I used to love Squeeze, they’re very much “my era”, but I haven’t played any of their music for years. My good friend the Sheriff of Shenstone is a big fan and has seen them a number of times over the years, but Mrs Chrisparkle and I have never seen them – and indeed I had to remind Mrs C who they were on our way to the theatre. “You know, Cool For Cats – Coooooool For Cats” – I saw a faint glimmer of recognition; “and so it’s my assumption, I’m really Up The Junction” – nothing. “Take Me I’m Yours, because dreams are made of this” – “Oh I like that one”, she perked up. I had a feeling I was going to have a great time and she was going to have a bit of a long night.
After a long hard day at the office Mrs C has to rush around in the manner of what my late father would have called “a blue-arsed fly”, in order to get home, get changed, get fed and get out for a 7.30pm show. Still, we’ve got the whole routine down to a fine art now, and we arrived at the Derngate with about twelve minutes to spare – enough time to order the Malbecs and check out the Merch. However, when we got there we discovered that the start time had changed to 8pm. Sigh; all that rushing around for nothing. Still, it gave us longer to peruse the wine list (“I’ll have that one at the back with the white label”) and to consider the exclusive items on sale for besotted fans. “Do you want a Difford and Tilbrook tea towel?” asked Mrs C, in a tone that already answered her own question. Given that I try to avoid drying-up at the best of times it seemed impertinent to show an interest.
So with about twenty minutes before it started we made our way early to our seats. I was very surprised to find the stage hidden by the Derngate’s rarely seen (but sumptuously beautiful) purple velvet curtains. How delightfully old-fashioned, I thought. Normally when you go to a concert, the stage is already all open, and you can see instruments, music stands, microphones, and all the rest of it. Sometimes you have a music playing or a video show going to get you in the mood, like when The Osmonds performed. We’ve seen all the greats here, you know: The Osmonds, Glen Campbell, K T Tunstall, Petula Clark…. Each one a different variation of brilliant. And I remember that for each of those acts the audience was buzzing with excitement (yes even the octogenarians for Petula Clark) by the time the artist(s) finally came on stage. Us lot in the stalls would have been gagging for it (so to speak) with videos, music, warm-up acts, flashing lights… intense expectation….high excitement…..
However, the music playing whilst we were waiting for Messrs Difford and Tilbrook was a selection of mournful saxophone solos, that sounded like it was off a CD nicked from the local crem whilst the vicar wasn’t watching. Now I suppose if you’re into really serious, introverted, wrist-slitting jazz you might have enjoyed it. Not the kind of boogie-woogie Jools Holland type of stuff (which would at least have been semi-appropriate), this was the kind of saxophone jazz that might have been written by Mahler when he had the hump. It wasn’t helping the mood. Everyone was talking over it, checking their phones, sitting silently – anything but getting ready for a night of magical musical entertainment. The music finished; the lights went low; the curtain went up. And what did we see? A 1970s set, with hideous wallpaper, a floor cluttered with things like a carpet sweeper, old lampstands, a “changing screen” decorated with bits of posters, a grille that goes on the front of a car (yes honestly), some old wig stands and other bizarre 70s studio detritus. At the back there was a double bed, from which emerged two old blokes dressed like Wee Willie Winkie, à la Morecambe and Wise, who then sat briefly at a breakfast table, chatted a bit self-consciously, then came to the front of the stage and it was only then that I deduced that they were indeed Chris and Glenn whom we had come to see. I’ve never been to a concert before when the stars basically came on stage to bewilderment and silence, instead of the usual welcoming whooping and cheers. By the time we’d recognised them I think we were a bit embarrassed that we hadn’t welcomed them earlier and louder; and then we went all British and continued to receive them politely like the opponents at a village cricket match. I have absolutely no idea why they chose to start the show like this, or set it in this 70s bedroom scenario. Is it a reference to something they used to do way back when? If so it went way over my head.
But it definitely was Chris and Glenn because they went straight into “Take Me I’m Yours” and it was fantastic. Stunning acoustic guitar work, with harmonies to die for, Glenn’s expressive tenor gives you all the characterisation and individuality that are the hallmark of their songs and Chris’s raspy bass comes in underneath to give it extra grit and power. Together they still sound amazing. I did however feel a little sorry for Mrs C at this point, because, as we had identified earlier, it was the one song she remembered of theirs that she liked, and it was done and dusted within the first five minutes – not a lot to look forward to.
After that first number some momentum had built up, but Chris Difford deflated it by going off to change out of his jim-jams, leaving just Glenn to perform Black Coffee in Bed, which I didn’t recognise but the man next to me was very pleased to hear it and a superfan in front of us went ecstatic. Then Chris came back and it was time for Glenn to get dressed (how bizarre is this opening sequence?) I can’t quite remember what song it was he played – again I think it was new to me – but Glenn only managed to rush on stage just in time to contribute his bit of guitarring skills to it. Really, a lot of unnecessary faffing around here.
