I feel somehow like I, if not Belfast, has some amends to make to Lloyd Cole. The last time I saw him perform in the city was as part of a festival I was involved with. It could have gone better. There’d been a (ahem) “clerical error”, which meant that Lloyd had elected to do his reflective, acoustic, lovely thing BEFORE the noisome support act. They were a raggle-taggle plugged-in gaggle of local radio producers and social workers who’d just reformed one of those bands that never quite made it out of the 80s.
So excited were they to be there (possibly because they were now technically headlining at a Lloyd Cole show), that they weren’t really thinking about the fact that LLOYD COLE was on the stage. He was great. But a significant chunk of the audience – excitable friends and family of said revived band – weren’t. They were behaving like people do when they’re waiting for the headlining act to come on. Ever the pro, Lloyd played a blinder regardless, but you could tell he was a bit miffed. It wasn’t hugely surprising when he declined to come back on stage again when too-little-too-late chants of “Forest Fire!” went up. Earlier that day, having to carry his own guitar around Belfast, thanks to the unique storage facilities of the Premier Inn, Lloyd had bumped into one Stephen Patrick Morrissey and coterie on the corner of North Street. But that’s the beginnings of another slight, if somewhat more interesting story.
I know he’s been back to the city since, but Monday night in the Empire Music Hall was my greedy chance for personal catharsis. Belfast would be at its best this time, I told myself. We would sigh and swoon at every finely wrought turn of phrase. The city’s matures, most musically tasteful aficionados would have a show of strength. Their creaking limbs would congregate amidst the creaking timbers of the Empire, ready to be heartbroken like it was 1983.
After all, this is Lloyd Cole’s Classic Songbook tour, and this is his year of self-declared retrospection. So great was the demand for last year’s Commotions’ Box Set (spanning 83-89), they needed a second printing. There’s also a second collection covering the early solo years (89-96) due any day now. It’s the perfect time to give the old trophy cabinet a dusting, before, as Lloyd himself explains “resuming my work as a contemporary artist”. It’s also a chance to rip 1 May 2009 (for it was then) from the pages of my own lamentable history.
As he eventually saunters on to the stage (in what initially appears in the dim lighting like a boiler suit, but somewhat disappointingly turns out to be double denim), he sports that instantly familiar lugubrious Lloyd look, and with no formality, launches straight into the instantly familiar, if surprising ‘Sometimes It Snows in April’. It’s one of Prince’s more delicate ballads, it’s a lovely if low-key beginning to proceedings. An almost soporific ‘Rattlesnakes’ follows, slowed-down, near-whispered, as some in the audience gamely try to sing along, gamely trying to speed it up in the process. ‘Perfect Blue’ remains a lovely swirly thing of affected romantic ennui. ‘Patience’ is introduced as one of the very first things he wrote, and it glides along engagingly enough, and yet… And yet things feel a little tentative, perhaps hesitant early on. Like audience and performer are still sizing each other up.
“When I look neutral, it looks angry” he explains apologetically to much laughter, revealing just what happens to pretty boy pouts when they grow up. As he the familiar opening chords to ‘Charlotte Street’ and things start to relax.
A very firm “Cider in a pint glass with ice is NOT a man’s drink” elicits more titters, and the last of that early tension seems to dissipate, although that could be the air conditioning finally, mercifully kicking in.
“I feel silly singing this next one on my own” is Lloyd’s way of getting the room to sing along to ‘Jennifer She Said’. The lovely paean to tattoo regret from the Commotions final album Mainstream, becomes a rousing “sha-la-la” sing a long, and makes one wonder – not for the first time – why it wasn’t a huge hit.
The lukewarm beginning is a thing of distant memory by the time he returns after the interval with a special guest. “It’s not the guy from Snow Patrol” he promises, and true to his word, he brings on his son for second half. “What were the chances of finding someone who looked like me who could play guitar?” The extremely competent picking from a very shy Cole junior aids and abets some of dad’s finest moments. ‘Mr Malcontent’, ‘Like Lovers Do’, and especially ‘Perfect Skin’ become giddy, glorious singalongs. A yearning, nakedly bitchy ‘No Blue Skies’ is stripped down to just two guitars and that old familiar voice. It’s remarkable.
“This a sexual experience!” shouts an over-excited chap in the audience at one stage. Ah yes, the audience. I almost forgot to mention the audience. This gilded opportunity for my Lloyd Cole catharsis is thwarted by one of the most bafflingly annoying crowds since, well since you know when…
When Cole laments how he’s getting older, one particularly vociferous woman shouts out “55!” It would be innocuous in and of itself, but she also yells out “You Tube!”. When he politely asks if people have come far she screams “Lloyd! We’re from Newry!” and also “The 80s” amongst other random words, believing, like so many people seem to do these days, that she has a hotline to the performer in a room of hundreds. That’s when she’s not loudly talking to her friends during the songs. “I’m not talking to one person tonight” he says curtly, cutting her off at one point, before she regroups for shouts of “Lloyd!” “Glasgow!” “Hot!”, perhaps a Newry version of Eat, Pray, Love.
Some people in their late 50s behind me appear to have polished off the last of their legal high stash, and are chatting and laughing very loudly throughout the glorious unplugged jukebox that is the second half. They’re clearly “loved up”, and seemingly oblivious that they and everybody else there (ok, maybe not me) have paid £22.50 of their own dough to listen to one of the most supple, literate songwriters of his – hell their – generation. Aren’t they meant to be growing old gracefully through the blissful shared communion of ‘Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken’ (a staggering rendition by the way)?
Then there’s the giant potato-headed wag at the bar (top tip: don’t attract attention to a massive, bellowing tuber of a face by sporting an outsized Jedward quiff atop it) who shouts out such things as “speccy bastard!” when Lloyd talks about the fact he now has to wear glasses. It’s actually staggering. But what saves history from truly repeating is the performance. Perhaps a kind of cleansing purge for the man himself, an inspired exorcism. Whatever the reason, in spite of it all, the man plays. Oh how he plays.
Many of those aforementioned creaking limbs attempt a sort of spirited wedding hoe down to a spritely blast of ‘Lost Weekend’, and Lloyd keeps his sang froid right until the end. “You’re great singers, but terrible drummers” he only half-jokingly castigates after some over-enthusiastic tapping. “Restrain yourselves”. It’s a fabulous, pithy moment, and you know Lloyd only half means it. He’s got his neutral face on after all. Not long after Lloyd Cole actually comes back on for an encore, in spite of my date betting there’s no way “after how some of this rabble have behaved”. He comes on dear reader, and plays a perfectly formed version of the perfectly formed ‘Forest Fire’. After all, it wouldn’t be the great Lloyd Cole Songbook without it. Meanwhile the paramedics have been called to attend to one of the “loved up” women, who appears to have passed out.
Sublime, ridiculous. Triumphant, depressing. Belfast, we need to talk. Lloyd, can you give us a minute?