Theres something about an Ian Brown gig in Manchester that is quite special.
The devotion in the room and the celebratory atmosphere that has carried on ever since the Roses heyday drips off the walls of the Warehouse Project- the unique venue that appears for a few months every year in the bowels of Manchester’s Piccadilly train station.
A week before Christmas and it’s leery and joyous in here. Grizzled veterans of the acid house era with eyes on stalks and faces caught in that permanent drug freeze career around reliving the chemical huzza of their youth. Someone is yelling down my ear about doing two nights on the trot of this excess all areas that was so much part of his youth with the pride and daredevil madness of a veteran drug survivor. He also speaks of the shock of his friends who can’t maintain that sort of lifestyle any longer.
It’s the E generation growing older. Where once they were the fresh faced kids pouring out on the streets outside the Hacienda living in the present and high on the optimistic rush of E, they are now older and more careworn with many seasons passing since the second summer of love.
There are also the youth here living out the Roses dream that has become so entwined in Mancunian culture, the baggy smart casual still with those eclectic record collections that Tony Wilson used to be so thrilled about now digitised on their iPods. Ian Brown is, perhaps, the last man standing from that period. The one who kept on creating and kept his edge.
Ian Brown is the messiah here. He is thoroughbred northern- a rugby league not rugby union northerner- who represents a freedom and escape from the rainy day without leaving it behind.
Switchblade- cheekbone- charismatic he limbers on stage like a cocky prize fighter, a baggy Marvin Haggler, a Timperley Mohammed Ali in the slight deadly frame of a Bruce Lee, loose limbed with that Manc swagger which he both invented and patented years ago way back in the mid eighties. A swagger and gait that became de rigeur for all frontmen of the next generation from Liam Gallagher and even Damon Albarn and onwards. How weird it must be to see yourself copied over and over, from your just so hair, to the way you walk, to the way you hold a mic and how galling it must me to see yourself compared to them when they sometimes break bigger but not better.
But then that was the beauty of the Roses, they may have been a big band, but they remained just out of reach of the bright glare of the spotlight. Just beyond the horrible world of showbiz, untainted and somehow pure. They headlined to 30 000 people in one gig at Spike Island, turned a generation on and disappeared leaving a mass of great memories and the soundtrack to a wayward youth and an album that is acknowledged as as one of the great British albums.
They may have returned five years later with the underrated second album but they still represented that golden moment of the impossible freedom of youth. They also left that template that became the very idea of what British music was about. They may never have got as big as some of their contemporaries like Oasis but they had an impossible cool and that tantalising promise of unfulfilled brilliance that is always crucial in creating a legend. And it’s some legend.
There is a certain cool irony in tonight’s gig. For the Warehouse Project is but a stone throw from the railway arch venue where the Roses played out those legendary warehouse party gigs way back in 1985, the gigs that cemented their reputation in the city as both the outsider band and the coolest band with a coterie of raucous fans who were not part of the hipster new Hacienda scene.
Those gigs are now part of Manchester folklore, the moment perhaps when the so called loose fit baggy scene germinated give or take a Happy Monday or two.
Those glory of years of the late eighties and the classic Roses gigs are also dug deep into the folklore and mythology of the city but lets give credit to Brown he’s left that a long way behind, not only by refusing to reform the Roses despite the big money offers, but leaving the band’s classic guitar pop a long way behind.
Nowadays Brown operates very much in his own space. His set, largely culled from last year’s fifth top ten album, ‘My Way’- is a dark collection of brooding songs like the defiant ‘Own Brain’, the early solo period ‘Golden Gaze’ and the classic ‘F.E.A.R’ which brought the house down. He also plays a re-arranged version of first solo single, ‘My Star’- it’s Beatles referencing ‘Dear Prudence’ styled descending arpeggio morphed into a neo- trance anthem. His anthemic ‘Love Like A Fountain’, from 1999’s ‘Golden Greats’, his second solo album, opened the set with it’s mantra like vocal intoned over lolling groove. But it’s the newest album that really impresses live. The songs tough grooves and variation of textures show that Brown is still focussed and in form after two decades and still sounds current. Underlining this there are no Roses songs in the set- the key here is Brown. The solo artist like it or lump it. Going forward.
The songs utilise a fractured take on the rhythms of rap in an almost trip hop style with the same sort of ear for unusual rhythms and big atmospheric beats that create their own space. But Brown has taken it somewhere else into truly original territory without ever losing his punk rock sense of adventure. The beats are further twisted by Inder Goldfinger, the charismatic percussionist, who adds tablas and a series of percussive tones that further add to the music’s individuality.
There are elements of indie guitar in there but they are very slight. Brown is immersed in music that is a long way from the Roses. The Roses, of course, were looking at the possibilities of rhythm. How could they not with Reni- that amazing and long lost drummer (please get your fucking drum kit out the garage, Reni mate)- the best drummer the city has ever produced who has not been seen playing drums in public since the early nineties.
Brown himself, freed from the shackles of classic rock, has moved deeper into his own space. The frustration of the tail end of the Roses have long since been worked out of the system. The second Roses album should have been dropped during the ‘Fools Gold’ period when the funk was in the house. This was the point when those amazing Roses songs that sounded like Can, dark funk and Jimi Hendrix were appearing before the band disappeared for five years.
You get the feeling that this was what Brown would have wanted the Roses to have done instead of the ‘Second Coming’.
But then he always was a barometer of music. Even back in the Roses he was interested in hip hop whilst the rest of the band listened to Led Zeppelin or the Beatles. He was always moving quickly through music culture from punk to northern soul clubs in back rooms of Salford pubs from the scooter boy soundtrack of punk to soul to acid house in late eighties Manchester to hip hop and even Mariachi- always moving on and you can hear all the flavours in his music.
What he has ended up with is a style that is nowhere near anyone else’s. An indie icon who doesn’t play indie music, a packed room full of people dancing to music that is made up of heavy slow beats and perfect, downbeat melodies.
A northern melancholia with attitude, a non conformist music, shape shifting and never content and a music stripped of artifice and heavy on beats leaving space for his voice. The voice that attracts so much comment but sits fair and square in that canyon of great Mancunian non singers – vocalists with attitude who communicate all you need from a pop song without yodelling away like karaoke singers.
Fact. All the great singers don’t sing ‘properly’. The only singer who sang properly out of Manchester was Mick Hucknall. The rest have voices that resonate with their attitude making a virtue of their non conventional musicality. With his northern vowels and his lived in husk of a voice Brown has a perfect modern pop voice, one that connects and communicates. It would never win in the auto tune world of X factor and that’s what makes the connection even more perfect.
If you grew up with punk rock you would understand.
These are voices that come from the street and make music on their own terms. It would be impossible to imagine these songs yodelled by some sub operatic whine. They sound perfect as they are and all the better for what Brown does to them adding to their drama.
He still has that talismanic charisma, that limbering gait and impossibly chiseled jawline that is further reflected in the bright stage lights. In the north he is the messiah, the king monkey that doesn’t back off, who makes music on his own terms with no compromise, relying on his own nous and his own intuition to create and thrive on his own terms which was the whole point of the punk rock that we all hurtled out of in the late seventies.
Where does Ian Brown go from here is an interesting question. He will remain a UK icon, the talisman for a long lost time, the survivor- that bit is assured. Musically it could go anywhere, nothing is set in, er, stone here.
This gig is ample proof that there is plenty more risk taking and unlikely flavours to come I’d imagine from Manchester’s maverick musical genius.