Tuesday 13 September 2011

The Bluetones, Academy 2, Sheffield

Tonight we’re in the intimate surroundings of the upstairs room at the Sheffield Academy, complete with a reassuringly sticky floor, as is so often the case in these places. It’s nicely full which is good to see.

Now I must confess that I’m coming a bit late to the party on this one. So late in fact that everyone else has got their coat and is making for the exit, including the band, who announced in March that this will be their farewell tour.

They are of course ‘The Bluetones’, purveyors of thirteen Top 40 singles and three Top 10 albums. All some time ago. Yet they have continued to tour to a loyal but sadly decreasing fan base. I’ve been remiss in never seeing them prior to Splendour this year, despite being an admirer of their early successes. I feel that tonight many others are returning after too many years of absence and if you neglect something it falls apart. Which appears to have been the cause of the demise of the Bluetones. Even the playing the classic album trick, with ‘Expecting To Fly’ didn't do the job. So, now as a parting gesture, we get this final tour.

First though we have Pugwash, shiver me timbers, but they have little in common with the cartoon Captain. I bet they’ve heard that sort of pun a few times but if you pick the name, you get the comments.

They fit the bill as a warm up act for their comedy element as well as for their music. They’re entertaining and easily strike up a good banter with the crowd. The Lindisfarne loving (apparently) Irish outfit have a bit of Liverpudlian thrown in, on bass guitar, actually sound incredibly like Elbow at times. Well until they dig back into their catalogue where the older stuff is more rocking. Lead man Thomas Walsh, for it his baby and has been since 1999, even seems to be going for the Guy Garvey look, e.g. physique or perhaps he had it first.

He’s also not adverse to a bit of name dropping, e.g. ‘Ben (Folds) popped in to do keyboards on this one’ or ‘here’s one I recorded with Neil Hannon’, when apparently they toured as ‘The Duckworth Lewis Method’. Still they’re good, affable and talented not that I’d buy any of their records. I’m just not sure when the right mood to play them would be.

Half an hour later, “breaking up is so very hard to do...” blares through the PA, “just tell me that we're through...”. The Walker Brothers playing “Make It Easy On Yourself”, this as Mark Morriss tells us is ‘the beginning of the end’. Cue boos. He scowls at the booing, we’re not here to boo, we’re here to celebrate the career of the Bluetones.

They open with a couple of album tracks, ‘Unpainted Arizona’ and ‘Zorro’ or as Mark describes them an ‘opening of openings’ as he adds ‘Surrendered’, the opening track from album number five. Odd idea but clever. So let’s spoil it, be pedantic and point out that ‘Unpainted Arizona’ was track number two on ‘Return to the Last Chance Saloon’.

From here the pace is gradually hiked, starting with ‘Fast Boy’, who we’re told is the man who once sold him weed. There after we get the same professional and polished performance that seduced me (belatedly) at Splendour.

Mark Morriss’s vocals blend with the intricate guitar playing of Adam Devlin, together with drummer Ed Chesters and Mark’s younger brother Scott on bass.

Mark is always entertaining to listen to, even when commenting on Sheffield’s road system. Now after sixteen years of coming here on tour, they’ve finally finished it, as the band split up. This acts as his intro to the automobile inspired car ‘Autophilia or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Car’. Unfortunately the parking charges seem to be paying for those improvements. Ouch, as my wallet would say later.

‘Cut Some Rug’ needed no introduction and didn’t get one but Richard Payne, the fifth member for nearly four years did, as he comes over from Australia to rejoin them for this final tour and to treat us to keyboard on the like of ‘Tiger Lily’ from their third album ‘Science & Nature’.

They seamlessly move from one of their oldest tracks, the excellent ‘Bluetonic’ to one of the newest, last year’s ‘A New Athens’ from the album of the same name, with ease and without dropping the quality. Then we’re into a run of singles ‘After Hours’, ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’, ‘Solomon Bites The Worm’, ‘Marblehead Johnson’ from back when, he says, they were fashionable.

So what words of wisdom have the boys got to offer after sixteen years...? ‘We've learnt many things after years on the road so here’s another song about drinking...’ Cue ‘Carry Me Home’, a recent single that shows that they still had it to the end. Then moving swiftly from ‘a single that didn't sell enough to one that sold too many’ ‘Slight Return’, a track they’ve struggled to throw off the shackles from ever since and Mark always seemed slightly irked that they have to play it.

Then closing with possibly the band’s favourite and mine too, ‘Never Going Nowhere’ and then they go off, promising to return swiftly but in the interim leaving us with an empty stage so that we can contemplate what it will be like from now on, forever. No more Bluetones.

The mandolin, ‘hard to play and look cool’ comes out with one of those blowy keyboard things, A Melodica is it? for a quirky encore of ‘Slack Jaw’ and ‘Vostock of Love’ the B-side to ‘Autophilia’, and that they claim is ‘one of the best we've done’. Not totally convinced about that. Then it’s the traditional close of ‘If...’ before they go off for a second time, leaving us to wonder if that really is it.

Not if the crowd have anything to do with it, impressively picking up the ‘na na na na na’ from ‘If...’ and hurling them back at the empty stage.

So the band return again, in dressing gowns and clutching bunches of flowers to play something that has ‘always been requested of them’... seriously? A hilariously light-hearted but still excellent cover of KC and The Sunshine Band’s ‘Give It Up’. An ‘I was there’ moment I think.

They finally close the night quietly and with little fuss courtesy of an obscure moment from their debut ‘Expecting to Fly’. The track called ‘A Parting Gesture’ is an appropriate way to go. Then with four final final words from Mark, "We were The Bluetones...", they are gone... forever. Well, call me a sceptic, until they reform of course.

The Bluetones Farewell Tour runs until the 27th September, catch them while you can.

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