Supergrass Apollo, Manchester; Brixton Academy, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Manchester is a disaster. There's no other way of putting it. A mishap? A misfortune? An accident? None of them portray the full enormity of the first night of the Supergrass tour. This is the band that dazzled everyone with an unforgettable Top 10 summer hit, "Alright", the video of which led to a Monkees-style offer of a television show from Steven Spielberg. Their recent single, "Richard III", an Iggy Pop-style stomp, breezed into the top three without any effort after a year's absence. And, of course, by the morning of the gig the majority of fans were ecstatic to find a new government.

Expectations were high and Supergrass simply failed to deliver. True, the four songs at the start set a standard that was hard to match in a gig which only recovered from the lull towards the end. By twists and turns the set seemed badly structured and lacklustre. The band appeared to be indulging in a dress rehearsal for the rest of the tour. Gaz Coombes, the singer and guitarist, stayed as far away from the audience as possible, in close communication with his guitar. At times, he may as well have been alone in his bedroom. This added weight to a theory being bandied about that Supergrass's sugary pop pill hides an indulgent muso interior. After all, this band in their twenties look like airbrushed fortysomething progressive rockers and, on the first night of the tour, the normally apparently natural tempo changes, key changes and guitar rock-outs became as obvious as Gaz Coombe's sideburns.

Fortunately, Gaz's vocal idiosyncrasies could still be relied on to lift the music. They are deployed sparingly but with devastating effect; a falsetto here, an urgent tensing of the vocals there but, best of all, a scream of "yeah" or "woah" perfectly placed to turn a good pop song into a great one.

Putting the failure of Supergrass down to first-night nerves is fine, except that first-night nerves are the prerogative of amateur dramatics societies and not of the band who are generally considered to have released the best album of the year so far. It wasn't that it was a bad gig, it's just that we expected so much more.

London, two weeks later, is amazing. There was an edge to the atmosphere of the Brixton Academy before they made the stage as whispered reports of the Manchester gig circulated. Supergrass opened with the same numbers. Again, there was huge momentum built at the start on the back of four of the fastest songs and we all waited for the dip immediately after. But it never came.

Supergrass's grip never slipped. The mood of the songs may have varied from the sheer carefree jollity of a foreshortened "Alright" to the melancholy of "She's So Loose", but Gaz kept his intimate conversations with his guitar and with the drummer to a minimum.

What two weeks previously appeared to be a badly thought-out set peaked in all the right places. Even the inclusion of obscure B-sides such as "Melanie Davis" and "Odd?" expand the dimensions of the sound. Meanwhile, the acoustic rendition of "It's Not Me" was the perfect antidote to the hi-jinks of "Caught by the Fuzz", the finest piece of 7-inch pop-punk- plastic since The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks". In Manchester, the bizarre human oompah of "Sometimes I Make You Sad" sounded as musically inadvisable as giving Ringo a song to sing. Two weeks later and it's become the perfect oddball interlude in the middle of the set.

The tempo and key changes are snuggly and unobtrusively back in place, each perfectly suiting the song. Meanwhile the horn section, Hornography, does not seem as obvious - or plain annoying - as before. They bring an extra depth to the songs on which they perform, particularly in the vicious stabs of "In it for the Money" and the drifting solo of "Going Out".

They still fail to include one of their best singles, "Mansize Rooster", but it's a slight criticism of an otherwise great comeback of a gig that has the energy of a debut rather than a final performance. And Gaz Coombes knows he's done it because, as the bass player carries on headbanging like a Status Quo fan, there's a moment during the encore at which he approaches the edge of the stage, looks into the audience and smiles a glorious smile.

Anthony Thornton