The The + Field Music @ Digbeth Arena 7 September 2018

The The + Field Music @ Digbeth Arena 7 September 2018The The + Field Music @ Digbeth Arena 7 September 2018The The + Field Music @ Digbeth Arena 7 September 2018The The + Field Music @ Digbeth Arena 7 September 2018The The + Field Music @ Digbeth Arena 7 September 2018The The + Field Music @ Digbeth Arena 7 September 2018The The + Field Music @ Digbeth Arena 7 September 2018The The + Field Music @ Digbeth Arena 7 September 2018The The + Field Music @ Digbeth Arena 7 September 2018The The + Field Music @ Digbeth Arena 7 September 2018The The + Field Music @ Digbeth Arena 7 September 2018The The + Field Music @ Digbeth Arena 7 September 2018

Tonight is a night of firsts: my first time at the Digbeth Arena, first time I have really listened to Field Music and finally after three decades I get to see Matt Johnson’s The The, live.  I was apprehensive about all these things, but it turned out to be a night of pleasant surprises.

Firstly, Digbeth’s new venue is a wonderful space.  Certainly during the summer I would go as far  as to say it is perfect.  There is plenty of room for hanging out and getting a drink and some food (the chicken tikka wrap particularly is amazing) before the show.  Then you go through the old warehouse doors into the open air space where the stage is, flanked by the stunning arches of the disused railway line, which are beautifully lit.  There is industry all around you here, so it feels almost like you are trespassing.  The element of danger and beauty is either intoxicating or lacking home comforts depending on your point of view.  The men’s toilets also can make you feel like you are on a camping adventure or just pissing in a bucket in full view of everyone.  It reminded me of the old gent’s toilets at the Waggon and Horses just across the road from this venue (when it was a jazz club called The Cannonball), which was also open to the elements: roofless and fancy free days indeed.

The support tonight is Field Music, a band I’d heard of, but hadn’t really investigated before; but I will now.  They make angular, rhythmic post-punk spiky pop art rock and remind me of a mixture of Talking Heads, XTC and Dogs Die In Hot Cars.  The core of the band is brothers Peter and David Brewis who share singing, guitar and drumming duties, by swapping throughout the set.

Their songs are complex, melodic and beautifully arranged with keyboards, bass and second guitar.  The brothers’ voices too are often being complimented by backing harmonies from their touring band.  They are clever and funky as hell.  Tracks from their latest album ‘Open Here’ featured in the set and it is certainly worth checking out.  They also must have been influential in inspiring new bands, like north East neighbours Little Comets, as they share a similar sound and skill for songwriting.

The The is a band I never thought I would ever see live.  Having missed the last tour it seemed that almost two decades of silence would become forever.  But Matt Johnson is back, and clearly he feels he’s been away so long that he even speaks of the tour as a comeback – it kind of is, but when you consider that Johnson is more artist than rockstar, it feels more like he was building up an unbearable tension all these years.  Matt has written about this tour almost apologetically, stating that he has had to rearrange songs to fit with his current band made up of traditional instruments (guitar, bass, drums and keyboards) instead of samplers and drum machines that made up some of the official releases.  I had thought that he was going to do a Bob Dylan and transform everything into something unrecognisable… I almost hoped for this, as a perfect artistic statement from one of our most-treasured post-modern musicians.  Within the first few songs in tonight’s set, it is pretty clear he is not trying to alienate his audience or over-think the arrangements… he really is playing the songs as you remember them.

In some ways Matt Johnson’s return is a case of perfect timing, as politically the world is in the grip of a tyranny similar to that of the Thatcher/Reagan era that he condemned back in the 80’s.  Therefore songs like ‘Sweet Bird of Truth’, ‘The Beat(en) Generation’, ‘Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)’ and ‘Heartland’ sum up pretty much what is going on now despite being written thirty years ago.  Hearing an audience passionately sing the line: “This is the 51st state of the USA” is a very special moment, as we mentally draw the line from then until now with May and Trump.

I always considered The The to be a cult band, but its forays into the charts in 80’s and early 90’s must have had a larger impact that I realised, as this Digbeth crowd is a very mixed bag with a wide cross section of society in attendance.  And they all sing along, even to songs that were never actual bona fide hits: ‘This Is the Day’; ‘Slow Emotion Replay’; ‘Infected’; and ‘I’ve Been Waitin’ for Tomorrow (All of My Life)’.

Matt Johnson had handpicked this touring band and it is a perfect accompaniment to his songs and his voice.  The star is the young Barrie Cadoganon on lead guitar, who apparently was Johnny Marr’s choice for his own replacement (as Johnny was not able to join Matt for this tour due to his own new album and tour commitments).  It feels as though the spirit of Marr is still on stage though as Barrie uses similar guitars (Fender Jaguar and Gibson ES335), but looks and plays more like Bernard Butler, with his shoulder length dark hair flowing as he prowls the stage.

Highlights of the night are the stunning and extremely apt ‘Love Is Stronger Than Death’ (as Matt’s father passed away at the beginning of this tour in June) and the final encore ‘Lonely Planet’, with its poignant message of hope; if we are actually willing to make changes for the better ourselves.

I leave the gig feeling slightly disappointed that Matt and his 2018 incarnation of The The are actually a very professional, considerate and courteous band, when I wanted and hoped for something bewildering and unexplainable.  Matt certainly went all out for a crowd pleasing set of songs and did nothing unexpected.. maybe we have now entered a post-post-modern era where doing the expected is now the most surprising thing of all.  Still, whatever my expectations, The The are stronger than ever and I hope they don’t wait so long for the next tour.. I might not be around in another 20 years.

As a footnote to this review, I have to make some comment about the social make-up of the audience tonight.  I am almost 50 and much of the audience were my age or slightly older and it was with interest, and a slight smirk, that I noticed how alike we all were and how it seemed we were still desperately clinging onto our lost youth.  We all had either Adidas trainers or Doc Martins on, as well as the obligatory band T-shirt (either album artwork or tour souvenir, I had my Sigur Ros tour T-shirt on) worn like some badge of honour.  Hair was either still healthy and worn high or long, or practically non-existent so facial hair takes over, as a beard or sideburns.  Obviously the music is still a major driving force in our lives, as if we never grew out of the rush you feel when you hear something beautiful – where others would say “It’s just a song” we would be totally consumed by a lyric or melody, as if it was a part of us, or captured the essence of something close to our hearts.  I’d say this is either a terrible curse or a lifesaver.

I did think though that we must seem embarrassing to a younger generation; as out of touch as the Teddy Boys seemed to me in the late 70s, with their quiffs, drainpipe trousers and drape-suits.  ‘Rock n roll was 20 years ago fellas’ I would think, but now I reflect on the music I love now being 30 years old and I’m still trying to relive that time, just like those old Teds.  Maybe they were right all this time.  I guess I have to be honest about whether the music defines me as a person, to the extent that I am just an empty vessel reverberating with old tunes, or I am self aware enough to detach myself from this all consuming obsession I have with music.  It is true that first impressions of people I meet are influenced by what they listen to more than any other facet of their personality.  Certainly tonight, in this crowd, I have never felt more at one with an audience.  The The are certainly a great band with a beautiful following; I really can’t wait for the next time.

Reviewer: Alan Neilson

Photographer: Ian Dunn

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