Where was I? Oh that’s right, university! Yes, after 6 years in the Midlands I had failed to learn my own lesson about the proximity of decent gig venues and the availability of touring bands, and decided to spend the next three years studying in a small seaside town in the South West.
In hindsight, this was probably a good move. Firstly, because I had a great time, made some lifelong friends and, er, got a degree. But also because, while it is going to be slightly uncomfortable reliving all the gigs I went to during a time that I was essentially living on £4000 a year, I shudder to think how much worse it would have been had I gone to university somewhere with more of an actual music scene – like Birmingham, Manchester, Slough, for example.
Luckily, I had elected to study in Exmouth, in East Devon, which suited me just fine. For all my hatred of Evesham, I was still a small-town boy at heart in 2001, and what I wanted in a university experience was that same small town, just transplanted to somewhere more scenic and seasidey, and populated by much more friendly people, who didn’t resent your very existence just because they hadn’t known you since they were born.
Whether it was the beautiful and extremely long coastline, the town’s exceptionally high pub:human ratio, or the college’s 80% female population, everything about Rolle College in Exmouth was perfect for me.
The only thing missing was live music of any note. In the three years I went there, I think I saw two live gigs in the town, both featuring bands made up of people I knew. The first included the band restarting the opening song three times before being satisfied it was right, and the other included the singer holding the CD liner notes of whatever he was singing in his hand, in order to read the lyrics as he sang. A centre of live musical excellence, it was not, and neither of those shows have made the list.
Thankfully, Exeter – and what some might call a ‘proper’ university – was only a short, bumpy, and often terrifying train ride away. Close enough to make the trip when a touring band warranted it, but enough of a pain to keep me from blowing all my money nipping over three times a week because my cousin’s friend’s uncle’s neighbour’s band were in town and were going to be the next Muse.
It clearly took a while for me to work this out, however, as the first time I made the trip over to a gig in the big city was in March 2002, six months after I had moved down to Exmouth.
The Bluetones were touring their ‘Best of…’ collection, which promised great things, gig-wise. I’d been into the band from the moment I’d heard “Bluetonic” in 1995, with this brilliant – and rather ambiguous – lyric standing out instantly:
When I am sad and weary,
when all my hope is gone.
I walk around my house
and think of you with nothing on!
Who had nothing on? The thinker? Or the thought of? Maybe it’s both, who knows?! But either way, I loved it, and the album it came from. I never quite seemed to get big musical movements, so Britpop had rather passed me by – I didn’t buy any Oasis albums, and the Blur ones I had piqued only passing interest – but Expecting to Fly, the Bluetones’ debut album, had grabbed me from the first beat, and – pretension alert – totally soundtracked my 96 (somehow overcoming the competition of Status Quo’s “Don’t Stop”).
By the time I got to see them live six years later, the band were already known as “Britpop survivors”, and I think the main reason they survived when so many other Britpop groups vanished, was that none of their ensuing albums – starting with 1998’s Return to the Last Chance Saloon – attempted to recreate the sound or the success they’d had at the peak of a scene that had already moved on.
Instead, Return.. is a dirty, bluesy, tequila-soaked reimagining of what an English guitar group in the late nineties should sound like, and it was an awesome surprise when I first got my hands on it. 2000’s Science and Nature was a similar change of pace, with a shimmery production, and tongue-in-cheek lyrics comparing girls to cars and talking of blissful sun-filled summer days. Only Mark Morriss’s distinctive voice confirms these three albums are all made by the same band.
Whether such variety warranted a greatest hits package after three albums, I wouldn’t like to say, but I wasn’t complaining, because it gave me chance to get hold of their rarer, non-album singles, and to see them live, unencumbered by the promotion of a new album.
The venue for this big adventure was The Lemon Grove at Exeter University, and to say it was a change from my previous experiences would be somewhat underselling how strange it was. It was part of the student union, and having entered through a typical campus reception – complete with a noticeboard advertising upcoming balls and student trips – one was shepherded round into one corner of the room, where a stage was set-up right next to a wall-to-ceiling window. Looking back, I feel like it was reminiscent of a school dining room, with hastily put away tables stacked against the rear wall, but that may or may not be the decades of disappointment blurring my memory.
