It seems appropriate that the first night of a 50-date crusade-of-a-tour should begin in a church.
The Colchester Arts Centre was once a place of worship, and along with the wooden rafters and crumbling columns, there are still dedications to the dead on the walls. But this is no longer a tomb to those who’ve been and gone — on stage the Bluetones are still raging against the dying of the light.
The Bluetones emerged in the mid-1990s at a juncture when it seemed sunny all the time and the Top 40 was awash with bright, young and hopeful guitar bands. Things have veered off in other directions since then, but thanks to the vast majority of the set being new songs, the Bluetones manage to avoid turning this show into a nostalgia trip. And judging by the crowd here — apart from a few receding hairlines — they have avoided attracting the same old people who have only gone along because, hey, remember that band from when we were in the first year at University?
In fact, this is a new start for the Bluetones. Mark Morris has said prior to tonight: “We’re using this tour as a new beginning, hence we’re taking it back to the smaller venues, it’s like we’re just starting out again.”
Often the words of a band on the way down, but since being dropped by their label, Morris & Co. have started up on their own and are still releasing records. Kudos to them as they carry on ploughing their own furrow, but is it ultimately the same old thing? They have changed little in appearance and, in fact, fashion has caught them up. Wearing the same suit jackets and T-shirts in that roguish last-day-of-school look that the Strokes have appropriated so well, they walk on stage looking like the misfits from Grange Hill.
In essence, they have a boy-next-door charm, but it’s the kind of boy next door that slept with his younger siblings’ baby sitter when his parents were out. As they once sang: “There’s no heart you can’t melt with a certain little smile / and no challenge should be faced without a little charm and a lot of style.” Good advice indeed. The Bluetones’ travelling support (“The Blue Army”), who used to follow them en masse as they toured, appear to have mostly moved on and by now will have no doubt swapped the white lines for worry lines.
They’ve been replaced by groups of people who were no more than 10 or 11 when the band were at their peak of popularity. Hardly the circle of life here Simba, but it seems that the Bluetones are picking up new fans as they go.
The new songs are slightly spikier but still have that bouncy hats-on-the-side-of-our-heads British jauntiness about them that fellow Britpop alumni Supergrass have made work so well. Both tracks from the forthcoming double A-side, “Fast Boy” and “Liquid Lips”, get played at the start and it is hard to resist their cheeky charms. The latter apparently being an attempt to write a song that would give “Sultans of Swing” a run for its money as most requested track at Acton Working Man’s Club. I’ll keep you posted.
New songs “I Love The City” and “Code Blue” aren’t radical departures from their last album (Science and Nature), but do have a more stripped down feel to them. “Code Blue”, a song about “un-channelled idiocy”, is as much a sign that the Bluetones can still write cracking pop songs as it a reminder that there are some right old numbnuts running the world at present.
Older tracks like “Keep The Home Fires Burning” and “Lazy Bed Track” are as warm and charming as anything about now, and as Morris grins and jerks about the stage like a School Prefect possessed by the late Ian Curtis, it feels nice to have the Bluetones back. So fair play to them. A band who are prepared to get back out on the road and take the word to the people night after night is becoming something of a rarity in times of publicity stunts and appearing on any old television programme to mime your new single.
While many of their contemporaries from the mid-1990s drifted into musical obscurity (Sleeper, Mansun, Shed 7, etc.), the Bluetones were able to dust themselves down and start again. One down, 49 to go. The Bluetones are off on their crusade, and as their sermon ends, you get the feeling that a few more souls have been converted. It seems that a little charm does go a long way after all.