Monday, 27 February 2012

842 SIMPLE MINDS 5X5 TOUR, Birmingham O2 Academy, Friday 24 February 2012

I think it’s only appropriate to start this review with my comments from the Ex Simple Minds show of 18 months ago; “I'm used to receiving looks of bafflement when I say Simple Minds, latterly the epitome of bloated stadium rock boredom and the template for the similarly turgid likes of Coldplay, were, over the span of their first 4 albums, the most innovative band on the planet. Constantly evolving their sound from their early glam Roxy pop, through monotone yet experimental and intriguing industrial rock, synth-led krautrock to glossy and expansive European dancey rock, they were chameleonic, challenging and immensely talented”.

Nuff said. It was this long-held belief which led me to check out their former back rows fronted by Owen Paul on a windswept evening in Oxford, and also to brave crappy weather and potential stadium rock bluster overload for a small taste of that old stuff from the real thing in Westonbirt last year. So when I heard about this tour – promoting the release of an enhanced yet very nicely priced 5 CD box set of those seminal first 4 albums plus “breakthrough” record “New Gold Dream” (which was still bloody good, if slightly shinier and more commercial, bumping up to the point when they started losing it), with a tour promising 5 numbers from EACH of those 5 records – I frankly couldn’t move quick enough to grab a ticket! I don’t know their motivations for this CD release and tour – recent peer acclaim from the likes of The Horrors etc. for that seminal early stuff, the need to squash Ex Simple Minds by playing the stuff they concentrate on, the desire to pump a big wodge of cash into Jim Kerr’s pension fund, or any combination of the above – but honestly I don’t care. This was MY Simple Minds tour, the one I wanted to see in the 80’s and didn’t. So well worth the steep (hell, almost vertical!) ticket price and lengthy jaunt to B’rum, sadly the closest the “5X5” tour came to Swindon, but also the scene of a remarkable resurrection last year in the Adam Ant show.

So, taking no chances on a Friday afternoon, and picking up that this one was going to be an early start (I was guessing 7.30, and that turned out to be right on the money), I took some lieu time and left straight from work at 3.30, still nursing a bit of the man flu. Thankfully nobody got in my way, and I was able to park in the Mailbox multi-storey just past the venue at 6 after a steady run up. So I had the unusual experience of waiting in the queue for the venue to open; chatted with fellow punters, including a couple from the Cotswolds and their 9 year old daughter who was lamenting the omission of “Belfast Child” from tonight’s show. I’m bloody well not!

A note by the entrance stated that, as expected, this would be an early starting two-part set, but that part one would concentrate on the first 2 albums, different to my research which suggested they’d been mixing it up and opening with “I Travel”. So which would it be? That question was emphatically answered after the lights dimmed, dry ice enveloped the stage and the backing track played an early material snippet medley (including some tracks to be omitted tonight, notably “Sweat In Bullet”). Then, the boys took the stage and the scattergun synth opening of “I Travel” started up, getting me immediately plunging down the front, stage centre, and rocking out to one of my all-time fave Level 3 dance tracks.

Vocalist and main Minds inspiration Jim Kerr was also “on it” from the outset, throwing shapes with abandon and exhorting the crowd to sing along. Despite this being early material, you can take the boy out of the stadium, I guess, but you can’t take the stadium out of the boy… Despite his best efforts and my rocking out, however, the gig atmosphere took quite a while to settle in, the early and fuller hypnotic dance of “Changeling” notwithstanding. Did this crowd actually know what was supposed to be going on tonight? A seething “Scar” preceded a careful, almost perfunctory reading of “Life In A Day”, before an unexpectedly tough “Hunter And The Hunted” proved a surprising early highlight. However, the thunderous, billowing synth pulse of “Love Song” topped that, strident and tremulous, the energetic Kerr finally getting a reaction from this crowd. “Pleasantly Disturbed” actually came close to topping that, all creepy and sinuously moody before building to a cacophonous finale, by which time I was moshing and singing along with 3 other guys down the front. At last!

After a 15 minute breather, set part 2 commenced with a “Sons”/ “Sister” triple, opening with a terrace chant “American”, the Minds really warming to their task and igniting the crowd. Then – my time – a trio of “Real To Real Cacophony” numbers, with a brilliantly moody and sinister “Factory” making up for a slightly muted “Changeling”. Set part 2 was generally better received and played, culminating in the plangent magnificence of the oft-overlooked “Someone Somewhere In Summertime”, a resonant final set number.

