Barbara, The Harriets – Gulliver’s, Manchester – 7th September 2022
A Brighton whirlwind hits Manchester – and picks up a hoard of newly-converted Barbarettes! Barbara, Brighton’s rising stars, whipped up a storm at Gullivers, and At The Barrier went along for the ride.
Back in May, after Brighton’s rising stars, Barbara, swept us away at the live launch of their Mildly Entertaining EP, we advised At The Barrier readers to climb on board the Barbara bus because, in our humble opinion, we expected that the band were about to embark on what would be one helluva ride. Well, it appears that that ride is gaining momentum, and, judging by the numbers that braved the thunder and lightning on Wednesday 7th September to see the band at Gulliver’s in Central Manchester, Barbara will soon be needing a bigger bus! Barbara rode into town and, quite simply, they were stunning. Their stage presence, striking when I first saw the band, has grown, along with John’s and Henry’s confidence, the sound was superb and, above all, the tunes were magical.
The songs from Mildly Entertaining still form the core of the band’s setlist, but I was delighted, too, by the number of new songs that have started to creep into the repertoire. They sounded great, and I have it on reliable authority that we won’t have to wait too much longer for a follow-up EP to Mildly Entertaining. I, for one, can’t wait!
Despite spending my formative years in and around Manchester and despite being a still frequent visitor to the city, I’d never actually visited Gulliver’s before. Located on Oldham Street in the city’s Northern Quarter, just a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Station, it is, at first appearance, a traditional pub with a distinctive Manchester feel. The beer is excellent, and the walls are adorned with pictures of old Manchester. But, perhaps the beating heart of the establishment lies up the narrow staircase at the back of the pub, for it’s here that the 110-person capacity gig space, grandly named “The Ballroom” by the venue’s proprietors, can be found. It’s a lovely room, nicely proportioned, with high ceilings and beautifully ornate plasterwork and, when a band like Barbara is in town to draw in the punters, the atmosphere is electric.
And punters were, indeed, pretty thick on the ground. The band’s performance at the Bridgewater Hall back in April, supporting their heroes The Divine Comedy will surely have attracted a significant number of new fans, and I guess that several chance hearings of Mildly Entertaining, along with word of mouth (and websites like ours, we hope!) will also have dragged a few curious souls away from the telly. Whatever the reason for their visit, anyone who did come along was thrilled and invigorated and I can confidently predict that, the next time Barbara play Manchester, they’ll have to find a bigger venue.
But, first things first… At Gulliver’s, Barbara was supported by Leeds-based outfit, The Harriets. Or, rather, by 50% of The Harriets’ usual live lineup. Saxophonist/ keyboard player Jess Womack and drummer Ryan Bailey weren’t able to make the show, but the band’s pair of multi-instrumentalists, vocalists and principal songwriters – Dan Parker-Smith and Ben Schrodel – did manage to come along, and they were an inspired choice of opening act. Switching nimbly between acoustic guitar and electric piano and sharing the vocal duties, the guys whipped though a short selection of their well-crafted, thoughtfully constructed songs. In their quirkiness, their lyrical content and their references (deliberate or otherwise) to the English pastoral pop of bands like Stackridge, they’re not dissimilar to Barbara, and I’d imagine that Dan and Ben share many of the influences that inspire the compositions of the brothers Tydeman.
The ‘Barbara lite’ impression took root during opening number, Darlin’, A few nerves were perhaps in evidence, but these seemed to almost visibly melt away as they swept through Trip to the Moon, the excellent Somewhere in New York, I Like You, the pastoral In My Countryside Fantasy and, particularly, the dreamy One Bright Star, a quiet number that managed to quell the growing sense of excitement in the room as Barbara-time started to loom. By the time the duo got around to their cover of Geldof’s I Don’t Like Mondays, they were firing on all cylinders and the audience – young and old alike – responded by singing along enthusiastically. Perhaps my favourite song of their set was penultimate number Music Round, an excellent song that reminded me somewhat of the late Harry Chapin’s work. They rounded off their set with the rocky Disco Cafe and they thoroughly deserved the solid and genuine reception they received. If The Harriets are scheduled to play anywhere near you, I’d strongly advise that you pop along, and it’s also worth looking out for their album, Hopefuls, too!
