Athlete's debut album, Vehicles and Animals, may always have been a rank outsider to win the 2003 Mercury Music Prize, particularly when set against such high-profile competition as Coldplay, Radiohead and the eventual winner, Dizzee Rascal.
Athlete's debut album, Vehicles and Animals, may always have been a rank outsider to win the 2003 Mercury Music Prize, particularly when set against such high-profile competition as Coldplay, Radiohead and the eventual winner, Dizzee Rascal. Yet with the follow-up, Tourist, due for release at the end of this month and a clearly staunch audience support for this tour, it seems they may at least be avoiding the wilderness that has swallowed up so many nominees before them.
Two years ago - shortly after their initial buzz had died down - it might have been easy to write the Deptford quartet off as paler imitations of their labelmates Coldplay and consign them to the "whatever happened to...?" file for future reference. In fact, they haven't beefed up their repertoire considerably since then; the two stand-out features being, as ever, the singer-guitarist Joel Pott's chiming, slightly effeminate vocal tones and Tim Wanstall's relentlessly cheerful keyboard sound.
Beneath it all, Pott, Carey Willetts, the bassist, and Stephen Roberts, the drummer, create music that's as polished as you might expect from people who have jobbed in bands for years, yet recognisably devised from the same equation that every one of their contemporaries uses. They're not as skyscraping or genuinely affecting as Coldplay at their best, but neither are they as formulaic as Keane - that's both a critical summation and an encapsulation of their mid-table status in the pantheon of sensitive young men with recording contracts.
But what such an ambivalent description can't explain is the overwhelmingly positive response Athlete received here from their sell-out crowd. It wasn't merely the Friday-night camaraderie of getting to go and see a band, nor was it kept in check until the customary end-of-set biggie. "Devotional" is one word that applied from start to finish, and the football terrace sing-alongs that resulted during established hits such as "El Salvador" and "You Got the Style" even seemed to rock Pott back on his heels.
At one point, he performed the song "Vehicles and Animals" acoustically on his own, yet had to give up and turn the mic on the bellowing crowd half-way through. Gig moments such as this are not common, and Athlete are just as rare a beast - the sort of band who could welcome hard-bitten cynics and sceptics to a show and send them home with grudging smiles of acceptance by the night's end.
Of course, no one will accuse them of being hugely innovative or original (excerpts from the new album such as "Wires" and "Twenty Four Hours" are resonant and pleasant but certainly more of the same). But then, you do hope that 2005 is the year they go on to establish themselves in their own right, beyond the perilous tag of "one-time Mercury nominee". On a cold and miserable Scotch night, they still succeeded in bringing genuinely warm smiles to the faces of their fans, and any band who clearly affects people so deserves to endure.
Tour continues 3 to 14 March ( www.athlete.mu)