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Weekend Intermission – Hugh Cornwell – live at Manchester Academy 3, 6th May

Weekend Intermission is our regular feature where we look at an artist or band not from the Nordic countries, just to mix things up a bit.

It’s time for another Weekend Intermission and how better to spend a Saturday night away from the computer and Match of the Day than by watching a legend, and one from a sub-genre that wasn’t to the best of my knowledge replicated in the Nordics (except perhaps by Hugh Cornwell when he lived in Sweden as a scientific research boffin).

I always liked The Stranglers and their slightly edgy but always melodic and punchy material without ever committing by way of a record purchase. I suspect many others were like me. I could never quite nail them. Ostensibly ‘punk’, there were elements of prog and even psych in their work which were particularly evident on early albums.

But Hugh Cornwell wasn’t here tonight to promote that; or The Stranglers generically. He’s had a solo career for over 30 years with 10 albums to his credit including last year’s ‘Moments of Madness’ which was showcased heavily in the first set.

Yes, the first. There were two, punctuated by a 20-minute break, and supplemented by a lengthy encore as well. The band (Cornwell on guitar plus bass and drums) must have got through a show that was 30 songs in length (I eventually lost count), and at pace; the 11pm curfew stipulation was easily met.

He might have gone straight from the Academy to another show somewhere else for all I know. He’s still got the energy.

He’s 73 now, the same age as that bloke who got crowned earlier in the day but he’s kept himself trim and fit. He could easily be 10 years younger. When I look at people like Cornwell and Steve Hackett (another 73-year old) and the rigours they put themselves through with heavy touring when some of their peers are in nursing homes, I wonder why too many young bands seem to think a four-town tour is quite enough for a year. But that debate’s for another time.

The reason for having two sets immediately became obvious when you looked around the (sold out) venue, which was populated by those ‘of a certain age.’ To be more specific there were few under the age of 50, other than where sons and daughters had been dragged along (and more than willingly, from what I observed). And the median age must have been much higher.

Of course that often means bladders which can’t last the distance like they used to and there were a fair few folk hopping around as the first set neared its conclusion. I thought at first it must be a new dance Hugh had patented. Then as it ended it was as if the fire alarm had gone off as half the audience swarmed the doors like the Impi warriors in ‘Zulu’ at Rorke’s Drift. And some of them didn’t come back.

One guy stopped uncomfortably to ask me if I remembered going through an entire festival without needing a toilet break rather than scrambling for one after a few minutes before disappearing back into the stampede. I’m still trying to remember, but you see, I’m one of them, and memories get hazy…

There were characters by the dozen. Propped against the bar at the back was a guy with a Cockney accent in a studded leather jacket right out of the 70s who could have been Mad Frankie Fraser’s brother. An identikit Ian Dury strolled by, then Captain Birdseye put in an appearance.

To be honest, with all of my recent gigs being populated almost exclusively by ‘yoof’, it was heaven. The crowd provided as much entertainment as the artist.

Where the artist is concerned (I got there eventually), I was taken by surprise at how laid back and chilled out Hugh Cornwell and his band were, early doors. Mindful of The Stranglers’ high energy performances I expected him to come in with all guns blazing but bluesy opener ‘Coming out of the wilderness’, also the opening track of ‘Moments of Madness’, was surprisingly sedate. That said, being right at the back, with the volume not too high and amongst a noisy bar hubbub didn’t help.

That didn’t last song. As the material unfolded the breadth of his musical scope became apparent. ‘Moments of madness’ the song could have been played by Madness. ‘Stuck in Daily Mail Land’ has all the hallmarks of XTC, including the vocalisation. ‘Mr Leather’ has the lyrical smartness of Carter USM.

The audience was a little slow to react, even prompting Hugh to comment “complete silence!” as he introduced one song, but the tempo began to pick up from ‘Under her spell’ and with the odd guitar solo and an occasional bit of impressive shredding accompanying songs that were distinctly rockier.

Something that occurred to me during this first set is that some of his pieces might benefit from the addition of a rhythm guitar or better still keys when played live. They’re fine in the recorded versions but sounded a tad thin on stage.

I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the audience were there to hear Stranglers songs first and foremost, and that shouldn’t be taken as a slight on Hugh in anyway. The aforementioned Hackett, for all the magnificence of his solo creations since he left Genesis, knows that work will always play second fiddle to Gabriel-era Genesis classics in his shows today.

And right from the start of the second set the now relieved audience was treated to the fairground ride-like and eerie ‘Waltz in Black’, recorded back in 1981 just as the prog wave reached its own ‘end of the beginning’ and the punk movement had settled in its place.

Thereafter this set and the encore saw a wave of Stranglers songs including ‘Nice ‘n sleazy’, which sounded like an amalgam of Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s ‘Sand Dance’, ‘Tusk’ and ‘Psycho Killer’; ‘Sverige’, the Swedish language version of ‘Sweden – all quiet on the eastern front’ (which no-one apart from Hugh could understand); ‘Goodbye Toulouse’; ‘Skin Deep’; ‘Strange Little Girl’; ‘Hanging Around’; ‘Always the Sun’; ‘Duchess’; and ‘Golden Brown’.   

Regrettably there was no ‘No more Heroes’ but I get the impression it might have been junked from most set lists these days. What we did get though was a stonking bass solo, guitar and vocal parts in ‘Golden Brown’ that were sublime, more extreme guitar shredding and an instrumental track, ‘Yellowcake UF6’, which I’d never heard before, which is a remake of another song played backwards, and which lies somewhere to the left of what King Crimson were doing 30 years earlier.

Quite how they managed to replicate it on the night I haven’t yet figured out.

You know, the saddest thing I saw was on the way out – a deserted merch stand, save for its operative. Perhaps it was busy at other times, I hope so. The merchandise –  vinyl albums for a tenner, CDs a fiver – wasn’t expensive. It reinforced what I mentioned earlier, that most of the audience were there to hear the Stranglers songs and that particular merchandise wasn’t on the market.

That will often be the case with rock stars who continue into their dotage but it’s a shame when that artist is still producing very listenable songs.

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