Confession time – I found the old baggy Madchester thing a musical cul de sac. And the problem with cul de sac’s is once you’ve driven around a couple of times admiring the hanging baskets and the shiny Ford Mondeos in the driveways, there isn’t much more to look at.
Framed by the beautiful challenging music that preceded it (Buzzcocks, Magazine, Joy Division, New Order, the Smiths, the Fall, the Durutti Column etc), I was seriously underwhelmed by the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and their ilk. Load that “Funky Drummer” loop up one more time, I’m going in with me maracas and jangly guitar.
The Charlatans felt different though. They were not shy of developing and absorbing their influences. They also felt more like adults as opposed to some of the cartoon characters that inhabited that scene. I read Tim Burgess’s first book earlier in the year and despite the pharmaceutical experimentation, he came across as a likeable functioning human being.
This year has seen their 13th LP “Different Days”. The album and it’s predecessor, 2015’s “Modern Nature” were the first after a 5 year hiatus following a number of difficult life events. It feels like a rebirth, both albums having a sun dappled optimistic vibe. “Different Days” features a plethora of guests including Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, New Order’s Steve Morris, Johnny Marr and Paul Weller on the closing “Spinning Out”. Both albums are growers and formed 50% of the Civic’s setlist.
This was an evening about homecoming. I was back at the Civic for the first time in donkey’s years and it was a joy to be out with mates and bump into unexpected old friends. There was a universal feeling of bonhomie that pervaded the Civic, such a marvellous old venue, of old acquaintances catching up with each other.
That extended to the stage as well, with bass player Martin Blunt returning to the Midlands sadly minus the original Black Country contingent of Rob Collins and Jon Brookes, both of whom so sadly passed away.
The theme of sunshine was common throughout the evening. The new material shone through in particular for me, bringing to mind New Order’s glorious Ibiza inspired “Technique” LP. It did reveal the two flaws in the Charlatan’s armoury for me.
Firstly, there was a section of devoted fans who grabbed the opportunity to enjoy something new and different, and to my mind, better. Unfortunately what seemed to go down best was the classic organ driven sound of the Charlatan’s most popular songs. This is the gospel infused chord sequences that bring to mind “Movin’ On Up” but that vibe got a tad repetitive.
Which takes us on to the second of my issues. For a band of their longevity, they have a very good back catalogue but it lacks serious show stoppers. Their less talented baggy brethren didn’t have the consistency and lengthy back catalogue but arguably their short careers delivered more big hits, more bangers. This may be an illusion created by the shorter meteoric careers of the Stone Roses or the Happy Mondays. The fact that the Charlatans have kept going, having a proper grown up life and have not taken the “split and reform dollar” possibly doesn’t work in their favour either. In Steve Handley’s brilliant book “The Big Midweek”, he comments:
Five years is what everyone else seems to manage, before the rot sets in. But splitting up is a cop out. What you need to do is develop coping mechanisms.
The Charlatans have clearly done that. If you asked me to spend two hours at a gig watching either the Roses, the Mondays or the Charlatans, I’d plump for the latter every time.
This was what stopped a very good gig being a brilliant one which, as criticisms go, isn’t the worse. It was extremely memorable (despite the two pint cases of beer) and what I’ll take away from it is the huge sense of community and goodwill that surrounds the band.
And as the festive season gets closer, that is no bad thing, is it?