Sunday, 22 May 2011
Review: Suede at Brixton Academy, May 19 and 20, 2011
Eleven years after the decade ended, eight years after they split for the first time, it seems Suede are finally being recognised as the ‘90s band. The one that really matters.
There were plenty of us doggedly sticking to the belief that their self-titled 1993 record (at the time, the fastest-selling British debut album bar none) and 1994 follow-up Dog Man Star were as good as anything ever released by anybody. But it took a sell-out reunion at the Royal Albert Hall last March to wake up the broadsheet critics and magazine journalists and kickstart a critical re-appraisal.
Then, a couple of months back, the band announced that their five studio records would all be getting a cleaned-up, bumped-up re-release and – more importantly – that they’d be playing the first three live, in their entirety, across three nights at Brixton Academy. Now call me a misguided, pauper-y old misery guts, but I’m not overly enamoured with Coming Up, the unashamedly poppy 1996 album that has as much filler as killer – and only a couple of really special songs. But the first two nights? I could barely dip into my overdraft quickly enough. Just a quick call to my dad to check he was up for it. After all, he first played me The Drowners – taped off a John Peel show – in ’92. He took the 12-year-old me to see Suede at the Manchester Apollo in ‘96. He still listens to Dog Man Star with admirable regularity. And, well, he’s my dad.
Suede play the classic album Suede
Brixton Academy – Friday, May 19, 2011
"Last night at Brixton was one of the best crowds I can remember EVER! There was so much love in the room, how could it not have been amazing?" - Brett Anderson
Energy. Pure pulsating, raw energy. I’ve never been to a gig with more of the stuff, the tone set by frontman Brett Anderson’s invigorating performance. He paces, leaps, pines with an expression of pained longing and gets down on his knees. He pants, sweats, shimmies and frequently ventures into the arms of the crowd. By the end his white shirt is transparent, held together by a solitary button, his torso exposed and glistening with sweat as the audience passes into rapture.
As a statement of intent, the opening shrieks of So Young take some beating: “She can! ... start... to walk out!... when she wants...” And setting the rock-out numbers – dealing invariably with youth, sex and death – against the heightened balladry of Pantomime Horse et al works just as well as on record. Perhaps even better, since the heavy numbers are heavier and the troubled ones more desolate and plaintive.
The highlights of the main set (and this is a relative term, since it's all so damn good) are as you’d expect. A flamboyant Animal Nitrate, a raucous Metal Mickey, escapist closer The Next Life (with its glorious, child-like pay-off: “We’ll flog ice-cream/Till the company’s on its knees”) and the peerless four-song suite that forms the centrepiece of the record. Has there ever been an album with a run of four songs like it? Pantomime Horse/The Drowners/Sleeping Pills/Breakdown. It takes the breath away. Brett’s on his knees for a devastating Pantomime Horse and in the audience for The Drowners (“You owe me a button,” he tells a woman in the crowd), before combining with Richard Oakes – a phenomenally gifted guitarist and the unsung hero of these gigs – for a sensitive, mesmeric Sleeping Pills.
But it’s Breakdown that’s the standout. One of my favourite two Suede songs (The Power, since you ask), I’d noted in the review of the Royal Albert Hall show that while they hadn’t played it that night, you couldn’t have everything. This prompted blogger and intimidatingly knowledgeable Suede fan Planet Me to observe that I was being a bit unrealistic as they’d only played Breakdown live “once, EVER”. Well, they did it again on Friday and it was extraordinary. An eloquent evocation of mental disintegration, class A intertia and sexual anguish dominated by a refrain of “You can only go so far... in your mind”, the song is a wonderful marriage of incredibly rich imagery (“Back where the dogs bark/Where still life bleeds the concrete white”) and the saddest tune this side of Mighty Lak' a Rose, before it blasts out in a weighty din, Brett wailing the obscure, Suedehead-esque question: “Does your love only come in a Volvo?” The live version, with its tremulous vocal wracked with fear and regret, and music building from a whisper to a cacophony, was one of the most wonderful things I’ve heard in my time on this earth. If that sounds like hyperbole, then you weren’t there.
After The Next Life brings our primary reason for being here to a close, the group stride off, wait about a minute, then stride back on again, launching into High Rising, a B-side to So Young. As has been observed time and again, Suede’s B-sides are unprecedentedly strong: better than most bands’ A-sides; hell: better than some of their A-sides. After that gentle, sweeping number, we get a heap of these secret gems: the dirgy He’s Dead, My Insatiable One (a special one for Oakes, as he played this on his audition tape in ’94) – which like so much of the night’s show turns into a huge sing-along – an epic To the Birds and the explosive Killing of a Flashboy, which sends the mosh-pit into a meltdown from which my feet are only just beginning to recover. They close with Can’t Get Enough from fourth album Head Music and a couple of hit singles off Coming Up: Trash and Beautiful Ones.
It was a wonderful show: a pivotal, unimpeachable record given the treatment it deserved – sounding utterly familiar and yet somehow fresh, of-the-moment, even new. A great venue, a fantastic crowd and even a smattering of relative rarities given the timeless treatment. The best thing of all? It's Dog Man flipping Star tomorrow.
She's Not Dead
The Next Life
My Insatiable One
To the Birds
Killing of a Flash Boy
Can't Get Enough
Suede play the classic album Dog Man Star
Brixton Academy – Saturday, May 20, 2011
So how do you follow that? Well, we went on the London Eye. Yeah, really good. You can see everything. Then we went to see Suede again, joined by my old friend Phil (whom regular readers will remember from the Thea Gilmore review).
