Teenage Fanclub, The Scala, London 29/3/05
It’s been a while since we’ve seen The Fannies round these parts. Their last tour was a couple of years ago, and that was a jaunt to promote a greatest hits compilation. Back then, I genuinely feared that it might be the last we saw of them, despite Norman's assurances that they would record a new album. This show is one of two low-key dates aimed at the loyal fanbase to test the water for new material, and it's wonderful to have them back. It’s therefore surprising how little new material they opt to perform this evening – I was basically expecting pretty much the whole of the new album (‘Man-Made’, out May 9th) to get an airing plus a few rarely aired fan favourites from the back catalogue. What we actually got was the first half of ‘Man-Made’ spread evenly throughout the set, along with a fair few now comfortingly familiar classics. Teenage Fanclub therefore remain the most steadfastly predictable of live acts. For some bands this might be considered pejorative, but it is this sturdy dependability that make this band a national treasure. With every Fanclub gig, you know basically what you’re going to get and they pretty much always deliver the goods, leaving the audience feeling warm and elated. This show was no different.
After a pleasant if slightly drifting set from support act Green Peppers (melancholy acoustic singer-songwriter stuff), TFC took the stage and launched into ‘It’s All In My Mind’, the opening track from ‘Man-Made’. This chugging and characteristically infectious tune sounded effortlessly bright and remarkably assured given it was actually the first time the band had played it live. The sound of the band was full, and the vocal harmonies in the chorus seemed a little more subtle and underplayed than usual. A wonderful guitar solo from Norman with what looked like an E-bow really brought the track to life. Perhaps unwisely, they followed it with ‘Time Stops’, thus opening the gig with the opening two tracks on the new album. This one was a little more tentative, and suffered from an overly prominent bass twang. Still, the chorus was lovely and Gerry’s voice sounded in fine form.
From the outset the band were in excellent spirits, Norman joking about his glasses falling off, and Raymond exchanging a few words with a heckler who denounced his endearingly messy new long hair with the words ‘where are the scissors, Raymond?’ In fact, Raymond McGinley is something of a revelation these days. His slightly uneasy stance still makes for a marked contrast with Norman Blake’s effusive and relaxed confidence – but as a songwriter and performer, he improves with every new release. He takes on most of the lead guitar duties these days, and plays with verve throughout tonight’s show. His songs provide some of the evening’s highlights – ‘Verisimilitude’ as the first universally recognised song, ‘Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From’ as a beautiful, emotionally direct lament complete with comedy glockenspiel, ‘About You’ as the song that at last gets the somewhat restrained audience jumping and singing along. He also provides one of the highlights of the encores, but more of that later…
The new songs all sounded confident and intelligently arranged, from the sugar rush of ‘Slow Fade’ (easily the paciest thing they’ve recorded since the days of ‘Thirteen’ ‘Don’t blink’, says Norman, ‘it’s so short you might miss it!’). Gerry contributes the marvellous ‘Save’, which whilst a little elusive on record, sounds absolutely lovely here – particularly thanks to some delightful pedal steel guitar work. Raymond’s ‘Nowhere’ is more jangly and less immediate, but it has some wonderful lead guitar work. I don't want to say too much more about them now, as a review of the album is on its way!
The band cover all bases by playing material from throughout their career, including second ever single ‘God Knows It’s True’ and ‘Did I Say’, the exquisite, rapturous gem of a new track on the best of primer. We get some favourites that weren’t performed as regularly as they might have been on the last tour (‘I Don’t Want Control Of You’ and ‘Near You’ were both excellent) and ending with a flurry of classics proves to be a wise move, and shows how well this band can judge the pacing and timing of a good set. Only ‘Thirteen’ is cruelly ignored – given a slightly longer set, we might have heard ‘Radio’, ‘Norman 3’ or ‘The Cabbage’ at least. As it stands, the set very much favours Grand Prix the albums subsequent to it.
Best of all are the encores, where they premier ‘Only With You’, one of the best of Raymond McGinley’s songs, with its inventive arrangement and slightly wistful melody. It was very touching indeed, and brought a sense of reverential hush to the venue, before much of the audience laughed over the solo piano at the end because they had started clapping well before the end. They always seem to end with ‘Everything Flows’ these days, which makes it all the more amazing that they can still play this early classic with such radical gusto. It sounds for all the world like they only wrote it yesterday. This, ‘Start Again’ and ‘Don’t Look Back’ sound colossal and at last the audience seem engaged.
The band seem genuinely surprised when the crowd refuse to stop cheering until a second encore is delivered. They return to play an endearingly ragged, unrehearsed version of ‘Alcoholiday’ – a former live favourite that seems to have fallen off the radar a little in more recent years. It was an inspired choice. Whilst it left regulars like ‘The Concept’ and ‘Starsign’ unplayed – it was crowd-pleasing enough to mean that this didn’t really matter.
The problem now is surely that this band simply have too many great songs. With ‘Man-Made’ added to the mix, they now have a vast plethora of material to draw from, and it would be impossible for them to deliver absolutely everything. I would have loved to hear some less frequently aired gems (‘Going Places’, ‘Winter’ or ‘Speed Of Light’ would have been great, and they don’t seem to play ‘Neil Jung’ enough these days either), but this was clearly not the kind of set they opted for this evening. Teenage Fanclub were reliably great tonight – but they were preaching to the converted. I have this little glimmer of hope that ‘Man-Made’ will at last bring them to a wider audience, but it’s depressingly unlikely. Through their rigid adherence to the old-fashioned virtues of beautiful harmonies, a good tune and some rollicking guitar solos, The Fannies remain our very best songwriters - a crucial but criminally ignored piece of Britain's pop legacy.