The Stone Roses
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, Australia
13th December 2016
The Stone Roses have had something of an eventful 2016; which has seen them cause fans to descend en mass to Halifax’s Victoria Theater for a uniquely intimate gig, triumphantly played four sold out nights at Manchester’s Etihad Stadium, New York’s Madison Square Garden and after two decades release two new songs among plenty of other notable events. The band close out the year with three night’s at the Sydney Opera House and Louder Than War was there to take it all in.
Perhaps the full moon above the sails of the Sydney Opera House was a portent of what was to come.
A shade over two and a half thousand fans filled the Concert Hall, as much from top to bottom as back to front and side to side – a congregation assembled in lofty banks surrounding the stage. It was easy to make out those for whom this was their first experience of the most majestic space within one of the world’s most unique and iconic live performance spaces – agog at the intricately panelled and vaulted walls and ceiling, all constructed to optimise acoustic integrity. This was intended to be an experience as much as a performance, particularly for those fortunate enough to secure seats in the choir and organ stalls just behind the band.
Classic 80’s house tracks kicked from the PA system. ‘Can You Feel It’ by Mr. Fingers stood out. The classic line “from this groove came the groove of all grooves” was apt. If the groove was ‘Hot Pants’ by Bobby Bird then the groove of all grooves had to be Fools Gold, one of the greatest B-sides and non-album singles of all time, plundered by samplers since its release in 1989. Whilst the ‘The Stone Roses’ and ‘Second Coming’ long players are classics, spanning pop, rock, blues and electronica – Fools Gold cemented their place in the annals of dance history. The succession of late 80’s house cuts was a great fit. Larry Heard gave way to what seemed like only a few phrases of their signature introduction ‘Stoned Love’ by The Supremes, and then The Stone Roses sauntered onto stage.
The release of tension and explosion of sound from the audience was very loud and very clear. This was going to sound fantastic.
Ian Brown was resplendent in a single breasted, deep fuchsia jacket. Possibly a humorous reflection on the nature of the venue? At any rate he got away with it and wore it very well.
Nearly all of us know the next move – Mani opening the bass intro to I Wanna Be Adored. Like all of this, it never ages. It triggers a detonation of energy from the audience – actually singing the bassline. It is always the same response and it is always incredible. Such a treat.
There was no barrier remote from the stage against which the audience could crowd – they just pushed up against the stage. Two men stood to the right banged their hands in time on the top of the stage, as if they were lucky enough to have found themselves in the world’s best pub gig, right in front of John Squire and often at Ian Brown’s feet. What an experience. Elephant Stone and Sally Cinnamon, the two non-album singles that preceded the seminal debut come next – still raw and youthful.
Ian’s vocals are great. For the most part spot on and only very occasionally discordant, and it is those imperfections that provide the warmth and humanity that make Ian’s performances instantly relatable. He is one of us, because it is the energy and soul of his delivery that create those fissures. He believes in the music and the message, and in his art. It still moves him, and he rarely stops – pausing only occasionally for a sip of water. He plays up brilliantly for the audience on all sides, engaging and approachable – literally. This is a very intimate space.
The fuchsia jacket was never going to last in the Sydney humidity. It finds a home on a mic stand just before Ian launches into Mersey Paradise, his paean to Cheshire and south Manchester. (Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister is brilliant, followed by a Bye Bye Badman with a dedication to authority “wherever you are”. The lyrics are still relevant – “I’m throwing stones at you man, I want you black and blue and I’m gonna make you bleed, gonna bring you down to your knees.” Howling guitar and cymbals herald the raucous Begging You from the ‘Second Coming’ LP. These Sydney dates are the first time that it has been played live on Australian soil.
Mani’s bass stabs and penetrates through the sound. Reni is an almost totemic presence, central to the performance and a real vector of the band’s energy. With a rare opportunity to observe from behind the band it is obvious why Peter Townshend labelled a twenty-year-old Reni the most naturally gifted drummer since Keith Moon. His fluidity, dexterity and inventiveness are nothing short of astonishing. He still provides gorgeous backing vocals too. A flowing head dress soaks up the first waves of sweat and loose sportswear helps to manage body heat. These days he plays with an expanded kit and an additional kick drum (to spread the load across both legs). There is no doubt that his output is greater and more powerful than ever before – the years have most certainly not diminished Alan Wren. Time spent time as a jazz drummer in the years after the “wheels fell off” and prior to the Roses’ reformation has enriched an already prodigious natural talent. It really has been a beautiful return.
Shoot You Down follows, its casually malevolent lyrics are the perfect sequel to the anti-establishment tomes of Bye Bye Badman.
The unmistakable opening bars of Waterfall cascading from John’s guitar elicit raptures from the audience. As far as I could see everyone is out of their seats, hands in the air – the closest gig that I have ever seen to a rave, and by this stage it is very loud. Waterfall settles into an unrelenting extended jam to the delight of the audience. To this point Mani has been stood bolt upright directly in front of his amp, however this energised version of Waterfall has Mani roaming energetically around the left of stage, reciprocating energy with his band mates. It is brilliant to watch. Gone is the animated, low-slung and strolling technique that we used to see, these days Mani has a tense and concentrated demeanour, grinning, gurning and seemingly focussed on one thing – the power of his performance. He really is a brilliant bass player.
