The Ruby Lounge, Manchester
4th December 2013
Former Galaxie 500 and Luna singer Dean Wareham recently released his first ever solo mini-album, but there’s still space for some old favourites in this friendly, intimate Manchester set.
It’s the day of The Big Storm, and we’ve been sitting on a packed train in Piccadilly Station for two hours: there’s a gazebo on the line near Nuneaton and a tree on fire just outside Macclesfield. We are annoyed, to say the least, but two trains ahead of ours, somewhere in North Cheshire, is what could be one heck of a problem for Sonic Cathedral: specifically the train carrying Dean Wareham and his band (which also includes support act Jason Quever) to their sold out gig in London. Tweets are exchanged; a lift is on standby, then word that the motorways are no better, then finally they’re on their way. News comes later that they made it, but you can’t help but think that the singer of one of the most revered alternative bands of that unbelievably fertile era at the tail end of the eighties should not be at the mercy of the British weather, public transport infrastructure and ridiculous freak incidents.
As legends go, he seems pretty down to earth – which is good news for Paul Baird, singer with I See Angels, the local band afforded the prestige of opening for the Wareham touring party in Manchester. “I’ve been a fan of Dean Wareham for years” he muses, on stage and between songs – “just met him for the first time …. and had to borrow money off him!” Listening to his vocals it would be fair to say that’s not all he’s borrowed, though we’re talking influence here as opposed to anything more. You maybe don’t even realise at first, through the kind of low key, lo-fi stylings of the trio, but it hits on maybe the second or third track: strong, passionate, laced with reverb and Americana, and not afraid to take off on some euphoric flight. They’ve got cracking tunes, as well – the sort of rousing rallying calls Arcade Fire used to do before they mutated into a concept band – and a guitar sound somewhere between early Interpol and full on shoegaze; they’re dreamy but they can rock out too. Been keeping an eye on these since they supported Air Cav back in 2012, it was fairly early days then but you could just tell they were onto something. You can help yourself to a couple of albums on Bandcamp, too, or bung them something, they do deserve it.
Papercuts on the other hand I remember seeing for some reason around the same time, probably went for the support or just wanted to go out, they didn’t leave much of a mark. This isn’t the band, anyway, it’s singer Jason Quever and an acoustic 12 string. And yeah, he’s also more than a little Wareham influenced – though the respect is clearly mutual, with Papercuts’ support sets on the “… Plays Galaxie 500” tour a couple of years back leading to Quever producing his new mini-album. Maybe I should have paid more attention. This time he just does a handful of solo tunes, a nice little interlude, before he’s joined by Britta Phillips and the drummer from the Wareham’s band. In this context he’s reminiscent of Jonathan Richman – or is that just a subliminal message courtesy of Britta’s Modern Lovers T-shirt? We half expect the whole thing to just segue gradually into the headline set, but there’s a few minutes’ break.
We’re desperately hoping they’re not dispirited by a venue that’s at best half full (both London dates sold out well in advance). Where is everyone? Yeah, OK, so it’s Wednesday. And December. Not like it’s pissing it down, though – at this point all that weather and railway/gazebo chaos is still a day away. Sure, United are at home tonight, and City also playing, but there are plenty of music fans who have no interest in football. Maybe it’s just a tight time of year for the bulk of Wareham’s loyal fanbase, many of whom are of an age where pennies are being stretched towards their families’ Christmas lists. I guess Wareham’s face isn’t as all over the music press as it was last time he toured, with his (excellent) autobiography then just released. And sure, this isn’t the nostalgia trip any more: been there, done that. Tonight there will be new songs.
And what songs they are. It’s incredible how, after quarter of a century and an album count now well into double figures, Dean Wareham still keeps coming up with brilliant, simple, perfect melodies. Recent single Love Is Colder Than Death opens the set, all dreamy Americana, his voice deeper now to match his greying if still impressively voluminous hair. The Deadliest Day meanwhile has hints of a more English folkiness about it; Emancipated Hearts channels Lou Reed far better than most who try. Yet when he does dip into the Galaxie 500 catalogue it’s almost like turning the clock back – the beautifully fragile voice of his younger self exactly as it was. Yes, he can still hit the high notes. When Will You Come Home, Strange, Tell Me – songs which now seem to have been around forever – sparkle as ever they did. I love the fact that he hasn’t been tempted to mess with them, to fill those spaces with over-instrumentation. Singers doing their old band’s stuff with other people can be something of a minefield, but you never once feel like you’re watching some self-tribute: close your eyes and you could be back in 1989. How about Decomposing Trees? The request from someone in the crowd is not on the set list, but “we can try it… and they do, a little scruffy at first but how many bands would even do that, at this level anyway, go off-list to make someone’s night? And before long it’s kicked in.
Those timeless memories are interspersed with new songs and the odd cover – a take on The Incredible String Band’s Air, also on the new mini-album, prompts a discussion with a fan (possibly the same one) regarding its melodic similarity to Rivers Of Babylon – though towards the end the classics flow thick and fast. Blue Thunder is stunning, while Listen, The Snow Is Falling (Yoko Ono‘s song, originally) is surely the greatest Christmas single that never was; there’s a direct tribute to Lou Reed in the encore (Ride Into The Sun) and then to Manchester itself, with the Galaxie 500 take on Joy Division/New Order’s Ceremony. There are New Order fans who consider this an equal to the original, and it’s very rare any cover has that accolade – they’re right, of course; it’s beautiful, the way he takes the vocal line at the end to places dear old Barney could never have managed.
Those who have come for nostalgia won’t have been disappointed, those who prefer to see their old heroes still creating will have been equally satisfied. You couldn’t really ask for more from a singer now in his fiftieth year of life and twenty fifth as a recording artist. He even hangs around to chat to fans – well, as he mentioned earlier, his hotel room doesn’t actually have a window, so I guess he’s in no hurry to get back, although by Thursday afternoon he might well be wishing they’d left for London straight after the show. I’m glad they made it. It would have been a travesty of unimaginable proportion for the capital’s music fans to have been denied this wonderful experience by a stray piece of garden furniture.
Dean Wareham’s mini-album, Emancipated Hearts, is out now on Sonic Cathedral, with his self-titled solo album due in March on the same label – pre-orders will open in the new year.