– ACADEMY 3, MANCHESTER –
When my gig buddy and I arrive at the Academy, we are welcomed by a metal storm produced by the SikTh + Idiom gig happening in Academy 2. Like Dante in his Divine Comedy, we ascend to the upper floor, hoping for the heavenly experience normally guaranteed by a Turin Brakes live set. I am struck by the merch desk of T.E. Yates – the second support band for tonight – studded with timely Poppy Appeal-related paraphernalia and some artwork by band leader Yates featuring improbable dogs in army uniform. It is 8pm and the hall is not full yet. Being stupidly accustomed to the usual indie hipster crowd, I think that all these ladies with glasses wearing fleece must be the mums of supporting musicians, unaware that behind those ‘mum’ looks hide the wildest Turin Brakes fans.
The first support act is Hugo Kensdale’s band, from Macclesfield. They start their set with a song called ‘Mermaids’. The sound seems pretty loud in the beginning, but the thought is quickly swept away by the energy and quality of their performance. Kensdale sings and plays an acoustic guitar, and the second track ‘Claustrophobia’ is enriched by the creative guitarist’s wah-wah sounds and by the trumpet player who, we will discover, is also in Yates’ band and reminds me of Tim Buckley. Kensdale’s gig is undoubtedly powerful and the frontman has a warm, intense voice. He informs us that they released their debut EP (Animals) in June and concludes the set with a track reminiscent of Calexico’s twangy tunes.
When the full T.E. Yates band gets on stage we suddenly time travel back to the 1970s and get lost amid fairies, Jesus-shaped guitarists, ZZ Top-styled drummers and Yeats himself, a quirky fusion of Bob Dylan and a pixie in rural 19th century clothes. Their mostly folk-ish set starts at 9 and is characterised by a dreamy – slightly surreal – atmosphere. Yates’ occasional vibratos, baritone voice and ukulele would make him perfect to entertain (or terrify) children.
One track is inspired by E. A. Poe’s The Black Cat, and the singer mentions that he is making an animation for the song. The last song, about someone’s bungalow burnt down by a suffragette, sees the audience visibly entertained by Yates’ peculiar humour. He labels himself ‘a strange man’ from Wigan and suggests that we do a Banksian ‘exit through the gift shop’ before we leave.
The schedule is meticulously respected and at 9.30 Turin Brakes’ drummer Rob Allum and bassist Eddie Myer – who exhibits a flattering skin-tight t-shirt – appear on stage, soon followed by singer and guitarist Gale Paridjanian. A few minutes later, lead singer Olly Knights appears with an amazing 1950s look that brings back to memory, simultaneously, Buddy Holly, Malcolm X and Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life.
The first song is ‘Time And Money’, from the 2013 album We Were Here, in a version that is very faithful to the album and enriched by Paridjanian’s always flamboyant guitar style. When Knights mentions The Optimist LP – the band’s first album – the crowd noisily approves. The set continues with ‘We Were Here’, ‘Dear Dad’ and the sensual ‘Blindsided Again’, all from We Were Here. I’m shocked by the fact that despite being only four, the full sound makes me feel like I am at a gigantic 80s Pink Floyd concert.
As soon as the first notes of ‘Mind Over Money’ are struck, the crowd screams and starts singing along. The very suitable for Manchester ‘Rain City’, from Ether Song, shows off Knights’ voice, which is magnificent, matured and yet as fresh as when Turin Brakes started their career.
Next up is an electric ‘Future Boy’ and the song’s reference to HIV is updated to Ebola. My friend, who has not listened to TB roughly since 2001, merrily comments that, despite the 13 year gap, it feels like back ‘then’. I agree, it feels like it’s 2001, but it’s not necessarily a good thing because it’s as if Turin Brakes have repudiated the four studio albums released between 2001 and 2013.
The show continues with the irresistible ‘Guess You Heard’ and the atmosphere changes completely when Knights strikes up a dramatic version of ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ from Mary Poppins. The band released a recorded version in 2011 to raise funds for Shelter UK.
We are brought back to a romantic set with ‘Emergency 72’, and a man behind me growls ‘yes! yes! YEEESSS!’ on the verge of an eargasm. And eargasm it is when the Ether song hit ‘Painkiller’ arrives. The performance turns for a few minutes into a karaoke night, with the crowd finishing every verse that Knights cheekily leaves incomplete. At 10.30, after the romantic ‘Fishing For A Dream’, from Jackinabox, Knights thanks Manchester, threatens that this is the end of the show and to the protesting fans he replies: ‘Obviously it’s not!’, and begins playing the mellow ‘Long Distance’. Rob Allum is majestic on the drums, and I can’t help but think that Eddie Myer is a bass god.
Here comes the highlight of the evening, when the band gets off stage and joins their people à la The National to perform an unamplified ‘Mirror’, followed by ‘No Mercy’ when back on stage. A ska-reggae rhythm introduces ‘Underdog’ and at 11 the band gives thanks, bows and leaves the stage, while the hall resounds in delirious joy.
The band reappears for one last song, ‘Slack’. The bassist Myer is suddenly possessed by Jimi Hendrix and plays on his knees in front of a visibly amused Gale Paridjanian. Needless to say, the audience is loudly voicing its appreciation. Knights reminds us of the next, imminent, Mancunian gig at the Whisky Sessions festival in a few weeks. The mass is over and the fans leave in peace, quite quickly. ‘Fricking awesome!’, observes a slightly inebriated Northern lady.
Despite totally agreeing with the woman’s comment and being all Turin Brakes-ed up, while I walk out and see the tablature books on the merch desk I think that I am perplexed by the setlist. While I expected to hear quite a few songs from the last album, the choice of playing so many songs from the first album gives me the impression that the priority was to entertain the crowd rather than portray the 13 years of extraordinary musical talent their devoted fans are familiar with. There was almost no trace of the many gems on Ether Song, Jackinabox and above all Outbursts, and for me the band has missed an opportunity to share their more recent and mature work, sacrificing it for safer, better known hits.
I am left with the odd sensation that I might love Turin Brakes’ work and its beautiful complexity more than they do, as if they took it for granted or underestimated it. A feeling that I had not had when I saw them in previous shows abroad, in which they seemed keener to showcase the richness of their lyrical mastery and musical craft that has made them popular worldwide.
Despite being deeply touched by an incredibly generous performance, I go home with the melancholic thought that the entertainer has temporarily suffocated the artist, and I feel the need to comfort the criminally neglected Outbursts and get rid of the beautiful, yet far too familiar, The Optimist LP.