Waterfall segues perfectly into Don’t Stop, with Ian’s vocals drifting lazily in and out of sync with the rhythm and the band beautifully emulating the demo of Waterfall played in reverse.
Elizabeth My Dear is next. The hushed delivery and defiant message cleverly bring the energy of the room down, providing a break from the intensity.
The audience is well attuned to Reni’s percussive cymbal into to Fools Gold, so the break is short-lived. You can feel the tension rise with the cymbals as Mani’s rolling bass fills the rhythm, followed by a slashing wah-wah riff from John. Mayhem returns as the band drops the classic strains of Fools Gold – albeit a muscular and forceful extended version consistent with the band’s live performances over the last four years. It inspires an animated response from the audience. Hands aloft, screams and shouting, dancing on chairs, stairs and in the aisles. It is very powerful stuff. The band settles into a breathtakingly potent instrumental jam for six or seven minutes after Ian’s vocals are finished. John’s cheeky venture into the riff from Day Tripper has been dropped from this performance, substituted with a bewildering array of riffs. It is a virtuoso guitar display that has the crowd in raptures.
This year’s return to form single, All For One is brilliant, punchy and anthemic and it punctuates the end of an epic Fools Gold with an athletic three and a half minute burst of pop rock, complete with a hearty sing along.
The slide guitar intro to Love Spreads is unmistakable as it thunders out of the soundsystem. This is John Squire the Rock God – surely one of the best guitarists of all time. He sculpts his own landscape of rock, funk and blues simultaneous with his interplay with the band, building and improvising upon the structure provided by one of the finest rhythm sections ever known. He has the aesthetic nailed too – stood right of stage with long dark hair, straight leg jeans and a red shirt with what appears to be a pointing finger motif reminiscent of the sleeve art of Ride’s ‘Tarantula’ album. Off stage, John is endearing for being a modest and softly spoken man. On stage he is inspirational, mostly for the fact that his prodigious talent was obtained only by the brute force of hard work – he was not born a naturally gifted musician. Occasional slashes of light across the faces of the audience in front capture adulation and exultation at John’s performance. He deserves every bit of it.
Reni has a bucket hat on top of the head dress now – soaking up more of the sweat. The delicate opening chords of Made Of Stone bring a cheer, followed by an almighty sing along – great roars of joy. The power of the crowd matches Ian’s vocals, Reni’s backing vocals and John’s guitar solo. The response to Ian’s final challenge, “Are you made of stone?” is exhilaratingly contrary.
She Bangs The Drums follows, and the combination of two of the singles from the debut album is euphoric. Perfect pop. An up-tempo cymbal and tom groove from Reni has most confused until he abruptly slows the tempo and the band immediately drops the blues licks of Breaking Into Heaven, the opening track from the Second Coming LP. Predictably it is delivered to perfection and emphasises the versatility of the Stone Roses – effortless movement from pop to blues. Without any hesitation, the final strains of Breaking Into Heaven from Squire roll immediately into the alternating brawn and fragility of This Is The One. Reni’s drum rolls are thundering and a sight to behold. His stamina is fantastic. Ian’s voice is tiring due to exertion by this point but he is amply supported by the crowd, who join him with remarkable accord.
A jaw-dropping solo from Reni and the pounding four-four kick drum, tom and cymbal intro to I Am The Resurrection signal that the party is almost over – almost. Ecstasy ascends through the audience, the spiteful lyrics chanted like a mantra from two and a half thousand voices before proclaiming with ease that “I am the resurrection and I am the light”. The final minutes are Squire’s as he reminds us that he is an astonishing guitarist, while Ian digs into a substantial store of stick tambourines and distributes them to fortunate members of the crowd. There is a particularly cute moment where he delivers one to a very appreciative young girl in the boxes to the side of the stage.
Then Ian dons his fuchsia jacket and it is over. A warm embrace between John and Ian follows, and then thrilled congratulation between the band. There is some amusement during the bow to the audience as Reni becomes caught up in his wired in-ear monitors, which have trailed behind him across the stage. Eventually the band acknowledges the choir and orchestra stalls, Reni hands out his sticks and they exit stage looking very pleased with themselves – justifiably so.
The second of this year’s singles, Beautiful Thing plays over the PA as we leave our seats – appropriate punctuation to a stunning performance. The audience exit into a hot and humid evening and the full moon is now suspended over the arches of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
That was something special.
The second of three nights at the Sydney Opera House provided a beautiful common thread between classic Stone Roses tracks from last three decades. First hand accounts provided by those who attended the first and last Opera House concerts are consistent in indicating that all three nights were similarly magnificent – joyful master classes in why, despite their limited output, The Stone Roses are one of the most important and influential bands to our generation and of all time. The hanging question is whether the band will release more material – possibly an album? The release of two singles in 2016 and upcoming dates at the Budokan in Japan and a stadium tour in the UK summer indicate that it is likely. Fingers crossed.
All words and photographs by Michael Townsend. More writing by Michael on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.