Dean Hodge reviews the band’s Cardiff leg of their ‘Jukebox’ 20th anniversary tour, at the recently opened TramShed venue (support from The Standard Lamps). Photography: Nick Evans.
For a band often considered part of the blossoming Britpop scene of the mid-1990’s, The Bluetones were far more inspired by the harmony-laden guitar-pop of 60’s US West Coast bands such as The Byrds, than by the British songbook circa-Kinks and Small Faces that informed the sound of much of their peers. But timeless singles such as Slight Return and Bluetonic have ingrained themselves in the psyche of many of those who were in their twenties when the band started, as well as those lucky enough to discover them since.
Having initially parted ways, the band have reformed for a one-off tour as they raise a gin and ‘bluetonic’ to twenty years since the band’s inception and the release of their soaring debut album Expecting To Fly – an often overlooked, but scarcely overpraised, classic from the 1990’s British indie scene.
Their return to Cardiff coincides with the recent arrival of the ambitious TramShed venue in Cardiff, which in a short space of time has established itself as an integral part of the Cardiff music scene, filling the gap for a suitable ‘medium-sized venue’ that Cardiff has lacked for so long. Its thousand-strong capacity makes it suitable for housing the audience for this gig – albeit many of whom are in their late 30’s to 40’s and whose youth was fortunately soundtracked by the Britpop era.
The Standard Lamps – “Possess a knack for sucker-punch melodies and bluesy grooves”
It is blues-rock trio The Standard Lamps who are tasked with opening for The Bluetones. Possessing a knack for sucker-punch melodies and bluesy grooves, the band really hit their stride around the middle of their set when they unleash some of their more stomping bluesy numbers. At best, support acts can be fairly decent if otherwise forgettable, and at worst, memorable for entirely the wrong reasons. But The Standard Lamps were a rare exception and having never listened to them prior to the gig, I would have happily watched them perform a few more tracks. In generating a buzz for the rest of the night, their contribution was invaluable.
But without further ado, the main draw soon follows. The pristine groove of Talking To Clarry commences tonight’s performance in the same intoxicating manner as it opens their aforementioned debut album. The cascading jangles that close out the opener give way to the buoyant riff of their debut release Are You Blue Or Are You Blind and the brooding melody of Top 10 single Cut Some Rug.
Much of the set consists of cuts from their inaugural full-length offering. The seductive acoustic-driven waltz of The Fountainhead – one of the first songs the band ever wrote and one of my personal favourites from the band – is a notable highlight for me, as is the minor-key riff of Marblehead Johnson. Released as a stand-alone single, it encompasses the enrapturing melodies and lyrics which are bare in their honesty that the band, at the peak of their powers, excelled at churning out like clockwork.
Marblehead Johnson – “Encompasses the enrapturing melodies and honest lyrics that the band excelled at churning out like clockwork”
Other fan favourites make an appearance, all spanning a hit-heavy career of two decades. The sleazy riffs of Solomon Bites The Worm perfectly showcases that the band, noted for leaning on the softer fringes of the British indie scene, still know how to craft a driving rock ‘n’ roll number. Earlier in the set, the Smiths-esque ballad Keep The Home Fires Burning provokes an immediate reaction of arms held up loft. Personal favourites for me like String Along and Castle Rock are notable absentees from an otherwise strong set-list – reflecting just how many gems in their back catalogue the band have had to pore over.
Having waded through such a repertoire of hits, a clear signal that the end is nigh comes in the form of the first chimes of arguably the band’s signature Slight Return – a paean to making peace with past regrets as a way of moving on, and a masterpiece in the art of the three-and-a-half minute guitar-pop tune. For that reason, it is a perennial favourite with the band’s fans and their highest-charting one too (reaching number two in the UK chart back in February 1996).
With After Hours filling the ‘cliffhanger’ slot, the band temporarily depart the stage before making a ‘slight return’ back (song-related puns drying up at this point I promise!). Mark Morriss uses the moment to exclaim that the band have now ‘fulfilled the contractual gig agreement’ and that they have justified the price of the tickets. In fairness, they probably justified any ticket costs long ago, but an encore from the band is no less welcome with open arms and ears.
“Slight Return – “A masterpiece in the art of the three-and-a-half minute guitar-pop tune”
Surprisingly for the first half of the two-song encore, the band choose the bluesy strut of The Simple Things – a B-side from the stand-alone Marblehead Johnson single, with both songs bridging the gap between the jangly melodies of Expecting To Fly and the leaner grooves of follow-up Return To The Last Chance Saloon. Regardless, it’s one of my favourite tracks and regularly played during the past couple of weeks. Such confidence to choose a B-side in the encore is merited when the band has B-sides as punchy as this one.
Less surprising was the inevitable finale of If. Even as the encore isn’t listed in the printed set-list, there was no possibility of the band playing a whole list of all their hits without dropping in the track that has become a staple of all their performances thus far. The first notes of that slithering bass riff immediately have the whole crowd swaying along with gusto all the way through, until the very last sky-scraping high notes of the track. By which point, the band leave the Cardiff faithful for the final time, on the back of a performance that serves as a fond farewell and a fitting reminder of the band at their far-reaching peak of their abilities.
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