The Twang Dynasty

UK Tour 1993

Now this is more like it : a tour. Not just a few dates scattered around about Wales and the South, but a real tour. Fans throughout the country must have been checking road atlases, scribbling in diaries, arranging baby sitters and generally saving up beer money, all in anticipation of one or more evenings of serious fun. Venues previously visited or never even heard of before were considered and added to the list. They had certainly been on form at the Convention back in November, and had had ample opportunity to fine tune things while in Europe during December.

So; let's get on with it.

Wednesday February 10

The Witchwood, Ashton-under-Lyne

I'd seen them here last year, so knew what to expect of the venue : a proper stage with decent sound and lighting in a small, neat rectangular room, live bands seven nights a week, and a crowd who appreciate live music.

The support were Right Band, Wrong Planet, and with a name like that, it had to be hard not to like them. Visually a cross between Canned Heat and a bunch of train spotters, they opened up with an admirable chunk of solid r'n'b played with enjoyment and enthusiasm. From there on, things got a trifle weird. I won't go on at length, but they finished off with a blues number, the highlight of which was a cool bagpipes solo. Definitely worth seeing.

So the appetite was truly whetted, and the accompanying thirst quenched by another round. The boys came on to a keen reception, and things were underway in the usual fashion. However, I was both puzzled and worried half way through C'mon; I can't really say why, but the band seemed subdued, the music pedestrian, the sound murky and not especially loud. The sound was a little better on Mad on her but still not up to scratch - they seemed to be having some trouble with the monitors. Maybe it sounded poor to me because of where I was standing, at the back, near the door. And after only a few numbers, this meant I witnessed the previously unthinkable : three people actually left ! So far things hadn't been as good as expected, but they certainly weren't that bad. I hoped they were fans of the support. Still, by Women the mix had if anything got worse. This was a true cause for concern.

All these points of weakness made The Ride and the View seem tired and like little more than an excuse to give the others a break, though it was good to hear the Fools like me riff. There was more bite to Feather, but I couldn't help thinking that it was too late by then, and that this song really should be moved to an earlier point in the set. It's certainly good enough to start the album, and seems wasted so late in the set, more so on a sub par night like this one. Only by Many are called did the sound really reach a good standard, and this showed that even on an ordinary night, it's impossible to fault the effortless way the four of them sound so tight and together. The usual pair of encores and that was that.

All this left me confused. I genuinely think that this was the poorest performance I've seen them give; yet the friends I'd gone with hadn't seen them before (I continue to spread the word) and thought them nothing short of excellent. The band themselves had seemed subdued and lacking the usual audience rapport, though Martin, bless him, did his best. I began to think I had just become hyper-critical, having really enjoyed the Convention, though a week later I heard more disappointed reactions from a friend of a friend of a friend. I finally settled on the conclusion that it's an inevitable consequence of a busy tour that some nights, it just doesn't work, and after all, this was the eighth consecutive night on stage. And even on a bad night, Man are still pretty damn good.

Thursday February 11

Duchess of York, Leeds

But if that was the case, what was to be expected of the ninth consecutive night of gigging ?

Relax... they were back on form, and then some. How could it be ? The mix was much more coherent, the volume was up and the music generally had more verve and attack. More important, they all seemed to be enjoying themselves. Call me sentimental, but I'd like to think it's because they hadn't played the Duchess for more than two and a half years, having visited regularly prior to that, and were pleased at the reception. But hell, who cares what the reasons are, it was a magnificent performance, judged by the company on this occasion to be better than Feltham. And given the scope of that event, this is some recommendation. The set was the same, with the only difference being the order the encores were performed. This was presumably because a vocal element, or at least more vocal than the rest, had been demanding Bananas since the second number, so they left it to the very end. What a tease. I also confirmed that Romain has undergone a slight reworking.

After the Witchwood, I had convinced myself that the set needed tweaking : the C'mon - Ride - Many are called - Bananas backbone of the set had seemed tired and even routine. And Romain for goodness sake, is twenty-three years old ! At least can't they dig out some other old songs to close with ? Yes, friends, that is how I had felt after the Witchwood... Twenty-four hours later, these doubts had been cast aside again. In the cold light of day, I still think civilization as we know it could survive the dropping of at least one of those songs - to be respectfully revived at conventions, of course - and replaced by something else. Come the next batch of new material, something is going to have to be sacrificed; I notice Chinese Cut has already slipped away, though to be fair, they had been playing it live for some time before it came out on the album. Choosing what has to go will not be easy, but the newer songs are generally good enough to make the cut.

Saturday February 20

Raikes Hall, Blackpool

I was beginning to question my own sanity by this time - a holiday weekend break in Blackpool in February ? Who do I think I am - Des Barnes?

But I had more than good reason. I had spoken on the phone to the promoter, Mick Schofield, a couple of weeks beforehand, and had been convinced it would be worth it. After all, what is a promoter if not a salesman ? No, that isn't fair. At the gig it became clear that Mick is a true gent. A displaced Yorkshireman, his enthusiasm for live music simply knows no bounds; he regularly puts on gigs at the Raikes, and believes that live is how music is supposed to be heard. Listening to a CD slumped on the sofa is fine, but experiences like the one I was about to undergo simply cannot be reproduced by mere electronics.

