UNDERWORLD Camden Roundhouse 24-25 March 2016
On the heels of their first new song based record in six years – after several, largely instrumental, soundtrack albums and a batch of reissues – a newly reinvigorated Underworld bring their new live set to the Camden Roundhouse for the sixth headline set there in their careers. With the reissue – and subsequent recreation of dubnobasswithmyheadman live, the duo – Rick Smith & Karl Hyde – aided on stage by Darren Price, have recaptured their muse, with the newly launched album. Not trying to recapture past glories, not trying to be anything but themselves, and, as they nudge their late fifties and early sixties, the songs are no longer adrenalin fuelled races to the inner groove of an ancient 12” but more.. relaxed, open, paced, and layered. Classic Underworld tracks are always about tension and release, about slow build, and the moment where everything swirls together and becomes.. more.
Tonights set – a 2 and a half hour extravaganza – is not the best Underworld show I have seen. Then again, I've been seeing them since the mid 90's, where they would do three hour improvised shows without setlists and no breaks between songs. Sometimes it was like watching a painting when it didn't quite work, and other times like watching a dancefloor magician pull out a huge, unstoppable techno rabbit. Growing old, changing, evolving.. it's natural for any artist. The concept of just being created fully formed, and never changing, never growing, never exploring new places.. that is a form of artistic death. Underworld change. And artists growing older in time are fascinating. And who did it best? David Bowie, probably. But others, reflecting on aging, on maturity, on time and life, on a changing world, and changing themselves, and their relation to the world around them, around no longer being physically able – or perhaps even spiritually able – to stay up until dawn and fuck the consequences, Underworld have faced one of the key elements of time, how to remain yourself and true to your heart when the body fades and changes, when the world makes us no longer what we were – or who we think we are – but what we actually are. Yeah. I can dance all night, but I'm going to sleep for a thousand years afterwards. The new stuff then, isn't the stupendously pacy nosebleed dance music of old.. because Underworld have done that, perfected that, and having conquered it, have no need to prove that anymore.. but have new lands to explore. And so they will.
In tonights set, though, there is a problem, and that of pacing. The crowd are willing Underworld tonight to be something they aren't, willing them, wanting them, to be a breathless race to the chords of heaven that is “Born Slippy.” For example, slotting the brain frying 10 minute euphoria of “Two Months Off” between (respectively) a ten minute medley of “Ova Nova / Nylon Strung”, and three slower tracks just makes it feel like a sense of dancus interruptus, where the songs and the night want to take off.. and yet we became squashed by the more relaxed groove. Brilliant, and intimate as the stream of consciousness and understated, British, repressed grooves “8 Ball” and “Jumbo” are... maybe it's not what the night needs at this point. Maybe an opening solvo of fast, pacy numbers old and new, a down point before a final run to the climax, whereas at this night, the momentum of “Two Months off” tails off, and – great and fun as the rarely played “8 Ball” and “Ring Road / Minnaepolis” are the audience watch, not experience this and it... trails a little. It's only when “Push Upstairs” kicks in, and then when the venue wakes up with all the lights on, and a walking stick gets brandished in the air in euphoria, during the midst of a euphoric piano breakdown, that somehow, it clicks. Older tracks such as “Juanita”, “Rowla” and “Dark Train” roar like the past 2 decades didn't happen and - then we're collectively pulled out of the groove.
Ultimately, the set is constructed in a way that doesn't … quite... work. The pacing is erratic... fast.. slow... fast.. slow slow … fast fast fast. But then when the faster stuff kicks in, everyone forgets it's 10.12 on a Thursday and suddenly it becomes 3.30am on a Sunday 20 summers ago. And then the lights come on again, and rampaging, skull thudding bass is replaced by another sound, this time the relentless repetitive whoop of fire alarms emanating from someone (presumably) having a crafty fag in the toilet. The venue is out into the rain, and there's a casual sense of.. keeping calm, and carrying on. It's wonderfully British. Our gang of eight or so shrinks by a couple, who feel its late enough – and not unreasonably so.
With about a third of the audience having migrated away by 10.40, the venue reopens, the tickets are no longer checked, and the balcony is open – with hardly anyone in it. There's probably 30 of us up here in all. Moving upstairs, we have the prime view of the whole room viewed from the edge of this once ancient Victorian railway station ; the bass is immense... “King of Snake” reboots, and the band continue with the remainder of the set, which, aside from an ill-advised breather of “Faxed Invitation” from the underloved “Oblivion With Bells”, is the meat of the set, a set of powerful, driving classics that eschew such fripperies as verse or chorus in favour of sainted rhythms, dense interweaving textures, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics that somehow all make sense. It defies words, as such, but the band are long overdue a commercial and critical resurgence, a Glastonbury set, a second commercial life, and there is – and always been – so much more to them than the LagerLager song, which was just, a pretty good single to my ears, and not, to be frank, quite as good as much they'd released before, there's a seamless half hour of classic music, with a revamped and updated “Dirty Epic”, new groove “Low Burn”, and a final, explosion of “Rowla”, the ever immortal “Rez” and the definitive “Cowgirl”, which is – pretty much – electronic music's “Stairway To Heaven”. By this point, the room is in a collective sense of joy : there's a cheer as “Rez” kicks on, and then, as “Cowgirl” drops out and the room goes nuts, and well, there's nowhere else on the planet I'd rather be right now than in this room.
As a live act, Underworld have perhaps stayed true where others have not. They never split, though they may have been dormant for a while in solo releases, never compromised their vision or style, and, there's no sign that success may have done anything but set them free. And isn't that success truly is? Following your own path, and marching to the beat of your own drum machine?
I Exhale /
If Rah /
Dark Train /
Ova Nova /
Nylon Strung /
Two Months off /
Eight Ball /
Ring Road (Minnaepolis) /
Push Upstairs /
King Of Snake /
Faxed Invitation /
Dirty Club /
Low Burn /
Born Slippy (Nuxx)