Bristol The Fleece
Sunday 16th December 2016
‘Enough nostalgia!’ declared Blue Aeroplanes frontman Gerard Langley, immediately after opening song Broken And Mended, which hails from 1994 – a time when some of the band, let alone the audience, weren’t even born. ‘Well, maybe a bit more later,’ he added. That sums up the current position of the band; they have an immense back catalogue to exploit, but also a new album, Welcome, Stranger!, to promote. What to do, what to do? They could do a lot worse than what they did tonight: a mix of old and new songs, delivered with such blistering energy and brio that you can well believe this was the band that blew R.E.M. offstage when they supported them in the early 90s.
There is immense goodwill towards the Blue Aeroplanes. You can feel it when you walk into the Fleece, a venue which was on its last legs five years ago, host only to tribute acts, until the Aeroplanes bought it and took it over, completely transforming its fortunes. Now the Fleece roster is a dizzying cornucopia where the likes of Julian Cope, Psychic TV, Matt Berry and, er, The Wurzels rub shoulders with, yes, those tribute acts still, but a man’s gotta eat. Immense goodwill and loyalty of the sort you often find with ‘local’ bands – but the Aeroplanes are keen not to be viewed so reductively. ‘We are a national band first, and an international band second,’ says Gerard Langley. But the band, and Langley, have a clear love for and attachment to Bristol – the town comes up often in the lyrics and the band are a staple of festivals in the area and always play a gig around Christmas time. ‘Christmas isn’t Christmas without Eric and Ernie,’ they used to say – but in Bristol, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a ‘planes gig.
This gig, however, is different. Sold out six weeks in advance, it’s indicative of the band’s rising profile, not just in Bristol, but in London and other major cities. Riding this wave, the band are touring next year, and in January release their poppiest, most accessible album, Welcome, Stranger! with a follow-up album planned for October. So 2017 could see the Aeroplanes finally receive the attention they deserve… but do they deserve it?
Let’s see. Take-off was not without its hitches. Support act Ian McNabb of the Icicle Works was a no-show due to his van breaking down en route somewhere between Liverpool and Bristol. Such is rock’n’roll, but the show must go on, and so it did, in the shape of former Aeroplane Rita Lynch. Supported by her usual band of Mike Youe on bass and John Langley (brother of Gerard) on drums – both of whom are, rather fortuitously, in the current Aeroplanes line-up – Rita delivered a 30-minute set of emotionally-charged blistering punk pop, as the venue slowly filled and filled (I don’t recall seeing any disappointed faces. Sorry Mr McNabb).
The arrival of the Blue Aeroplanes at about half-nine was heralded (as usual, I am told), by the sound of jet engines roaring thunderously between speaker channels. So realistic did it sound that when it first happened, I almost ducked! A thrilling way to kick off a gig. Then the Aeroplanes – all seven of them – took to the stage and launched straight into the aforementioned Broken and Mended. Seven? Yes: Gerard Langley, in trademark black jacket, shirt and Ray-Bans, brother John on drums, Chris Sharp on bass, and Mike Youe, Gerard Starkie and Bec Jevons on guitar. Yep, three guitarists! Together they whack out a dense yet also intricate wall of sound, driven by John Langley’s precise, powerful drumming and Sharp’s thunderous yet nimble bass. The more observant of you will have noticed that’s only six members – the seventh is Wojtek, who plays no instrument, but dances, in a strange, flowing, acrobatic manner, his face contorted in ecstasy, that provides an amusing counterpoint to Gerard’s studied cool. Watching the band at work, as Langley prowls the stage ducking and throwing his own curious moves and Wojtek putting Bez to shame, it’s a miracle they don’t all collide with each other. A miracle reflected in the music which, with so many musicians at work, could pancake, but instead, takes flight.
After Broken an Mended they launched into Looking For X’s On A Map, the slamming opener from the new album. Although over twenty years separate them, these songs, and the band, seem somehow timeless. By refusing to kowtow to any passing musical trend (they stood aloof through the eras of Baggy and Britpop), and assimilating influences such as Dylan, the Velvets and Fairport Convention, the Aeroplanes have performed a sort of musical alchemy, coming across as a living, thriving, current and vital embodiment of the spirit of rock and roll. Gerard seems to know this: after a bruising, beautiful rendition of Bury Your Love Like Treasure, he shouted, ‘Rock!’, then adding drily, ‘And, indeed, roll.’
The set continued with a mix of old and new songs, though as I am not overly familiar with the band’s oeuvre I was hard pressed to distinguish between them. Particular highlights were a jet-propelled blast through Dylan’s I Wanna Be Your Lover and, of course, Jacket Hangs, the one Aeroplanes song everyone knows, their Sit Down (complete with audience participation at ‘let those arms rotate like helicopter blades’). From their acclaimed 1990 album Swagger, they must have played this hundreds and hundreds of times, but if they are tired of playing it, and the audience bored of hearing it – well, there was no evidence of that tonight. It sounded as fresh and exciting as if it was written yesterday with it sparkling, giddy sea-shanty riff.
The gig ended on the second encore with another cover, that of Tom Verlaine’s Breakin’ In My Heart – as, I am told, every Aeroplanes gig always does. And as if three guitarists aren’t enough, two more joined the band – Rita Lynch and Bec’s brother Dan Jevons. This meant this pretty little two-chord song grew and grew until an absolutely deafening, thrilling crescendo during which, for the first and only time, control was lost, but deliberately so. A sense of joyous abandon filled the Fleece, a sense that the Aeroplanes have earned the right to such a chaotic, celebratory conclusion. A landing as thrilling as their take off.
So, to answer my own question from a few paragraphs ago, do the Blue Aeroplanes deserve your attention? Emphatically, yes – catch them on tour next year, and be welcome, stranger, to the world of the Blue Aeroplanes.
The Blue Aeroplanes new album ‘Welcome Stranger’ 6th January 2016 Pre-Order Now – https://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/blue-aeroplanes-welcome-stranger
The Blue Aeroplanes on tour across the UK January 2017 – https://www.theblueaeroplanes.com