Thursday 13 December 2007

Hard-Fi, Nottingham Arena

It's the Ice Arena, so expectations are low. We arrive to catch the last few songs of Tavistock quintet, The Rumble Strips. L describes them as having a touch of Dexys about them, which is a good analogy. They are good and quite inventive which may reflect badly on tonight's main act.

Then the Surrey boys take the stage and launch into 'Middle Eastern Holiday' or rather three quarters of the band do because the bass guitar isn't working. Now, is it the professional thing to carry on regardless or stop, get the bass sorted and start all over again? They carry on, I think to the slight annoyance of Kai, the bass player. So we get a rather subdued version of one of their punchier tracks. I don't remember anyone sound checking the equipment before they came on, tut tut, shoot the road crew. I can't quite believe it when they opt to play a second track still without any bass guitar. Are they on a deadline or something? Kai is now miming, as technicians run around madly, swapping guitars, changing cables, prodding buttons, twiddling knobs, flicking switches, anything they can think of short of kicking the amplifier. Kai though, I think, is seriously considering it.

Then 20 seconds before the end of the track I think someone realises that they forgot to plug the amp in and the bass guitar bursts into life. Just in time for 'Tied Up Too Tight' their debut single from 2005 which sounds good and gets the crowd going. They follow this with one of their better new tracks 'Can't Get Along', and by now the place is really rocking. They maintain this momentum for a while by playing a mix of old and new but then they lose it when they play a sequence of mediocre tracks from their slightly lightweight new album.

It's at this point that I start looking around at tonight's audience. The first thing that is obvious is that the Arena is probably only half full, which begs the question why are they playing here. My mate the other night reckoned it was because vocalist Richard Archer is a 'bit of a knob' with too big an opinion of himself. On tonight's evidence that's a bit harsh, he's hardly any match for Matt the Mouth from the Pigeon Detectives.

The audience is a real mix of ages and not the predominately younger crowd that I had expected. The youngsters do entertain us though, during the dull moments. A lad in a stripy jumper has to repeatedly try to fight off the ardent attention of his embarrassing drunk girlfriend. He indulges her just enough, so as not to compromise his chances of getting his leg over later, before peeling her off him and pushing her away. Every time he does this she runs off to put her arm around someone else or in one case climb on to their shoulders. She's evidently trying to make him jealous but he doesn’t look bothered, in any case she keeps boomeranging back.

Back on stage, 'Cash Machine' sounds disappointingly flat and is also upstaged by the big screen at the back of the stage. Archer could have been stood there singing naked and no one would have noticed because everyone is too busy being entertained by the screen.

Drunk girl is back again, swinging her arms around Stripy, we all duck as arcs of lager fly from the glass in her hand. Thankfully it'll soon be empty. Although I find myself wishing she'd drink it rather than spill it then she might fall over and we'll all get some peace.

The band play a B-side 'You And Me' and Archer plays a burst of The Special's 'Ghost Town' on a Melodica, proving his talents, he also plays guitar and his voice tonight is faultless.

They all have to do it don't they? On 'We Need Love' they change the words to say 'Nottingham', luckily it is easily transposed with 'Birmingham'. It would have been interesting to see how they got on in Margate the other night.

Some silly sod has fetched Drunk girl a fresh pint of lager and we all get ready to duck again. Stripy's had enough, he slopes off, and when he doesn't return after a couple of songs she goes off to find him. We all relax.

They finish with the oddly popular 'Suburban Knights' and 'Hard To Beat' which also sounds below par. I shall give them the benefit of the doubt and blame the Arena. Luckily we are close to the front and probably get the best of the sound because again there are insufficient speakers for those at the back to get much clarity.

As Archer is singing 'Stand up, knock me right off my feet, hard to beat' a well timed bottle comes sailing towards his head and tries to do just that. Archer pulls off a ducking manoeuvre that he ought to share with Ricky Hatton. The lyrics are so appropriate 'Goodness, no, I've never known a night like this' but I wonder if he's tempted to change the next line and sing 'Can't believe it, I'm so hard to hit'.