Regardless, it was hardly an ideal gig venue, or where I had envisaged seeing Hounslow’s finest for the first time. But it was the setting for an historic event in my musical life, and in the future of this blog.
While queueing outside ‘The Lemmy’ we had been treated to the muffled sounds of the support band sound-checking, and even through the concrete walls and giant glass windows, I could tell from the crunching guitars and souring choruses that this was going to be a band I would enjoy.
Shortly after they had gone quiet, a rather cool looking young man in a hat exited the building and walked down the hill past the queue. “He’s got to be with the support act”, I said, using my Poirot-esque powers of deduction. I was proven correct an hour later, when Easyworld took the stage, and I was treated to the musical stylings of their lead singer and guitarist David Ford, who would go on to become one of my all time favourite artists, and whom I have recently seen live for the ninth time.
A far cry from his current musical style – more on which, much later – Easyworld were, to my ears at least, indie-pop-rock at its finest. Their songs all seemed to have extraordinarily huge choruses, and thought they were mostly incredibly tuneful numbers, the guitars were always turned way up, and Ford gave each song such energy and fire that you’d never have believed he was facing a few hundred Bluetones fans, all politely nodding along in a glorified dining room. Also, the bass player was fit.
I made a mental note to look up Easyworld after the show and to purchase eveything of theirs I could get my hands on – which wasn’t very much at that stage. They would go on to become the first band I’d ever discovered as a support act that I would then go to see headlining, so I’ll talk about them more in a couple of blogs time, but I was so excited by this new discovery that had the Bluetones stunk the place out I would have still considered the evening a huge success.
Fortunately, the Bluetones were about to do no such thing, as they exceeded my expectations with a joyous set. Despite ‘only’ having been a band for nine years at that time, they had the consummate ease of a vastly more experienced act, though this was perhaps accentuated by the nostalgic feel of the ‘hits’ tour, and the lower pressure this type of tour puts on a band.
I was struck by how smooth and in total control Morriss seemed throughout: though he did break his cool once (and endeared himself to me further) by berating a foolish audience member for crowd surfing “at a Bluetones gig, during a f**king ballad”, moments after I had been thinking the exact same words.
I was also struck by how utterly hammered guitarist Adam Devlin seemed. He appeared at times to be standing as still as possible to avoid the risk of throwing up on the stage. The fact that he repeated this every time I saw the band over the next decade suggests that this may have just been his particular style. Either that, or he was just always this drunk on stage in the noughties.
- It’s a nice even mix. 4/5 from each studio album, and then a few non-album singles and the added tracks from the Singles album. Often ‘Best of’ tours seem to still end up massively hyping one particular era, so this is a nice departure from that theme.
- “Woman in Love” might seem random, but the Bluetones seemed to break up their sets with an unusual cover whenever I saw them, so it seems to be a staple of theirs.
- Wistful nostalgia moment: this was the first time I’d ever heard ‘Are You Blue Or Are You Blind?’, although I’d often heard of it’s existence, and it was so good it convinced me to by the Singles album. This wouldn’t happen today. Imagine being into a band for six years and only then hearing a song you’d known existed all along!
- When a band have been going a good few tours before I see them live, I’m often surprised to see which non-singles get played and which are fan-favourites. On this occasion, I was particularly pleasantly surprised to hear “Last of the Great Navigators” and “Sleazy Bed Track”, which are favourites of mine but not necessarily songs I’d expect to make the live set.
- “Solomon Bites the Worm”, the first single from Return to the Last Chance Saloon, had blown me away when I first heard it in 1998. It was a great introduction to the style of that album, and I was hoping they’d start with it. I wasn’t disappointed, so let’s all enjoy it here.
That’s all she wrote for this one folks.
Thanks for reading. Come back next time for one of my all time favourite gigs, as I finally learn to embrace the crush of the crowd.