"We were the bee's knees," Mark Morriss sighs with mock-nostalgia. "We were on Top of the Pops. Eight years ago. Beat that – you can't." His band The Bluetones were regular visitors to the show in their mid-1990s pomp, with a number one album, Expecting to Fly, and more nagging hits than you might remember. Seen as part of Britpop's second division, soon regarded as somehow unhip by NME, when fashion moved on, a small army of passionate fans stayed with them. The west Londoners have been quietly filling the vicinity's Shepherd's Bush Empire every year on tours far under the radar, the band that refused to die. Except now they have. And this final show proves the quiet excellence the rest of us have been missing.
Mark Morriss was always a little odder than he looked, straight-backed and buttoned-up, older than his years. "Cut Some Rug" shows how out of phase his band really were with Britpop, with its mention of "the blitzkrieg and the doodlebug", and acknowledgement that "it's hard to have responsibilities" – an adult riposte to Oasis's "Cigarettes and Alcohol". But Morriss adopts an aggressive, insinuating whisper when he insists on dancing his cares away in a tight-limbed mod strut, as the band play exultant R'n'B.
"Tiger Lily" sounds louchely erotic, but its couple only talk till dawn. Even "Sleazy Bed Track" is a depressive's torch song, dance here a distraction when the pills wear off. Their 1995 breakthrough, "Bluetonic", declares "all my hope is gone", Morriss unable to say when life curdled. "Slight Return", a number two hit the next year, warns "don't go hoping for a miracle/ all this will fade away", and is about a son or lover's fleeting reappearance. Both songs, like all The Bluetones' best, are still defiant with longing, enshrined in finely crafted choruses.
The classic jangling indie of "Slight Return" is matched by psychedelic phasing elsewhere, and a few country songs. But it's with "If...", a young man's account of a songwriter's hard work and glorious possibilities, that the packed crowd really start to surge and heave, a last glimpse of pop ecstasy. The Bluetones leave quietly, disciplined and dignified to the end. Sometimes, you don't miss them till they're gone.