Movie Stars and Gossip
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
At the first stop of Liam Fray of Courteeners’ acoustic tour – a sell out one, at that – the venue is overflowing a good hour before there’s a single movement on a stage; a startling populous for what should really be quite a low-key affair. Shortly after some light, mellow reggae to get the crowd in the mood from on-the-rise Bipolar Sunshine, Fray finally steps onto the bare stage beneath a single shade of bleached yellow light. There isn’t a modicum of prefigured fanfare – the atmosphere relies solely on the wave of Courteeners faithfuls howling the frontman’s name. A few syllables of introduction, a drag on a cigarette, a cool grin and he’s off. The bubbling blend of paisley-clad teenage mop-top mod revivalists and a surprising number of older attendees explode; they are in control of this night; they decide whether it works just as much as he. There’s something intimidating and (I hesitate to say) almost karaoke-like about this venue – the O2 Academy feels oddly like a disco hall – especially when the man on stage is armed with nothing but a guitar and his own judgment. But credit where credit is due: this is no X Factor audition, and Fray’s arrived with a no-nonsense approach to the kickoff show of his solo tour; a refreshing, more humble side to the characteristically cocky Middleton man.
For the most part this evening, the crowd are a bit of a jelly – they slip in and out of the palm of Fray’s hand and sometimes he has to clamp down with something to get them really cheering, for fear of losing their attention. There’s a lovely moment somewhere along ‘Yesterday, Today and Today’ when a beat begins pounding along from the balcony – someone’s filling in for the band’s absence with a bit of impromptu drumming.
We are comfortingly reminded throughout that Fray doesn’t take himself as seriously as people often suspect – though the extent of his artistic talent doesn’t stretch as far as Morrisey’s, both are similarly misunderstood on that front (perhaps that’s why they share respect for each other) – most notably when he attempts to introduce a song from his most recent album but casually forgets what it’s called. Incidentally, it’s something we should probably all do, although when he airs ‘Lose Control’, the single from last album Anna, it sounds far superior in a stripped down format than the airy, radio-friendly buzz of the single. And there are plenty more nuances of artistic frivolity; during the stripped down, virtually a capella peformance of ‘Marquee’ he ever-so-casually stops singing halfway through for a moment to confer with his temporary wingman on the keyboards. There’s no Brit-rock bombast here, it’s too personal for that, and all the better for it.
There are tender moments in the usually upbeat ‘Sycophant’, which sounds strangely penetrable when the self-conscious lyrics are in stronger focus. There are moments throughout where the crowd enthusiasm subsides somewhat, but Fray does a good job of pulling them back in, injecting some electric guitars for ‘Good Times Are Calling’ to give his audience a second or third wind, while ‘Here Come the Young Men’ is carried entirely by the audience chants as Fray delves into cheeky acoustic solos.
It’s easy to be cynical and dismissive about Courteeners; Fray is rarely as sharp at witticisms as he thinks he is and none of their three albums have exactly taken the world by the storm. But there is more to tonight than that – this is a showcase of a talented man with a strong set of lungs and a deep passion for his work.
And it’s those fleeting moments where every word is as clear from the crowd as from the lips of the man himself that make this night such a joy; the air of sheer unity between the two that brings us up to “cloud number nine” as Liam puts it in ‘Bide My Time’. There’s that strange, anthemic intimacy hanging over the night and even when it goes a little limp, Fray has a deft awareness of pacing and knows exactly how and where to trigger another bout of audience uproar. Just as he prepares to close the show with Courteeners staple ‘Not Nineteen Forever’ he reminds us that, as far as he’s concerned, it is HIS priviledge to be here, not ours. “It’s a f**kin’ pleasure to spend these nights wi’ you lot. Nice one.” The feeling, thankfully, is mutual.
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