Manchester Academy 3
12 October 2012
The past couple of decades havenât always been straightforward for Hugh Cornwell, not least because of his ongoing tussle with himself over matters of his musical legacy. Iâve been present at gigs where heâs all but scolded audience members for cheering Stranglers songs heâs just played. Lately though thereâs a sense of a happier balance, in no small part because his last couple of solo albums have been corkers.
Tonight he is performing the whole of his excellent latest record Totem and Taboo, an album which recaptures the lean punch of his 1970s performance, all garotte-tight guitars and sardonic vocal deliveries, resulting in a spartan, hard-hitting pub-rock trio in the vein of, say, early Feelgoods.
Itâs a positive endorsement that the room is as full for this set as it will be for the subsequent set of Stranglers material. Cornwell – black-clad, of course – takes to the stage with his regular rhythm section of rock-solid drummer Chris Bell and cheerful Tom Jones-alike bassist Steve Fishman, and they open the evening with the thudding glam-rock drum beat of the albumâs title track. A little disappointingly, between song banter is minimal. Cornwell pauses to reprimand people using flash photography, but otherwise itâs a track-by-track reproduction of a fine record – Bad Vibrations and Gods, Guns and Gays benefit fully from the meaty amplification, and brooding album closer In The Dead of Night swaggers the first set to a close with its moody Riders On The Storm vibe.
Present-day relevance thus asserted, the second set is a gleeful toe-poke into an open goal for the eager middle-aged audience – the whole of 1977âs No More Heroes album.
The advertised addition of keyboards is actually a rather odd compromise where on half the songs bassist Fishman does the Ray Manzarek trick of playing lead and bass parts on keyboards. He turns out to be a surprisingly good player – hardly of the calibre of Dave Greenfield, but few are – but you canât help thinking that, having made the decision to include keyboards, bringing in a designated additional player would have made more sense.
One of Cornwellâs strengths in the past has been the inventive rearrangements he has made to cover the absence of keyboards, and the mostly-faithful versions he plays tonight donât always benefit from a three-piece performance. Fishman takes the yobbish lead vocal to Something Better Change, which sounds like a ramshackle pub cover, and Burning Up Time falters under some quibble over monitors and a poor keyboard sound. But then, there are unexpected highlights too – the rarely played Peasant in the Big Shitty conjures an eerie power, School Mam is a hypnotic rhythmic juggernaut, and hearing Cornwell sing the Stranglersâ ode to fallen friend Dagenham Dave (originally voiced by JJ Burnel) is strangely moving. Throughout though, thereâs a simple thrill in seeing one of the foundation stones of British punk performed by the still-charismatic voice that originally provided it. A victory for the past as well as the present.