If there’s a sure fire way to banish any winter blues or darkness (or in my case the first of the season’s colds) then it’s a Charlatans’ gig.
A band who have been on the music scene for some twenty five years, and yet continue to deliver with the same (if not more) energy than any of their peers, or indeed many of the younger, up and coming bands.
This been largely down to front man, Tim Burgess who is so Peter Pan like, one may be forgiven for expecting him to actually take off and fly mid set. Or it could be that, despite being in his late forties, his dedication to the use of social media as an integral part of the gigs, makes him cooler than your average throw back band from the 90s.
Not that The Charlatans are stuck in the 90s – only touring old material to regenerate dwindling funds from royalties. No, this band are still writing new material and this tour is the culmination of their 12th studio album: Modern Nature and a tour they have taken worldwide, such is their continuing appeal.
The Birmingham gig was the second showing for me of The Modern Nature tour, my first being back in March at Leicester’s O2 academy. One may wonder is there any point to seeing the same band on the same tour twice. But therein lies the beauty of The Charlatans. You just know that no two nights will be the same.(Tim Burgess tweets set lists after each gig, if you’re wondering how I know this.) So sure, there will be shared elements (such as the choice of tracks from the new album), but the order won’t necessarily be the same. The huge advantage to being an established band, with a loyal and long standing fan base, is that they can pretty much cherry pick anything from their previous 11 studio albums and the crowd are sure to be left as satisfied as they will be after their Christmas dinner. Tracks you’d never considered much cop in the past (pretty much anything much from Wonderland when Burgess’ voice was much weaker) suddenly takes on a new life and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find a love for tracks I’d previously dismissed. On this tour, You’re So Pretty, We’re So Pretty takes the accolade. This band know how to do live and they know how to do it well.
It helps, of course, when you have your own marketing man right there in your midst. Burgess’ now renowned use of Twitter means he’s in direct contact with the fans and this level of personalisation seems to be working to give the band themselves a much deserved renewed lease of life.
And so, Burgess tweets that very morning to inform fans he’ll be on the merchandise stand from doors open until the first of the support bands go on. And I’ll bet he was, only we’re not there until quarter to 8 and Riding the Low with front man Paddy Considine (yes, the actor Paddy Considine) are already high kicking their way through the first warm up of the night. Oh yes, it’s a Saturday and for £27.50 you get two support acts as well as a twenty track set from the main act. (One of those being an epic ten minutes long.) I’d say this is value for money you’ll rarely get elsewhere with such an established band, and you really wonder how any of the members from any of the three bands are making any money.
Due to my inclination towards claustrophobia, my height (tall men always outnumber shorter women at these gigs), and my new found love of being at the front to see Burgess close up, we are there early enough to claim a front row standing position next to the barrier right in front of where bassist Martin Blunt will be.
After Riding the Low are finished, we are treated to a fine and polished set from Sunderland’s Frankie and The Heartstrings who announce they are selling their latest Christmas single on a piece of Christmas cake. I’d come across it at the merchandise stall, but thought it was simply another of Burgess’ marketing gimmicks to go with his own coffee range – Tim Peaks – also on sale. However, it seems newer bands are learning from the veterans on the unique marketing front, as it was The Charlatans who famously released their 10th studio album, You Cross My Path, on free digital download back in March 2008. This going one better than Radiohead’s own stint at releasing an album in 2007 whereby users determined the price paid. Trailblazers before the likes of Spotify and other music streaming services became widespread.
Back to the gig. I’m accompanied at the front by two very drunk women on my left who keep moaning for The Charlatans to hurry up and come on, and a couple to my right in the middle of a heavy domestic. Oh, is it going to be that kind of a night I wonder to myself.
But all this drama disappears as soon the lights go down, some other friends turn up after my brother and mate plant themselves in the throng of fans in the middle, and at 9:15 sharp(ish) the band walk on to a raucous welcome of applause, but, much to my disappointment, not to the usual bass and Hammond organ build up of Forever. Instead the band opt for the more sedate opener Talking in Tones, which I’d say is more of a mid set piece when things need to be taken down a notch or two. It may be from the new album, but remember we’re in a room full of hardcore Charlatans stalwarts who continue to follow and buy their music religiously and no-one shows their disappointment. (At least not until later on Twitter when Burgess will be subject to tweets questioning such choices.) But what they don’t know, unless they hang around into the early hours, is that Forever is being saved for something else.
