Saturday, April 18, 2015

Marc Almond / Stephen Langstaff and Satin Beige @ Town Hall Birmingham, Friday 17th April 2015

With a well received brand new album of original material under his belt (something he’d pretty much ruled out ever doing again after 2010’s Varieté) this survivor of synth and sin is back out on his own personal ‘velvet trail’, stopping off at a few select tea rooms on the way (Almond apparently has a bit of a thing for tea and cake these days, who knew?). I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him numerous times over the years (not in tea rooms), the first way back in 1988 at The Powerhouse remains one of my favourite gigs of all time but his last Brum date at The Symphony Hall, jam packed full of the hits and classics, was a bit of a triumph too. It’s safe to say that one or two shows over the years have been a little ‘mixed’ however (sometimes by Marc’s own admission it has to be said) for a variety of reasons, choice of material, sound quality, technical difficulties, the position of Mars in relation to Saturn, who knows what precisely what makes a great gig?

Singer / songwriter Stephen Langstaff opened up the night joined by a Miss Satin Beige (possibly not her real name I’m guessing). This turned out to be an inspired move, a real case of 1 + 1 equalling three...or maybe even four on the better songs like Let Forever Be. The combination of Langstaff’s mellow folky tones and Beige’s slightly edgier, more soulful vibe worked really well. Add Beige’s cello into the mix and you’ve got an embryonic duo with real potential.  

With a healthy number of true Gutter Hearts (the name that Marc’s superfans adopted way back in the day) in the audience (there were some particularly ‘Brilliant Creatures’ here this evening dahlings) he came on to wild applause before launching into a epic Minotaur, prowling the stage, flinging his arms about theatrically and singing his heart out from the very first note. Speaking of which the voice was in fine form tonight and from our position (up in the gods) it all sounded great, not always an easy trick to pull off in a venue as grand as the Town Hall.

With a 35 year career (good grief, tempus fugit) picking a representative setlist that’s going to appeal to the fan-atics, the casual admirers and those drawn by the latest album must be a bit of a ‘mare but tonight’s set was pretty much perfectly judged. The Velvet Trail’s perhaps one of Marc’s most accessible releases for a while and the glam pop stomp of Bad To Me accompanied by a dazzling pop art backdrop picked up the pace nicely still my bearing heart...The Stars We Are. As the entire Hall was lit up by stars (okay so it was just clever lighting but indulge me for a mo) I regressed to my 18 year old self for a few minutes when life seemed full of potential and promise. So, er, pretty much like it does today then. Cool. 

It has to be one of Almond’s best and he did it justice tonight, giving the “whoa whoa whoa’s” plenty of welly and sustaining the longer notes without collapsing in an crumpled heap on the floor. Truly magical.

We were in for plenty more back catalogue treats though. Long time musical collaborator Neal X gave Varieté a little more twang this evening making it part Bolan, part Link Wray and part Parisien cabaret, The Dancing Marquis (something of a recent hidden gem) sprang to live once more and Darker Times was plucked from Soft Cell’s often overlooked last album (Cruelty Without Beauty). 

In these pre election bullshit caked times it’s never sounded more relevant sadly. “Blinded by lies” sang Marc to a pounding electrobeat “We’ve got to keep dancing through these darker times”...and this was pretty much the perfect track to do just that.

After an archetypal Almond track, Champagne (harking back to Marc’s earlier obsession with the seedier side of life) which flirts with the classical it was time for a proper old classic, Black Heart all the way from the Mambas days. Vocally Almond’s in a different league now compared with then, richer, more controlled and powerful but still retaining that distinctive tone, and personally I’d lose the drums on this one and just leave the keyboards and vocals. It’s a minor tweak (as opposed to a Minotaur...ha...oh alright then) but vocally tonight the performance was so strong that you just wanted everything else stripped right back to the bone.

A selection from The Velvet Trail including the poignant title track (harking back to his Southport days that so influenced his love of fading glamour) all went down well with the crowd, especially Life In My Own Way which could well become his signature song in the coming years. “Friends ask me to clubs, to parties, to bars but I’m never around, I just like a nice cup of tea or a walk on the beach” he protested. There we go, there’s that tea thing again! Sinatra had My Way, Almond has Life In My Own Way now. I look forward to seeing him sing it in the Royal Albert Hall on his 80th birthday...assuming we’re all still here that is.

From the new to the old and the main set ended with Bedsitter (again given a little more of a rockabilly edge by Mr X) and a truly triumphant Soul Inside. Bugger me this sounded great tonight. It might be 31 years old now but as a showstopper it really was a “wild celebration” with the few members of the audience still seated up and on their feet.

You’d expect him to bring out the big guns for the encore...and he did...but Gutter Hearts came first giving those who’d been with him since his first solo release the chance to sing their (gutter) hearts out. 

Donning a guitar, “Neal’s taught me the chords”, Almond rattled through one of the more raucous songs from his back catalogue before a sing-a-long Tainted Love and, what else could it be, Say Hello, Wave Goodbye which saw several hundred hands wave him off into the night.  

Vocally on top form and with a setlist that pretty much offered something for everyone tonight was another triumph. The muso in me still yearns for a proper backing orchestra on some of the tracks but that’s a minor quibble. 35 years on from the Mutant Moment that birthed him Almond’s latest (soft) sell out (this gig sold out months ago) was entirely justified.

Setlist: Minotaur / Bad To Me / Stars We Are / Burn Bright / Varieté / The Dancing Marquis / Darker Times / Champagne / Black Heart / The Velvet Trail / Scar / Life In My Own Way / Zipped Black Leather Jacket / Demon Lover / Meet Me In My Dreams / Brilliant Creatures / Bedsitter / Soul Inside

Encore: Gutter Hearts / Tainted Love / Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

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