Happy Mondays, Academy, Glasgow
An untypically joyful and triumphant return
Wednesday 07 January 2009
The past is getting closer all the time, as – just like a packaged nostalgia bill of old beat-combos or glam-rock groups – this Fac 51 Hacienda tour has reunited leading lights of the late Eighties Madchester scene such as 808 State and New Order's Peter Hook for one more hoorah. The branding was better for this show, of course, and the crowd a lot more rowdy, but it essentially preached to a converted audience whose intention was no more than to relive the good old days of their youth.
It's ironic, then, that while a number of their original fans are actually old enough to be grandparents, headliners the Happy Mondays have rediscovered a lot of the sense of irreverent fun which made them so appealing to their audience's younger selves, and which threatened to vanish amid a wave of ever more grim drug-related escapades, cheap television appearances (notably dancer Mark "Bez" Berry's turn on 2005's Celebrity Big Brother) and half-baked, Inland Revenue/HMRC-inspired re-formations over the past decade. At least this time, they come equipped with material from last year's Uncle Dysfunktional album to add a new gloss to proceedings.
Most surprising of all, though, is the presentably healthy condition of the group's lead singer, Shaun Ryder, one of the few remaining original members alongside "vibesman" Bez and drummer Gary Whelan. For so long, Ryder was at the very heart of almost every episode of drug-induced foolishness which followed the Mondays, and in latter years was cutting a figure that was Phil Mitchellesque in its out-of-shape lamentableness. Yet here he looked trim, at least relatively, and mobile.
On the other hand, Bez – Laurel to Ryder's Hardy – has always cut a kind of ghostly, hollow-eyed Peter Pan figure. His tracksuit top and three-quarter-length combat trousers can't quite hide how skinny he is, while his itchy-footed ability to turn, for example, the squalling, acid-tinged guitar figures at the start of "Loose Fit" into a martial, bandy-limbed aerobics workout is undiminished. Throughout, he displays the physical appearance and movement of a man who needs the bathroom trying to start a fight at a bus stop. This is, of course, the dancing style which enthralled the rave generation.
Powerfully voiced backing singer Julie Gordon and additional musicians Sonic Audio are just young and reverential enough to the Mondays' legacy to provide spirited and accurate versions of a bunch of the group's classics, from the opening "Rave On" to "Hallelujah", "WFL" and "Kinky Afro". Ryder and Bez's nominally popular other group of the mid-Nineties is also not forgotten, as Black Grape's "Reverend Black Grape" is trotted out for a faithfully performed turn.
The new fluency of the Mondays' backing also means that the Uncle Dysfunktional material, which they performed on, including "Dysfunktional Uncle", "Jellybean" and the more brooding "In the Blood", feel like capable additions to the group's live canon. Even the lamest baggy rip-off, though – which these are a good shade better than – would be elevated by Ryder's infectious gabbling and Bez's moon-man swagger. Sadly, it seems that no new material has been developed to a condition where it can be performed live, although the group's baying, bounding fans, still admirably spirited, seem happy enough with reasonably professional readings of the songs which soundtracked their youth and the chance to marvel at their idol's tarnished glory.
Ryder, Bez and Gordon play off each other spiritedly enough that this feels like a group effort, rather than a band carrying its leader, as might have been the case with Happy Mondays gigs of the past. The show is some sort of relic, but that it authentically feels like a slice of 1990 rather than entirely a cash-in is success enough.
But of course, a complete re-formation from Ryder would go against what made this band so great in the first place. "We've never done this one live," he barks lazily before recent track "Anti Warhole (On the Dancefloor)". "We usually can't be arsed with it, it's a bit too hard." Plus ça change, and all that.
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