As the familiar intro to Weirdo strikes up though, the ‘blip’ is quickly forgotten and you remember why you came (or you remember 20 years ago), and it takes only mere seconds for the place to be a mass of jumping lunatics waving their arms and hands about as though they really don’t want to be attached to them any more.
Burgess is a slightly quieter front man, than usual. He speaks very little, allowing the music to do it for him, and when he does it’s simply to introduce the title of the next track. Like they need any introduction. However, his constant non verbal interaction with the crowd is sufficient enough. A smile here, a sung line at someone on the front row there, a wave to the balcony, a private joke with a chosen few, a bottle of water given to someone. There is no stage arrogance with Burgess. The swagger is subtle and in no way obvious, yet he holds the audience entirely captive. Perhaps it’s the reason he refuses to get rid of the mop of blonde hair which he gets so much stick for. Your eyes are drawn to him more than anything or anyone else on stage. And I hear the guy with the girl next to me debate what it is women see in Burgess…I believe it may be called the X Factor. Well, it is Saturday night.
The set, as always, is the perfect mix of old and new, fast and slow(er) and surprises you didn’t see coming. We’re treated to a round of crowd pleasing classics in the line of North Country Boy, (Burgess sings directly at the front row and we sing back), One to Another (no compromise playing this one. It’s a given and the crowd go wild.), Just When You’re Thinking Things Over (keyboard greatness) and The Only One I know, (“because it’s Saturday“), interspersed with the slightly calmer Tellin’ Stories, Tall Grass, Emilie and Trouble Understanding. It’s as though the band intuitively have no trouble understanding our need, as an older crowd, to get our breath back.
Blackened Blue Eyes from the much overlooked Simpatico makes a welcome appearance once more, to lift the tempo. It is then, after my being slightly more subdued than normal, (having had the elbows of the women to my left and right being thrust in my face,) that I decide to show them how it’s really done. Of course not being one of their better known tracks, (at least my brother – massive fan didn’t know it until the Delamere forest gig in 2012, I probably look as though I’ve lost my mind, the way I’m po-go-ing about, but I don’t care, despite being on a drinks cocktail of only water. Alcohol is unnecessary when the music’s this good, and at one point, when someone throws their beer and I get splattered, I can’t help but think, fair play. You don’t need it, mate.
When the all too familiar opener from debut album Some Friendly, You’re Not Very Well, strikes up, I’m instantly transported back on to a coach to Leeds, visiting my boyfriend, circa 1995, and I can’t help but grinning at Burgess as though he is my co-conspirator in some great come back quest. It’s such a treat to hear, as it’s not one they wheel out live very often these days. And here’s the thing. There is almost too much to chose from in their back catalogue you know would have the crowd jumping well into the early hours and beyond if given half the chance. Nothing else from Between 10th and 11th or anything from Up to our Hips is played, or indeed anything from 2010’s Who we Touch, an album I personally love. (In fact it’s almost as if they’ve forgotten they made that album.) There is no delving into hidden gems such as Acid in The Tea from You Cross My Path or even from the Some Friendly extension EP with the likes of Overising and Happen to Die on, though all these and more could easily make the list on another day. How the band ever choose what to play is beyond me, but as I say, no one comes away feeling disappointed. How could you, when the end is always the rousing and rising Sproston Green?
On the 90s crowd-pleasers, Burgess actively encourages the jumping around and the crowd surfing with a twinkle in his eyes, knowing only too well there are forty five year old men, who will quite happily attempt a stage dive, even now. On at least eight occasions large men are pulled over the barrier by security guards and escorted back to their place in the ‘mosh pit’ much to the cheers and smiles of those of us at the front. You have to feel a bit for security in that situation though, because clearly the guys crowd surfing were, in all likelihood, doing this twenty odd years ago when they were just slips of teenagers, all baggy jeans and skinny waists. They forget they are not those boys any more (as we all do temporarily when the tracks of our youth come belting out with the force of a hurricane), but the sight of security having to battle with these heavyweights is quite hilarious.
