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London Camden Centre
CRAFTY, DEFINITELY crafty. Mark Morriss dips, swerves, does his jinking little limp-wristed shadow-boxing dance, eyeballs the crowd with arch cool and steps up to the mic. He knows it's his big moment. He knows it's his first major London show, his first inscrutable, arms-folded 'impress-me' crowd. His time has come and, as his guitarist flashes out the riff, he opens his mouth...
Not that you'd notice, mind. Tonight is one of those gigs of great expectations and greater let-downs. We are blessed with a venue that has all the atmosphere and - more importantly - the sound quality of an underground car park.
Hence The Bluetones - theoretically so delicate, so anthemic, so profoundly sussed - have all the resonance of an echoing wet fart. And when Mark sings, his voice carries through this dilapidated town hall with as much power as if it were being broadcast on a knackered radio from the dressing room.
Disappointing? Totally, totally. Because we so desperately want The Bluetones to succeed, to seize the moment, to genuinely make a difference. While the leaders of this lucrative, if faintly ridiculous, Britpop phenomenon go from strength to strength - Blur, obviously, Pulp, too - the vast array of contenders bubbling under are increasingly being exposed as numbingly conservative; indie-by-numbers makeweights with a nice line in salacious quotes and a fierce ambition.
The Bluetones, meanwhile, could -no can -be better than that. There's a distinct style here, a kind of quirky swagger that's a lot more endearing than mere brickie bravado. It's in the way they find a lovely, gripping melody and then twist away from it coyly, the way their songs have a curious, jerky grace, the way Mark recalls an Ian Brown with all his faculties intact and Adam Devlin plays lush, ornate guitar lines, the latest - but nonetheless deserving - in a long line of new Johnny Marrs.
Sadly, though, most of these considerable tricks are pretty hard to pick out tonight. It's hard to slag off a band purely on the grounds of something so tedious and technical as bloody sound quality, but really, The Bluetones could be playing the best gig of their lives up there and nobody down here would know it .
What is clear is that some of their more indolent, wan jangling - the stuff that provoked early and rather worrying Housemartins comparisons - has been expunged. In its place is grandiose, lavish riffing that suggests Adam Devlin has progressed from 'This Charming Man' to 'Shoplifters Of The World Unite' in the space of about four months.
So, while the sneaky, gossamer likes of 'Carn't Be Trusted' are present and correct they now share set-space with sprawling, psychedelic epics like 'Talking To Clary', which changes tack about 14 times, comes on like Felt playing Led Zeppelin, is a bit too ambitious but might be fairly impressive in better circumstances.
A couple of other new songs are definitely too ambitious for their own good, twitching so restlessly they're bent completely out of shape, and the appearance of a harmonica is, frankly, a bit unnecessary.
Still, somewhere in the murk, there are half-a-dozen tunes which can stand proud on a mountain-top and piss on the likes of Cast, Menswear, Sleeper, Fluffy and the Massed Bands Of Camden Itinerants wandering through the valley below.
'Bluetonic', of course, is the highlight; a nagging statement of intent and content, a song whose ineffable sunniness cannot be diminished even by the record company releasing it just as autumn drifts in. By the end, though, you can't help leaving horribly frustrated, feeling that The Bluetones are - for tonight at least - thwarted, talented victims.
A night to forget, really...But then again: "When I am sad and weary/And all my hope is gone..."
Review by John Mulvey
Extracted from nme, 7th October 1995