When one of the UK’s most iconic frontmen returns to the live stage after a prolonged break, it’s perhaps a little difficult to know what to expect.Since Pulp went back on hiatus following their 2012 reunion, singer Jarvis Cocker has dabbled in the experimental by releasing a collaborative piano album with Chilly Gonzales, a soundtrack album consisting of French pop covers, and a short album under the moniker of Jarv Is… around which he has built a new band with which to take to the live stage once again.
It’s reassuring that the first we see of Jarvis Cocker tonight is his “classic” self. Opening with almost-forgotten 1994 Pulp track ‘She’s A Lady’, the main man is throwing shapes, climbing on the platforms at the front of the stage and defying the expected antics of someone who’s been doing this for more than 40 years. Between songs, Cocker’s quick wit and warmth make for an engaging performance as he nonchalantly peels an orange and “shares” it with the audience, checking a written sheet of stats to reminisce about his first and last visits to Birmingham with Pulp, and remarking on the security handing out water at the barrier. “Free vodka? You lot have got it good here!”
With the past out of the way, Jarv Is… can look to the present and indeed to the future. ‘House Music All Night Long’ is the first showing from the band’s ‘Beyond The Pale’ album tonight and builds up into a dancier direction as the song title suggests, whilst an even newer track tentatively titled ‘Slow Jam’ shows off the band’s diversity featuring electric harp, violin and Jarvis playing a 12-string guitar. “I do know how to play it, you know!” remarks an indignant Jarvis as the crowd audibly react when he first picks it up.
A handful of tracks from Jarvis’s two post-Pulp solo albums are resurrected tonight, including the fast, guitar-heavy ‘Fat Children’, cheekily introduced after he’s distributed a few cups of sweets into the middle of the crowd and the sweeping epic ‘Big Julie’, which rub up against the more experimental newer tracks like ‘Sometimes I Am Pharoah’, during which Jarvis produces a hand mirror to use as a theatrical prop to sing into and the dark-sounding, sex-obsessed ‘Swanky Modes’ which harkens back to Pulp’s ‘This Is Hardcore’ era. Prominent backing vocals from harpist Serafina and multi-instrumentalist Emma enhance the tracks but the band generally do a fine job of playing well whilst leaving Jarvis the centre of attention.
After checking his prepared sheets, Jarvis throws out a few “on this day” facts (apparently it would have been Ken Dodd’s birthday) before mischievously taking glee in noting that 5 years previously Donald Trump was elected US president. “We’d love to be able to stop playing this song, but unfortunately it’s just how it is”, he wistfully remarks, “so in the meantime, feel free to sing along at the top of your voices”. The song he’s introducing is of course his solo debut ‘Cunts Are Still Running The World’, which could easily have been a radio-friendly anthem if not for the obvious. Claustrophobic closer ‘Must I Evolve?’ builds up into a danceable climax, again showing that the band are more than capable of keeping pace and adapting to the different styles required of them.
Returning for an encore, Jarv Is… might have left their most commercially viable tracks to the end. they finish with with ‘Children Of The Echo’ the most melodic of the new material, and 2009’s ‘Further Complications’. this is the the most straightforward “rock” number of the set with a chiming guitar riff and driving drums. A cover of French pop song “Aline” offers something different before Jarvis Cocker brings the set full circle with another Pulp track. He notes that that “we might have played this one the first time we played Birmingham back in 1992”. ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’ closes the evening by celebrating the career of one of British pop’s national treasures.
Support comes from another well-known band’s frontman branching out with a solo endeavour, in the shape of Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor.
He starts on keyboards with ‘Silence’, initially backed by a bassist but later joined by a drummer. The first few downbeat songs are a little bit reminiscent of Death Cab For Cutie’s moodier moments. It’s an interesting set full of twists though. The Hot Chip track ‘White Wine And Fried Chicken’ gets an airing before a solo cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’ is turned into a synth-reggae monster. For the last few tracks, Taylor switches to guitar and the songs take on more of a Talking Heads-inspired vibe. This is especially true on the quirky ‘Hot Squash’. It’s an interesting side-step away from Hot Chip’s electronic side and shows the eclectic directions the frontman is capable of going in.
Review: Ian Paget
Photographs: Stephanie Colledge