Burgess, of course may be 48 years old himself, but he has retained the slight build of his twenty something self and is able to wear skinny jeans as though they were invented solely for him. In between the bouncing around stage, throwing his arms up and delivering perfect vocals, he stops, of course, at regular intervals (during the long instrumental section of the classic-to-be Let The Good Times be Never Ending and iconic Sproston Green, to take photos of the crowd and tweet them (something which is now a custom of his). We are ecstatic to see our own faces stare back at us as he posts it out into the ether.
Over the hour and three quarters set, bassist Martin Blunt doesn’t smile or interact with the crowd once, but why would you need to when you play bass so well you can make it seem as though the rhythm of it is emanating from the crowd itself? This is no more the case on the surprise airing of Bad Days which, when its familiar thumping bass-line starts up, you’d be forgiven from the crowd’s lukewarm reaction into thinking it was from Modern Nature. But this, along with Oh! Vanity, come from 2008’s You Cross My Path ( their ‘New Order’ album – just listen to The Misbegotten and you’ll understand), and I’m delighted as these tracks haven’t had an outing at any recent gigs I’ve been to. You can’t help but stand in awe knowing full well that, although it might well be Burgess taking centre stage, it is most likely Blunt’s writing here on this epic bass line. It is truly impossible watching this band to overlook the sheer talent and genius of Blunt, Mark Collins, Tony Rogers and Peter Salisbury (borrowed drummer from The Verve – since Jon Brookes sadly passed away in 2013 from a brain tumour. Their dedication to music and delivering the best is unwavering and many bands could learn from the way these guys do it. They own what they do and they do it well. No egos, no divas. Not even from their front man who thrusts himself only unobtrusively into the public arena, ever humble, ever grateful for every reaction, every interaction, every sale, every gig.
There’s little stage interaction between the members themselves, up until the point when Burgess introduces each, and even then you might mistake them for strangers as Burgess doesn’t seem quite sure which of them are local, or “localish.” But it matters not because you know this band are tight. They have stuck together and are there to do a job, loving it for what it is, not for the fame and fortune. They’ve been together in one form or another for over twenty years and where other bands come, go, spilt, re-group, The Charlatans simply evolve, and become a more accomplished, more confident outfit glued together by Burgess, Blunt and Collins. They deserve the biggest respect in music, yet they get little accolade or recognition compared to their peers.
When Let The Good Times be Never Ending from Modern Nature turns up about half way through, I can’t help but think for the umpteenth time this should replace Sproston Green as the ending live track. A six and a half minute epic musical journey which, although lacking in the horns and gospel choir of the studio track, lacks absolutely nothing in live ‘punch you in the gut, gets you coming back for more’ ness. Also the lyrics would fit an ending well.
As it stands though, when the lights turn to green around 30 minutes later, a familiar warmth spreads up through your body and, as knowing smiles creep across the faces of those around you, you know your thoughts mid way were misplaced whimsy. We all know what’s coming. And we all know it’s going to be epic. We brace ourselves, for although expected and have heard it countless times before, if they didn’t end on Sproston Green, deep down you’d be left feeling short changed. As the bassline and Hammond organ build the tempo, Burgess snaps photos of the crowd swimming in a sea of green strobe lights. The introduction builds tantalisingly slowly and Burgess doesn’t start singing until 5 minutes in. By 7 minutes he’s done and off the stage, leaving the crowd in the more than capable hands of the band, allowing them to really shine for the final precious minutes. Most of the crowd are falling on the floor by this point as the surge forward is unstoppable. The circles of men with their arms thrown around each others’ shoulders has grown ten fold so no one person has any control over their own balance any more.
As the band wind the tempo down, the shortest of the security guards smiles and raises his hands in a calming down gesture, and the relief that he’s not going to have to scramble any more drunken middle aged men over a barrier is palpable in his face.
The lights go up and the crowd disperses, happier, more carefree and younger than when they arrived in the pouring rain earlier that evening.
And how do you top that? Well Burgess DJing at an after show party he’s invited us all to down the road sounds the perfect way…
And at a fiver a pop for a ticket, it’d have been rude not to, wouldn’t it? 🙂
Charlatans Forever. 🙂