The Frank Turner song “Substitute” features a lyric which states; “I’ve had many different girls inside my bed, but only one or two inside my head…” The same can be said for me and bands; I’ve loved many – many – down the years, but if I’m honest, I can count the number that have really gotten under my skin on the fingers of one hand. My formative “home team” Echo And The Bunnymen, the Boston triumvirate of Big Dipper, Gigolo Aunts and The Gravel Pit… and this lot, The Parachute Men, a shimmering and plangent late 80’s indie based clash of chiming brilliance from Leeds, fronted by the inimitable and effervescent Fiona Gregg. Operating in that post-Smiths/ C86, pre Madchester musical landscape, their debut “The Innocents” was the soundtrack to my early 20’s, and even now only has The Bunnymen’s “Heaven Up Here” as serious competition for my most played record ever. Something about their music resonated so closely and personally, and spoke directly to me; I was hooked, and saw them 11 times in just over 2 years, every time a great time, and mostly on the guest list, thanks to Fi’s generosity. Having inevitably losing touch when label wrangles and subsequent lack of momentum brought about the band’s inevitable demise first time around, I happily re-connected with Fi a few years ago thanks to Facebook, and even took the opportunity earlier this year to surprise her on an Evan visit day, popping over the Pennines to catch her “hobby” covers band in Leeds in January (gig 935).
So was I up for a Parachute Men show? Oh Lordy, was I…! Coming about apparently at the inception of Fi’s “beau”, former Three Johns man Philip “Brenny” Brennan, who quite rightly believed that these songs needed to be heard again, this was announced earlier this year, and my dear lady wife gave me the go-ahead for an overnighter Oop North. Thus it was that I set off at 1pm, hitting the outskirts of Leeds at 4.30 after a 2 stop drive, then losing my way around Leeds’ inner ring-road. D’oh! Still, I booked into my nearby guest-house bolt hole, then took a short wander to this large and rambling pub venue in the University heartland. Apparently an essential stop on the student initiation pub crawl, the punters predominantly consisted of groups of drunken studes in fancy dress, ranging from Roman Gladiators to Smurfs, Buzz Lightyear to Nemo, and one brave bloke as a short-skirted Snow White! Ran into Fi in relatively short order, and spent a good hour renewing old friendships with the same outspoken yet personable quintessential Northern lass from those late 80’s Paras days, also being introduced to a succession of Leeds music scenesters funnelling in to greet Fi.
We took a wander upstairs to the ample venue room (which reminded me of a smaller Hammersmith Clarenden – remember that?) for 8.30 to catch openers Esper Scout. A young all-girl group, their third number in was an unexpected cover of obscure Leeds post-punkers Delta 5’s “Anticipation”, the herky-jerky new wave beats and militaristic drumrolls at odds with their usual stock-in-trade, of chunkier upbeat post-grunge powerpop tomfoolery, with shuddering drums well to the fore. Nevertheless, “Anticipation” showed they knew their local history, as did the singer’s Para’s tribute; “seeing “Leeds Station” is going to be fucking brilliant – it’s one of the city’s best songs”. They closed their set out with their best number, “Fires”, a darker and more complex mood-piece building to a noisy crescendo. Nice work overall.
The crowd – comprising mainly of older, leather jacketed and black jean clad old punkers and musos (I fitted right in!), filed in, hovering at the bar, Fi disappeared, “to put my face on…”, and I chatted with Joanne Shaw, tonight’s keyboard player but a former guest backing vocalist first time around, who I saw back up the acoustic Paras down in Southampton, waaay back in 1989 (gig 124!). The current iteration of The Parachute Men (Fi and Jo, both resplendent in iridescent spangly dresses, plus bass/drums rhythm section of local rock veterans Pete Cahill and Martin Aylward) hovered stage right while Brenny fiddled with the guitar set-up onstage. It had evidently been causing some issues, because when the band got underway, the guitar sound was thin and indistinct on opener “Sometimes In Vain”, thereafter sounding a little jarring and in conflict with the rest of the mix during “No Wonder”, and only really getting sorted for the magnificent “Mad Sadie Can’t Levitate”, easily the best – and best sounding – number in the set.
But for me, the Paras “live” were all about Fi, and tonight was no exception; Fi the voice, as deep, husky and emotive as before, conveying melancholy and impish playfulness in equal measure (and often in the same song): Fi the performer, sparkly and kinetic, synchronising moves with Joanne like a pair of Vegas go-go dancers: Fi the raconteur, captivating, smart and sassy, holding court from centre stage: “we’re going all lounge lizardy now,” she announced as they tried a new, moodier number, “Blood Lust And Barbed Wire”. The band then took a break – “to set up a line of iced gems!” according to Pete – while Fi and Brenny delivered an acoustic cover of Bowie’s venerable oldie “8 Line Poem”. Then, the inevitable “Leeds Station”, a touching strumalong paean to their home town, delivered with as much reverence as Fi could muster. Quite, quite lovely. Another newie brought a variable-sounding yet remarkably swift set to a close, Fi handing me the list as I, sweaty and fair out of puff, realised just how much I’d been jumping around. Just like the old days!
Got my poster (reserved on my way in!) signed by all participants, popping outside to the smoking area to catch Fi and Brenny, in the process meeting Simon, a fellow Para’s aficionado from back in the day who’d ventured over from Blackburn for the show. Eventually took a wander up to check out headliners Two Car Family, a trio of similar vintage to the crowd, who were assaulting the eardrums with some driving and ringing guitars embellishing a Jam-ish bolshy post-punk powerpop style, with good song structures, hooky pseudo-choral breaks and a social conscience (viz. the drummer’s diatribe about a homeless man, who died of hypothermia on the doorsteps of an abandoned house he’d been arrested for breaking into). Thought-provoking, tight and together, this was another impressive set, and probably the best-sounding of the 3 on show tonight.
Another chat with Fi to compare notes about tonight’s show, before fond farewells and a swift walk back to my digs (prior to an equally swift drive home after a cooked brekky the next morning!). Soundwise I honestly found it somewhat variable, if far from the “carcrash” Fi referred to it as; let’s face it, the first time back’s always going to be challenging, and no amount of rehearsals can prepare you for it. Still, this was only part of the story. Simply, hearing these songs again “live”, songs I hold so dear, songs as familiar to me as my own skin, was extraordinary enough in itself, and seeing that time had not dimmed the Star Quality of the singer was an utter treasure. In these increasingly common band “reunion” circumstances, all you really want is for the band – or the new line-up, in this instance – to do justice to their legacy, and tonight The Parachute Men did that plenty.