In the following post, I report from the hometown of Shropshire Lad poet A. E. Housman AND contemporary superstar Michael Ball, where I witnessed Lloyd Cole quietly dazzle an Artrix audience with a solo acoustic set of songs from debut album Rattlesnakes through to last year’s Standards – together with a steady supply of one-liners.
Lloyd Cole, Solo Standards Tour, Artrix Arts Centre, Bromsgrove, Tuesday 25 March, 2014.
There was gloriously little to detract from Lloyd Cole’s stripped-down and intimate songs at the Artrix on an otherwise grey Tuesday night – neither a drunk nor a hysterical fan. At probably the quietist gig I have ever attended, the well-behaved punters were highly appreciative not only of Lloyd’s singing, but also his less-celebrated witticisms – on such subjects as his acquired American accent, ‘mobile devices’, and how the word ‘babe’ features in too many of his songs. This polite conduct was not lost on the bemused singer, who messaged straight after the show: ‘Who’d have thunk? Tonight’s audience were just about perfect for me…they were vocal and boisterous between songs and they were pretty much silent when I was singing. They even laughed at my jokes.’
I was expecting the gig to be a fairly civilised affair, taking place, as it was, in a sit-down, lecture-theatre-style auditorium belonging to a rather bland ‘multi-purpose arts centre’, known more for accommodating ropey tribute acts, children’s TV presenters and much-diminished 60s groups like The Manfreds than anything else, while being located within a town that is nowadays a bit of a cultural backwater (not to be rude). I also made the prediction that a Lloyd gig would attract a crowd consisting largely of grey-haired and decidedly un-rowdy dad-rockers, along with their not-so-bothered spouses, which proved to be a fairly accurate one. However, I remained confident that the 53-year-old Lloyd, at the start of a bandless tour around Britain involving much driving and listening to audiobooks, still had the voice, the charisma, the hunger and, above all, the songs to impress and inspire.
My trust in Lloyd pertained to his recent resurgence as a recording artist that had seen him draw once more on the plugged-in pop sensibility that initiated his immediate success with the Commotions back in the mid-80s, when, as part of the Glasgow indie scene, he originated such brilliant and beguiling songs as ‘Perfect Skin’, ‘Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?’ and ‘Rattlesnakes’, with their bookish lyrics replete with high-minded cultural references, most famously in the immortal chorus to the latter: ‘She looks like Eve Marie Saint from On the Waterfront / She reads Simone De Beauvoir, in her American circumstance’. From this time, I could recall playing the insanely poppy ‘Lost Weekend’ repeatedly off my Now 6 compilation, a record that introduced me to Lloyd’s crooner-style shaky vocals and his band’s distinctive jangly guitar sound, leading me to view the song, in fact, as a beacon of musical hope due to its placement between Madness’s most moribund single, ‘Uncle Sam’, and the Communards’ horribly high-pitched racket, ‘You Are My World’. This was just before my older brother brought home the Easy Pieces album, a move that marked, for me (in the neighbouring bedroom), a refreshing diversion away from the usual diet of synth-infused groups such as Ultravox, Depeche Mode and, mercifully, Spandau Ballet. I was therefore happy to discover, almost 30 years later, that Lloyd still had the ability to deliver an electrified rock-band album in the shape of Standards, even if one reviewer did describe it, bafflingly, as ‘over-literate’. Huh?
In light of his arsenal of strong new songs, then, I was delighted to see a very well-preserved Cole stroll onto the minimalist Artrix stage, furnished solely with two acoustic guitars and an occasional table for his bottles of water and his songbook. He launched into the angst-ridden ‘Past Imperfect’ from his album with New York group The Negatives in 2000 (his last band outing), with which he ushered in a pitch-perfect guitar sound and a still rich and full voice. It was the first of many songs on the subject of ageing and how we relate to our younger selves, seeing him try in vain to make sense of his half-forgotten past over an ‘I can’t recall’ refrain. He then leapt straight into the classic track written by his young (‘other’) self, ‘Rattlesnakes’, all stoppy-starty in its current form, and obviously an early thrill to hear. Next came new song ‘Kids Today’, ahead of an affecting rendition of ‘Late Night, Early Town’, with only a “let’s see” being spoken in between as he tried to pick out the tunes (still a little rusty, perhaps). It was therefore four songs in before he addressed the audience, telling a couple of latecomers dryly that they had “missed ‘Rattlesnakes'” and expressing sympathy with the very up-close members of the front row for having to strain their necks only to get a view of his “numerous chins”. He then informed us that there would be an interval during the show, after which he would return to do a second set, remarking: “I am supporting myself”.
