Monday, 20 June 2011

Wire Live at Ray Davies' Meltdown Festival London June 18th Text by Jim Emery + Photos by Steve Worrall

Always challenging, always unconventional, always oblique. Wire have kept me enthralled for decades and earlier this year after the lead-off track for their vital new album implored “fuck off out of my face” I was theirs once more.
For a band that has performed live art installations and performance pieces where they would be expected to tear through such mini mindfucks as 12XU the anticipation was palpable.
They walked on without spotlights or fanfare and charged straight into ‘Adapt’ from the aforementioned Red Barked Tree. Augmented by guitarist Matt Sims following the departure of Bruce Gilbert, the band ploughed through a succession of songs spanning the decades.  

Colin Newman’s guitar seemed like a stranger to him as he kept chopping out the rhythm, it seemed like hard work at times. I think this was mainly due to the metronomic, mellifluous drumming of Robert Grey. Eyes shut during the songs, he keeps time like few contemporaries, the fills are subtle and the experience intense. He introduces each song with the clack of his sticks and doesn't let up, the band revolves around the clockwork genius.

Wearing a Glengarry bonnet with a red bobble atop, bassist Graham Lewis added to the puzzle. His powerful upper body firing rumbling charges from a fretboard  that shook the Royal Festival Hall on more than one occasion including a severe lashing of ‘Drill’. Fillings came loose and smiles abounded. 

Newman found his confidence after that. He had been rooted to the spot thus far yet during ‘Bad Worn Thing’ he danced around a while, straying from the iPad that he sang the lyrics from all night.
There was an inkling that we weren’t going to be treated to a sulky set list after an enjoyable ‘Kidney Bingos’ and ‘Another The Letter’ mingled effortlessly with the tracks from the latest offering. Even though the setlist was planned it still seemed rather odd to have them play what could have been a hit single ‘Map Ref. 41°N 93°W’ after someone had yelled it out as a request. Was this Wire the friendly post-punksters?

Even more larks were to be had when they came back on for an encore and stunned every fan in the Hall. Are you sitting down? Yes? Good. They played ‘Outdoor Miner’. You heard me. A song they have never performed live but one everyone has always wanted to hear. Why here, why now? I felt so honoured. A smile even broke across Colin’s face. It was a sublime moment.

The finale was the eponymous track from the album that kick-started it all back in 1977. ‘Pink Flag’ with its refrain of ‘how many dead or alive?’ struck an appositely apocalyptic note, determination writ large across all four faces as it descended into a squall of feedback. Grey came to a rest, head bowed, while the others attacked their guitars and pedal boards with gusto. Newman then plugged his guitar lead from the amp into the iPad and continued the maelstrom through a synth app.

The bass thudded, the guitars squealed and conjealed into a cosmic soup that the ears tuned in and out of, picking up different small melodies here and there and then with a ‘thanks’ they were gone.
Perception is a funny old bird. When Colin came back out to help dismantle his effects board I asked for an autograph. Twice, three times I said ‘Colin!’. I thought he was playing up to a moody typecast but the reality was that he just hadn’t heard me. He gladly wandered to the front of the stage, signed some CDs and set lists and even cracked a joke and a smile.
Always challenging, always unconventional, always oblique and still surprising. 

--- Jim Emery June 2011 ---

Wire appeared as part of Ray Davies' Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre