Farewell? We hope not. The Stranglers at The O2 Academy, 19th February 2022.
A long time a’coming, this one, postponed twice, 2020 to 2021, and now to 2022, with the interim unthinkable of the death of Dave Greenfield, to add the chances of this tour never materialising. Now, you can pontificate for ever as to the worth and wisdom of replacing integral band members and ploughing on regardless, but this decision seems to have been made with point and purpose, respect even.
It isn’t as if the band are strangers to change, having had to sustain the loss of , JJ aside, front man and focus, Hugh Cornwell, an impossible near 32 years ago, and the eventual retirement of venerable sticksman, Jet Black, in 2018. Indeed, Baz Warne, who has been a singing guitarist since 2000, has weathered replacing both John Ellis, on guitar, and Paul Roberts on vocals, it initially taking two souls to fill Cornwell’s boots. Jim Macauley, who had been slotting alongside Black for a number of years, has certainly shown he has the necessary thump, but it is Toby Hounsham, once of noughties band, Rialto, who has had the steepest and most critical learning curve.
Arriving a tad late to catch punk veterans, Ruts DC, down now to a grizzled trio, it was in the queue for the bar that I caught their greatest claim to posterity, as they belted out Babylon’s Burning to rapturous acclaim from the already rammed capacity audience. Reliably informed their whole, if brief, set had been bouncing, no little pressure then for the headliners.
Bang on nine and the PA began to pump out the unmistakable sound of Waltzinblack, simultaneously raising expectations and the small hairs on my neck. Lights up, all blues and reds, and out loped Burnel and Warne, the former lithe and impossibly well preserved, the latter beefier and a look of no nonsense. Set back, each on separate podia, the drums and a bank of keyboards. Hounsham, in shades and leather jacket, even looked like Greenfield, Macauley never quite still enough, arms flailing, to ever get much of a clear view. Toiler was the opening salvo, arguably an odd choice until you appreciate it, as a single song, contains all those tropes beloved of the band: clangingly sonorous bass, spiky chimes of guitar, semi-shouted vocals and, most of all, arpeggiated glissandos of keyboard. Toby’s got it, breathed the 3000, in relief.
Thus onward it was a gallivant through a greatest hits of the old classic period, five songs from Rattus alone, matched by five from Dark Matters, a smattering from all points in between. So we got Something Better Change, Sometimes and Nice’n’Sleazy, all in the first barrage, and barrage it was, Burnel prowling the stage like a predator, if still prone to an occasional self-conscious grin.
Early on Warne praised the size of the balls that Hounsham had even have the nerve to play as he was, this meeting praise from the partisan audience. This tour, don’t forget, is entitled the Final Full Tour, In Memory of Dave. A slight change in attack came with a slew of the gentler songs in their canon, those perhaps more usually associated with Cornwell. So Don’t Bring Harry, Strange Little Girl and Always the Sun, the opportunity not lost for Warne to display his gentler voice and to reproduce those whispery guitar patterns. Should that have all seemed a bit cosy, out boomed the instant rush of recognition, der der der, derder der dum dum, Peaches now unleashed on the hungry crowd, rumbling the viscera and recapturing recollections of “back in the day”.
Golden Brown was perhaps the obvious song to follow, and it was good, but the sound balance seemed to go a bit awry, not quite matching the keys with the vocal parts, each to loud for their successive sections. Memory more than took care of that distraction, it also being a brave move to switch the harpsichord motif to a synthesiser, a rare slight false step.
Some new songs, Last Men on the Moon and White Stallion ensured that this was not a show built alone on past glories, holding up well, even against a later relentless assault of Grip and Walk On By, the latter stretched out into a delectable treat. Another of this writer’s favourites, Duchess, suffered a little from the same sonic imbalance as Golden Brown, but this could not be levelled an incandescent Hanging Around, the organ chords announcing the arrival of the song causing exhilaration. 22 songs and off.
Of course they came back, at first just the two front men, each touting acoustics and, Lord help us, perching on stools. What madness this? Actually none, with an exquisite run through The Lines, the short and evocative ode to ageing, followed by the touchingly glorious And If You Should See Dave. As the title gives away, this is a paean to the erstwhile member, 43 years alongside Burnel. When it came to the “This is where his solo should go” line, spontaneous cheers and applause arose, lasting the full eight bars or whatever, with not a dry eye in the room. Terrific.
With the crowd bemused as to whether that was it, there was an initial failure to respond to the duo exiting again the stage, ahead a gradual building swell of approval for the show and clamouring for more. Which, with a fiery Go Buddy Go and a triumphant No More Heroes, all singing along, we got. Satiated, a bit more from Waltzinblack and it was close, lights up, deep satisfaction and, beguilingly, a sense that we should really all do this some time again. Let’s hope.