For me, Dog Man Star is the greatest record of all time: breathtakingly ambitious and completely original, with a worldview and an atmosphere of stifling misery and fantastical escape that’s all its own. Lyrically it’s one of the most coherent and articulate albums around – not many writers could kick off a song with a William Blake line, then maintain that level of artistry – and Bernard Butler’s soaring soundscapes are so far ahead of anything attempted by his contemporaries that you’re almost embarrassed for them. Sling in vocal performances of unmatched emotional intensity, a tight but expressive and exciting band, and a photo of a naked guy on a bed and you can understand the fervour it inspires. So what’ll it be like live? Rather good, it turns out.
It mightn’t surprise you to know that I’d been imagining the start of this gig quite a bit. I was pretty excited. And what a set-opener Introducing the Band is, with its methodical rhythm and Ballardian lyrics, the delivery potent and forceful as the band kicks the lid off the atmosphere of bottled-up excitement. A couple of live regulars – We Are the Pigs and Heroine – are as polished and as reliably superb as you’d expect, before an unforgettable rendering of The Wild Ones, an Anderson anthem that saw him dive into ‘50s American culture once more (James Dean and Marilyn also get a name-check on the record), nabbing the title of a macho Brando biker flick for this fey imagining of a flight from suburbia. As the chorus approaches, Brett casts his microphone in our direction, imploring us to join in. We would, Brett, but it’s a bit high.
I'd read that, by 2003, Daddy's Speeding had been turned, Dylan-style, into something more brooding and intriguing than the slightly muted album version. No kidding. The verses are pared down, but with the vocal torment cranked up to breaking point, lending greater resonance to the slightly clichéd subject matter. The chorus is a chugging racket, the climax remarkable in its ferocity and unhappiness. My girlfriend couldn’t make the gig, so I rang her halfway through and held my phone in the air. She could make out enough of it to know what it was. Brilliant. That’s what it was.
I’ve always held a special place in my heart for The Power. I don’t know another Suede fan who regards it as their greatest song, but it’s just got a special something I’ve never come across anywhere else. It's an update of '60s 'kitchen sink' realism, recalling A Taste of Honey (“Or enslaved in a pebble-dash grave/With a kid on the way”) and tracing the John Osborne idea that the loss of Empire meant imperial derring-do ("If you're far over Africa, on the wings of youth") had been replaced by joblessness and stultifying tedium ("Or if you're down in some satellite town and there's nothing you can do"). It's also extremely cinematic and contains perhaps my favourite couplet in all of music; one which perfectly captures the album’s melding of Hollywood romance and British malaise: “You might live in a screen kiss, it’s a glamorous dream/Or belong to a world that’s gone, it’s the English disease.” They never play it live, but this week they did. It was like the album version, only more so, and - singing it with passion and conviction - two thousand voices (and pointing hands) imploring him to give them the power, it seemed Brett was discovering again what a glorious song he’d created.
New Generation is exuberant and This Hollywood Life (the weak link, though it's a relative term) sleazily appealing, before we reach the only four-song stretch that can give Suede's debut a run for its money. A quartet of ballads - The 2 of Us, Black or Blue, The Asphalt World and Still Life - each with a stunning climax, whether string-led and grandiose (Still Life) or tortured beyond belief (The Asphalt World). The first two are transfixing; the others simply jaw-dropping. The Asphalt World, which begins like a kids’ story (“I know a girl/She walks the Asphalt World”) before being torpedoed by heartache, sexual jealousy and thin consolation, shakes with unleashed unhappiness. The band takes centre-stage near the close, as Richard Oakes unleashes a blistering guitar solo, before Brett rejoins them for the final, hurt-wracked chorus. I’ve seen them do Still Life a couple of times before, but it still gets me anew each time: a simple but epic heroin confessional, with a painfully self-aware Anderson trapped behind glass, crawling the walls, but clinging onto the idea that for all that he’s still alive. As this once-in-a-lifetime version draws to a close and the (recorded) strings swell, the crowd lifts its arms as one, for a two-minute ovation. A thank you, for the greatest record ever made.
Then things get really silly. You know Stay Together, the sensational stand-alone single that Suede never perform, because they’re apparently ashamed of it? Well, they play that. An amazing version of that. Preceded by its legendary B-sides: the heartbreaking The Living Dead and fan favourite My Dark Star. That prompts an “Oh, what?” moment from the fella next to me, as his dream setlist materialises before his very ears. Then they roll out four of the biggest successes from the night before: Killing of a Flashboy (which I had been singing all day), So Young, Metal Mickey and Animal Nitrate, as the venue threatens to erupt with delight. And then they stroll off, exiting to deafening applause and hoarse-throated shouts.
We tumble out, sweat-drenched and grinning, exclaiming the same thing: one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen, one of the best nights I’ve ever had. Better than last night? Ooh, hard to say.
Introducing the Band
We Are The Pigs
The Wild Ones
This Hollywood Life
The 2 of Us
Black or Blue
The Asphalt World
The Living Dead
My Dark Star
Killing of a Flash Boy
Please note: The YouTube vids I've linked to aren't mine. Comments are very welcome below - if you want to link to your own review, Flickr feed or whatever, feel free, and I can also tack the urls up in the body of this post.