Attendees at a Barbara show are guaranteed interval entertainment in the form of the band’s eclectic playlist and, at Gulliver’s, we were, once again, charmed by such gems as Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again, Naturally and, particularly, the great Tom Lehrer’s Poisoning Pigeons In The Park, before the lights dimmed, and the fanfare of Michael Kamen’s Central Services (theme from the 1985 movie, Brazil) ushered Britain’s favourite Fop Poppers (definition © Barbara) to the stage – and we were off!
As now seems to be usual, Barbara opened their set with the vibrant Waiting Outside Alone, a song that allows the band to settle immediately into their stride, and it was clear right from the outset that the guys have grown – in stature, confidence and showmanship – even in the short period since I last saw them in May. The band was as tight as a pie enthusiast’s waistband, the sound was spot-on and the excitement was brimming over – and we all knew – tonight was going to be very special! After a message of thanks to The Harriets (“We toured the world to find the right opening act” said John) and a declaration that we were all Barbarettes for the evening, it was straight into “our smash hit” These New Communications, and, judging from the audience reaction, it appears that the onset of Barbaramania is as imminent as Boris Johnson’s next fib.
December 2021 single, Rainy Days in June has clearly become a crowd-pleasing favourite, to the extent that John was roundly corrected when he mistakenly described the book that the song’s principal character was keen to return to as a paperback… (it is, of course, a hardback). Undeterred, the band plunged into the song and John plunged into the audience – and, by heck, he knows how to work a crowd! Maybe the funky, bubbly Pretty Straight Guy will soon follow in the footsteps of Rainy Days… following its forthcoming release as a single. With lines like “He’s just a pretty straight guy, living a pretty straight life” the song is a worthy 2020s sequel to The Kinks’ Well Respected Man.
As I’ve already remarked, Barbara’s recent support slot on the Divine Comedy tour does seem to have been rewarded with a leap in interest in the band and John referred back to the experience of that tour, recalling a wonderful conversation with The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon. John had likened appearances at venues such as Birmingham Symphony Hall, Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, Brighton Dome and Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall as “Playing in the Premier League,” a comment that prompted Neil to retort “Yes – it’s a shame that you’ll soon be back in the Conference South East, and playing in all the shitty grounds again!” Well – I wouldn’t necessarily call Gullivers a “shitty ground…” it’s more of a “compact stadiette,” but anyway, I’m confident that Barbara are heading for promotion and, whilst the Premier League still may be some way away, the bigger venues are definitely within reach.
John played his plastic melodica during Enduring Love, the evening’s newest song. I’ve often suggested that Barbara’s music contains more than a hint of Stackridge, and that’s particularly the case here. It’s an interesting sounding number and I’m looking forward to having a close listen, if and when it gets released. A wonderful four-part acapella harmony announced A Perishing of Cherished Things – still my favourite of Barbara’s excellent songs – before John announced – with a knowing wink – the evening’s last number, Don’t Send Me Messages. I’d never noticed before how vividly John shifts his eyeballs during the song’s “I don’t know there – Never been there” refrain, but it’s an act that adds another level of drama, and the band really rocked, so there was never any doubt whatsoever that an encore would be on the cards.
And WHAT an encore it was! Bass, guitar and drums all left the stage, leaving the brothers Tydeman to sit around the piano for a couple of what they call “Bookcase Songs.” “Our mother used to MAKE us sing these songs,” John lied. First up was a take on The Carpenters’ Superstar; camp – maybe, hilarious – certainly, but hugely enjoyable nevertheless, and the chaps’ harmonies were faultless and Henry’s piano was superb. Even better was the version of Bananarama’s I Want You Back, during which John had the whole room singing and clapping along on demand. It was great fun – and if YOU want to hear Barbara sing a song of YOUR choice, why not write in with a request? You never know….
And still it wasn’t over! The full band returned for a joyful and triumphant run through BRB, the final track on Mildly Entertaining. The whole room was rocking and the band’s enjoyment was obvious. Come the final bars, the reaction of the audience was ecstatic, and I was asking myself whether Barbara could ever play a better, tighter, livelier gig than this one. But then I remembered – it was Birmingham last night; it’s London tomorrow and, on Friday, they return home to what is sure to be a rapturous welcome at The Prince Albert, Brighton. So, I expect that the answer to my question is: Yes – they can. Every night!
Barbara, we love you. Please come back soon.