The Killers: Manchester Arena – Live Review
18th February 2013
In late 2012, The Killers’ Manchester gig was abruptly halted after four songs as singer Brandon Flowers battled with a throat infection. This week they returned to play the gigs, and there were more than a few nods to the city they love.
So here we are again…
We’ll pick up this story where it left off. It’s November 2012 and a possibly ex Killers fan, there from pretty much day one but less than enamoured with some of their more recent efforts, is standing in the Arena largely for old times’ sake. The house lights don’t dim as the band take to the stage but it works; as they launch into the perfect pop of “Mr Brightside” they can see us as well as we can see them. They like it that way. Just for one song, but this is a band who quite clearly never want to lose the connection to their audience – kind of tough when you’re performing to an arena full of 20,000 people. A band who genuinely love being in a band, who loved it when they were living on petrol station snacks in a splitter van somewhere between Cardiff and Northampton and who still love it a decade later jetting around the globe.
And suddenly this former fan was a fan again. Let’s have this. Or not, as the case may be. The set lasted just twenty minutes before Brandon Flowers’ conclusion that to continue singing through an infected throat might result in pain and illness for him and a substandard gig for us. I’m guessing quite a few (non-) consolation drinks were had in and around Manchester’s Travelodges that night, but our walk home was largely spent somewhat unexpectedly hoping we could make the rescheduled date.
We could – and it’s no real loss that original tour support Tegan & Sara couldn’t, because instead we get Howling Bells. This rather typifies The Killers’ approach to their warm-up acts: not for them the label-imposed rent-a-support nor pop sop to the segment of their crowd that knows little of music not sold in supermarkets. They do what we, as music fans, would probably like to think any of us would do in their position, and put on bands they like. Sometimes these bands have struggled to fill spaces ten times bigger than they’re used to – even Black Rebel Motorcycle Club seemed uncomfortable in this slot a few years ago – but not this one. Much lauded by the entire UK music press around 2006 for their Bella Union signed shoegaze-country and dismissed by the same press a year or two later, they’re still ploughing a similar furrow and doing it very well. Singer Juanita Stein is confident and compelling and the boys in the band are great at that time-honoured black-clad rebel gang thing; the music may be a little more polished these days but there’s still that whole Duke Spirit meets Mazzy Star sound going on. And to be honest you wouldn’t want anything too “alternative” here, as The Killers learnt a few years back when they stuck their lo-fi-indie-punk friends Brakes in front of a cringingly bemused Apollo crowd. This worked rather better; Howling Bells may actually have gained fans tonight.
This is actually the second of a two-night stint here and when Brandon leads his band out, again with the house lights still up, again into the perfect pop of “Mr Brightside” (last night’s show had had a more conventional start and indeed very different feel to the set – they’ve always been one of those bands that mixes things up a bit each night even when they’ve a core set of arena-prepared material to go at) they pretty much own the place from the off. “You knew we’re were going to come back, right?”
Course we did – and we also know what to expect. Leave your pretensions and musical elitism at the door (and I speak as one who has plenty of both when the mood takes me) and buckle up for an hour and a half of ridiculous, over-the-top rousing stadium pop nonsense, where the only thing bigger than a power chord is another power chord with added pyrotechnics and a bit more power chord on top.
The first of tonight’s cuts from the band’s fourth album ‘Battle Born‘ is called ‘The Way It Was’, and tells you pretty much everything you need to know about said record. It’s basically all the blustery, supersized bits of ‘River’ era Springsteen without the thoughtful subtle bits, and with a fucking great big Vegas casino neon sign on top you can see from about fifteen miles away. There are cheesy lyrics galore, some of which sound like they came straight from an internet page called “Pompous Stadium Rawk Lyric Generator” (seriously: at some point we meet “a dark horse running in a fantasy” and I’m pretty sure that’s nowhere near the silliest); there are glitter cannons showering the crowd with shiny red ‘K’s and silver lightning bolts; there is a song called ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ in which there are actual explosions along the back of the stage. It seems they have abandoned the vague attempts at making grown-up FM rock-lite that made third album ‘Day And Age’ such a dull experience (and indeed the honking sax that occasionally pushed it beyond that into mulleted denimy parts of the 80s even The J Geils Band probably want to forget these days) and decided to concentrate on turning the fun up to 11. And everything else.
The everything else includes a glorious collection of hit singles and things that weren’t hit singles but could have been: the early-days live favourite ‘Smile Like You mean It’ whereby one touch of that chorus synth sound brings to mind the paper plates on which they always wrote set lists back in those splitter van days, third album salvagers ‘Human’ with its almost Pet Shop Boys beat and ‘Spaceman’ with its rush of galactic projections. The knowingly cheap and trashy ‘Somebody Told Me’ and the anthemic “All These Things That I Have Done” with drummer Ronnie standing up and battering his kit into the middle of next week at the end, as all rock drummers should do.
And yet that humanity, that connection is never far from the surface. One song is stopped abruptly, not for a throat complaint but because Brandon has spotted someone hurt in the crowd. We’re not talking some messianic Bono-esque “bring the poor lamb to me to be blessed” crap here either, just a genuine attempt to make it easier for security to get to the injured party, which they do most efficiently, and get on with the gig. The person was quite some way back, too.
Now while many a visiting band may proclaim its love of Manchester (some do this everywhere, sure, but there are plenty who like to drop the odd Mancunian name as if we’re going to be impressed that they’ve heard of The Stone Roses. Though I admit that a young Brooklyn band who once namechecked The Chameleons and Magazine rather won me over with those.) The Killers go one further – or rather four further. Last night we got their regular(ish) and surprisingly good take on Joy Division’s ‘Shadowplay’ as well as an equally brave and well-executed acoustic (Smiths’) ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, whilst tonight’s acoustic interlude was a verse and chorus of Oasis’ ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’. They’ve saved a real belter for the encore, though…
Back in Las Vegas in the early 2000s, a young band was struggling with that age-old question of what to call themselves when the new video by one of their favourite bands popped up on the telly, only the band themselves weren’t actually in it, there were some models pretending, and on their bass drum was emblazoned the name of this imaginary act: The Killers. The real band was of course New Order, the song ‘Crystal’, and as that familiar introduction starts up and the video of the fake original Killers plays behind the real copycat Killers, Brandon introduces Mr “BerNARD Sumner” (pronounced the American way, presumably because Americans can’t actually say “BERnard” the way they also can’t say “arse”) who comes on and takes the lead vocal. Probably does a bit of a double-take when bassist Mark Stoermer does that thing it’s impossible not to do when covering a New Order bassline, sticks his boot on the monitor, legs splayed, straggly hair hanging forward over his face. Bernard shuffles off, still looking slightly confused, as the band wrap up in a hail of sparklers and fireworks.
People might sneer, but if you’ve bothered to read this far you’re probably not one of them. You might, like me, have liked the band back in the day but drifted away, and were wondering if they were still worth seeing. If I tell you we were originally only going for the first night, but then the chance to do it all again raised its head and we jumped on it, you have your answer right there. Clear as Crystal.