The Fall, touring

Old misery guts and his monkeys go through the motions
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Reliably constrained by the local licensing regulations, the Norwich Waterfront - a two-storey edifice along the river Wensum - operates a strict 11pm-shutdown policy. This fact impresses itself upon the lads behind the mixing desk as early as 8.30pm. "If we tell him he's got to go on by 10," one of them darkly confides to the other, "he's just going to play up, isn't he?" "He" being The Fall's legendarily irascible front-man Mark E Smith, who, it seems safe to infer from this exchange, has the capacity to sabotage this evening's proceedings almost before they have begun.

Reliably constrained by the local licensing regulations, the Norwich Waterfront - a two-storey edifice along the river Wensum - operates a strict 11pm-shutdown policy. This fact impresses itself upon the lads behind the mixing desk as early as 8.30pm. "If we tell him he's got to go on by 10," one of them darkly confides to the other, "he's just going to play up, isn't he?" "He" being The Fall's legendarily irascible front-man Mark E Smith, who, it seems safe to infer from this exchange, has the capacity to sabotage this evening's proceedings almost before they have begun.

In the event it's 10.15, a good hour after warm-up John Cooper Clarke has shuffled amiably off, before Mark E and his somewhat fresher-faced satellites troop on stage. It may be that these cosseted ears have lost their resilience to sonic overkill, but The Fall these days are incredibly loud. A slight sussuration that whispers in my left ear for the first two or three numbers eventually declares itself as the snare drum. Bass lines, meanwhile, reduce themselves to a kind of gargantuan seismic shudder creeping up through the listener's chest. They are also, and in slight mitigation, incredibly tight, together and vocally focused. Rather than having to delve for floor-level lyric sheets (as at certain gigs in the early 2000s) Smith knows the words and is manifestly on the case.

It would be ungenerous, no doubt, to characterise a band that has gone through well-nigh 60 different supporting musicians in the 28 years of its existence as the Organ Grinder and his Monkeys; and yet Smith's dominance of the resulting hoe-down is faintly ominous. Of the five persons beneath the arc lights only our leader, roving distractedly between the three microphones, really moves; only the second Mrs Smith, on vestigial but resonant keyboards, shows the least sign of enthusiasm. As to the repertoire, old-time Fall classics are in short supply. They do "Quality Street", a rock-hard cover of the Move's "I Can Hear the Grass Grow" and a storming elephants-in-the-jungle version of "Theme from Sparta FC" off the 2003 Country on the Click album. A hastily breathed "Good-evening-we-are-The-Fall" and a complaint about a defective microphone are the solitary off-the-cuff remarks.

What kind of an audience is the world's greatest indie band now attracting? Tonight's age-range is wonderfully random: a Coke-swigging pre-teen brought along by his dad; stick-supported greybeards; knowing students. The house lights, undimmed for the two-number encore, reveal this diversity to dramatic effect. A middle-aged woman jives frenetically to "White Lightning", while a double of Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age writhes around in some sort of newfangled dance routine where you nod your head violently while remaining rooted to the spot. Having barked out "Hit the North", a Fall favourite, with monster keyboards replacing the original brass, Mark E departs in silence. Mute, respectful, but also slightly peeved by a demonstration that works out at 25p a minute (tickets are £14), the crowd debouches into the raw, East Anglian air.

The Fall: Concorde 2, Brighton (01273 673311), 3 April; Renfrew Ferry, Glasgow (0141 429 1010), 28 April; Lemon Tree, Aberdeen (01224 642230), 29 April; Liquid Room, Edinburgh (0131 225 2564), 30 April; The Forum, London NW5 (020 7344 0044), 20 May

Comments