturing – of an artist nearing the end with is powers intact.
There's a broad selection of both newer solo songs and classic Pink Floyd songs, as well as (on the deluxe edition) a wealth of extra documentary material. Visually it is immaculate and sonically precise and exact.
There's a knowledge in every moment, even if only felt for the briefest moment before quenched, that this – whatever it is – good and bad, won't last. And so, whilst in the moment, it feels like this could happen a thousand times again, I know it won't. The end is nearer than the beginning. But here, on film, it will last forever.
With a set built on the majority of the most recent album “Rattle That Lock”, Gilmour is moving gracefully into a new, reflective phase of his life, where names move out of address books, where the knowledge is there is less ahead than behind. But with this, Gilmour also articulates it with the kind of fascinating depth few others do.
We have Chester Kamen on guitar and Greg Phillganes on keyboards. Chester, in particular, is a perfect fit : a lively, and clearly engaged player who compliments him completely, switching effortlessly between lead and rhythm, and also chosen by the exacting Roger Waters as guitar player : being chosen by two members of Floyd to play in their solo bands is a high accolade.
The sound is solid, the performance valid, and ultimately, it feels more like Gilmour's solo band – whereas the 2006 live line up was barely removed from the final touring period of Pink Floyd. Even though that band may no longer exist, there is still much of their spirit and style here, there's a connection between this now and that then, between the fact that Gilmour is playing note-perfect, emotionally correct versions of songs from all periods of Pink Floyd's career with flair and wit : during a barnstorming “One Of These Days”, which has only been performed a handful of times since The Floyd's end as a touring unit, the fluency with which this 70 year old man dispatches songs he wrote when he was 25 is glorious.
What is also not insignificant is that the set is stuffed with the newer stuff – older, wiser, and more mature, more considered and thoughtful – the sound of a man inside his time moving with an awareness of not only his own mortality, but also of the position one has within one's own life and the life of others. Several songs from his latest album fit effortlessly into the set, as do the majestic “The Blue” and the title track from “On An Island”. It's music that stands the test of time because its taken time to make.
Musically as well, as with everything Gilmour touches, there's an elegant precision that betrays an enormous amount of thought, a taste, around which every song appears to have a large number of options explored, and every step that's taken is the perfect, and best one, of all the options, if anything, it's around … an unhurried consideration of the choices and the most enduring one being taken.
It may seem like nothing very much, but blistering takes on the relatively obscure “Fat Old Sun” to the crescendo of “Comfortably Numb” - of seeing a happy and comfortable Gilmour bashing drums or playing clarinet or merely peeling out precise solos – is like seeing a magician in front of you. These may only be guitars and instruments, but they are tools to build new worlds. If this is the final Gilmour live document, then it stands equal to anything from his career.
The time is gone. The song is over. Thought I'd have something more to say.
THE THE : Radio Cineola Trilogy
Where the heck has Matt Johnson been? 17 long years since his last song-based, major release, 17 long years which has seen many of his fans move from youth to clear late middle-age, and Matt Johnson releases his first major statement in far too long, backed up with the first live shows from his band in 16 years. And though, on the surface, this 3CD set is promising, it is also a canny, almost cynical way of completely avoiding his talents and expectations.
In many ways, this release is a complete statement of defiance against your own muse. The first CD, “The End Of The Day” is a selection of cover versions of old The The songs (stretching back to 1981), all sensitively interpreted – but also a continuation of an idea of replacing b-sides with covers that The The first launched unsuccessfully in 1999. The interpretations are well handled – but none add stunning new light onto the originals, nor do they better any of the originals. And, perhaps most obviously, 2011's re-recording of “Giant” with DJ Food, and 2007's “Mrs Mac” are both absent. Thankfully, the one new The The song in the past decade - “You Can't Stop What's Coming” is here. And it's quite OK, but not a stunning new classic that you will cling to forever as a work of godlike genius.
CD2 is “The Inertia Variations”, a 70-part, 43 minute spoken word piece that sees Matt narrate a poem by John Tottenham with unusual sound effects. It is quite, quite indulgent. Possibly the kind of thing that even Kate Bush or Scott Walker would reject as unwise. Presumably taken from the documentary film about Matt's inability to ever do anything for decades on end whilst he eats, sleeps, and generally behaves in a way that is oblivious to his talents and abilities, it is quite simply a listen-once-and-not-again release. Perhaps I'm being harsh, but I have to be a lot more productive in my own life than lie down and contemplate my navel for 17 years at a time, and the music contained here (and on CD3) are really the sound of the somewhat aimless instrumental meanderings that would make a 2-minute b-side on the back of a 1986 12”. It's almost insensitive to glory in the ability to be so utterly inert. Now, whilst everyone creative has a degree of inertia, or writers block, of being unable to force what must flow naturally, this second CD is utterly annoying given how hard everyone else has to work. From a philosophical perspective, I have no issues with a well earned rest, but with just six albums (and at least three unreleased ones) in the first 20 years, and just two songs in the past 17, it seems craven and oblivious to the world which The The exist in.