After just four songs in as his own warm-up man, I was more than ready to recognise Lloyd as a supreme guitar virtuoso – and I say this with the authority as one who has taken ‘Guitar for Beginners’ classes at the Bristol Folkhouse under the tutelage of ‘Skinny Nick’. In fact, he went on to make very few musical gaffes throughout the gig, although he did complain that his fingers were still soft from lack of shows, meaning that he had to tackle the most difficult-to-play song – ‘Like a Broken Record’ – fairly early on in the evening, further explaining that by the end of such tours his fingers are “like leather”, at which point he feels he has to put his instrument “away in the cupboard – for several months!” I was impressed when he let the familiar riff from Easy Pieces track ‘Cut Me Down’ really ring out, almost like it was written for an acoustic guitar, as I was when he tackled the highly complex arpeggio chords on new track ‘Myrtle and Rose’. However, on this Leonard Cohenesque breakup song (with the killer line ‘The longer you were gone, the less the longing’), he did ask his audience to imagine he was playing the pattern all the way through, while he reverted to a less-demanding strum technique. Fair enough!
Lloyd’s choice of songs tonight ranged far and wide across his career, making the gig quite an adventure. He introduced a compelling version of Standards track ‘Period Piece’ as being “about an inanimate object”, which added a further element of mystery to a song I have been trying to fathom for several months! The country-tinged ‘No Blue Skies’ was, on the other hand, easier to comprehend, with its direct and heartbreaking refrain – ‘When I cry, do you feel anything?’ But the most significant moment, for me, came after the interval when Lloyd struck perfectly into the opening bars of ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?’, a stunning tune, and one of the greatest put-down songs since Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’, particularly with its remarkable middle 8 (beginning ‘What will it take to wipe that smile of off your face…?’). Lloyd then became a lot more talkative, when he realised that “you’ve all had a few drinks now” and delivered a succession of anecdotes in his soft trans-Atlantic tones from having lived in Massachusetts for the last 20 years – “I have an American accent now, and I don’t care!” His story about how his A&R man advised him, in the early 90s, to cut down on the use of the word ‘babe’ in his lyrics was particularly amusing, being when Lloyd, at the height of his early-30s arrogance, told him: “I am the artist, not you!” He then told the audience that he always recognised when people at his shows (partners of his fans) didn’t really know who he was, it being to such attendees that he then dedicated a song – the charming sonofabitch that he is!
Towards the end of the gig there were many shouted-out requests for ‘Perfect Skin’, but as if Lloyd would even consider not playing one of the finest songs of the whole 1980s! More useful as a request was a call for ‘Undressed’, which Lloyd obligingly played, probably the only song tonight that was not amongst his usual setlist for this tour. The audience then finally began to clap along during ‘Lost Weekend’, while also taking flash photographs with abandon (which is, of course, ‘not permitted within the auditorium’). And then the great man made his exit, while leaving me with the impression that, yes, an acoustic set is great, but I’d like to hear him perform many of these songs with a kick-ass band, particularly with the jangle being duly restored to ‘Perfect Skin’. Perhaps when Lloyd gets over his hang-ups of having a group around him again, he will return to these parts accompanied by one. But, on this night, having done an excellent job of reminding us that he is indeed one of the finest British songwriters of our generation, Lloyd went off to do a ‘meet and greet’ session in the foyer in front of a giant poster of CBeebies favourites Chris and Pui. The duo will be coming to the Artrix Arts Centre this summer, so make sure you book early!
(This setlist is extra helpful because it details in brackets the album from which each track is taken, together with the year – for easy reference!)
Past Imperfect (The Negatives, 2001)
Rattlesnakes (Rattlesnakes, 1984)
Kids Today (Standards, 2013)
Late Night, Early Town (Music in A Foreign Language, 2003)
Cut Me Down (Easy Pieces, 1985)
Why I Love Country Music (Easy Pieces, 1985)
Pay For It (Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe, 1991)
Like a Broken Record (Broken Record, 2011)
My Other Life (Music in a Foreign Language, 2003)
Don’t Look Back (Lloyd Cole, 1990)
The Young Idealists (Antidepressant, 2006)
Loveless (Lloyd Cole, 1990)
Can’t Get Arrested (Bad Vibes, 1993)
Myrtle And Rose (Standards, 2013)
Perfect Blue (Easy Pieces, 1985)
Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken? (Rattlesnakes, 1984)
It’s Late (Standards, 2013)
Butterfly (Don’t Get Weird On Me, Babe, 1991)
Blue Like Mars (Standards, 2003)
No Blue Skies (Lloyd Cole, 1990)
Music in a Foreign Language (Music in a Foreign Language, 2003)
Period Piece (Standards, 2013)
Why in the World? (Broken Record, 2011)
Hey Rusty (Mainstream, 1987)
Undressed (Lloyd Cole, 1990)
Perfect Skin (Rattlesnakes, 1984)
Unhappy Song (Love Story, 1995)
Lost Weekend (Easy Pieces)