THE WONDER STUFF / POP WILL EAT ITSELF / JESUS JONES – London Shepards Bush Empire / Birmingham Academy 21-22 December 2013
A year after the 21st anniversary of Sleigh The UK, and The Wonder Stuff are back – but really, they never went away. Aside from an 18 month gap for paternity leave, The Wonder Stuff have toured a lot the past 14 years. Tonight – for my sins – is my 149th Wonder Stuff gig. So many times. I wouldn't keep coming back if there wasn't a reason. If the band didn't do something for me every damn time.
The nights open with Jesus Jones, a band who never get the recognition they deserve. Like Pop Will Eat Itself, the band took the very limited technology available to them, and welded it fluently to create a beautifully loud racket of technology, sampling, and rock music. They suffered from not being Nirvana and not wearing plaid and using technology more advanced than mere guitars. They play a determindedly retrospective set – not a song less than 20 years old – but, as Mike Edwards pointed out – making a record takes a long time, especially when you have a day job, and nobody's records sell very well anymore. At heart, Jesus Jones are a rock band, and a pop band, and in the form of 1993's “Perverse”, the first band to record everything digitally, and yet, give the music air, and stuff like “Real Real Real” is actually far more perceptive than anyone ever thought ; a song about the emptiness of expression, and the motive of action ; bludgeoned and forgotten by time because they didn't sound like The Jesus & Mary Chain. The first night in London, the band are powerful, concentrated, a finely honed bullet of sound. The second night in Birmingham, and they are ablaze with the best show I have seen of theirs – at least since 1991 and possibly ever. “Idiot Stare” roars and sweeps and builds and releases and explodes and uncurls, and the band have never sounded better.
12 hours later, Tony Arthy, the band's drummer, leaves the band amicably but unexpectedly with a triumphant final show. But what a way to go. Live at least, Jesus Jones are a roaring beast that do this because it is fun and because life without fun isn't really living.
Next up, comes the reconfigured Pop Will Eat Itself, which isn't the band it used to be, but a new one, and a fine live proposition. Close your eyes and it's the same band : open your eyes and it isn't. But between this band, and no Pop Will Eat Itself, well, it's a good way of continuing the Pop Will Eat Itself legacy.
At times, and hampered by technology, the band seem to be struggling with some of the songs (a rearranged “Wake Up! Time To Die” ), for starters. At other times, especially when the band enter London sans Crabb & Mary to start the instrumental opening only to spend a long three minutes huddled in pitch darkness arguing with a crashed sampler and rebooting the gig, or later when most of the keyboards stop working and the band become a much thinner sound, it's technically sloppy but spirited. The band gamely power on anyway and its no lesser an occasion for that. If this were the only lineup of the band you had seen, I don't think you'd be missing the spirit. None the less, I can't really argue with the songs : this is a much more faithful band than Morrissey's lumpen sludge of rock. Not only that, but the crowd – as every Pop Will Eat Itself show I have seen, dating back over twenty five years – is batshit insane in communion of intergalactic punk rock hip hop. Rob Halliday (ex-The Mission, and The Prodigy) comes to add extra squeal and roar to “Their Law”. In Birmingham, the band are rejoined for four minutes by former drummer Fuzz Townsend and former bassist Richard March for the first time at a PWEI gig since 26 January 2005, to execute “Def Con One” with no small buzz.
And then it's the next stage of the gradual evoluation of The Wonder Stuff with bassist Mark McCarthy clocking up his tenth year and fiddler Erica Nockalls her ninth in 2014. Fuzz ex PWEI is on the drums, and long time crew member Steve Wyatt has been promoted from sound desk to guitar spot. Not that matters, because this band isn't Miles And The Blokes, it is The Wonder Stuff : it feels like the band I loved since I was 14 years old and will love when I am 84 years old. They open with two songs from the new “Oh No!” album, and pepper the rest of the set with five new songs overall : not one feels anything less than a song that deserves its place in the set. Sure, I can moan about the songs they don't play – and to please me they'd have to do a 50 song set list – but ultimately any night where these songs live and breathe in front of my eyes, and are performed, no – executed – with such fluency is a good one in my world.
It was weird coming back into Birmingham in the afternoon. I haven't lived in Birmingham for 13 years : these streets did used to look big. This town did used to look like a city. These people did used to talk to me. And we are, always, caught in our shadows. But on nights like this, with people I love I don't see enough of, hearing songs that helped make me the man I now am – and thus, I blame them all for that – I am home from home. In these songs we lose ourselves, by finding ourselves, with songs that made me see the world a little differently, think a little differently, be a different person. And, of course, to jump up and down yelling silly songs about life being not quite what I thought it was. It's better now. I like the future, it's like the past, but – Governments aside – it's better.
Jesus Jones : Real Real Real / Never Enough / International Bright Young Thing / The Real World / All The Answers / Right Here Right Now / Get A Good Thing / Info Freako / Zeroes & Ones / Who Where Why / Idiot Stare
Pop Will Eat Itself : PWEI-zation, Get The Girl + Kill The Baddies, Chaos & Mayhem, Auslander, Oldskool Cool, Radio PWEI, Wake Up Time To Die!, Their Law (with Rob Halliday), RSVP, Def Con One (with Richard March and Fuzz Townsend), Everythings Cool.
The Wonder Stuff : Clearer Through The Years / Right Side Of The Turf / On The Ropes / Redberry Joytown / Here Comes Everyone / Oh No / Friendly Company / Golden Green / The Size of A Cow / Caught In My Shadow / Mission Drive / Circlesquare / Be Thy Name / Don't Let Me Down Gently / A Wish Away / Poison / Can't Shape Up / Unbearable / Give Give Give Me More More More / 10 Trenches Deep