They weren’t done though, and the ridiculously infectious, should’ve-been new wave anthem of “Someone” was an encore highlight, before “Chelsea Girl” saw otherwise excellent guitarist Charlie Burchill mucking up the middle 8 (hey, it’s a hard riff, and it’s been a long set…), before a thunderous “New Gold Dream” brought 2¼ hours of innovative yet nostalgic rock to a close. I could forgive some numbers for sounding a little unrehearsed, and the need to pack them all in precluding against any lengthy words from Jim Kerr, who moved the set along at a cracking pace and fully earned his corn tonight. I half expected some bumps in the road, but they were fewer than feared, and redressed by the simple fact that they were even playing these damn songs in the first place! A lengthy wait and much pestering finally saw me bag the keyboardist’s set-list, and I then caught breath and headed home for 12. Faith restored!

Friday, 17 February 2012

841 BIG COUNTRY, Gun, Bristol O2 Academy, Wednesday 15 February 2012

Barely 10 months on, one of the Comeback Kings of a particularly notable 2011 year for comebacks, namely Big Country, are treading the boards again! This time they’re celebrating an auspicious 30th Anniversary; no, not of the first time I saw them “live” (they’re 7 months away from marking that August 1982 Swindon Brunel Amphi gig), but of the release of their first album, “The Crossing”. This saw Big Country arrive fully formed, moving between dramatic balls-out rockers, touching and careworn ballads, and expansive windswept epic rock workouts, whilst firmly establishing their signature guitar-led Celtic rockist sound. More importantly, it’s an album which you can pretty much raucously sing every word to, in the company of a good friend and 1,500 or so like-minded souls. So were the Big Man and I up for a repeat of last April’s triumph? You bet’cha!

I tried to persuade my 14 year old son Evan, down visiting my parents, to join us, but he wasn’t up for seeing his dad sing embarrassingly loudly in public, so it was a slightly man-flu ridden Sheriff that The Big Man drove carefully down to the Academy, hitting the quiet-early-doors venue just as similarly-reformed Scots rockers Gun took the stage just before 8. Their set of post grungey, late-period Rolling Stones rock’n’roll collision was alright, nothing more, and was met by swathes of indifference, despite the energetic vocalist’s best efforts. Their best number, their retread of Cameo’s “Word Up”, was clumsy and lacked the original’s quirky charm. Beyond that, much like their career, Gun’s set utterly passed me by.

Took our usual stage left spots near to a very habitable stage-front (well attended, this, but by no means a sell-out), and chatted until the lights dimmed at 9, and Big Country took the stage, diving into the rousing “Angle Park”, a “B” side from back when “B” sides meant something. Mike Peters, again on hols from his Alarm day job and guesting on vocals, was the focal point of the performance, his expansive rabble-rousing gestures, obvious fandom for Big Country, and general honest bonhomie (including a nice early story of a fan who’d kept a bootleg version of “The Crossing” a secret for 30 years – until tonight!) catching both eye and ear. That said, the set really didn’t catch fire until half an hour in, when, “the journey to "The Crossing”," as Peters’ referred to it, was complete. At that point, Mark Brzezicki’s familiar drumbeats and Peters’ echoing of the words of Big Country’s founder, the late Stuart Adamson, to, “take the emotion and passion and make it live… share it, and come out screaming,” heralded the strident LP opener “In A Big Country”. Then suddenly, like a champagne cork popping, the tension was released and the place went nuts.

"In A Big Country” was a brilliant terrace sing-along, but was even topped by a frankly stunning “Inwards”, which followed a show of hands as to which album cover colour everyone owned back in the day! (Blue won – I had blue on vinyl. I've got a red CD now...). “The Crossing” was majestically delivered, all tracks featuring lengthy audience sing-alongs, every one a highlight in itself. However “Chance”, which Peters delivered standing on a chair in the middle of the mosh after being challenged to do so by some wag in the crowd (not me this time!), and the rousing epic swoops and tempo changes of the set finale “Porrohman”, which saw Peters shine a reflective light on the crowd from his guitar back, were 2 particular highlights.

An encore of Smoky Robinson’s “Tracks Of My Tears” – apparently Stuart Adamson’s favourite song – was preceded by a punter proposing to his lady (been there, done that), before finale “Wonderland” and some kinds words of tribute from bassist Tony Butler, both to ourselves in the crowd and to Stuart Adamson, drew a 2 hour (wow!) set to a close. Ultimately superb stuff, as I had expected this time, so maybe last April’s comeback show topped this one in retrospect, as it was so unexpected. Nevertheless, this was another fine footnote to the legacy of this great band, and another fine tribute to their late and sadly missed founder. Stuart, your boys – and Mike Peters – are doing you proud.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

