Sunday 17 September 2023

Recent gigs ( Part Four ) - Muse at the National Bowl, MK and Pulp at the Castlefield Bowl, MCR

( Well, not that recent, to be honest... )
What a load of bowls! ( Well, two actually. ) The final installment of my seemingly endless gig catch-up posts sees Sarah and I bowl-bound ( which doesn't sound like much fun ) for two contrasting, but excellent, shows by two of our fave bands. First of all... the mighty Muse at the National Bowl, Milton Keynes...

We've seen Muse a couple of times and they've always been hugely entertaining and put on a dazzling show, so we were excited to see them again in, of all places, Milton Keynes. Yep, the not-so-new-any-more "new town" that's home to the infamous concrete cows and the National Bowl. This is a venue we visited before, twenty years ago, to see Robbie Williams ( yes, really ) play an actually very good show in the pissing rain. This time, the weather was much better, although other things weren't quite so good...

After a bit of a diversion due to the bloody HS2 monstrosity, we got to MK... and then spent about an hour and a half stuck in traffic, crawling along the last mile or so of the journey. Total bloody traffic chaos ensued, with many people who had ( like us ) pre-booked their car parking finding that the car parks were full and being turned away. Luckily, we managed to get a space but the delays meant we missed both support bands and just managed to get into the bowl before Muse started, without having time to get anything to eat or drink. Not the best start to a gig.

After the smaller, more chilled, Wychwood Festival, this was a much bigger gig ( 65,000 capacity ) and Sarah found the first sight of the huge crowd daunting, but soon adjusted as the boys from Devon hit the stage, preceded by their fiery Will Of The People logo flaming on...

And they kicked off with WOTP itself, its singalong faux-rebellion setting the tone for the night. "We'll smash your institutions to pieces"  -  I don't really believe the revolution will be sparked by some middle class boys with guitars but its a fun fantasy for the duration of their set. The Drones-era banger Psycho, complete with its drill sergeant shouty monologue, had everyone bouncing up and down to its crunchy riff, and Won't Stand Down was another call to storm the barricades. But in a polite way.

Compliance, another strong track from the latest album, sounded great but had me puzzling its meaning. Matt Bellamy's songs often seem to pick up on the latest grim goings-on in this dystopia we're living in, but this one ( as well as WOTP ) almost sounds like a conspiracy theory anthem, with its theme of government mind control. I'd like to think Muse are just reflecting society's craziness back at us, rather than being actual tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracists themselves. But I can't be sure.

One thing I can be sure of is that Muse ROCKED! Regardless of any lyrical ambiguities, they pulled out all the stops with their stage show. As a backdrop to the huge riffage, pummelling rhythms and Bellamy's octave-scaling vocals, they gave us the obligatory video screens, along with confetti explosions, dazzling lights and huge animatronic puppets. For the song You Make Me Feel Like It's Halloween, they projected various horror movie icons onto the metal mask of the WOTP puppet: Jason, Freddie, Pinhead, V ( For Vendetta ) and the Predator all putting in an appearance.

Even Matt Bellamy had his not-so-spooky fizzog projected onto the puppet. He also climbed up on it at one point and played a solo song on its shoulder. Of course he did.

During the home stretch, as the band pulled out the crowd-pleasing likes of Supermassive Black Hole, Plug-In Baby and Starlight, they also pulled out a huge, animatronic demon-minotaur-thing which glared balefully at the crowd. I mean, this was a Muse gig after all.

Muse finished with the obligatory Spaghetti Western In Space madness of Knights Of Cydonia, an epic finale to a spectacular gig. Some people near us took the opening notes of this last song as their cue to get the hell out of Dodge, which was probably wise as we had to face the whole crowd / traffic chaos thing again, but in reverse. We joined the thousands thronging the exits ( and group-singing Bohemian Rhapsody for some reason ) and trudged along through a sea of discarded plastic cups, until we took the chance to scramble up a bank, over a fence and onto a flyover, to try and locate my car. We then sat for over an hour as hundreds of cars were funnelled through a one-track road at the back of a Premier Inn before they could escape the gravitational pull of the National Bowl. We eventually got going and finally got home at about 03:00 am. The gig had been great but the organisation was a complete shambles, with Muse's song We Are Fucking Fucked being a perfect anthem for the experience.

