Live Reviews

Hugh Cornwell – O2 Institute, Birmingham: Live Review

Hugh Cornwell – O2 Institute, Birmingham – 5th May 2023

Faded glory? Not a chance.

So, I had this concert in Manchester, postponed, that finally came back around, and my agent said how about a show in Birmingham the night before? Why not?” which is how Cornwell introduced this show, a mix of new, that now encompasses the 20-plus years since he left the Stranglers, and a set of the old, the expected and evergreen back catalogue of, arguably, his old band. (We won’t go where they have gone since, although we did, as foregone conclusions can be unhelpful……)

The O2 Institute 2 is the second stage of the smaller of the Birmingham O2 venues, and actually a stage I like. In the basement, it has a compact and enclosed feel, a bit like a club. I make this point as Cornwell did too, remarking, unfavourably, on the last stage he played in this city, which had been the largely soulless O2 Academy. And yes, this may point to his appeal being more select, but it meant also for a partisan crowd, familiar with the solo stuff and less reliant on the crowd pleasing bangers of their increasingly distant youth. A mature audience, then. Fair play, this is my tribe, the youngest folk present being the bassist and drummer in his band.

A touch after 8 and the lights went down, and, in black, always in black, on strode the trio, Cornwell last. A brief hello, an explanation of the night’s show of two halves and he was off. First off was Coming Out Of The Wilderness, the lead track from last year’s Moments Of Madness. Reassuringly Cornwell-esque, a snarling sprechgesang that lists all the things he is planning and needing to do. A lax strum of guitar the main scaffolding, the bass and drums there as the thumps to underpin the narrative, all the expected hallmarks are there, from feral threats of intent, wry humour and even some casual sexism, I suspect (hope) tongue in cheek by now. Love it! From thence he slips back and forth between that album and older solo fare, highlights from the former being the title track from last year’s album, and the acerbic When I Was A Young Man. Again, the idea that he was ever a young man strikes against the received wisdom; hell, he was a positively ancient 28 when the Stranglers first began, looking and seeming always much older. Now a delightfully louche 73, he actually seems little changed. Stuck In Daily Mail Land, from 2012, struck a different chord, the structure and riff redolent of a slightly psychedelic ’60s song, an upbeat pop song in some contrast to the lyric. More characteristic was I Want One Of Those, which describes his love of window-shopping in the rain. Beware Of The Doll then gave the joy of the Cornwell whistle, most unexpected given the content.

A word at this stage about the band, a slight feel of underuse seeping through. Possibly unsurprising, given Cornwell has famously played all the instruments for his recent recordings. Actually, he is a fine bassist, bearing in mind he played that instrument in his first band, at school, there being already a better guitarist than he to take that position. (Which is the moment for the obligatory Fairport mention, this being ATB, schoolchum Richard Thompson and he sharing a stage in Emil & the Detectives.) His drumming is, let’s say, unfussy and with few frills, which left the fella with the expansive kit a little adrift in this first half, as the bassist vaulted around Cornwell’s languid strum, best described as economical, give or take a few pithy and spiky runs. Lest this seem critical, it is perfect for the material, Cornwell very much an advocate of less is more. This approach was epitomised by Mr Leather, a song about and dedicated to Lou Reed, the tale of how they never quite met, set to a particularly VU two chord lope, with Cornwell channeling the man vocally. Lovely stuff, actually.

With some jazz on the PA to bridge the gap, the threesome left the stage, allowing 20 minutes to grasp your bearings and a pint. With the room now relatively well filled, one might sense this was why many were here. So, when the unmistakable melody of Waltzinblack kicked in, the cheer went up. And, unlike the old band, this was no recording to usher the band back, this was live, with Cornwell picking out the melody, the bass and drums making for a lower register recreation that few could be surprised and not uplifted by. The drummer, a Spaniard, we were told, was suddenly more occupied, he also having a keyboard/sequencer at his disposal, if never relied upon in any obvious or expected way. Hanging Around came second, always a favourite, the trio knocking out a cracking version that had the audience carolling away tunelessly. Having just returned from a tour of Sweden, All Quiet On The Eastern Front got a polish, this time actually in Swedish. With many of the songs coming from the early middle period, after the first couple of albums, and before the smoother later material, these were songs less often heard, and all the better for being given an airing. Interspersed came some more obvious crowd pleasers, Strange Little Girl being the first, with Always The Sun not far behind it, both reminders of quite what a tunesmith he is. Those naggingly insistent guitar motifs in the middle of Sun escaped all but unscathed, and all were happy. Goodbye Toulouse might seem an odd choice, always an outlier on that first album, but it was perfect in the context of tonight, so as to give a broad and far reaching sweep of his writing. A final flurry of Skin Deep and Meninblack’s Turn The Centuries, Turn and that was it.

And it felt as if it might be, Cornwell old-school enough to make his followers earn their encore. But back they came for a terrific finale. Miming the playing of a double bass as introduction, for those who recall the video, the spectacle of Golden Brown, bereft of any keyboard, might have seemed daunting. Far from it, as the bassist launched at it full pelt, providing the heavy lifting the song demands. An astonishing version, which, even allowing for muscle memory filling in for any gap, certainly showed this isn’t any karaoke machine going on here. Worth the entry alone, I wish I had taken greater note of who this bassist, and the drummer for that matter, actually are. Followed by a belting trip through London Lady, the room hollering along gleefully, the years dropping back, as sausages and Liverpool get their rare mention alongside each other. Awesome, with Duchess a triumphal closure to an evening very well spent.

Cornwell, then; tired old has been, coasting on past glories? Absolutely not, showing himself as valid as ever. More so, even. Sure, rightly proud of his legacy, appreciating it butters his bread, but still forging ever on in his idiosyncratic way, confounding and contrary by principle. No Heroes, no Peaches, but, y’know, we didn’t miss ’em.

Here’s a glimpse of some “new”, Moments Of Madness, October last year, with the same band in, seemingly, the same clothes:

Hugh Cornwell online: website / facebook / twitter

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