Live review: The Charlatans and Martin Carr, Exeter University, December 14th, 2021 plus gallery

The Charlatans, Exeter University, December 14th. Photograph by Sarah Cammack

A GREATEST hits tour, from The Charlatans, you say?

Actually, I thought: with the increasingly Kafkaesque qualities of everyday life in the political, viral and, it being December, the actual darkness of the UK at the fraying, fag end of 2021, that would be an absolute tonic. Too right I’m in.

The Charlatans have been criss-crossing the country of late in support of A Head Full Of Ideas, their recent greatest hits album; and they were, I found out, available for me to go and glory in at Exeter University, that being the nearest they swung towards me, right down in the toe of the peninsula.

But hey, a hundred miles, it would be so worth it. Because if anyone from the UK music scene these past two years has borne a lamp showing the way to better times and how we could keep our heads from dissolving in the sour milk of it all like so much mental All-Bran, it’s been Tim Burgess.

I mean, we’ve always known he’s been a good guy, but he’s revealed firstly over a series of books such as One To Another and Tim Book Two that he’s still wide-eyed and a complete fan, in love with music, in love with bands, in love with record shops, mates with everyone from Iggy to Bristol’s gig-going legend Big Jeff.

And then, as the ‘rona dug its protein-spiked claws into our way of life, he launched the listening parties: an absolute balm for people isolated and upset and unsure worldwide, in which an album is selected and members of the band themselves get on Twitter live to talk to you about the record as you spin yours. That’s been an enormous success, with brains soothed and stories told and community recognised, friendships forged; there’s been nigh on 800 parties now, featuring everyone from Iron Maiden to The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine to Culture Club, with the next instalment featuring Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister this Sunday coming. Find your wax or CD of it, tune in.

In short: an hour and a half in his actual, physical company, spreading the love? Count me in.

Showing just what a genuinely lovely guy he is, on the day Tim had been about exploring Exeter and stopped by the excellent psych specialists Rooster Records, and not only bigged them up on Twitter but offered plus-ones for the next three people purchasing from there. Someone’s teenage son did, and Tim further arranged for them to get a signed setlist as well as getting them in. See? A true fan knows how amazing these things are for other fans.

The gig’s on the day that the Westminster Parliament vote for further restrictions as the new variant runs through us, but the venue is ahead of the game, asking for vaxx proof, offering free masks for when wandering the building en route to toilets and bars and the hall. And, for a Tuesday night in an otherwise eerily quiet Devon cathedral city from which the students have knocked off for the year and fled home – and who can blame them – it’s really decently busy, without being rammed – probably the ideal balance of people in current circumstances: no one too close, but plenty of communal feeling.

I’m in a Slowdive tee, and end up in conversation with two chaps in Loop and My Bloody Valentine Glider tees respectively. We talk about how back in the day we might have been supposed to be a bit chin-strokingly askance about The Charlatans’ relatively pedal-free offerings – but how the tunes were just so great, single after single after single, that you couldn’t help but get all arms-aloft about them.

First up, and supporting on the whole tour, is fellow Cestrian Martin Carr, the former Boo Radley fresh from a newly minted deal with Sonic Cathedral and on the road with the What Future trio – bassist Gaz Williams, drummer Bernie Plain and keyboard player Matthew Frederick. He’s hyper-dapper in a homburg and wields a 12-string Telecaster; looks like someone you’d have a thrilling and knowledgeable conversation with in a cafe near Highgate Cemetery, a brief encounter of the sort that you just know you’d be lifelong friends in another time, another place.

And he has tunes, boy does he have tunes, reeling out new material, such as new single “Flames”; though this should come as no surprise, really. Right back to the squally days of the Boos, tunes such as “Does This Hurt?” has this beating pop heart under the feedback and the fuzz. Actually, it makes me feel somewhat neglectful of a man with the waking-up albatross possibly still defining him in the nation’s brains; makes me very much want to redress that with immediate effect, tracking back into his catalogue and particularly his Brave Captain years for Wichita.

He begins with the crowd a little skinny, but with the bar just a short distance away he soon gets more like the faces he deserves assembled; and blow me if he doesn’t bring his set to a conclusion with a rousing take on “Lazarus”, that grand dub-pop single of the Boos’ from back in ’92. Result.

Martin Carr at Exeter University, December 14th, 2021. Photograph by Sarah Cammack

They’re old hands at this, The Charlatans, and they know how to play the suspense of waiting. Guitar techs appear, tune,disappear; reappear again, each time bringing the expectancy higher. They’re playing a grand introductory tape that culminates in the whooshing bliss of Spacemen 3’s “Hypnotised”.

Ah: a band appear, sans Tim; lock into a familiar groove; and we’re off, we’re away, it’s that Us & Us Only mantric mod-organ scorcher, “Forever”; and here he is, the man himself, that wide grin and an insouciantly thrown together look that on any of us would look trampy, and which on Tim looks nothing else but entirely cute. He smiles down at someone in the front and the hearts of at least half the hall skip a beat. He’s lithe, supple, diffident, even a little shy maybe; but do you know what radiates out from him? Actual genuine star quality. And do you know why that is? It’s cos, after all these years, he still fucking loves this, genuinely loves this. He was born to this, and it’s all. Just. Grand.

