Rarely do established musicians’ side projects take off quite like Mike Rutherford’s. As a founding member of Genesis, the English guitarist’s venture with Mike + the Mechanics produced a fantastic catalogue of pop rock albums and even a US no. 1 single with ‘The Living Years’ in 1988. However, despite a hiatus and drastic lineup changes, the now six-piece are back on the road with their Word of Mouth Tour, and Belfast’s Mandela Hall is the first stop on their UK and Ireland leg.
The night’s support comes in the form of Ben McKelvey, a confident young lad who emanates genuine excitement to be warming up the crowd for such legends. Armed with simply an acoustic guitar and flanked by his so-called ‘boxman’ Marc (who drums with his hands on the box he sits on), he introduces his first song ‘Work for Free’, dedicated to the headliners. The pair plays vigorously and with a makeshift style, recalling Jake Bugg. McKelvey’s down to earth humour makes the crowd warm to him, and his very listenable brand of folk rock – notably on ‘Sunday’ and ‘Curse of the Town’ (also the name of his latest EP which drops on 31st March) – marries laddish bluster and husky vocals with escapist lyrics. As the sweat glistens on his forehead from such energetic playing under the stage lights, he half-jokes about flogging his merch for tour bus money seeing as he missed his first ferry over from England. He finishes declaring that he has “one more song, but thirty-one more gigs” and assures us that Marc will be fine, even if he can’t feel his hands.
After the Mechanics’ crew do a final soundcheck above the natter, the room is filled with the sextet’s unmistakable eighties sound, which succeeds where many of their contemporaries fail: in being nostalgic without being cheesy. Rutherford himself, the band’s namesake, is tall and subdued in his dark glasses, but struggles to hide the smile on his face as the set begins. Joint frontmen Tim Howar and Andrew Roachford replace the late Paul Young on singing duties, and as ‘Another Cup of Coffee’ crops up early in the set, it’s clear that their interplay does the role complete justice. The Mechanics’ sound is streamlined and upbeat, switching between electric and acoustic guitars and combining drums and keyboards (with lead vocal, as Roachford often does), to create danceable pop rock.
As the group’s first time in Belfast in many years, fans are promised never-before-heard material from their upcoming album Let Me Fly. With the band clad almost entirely in jeans and blazers, Howar backs up his suave dance moves with wonderful vocal tone, clapping and bouncing to the infectious chorus of ‘Silent Running’. Under the blue lights, brilliant drumming merges with Rutherford’s power chords in an irresistibly fun performance. Having two frontmen creates incredible chemistry onstage, each man emphasising a different element of the Mechanics’ sound, from anthemic power pop to a more moving soulfulness. The sheer showmanship between the pair is outstanding as Howar often works the microphone stand or sings passionately on his knees. New tracks ‘The Best is Yet to Come’ and ‘Don’t Know What Came Over Me’ go down a treat and hint at a rockier, more hedonistic edge.
Thrown into the mix are some Genesis classics including ‘Land of Confusion’ and ‘I Can’t Dance’, the latter of which is performed with only Howar and Rutherford centre stage. Striking a perfect balance between old and new material, gorgeous unplugged numbers complement soaring ballads like ‘Beggar on a Beach of Gold’, demonstrating Rutherford’s knack for writing a pop song with a hint of poignancy. The musical powerhouse that is Roachford, who enjoyed a solo career himself, launches into his 1989 hit ‘Cuddly Toy’. Boasting unparalleled crowd interaction, he twirls the microphone lead as he dances to the track’s spectacular riff, complete with incredible extended outro.
Not to be outdone, Howar commands mass singalongs on ‘All I Need is a Miracle’, followed by Roachford’s mighty rendition of ‘The Living Years’, the band’s iconic track accompanied by chiming synths and an almost choral quality. It’s a powerful encore: “I [still] can’t believe I’m on stage when that’s playing,” Howar reveals to the swaying audience. A lingering ‘Word of Mouth’ ends tonight’s proceedings from an insanely talented bunch of musicians. For the devotee and casual fan alike, Mike + the Mechanics put on one hell of a show and kick off the first night of their tour in phenomenal style. The Mechanics are one gig not to be missed.