Sunday, 1 March 2015

Noise Annoys

THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN - Manchester Academy / Birmingham Institute

The choice of venue can often make the world of difference to the success of a gig, even with the performers giving it all they've got. This is painfully apparent when I compare these gigs that I saw a few months apart, with exactly the same set being played in two different locations. When the Jesus And Mary Chain announced three dates at the end of last year where they would be playing their 1985 debut in full, there was much excitement and a group of my friends immediately snapped up the maximum number of tickets for one of the shows, even before we'd worked out if there were enough of us to use all of them. With tours such as this, with only a handful of dates, it's likely that a longer tour will be scheduled soon afterwards and usually with a show closer to home, but if this means I get to see the band twice then so be it.

I'll start by reflecting on the Manchester show back in November, as I didn't write about it at the time. When a favourite band returns from a long break, particularly when playing a classic album that I was too young to hear played live the first time around, there's always the fear that it won't live up to expectations. In this case there was no need to worry. Before the full run-through of the album, we're treated to seven other songs from various points of their career - playing the encore first, as frontman Jim Reid puts it. They kick off with the jangly "April Skies", perhaps the song that most appeals to those who can't quite decide if they like the band or are put off due to their noisy reputation. Then there are a couple more almost-hits - "Head On" and "Reverence", plus the single "Some Candy Talking" from the same time as the album and the song "Psychocandy" itself, which confusingly didn't appear on the album. An unexpected and welcome inclusion is "Up Too High", an early song that was never released until it appeared on a collection of b-sides and demos in 2008. The first part of the show ends with the debut single "Upside Down", to prepare us for the discordant glory that's coming soon.

Then the volume is cranked up to 11 and even beyond, and we're reminded why "Psychocandy" was such a groundbreaking album. There are melodies here that are easily discernible alongside the wall of fuzz and some great singalong moments, including the gruesome motorbike crash of "The Living End", and "The Hardest Walk" - quite possibly the best break-up song ever. Jim is still a compelling performer, while his brother William stays in the shadows. Some have cruelly said that he's chosen to stay out of the limelight because he knows that he no longer looks as young as he used to, but he's retained his mountain of curly hair and seeing this silhouetted through the smoke, we could easily be back at one of their classic '80s shows where they never looked at the audience. William's guitar is very precise in its distortion and the trademark sharp feedback comes at exactly the right moments. Ex-Lush man Phil King adds an extra layer, not present on the original record but this only serves to make things more cohesive. This is one of the loudest gigs I've seen for a while but despite the volume there is clarity and we're left in no doubt as to what's going on behind the strobe lights.

If I have one quibble, it's the inclusion of a full drum kit. I'm very aware that the Mary Chain used "proper" drums in the final years of their original incarnation, but one of the key elements of "Psychocandy" is Bobby Gillespie's sparse drumming. Obviously Bobby has other things to be getting on with now, but I'm sure if they'd advertised then they would have found someone who couldn't play any more than two drums. I could easily get sidetracked into listing the host of great bands using this style of percussion, but let's just say that pretty much anything - doing the washing up, watching Jeremy Kyle - can be rendered life-changing by the addition of a stand-up drummer.

But I can't really complain about the absence of Bobby as the gig is still more exciting than most young bands I've seen over the past year. We leave the show feeling electrified that something 30 years old still sounds so fresh.

Three months later and I'm excited about seeing the same thing all over again, although I am a little cautious as the Institute has never been one of my favourite venues. I have attended gigs there where everything has sounded spot-on, but an equal number where the sound has left a lot to be desired. I've never been sure if this is because the shape of the room leads to poor acoustics, they've skimped on the sound system or maybe even the sound engineer himself isn't up to scratch.
Things don't seem too bad at first as the band blast through the same seven songs as at the Manchester show. The sound quality isn't perfect but at least things are reasonably clear and it's better than some gigs I've seen in this venue. But once the "encore" is over and we get to the album, things start to go wrong.
My best guess is that the soundman has never actually heard "Psychocandy" but is aware that it's full of distortion so decides that the best option is to push every one of his sliders to the top. This means that it's difficult to discern the separate elements of the music. William's shrill feedback is barely noticeable, all we get is a muddy pool of gloop. It becomes so murky that at one point I lose track of the songs. Despite the album being played in order and the fact that I can recite the tracklisting in my sleep, we're halfway into "Never Understand" before I realise which song it is.

The evening isn't a total loss and I do enjoy hearing the songs again, when I can work out what they are, but I get the feeling that if I had just seen this show and not the previous one then I would think that the band had lost their edge. Indeed, this is the opinion of a friend who is seeing them for the first time in 20 years.

I'm not sure if there are any long-term plans for this reunion, either new songs or more gigs, but I'm glad I got to see one more fantastic show from them and I'll try to forget about the second one. As with many things in life, great moments seem even better when you've got something rubbish to compare them with.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For me the interesting thing about these dates was that Psychocandy was so much a studio product and that JAMC were this band that weren't a band - in that they didn't do proper gigs. And when they did play live the sound (check the bootlegs) was a million miles from the polished records. It was so much about the look, the videos, the smash hit double page spreads. The lyrics. I was so disappointed the first time i saw them (1988) and got fed up with that repeat let down through the years of their initial career. Learning that they were gonna try and recreate Pyschocandy live seemed a ludicrous proposition.