Castlefield Arena, Manchester
Photo credit: Hayley Taylor
In a joyous evening on a rare balmy night in Manchester The Courteeners finally stake their claim in the glorious lineage of Manc music.
This a true folk music, a music for the people by the people, a music that connects with people in a deep and profound way by the simple and brilliant use of melody and songs that really connect in a powerful way with thousands of people singing along non stop from one end of the set to the other in a magical celebration of Mancunia that, conversely, people from all over the UK attended.
The gig itself and its celebration of one strand of Manchester culture makes an interesting contrast to the Manchester International Festival which is also on this weekend with its broad spread of arts and music events, representing a more media friendly version of the city.
It’s an interesting contrast as the band have just played two sold out nights in the 10,000 outdoor amphitheatre in Manchester city centre whilst the Manchester International festival is launched across the city. The two events underline that the city’s music and culture scene, now huge & sprawling, is rocketing away in two very different directions.
On one side there is the stuff that is heavily subsidised by public money like the fascinating Manchester International festival with its series of debut events including a great looking gig from Massive Attack – and on the other the continuing musical narrative of the city represented by the Courteeners.
Events like MIF dominate the media so much that all the other music and culture is pushed away including this Courteeners gig which is easily the biggest happening in the city over the weekend.
The Courteeners are often sniffed at for being ‘Lowest Common Denominator’ which is journo shorthand for ‘attracting a more working class audience’ and Castlefield is packed with a real football crowd but one that is very mixed with nearly as many women as men and the atmosphere has that electric terrace feel. This is a very key part of northern culture- the music and football crossover and one that is always an awkward bedfellow to the cultural ebb and flow of the UK. The Courteeners have suffered from this perception that, somehow, this part of society has no cultural worth- their recent album was famously not played by the BBC for no specific reason but still managed to hit the top 5 of the album charts and their reviews can be negative whilst always missing the subtlety and smartness and emotional vulnerability of the songs that lurks just beneath the so called lad rock blunder. This media blackout for a band with a huge following is confusing, as many bands that have no real impact and can’t even fill a hipster bar will get blanket radio and press coverage- I think a level playing field would be fairer and more eclecticism is needed to give a proper picture of British music.
None of this matters tonight as the atmosphere is electric and it’s a real party atmosphere as the Courteeners take the stage to an audience of outstretched arms who are prepared for a real sing-along.
Their songs are built for these occasions and that genuine warm northern, arms aloft or around each other in a sense of community, welcomes the band. Liam Fray is now the consummate frontman, shorn of his indie looks and locks he is now bequiffed and has the air of a fifties matinee star about his tall frame as he throws shapes with his vintage guitar as he plays out the songs that detail the kitchen sink dramas of northern life like his hero Morrissey once did back in the days of the Smiths.
Often overlooked by the sniffier music snobs, the Courteeners write good lyrics. They were once , laughably, described as sexist by the Guardian, who deliberately missed the point of the band’s words to make their own point which seemed to be more about thick northerners than about the subtleties that run through the words that display a sensitivity that is often part of this music but can get lost in the beery celebration of life that surrounds them.
The Courteeners know how to pace their set and are in such a commanding position now that they can slip in lots of the more keyboard dominated, slower and atmospheric tunes off the new album and get away with it. The atmosphere never slips and the audience are with them for every nuance and every word.
They are even there for the section where Liam, armed with an acoustic guitar, goes back to his singer songwriter troubadour days and plays stripped down versions of his own songs as well as a great version of the Smiths There Is A Light That Never Goes Out which causes an outbreak of mass singing from the enraptured audience. It’s a great moment- even the nutter droog in front of me, who has spent most of the night chanting ‘we’re going fucking mental’ switches to Mozza mode- using Liam as the conduit and sings remarkably well, living out those high drama and high dark comedy Morrissey at his best- it’s the same across the arena and quite an emotional moment as the past becomes part of the present and the northern trick of taking high art onto the football terraces without the blink of an eye happens again.
It’s the trick that Manchester was always so great at – and one that we must not lose in a growing spilt between so called high brow elitist art culture and the ignored street music’s and cultures.
As the band encore with the climactic Not Nineteen you can feel a surge in the already electric atmosphere. It’s almost impossible to hear the group for the audience singing and it’s like being at one of the great northern footy clubs when a last minute goal has hit the back of the nets.
The Courteeners write great songs, songs that are vignettes of life and love in a northern town and songs that make a genuine connection with the wild eyed and rowdy or music lovers who operate beyond the rules.
Tonight was a real victory.
A magical evening.