Tim Burgess of The Charlatans at Exeter University, December 14th, 2021. Photograph by Sarah Cammack

It’s also wholly unreasonable that a man approaching the Big Five-Five should look so bloody good. But then, saying that, so do the rest of the band: guitarist Mark Collins and bassist Martin Blunt flanking him, the former still with a tousled mod haircut and maybe even looking better than he did in the early days. Rumours that The Charlatans have access to the fountain of eternal youth, and that it’s located in a copse somewhere near Peover, remain unconfirmed.

And from all that expectancy they properly deliver: Tim, doing a little baggy shuffle, rolling his forearms in a tight circle, properly charges in. And bam! Look at this for a opening five-song run: “Forever”, “Weirdo”, “Can’t Get Out Of Bed”, “Then”, “Impossible”; leaving us gasping and splayed and flattened like the corn in a crop circle. Absolutely bloody showboating; but then, when you have a playbook this strong to call on, whyever wouldn’t you?

There’s a lot of arms aloft in supplication; there’s a lot of pints aloft, too, and later, for the first time since I can recall, mostly empty plastic pint pots are launched skywards in ecstasy. Rolling dance moves, unexercised in too long, are rediscovered. And let’s be honest here – how many bands of that era, were they to do a greatest hits tour, would you just be that waiting for The Song, which they’re not gonna drop until the encore anyway? Not so here.

And so a brilliant ride continues. “Just When You’re Thinking Things Over” has that Faces-like guitar anthem ease, with arms shooting into the sky for that cathartic pronouncement: “I’m coming home”, it rolls with power and keys vamping away and it’s just ace, there’s no point in being clever here; this is about the moment, about memory, and suddenly I’m bombing down the M56 again in my Cheshire girlfriend’s car screaming the lyrics out of the wound-down windows on a sunny Sunday evening and everything, everything, is actually alright with the world. And I’m screaming the lyrics out now, too. And everything is alright with the world here and now, too.

Again, that double-whammy, because you’re still beaming like a lighthouse as it finishes, catching breath, before the wah-wah licks louchely over those grand announcing chords to “One To Another” and people are proper up for this, sisters and brothers.

Later, it’s pretty mind-blowing to look at their set and to think: I came away on such a high, so satiated, every button pressed and caressed, but that that set didn’t include “Indian Rope”, “With No Shoes”, “Nine Acre Court”, “Crashin’ In”, “Jesus Hairdo”, others; and you remind yourself that in order to get ’em all in, they’d be entering the territory of The Cure and Springsteen in terms of set length. Which, let’s be honest, I’m completely here for.

But what there is, is deeper cuts like “I Never Want An Easy Life If Me And He Were Ever To Get There”, and the soulful falsetto of “A Man Needs To Be Told” and the slow-burn celebratory roll of “The Blind Stagger” which, how come that wasn’t even a single, now? Tim looks so chuffed, his smile lighting up the hall, as he leads us all in that clever and cyclical melody and the almost terrace-chant hook.

Seconds out … and if you’re not already punch-drunk and ready to drop to the canvas, the main set concludes with the pugilistic stun of “The Only One I Know”, still fresh, that cymbal sting after the dropout still, here, launching a thousand involuntary whoops and cries and limbs suddenly swerving and stretching and feet skipping. “North Country Boy”, and I want to hug everyone within 20 feet. “How High”? Right now? On cruise control, maximum altitude, thanks lads.

Feet stomp, hands clap, there’s ripples of cheering; it’s a proper come-back-we-want-more crowd, who’ve been in the subfusc drudge of this government and this virus and all of this dreck for too long; and they have to, we can’t go yet; and it’s not too long before they’re back with not one, not two, but three extra bites of the cherry, ending gloriously with that simple, halcyon, blissful tale of teenage dalliances out in the verdant Cheshire plain, “Sproston Green”. Me? I give in. I’m bellowing it out and throwing shapes everywhere. There is no video of me in these moments, which comes as a relief.

You know what? All through lockdown, as musicians isolated took to their synths and their ProTools and their pianos and released works of nuanced bliss and necessary balm, I’ve been adoring electronica and modern composition and ambient stuff. It’s really soothed an unquiet mind as the globe lurched and staggered.

But as a yin to that yang, The Charlatans tonight have been pretty fucking unbeatable; they’re the catharsis, the primal scream, the chance to rock out sweetly and cheekily and let go and sing the collective heart out to a back catalogue that’s so bloody impressive. Love is indeed the key; and Tim gives us all a healing dose from beneath that blonde fringe in a simple, beaming wink.

Way back when, buried somewhere in a yellowing, thumb-smudged Melody Maker or something, Tim observed without rancour that The Charlatans were everyone’s third favourite band; but in this hellish year of our lord AD 2021, they’re a medicine and on this form, oooh, they’ve gotta be a joint first. Gotta be.

Still so delighted to bring these tunes to us after all these years, clutch them close.

The Charlatans’ tour was due to continue in Nottingham tonight, then visit Leeds, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh; unfortunate to report, those dates have now been pulled after two members of crew tested positive.

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