THE THE : Comeback Special : London Royal Albert Hall 5th June 6th London Brixton Academy 2018
After an 18 year touring hiatus, and two decades since their last song-based album, The The have returned to the stage with a short tour : and everything has changed, and nothing has changed. Despite the fact that 90% of the set comes from 25 years – or more – ago, The The feel contemporary ; the songs are ageless and eternal, but, the absence of new ones is obvious.
There’s a lot to process. A lot has changed since the last time I saw them, for all of us. I have changed dramatically, and who I was then is not who I am now. The band have changed too : circling around Matt Johnson, the lineup retains drummer Earl Harvin from their NakedSelf era, and rejoins DC Collard on keys and James Eller on bass from the Dusk/MindBomb era. Besides this, the new addition is Barrie Cadogan on guitar, who came personally recommended by Johnny Marr. It’s certainly the best recent touring lineup of the band, keen to honour the songs as we remember them, and not as they once were. The disappointing lineup I saw 6 times in 2000 is long forgotten, and this one is leaps and bounds ahead of the turgid past. So, the brazenly titled “Comeback Special” tour is exactly that : Matt Johnson reclaiming the bands name and legacy from fading into the history books, and restating again how loved this band was, and is. The The could have disappeared, and become a disappointment – or perhaps just a distant memory – but this is a show that keeps the band feeling fresh and supple, and rejoining their past with the now.
In short, this tour is what The The, and the fans, needed it to be. It’s a somewhat nostalgic relaunch, and reclaiming of his work back from history, and from common perception. And whilst The The have become a cottage industry over the years – releasing nothing but instrumental soundtracks and esoteric, unusual material that rebuts the songs and sounds like a lot of old B-sides in recent years, here it is clear that Johnson has suffered a dearth of creativity, not a lack of meaning.
As it stands, the presentation is very different : and whilst the choice of songs is strong and a reflection of the strongest parts of the bands catalogue (generally), the pacing is uneven : At the Albert Hall, the audience observes a recitation with a keen but reserved anticipation.. until the seventh song. Then we all stand up and dance a bit. And then most of us sit down again. And then wait until we get to the 19th song (“Slow Emotion Replay”). The song choices don’t seem to flow well into each other, and don’t always seem to rest easily as bedfellows. Some songs also stick out by their absence ; such as “Soul Mining” and “Giant”.
At Brixton, the audience are generally the rudest, most talkative, stupid bunch of dumb melonfudgers I’ve seen at a gig in decades. Sure, mate, some of us have only waited 30 years to see this band, please talk loudly during the songs.
I’m fairly sure that “Love Is Stronger Than Death” has never been the soundtrack to a huge punchup before : very clearly some yapping dunderhead with a INCREDIBLY LOUD VOICE was asked to um, not talk quite so loudly all the time. To which their response was probably a punch or two. And whilst Matt sings about his dead brother, a bunch of people are fighting.
In the meantime, Earl Harvin is still one of the best drummers I have ever seen. He displays his skills less on this tour, but that’s because this version of the band are playing to support the songs as the audience knows them. There’s no samples, so everything is appearing live before our very ears, and that means the band are recreating The The now but honouring the band as was. Earl manages to flesh out the complicated drum parts to things like “Infected” with what looks like an effortless ease. Barrie Cadogan meanwhile, is a perfect replacement for Johnny Marr, adding a deft and powerful touch to the songs and a note-for-note matching of the long oodly keyboard solo on “I’ve Been Waiting For Tomorrow All of My Life” like he wrote it. DC Collard also manages to execute the very, very long piano solo in “Uncertain Smile” exactly, and make it even longer. James Eller meanwhile underpins the band with a solid and effective bass presence which just serves to remind how much of a travesty the 2000 lineup was in solidly rubbishing the bands brilliance under the dull sludge of turgid rock.
And yet, when the band pick up “Bugle Boy” and “Like A Sun Risin’ Through My Garden” from the 1981 debut Burning Blue Soul, they make the songs sound long lost Syd Barrett classics born again. Utterly unexpected, and exciting.
Aside from the sound, the band are also playing under a huge and imprecise set of projections ; these take elements from The The’s recorded works over the years – films such as Infected and From Dusk To Dawn and The Inertia Variations – alongside old, and often unused artwork, out-takes and behind the scenes moments, old promotional videos and 8mm film of his childhood memories – that matches most of the songs core meaning, creating a impressionistic patchwork of footage that tracks Johnson from childhood in 60’s London to advancing age, and draws a line between all the work, which fundamentally has always been Johnson trying to make sense of the universe he lives in.
It creates a sense of the band as a life’s work, and – aside from what was a enforced intermission created by unsupportive labels, money and bereavement – the band now feel like they are entering Phase Three of their career, a return from the wilderness and exile, and wresting their history back as their own.
Sweet Bird of Truth
Flesh & Bones
The Beaten Generation
We Can’t Stop What’s Coming
Love Is Stronger Than Death
Dogs of Lust
This Is The Night
This Is The Day
Slow Emotion Replay
Like A Sun Risin’ Through My Garden
Waiting For Tomorrow All of My Life
True Happiness This Way Lies