CD3 is “Midday to Midnight”, which compiles some 36 instrumental themes (over 52 minutes) that Johnson has worked on, and again, is the sound of The The utterly missing the point. As a band, The The is the creative extension of Johnson's identity, and yet, Johnson has become largely featureless. (The band released three soundtrack albums between 2011-2014, and a private pressing of instrumental film music in 2002 : effectively absenting themselves from their arena). In many ways, The The could have been contenders : they could have been as culturally relevant and active as many of their then peers – at one point, neck and neck with The Smiths, New Order, Depeche Mode – but instead chose to abdicate responsibility.
This release won't restore that loss, but instead restate - and show perhaps too clearly – that few acts have suffered such a visible and obvious commercial and artistic decline through inactivity and indulgence. Even a long, long overdue reissue programme appears to have come to naught : The The haven't even bothered with a responsible and comprehensive reissue programme of past work to 'fill the gaps', issue long lost VHS tapes on DVD, and scoop up the lost and obscure b-sides once released on a 1983 flexidisc attached to Record Mirror.
There's hope of course, that The The could stun and wow with next years live shows, and perhaps even, Johnson could remove his muse from his rear end and deliver a set of songs and play them live ; hardly the most demanding of hopes, but I don't hold out much for it.
LCD SOUNDSYSTEM American Dream
And what once was gone, is back again. And older, and wiser. And unlike anyone else, LCD are the band that have at least words to back up the music. There's bands that sound similar to LCD, and in some ways, bands that are better, but why don't I Love them, the way I love LCD?
LCD are a band that did what every band did. They came, they saw, they disappeared. And now, for a second, they are back and showing us. Like an old friend you haven't seen for a while, or one who's moved to the other side of the world you will never kiss again, suddenly reappearing.
If anything LCD Soundsystem are the silver fox of bands. Growing more beautiful with age. The songs are the same, yet different. The same people, but wiser. After a long goodbye, which saw them – and us – saying goodbye to something, quitting at exactly the right time, before they got too boring, too predictable, too normal, or before time dulled the blade of their work, LCD came back. Opening the door. And showing us that now, the hair is grey, the suits are a bit tatty, but the heart is as strong as ever. The grooves are still there. Aging, with integrity, is beautiful. Aging, but still being who you are, not fighting it but embracing it, is beautiful.
For some bands, a seven year gap is the blink of an eye. For others, their entire lifetime. But here, American Dream cuts slyly both way. America is dreaming. America has just woken from the long nightmare of peace and prosperity. America dreams of what it could be. Everyone's dream is different – some a place of happiness and sunshine. Others of a clean white land where there are no dreamers, and no dreams.
The elephant in the room is David Bowie. He's in every second of this. Every groove. Murphy remixed some of Bowie's last material, and contributed to the final Blackstar. Some of the lyrics are direct lifts from conversations and emails he had with Bowie : American Dream is as much about seeing the world change around you and wondering what your position is in that world (if you have one, anymore), and seeing everything changing, and aging in a young world, as much as anything. As a man racing through middle age, one day at a time, this is my battle.
“I never realised how much artists thought about dying”, Murphy sings. And he's right. All art is some way of trying to achieve immortality, conscious or not. American Dream is an imagining of identity and where we all are in the modern world, to a fluid and lovely sound.
American Dream comes from a land where everyone is dying is the future LCD now live in : where everything changes and decays. In some respects, this is the legacy – or the hangover – of the decade before. Nobody dies, they just grow older and disappear. And now people are dying, the band are back, before its too late. This isn't the movies, where Superman comes back from the dead before the end credits. LCD were dead and gone, and now they are not. They are back, and alive, and the music is as good as anything they have done before. It's a “comeback” done perfectly – with new songs as good as old songs.
ROGER WATERS is this the life we really want?
Oh, I have missed this man. One of the most fascinating things about artists – musical, or otherwise – is seeing the journey through life. How we change. How they change. How the world changes. How we... adapt to the passing of time. And with this, finally, Roger Waters lays out his stall with an album as good as almost anything he's been part of.
Sonically the nearest touchpoint for this is Pink Floyds “Animals” : “Is This The Life We Really Want?” is an angry, idealistic album, of pulsing and urgent songs, lyrically fierce, and dripping in substance. Shorn – thankfully – of the need for a theme or a narrative to tie the songs together, this album, instead thankfully eliminates the pretence, the shoehorned story, and steers away from that to concentrate on simply writing and releasing the best songs he can.