Aaaanyway, on to another bowl now, and a far more pleasant gig experience in sunny ( yes, really ) downtown Manchester...

"Good evening. This is a night you will remember for the rest of your life. You are about to see the 528th concert by Pulp. This performance is an encore. An encore happens because the crowd wants more. They make themselves heard. So... Make Some Noise. I said: Make Some Noise! OK. We hear you. This is what we do for an encore."

Sarah and I had seen Pulp about twenty years ago ( Hereford Leisure Centre, a very strange gig with a Jarvis doppelganger on stage and a weirdly hostile mainstream crowd ) but hadn't expected to ever see them again. But, as this was the year of Britpop revivals, Pulp returned in all their acrylic glory and we managed to get a ticket for Manchester. We'd never been to Manchester before, so it was exciting to Hit The North ( as The Fall might say ) and check out this iconic city. After a refreshingly easy drive up the M6 we checked in to our budget hotel, only 15 minutes' walk from the venue, and had a couple of days to mooch around Manchester ahead of the gig. It's a beautiful city, a beguiling mixture of old ( trams, railways, canals ) and new ( gleaming skyscrapers, tapas bars ) and we had a great time exploring. Check out my Manchester photos in my previous post here. If you want to, of course, there's no charge if you don't. 
A couple of hours before the gig I bumped into major Pulp fan Pip Madeley, of Twitter / YouTube / Doctor Who Magazine fame, and had a lovely chat with him as he was queuing to get down the front. Top bloke! Sarah and I later walked down to Castlefield Bowl, a large concrete space bordered by a canal on one side and a railway line on the other, and found a great spot on a bank overlooking the stage. The atmosphere was absolutely electric as we waited for Pulp... but first, Baxter Dury...

Oh dear. Dury ( son of the famous Ian ) came out onto the stage and immediately launched into some kind of performance therapy / primal scream session as he started shouting "Mummy! Daddy!" and threw some ridiculous, slow motion kung-fu shapes, while letting the keyboard player handle all the actual singing. It was as if a local drunk had wandered onto stage and was desperately looking for his lost can of Special Brew, while taking his shirt off and yelling. This went on for some while. An embarrassingly poor performance which left most of the crowd non-plussed and even more eager to see the headliners.

At last, the video screen behind the stage blazed into life and relayed the welcome message above, which was replaced by a moon and stars image  -  slowly a shape began to rise in front of the full moon, the shape of a tall, spindly human. It was, of course, Jarvis Cocker. The moon turned a deep orange colour, until it resembled the Bond "gun barrel" image, then the colour filled the whole screen while the lanky silhouette began singing I Spy...

It was an atmospheric, exciting start to the show and the 8000-capacity crowd was instantly hooked.
"I spy a boy, I spy a girl" - well, quite a few of them, actually...

And, as if the crowd weren't already fully engaged, the next song was Disco 2000 and everyone ( including us ) went absolutely nuts. The theme of childhood friends meeting up in that far-off future world of 2000 AD felt very appropriate for us old Pulp fans meeting up in the even further-flung days of 2023 AD. Jarvis had us all clapping our hands, confetti fired out over the crowd, and the song's "woodchip on the wall" appeared in all its 1970s glory on the video screen. It all felt very euphoric and melancholic at the same time. Not many bands can do that but Pulp and their wonderful songs capture that tipping point of emotions perfectly.

