Sunday, July 01, 2007

"fragile for each other": warming up at meltdown

or, three bands we hadn't seen since sometime last century...




the last time we saw cornershop live, it was - at a guess - about 1994, as part of a wiiija records night, possibly in islington. this was before wiiija landed the blue riband signing of heavenly, but our sketchy memories recall that (a) blood sausage, huggy bear, voodoo queens and jacob's mouse were also on the bill; (b) the late great john peel was in the audience and (c) cornershop made a brilliantly tuneless racket, rather charming in its raucous naivety, which included "change" off their first album. we would certainly not have guessed back then that the next time we saw them they would be a seven-piece with sitar and tamboura playing the queen elizabeth hall on london's south bank, but then we would also not have guessed that cornershop would have a number one hit less than four years later, that white town would already have managed one by then and that the next decade would see bristol rovers going further down the divisions, rather than back up them.

anyway, despite a stuttering start when tjinder's vocal is lost entirely in the mix, cornershop do enough to remind a sceptical population (us) that there is enough about them still, especially when the punjabi influences come to the fore. there is also, quite properly, no talking to the audience between songs nonsense. on the downside they very wrongly do not perform "jason donovan / tessa sanderson" or "england's dreaming" or "change". however, they do perform all three of their top 40 hits - "sleep on the left side", "lessons learned from rocky i to rocky iii" and the one that fatboy slim ruined - as well as reclaiming "norwegian wood" from those scouse chancers. much better than that though - especially as they leave it 'til last - is "6 a.m. jullandar shere", which they build up over precious minutes from a swathe of trebly acoustic guitar through to a towering full-band crescendo. it's a reminder of how powerful "6 a.m." really is: we honestly still believe it's one of the most striking singles of its generation. there's no encore: you couldn't ask for anything better to ring in your ears and usher you back out into the london night, while the stars rain down around the banks of a mellow, becalmed thames.

the last time we saw the jesus and mary chain live it was at meltdown 1998. they were very much a band in need, having just released an incohesive, fractured yet in parts fairly delectable album called "munki" on their old alma mater creation records. the (unfair) reception of that lp, together with the fact that the fairly fabulous "cracking up" stalled at number 35, had likely taken a toll on their confidence. (and the under-rated singles "i hate rock n' roll" and "i love rock n' roll" round that time had laid the band's feelings and inner contradictions bare). that show had been memorable though: there were plenty of songs from "munki", enlivened by guest spots from sister vanilla, kevin shields and bobby gillespie, and culminating with a bizarre, elongated and very drunken encore from william reid alone, who played an epic version of the de-tuned "commercial", thanked us all in an unfeasibly fey accent for turning up to see them, and, almost in tears, slagged off the nme before telling us all that we were "special". tiredness and emotion writ large, j&mc split soon after.

tonight was very different. for in the nine years that they've been away, some distracting solo outings (the best of which were probably jim's "song for a secret" and william's "tired of fucking") having been largely ignored, the aura and the legend of the mary chain seems to have grown. in 1998 it seemed few wanted to know, but in 2007 they are talismanic again: the royal festival hall sells out smartly, and jim and william step out on stage to a huge ovation. with bass, guitar and drums plucked from bands with less staying power, the new five-piece mary chain confidently knock out a golden greatest hits set, which apart from "cracking up" ignores their last two records, "stoned and dethroned" and "munki" entirely, and focusses on the crowd-pleasing americana of their mid-period ("sidewalking", "blues from a gun", "head on", "snakedriver", "between planets", "catchfire", "reverence"), plus some very special bonuses like "never understand" to open and both "vegetable man" and "you trip me up" as part an unusually inevitable encore.

inamidst these pounding, powering standards there is also a full band version of jim's solo single "dead end kids" - suddenly altogether meatier - and even a new song called "all things must pass" which manages to tick pretty much all the required boxes. true the feedback only really reaches the levels that the music really demands on "you trip me up" and a blistering "teenage lust", but the punters are mad for it and the brothers are looking well. jim derails "snakedriver" and "just like honey" (twice) by haranguing william for some perceived guitar faux-pas, but aside from that there is no hint of their past vulnerabilities.

so yes we really really enjoyed the evening - one of the best. five. bands. ever, never sounding too far from their prime - but (whisper) part of us still felt, especially in contrast to meltdown '98, that there was something indefinable lacking, something strangely uninvolving about what was on the face of it a towering, triumphant set. (does that sound a bit mad, idealistic, too ungrateful ? or are we just getting old ?)

the last time we saw the pastels was probably about ten years ago. they were playing the borderline in charing cross and previewing the soft, slow whimsies of "illumination", their most mature, jazz-tufted work. already, their set had moved on dramatically from earlier-90s shows, drawing impetus and inspiration from the quieter, more reflective passages of "mobile safari" rather than mid-school indie treasures like "classic line-up": while the single "unfair kind of fame" straddled both their exploratory and shambling urges.

it was a real treat then to catch up with them supporting the mary chain, lovingly introduced by another veteran of the peel years, jarvis cocker (who pointed out that the two bands hadn't actually shared a bill since a show in preston in 1985, a gig we have now added to our must-sees for when we get the time machine working). the gloves were still very much on as the pastels treated us to scenic, wistful, whispering music - like "illumination"'s "leaving this island" or the glowing newie (at least to us) "secret music": there were also a couple of instrumentals to cherish as they drew out those mild indie-dub tendencies that seeped through their chrysalis moment, "worlds of possibility". the band hit their stride best, though, with the happy shambling of "basement scam" and "fragile gang" from "mobile safari". oh, and the oldest songs in the set, "nothing to be done", along with "thru yr heart", were obvious treats too - when stephen sang in the former "when i was young / i used to sing..." it was all rather wonderfully moving, to this boy at least.

p.s. while not unexpected, it was a little of shame that the hall was quite so empty for the pastels' set - to us, both they and the mary chain were part of the same wonderful patchwork, and their sharing this bill something we found sentimentally so appealing - in this, it seems we were in something of a minority. *sigh*. but we won't be downcast - for once again meltdown provided us with a chance to catch up with some old themes and revive some treasured times.

oh, and thank you to john g.

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