The Courteeners: Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London – live review

Photo of The Courteeners by Hayley Taylor

The Courteeners

Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

Tuesday 3rd December

Louder Than War’s Fergal Kinney went to see The Courteeners play a great set in front of a huge crowd of adoring fans, something that led him to wonder why they struggle to get airtime on national radio. Photos © Hayley Taylor.

Billy Bragg recently explained that much of his audience was ‘an excluded middle; outcasts from the rock and roll aesthetic who are as mystified by the appeal of Metal Machine Music as they are the top forty’. This goes some way to explaining quite why the Courteeners’ audience is as large and as devoted as they are; it’s not that music at the moment offers little to celebrate, but for them, the Courteeners provide something that nobody else does as good or as frequently. Not for nothing do they continuously sell out venues as large as arenas in the face of indifference from the radio and uncertainty from the music press.

Tonight is no exception; braying fans barter with merciless touts around Shepherd’s Bush Common whilst the Empire theatre bursts at the seams. The rapture that greets the band’s arrival onstage ends only with the fresh frenzy instigated by the drum intro to opening song ‘Are You In Love With a Notion?’, their latest single and one that sits easily amongst their best. Third album ‘Anna’ was released earlier this year, ruffling industry feathers by hitting the top spot of the mid-week album charts with not even a passing nod from daytime radio. A far more ambitious album than anyone could have expected, ‘Anna’ at times has a certain whiff of overproduction about it, something re-enforced by how good the songs sound tonight when given a more modest arrangement, especially the anthemic and forlorn ‘When You Want Something You Can’t Have’. Indeed, it’s ‘When You Want Something You Can’t Have’ that best displays a sophistication in Liam Fray’s writing that often goes overlooked, possessing like Guy Garvey the gift of voicing those emotions that can be difficult to articulate, without ever steering into the glib or the clichéd.

Whilst the songs from 2008 debut ‘St Jude’ still shine the brightest – almost an audio guide to Manchester’s cliquey disco’s, bad fringes and goggle eyed girls – the band’s development since this record is incredibly notable. From the angular, Franz Ferdinand guitars of ‘Push Yourself’ to the cinematic and string-driven ‘Marquee’, this is a band committed to not repeating the same tricks twice, held together by an increasingly adept band that’s seldom sounded as energised and strong as tonight – especially on the punk rush of ‘Here Come the Young Men’. Fray himself shines as a frontman in ‘That Kiss’, perhaps the Courteeners best and most compulsive three minutes slices of pop, where kitchen sink infidelity meets Phil Spector drums and chiming guitars. Tonight is sullied only by the bizarre detonation of a smoke bomb in the audience, creating an Apocalypse Now panic amongst the security and arousing only total bemusement amongst audience and band alike as the grey fog fades. Fortunately, this does little to stilt the energy of the triumphant ‘Not Nineteen Forever’ as mass pogo-ing ensues from front to back of the venue and balconies give the illusion of bouncing. This is a band that retains a feeling of intimacy in increasingly bigger venues – the tour closes with the band’s third headline appearance at Manchester’s 17 000 capacity arena – and their continued success and staying power is testament to not only the band themselves but the commitment of their audience, unconcerned and unswayed by column inches and radio playlists. Perhaps it’s time Radio 1 took note of this ‘excluded middle’ after all, because tonight shows there’s certainly a lot of them.

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The Courteeners website is here. They can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

All words by Fergal Kinney. More writing by Fergal on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.

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