I don’t really know how to begin. I’ve been seeing The Stranglers live for nearly forty years. There is no band that I have seen more times than this one. I’ve seen The Stranglers be brilliant, and I have seen The Stranglers when they appear to have lost their collective way and fall short of expectations. I’ve seen them play to packed houses and I’ve seen them play to less than half filled halls. Yet I have never, NEVER, seen The Stranglers play like I did at the Birmingham o2 Academy the other night.
For me it was a brave move to tour the ‘Black and White’ album in its entirety. As I have written elsewhere (my retrospective look at the album is a companion piece to this review, here) that this is a magnificent album but one that is challenging to play and challenging to listen to. It is serious music with serious themes; and this is not a move a band looking for an easy life would want to make.
The Stranglers’ March tour is a phenomenon that has been growing year by year, the halls have been getting fuller and the dates more numerous. The easy thing to do would be to sit back and play the hits. Here though, for the first time in my memory, was a set devoid of ‘Golden Brown’ but replete with classic and new tracks did more than blow me away…it made me wonder where the band could possibly go next?
Coming on the the traditional ‘Waltzinblack’ I felt excited yet unusually apprehensive about how this would play out, yet from the first chords of ‘Tank’ the band were immediately on it with this huge battering ram of a fans favourite, ‘Nice ‘N’ Sleazy’ duly followed and so far it could have been any year’s gig. Then as ‘Outside Tokyo’ powerfully kicked in, JJ Burnel’s bass runs really hitting the ears, and the band really smashed what is quite an empty and spacious song turning it into something all the more substantial live. As ‘the white side’ progressed it became clear to me that The Stranglers were nailing this album, culminating with a pulsating ‘Toiler on the Sea’. So far so good, but now the tricky bit of communicating the darkness and experimentalism of ‘the black side’.
If anything this sounded even more fierce, but it was not just about power. The subtlety and the profound nature of the album really came through, you could feel The Stranglers letting themselves go on the choruses of ‘Curfew’, and sensed the menace in the verses. Burnel’s vocal/ bass duet on ‘Threatened’ was immense, and ‘In The Shadows’ really stood out, sounding utterly contemporary and exciting…further compelling evidence that here was an album that managed to be experimental at the time, and yet still sounds fresh nearly forty years later.
‘Do You Wanna’/ ‘Death and Night and Blood’ retained its bleakness, but was somehow revitalised here. For me, though, it was ‘Got Enough Time’ which really stood out as the track which exemplified this performance. Transformed brilliantly for the live stage I noticed how hard the band were working to communicate the track to the crowd. Of course, as on the album, Burnel’s bass was front and centre, but Baz Warne worked tirelessly and always looked in control of this and other tracks that were so personal to the authors. Dave Greenfield seemed in his element with the abstract keyboard work on the album as a whole; and in Jim Macauley the band have a drummer who can more than hold his own. Indeed, this was moment for me when he completed the move from ‘stand in’ to permanent member of the band, Jet Black not forgotten but succeeded by someone who seems to understand the importance of curating The Stranglers legacy in its own particular way.
With the album completed many bands would be content and take its collective foot of the pedal with a a safe remaining set. Not The Stranglers, who, without pausing for breath burst into a tight and visceral version of ‘Grip’ and followed it up with ‘Black and White’ era cover version ‘Walk On By’, here delivered with such verve and nuance that it achieved the seemingly impossible task of wringing even more out of this Bacharach/ David classic.
What really struck me about the rest of the set was not only that there was no let up, the tempo remained high throughout with a good mixture of newer and older material, none of which sounded out of place. This for me was a band that had had to rehearse harder than usual to get to grips with the difficult ‘Black and White’ material, the pay-off being that it was tighter and more coherent than ever throughout the set.
Beyond that, however, this performance also confirmed that this was not just a ‘Black and White’ band, but all shades in-between. They were smooth and untouchable during ‘Always The Sun’, rocked out like a lofi garage band on ‘A Soldiers Diary’, were the cheeky seaside postcard chappies on ‘Peaches’ (although even this track seemed more powerful than usual). On ‘Go Buddy Go’ they were the house band working hard so we could party, aided by a fan proposing to his partner of 32 years on stage. ‘Norfolk Coast’ was punchy and controlled, ‘Princess of the Streets’ as sleazy and grubby as ever, and ‘Nuclear Device’ epitomised the almost communion-like relationship between band and fans. Add to that a searing finale of ‘No More Heroes’, the twenty ninth track of the set, and you get a performance that was nothing short of triumphant.
I say again, where on earth do The Stranglers go from here? I really have no idea because the bar has once again been set higher than ever.
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