At some point in the past thirteen years it became uncool to be a frontman who didn’t wield a guitar. Karaoke boy bands who had songs written for them confused the issue, leading people to forget that while playing a beautiful song that you’ve written yourself is immensely rewarding, it’s a lot more rewarding for an audience if the hairy, shoegazey bassist and heavily bearded drummer have someone with a bit of charisma to deliver their songs to the crowd. Freddie Mercury was a pianist but was a lot happier when striding around in lycra, commanding a mic stand. Mick Jagger is still going 50 years later, pouting and walking like a chicken. Yeah, he can play guitar. But do it on stage? Why bother? It’s about the stage presence, man. Being a frontman is an often overlooked skill. But not this evening. We’re pretending the last thirteen years didn’t exist and we’re firmly in the 90s Britpop era when Jarvis Cocker is God and One Direction are barely out of nappies.
James start with ‘Johnny Yen’ – the opening lyrics of “ladies and gentlemen, here’s my disease, Give me a standing ovation and your sympathy” – and it’s an acid introduction to a charged set, the only moment that touches on reality being when Booth amiably and shamefacedly apologises for not playing a gig in Belfast since 1991. First joining James as a backing dancer before the band had even heard him sing, Tim Booth has charisma in spades. It’s misdirected at times, sometimes his internal reverie cuts off the audience but that just makes them watch him more closely, his mesmerising, weaving dance reaching limbless crescendos along with the songs. When he reaches out to them, the audience embrace him, at one point holding him aloft over their heads as he smiles down at them beatifically, like a bald Jesus. He vanishes into the crowd, the band playing along unconcerned, those who cannot see him following his progress via the moving sea of camera phones charting his location. ‘Sit Down’ is a welcome light moment, but after those giddy heights the audience seem confused by the energetic ‘Stutter’ (during which a floor tom is annihilated) and the only solution is for Tim to bring them back up. ‘Getting Away With It All’ accomplishes this, Tim snaking around sensuously as the song builds, bringing the crowd with him. ‘Laid’ keeps the triumphant mood going, Booth’s falsetto reaching unfeasibly higher heights than on record.
Brett Anderson prefers a more direct approach, his long-legged slouching sexuality and microphone-swinging nonchalance not exactly new in music stagecraft, but rarely have they been so poised. Beginning with the downbeat piano of ‘High Rising’ and a perplexed Brett looking at the rest of Suede during a timing issue, it can only go up from here and it does, the epic space age feel rising with every tune, ‘Trash’ full of so much energy you wonder if there’ll be a dip afterwards, a risk carefully sidestepped by following it immediately with ‘Animal Nitrate’. It hasn’t aged and nor, seemingly, has he; a relief to those who recall his leather-jacketed androgynous pout of the mid-90s. It’s not all self-conscious Britpop, slick dirty rock songs making appearances and, perhaps unexpectedly, they lean heavily on the moody ballad section of their back catalogue. Anderson holds the audience’s attention through the quieter moments with uncharacteristic minimum arm movement, couples moving closer together and swaying but even by their reckoning it’s got to be an unusually paced bill. The sadder songs show off the pleading, imploring quality of Anderson’s voice, ‘For The Strangers’ in particular but it’s perhaps too ponderous a set for this late-Summer outdoor crowd.