I have to admit that having seen Catfish play twice before (at the Institute and then the Academy in 2015 in between the first and second albums), I kind of stopped taking notice; not deliberately just by accident. I didn’t quite realise that after the second and third albums, their small and passionate audience had quietly, almost silently swollen to epic proportions.
As I take my seat at the Birmingham Arena, I expect only the back quarter to be in use as I didn’t believe they could fill this vast venue, but no, they have put the stage at about the halfway point with the stalls all standing, and that area is full, which in terms of actual bodies is equivalent to the entire venue seated. Bands I have liked and supported at an early point in their career normally remain small or break up due to lack of interest (apart from Radiohead and Artic Monkeys) but Catfish have gone supernova. I wrote in March 2015: “The next time Catfish & the Bottlemen visit Birmingham it will undoubtedly be in a big barn-like arena, I am so happy and lucky to have been able to witness them in so an intimate a venue as the Institute.” Feel free to give me a prize for being right on three occasions in the last thirty years.
What is strange though is that on the face of it there is little difference in the band’s performance or songwriting between 2015 and 2019. Catfish & the Bottlemen have continued writing the same songs and playing them with the same energy as they always have, and in doing so have collected tens of thousands of fans on the way. And these fans are as vocal and physical in their support as they ever were, the hysteria has not been diluted, and so as the band hit the stage, the mosh begins and it is not reserved for those at the barrier, it is throughout the packed floor. From my position in the upper seating, it is actually fascinating to watch as little circles of space open up amidst the throng until the chorus hits and all of those on the edge of the circles hurl themselves at each other. This continues for the whole ninety minute, twenty song set, the crowd do not stop singing or bouncing; the atmosphere is electric.
Unlike on the 2015 tour where the band plays the whole debut album (as it was their only material), now they have to pick and choose. They spread the setlist across their three albums with seven songs from The Balcony, five from The Ride and eight from the new album The Balance. You would think this a crowd pleasing set of songs, but as you will see, there is one gleaming omission.
Catfish & the Bottlemen have received criticism from many quarters about having three albums that all sound the same, which is a little unfair I think. Granted they haven’t changed their sound, and there is a formula to the songwriting, but Mr McCann does deliver melodic hooks and these are bound up in arrangements that build and build. If you can’t hear that, then you just have to watch the audience to see where these peaks happen — it is really obvious when that furious energy unleashes itself in ten thousand bodies. The thing is Catfish are not seen as particularly cool and because they write pop songs and try to sound indie (despite being on a major label) by having raw guitars, some see this as faking it. What people forget is that Van wanted to be a successful band and he followed the path of the band his heroes (Oasis) copied: Slade. And Slade were never ever cool, but they had more hits in the early 70s than Bowie or Roxy Music, by writing for their audience and not deviating from that sound. One day the naysayers will look back at McCann’s songs in a better light and appreciate them for what they are: good pop songs. Nothing more complicated than that. The band still puts on a spectacular performance, although it is still the Van McCann show as he is the most animated and makes the effort to make a connection with his fans. The other three members just play their instruments and walk on and then off again at the end… that does them a great disservice actually, as they are a solid foundation for the Catfish sound.
Gigs are a curious thing these days. I have never witnessed this before, but tonight I saw an audience animated during the song, but practically silent in between the songs. This is perhaps heightened because when the band is not actually performing, the stage is in darkness and there is no sound… and this happens between almost every song (whether this is planned or there are technical issues I can’t say). There are cheers when the song starts and finishes of course, but then just a murmur from the crowd until the next song. Normally at a show the applause continues for a while but not tonight; maybe it’s because the crush in the mosh pit prevents clapping. Maybe this is a new way… the young way; no more old folk sitting and clapping politely. However, this does alter the end of show massively. After ‘Outside’ finishes, it goes dark again and the band leaves the stage for longer than usual (I think this is the actual end of the proper set).
Van returns minutes later alone and sings ‘Hourglass’ with just acoustic guitar and ten thousand backing singers. This really feels like an encore as the band return and play ‘Fluctuate‘ and ‘7’, before finishing on the outstanding ‘Cocoon’. This is extended as the other three members leave the stage and Van sings the chorus again with the audience screaming along. And then Van waves and is gone while the crowd sing the chorus once more alone. There is a muted murmur but not your usual rock clapping and screaming for more… so there is no more. Clearly the majority of fans are waiting for usual set closer ‘Tyrants’, but it is not played. Still the crowd wait but are making no noise so the house lights come on, and still they wait until it is clear there will be no ‘Tyrants’. Reading the Twitter storm after the gig, you feel that many fans would be burning all their Catfish memorabilia in protest (see angry fan setlist below). Certainly the stuttering finale spluttered and fizzed like a damp firework and did not explode in a burst of lights and energy the way everyone expected. Having seen the actual setlist there is no encore specified (apart from the song ‘Encore’) and the last song is definitely not ‘Tyrants’, so I don’t think the lack of applause after ‘Cocoon’ has anything to do with having no real encore; the band clearly feel they have grown enough emotionally and professionally to mix things up a bit, even if their audience hasn’t.
Frankly, ending with their best song (‘Cocoon’), which is clearly loved by everyone to the extent that the audience can’t stop singing it, is good enough to end any set. However, it would have felt more complete had there been a proper goodbye… give us some closure next time Bottlemen?
Setlist courtesy of angry fan:
van mccann throws twelve toucans into the crowd
van mccann yells ‘Twice is our best song’
van mccann yells ‘Fuck Tyrants’
Rick Astley storms the stage
Rick Astley hurls van mccann into the crowd like a frisbee
Never Gonna Give You Up
van mccann posts on instagram for the first time in 2 years
Reviewer: Alan Neilson
Photographer: Andra Tudoran