Gaz Coombes + Piney Gir @ O2 Institute 2, 21st May 2018

The critical acclaim that greeted Gaz Coombes’ previous solo album – 2015s ‘Matador’ –  culminated in a Mercury Music nomination and cajoled the ex-Supergrasss frontman into touring the record around the globe for almost two years.

Its been over three years since that release and, particularly where the music industry is concerned, an awful lot can change in such a time frame. If you happen to have spent the best part of 2018 cowering in some makeshift bunker for fear of the unimaginable outcome of the narcissistic squabbling between our “leaders”, then you might not have heard that the ’90s nostalgia machine is vehemently consuming the diaries of former Britpop starlets, once the darlings of the music industry, tossed into oblivion as the millennium dawned and steer from the zeitgeist took things in a very different direction.

Everything is part of a cycle, and that cycle has returned once more to focus its attention upon the decade that saw the explosion in British guitar bands. The zeitgeist has humbly returned, seeking forgiveness for its betrayal, plunging us into a ’90s rebirth. That said, it is a delight to welcome back, a former, no doubt reluctant, face of the Britpop phenomenon. Coombes lands in Birmingham, not as part of some hastily arranged Supergrass reunion tour, devised with the sole intention of cashing in on the recent appetite changes, but instead, we are greeted by an artist gleaming with the purpose to forge ahead, rather than exist in the past. ‘World’s Strongest Man’ is Coombes’ third solo outing, and it is arguably his most accomplished to date.

A decent crowd has already congregated in time for the arrival of tonight’s support. Piney Gir is the aka of Angela Penhaligon, born and raised Kansas, but England has been her home now for over a decade. Having previously worked with Brakes’ Eamon Hamilton, Simple Kid, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and British Sea Power – the laters love of all things foliage perhaps having made a lasting impression upon the singer given that her neckline is draped in enormous leaves.

Piney Gir’s performance is assured, her troupe of backing singers elevate the bittersweet indie pop gems that pour from the stage. ‘Gold Rules’ is the first song of the set and offers guitarist, Garo Nahoulakian, the opportunity to hurl his unconventional sonic bag of tricks into the mix. As the set progresses, the room begins to swell, as more arrivals descend the small stairwells that bookend the entrance. The increased numbers lead to the regrettable increase in chatter as the venue becomes flush with a raucous chatter which at times, threatens to completely drown out the delicate vocals. Piney Gir is gracious enough to accept that this is sometimes the price that must be paid as an opening performer. Her persistence is deservedly rewarded as she successfully manages to win the focus of the room and leaves the stage amidst a hearty applause.

Coombes opens with the title song, ‘World’s Strongest Man’, a lyrical delight that is filled with contradictions that tumble over each other before the groove firmly takes hold, culminating in a glorious choral harmony, provided by Piney Gir and her ensemble of singers. ‘Hot Fruit’ is up next and see’s the momentum continue as the intensity is ramped up further, resulting in a swelling of the veins in Coombes’ neck. It is at this point that the seemingly ageless Coombes first interacts with the audience. The response to Coombes’ very casual “How you doing tonight?”, hints at the impassioned roars that will greet the conclusion of each song this evening.

Coombes’ swiftly and adeptly manoeuvres his guitar around to his back before taking his position behind the piano for the rousing ‘Buffalo’, rising and swivelling his guitar back around in time to meet the crescendo. The focus once more returns to the latest album, with ‘Shit (I’ve Done It Again)’, ‘Oxygen Mask’ and ‘Deep Pockets’. The band leave Coombes to perform ‘The Girl Who Fell to Earth’ (solo acoustic) and ‘The Oaks’ (solo piano), before returning for the much heralded current single, ‘Walk The Walk’.

The new material is a joy to behold and is unreservedly received by the audience. Song of the evening is reserved for ‘The English Ruse’, during which, we see Coombes’ theatrically conduct the stunning vocal harmonies at the song’s conclusion. The encore is slightly hampered by the troublesome feedback which momentarily derails things. ‘Wounded Egos’, Vanishing Act’ and ‘Matador’ are stunning – the later containing the lyric “the hardest fight is the one you fight alone…so hold out”, an apt signal of Coombes’ intension to continue his endeavours as a solo artist. The band make their way from the stage, the house lights come up, but the audience are going nowhere anytime soon. A hesitant and somewhat overwhelmed Coombes returns to the mic for an impromptu version of ‘Caught By The Fuzz’ by way of a much deserved thank you.

Reviewer: Chris Curtis

Photographer: Katja Ogrin

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