Half Man Half Biscuit @Manchester Ritz 28/11/14
Half Man Half Biscuit appeared before a rammed Manchester Ritz on Friday and played a set which underlined their status as national treasures and probably, according to Andy Kershaw, the greatest English Folk band since The Clash. It is difficult to not like a band who have never had a top 40 hit single, cancel gigs if Nigel Blackwell can’t get home afterwards so tour t shirts are covered with ‘cancelled’ banners and, in some cases, ‘Sold Out and Cancelled’ (which is an unusual business strategy); who once turned down a potential ‘breakthrough’ performance opportunity on The Tube because Tranmere were playing; release albums with titles like “Voyage to the Bottom of the Road”; have plugged away and produced over a dozen albums over the last thirty or so years filled with songs of humour, satire and not inconsiderable affection largely on the subjects of crap telly, unrequited love and small towns few people who don’t live in them know much about; and yet can still fill a very nice venue of this size without the full music biz machinery behind them making life easier but probably emptier.
The band appear to be split between members who look like detainees in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and prison guards from a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Pretty it ain’t. They launch into instant never–a–chance–of–serious–airplay* classics* like “National Shite Day” which compares extremes of human suffering to encountering Primark FM and bemoans the fate of Stringy Bob, a medley of their greatest non-hits, “Joy Division Oven Gloves”, that ode to our obsession with out–of–context celebrity, “Fuckin ‘ell it’s Fred Titmus” and the totally surreal “Stuck Up A Hornbeam” which has wise advice for those contemplating DIY or going to Crewe, for whom Black Friday will, indeed, surely end in tears.
Guffaw-out-loud though the lyrics are, they don’t mess about musically. They really are tight and well–rehearsed; drum and bass are, and have to be, extremely flexible and fluent and the guitars are buzz–saw sharp. They pace their set well with an effective mix of older crowd–pleasers and tracks from the latest album “Urge For Offal” building up to a crescendo of “Westward Ho! – Massive Letdown” and coming back on for seconds with a really unusual and extremely striking version of Neil Young’s “After The Goldrush” and “The Unfortunate Gwatkin” – once again from the latest album – which poses serious questions about why the once–popular soft drink, Cresta, was so frothy, man. And in many respects there’s your clue. A whole chunk of Nigel Blackwell seems stuck in 1974 and more than a little loath to leave it. Anyone for Trumpton?
Difficult to find much to carp about here. The venue is lovely, incidentally, as well, a very simple but truly great place to see a live band – big enough for atmosphere, small enough to see what’s going on without the need for big tellys. Only problem for me was on occasion the mix was a bit too muddy to catch all the lyrics which really, when you get down to it, are really what these songs are all about.
It is fair to say you are unlikely to see these lads on Top of the Pops, especially if Tranmere are playing. But if you’ve managed to avoid them so far, go see. Go hear.
(*Unless, for you, Radio 6 constitutes ‘serious airplay’)