There may not be money in releasing a record anymore, Ozzy Osborne, but artists do things because the art demands it – not because it's a Return On Investment.
25 years is a long time. And Roger Waters has had 25 years between albums. In that time there's been two live albums, a compilation, an opera, three world tours, and a short Pink Floyd reunion. There's been numerous – dozens – of songs that have been fitfully released or played live : any of which is the equal of anything on here. Waters hasn't stopped creating, but had a crisis of confidence after “Amused To Death”. At last, here, he has pulled the trigger. Has pulled no punches. Gone for the throat with a clear state-of-the-nation address this world needs artistically. Where are the protest songs? HERE.
“Is this the life we really want?” is an urgent record, a final and desperate imploring, about the state of the world, and what happens next : built on the soundscape that we are familiar with from all the previous records Waters has had a hand in, an atmospheric and elegant sound, bolstered with a pulsing and biting sound. If anything, the album is most definitely a cornered liberal animal, forced into a position of uncomfortable confrontation, trying to open eyes. Like all of his records for the past forty of so years, the eternal conflict that is our reality – the gap between power and the powerless, the seemingly eternal balance that is now sadly tipped in the wrong favour – is the cornerstone of this record, a keen fight. These are where the protest songs are – and it's embarrassing that the most powerful artist tackling this is a 70-something. Whilst this might be the only 'rock' album Waters has released in the past 25 years, it's also as good as anything he's released since 1972. (After all, most albums are better than “Atom Heart Mother”), equal then to the most part of high high watermarks as member of Pink Floyd and his own solo activity.
If Pink Floyd are your thing, try this – a searing, angry, vital and deeply moral record that breathes with an urgency that shows that passion is not the preserve of youth.
THE EMOJI MOVIE
There are two types of movie for children. The ones made by people who don't hate parents, and the ones made by people who really, really fucking hate parents.
“The Emoji Movie” is in the second type. It is the worst film I have seen at the cinema in 17 years. Since Battlefield Earth. The first film in that long I have invented a need to go to the toilet, just to give my weary brain some respite from watching / enduring this endless litany of animation and noise. The first film in a very very long time that seems 10 times longer than it actually is. I guarantee you I have spent longer thinking about the plot writing this review than the three – THREE – scriptwriters spent on this idiotic drivel.
The plot isn't really a plot, but a series of loosely connected scenes linked by some kind of talking, that seems shoehorned around the main corporate sponsors of this. It's a digital version of Mac & Me, without any redeeming features. This isn't so bad it's good, it's so bad it's absolutely fucking terrible.
All of the films enormous plot shortcomings might possibly just be redeemed by the obvious fun & charm the actors might be having making it : a sort of modern day Cannonball Run if you like. But the voice acting is so utterly dull the film is drenched in the sense of contractual obligation and mortgage payments.
Laid out briefly, there's a Emettalike Emoji who wants to be his own person in a world of conformity. A wacky sidekick with secret powers who is practically James-Corden-as-Happy-Batman. A female hacker who fulfills every requirement of Manic Indie Pixie Girl who also happens to be secretly a Princess. There's a series of tasks that need to be fulfilled, each designed around an app on your phone. Go to AppLand! Defeat the monster of CorporateStorageBocks. Access the glory that lies beyond The Firewall and The Cloud. Navigate through MediaPlatform. Call on TweetyBlueBird for help.
This isn't actually a film. It's a long, tedious advertisement for the Google Play Store. A pathetic, and pointless waste of time where you are cynically sold the existence of product and have to pay for the privilege. A film so utterly forgettable that I had to pause and try to remember its title. A film that exists for the sole purpose of separating you and your children from their money. A film that doesn't even pretend to have a reason to exist other than to sell you things. It's approximately 99% advertising, alongside 100% emotionless. It's as if some psychopathic businessman alien pretending to be a human wrote a movie about emotions, using only what he knew from top placed Google Ads and email Spam. It's a jigsaw of scenes from other movies bolted together with a hammer to waste an afternoon in the summer holiday.
“The Emoji Movie” is quite simply one of the worst films ever made, and its short time isn't even a redeeming feature, because at 86 minutes, it feels as it lasts at least six hours of repetitive tedium even more boring than waiting for a bus in the rain. Still, at least James Corden got to pay off most of his mortgage by playing the usual "Fat Comedy Sidekick", so something good came out of this.
If anyone can think what it is though, don't bother to tell me.
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?
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
Mothers Of The Disappeared
Ultraviolet (not London #2)
Mysterious Ways (London #2 only)
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)