These days it is rare for me to be in the younger half of a gig audience but tonight, as I sank gratefully (after this year’s first cycle ride to a gig) into my central and not too far back seat, I couldn’t help but wonder how so many presumably prog-rock fans had turned into respectable pensioners or near-pensioners. That’s not to say that the near capacity audience were all old codgers – there were plenty of younger fans there too, as evidenced by the group dancing down at the front as the gig drew to a close and even the older generation were happily standing, dancing clapping and singing along towards the end – but I don’t think I have ever been to a bigger venue gig and seen so few music t-shirts and so so many people dressed in the smart casual style of, say, their golf club social events. Glancing around I only saw one Mike And The Mechanics and one Hawklords T-shirt joining my own Anathema. But this isn’t meant to be a review of the audience and their sartorial choices. As long as live music continues to draw people along to experience it, no matter how young or old, they can wear what they like.
My next impression was how “industrial” the stage set-up looked. Lit by just four arc-lights as the crowd took to their seats, it comprised of two scaffolding towers holding what looked like (but weren’t) huge spotlights, with normal looking, but caged, bulbs strung between them. Flight cases were strewn, seemingly haphazardly, around the stage as though there was no room for them backstage. Many, we could see, were emblazoned with “Genesis”, at least a couple with “Phil Collins” and one, rather incongruously, with “AC/DC”…
Opening proceedings tonight was James Walsh, ex of Starsailor, a band I’m not at all familiar with. Clearly some of the audience were, even if some didn’t recognise Walsh as a member until he told us that the first two songs he played – Tell Me It’s Not Over and Four To The Floor – were from the band’s catalogue, at which point there were a number of exclamations of surprise and recognition. Performing solo, with just an acoustic guitar and a slightly misbehaving pedal – “I’ve got a new pedal that makes me sound like an organ but I must have hit the wrong button as that sounded like I was back in Blackpool Tower” – Walsh also played songs from his 2014 solo album, Turning Point, including the very well received Empire, Better Part Of Me and the slower and quite short title track. Throwing in a Neil Young cover to warm up those of us not familiar with his own material he surprised me by playing Heart Of Gold, which I, personally, didn’t think was Young’s best known song. (But given that, if pressured, I could probably only name two Neil Young songs…) Walsh finished his half hour set with the strongest, longest and by far most complex, yet un-introduced, song. Throughout his vocals had been strong and he had a good rapport with the audience, eliciting laughter when he explained that he had missed the previous gig due to having one of his own in Switzerland and, given that he had been replaced by an attractive woman, some of the band and crew were upset that he was back and a big cheer when he thanked everybody for coming down early enough to see him. The songs were nice but they failed to grab me enough to think about buying an album but plenty of people seemed to be interested and I suspect he sold and signed a few during the interval.
With just the dimming of the lights and a bit of backing track, Mike And The Mechanics quietly made their way onto the stage, waving to the audience as they took up their positions. The opening strains of Silent Running were greeted by cheers, as was Mike Rutherford’s mid-song guitar section, then it was straight into A Beggar On A Beach Of Gold, with the stage drenched in lighting of the titular colour. I can’t remember what it was that caused one audience member to shriek with laughter during Rutherford’s greeting but it did prompt a spontaneous seque into the next song from Andrew Roachford, who said he thought she needed “Another Cup Of Coffee” much to the delight of co-vocalist Tim Howar. Roachford’s humorous introductions continued for the next track as he came out from behind his keyboard saying “I have to Get Up for this one.” Four songs in and Rutherford had already played electric and acoustic guitars and was now on bass. I am only familiar with the Paul Carrack/Paul Young era of the band so the next song, Try To Save Me from 2011’s The Road, was new to me. It didn’t have the immediate impact that earlier tracks did but certainly didn’t sound like the disaster that some reviews made the album out to be. As an aside, I was dubious about Andrew Roachford being on vocal duties before I attended tonight’s gig but I have revised my opinion now. Personally, though, I preferred the performance of Howar, who imbued his songs with an almost boisterous, theatre-like energy and, not being mostly keyboard-bound, was free to move around stage and interact with the other band members, which he did frequently, waving his microphone stand around them and the audience and clearly having a great deal of fun. Next came a proper new song. Let Me Fly – one of two brand new tracks – built slowly before it, appropriately, took flight. Before it was played Rutherford, his cultured voice contrasting brilliantly through with Howar’s more exuberant Canadian accent, explained that when he wrote Seeing Is Believing it was about the then extremists of the Mujahideen and that it was now equally relevant to ISIS. Howar then gleefully encouraged the audience to sing “Mujahideen” along with him.
The second new track was, I think, called She’s Not Out Of Love and its livelier, much fuller sound was followed by a surprise (to me, anyway, I hadn’t seen the tour poster until this morning) as a rendition of Genesis’ Turn It On Again really got the audience going. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the end of the track was greeted by the loudest cheer of the night so far. With Rutherford reminded that it was, in fact, time for an acoustic section rather than an introduction to the band, there was a change around of instruments as drummer and veteran member Gary Wallis came out from behind his kit to share shakers with Howar while keyboard player Luke Juby took up bass duties while Rutherford and guitarist Anthony Drennan both played acoustic guitars for a version of The Road that featured some brilliant multi-vocals. Juby then switched to saxophone (and there was yet more to come from him) for Everybody Gets A Second Chance. After the band members had been introduced, in the right slot this time, an opening that was, to me, both achingly familiar and yet still elusive, led into Nobody’s Perfect and then a song I couldn’t place but eventually recognised. “It’s time for me to sing about a cuddly toy,” Roachford had announced. It turns out this was his own band’s 1989 hit. No wonder it sounded more funked up than any Mike And The Mechanics Song I knew. Another “cover”, this time Genesis’ I Can’t Dance started off with just Howar and Rutherford on stage until the rest of the band came in and elicited a cheer from the audience when Drennan joined the pair for that iconic walk across stage. Then came a curveball as the two songs I would have put money on being tonight’s encore drew the set to its end. In hindsight the unfamiliar lyrics in Roachford’s opening vocals should have brought to mind The Living Years but it wasn’t until the song proper started that I recognised it. It drew a huge response from the crowd and I couldn’t help thinking that it was a missed opportunity for a sing-along. That came next, though, as the much more energetic All I Need Is A Miracle saw the aforementioned dancing at the front, a large proportion of the audience on it’s feet and Howar’s mic stand waving above the front rows as he encouraged us to participate in the chorus.
With the band off stage an encore seemed inevitable, especially when a guitar tech wandered on to check out Rutherford’s guitar. But what would it contain? With this being a “hits” tour I could only think of one track that had been missed and I wouldn’t have counted it as one of the band’s well known songs. When the band came back on and started playing one of my favourite tracks, however, I realised that my memories had failed me. Over My Shoulder saw even more of the front row up and dancing, including two older couples in hold. It also saw yet another contribution from Juby as he took centre stage for the whistling section, to great applause from the crowd. Then came the song I was expecting and the audience sang, clapped and waved their arms along to Word Of Mouth before each band member, introduced once again by Howar, performed a short but impressive solo section, with Wallis’ drum solo being particularly bone-shaking.
A hits tour this may have been, with most of the songs being familiar to most of the audience and very little new material to promote, but it was by no means a “by the numbers” performance. Rutherford in particular may have appeared to be calmness personified in comparison to Howar’s passion and energy, which saw him repeatedly towelling off towards the end of the evening, but everybody put in a shift and, as the audience made their way to the exit I caught conversational snippets about how good people thought this gig had been. Nobody seemed even slightly disappointed and I’ve since seen one person comment that it was better than he thought it would be.