Town Hall Birmingham
There are some gigs that speak for themselves. Cloud Nothings on Wednesday was pretty much: here are our songs, a bit louder and faster than on record. No chat. Is that OK? And then there’s gigs that demand to be dissected and discussed. And so it is with Lloyd Cole at Birmingham Town Hall on Friday Night.
So what happened? Lloyd was onstage at eight, just him and an acoustic guitar for 45 minutes. Late-entry punters caught out got ‘I’m supporting Lloyd Cole, then there’s an interval, then I’m coming back as Lloyd Cole the headliner’. Which he did, for the second half accompanied by his son Will on second acoustic. We got two hours, heavy on the Commotions songbook – this is billed as the ‘Oldies tour’ – with forays into the solo catalogue as far as The Negatives. Almost all of Rattlesnakes, and a good chunk of Easy Pieces and Mainstream. No More Love Songs the most recent, Perfect Skin the oldest. Lloyd’s between song chat was neither minimal nor expansive. He noted that the newest song was twenty years old, and the oldest approaching forty. Will, who doubled as roadie, was called out for having a hairdo that said he wanted to be in Echo and The Bunnymen, as Lloyd did. There’s musings on getting old, and how Mick Jagger is the only one that seems to be having fun doing it, and on the success of the Box Sets.
These songs are indestructible. There’s not much you can do to ruin Rattlesnakes or Lost Weekend, but…and here’s the start of the musings. Was Lloyd’s heart in it? He wasn’t sure, and he was happy to share this doubt with us. Having many times said he didn’t want to look back, and with an esoteric recent solo catalogue taking in ambient electronica, the Box Sets success have demanded that he goes on the road to give them another airing.
While never less than polite, or professional, one cannot escape the feeling that the faintest whiff of necessity hangs around this set-up. Do his songs gain from the stripped-down presentation? For me, not really. His guitar playing is perfectly fine, but hardly virtuoso. His voice doesn’t take flight with the extra room. Nor do his songs really need him to. Their reference points are country and western, the Byrds, even southern funk – and, for example, great though his performance of Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken was, it didn’t stop me mentally filling in the keyboard part and wishing it was there. Is this the Lloyd that’s financially viable, just me and junior with our acoustics, rather than the concert he’d like to do? Or is the whole business of finding, rehearsing and touring with 3 others just too complicated and tiresome.
I have to say that Will coming on livened up the second half immensely. His guitar playing was excellent, and the father/son rapport expressed in blank looks and half-smiles was great. Again, is the touch of awkwardness all part of the middle-aged Lloyd schtick, or something more genuine. What happens back at the hotel? Do they meet up with mum every night and survey the Pizza Express menu one more time together?
I could be over-thinking all this. But Lloyd’s demeanour and his songs invite it. Hearing twenty odd of them back to back makes one realise the narrow field he ploughs. In a Lloyd song the narrator is either leaving, or being left, or has been left, by the girl, who is dressed in a dress, or undressed,and in a darkened room or out the door. She or he has left a suitcase with some clothes (perhaps a dress) and thoughts turn to either how old we both are, how young the girl or the narrator are, and when Eastenders is on. He’s the poet of the awkward thoughts that crowd in when you start to doubt whether you love someone, whether they love you, or what you even saw in each other. In the first album these scenarios were dressed up with a slew of cultural references that my companion memorably termed ‘the postcards you put on your first year pinboard at uni’ but as the solo albums start there’s less of Norman Mailer and 2CV’s and just, well, the narrator and girls, dresses and suitcases.
All this might suggest I didn’t enjoy myself. It was great, but inevitably nostalgia breeds contemplation. To return to my doubts, Lloyd seemed to doubt that it was entirely healthy for him or us to spend Friday night revisiting these ghosts from the eighties and nineties one more time. Time is marching on for all of us – for Lloyd has stopped wearing his contact lenses and every few songs puts his glasses on to read the tuning thingummy at his feet. But here we were. And, perhaps despite himself, Hey Rusty broke through all of the thinking and framing – and was just startlingly good in the here and now. It’s one his few songs where he suggests they try again.
At a guess everyone was at university between 1984 and 1990. It’s seems clear that Lloyd’s subsequent career has won him few new fans, apart from the few teenage sons and daughters accompanying their parents.
It made me think..
Where do you start? Lloyd is all about the thinking. But did he fit in 18 holes at The Belfry earlier on the in the day? No clues from the performance.