840 NADA SURF, Waters, London Camden Koko, Wednesday 8 February 2012

I’ve said it before and this year it bears repeating, particularly with my new car making me paranoid to park anywhere that isn’t totally locked down; it takes a VERY special band to drag me up to London, especially on a school night. However Nada Surf fall squarely into that category; in fact they probably stack up right at the top right now! Nearly 4 years since my last “live” Surf experience, they’re back with what might be their best album yet, in the wonderful and magical “The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy”. Bucking their recent headlong descent towards slow-burn and introspective hush, evidenced in their last 2 albums, this one actually features some startling rock guitar! Galloping fast songs! Power and pace, even! However this augments rather than detracts from their stark, touching and lovelorn songcraft, and deliciously warm and confessional delivery, producing what is easily an Album Of The Year favourite for 2012, and honestly a real masterpiece for the ages. In fact, I spent a lunchtime last week listening to it and a colleague, returning from lunch, took a look at me and asked me if I’d been crying. This is evidently the profound emotional effect that this album has on me. I’m utterly lost in this album, and right now this band says everything to me about my life.

However, this being the first time I’ve been to KOKO, I was unsure about local street parking; Camden Car Parks all seem to shut early; and other nearby NCPs charge £8 an hour! Fuck that! So after an early departure and a quick run, I parked the new car nervously in my usual spot in an eerily quiet Bush, having an easy but freezy tube trip over to Mornington Crescent, and hitting the venue at 7.30. A wonderfully ornate red-lit venue with lots of gold leaf carvings and plenty of viewing balconies, like a mini Shepherd’s Bush Empire, only far grander. I explored the various levels before support Waters sneaked on at 7.50. A young San Franciscan 4-piece, they played some diverting chunky and resonant indie power pop to evidently their biggest ever audience, with one racy number “Back To You” and the blond vocalist’s evident effort and enthusiasm a feature. The final number, an anthemic “Forever”, saw him step away from the mic and give an “unplugged” performance, after coaching the audience to sing the hook! Shades of The Gaslight Anthem from this young band, in a good opening set.

Stayed down in the front rows, stage right, as the lights dimmed at 8.50 and Da Surf sauntered casually onstage. A 5-piece Surf line-up, this, with the usual trio of mainman Matt Caws, the sumptuously dreadlocked Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot augmented, “live” as on the new record, by Guided By Voices’ guitarist Doug Gillard and Calexico’s talented multi-instrumentalist Martin Wenk, to give the punch this robust new material deserves and needs. And this was evident from the outset, with the new CD’s devastating one-two opening combo “Clear Eye Clouded Mind” and “Waiting For Something” opening the set. That was it, I was bouncing around like a loon from note one, and had navigated my way through to front centre, by the time the heady rush of third number “Happy Kid” assailed the ears of this old punk.

This was a wonderfully paced, joyful set of high-end punchy powerpop and warm, touching honest rock from Da Surf, with light and shade aplenty to delight and beguile. “Killians Red”, joyfully dark and morose, was followed in short order by silky and harmonic newie “Jules And Jim”, which featured a smooth, wide-eyed delivery from Matt’s familiar vocal tones and some rocking xylophone from Wenk, prompting some wag down the front (OK, it was me…) to shout out, “well, that was bloody lovely!”, and eliciting a, “why thank you, Sir!” response from Mr. Caws. A ferocious “The Way You Wear Your Head” was followed by the plangent magnificence that is always “80 Windows”, Wenk also embellishing this all-time classic with some understated trumpet. Da Surf were really cooking with gas in this set mid-section!

The stomping “High Speed Soul” was messy and discordant, but actually seemed all the more fun for this rough-housing, before a mesmerising “See These Bones”, building to a gloriously heartfelt cacophony, like warm waves crashing over myself and the audience, rounded off a quite perfect set. A naked “Blonde On Blonde” preceded Matt, as ever a personable and gregarious presence throughout, telling us a story of his father’s flight from a cult and his subsequent struggle to stay in touch with relatives, which enabled Matt to introduce some of them onstage. “Don’t give up on what you believe in,” was Matt’s lesson, one well learned.

The bouncy final number “Looking Through” brought a swift and magical 1½ hour set to a close, and as the band left the stage I caught Daniel’s attention and he handed me Matt’s set-list and took one of my gig blog cards. Fair swap! Caught my breath after a majestic performance from da Surf, chatting with some similarly supremely entertained fellow punters, before waiting at Mornington Crescent for the tube train that seemingly never came, nevertheless getting back to the car at 11.30 and home for 1. A late late one these days, then, but completely justified by a heart-felt, melancholy, yet uplifting and triumphant performance from a truly great band completely at the height of their powers.