I should admit to a certain bias when it comes to seeing The Charlatans, this being my 19th time. But they were a decade into their career before I caught on, when they made a giant indie disco of the 1999 Leeds Festival, so a whole gig from 1990’s Some Friendly era is still a novelty.
I was gothically-inclined in the late-80s, too snooty about baggy fans’ flares to actually listen to the music, but these days it’s Tim Burgess sporting drainpipes and dyed black hair. The latter’s handy face-covering qualities (also favoured by Cousin Itt) may have helped him earn his ‘ever-youthful’ tag but he’s certainly channelling Peter Pan tonight; his svelte form complemented by that distinctive, reedy vocal which doesn’t seem to have aged a day.
The rest of the band look more like the 40-somethings they are, albeit ones with fringes, but there’s nothing pipe and slippers about their rendering of this early material. Although the venue’s less packed than I’ve seen it, and the stage poorly lit, a live sound this layered and vibrant can’t fail to pull the crowd straight in.
You’re Not Very Well and White Shirt kick-off the gig as successfully as the album, their signature organ sound as rousing as ever even without original keys-man Rob Collins (who died in 1996). His replacement Tony Rogers kicks up a storm throughout the night, particularly on Then and time-honoured set-closer Sproston Green, which also ends Some Friendly.
The impossibility of not closing with this song is solved by inserting a couple of interludes into the album’s track-listing, to air related material. Thus stand-alone single The Only One I Know, which didn’t appear on the original LP, is shunted to a later interval, and instrumental 109 pt.2 superseded by a visit to 1991’s Over Rising EP (including a soaring Way Up There dedicated to Collins).
Not having been around for these early non-album releases I’m unfamiliar with two or three tracks, but this is a rare treat at a Charlies gig and has almost no impact on my sense of involvement. That’s what I love about this band: they may have been working a particular groove for two decades (with occasional detours into falsetto-funk and dub reggae), but it’s a sound I can’t help getting lost in.
Perhaps Opportunity sounds slightly plodding, but almost every other song seems to have gained a little of the expansive psychedelia that’s long enhanced Sproston Green live. Each track feels re-energised, giving the whole gig a triumphant tone which helps compensate for the lack of inter-song chat – although given the anniversary premise I’m surprised Tim has so little to say.
Just as we’re heading for Sproston Green territory, The Only One I Know and accompanying rarities – including an elating version of Everything’s Changed – bring the main set to a close. There’s no question of their not coming back of course, which they do with little-heard single Me In Time and second album favourite Can’t Even Be Bothered, ahead of the grand finale.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen The Charlatans not end with Sproston Green, meaning I must have heard it live more than any other song, but, unlike The Cure’s A Forest, the familiarity of the opening notes still makes my heart leap. And tonight it’s sensational: the prolonged outro’s screaming organ riffs making me clench every muscle, screw-up my eyes and play air-keys on my thighs.
Reprising a classic album has become a good career-revival trick for bands of a certain vintage, and one I tend to avoid, but Some Friendly isn’t The Charlatans’ classic and this doesn’t feel like a cash-in. Perhaps because they’ve never disappeared from my radar, or moved far from the core sound forged here, a set of this early material feels more like a ‘special edition’ gig than a nostalgia trip – and for those of us who missed the good ship Madchester it’s a valuable second chance.