Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Local heroes make worthwhile return

Gang of Four, The Departure, 10,000 Things, Leeds University, 24 January 2005

Initially, it doesn’t bode well. Poor ticket sales forced a venue change from the huge but soulless Refectory to the much more compact Stylus Bar (home of many a cattle-market alcopop student piss-poor disco. The Stylus is possibly a better venue as its balconies afford a better view for persons of restricted growth and it has a decent bar, unlike the Refectory. Perhaps the £20 ticket price was a tad steep for a band that, although reputedly the godfathers of punk funk, many of the new NME readership have only heard of, not heard.

Openers 10,000 Things play to a near empty hall and make the de rigueur racket you’d expect from twin guitars, bass, drums and a vocalist who wears braces. I can’t say if it was especially good or bad as it had so little impact. The lack of atmosphere and audience didn’t help matters much and the scant audience in front of the stage were hardly moshing (the old men were still at the bar at this point). The Things play a cover of Gang of Four’s Damaged Goods that adds nothing to the original and might as well be karaoke – it’s by far their best effort of the night; says it all really. One more song and they are gone, back to the pub rock circuit, just another Leeds band trying to hitch a ride on the Kaiser Chiefs coat tails.

The venue filled up before The Departure and the audience was by now mostly male and 40-something, with a smattering of kids. They open with a version of their last single Be My Enemy that’s so ropey that I don’t recognise it until the chorus (nb, I own a copy). It gets interesting towards the end when the bassist starts to get busy but it’s all over too soon. The studied cool of their records is replaced by a much rockier live incarnation and the kids down at the front are even moved to nod their heads in time to the music – rock n roll ain’t dead! The Departure sound like a pastiche of an 80s sound that never actually existed, a 1980s remixed and remodelled by the corporate whores in their major label HQ bunker. Having said that the set improves as it progresses and at one point they even manage to sound as bombastic as the Chameleons or an Interpol tribute band. The crowd remains fairly aloof and last year’s single All Mapped Out provokes barely a ripple of interest but is actually the highlight of the thirty-minute set.

Post-Departure there was a real buzz in the air. Keith ‘Cunt’ Allen is in attendance, as is Robochrist, a few Pale Saints, a Three John, a Lucky Royale and a host of local DJs, promoters and wannabes. All were eager to see the supposed forefathers of Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, Radio 4, The Rapture and just about any band with guitars and bass these days. Dry ice was pumped on to the minimally lit stage (a rare concession to cliché). Andy Kershaw strode onto the stage and recounted his time on the Ents Committee at Leeds University. Kershaw spoke of all the bands he booked during his time here in the early 1980s and how he booked bands including The Jam, Boomtown Rats, The Ramones and The Pretenders but the best two gigs he presided over were The Clash and, of course, Gang of Four’s triumphant return to Leeds in December 1980.

Kershaw departs and Jon King, Andy Gill, Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham take the stage to resounding cheers. They look older, thicker round the waist, worn by time but not dulled by it. The opening bars of What We All Want sound as fresh as they did on record a quarter of a century ago, with bassist Allen taking centre stage flanked by Gill and King. King, Gill and Allen swap positions for Not Great Men and King bounds about waving his arms around like a man possessed, much to the crowd’s delight. Clattering drums abound through Ether and at this point I’m wondering exactly what the connection is between Gang of Four and “Art Rock” because, believe me, all that Bloc Party et al grasped was the style, not the sonic substance or the still-pertinent message. King whips out a melodica at one point and in another song utilises a microwave oven as a percussion instrument. Highlight of the evening has to be Anthrax, which begins with squalling feedback before Burnham pounds out the rhythm and Allen’s bassline weaves its magic over the top, the lack of a guitar part freeing up Gill to share vocals with King to mesmeric effect. Drums thunder through Naturals Not In It and this leads into set closer To Hell With Poverty with King encouraging the audience to “get drunk on cheap wine” before leading the band off stage to rapturous applause and immediate pleas for an encore.

Which after a few minutes is We Live As We Dream, Alone before launching into an explosive Damaged Goods, demonstrating just how piss-poor 10,000 Things are. The driving bassline is counterpointed by scratchy guitar – this is the art-rock/punk-funk blueprint in action and it has the faithful jumping. The refrain of “goodbye goodbye goodbye” seemed so final but after a brief exit Gang of Four return again for a blistering rendition of I Found That Essence Rare that has the whole place singing along. King, Gill, Allen & Burnham stand arms aloft at the stage’s edge and bid farewell. Tonight’s Leeds' finest came home and boy have we missed them.

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