Tinderstick finally get out on the road in support of Past Imperfect: The Best Of Tindersticks ’92-’21. We were at Royal Festival Hall in London. Seuras Og shares his view…
Well, this took some waiting and planning, the original show planned and advertised long before the grim reaper ever caught sight of COVID, the idea being for a weekend jolly, down in that London, a gig a night x 3. Of course, it wasn’t to be, as COVID came saw and conquered, with a delay into 2021 duly extended a further 12 months. Fate, uncontent to sit on her laurels thus far, threw in one further whoopsy, that of me catching the fecker the weekend before, touch and go I could manage the requisite two consecutive daily negatives ahead of making a decision. And, with the panic and angst of a Tindersticks song, I got took to the wire and emerged, by a whisker.
Arguably, Tindersticks were a very different entity two years ago. OK, a fragile argument, as their very unchanging timelessness is one of their more affirming characteristics, but there have been two conventional albums dropped during the plague years, one just before, in truth, another of film soundtracks, and, barely a month ago, a retrospective double of their years thus far, Past Imperfect: The Best Of Tindersticks ’92 – ’21. How much of this show would be referencing the band as envisaged in 2020? The answer is that this is likely the same show as planned two years ago, perhaps as they were compiling the said compilation. So anyone, like me, hoping for the “well, I like your new direction” of Man Alone (Can’t Stand the Fadin’), was left a little wanting. (Hell, the track, in all it’s glorious extended electronic motorik, doesn’t even appear on that Best Of, making me fear that Staples has disowned it. as being too far out of character?!) But what that did mean this was a masterclass in the gloomy European noir chamber sensibilities of their early stuff, in spades, with the addition of a full string section to add all those swoops of string glissando, and some other special guests to further fill out the sound the current five piece can provide alone.
Strings, eh? Often more to be hated that loved, so few of those who embellish their music fully understand the point and purpose, mistakenly believing it is a a way to project the main themes louder and blunter. Which is crass, the road littered high with orchestral variation disasters. Stuart Staples and his gang have understood, mainly from film soundtrack, quite how additional sounds can display, distract and extend a mood, over and above the core notes of the music. Robert Kirby and Fiachra Tench have been possibly the only two individuals fully in acknowledged in possessing this skill and knowledge, within the setting of “rock” based material, but I would also add the name of their erstwhile multi-instrumentalist member, Dickon Hinchcliffe, who wrote many of the orchestrations for their songs, pre-2008, when he left. That style has stuck and, even as their style has veered slightly against the lush in recent years, no band quite can turn up the lush as do the ‘Sticks. And no, Hinchcliffe wasn’t here tonight, but his spirit was.
Opening with just Staples and David Boulter on stage, low lit but the empty chairs and the array of discarded instruments all suggesting treasures to follow. As ever, both suited and booted, Staples still affecting the battered fedora and YMCA biker ‘tache, Boulter at his keyboard ensemble, tapping out some echoed piano. Film buffs might remember the film High Life, Clare Denis’s 2019 horror film. Tindersticks have a long association with her work, and do much of the music for them. However it is Robert Pattinson who croons the song, Willow, from the film and in the film. Here, Staples was here to redress the balance, it a wonderful piece of minimalist angst, and the better in his lugubrious baritone. it is the “new” track on the collection. A couple of songs from their 2012 The Something Rain follow, the stage gradually populating, with, first, the xylophone slotting in, ahead of the guitar and the rhythm section. All are, as you would expect, subtle and understated, Neal Fraser managing to slip from dramatic squalled chords to delicate chords, awash with a panoply of foot pedals to capture different nuances. A first female walks on, she being the first violinist for the string section. (I am sure she too has a name, but I fear Staples has become so accustomed to his trademark slurred phonetics when singing, his speech is now so similarly affected as to be all but incomprehensible.) She added some sonorous violin to She’s Gone and Sleepy Song, each from their debut album, each drawing applause recognition from the audience.
I confess to getting a little vague as to exactitudes here, as Staples’ between song patter, brief as it was, was still needing subtitles. I think it was now that the rest of the string section appeared, another 11 or 12 folk, the pathos of these bleak songs now being stretched to the max. This was exemplified by another oldie, Another Night In, from my favourite album, Curtains, rendered heartachingly and heartbreakingly gorgeous, worth the price of the w/e jaunt and the 2 year wait in its own right.
With drummer Earl Harvin and bassist Dan McKenna now established members of the band, it is good to report how integral they are to the ensemble play. McKenna is also far from a single instrumentalist, bobbing around between keyboards and xylophone also. Indeed, they all seemed to have a stab on that last instrument at one or other stage, Staples and Fraser excluded, each far too cool for that school. Staples, as well as caressing his microphone, also strapped on and off various guitars for added effect. Possibly more visual than audio, but I am maybe being unfair: there were a lot of players on sage in the mix. Just for sheer contrariness, aka necessity, Harvin also had to pick up a bass guitar for one song, whilst McKenna was otherwise occupied.
At this stage it became clear any hope for an interval was not to be forthcoming, the songs keeping coming. Another guest, I’m presuming Terry Edwards, again the name unclear, had by now appeared, and was giving it some, parping majestically on a silver trumpet. Beautiful. It now was becoming clear that Past Imperfect was proving very much the template for the show, which, having made the requisite investment a week or so back, was beginning to make up for the seeming failure to play much/any new. Given this selection includes those duet songs that the band have dallied with across their career, I wondered who would be providing that role. With Lhasa de Sela long deceased and Carla Torgerson, the ex-Walkabout, the band who were the American yang to Tindersticks European yin, missing somewhat in action, who was going to fulfil this role? Again, reader, Staples told us and we all looked bemused, but she was a female with a voice of enormous character and merit. (Maybe I should have recognised her?) (Ed. It was Gina Foster!) Anyhoo, she did the songs expected proud, both Show Me Everything and Travelling Light, her tones contrasting perfectly with Staples. Have I said yet what perfect voice he was in tonight, his control and restraint impeccable, if his diction be damned. And I have skated over a cover song offered, a Peggy Lee song, no less, o so apt, o so arch, it being Johnny Guitar. (No, me neither, I thinking it just more of their typical misererabilism.)
A sense of finale was building, as each and every player was now on stage, Edward now toting a ginormous baritone sax. Older stuff vied with the less older, with another personal favourite, My Oblivion, with its cascading ennui of strings, from 2003, especially poignant. With a final flourish, following For The Beauty’s frenzy of overwroughtness, off the band walked. Or off the core band walked, leaving the string section alone and looking a little unsettled.
Making the orchestral players suffer a little longer than strictly fair, eventually on again they strode, with Staples seeming truly moved by the audience response, muttering about the delays, the postponements, the wait and the faith clearly present for his band. Bless, but he was right.
A bevy of songs made for the encore experience, cherry picked across the repertoire, from 1992’s My Sister and Tiny Tears to 2010’s Harmony Around My Table. The final song, and we were told, firmly, there were no more, was For Those, track from the time of their debut, only available on the re-released deluxe edition, and not on the compilation. The first live performance, apparently, since 1997, it was a doozy of a spot to end. A happy audience of beatniks is, I think, the correct term, shuffled home.
(But how about some new, next time, Guys?)