Drunk girl has found Stripy and they are back in front of us for the encores. Archer returns alone with an acoustic guitar and plays the first verse of 'The King' alone. The rest of the band gradually drift back and join in as the song goes along. It is one of the best moments of the night. Then they close with two oldies, first the title track from 'Stars of CCTV, then Archer asks 'What goes down in Nottingham on a Thursday night?' That's a bit personal; perhaps he's read Stripy's thoughts. I think 'who falls down' might be more appropriate in Nottingham. Archer is trying to get a lead in to 'Living For The Weekend' but it's a bit convoluted. The track itself does come over well.

In the end I am pleasantly surprised. They're an entertaining band; they just need more decent material. For a band who were once labelled as the modern day Clash they've lost their way a touch. ‘Stars Of CCTV’ was half a good album with some excellent moments, most of which were played tonight, unfortunately it had an equal number of less inspired ones. Their new album ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ is more of the same, or rather less, because they've built on the uninspired half, which hints at a dearth of new ideas. Next time, they 'Better Do Better'.

Wednesday 5 December 2007

Icicle Works, Rescue Rooms

We head to the Rescue Rooms because tonight it's the Icicle Works. Our ticket numbers are 41 and 42, so we're expecting a nice cosy gig and we're not disappointed. L has said all along that she's aiming for the front row and she gets it. I warn her about crowd surfing, for a start she’ll make Daughter jealous but also there aren’t really enough people to surf along, it could be painful.

The support band are called Amsterdam but we only catch their last song, so it's difficult to comment but word has it they could be the next big thing. Although they would say that wouldn't they.

After being solo for something like 15 years, last year Ian McNabb surprised everybody by resurrecting the 'The Icicle Works' for a series of gigs. They obviously enjoyed it because they are back again this year. As it turns out though this isn't the original band, only Ian McNabb survives of the original line-up, although bass player Roy Corkill joined around 1990. Tonight he is joined by former Dodgy drummer Matthew Priest and keyboard player Richard Naiff, who apparently is fresh from touring with the Waterboys. He's quite a character is Richard, I can honestly say I've never seen anyone enjoy playing keyboards as much as he seemed to.

The first time I saw the Icicle Works back in the eighties, a friend had to talk me into going but I was impressed because they were a great live band and I subsequently went to see them several more times until they split up in the early nineties.

They start tonight with the 'When It All Comes Down', released when the band were at the height of their fame and it still sounds great. I think L immediately regrets being on the front row. You can't fault the view but they have the sound turned up very loud for such a small venue and every time Matthew Priest hits his bass drum the resulting throb and whoosh of air from the speaker parts the hair of the front three rows.

McNabb plays pretty much a 'favourites' set with the notable exception of 'Birds Fly' which is not played tonight but 'Evangeline', 'What She Did To My Mind', 'Seven Horses', 'Up Here In The North Of England' etc all are, along with some of the more sickly later stuff. McNabb also throws in one of this own solo tracks, which shows that he remains a very talented musician, although he still seems irked that people don't buy his solo albums but I think he's past caring now.

As we reach the end of the main set, I become aware of a chap with a Mohican dancing manically next to me. So if you ever wondered what happens to punks when they get too old to pogo to 'Pretty Vacant', well they go see Ian McNabb and freak out to 'Understanding Jane' instead. As for what happens to groupies when they get old, well I'm afraid they all get fat, hog the front row and step on my toes. Ouch.

The set list, which we can see from where we are, only lists one song as an encore, that being 'Hollow Horse' but after an enormously long time off stage they return to play three slightly more obscure album tracks instead. Presumably they needed the long break to discuss what they were going to play.

The crowd cheer them back for a second encore, quickly this time, to play the previously planned 'Hollow Horse'. One criticism of McNabb, and he is well know for this, is that there were too many karaoke moments tonight. On several songs McNabb stepped back from his mic during the chorus and cupped his ear encouraging the crowd to take over. Which they do but as it isn't a huge audience this isn't terribly effective. As he does this on 'Hollow Horse' I realise that this song isn't terribly easy to sing along to anyway, particularly when unaided by the vocalist. I hate it when bands do this sort of thing. It's one thing the audience joining in with the songs but it's another thing entirely if the singer takes a break and leaves them to it. We have, after all, paid our money to hear him sing.

They return for a third time to close with 'Love Is A Wonderful Colour', their one and only big hit. This is all very eighties, these days the trend is for no encores or grudgingly just the one. No one plays two these days, let alone three. I wondered if they might keep coming back on stage even if we all went home because it is clear that McNabb and his band are clearly having fun.

Top gig.