Photos by Sarah Dorman // Words by Jonathan Greer
Wire gigs in the past have often puzzled and teased the audience, so it feels strange to see them on stage in the Royal Festival Hall at the early hour of 7.30pm, essentially playing the role of special guests to the godfathers of garage-rock The Sonics.
It's still much more than a support slot though and when the crowd are filing into their seats a very Wire-sounding drone is already emanating from the atmospherically lit stage.
They soon make a strangely subdued entrance without a word to the audience and open with ‘Adapt’ from the current album. In fact that album dominates the set, though they cleverly weave a lot of old, and some rare, material around it. They have expanded their line-up so they are a four-piece again, the original members Colin Newman, Graham Lewis and Robert (Gotobed) Grey joined by guitarist Matt Simms from the band It Hugs Back.
The inclusion of ‘Ally In Exile’ from their difficult Document and Eyewitness period as the second song perhaps suggests that this won't be a straightforward set, although ‘Smash’ (from the new one) is the first real highlight and sets the tone for the rest of the set - raucous, almost overpowering guitars with an infectious tune at the heart of it. ‘Please Take’ and ‘Kidney Bingos’ are coupled together early on as a timely reminder that these guys know how' to craft a pop song. The only down side to tonight's show is that at times the vocals are lost in a slightly muddy PA mix, which does detract from the remarkable wordplay of ‘Kidney Bingos’.
‘Drill’ follows and is a burst of abrasive, unsettling noise, ‘Bad Worn Thing’ showcases Lewis's vocals and lyrics, whilst the manic minute-long ‘Another the Letter’ (from 1978's Chairs Missing) is the first from their punk era and draws a great reception from the audience. After the reflective Clay they deliver more crowd pleasers with a great version of ‘Map Ref 41 Degrees N 93’ and a fantastically edgy ‘Two People in a Room’, before ending their main set with a stunning performance of ‘Red Barked Trees’. It's impressive that after so many years and such a strong back catalogue to call on, they can close their set with a new song as good as that.
However, the biggest surprise of all comes when they return for their encore and Colin Newman says "we are going to try something that I don't think we've ever done before" then they launch into ‘Outdoor Miner’, arguably one of their best known songs, and certainly the most covered of their catalogue. Of course it's great, but that's typical Wire, leaving it this long to give that to their audience!
A rarity in the shape of the ‘Spare One’ follows and segues into ‘Pink Flag’ in a fantastic wall of fuzz and feedback, which continues for several minutes after the song has reached its end.
All over by 8.40 and well received by a polite, all-seated audience, this was the best Wire gig I've seen.
"This band were garage rock before the Kinks even had a car", says host Ray Davies as he welcomes The Sonics to the stage, reminiscing about the time the Kinks played with them in Seattle and Spokane in the mid 60s.
In terms of average age I think they may be the oldest band I have ever seen. Whilst this isn't exactly their original line-up - two of them are unable to tour - they crank it up from the start and perform with an energy that belies their age. Rock n roll standards such as ‘Money’, ‘Keep a knockin'’, ‘Lucille’ and of course ‘Louie Louie’ are peppered throughout the set, although it's their own old faves like ‘Dirty Robber’ and ‘Have Love Will Travel’ that the audience really lap up.
There is always a slight sense of dread when a band whose peak was so long ago announces that they are going to play some new songs, but it was a pleasant surprise that whilst ‘Vampire Kiss’ and ‘Bad Attitude’ from the new album don't quite recapture the original sense of menace of their earlier darker material, they don't sound out of place and actually sit pretty well with their classics.
There is the occasional corny moment. They announce a song called ‘Cheap Shades’ and keyboard player Gerry Roslie conveniently pops a pair of sunglasses on, but it's all part of the overall showbiz I guess!
Best of all - and I suspect the songs that have had the most influence on those acts such as the Fall, The Cramps, etc - are the abrasive early songs like ‘Strychnine’, ‘Psycho’ and the final encore ‘The Witch’. ‘Strychnine’ in particular marks the point where the audience finally break free from the stuffiness of the Royal Festival Hall and start to dance. I hesitate to use the word moshpit but by the end there were a lot of people out of their seats and dancing frantically near the front of the hall, plastic glasses flying and a standing ovation for the godfathers of garage rock.