It’s not normal practice round these parts to pull together some thoughts on a gig from exactly three weeks back, but these circumstances are a bit special.
Earlier this year, Matt Johnson announced a comeback tour of fairly impressive proportions for The The, including two successive nights in Glasgow. There was a slight twist in that the first date, 4 September, was at the all-standing Barrowlands while the following night would see the band perform in front of an all-seated audience at the Royal Concert Hall. I was keen to get along to both nights but was a bit slow off the mark on the day the tickets were released, missing out on Barrowlands show but being happy enough with the decent seats, about 15 rows back in the centre stalls, for the Concert Hall.
The plan had been to try and pick up a Barrowlands ticket nearer the time and look to compare the two gigs given that the two venues couldn’t have been more different. One would have involved a hot, sweaty and loud crowd, possibly with some semblance of a mosh pit, with all sorts of singing and chanting to accompany the band while the other, certainly based on previous experiences, would be akin to watching and appreciating an orchestra with polite but generous applause offered at the end of each song. As it turned out, a busy work schedule in advance of my planned trip to Toronto precluded me having enough time to get along on the first night and I had to make do with just the one show.
Me and The The go back a long long way, not quite to the very beginning of the band but certainly to 1982 and the singles which pre-dated the release of Soul Mining the following year.
The enigmatic yet charismatic Matt Johnson has always fascinated and impressed me, releasing distinctive music that seemed to be perfectly in tune with my own feelings and views at different stages in my life. He has always surrounded himself with the very best of musicians, initially in the studio and then on the road in the 90s. He is highly regarded and respected by just about every other fellow musician, not least Johnny Marr whose membership of The The was actually longer than his time in The Smiths. Having said that, Luke Haines isn’t a fan, having had a huge bust-up when The Auteurs were the support act on a UK tour…..
I was accompanied on this occasion by Mrs Villain, a rare gig outing together for us, partly out of her own love for The The but also that she likes the venue, one which has superb acoustics and lends itself to performances of all kinds. The audience was, for the most part, people of our ages, primarily groups of bald/balding men dressed head to toe in black; this may have been in tribute to the band who, as it turned out, were also dressed in a similar way but I reckon in most instances it was an effort to disguise the paunches brought about by the onset of middle-old age. I reckon most of us, while loath to admit it, would be glad of the fact that we were getting to sit down at the show, especially after seeing the notices posted up at the entrance requesting no photos or filming during the gig also advising that The The would be performing for more than two hours. All of a sudden, £40 felt like a bargain.
For those of you who don’t know, it’s been almost 20 years since The The last released new music or toured, a period in which Matt Johnson retreated to the shadows without ever completely going away. He’s composed music for films and also had a substantial on-line presence thanks to a series of podcasts under the beaner of Radio Cineola. There was also a single, We Can’t Stop What’s Coming, released for Record Store Day in 2017, in which he renewed his collaboration with Marr, on a song that was inspired by the death of his elder brother Andy, who, as Andy Dog, had contributed so much in the way of artwork and visuals to the band in the early years.
It was therefore very fitting that the show paid tribute to the life and work of Andy Dog with the musicians performing against an ever-changing complex backdrop of still and moving images from the halcyon days of the 80s and 90s. I learned afterwards that the technical limitations of the Barrowlands had prevented the background being on display at the previous night’s show which I feel would have been something of a loss as the visuals seemed to be an essential accompaniment to many of the songs.
Ah… the songs. After all, this is what a music blog should be concentrating on.
It was something of a subdued beginning for most of the audience thanks to the decision to open with three lesser-known tracks, albeit they were all among my own personal favourites from the back catalogue, including an airing for Flesh and Bones, the b-side which had featured on this blog on the very day of the gig. Things very much went up a notch thereafter with a run of singles, all of which were received enthusiastically, having been delivered in a slightly stripped-back way that demonstrated the talents of the singer and his fellow performers. The audience was, as is almost always the case at this venue, reverential and serious which I was delighted with as every note could be heard thanks to nobody chirping away annoyingly to their neighbour.
The rest of the night went along at a perfect pace, with the set drawing on all the studio LPs, including the lesser spotted debut Burning Blue Soul as well as Hanky Panky, the ill-begotten and largely misguided album of Hank Williams covers. The five-strong-band provided the audience with everything it could have wished for, effortlessly switching pace and tempo throughout with a performance that was reminiscent of the Bad Seeds at their very best.
It was clear that the band had rehearsed and prepared intently for the show, even down to the gaps between songs which allowed Matt to talk to the audience, reminiscing occasionally about the old days but also pointing out how, in reality, so little had changed in society. The younger me might have got a bit annoyed at how polished, professional and perfect it all was; the older me, however, fully appreciated it all, and as I sat and listened with intent I found myself being transported back in time to when I had first heard so many of the songs, thinking again about certain people, occasions and incidents for the first time in a long while. I laughed, smiled and I wiped away tears on one occasion, now fully understanding, thanks to the passing of some people who I was so close to, the power and emotion of one particular song:-
The downside to an all-seated audience is an understandable reluctance to get up and dance for fear of irking the person sitting behind you. As a result, barnstorming renditions of This Is The Day, Infected and I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All of My Life), while getting the loudest cheers of the night in the main set, didn’t get the reaction they fully deserved other than a handful of fans moving to the side of the hall and throwing their shapes.
Matt, however, had a solution for the encore, Having given a truly wonderful solo rendition of True Happiness This Way Lies, he told us that he had spoken to the venue management while he’d been off-stage and the OK had been given for everyone to stand for the final two songs of the night which became 15 truly unforgettable minutes which sent everyone out into the night happy, buzzing and hoping that he won’t keep us waiting so long till the next visit.
My opening line to this referred to special circumstances.
This posting hasn’t just been inspired by the gig itself, but is a the outcome of an exchange of e-mails with the wonderfully talented C, she of Sun Dried Sparrows fame.
She has never shouted about it but C has a connection with the Johnson family, initially having been close friends/neighbours with Andy and his dad, who himself sadly passed away earlier this year. She has gotten to know and become friendly with Matt over the years, although she had long appreciated much of his music with her introduction being Soul Mining in the early 80s. This comeback tour was, however, the first opportunity she ever had to go see the band which she did in Birmingham just a few days after Glasgow.
Those of you who are familiar with her blog will know that C is a terrifically articulate writer, capable of composing the most memorable of pieces no matter the subject or genre. She dropped me a note, which I only picked up on my return from Toronto, telling me that the Birmingham show had exceeded all expectations but had at times been emotionally draining, particularly from seeing the images of Andy and his work as the backdrop. She told me that she had been ‘umming and ahhing’ ever since about writing a review on her own blog but had found it very hard to be objective as things were coloured by her connections to the family and by knowing Matt as the man outside of The The. She also, very gently I must say, asked if I’d consider penning a review as, and I quote ‘it would be a joy to read it and I feel it would kind of help cover it on my behalf too, if that makes sense.’
I’ve been more than happy to accept the commission. I just hope I’ve lived up to her expectations.