I like Shed Seven, they are one of my favourite Britpop bands. However I need to challenge their grasp of geography on a UK tour when the closest that they get to my native South West is... Birmingham. Yes, a 300 mile, 5 hour round trip but one that I knew would be worth it.
Setting off in plenty of time we arrive in Birmingham with time for a couple of pints and some fast food before heading over to the O2 Academy. Timed to perfection we were there with 5 minutes to spare before the support act, Mark Morriss, takes to the stage. Shed Seven clearly know their audience as the last time I had seen them (2 years ago at the same venue) Chris Helme, ex-The Seahorses, had been the support. So with The Bluetones' extensive back catalogue, 2 solo albums and a new one soon to be released Mark was the perfect opening act.
We got to the front of the queue. They scanned the tickets but the machine was having none of it. The security guard ushered us in the direction of a kiosk where a guy looked at the ticket closely before announcing in a thick Brummy accent that I was at the wrong venue. The ticket clearly said the Birmingham Institute but I had somehow just assumed that they'd be at the same place I saw them last time. Muppet.
Google maps came to the rescue and soon we were hot-footing it across Brum, dodging the early evening Christmas parties and a Santa themed hen night. The Institute is a great venue; smaller than the O2 Academy but with a bit of character and two balconies. And it was rammed. The show was a sell out and already it was hot and heaving. Mark Morriss was on stage and as we arrived he announced "You might know this song, it's called Slight Return" before leading the crowd in a sing-along of his biggest hit. He then played his new single This Is The Lie (And That's The Truth) to a more muted response, perhaps too gentle a song for an audience that already seemed up for a night out. Just when we thought he'd finished he started singing Hello, the Lionel Ritchie song! I had to smile when the guy stood in front of me turned to his mate and said "I didn't know he wrote this one". When people started singing along to Hello Mark brought it to a close announcing that it was just a test to see what the crowd would sing along to. And then with a smile and a wave he was gone. A shame because I was looking forward to seeing his set and hearing some of his new material, although it probably wasn't the ideal setting for that.
I caught up with Mark a little later. We'd spoken previously as he was due to be a guest on our Phonic show earlier this year (which got cancelled at the last minute due to a cock-up on my part) and he gave me a copy of his new EP. I played a track on my show the following day, which I actually prefer to the single. We had a brief chat and agreed to meet up in the new year in advance of his album coming out for a full interview.
A quick trip to the bar and then we worked our way down to the front to wait for theShed. They took to the stage and as the opening bars of Getting Better belted out the crowd went for it and partied like its 1996. They were moshing before Rick Witter even started to sing, and that song has a short introduction! The gig was barely a minute old before Rick was into the crowd, proffering the mic to the bouncing masses who bellowed the chorus tunelessly but gloriously. (Apart from the guy who didn't know the words and got called out for it after the song). It was clear that this gig, like the ones that preceded it on this tour, was more of a celebration than anything, a re-gathering of the clan.
The Shed have aged well and Witter in particular is the same recognisable figure, all arms and legs, constantly on the move. Paul Banks is as cool as ever. Drummer Alan Leach is more svelte these days and at this gig his finale of somersaulting over his unconventional drum kit saw him land on his feet, when I saw them in 2011 he landed very unceremoniously on his arse. The over-riding impression is that they still look and feel like a unit. The playing is tight but most of all they look like a bunch of mates having a whole load of fun. Sometimes you get the impression that they can't quite believe that all these years since their commercial peak they can still pack out a sizable venue and have guys moshing all the way through. Admittedly, the guys moshing are a bit older now and the regular insertion of slower songs is much appreciated if only to get our breath back! At one point Rick asks those 'upstairs' if they'd rather be down the front but I think that everyone was exactly where they wanted to be, not least the band.
Shed Seven were never the biggest band in Britpop and didn't make it into the premier league of Oasis, Blur, Suede or Pulp. They didn't get the critical acclaim of their peers either, for reasons that I have never quite understood. However their record speaks for itself. After the debut single Mark in 1994 (one of my favourite songs of theirs, which they played tonight) they racked up an incredible fifteen successive UK Top 40 singles over a 9 year period that spanned 4 albums. Speakeasy, Ocean Pie, Bully Boy, She Left Me On Friday, Disco Down; They ran through most of the singles tonight and the crowd sang along throughout the gig, it was a communal affair. The inclusion of the odd album track decreased the levels of recognition but always held the attention. And whist the guys down at the front bounced and moshed their way through the full set, the couples in the balconies swayed and sang with just as much gusto. They finished their 90 minute set with Going For Gold before returning for an encore that concluded with Goodbye from 1998's Let It Ride and, of course, Chasing Rainbows. The chorus seemed to be repeated almost endlessly, as if the band didn't want to leave the stage and the crowd didn't want to let them. When the music finally stopped and the lights came up, the crowd filed away still singing Chasing Rainbows out into the cold Birmingham night.
In one sense Shed Seven are quite a curious band. Frozen in time they re-animate each December in full-on rock star mode, play sold out shows around the UK and then, as Christmas approaches they wave goodbye, say "see you next year" and disappear. The fans would love to hear some new material but perhaps that is to miss the point. Shed Seven and their audience are bound together by a love of the songs they made and the time that they made them. Is it nostalgia? Yes of course but that tag should not detract from the experience. For a couple of hours we are not fortysomethings but twentysomethings again, just like them. Whatever their day jobs, every December they are rock stars once more and that seems to sustain them through the remaining 11 months. For those of us in the crowd it is exactly the same and I'm looking forward to next December already.