Review: The The – Mandela Hall, Belfast
This is a strange one; obviously seeing The The back on the road and performing again after a 17 year break was unexpected, and the causes of Matt Johnson’s decision to quit touring and recording are, by now, pretty well known. Significant bereavements bookmark the story of Matt Johnson and The The; the death of Johnson’s younger brother Eugene was the catalyst for his decision to back away from the music scene in the late 80’s. During his lengthy hiatus, Johnson worked on film soundtracks and scoring documentaries, as well as pursuing photography and art.
The death of another brother Andrew in 2016 seems to have sown the seeds for his current revival and Johnson’s journey back to writing, recording and performing is, in part, documented in the 2017 film, The Inertia Variations. And then, with the cruelest of ironies, his father passed away only a few dates into the current tour.
The The were a distinctive sound in the 1980’s, with a cutting and at times vitriolic edge to both their music and lyrics; think of The Beat(en) Generation or This is the Day and you have choruses you can sing along to but words which were dark and politically charged. Through the 80’s and early 90’s Johnson was the only permanent feature in the band, using a changing roster of musicians, including Jools Holland, Neneh Cherry, Johnny Marr and even Sinead O’Connor as a guest vocalist on the Mind Bomb album in 1988. Johnson wanted the line-up for the 2018 tour to be a representation of his music to date, so chose one member from each of his 3 world tours, and a new member for the current tour – DC Collard (keyboards), James Eller (bass), Earl Halvin (drums), and Barrie Cadogan (lead guitar).
There are plenty of people in the crowd who look like they remember at least some of the 1980’s and they are divided between the die-hard, life-long The The fans and those who only know the big hits. The show starts at 9pm on the dot and kicks off with the rhythmical and other-wordly Globaleyes which Johnson sings flanked by a battery of microphones.
Johnson cuts a somewhat socially awkward figure on stage, although it’s an awkwardness polished by years of touring and performing. Heartland stands out early in the set and is well-received by the audience. You can’t fail but make the connection between the lyrics of this, the Trump administration, and Britain’s relationship with the USA.
The Beat(en) Generation is delivered in a very slow and deliberate way, well-removed from it’s pop origins and almost betters the original. It begins to strike me that this is a very mature and well-conceived show that takes old material and brings it into the present with relevance and poignancy in places. Armageddon Days is astounding, mimicking the intro to Ballroom Blitz by Sweet but then instead of name-checking the band Johnson asks “are you ready Jesus – are you ready Mohammed?” to subvert the entire direction into a critique of organised religion in the 21st century.
There are a couple of slower numbers mid-way into the set and Johnson makes a point of asking the audience to put their phones away (hooray for that). This is the Night is set out as a slow waltz with jaunty piano backing, growling, bluesy vocals and this is followed by This is the Day.
We get a note-perfect guitar intro that leads into a version that is darker than I remember but that doesn’t stop the crowd joining in. There’s some minimalist synth/electro pop on a stripped down version of Soul Catcher and the slow and serious Bugle Boy which unfortunately (for me)was killed by the noise of the crowd.
Heading towards the end of the show, we get the pitch perfect pop of Slow Emotion Replay before the band slide out of the pulsating drum and guitar arpeggios of Like A Sun Rising and straight into a raucous and noisy take on Infected which goes down a storm.
Returning for the encore on his own, Johnson leads the crowd in the spoken-word introduction to True Happiness as if it were a prayer, before performing this as a solo acoustic number. The band come back for Uncertain Smile, and this is classic 1980’s pop; think Rattlesnakes-era Lloyd Cole and you’d maybe get close. Collard leaves his station at the keyboard long enough to remove the guitar slide from Barrie Cadogan’s hands and play a few notes before returning to the keys and absolutely letting rip with a huge piano solo. The show ends on Lonely Planet with it’s challenging refrain of “If you can’t change the world, change yourself.”
There are plenty of bands from 20 – 30 years ago who are still touring and still performing; I know because I’ve seen a fair few of them and haven’t been that impressed. The The’s current tour is something different and in my experience pretty special. Johnson’s lyrics continue to have a huge relevance today, whether he’s singing about the gentrification of London, the threats posed by religion, or the dangers of right wing politics.
The band are incredibly tight, but I get the impression that Johnson is a man who places a great deal of importance on rehearsal. Overall it’s a show that will appeal more to the long-term fans, but there are enough of the hits to keep everyone happy.
Maybe we should be grateful that the soon-to-close Mandela Hall offered us a chance to see this show in a more intimate setting than other venues on the tour, and for me, this was a mighty fine way to say good bye to a favourite venue.