Wire at Hare and HoundsSupport: Graham Duff
January 29, 2020 at Hare and Hounds
Promoter: This Is TMRW
Wire have been many things in their remarkable 44 years as a band; influential, contrarian, modernist, intellectual, angular, inventive, minimal, legendary, and confounding among them. They’re starting this year with a masterful new album Mind Hive, and a run of live dates in quite small venues. I expected them to play a decent chunk of the new album, which they do, and the rest of the set to be drawn from the last few with little concession made to either showbiz or nostalgia. Wire rarely give you quite what you expect and yet the one thing I really never anticipated was for them to make me emotional. Let the confounding commence. . .
A man is on stage giving a reading about Cliff Richard. He has the shaved head and thin dark goatee of an evil movie mastermind, or at very least a Satanist. He relates a 70s charity concert during which Cliff disdained to perform any of his numerous pop hits favouring instead a set of pallid dirges about Jesus. There accompanying his delighted sister, our young narrator’s thin sliver of interest is thus extinguished. This is Graham Duff. He’s reading from his new book Foreground Music: a life in fifteen gigs. It was his first gig but not, it turns out, his last experience with either mystifying national institutions or performers not giving their audience what they want.
We might make a brief pause here to consider the literary device of foreshadowing. It is uncomfortable if not superfluous to be reviewing a gig where a man reads from a book of his own gig reviews. Duff talks up the special magic of the live experience, is frank about the weirdness of book-readings in this context, and does his best not to outstay his welcome. I could pretend I missed it, but I’m not a liar or a coward. Those of a frail constitution might skip a paragraph or else repair to the bar and grumble. I would remind you that you are reading a Wire review though, don’t fear the meta.
Graham Duff is best known to me as the writer of the wonderful BBC comedy Ideal. A surreal sitcom starring Johnny Vegas as a low-level weed dealer whose longed for peace is continuously shattered by a circle of demanding and unstable acquaintances. If you’re unfamiliar, I recommend it to you in the strongest of terms. He reads excerpts on a Joy Division gig in Bury descending into a riot and his disappointment in The Velvet Underground at Glastonbury. Audiences and expectations. He also recounts getting The Fall’s Mark E Smith to play God in a cameo on Ideal. When M.E.S. died a couple of years ago, it caused Wire’s Colin Newman to take stock. The Fall’s long running, forward facing, defiant career was always the most obvious parallel with Wire’s. Newman wasn’t sure anyone would take up their story in the same way. This resulted in the career spanning People In a Film which, just before he leaves the stage, Duff mentions he is making with the band. Of course. He also wrote essays for the deluxe versions of Silver/Lead and the reissues of the first three albums. Belatedly, it clicks into place.
As bands only half their age play embarrassing retro tours of their “hits”, Wire glide on, seemingly effortless, making elegant new music that flows from their older work but is neither repetitive or substandard. Long known for not playing older material, it’s a welcome if disorienting surprise when ‘A Question of Degree’ turns up four songs in like an old friend. Still, the first half hour or so is something of an uphill struggle. While the crowd is reverent to the point of awkward silence, it’s clear there are sound problems, especially on stage. Overall it’s a little uneven. ‘Primed and Ready’ actually sounds raw and brilliant from where I’m standing but it’s obvious the band are not happy. A technical halt is called. Adjustments are made, glitches banished, a troublesome mic swapped. In a comfortable shirt, glasses and a worn baseball cap with hair tied in a short pony tail, Newman looks like a kindly elderly neighbour we’ve distracted from working in his garden to ask for his help. Now that we can all hear him properly, everyone relaxes. Then they play ‘Ex Lion Tamer’ – it is fantastic.
In an unexpected move it’s now apparent the set splits between the new record and 70’s and 80’s materia,l although naturally not the most obvious of choices. They even play stuff off Manscape, the album I’ve always found most difficult, and which steered them toward their second hiatus. ‘German Shepherds’ and ‘It’s a Boy’ are particularly great. Graham Lewis steps up for new gem ‘Oklahoma’. but slightly swallows its hilarious opening yell. In shades, a dapper red tie and dark shirt, he still has that edge of menace – more retired underworld enforcer than pan European aesthete. Closing with ‘Hung’, they draw it out to greater lengths and looser layers of texture before taking off their guitars and acknowledging our applause.
As covered in previous dispatches from Birmingham’s foremost venue, once onstage at the Hare & Hounds, performers are effectively trapped in the corner of the room by the crowd, particularly when they’re as packed in as tonight. This architectural idiosyncrasy has the pleasing side effect of exposing the rock ritual of the encore for the shallow folly it is. Wire, of course, are exactly the sort of terse iconoclasts you’d expect to deconstruct or dispense with the whole silly process, and yet tonight, they find themselves momentarily embarrassed by just this turn of events.
They shuffle about a bit. Newman admits, with a wry smile, that this is the bit where they usually leave while we shout and applaud. Lewis exhorts us to shout a lot more. We oblige and make noise; they reassemble and Newman returns to the mic. “I’ll just preface this by saying that we’ve only played this live about four times, but I think you’ll know it!” And then they play ‘Outdoor Miner’. OUTDOOR MINER! So brief and perfect, such a beautiful song. It’s so completely unexpected that I feel myself start to well up. It’s a gorgeous moment, the unique magic of the live experience. As their parting shot would have it, ‘A Touching Display’. They always were a step ahead and to the side, in a class entirely of their own devising. Incredible that, even this far into their career, they aren’t just still good, but that they can still surprise us.