I should mention the video wall. Yes, they had one – shame they couldn’t have used it as a warm-up tool – but the back wall of the 70s bedroom dissolved into a big screen for some of the numbers. On the whole the videos were good, either reflecting the lyrics of the song, with wistful cinematography that accompanied the sense of the song, or providing abstract patterns and shapes for others. There were a couple of problems though. It had that technical issue where the image on the screen is (sometimes) inverted, like a mirror-image. There was one song where the video showed Chris and Glenn in front of a boat, and its name appeared back-to-front; and another where we were hurtling from space down towards the UK and spiralling in until we got to a London location where the song was set – but unfortunately the image of the UK was back-to-front too, so that Kent appeared on the bottom left of the country and Cornwall on the bottom right. Made it look a little amateurish. Mrs C was irritated by the video that accompanied Pulling Mussels from a Shell – it was a clip of the group singing it presumably way back in 1980 but it wasn’t in synch with the live performance so the mouthings looked all wrong (but is she being picky here?)
And you know, there’s always a backstage person who comes on between songs and unplugs this guitar and plugs that one in, or who moves a microphone from here to there, all that kind of mullarkey – well, they’re always dressed in black aren’t they, so that you don’t notice them so much against the usual black background of a concert stage. However, our black-dressed lady was ultra-noticeable against the browns and beiges of the 70s set. When you don’t notice them, you don’t really give them another thought. But because we could see everything this lady was doing for them so obviously, I kept on thinking they ought to be audibly thanking her for helping, rather than just ignoring her. It didn’t look right – just more ham-fisted than it need have.
I didn’t know most of the songs – I’ve only got three of their albums (although they are what I would consider to be The Big Three) – but I did recognise Slap and Tickle from the Cool For Cats album, the aforementioned Pulling Mussels (from Argybargy) and – not quite sure how I know it – the song Cowboys are my Weakness, which Chris said they wrote for k d lang but she didn’t like it. All the way through the audience’s reactions had been warm and friendly but never delirious – I think we were still stunned by the lack of warm-up. As we went into the final song before the interval Glenn asked us “hope you’re enjoying it” and our reaction was as though he’d asked us if the gateau with our afternoon tea was to our taste – “oh yes, very nice thank you”. Even the superfan had long subsided into quiet reflection. Slightly disappointed, Glenn added “well thank you for tolerating it anyway” and that’s when I realised that this gig wasn’t going down anywhere near as well as it should have done. We went out into the interval on a high though, with the marvellous Up The Junction, the only song, as the Sheriff of Shenstone will tell you, whose title doesn’t appear in the lyrics at all until the final three words. Good for pub quizzes that one.
After our interval drinkies, we returned to our seats to discover they were still playing that wretched morose saxophone music. It may have been a suitable choice to inter a Soviet leader but not for a light hearted concert. Anyway, once the second half was underway we had more from the wonderful world of Difford and Tilbrook, with their superb guitar work and ever delightful harmonies. All the songs were performed to either two live guitars or one guitar and the keyboard, and, over the course of the evening, it’s probably fair to say that that same arrangement can sometimes make the songs themselves sound a little samey. Fortunately it’s “good same” and not “bad same”. From those that I would have liked to have heard but didn’t, I missed It’s Not Cricket (from Cool For Cats) and Another Nail in my Heart; but Glenn did a very soulful version of Tempted, and a thumpingly satisfying Cool For Cats, which I am delighted now to have seen performed live, so I can die happy. For an encore we had the very emotional and extremely sad Labelled with Love, (Mrs C’s comment: “repetitive”) and the upbeat Goodbye Girl. (Which is also quite repetitive). We did all stand for the last three numbers – but only because Chris told us to. “Stand for Mr Glenn Tilbrook!” he exhorted, and we all sat politely and applauded. “No, stand!!” he emphasised. Slowly we all got to our feet. Mrs C and I don’t like to be told when to give ovations, so we remained seated – but then I realised they were going to sing Cool For Cats so I leapt up anyway – and Mrs C gradually joined me.
It really was a very strange concert. The content was fantastic, but because of the distracting set and the fact that we never really got warmed up properly, it never soared. The presentation wasn’t very fluid, with the guys going on and off quite a bit, and you could see a lot of the backstage machinations through the entrance gaps at the side of the set, which were surprisingly distracting during songs. Still, it was great to see Messrs D & T, and to enjoy these wonderful old songs again; and there’s no doubt that they remain incredibly gifted musicians and writers. The tour continues until 19th November.