Live Report - Super Furry Animals
Posted on Friday, 15 May 2015 | No Comments
Let's get juxtaposed.
Friday 8th May was not a good morning. Whatever vague optimism the previous day might have felt - the notion that, perhaps, the spring sun was shining down benevolently on a people keen for a change of course, troubled by the non-existent recovery, by the fault lines and divisions growing ever wider, striding purposefully away from fear and towards some tentative hope - was slammed firmly shut by ten o'clock on the evening. Instead, we got to wake up on the next day to the news that a government that has overseen a surge in the number of people using food banks, the demonisation of the disabled, the unemployed, the poor and anyone seen to be not 'middle England' and the collapse of so many of the gains of the post-war era had somehow been rewarded for this little CV of theirs. So no, not a good morning.
Cut to later that day though, and the people on the stage are singing "In honesty, it's been a while / since we had reason left to smile." Just after that chorus, five thousand people in a corner of south London erupt into a jubilant, defiant applause for a good two minutes - the tension and the despair of the morning blown away in one act of solidarity. The band look slightly humbled and overwhelmed: eventually, they just have to make a break for the second verse and hope everyone calms down enough to let them play on - even in London, notorious for unresponsive crowds, the SFA fans prove as lovely a group of people as you could ever hope to meet. As Gruff Rhys states: "we're the Super Furry Animals, and we're here to cheer you up." Don't let the bastards grind you down.
Of course, the whole reason we're here is to witness the return of one of Britain's great cult bands, an idiosyncratic and inventive bunch that paid no attention to the confines of fashion, genre or nationality and forged their own unique, joyous world. Even with a plethora of top twenty albums, a dedicated fanbase and an extensive discography, there still seems to be something of the under-rated lingering around the Super Furry Animals. The (admittedly fun) gimmicks like driving a customised tank round the festival circuit to DJ from, roping in Paul McCartney to chew vegetables for an album session and releasing a B-sides compilation in the form of a large rubber nipple perhaps distracted the less attentive listeners from the wealth of ideas and the melancholic warmth of their songwriting. The consistent pace of releases (nine albums in fifteen years, not including one-off singles, B-sides and compilations - not a work pace to sniff at) might have left people playing catch up with a band that changed their sound each time whilst keeping the quality level high. Above all, it's hard to avoid the thought that the sheer decency of the band - the kind-hearted lyrics, their understated but maintained socialism - might have made them easily dismissible by a music press still obsessed with creating petty rivalries and dismissing musicians they dislike rather than promoting and pushing the work they love.
The quiet hiatus the band entered after Dark Days/Light Years in 2009 had started to look like it might be worryingly permanent - nothing as dark or antagonistic as a split for the Furries, naturally - before the band announced this short UK tour earlier this year. Tied in with a re-issue for their out-of-print fourth album Mwng, the band remained tight-lipped on whether this would be a final victory lap or a kick-start for the band following a productive sabbatical. If nothing else, the break has done their commercial prospectives some good: the Furries have always been free of the cynicism of their Britpop peers (if, indeed, they were ever peers at all), but their management wouldn't have been upset to see the band now able to play two near sell-out nights at Brixton Academy at any rate.
Safe to say though, what the Furries deliver is something a bit more ambitious than your standard play-the-hits cash in. Clad in bright white spacesuits, the band emerge to the electro strains of (A) Touch Sensitive, joining in to jam out on the track's second half - a suitably loud, confident act of throat-clearing. What follows is a brace of the pop favourites: muddy sound unfortunately dulls the impact of Drawing Rings Around The World, but things thankfully improve in time for the surge of Ice Hockey Hair and a glorious version of Northern Lites. Augmented for this tour with a horn section, a full force take on the Bowie-gone-mariachi classic Demons marks the moment when the concert goes from 'great fun' to 'genuine event' for all involved. If there was a lingering feeling from some long-term fans that the band's live form was starting to dip prior to their hiatus, then this is them back on full fighting form.
It's after this early brace that the Furries start to dig deep. The centrepiece of the set is a mini-suite of Mwng tracks. This all Welsh, largely acoustic album saw them fully embrace their folky and psychedelic pop leanings, and remains one of their greatest achivements. In a weird way, it makes sense to isolate them from some of the bigger beasts in the set: as they proceed from the up-beat Ymaelodi Â'r Ymylon to the spooky Pan Ddaw'r Wawr, the band make the cavernous Brixton Academy feel much more intimate and homely than it really is. It's a bold decision, but one that pays dividends - the subdued, pleasingly mellow atmosphere that subsequently pervades proves an ideal moment for the band to delve into some of their other ballads, like the slow-mo Byrds tribute Run Christian Run and Fuzzy Logic highlight Hometown Unicorn.
Zoom! from the often neglected Love Kraft proves the next fulcrum of the set - backed by some of the most effective visuals of the night, its lumbering, grandiose seventies rock emerges as a surprise highlight, a track that it turns out functions far better as a mid-set wake-up call than as the curtain-raiser on the most subdued and intricate Furries album. (It also proves, surprisingly, the most recent track aired: Hey Venus and Dark Days/Light Years have their critics, but the likes of Run Away and Cardiff in the Sun stand up with their best.) From then on, it's back to the big guns - a rousing Something 4 the Weekend, the glam stomp of Golden Retriever, the sparkling soul of Juxtaposed With U and best of all, what might be (in this writer's opinion) their all-time career peak, the techno-meets-Neil Young odyssey Slow Life. It's a remarkable final run that again highlights the astonishing breadth of their achievements, and that the space they left in British music has remained unfilled in their absence - what band since has proven so open-minded, so musically ambitious, so effortlessly charming?
The Man Don't Give a Fuck, on this day of all days, is the ideal set-closer - a great big cathartic shout-along, the band dressing up in the old Yeti suits once more as that Steely Dan sample blasts its way over crashing guitar riffs and acid house bleeps, a gleefully surreal and defiant protest song that's never felt so vital. But really, it's the preceding Mountain People that sums up the power of the performance: a glorious, yearning hymn for the often-patronised Welsh people and culture that welcomes in all those who feel disaffected or separate from elitism, snobbery and cultural normalcy. It's a beautiful, affecting, quietly defiant song, performed with force (and replete with a new, re-worked outro that finds Cian Ciarán adding some ferocious sub-bass to proceedings). It's the Super Furry Animals in microcosm - a small, surreal, welcoming counter-cultural tugboat, placidly sailing against the prevailing tides. They've emerged from their hiatus as potent a live band as could be hoped for. Given the evident joy all five members exude by the end, it's quite possible that there might still be one shining chapter left to be written in their free-wheeling story.