Swindon Arts Centre
October 29th 2018
XTC Rhythm section make triumphant return in their hometown with appearance at venue of their first ever live performance.
(For more quality writing please join the Louder Than War facebook page. Thanks)
Having a little knowledge of small towns, I can say with a degree of confidence that the terms “Magical Monday” or even “Momentous Monday” are not usually deployed to describe the start of the working week. However, this is Swindon, crouching in the valley, and tonight magic was way down the pecking order of epithets for what was happening in the splendidly intimate Arts Centre as Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers, half of XTC, returned to the stage, the one where they first played live as Star Park, for the first time in thirty-six years.
This was a return that for years seemed so unlikely as to be beyond consideration by fans, and could certainly have filled much bigger venues in the capital. However, that would never have been the way of the reclusive geniuses who comprise one of the finest bands of our musical history. Coming of the road in 1982 after Andy Partridge’s struggles against withdrawal from Valium made live performance too stressful for him, they continued a campaign of guerrilla – style resistance against record-company- driven musical conformity from their Swindon base. The albums made from this period onwards are each a classic in their own right and the reality is that they would not exist if XTC’s punishing touring schedule had continued. And that’s before we even get onto the Dukes of Stratosphear, that glorious psychedelic stunt that led to two superb albums and much inspiration, not least for the Stone Roses!
However, the end of touring and personal circumstances meaning Australia was to be his family base, saw the departure of drummer Terry Chambers who was never permanently replaced. The last album, Wasp Star was released in 2000 and that was it really, or so we thought. However, Colin and Terry met up early last year and released the Great Aspirations EP just about twelve months ago but live shows were not seriously considered by the loyal fan base. Yet here we are, making the steep climb up to Swindon Old Town for an event that most of those in the room seemed to be struggling to believe was actually happening.
Support for the entire week was provided by the excellent George Wilding, a singer-songwriter of huge potential. He sings real songs with real passion and held the room in thrall, which, considering the main act, is not easy. Check him out, as they say.
This was no ordinary evening though, and the first evidence of that was the appearance of TC&I almost immediately after the support act finished. No time for anticipation to build, or lump in the throat inducing intro-tape, just the band entering the stage and, with a quick guitar riff on Bungalow they were off with the beautiful Say It from the Apple Venus period though not actually on the album.
After that, we were catapulted back into what Colin referred to as The Jurassic Period with Drums and Wires classics Day In Day Out, That is the Way and Ten Feet Tall. It’s round this point that you realises that most people in the room seem to be in the same zombified state as you are – they are seeing it, but having trouble processing it. Yes, that is Terry Chambers and yes, Colin Moulding is singing tracks that have sound tracked our lives.
A special mention for Gary Bamford on keys and guitar who has scored the tracks out and brings a new angle to these interpretations of classics. Then there is Steve Tilling on guitar who turns in a performance that sets everyone talking. He’s a livewire presence with a manner that sets the familiar guitar licks in a new context.
On we go with tracks from the Great Aspirations EP, Greatness and the irresistible Scatter Me before three tracks from Skylarking place reinforce exactly what we are seeing tonight; Grass, The Meeting Place and Sacrificial Bonfire. Classics all, but never performed live and never expected to be but tonight you see the full majesty of the writing and arrangement. Colin Moulding said that one of the main drives for returning to the stage was because he wanted to re-connect with songs he had written but had no interaction with since. Well, here they are in all their glory and you realise immediately that, no matter how good an album is, and Skylarking is one of the very best, there is no substitute for experiencing the songs in a live setting. Very much like Quality Street, these songs are made for sharing.
The Nonsuch period is well represented, firstly by Where Did the Ordinary People Go?, which didn’t make it onto the album but is a song of rare quality. Wardance is even more haunting live than on record while The Smartest Monkeys is a perfect example of the Moulding lyrical genius. However, one of the evening’s highlights is undoubtedly Bungalow; a quirkily brilliant album track that assumes a life and power of its own live as Moulding, voice as pitch-perfect as ever paints the picture of that elusive retirement dream.
The atmosphere tonight is notable; timeless classic is delivered to hushed silence, followed by huge applause that can endanger fragile hands, then another timeless classic and so on. Obviously, every live show is an opportunity for fans to commune with the band and express solidarity and devotion. However, this is different. Maybe it is because the absence of live appearances, and the sheer depth and complexity of the albums produced since 1982, has led the devoted to develop an intimacy with the songs and their creators beyond the norm. It is almost as if a long-lost loved one has returned and, faced with the prospect of telling them all you have longed to say, you simply become tongue-tied and stare intently, absorbing every second of their surreal presence. Maybe I’m talking bollocks and people were just enjoying themselves, but it certainly felt different to me; let’s call it a mixture of anticipation, intensity and disbelief and move on.
Kenny, the ballad of a Swindon footballer that Moulding has used to revisit the theme of town planning and weak councils that first featured in the following Ball and Chain, shows that he retains the sharp lyrical edge and ear for a melody.
Generals and Majors and the inevitable Making Plans for Nigel finish the main set with emphatic proof that Terry Chambers, Post-Punk’s prime purveyor of power percussion, has lost none of his thunderous talent. However, his skilful handling of the intricate songs written since his departure is impressive and it is great to see him back where he belongs.
The first encore was an opportunity for Colin to pay tribute to the man who, while not present, was uppermost in everyone’s mind with the characteristically jerky early Partridge brilliance of Statue of Liberty. The evening ended with the infectious Life Begins at the Hop that simply defied anyone to remain unmoved.
This show was never likely to go wrong; both men are simply too experienced and talented performers to allow that. However, what was delivered was undoubtedly a triumph, and in a room of less than two hundred, including fans who had travelled from Japan, America and Australia as well as all over Europe and the UK, it was very special. So what next? Maybe a London residency or even an Albert Hall spectacular? They deserve it as do the fans but for me, nothing will top the experience in the small room in Swindon Old Town and heading back downhill afterwards (literally, not metaphorically) I got the feeling that not all the magic in Swindon is on the Roundabout.
Day in Day Out
That Is the Way
Ten Feet Tall
Where Did the Ordinary People Go?
The Meeting Place
The Smartest Monkeys
Ball and Chain
King for a Day
Standing In for Joe
Generals and Majors
Making Plans For Nigel
Statue of Liberty
Life Begins At The Hop
Photo courtesy of Owen Carne
For more information on TC&I visit their Facebook page
For information on Steve Tilling go here
For information on George Wilding go here