We were standing next to a lovely couple of ladies, 'Chelle and Pip, and we'd chatted earlier about which songs we most wanted to hear. Their song was Mis-Shapes, which was up next, and they were - to quote Ultravox for the only time in my life - dancing with tears in their eyes during that song. This outsider anthem, for everyone who's ever felt marginalised or out of place, clearly resonated with them and with many of us there in Manchester: "Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits / Raised on a diet of broken biscuits" is surely one of the most evocative opening lines to a song ever.
This was followed by Something Changed, which Jarvis dedicated to Pulp's late bass-player who sadly passed away earlier this year. A very poignant song, also dedicated to all of us, as Jarvis acknowledged that we have all had such losses in our lives. A beautiful moment.

But it wasn't all about the melancholy. Jarvis Cocker was as captivating a performer as ever, looking and singing barely any differently to his '90s-era pomp, and entertaining the crowd with ( failed ) attempts to throw grapes in the air and catch them in his mouth (!), reading passages from Lewis Carroll and Walt Whitman, and bigging up an art exhibition at the local Aviva Studios. The band themselves were red hot, replicating their old sound perfectly but with added oomph! for this outdoor venue. At one point a train trundled along the viaduct which bordered one edge of the bowl and Jarvis got us to wave at the occupants, saying "Wherever they're going it won't be as interesting as this." Damn right!

The classics kept coming. Pink Glove was suitably pervy ( some audience members were waving their pink-gloved hands around and squealed as Jarvis acknowledged them ), Weeds / Weeds 2 was another powerful song about the underclass, and F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E was an epic ( Jarvis lying on his back on the stage, singing "It's so cooold" ) ...if a bugger to type out.

Sorted For E's And Wizz prompted Jarvis to recall the song's origins, at The Stone Roses' legendary Spike Island gig, and wax lyrical about Manchester being the epicentre of rave, the first place "someone twisted a melon." This Is Hardcore was a sleazy masterpiece, the stage glowing pink and red, and Do You Remember The First Time? got everyone dancing, as Jarvis recalled the band's first Manchester gig, at Salford University, way back in 1992. "Yes, I do remember the first time."

As we'd previously mentioned "songs we most wanted to hear", mine came along in the form of Babies. I've always loved this song about illicit, dodgy affairs ( Pulp have a few of those! ) and the performance was extraordinary, making me want to jump out of a wardrobe all over again. "I wanna take you home / I wanna give you children." A sweaty, guilt-ridden classic.

The set finished with a late-period classic, the mighty Sunrise, which was absolutely huge and a fantastic showcase for guitarist Mark Webber. We were dazzled by the stage lights but knew the show wasn't over. We had to know what exactly the band did for an encore...

Jarvis came back on stage to perform an acoustic Like A Friend, then the band ( and string section who I've completely forgotten to mention, but were awesome ) twanged into Underwear. ( Little joke there. Allegedly. ) This typically Cockerian ( yes, that's a word now ) anthem of lust and longing was a suitably seamy delight, setting us up for, of course, Common People. No other song sums up the band or their appeal as much as that one. It may be "The Hit", the one that all the straights know, but there's no escaping that it's one of the greatest pop songs ever...

Before the song, Cocker introduced the band, then said: "My name is Jarvis. I was put here to perform and I exist to do this. And when I grow up I want to live with Common People like you..."

Venomous, righteous, hugely singalong-able, Common People was sublime. A huge, anthemic masterwork, prompting hysteria and absolute joy among the Common People of Castlefield Bowl, as supermarket packaging images shone down from the stage and Jarvis said "Alright. Come on, why don't you sing it?" And we did, for all of Manchester to hear.

And then it was over, the neon Pulp logo lighting our way out of the Bowl. Sarah and I went and got a drink, a hot dog and a Pulp T-shirt ( well, I did ) and reflected on surely one of the greatest gigs we'd ever been to. An emotional, cathartic, communal experience, with so much sheer love being radiated from the crowd to the band and back again. Easily in my top 10 gigs ever, which is saying something. It would be great if Pulp were to properly reform and give us new music, tours etc. but, if not, this amazing experience was more of an encore than we'd ever expected.

( The next day we had a look around Salford Quays and came across the above in a Cadbury's shop. It couldn't have been more perfect. )


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