The event was a ticket only sellout. I arrived just a couple of minutes into C'mon due to taking a little too much time over the chicken with cashew nuts, and found the venue to be a narrow rectangular room above a pub just outside the town centre. No stage, and just two small banks of lights. A small bar at the back. And a room full of very lucky people. For on this night, Man were simply brilliant.

This performance was so much better than the Witchwood, and even a step beyond the Duchess. Magnificent. It might have been the intimacy of the venue, maybe the fact it was a Saturday night, hell, for all I know it might have been the sea air, but they were superb, and they knew it. All the banter was back, they never stopped grinning all night, and the crowd loved it. There were trivial technical hitches - Martin's bass was stubborn to tune ("thirty years in the business, what a pro" - anonymous shaven headed drummer) and a skilled technician had to hold the plug in the socket to stop the lights flickering until that road manager's cure-all, masking tape, was located, but these counted nothing against the sheer brilliance of the performance. It was the sort of night when the performance was simply so good you could not even bear to drag yourself away to the bar. I'm not generally one for superlatives, but this has to be the best Man gig I've seen.

And there's evidence : they don't do Spunk Rock every night, but tonight they did, and it was brilliant, as good a version as I've heard, live or on record. Breathtaking. And Micky Jones, not the most loquacious of men, stepped up to the microphone before the encores, and described this as the one of the best gigs of the tour. Coming from him, that has to be a real commendation.

Thursday March 4

The Citadel, St.Helens

It was while driving along the M62 towards St.Helens that the thought first struck me - what if The Citadel isn't a pub ? It doesn't appear in any Beer Guide, but that needn't mean too much, and it's not exactly a typical pub name, but then The Witchwood isn't exactly a common name for a drinking establishment either. Anyway, we arrived in St.Helens to find a town centre where, apparently, every single street has double yellow lines down both sides, and The Citadel to be a small theatre/Arts Centre.

Entrance was a ludicrous £2.50. This is the sort of price I might have expected to pay years ago, so it was fitting that the atmosphere of the place also took me back to, well, any Student Union bar of the late seventies : dark walls covered in posters, shuffling punters displaying an affected nonchalance, and worst of all, a small bar serving plastic fizzy beer out of plastic jellymould type glasses. This is just the type of thing the European Community should be banning.

The Auditorium (their word, not mine) is a compact stage in front of a small semi-circular area for the spectators sloping gently towards the rear, with a low ceiling to accommodate a balcony upstairs, supported by several pillars; this area was closed on this occasion. Standing at the back, it was hard not to get the impression that it had been cleverly designed to ensure that no matter where you stood, you were provided with a view which was blocked by something. Still, when the support, Feel, came on, the sound was fine. They were perfectly respectable support, though the Doors influence was a little too obvious.

When Man arrived just a few minutes later however, the sound from the same position was abysmal. Too much bass drum drowning out the bass, and overloud vocals. Presumably Feel knew about the accoustic peculiarities of the venue but hadn't passed on any mixing tips. A move down to nearer the front was called for; this improved the sound immeasurably, though the view was still less than ideal. Generally, the performance had a routine air to it, which is not to say it wasn't professional and more than competent. I never expect anything less from them now - after Blackpool, in my eyes (and ears) they have set themselves such high standards that I am in danger of being mildly disappointed by any but the greatest performance. Many are Called did not appear, which is more likely down to time constraints than lack of interest, but they still did the Bananas/Romain encore, and to be fair, all four were certainly enjoying themselves by this time. Another good gig.

Four gigs spread over three weeks. It probably suggests a keenness, but hopefully not an obsession. So what have I learnt?

Once the next bunch of fresh songs comes through, hard decisions will have to be taken about what stays and what goes. As I've already said, some of the older material could be, let's say rested, to be brought back for Conventions etc, and of the newer songs, Women is the weakest they perform live, and Circumstances is a great piece of writing but it gains little from live performance against the recorded version. Both might make way for newer songs. And I'll say it again, Feather deserves a more prominent position. But these are only one person's opinion. What I'd like really to know but can't quite work out is how much they are prepared to push the new material at the cost of the older stuff. Audiences keep shouting for Bananas and probably always will do; will they ever shout as loudly for Wings of Mercury?

Well, let's not worry about that now. On their night Man can still provide as wonderful a slice of live rock and roll as you could find anywhere. In a small, intimate venue, I find it hard to think of a better way to enjoy music. And on an off-night they're still better than most. Possibly the occasional lesser performance is an unavoidable result of having played together for so long - being so able and experienced they can get away without having to try too hard every night. Usually they get away with it effortlessly, but just rarely, a gear slips and the performance isn't quite right. But what the hell, for all those great nights, for Blackpool, I can easily forgive them that.

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