LIVE: Embrace – Limelight, Belfast

E4 E5 E6 E8 E10 E11On the last night of their comeback tour Belfast throws it’s arms around the much-maligned indie plodders and “everything is ok!”.

Many a critic has had fun sniping at Embrace over the years but as a wiser man than I once said: “It takes strength to be gentle and kind”. These men have made a decent career out of touring and playing music all over the world where gazillions have failed and pitifully flailed back into their humdrum lives of obscurity (and writing music reviews).

Despite achieving spikes of chart success, Embrace were always something of a dowdy Huddersfield to Oasis’ mad-for-it Manchester. Dogged by jeers of ‘flat singing’, ‘boring tunes’ and latterly as ‘Coldplay copyists’, Embrace have seemingly persevered through some dark nights of the soul and by their own admission have come full-circle. A sea-change in the dynamics of their writing process has resulted in their most recent album (2014’s ‘Embrace’) being an increasingly collaborative effort that sees them reaching for authentic but hardly uncharted ground.

This evening’s interaction commenced with Danny McNamara lifting a freshly harvested pint of ‘The Black Stuff’ to his lips and warmly toasting the crowd with a big cheesy grin and a creamy moustache – clearly relishing the last date of the tour – a favourable start to the set and a gesture that aptly set the tone for the show to come. Even though Embrace are generally more of a limp handshake than a pumping fist they do manage to convey a genuine warmth and a humble affability that it is hard not to like – and they’ve got some songs.

What they do best is epic ballad-inflected festival sing-along tunes like “Gravity” (penned by Chris Martin) with it’s plaintive verses and uplifting chorus, or the britpop-by-numbers of “All the Good Good People” the trouble is they apply the same formula too often and without enough variety of pace to ever really lift the set into the stratosphere. What saves them is the audience’s willingness to meet them half-way and give them the benefit of the doubt – good good people indeed.

The fresher material on display has a more textured electronic edge that breathes life into the set but still (predictably) carries the crowd into the familiar epic ploddy clap-clap singalongathon mode: all good clean fun. Some of the more rabid fans I spoke to had travelled from England to see the show and the front two rows (mainly ladies) were all sporting tour t-shirts and many had band logos scrawled stalkerishly on their faces. Quite a few looked suspiciously like they might have been impressionable students during the late 90s and were now unself-consciously reliving their goldenyears – and why the hell not?

During the encore Richard McNamara (looking rather Billy Bragg) burst into a pretty good solo rendition of U2’s “Beautiful Day” that seemed to genuinely take the rest of the band by surprise and resulted in a joyous explosion of singing from both the audience and musicians. The band and crowd were entwined this evening in creating a really positive experience – in a way that the best bands don’t actually need – because they’re gonna blow you away regardless. Embrace literally reached out to the audience from the beginning to make it a communal experience, asking for hands, clapping, cajoling and conducting the compliant crowd into singing together as one, almost
like they needed us – and who doesn’t need to be needed?

Hard hearts can be softened by an unexpected feeling of inclusion and the genuine warmth created by a band that earnestly acknowledges “Look, we know we’re not the best band in the world, but we’re still here, and we’re not giving up!”. No doubt they will continue to try and win over the critics but the secret of their success – whether they know it or not – clearly lies in their ability to make a human connection with the less judgemental every man (and woman) on the ground, not in winning the approval of snide NME brats. Paul Evans, GiggingNI.com