[sic] Magazine

The Bluetones – Live at The Engine Shed, Lincoln

9th December 2008

The Bluetones are the latest in a long line of acts to follow one of 2008’s trends; performing an album in its entirety for the benefit of their fans. Of course there are a number of cynical arguments against this kind of tour. Firstly, how many albums can justify being played from start to finish? Secondly, isn’t performing your twelve year-old debut an admission that you’ve struggled to better it since? The answer to the first question is that ‘Expecting to Fly’ still stands up as one of the best albums of 1996 and was one of the soundtracks to my final year at Huddersfield University. Sure, it flags a bit near the end but three quarters of it is great. The second argument is more pertinent because The Bluetones’ albums have struggled to match either the form or sales, although they have been remained a relatively robust singles act, as evinced by their recent singles compilation and DVD compilation.

Anyway, onto the night itself. The omens didn’t look encouraging as The Engine Shed venue was curtained off to half the size and even then there was space aplenty for fans to pogo, mosh and whatever it is that Lincoln University students do as physical accompaniment to live music. However, Bluetones fans (particularly those who remember the first album) were always likely to be fewer in number and less excitable than fans of The Streets, Razorlight and The Fratellis who all sold out weeks before they were due to perform. Indeed, this was a night for the knowledgeable fan to reminisce in the splendour of one of Hounslow’s finest i.e. plenty of thirtysomethings including me.

The support act turned out to be another act that began in the mid-90s, Misty’s Big Adventure . Led by the deadpan vocals of their frontman, MBA seem to have assembled a variety of influences (ska, pop, music hall, the spoken word) and somehow mixed it in to a palatable format. It was a very visual form of music which veered towards Performance Art but was thankfully watchable for the humour and enjoyment displayed by the musicians involved. Particular credit must go their “dancer” who managed to perform his expressive, hyperactive routines for half an hour without collapsing. I was left with the overriding feeling that although I wouldn’t be buying any of their records, their music translated particularly well to the stage.

The Bluetones themselves appeared some time later; three quarters of them dressed in shirts and sweaters as if they had just arrived home after working in an underheated office. Since the point of the tour was to re-create the ‘Expecting to Fly’ album, the songs were duly played in sequence. Looking back, ‘Talking to Clarry’ isn’t the most obvious way to start your first album. It’s an epic sprawling track which contrasts with the radio-friendly set of singles they put out. No surprise then that the bigger cheers were reserved for tracks two and three, ‘Bluetonic’ and ‘Cut Some Rug’ respectively and of course, signature tune ‘Slight Return’, begrudgingly labeled their “Magic FM favourite”.

It was hard not to be impressed by the performance of all the band members who didn’t seem to make a wrong step on the whole night. Each track was delivered with the same precision as it sounded on the record. Singer Mark Morriss was never the most distinctive of singers but delivered a committed performance which was more than matched by the intricate melodies of guitarist Adam Devlin and the crisp, fluent drumming from Ed Chesters (one of the few drummers who can carry off a perm with dignity intact).

Listening to the songs on ‘Expecting to Fly’ again, it is a brave, complex album that is distanced well away from the Britpop scene. Take away the singles and there are lengthy tracks which stray from the conventional indie pop song. For that reason I value ‘Things Change’ and ‘Putting Out Fires’ just as highly as the songs they are generally remembered for. To be fair to the knowledgeable crowd that gathered, they appreciated this fact too. The weakness of the record is only exposed on the last three tracks which I couldn’t remember before the gig and I still don’t recall now.

The only other disappointment was the encore. In the spirit of the tour, The Bluetones played additional songs from the same period as the album, which of course left a couple of singles and several B-sides, none of which received the same adulation as the album tracks themselves. It’s doubtful whether the crowd would have shouted so loudly for the band to return if they had known what bonus material was going to be played but at least it was nice to hear ‘Marblehead Johnson’ again.

Nevertheless this was still a special evening which paid dignified respect to a special album. The Bluetones are apparently working on a new album to be released in 2009. It remains to be seen whether it lives up to the standards of ‘Expecting to Fly’ but at least they have made at least one great album and not every band can honestly make that claim.

Regular updates and Jon’s Reviews can be found at his blog, Leonards Lair