The Fall are the most reliable band in the world, but also the most unpredictable. Musically, you can count on the band sounding pretty much the same as it did the last time you saw them, be it months ago or decades. But what keeps drawing fans back, year after year, is not reliability, it's the raw edge of uncertainty, that rarest of rock'n'roll commodities, which seems to fill a need in our increasingly ordered, commodified lives. And no frontman, not even Iggy Pop, has made as much a virtue of uncertainty as Mark E Smith.
Which may be why, enjoyable as it was, tonight's gig in the indie heartland of Camden lacked a certain something. When one has feasted upon reports of onstage punch-ups, spur-of-the-moment band sackings and general excessive bloody-mindedness, it's slightly disappointing to be denied such soap-opera shenanigans. It's something of a rod for The Fall's own back: unlike other acts, they can't get away with simply being a damn good band.
And they are certainly that. Bass, drums and guitar lock into a series of rolling, grinding rockabilly/Krautrock grooves, while Elena Poulou draws waves of white noise from a synthesiser stage right, giving the band something of the depth and texture of Pere Ubu. Apart from the drummer, who's a blur of propulsion throughout, none of the band moves at all, remaining impassively statuesque against a bright orange backdrop scattered with Smithic slogans like "X-Legged Approach" and "Stick With Daddy-O". It's as if they know that if they wander too far from their gear, their singer will start mucking about with it.
Not that it stops him. Smith epitomises the old saw about the devil and idle hands, and whenever he's not fully occupied in mumbling declamation, he wanders around like a kid in search of desultory mischief, turning up an amp here, altering a setting there, and at the conclusion of one encore, dumping his own mic through the hole meant for the bass drum mic. At one point, he hands his mic to the audience and invites their contributions, a brief spurt of blurts. He must, you imagine, be a nightmare to mix.
But when it works, no other band generates quite the fizzing momentum of The Fall. Tonight's set draws largely on the current album, Your Future Our Clutter, a typical mix of trenchant stomp-beats ("Bury" and "OFYC"), discordant drone-rock ("Chino"), urgent galloping grooves ("Cowboy George") and almost romantically meandering lilts ("Weather Report 2"), spiced with old reliables like the renegade juicer rockabilly classic "White Lightning". During another song (was it "New Puritan"?), Smith did a brilliantly accurate impression of a drunk, his vocal slipping from blithe, carefree haziness to snarling anger within seconds, whilst retailing a long story about fretful interaction with some corporate authority.
Whatever its title, it contained the evening's best line, a typically Smithic aside of sullen but unbowed frustration: "Adding to the nuisance value, it cost me one pound thirty to tell them what I thought of them". You don't find that level of bitter, blue-collar detail in a Bono or Chris Martin lyric, which may be why, for all their vaunting, cod-heroic populism, they will never truly be as much a man of the people as Mark E Smith.