Review: Biffy Clyro MTV Unplugged – Waterfront Hall, Belfast
Anyone within a ten mile radius of Waterfront Hall last night will be acutely aware of who was due to perform as the excited chants of ‘Biffy F***ing Clyro’ consistently rumbled from the venue and across Belfast. Visiting the city for the first time since playing Belfast Vital alongside Muse in August 2017, Biffy Clyro were back to deliver another sold out headline show – with a special twist. With support from alt-rock singer songwriter and Biffy pal Jamie Lenman, the Scottish trio had returned to our open arms for the second stop on their MTV Unplugged tour, stripping it back to deliver a strictly acoustic set on a stage positively adorned in ivy, fairylights and Simon Neil’s beauty.
Since 1989, MTV Unplugged has provided a stage for some of the biggest names in music to strip it back in favour of purely acoustic sets. Following in the footsteps of other MTV Unplugged participants such as Nirvana and Oasis, Biffy visited London’s Roundhouse during MTV Music Week last year to record entirely reversioned tracks from across their whole discography in front of a very lucky few. For those not lucky enough to be said few, the show was aired globally in May of this year and released the same day on digital, CD/DVD and vinyl/CD/DVD boxset, only to be followed by a tour with a stop at our very own doorstep.
Together since 1995 with their first album release in 2002 with Blackened Sky, the Scottish trio have an impressive discography under their belts, with four out of seven albums reaching top 5 in the UK Albums chart and Opposites (2013) getting them to UK number-one album status. Two decades have now passed since Biffy Clyro was born and since then the band have come a long way from the bonny wee lands of Kilmarnock, showcasing pure Scottish talent not just to dedicated fans but the mainstream audience as they dominate the charts with every release. As of 2016, in total, the band have spent 155 weeks in the top seventy-five of the UK Album Charts and a total of seventy-nine weeks in the UK Singles Charts, all the while bringing home a plethora of awards including NME Award for Best British Band not once, but twice (2013 and 2016).
There’s nothing to say for a band with such consistent success and longevity other than they just ‘get it’. Pure, heavy alt-rock goodness packed into album after album and showcased at truly explosive shows. Those long locks aint too bad in securing a fan (or thousands) either. It is Biffy’s token explosive and electrifying energy that makes the MTV Unplugged gig so special, stripping back the crashing instruments and heavier vocals to reveal incredibly poignant songs that deserve to be heard in this way. It was certainly a different vibe for the crowd, but one they were all ready for. Even the room set up left the crowd in awe, with spotlights splashing onto a stage littered with strategically placed straw that tickled the bottom of a tree standing tall in the middle.
Opening the show was English musician, illustrator and friend of our headliner’s Jamie Lenman. Formerly a member of British alt rock trio Reuben, Lenman dedicated his time to his work as an illustrator when they disbanded, only to return to music in 2013, reborn as a solo artist. Also under the strictly acoustic rule, Lenman commanded the stage armed simply with his guitar, playing songs from both albums Muscle Memory (2013) and Devolver (2017). What was lacking in instruments was more than made up for in charm and confidence, with Lenman commanding the whole room despite the unavoidable shifting and shuffling of a settling crowd. He created and set the tone of the whole evening perfectly, sharing stories and thoughts including his opinion on the Titanic Museum – a ‘f***ing rip off’, in case you were wondering.
Lenman’s personal ramblings flowed perfectly with his music, keeping the crowd hooked throughout. He played songs such as ‘Last Time‘, ‘Moving to Blackpool‘ as well as a cover of Madness’ ‘It Must Be Love.’ It should be noted that to play to a room of potential first-time listeners at an Unplugged gig leaves an artist particularly vulnerable, forbidding all the standard protection other instruments and leaving and acoustic guitar. Lenman was laid bare for all to see, and boy did he work it. Supporting the band on just the first two dates on the Unplugged tour, this was the last stop for Lenman but certainly not the end of the line. His charm and confidence on stage definitely made a lasting mark on the crowd and created an incredibly warm, welcoming and intimate vibe that remained the whole night, his descriptions of his relationship with Biffy making it all the more personal. Lenman certainly finished his set with a longer list of fans, left curious by what they will discover when there’s more than just an acoustic guitar involved.
As the crowd settled bells started to sound in the hallway and everyone frantically ran to their seat, pint in hand, ready to settle in and be amazed by the delicate musings of Biffy F***ing Clyro (said strictly in Scottish, obviously). Spotlights rose towards the ceiling as the trio walked on stage accompanied by two unfamilar faces there to play the piano and guitar. Frontman and all round absolute dream Simon Neil commanded a swivelling chair at the front of the stage covered in ivy, ivy that intertwines and entangles around the whole stage as their sound gently fills the room. From the outset Neil acknowledged that this is a different kind of gig, observing ‘it’s lovely to see you but it’s weird to see you sitting down.’
The stark contrast between what the crowd and band are used to experiencing together and this gig becomes a running joke throughout the night, with Neil noting how grown up we all are and dismissing shouts of ‘Biffy F***ing Clyro’ with ‘It’s Biffy Blooming Clyro tonight okay?’ The even opted to ditch their token toplessness for shirts for the fancy occasion, much to the dismay of literally everyone in the audience. Perhaps even more disappointing than the heavy presence of shirts however is Neil’s lack of hair, with a buzzcut in the place of what once was his delightfully jet black locks that were so adored. The band are lucky they all look so precious under the glow of fairylights and surrounded by leaves otherwise there would have been uproar. Tactical stage distraction, guys.
Opening with ‘The Captain‘ and going straight into ‘Biblical‘, the lighter sound makes no difference to the crowd’s participation, erupting from the very first second. The spotlights fade on and off as the sound rises then softens with the normally heavier songs, the band’s gentle harmonies filling the whole venue and falling delicately onto the leaf littered stage. Where crashing guitars and drums would typically come in, harmonicas and xylophones appear in their place.
Performances of songs like ‘Different People‘ truly represented how special an Unplugged gig can be. They gave dedicated fans the opportunity to hear songs in a totally different way, in an environment that completely strips it all back to reveal the powerfully poignant lyrics that have always been at the core of every Biffy Clyro song. The immense emotional connections you can have with a Biffy song plays a huge part in their success, so to be able to experience those lyrics right down to the bare bones in a room full of people feeling the same way was incredibly special.
The impact of the Unplugged gig went beyond just Biffy’s sound, but changed the whole dynamic of the gig in general. Instead of a band playing to a crowd with a clear separation in between, we became one equal room carrying the songs together. Scripted crowd interactions were replaced with genuine discussion and interaction, set lists turned into singalongs and we actually got to know the band on a level that fans who have followed them for decades have never been able to see – stripped back and intimate, under the tickle of the warm spotlight. ‘Black Chandelier‘ was a testament to this, the crowd singing along to every single word, raising their voice when the original would get heavier and making the noise of the token guitar riffs themselves. It was a team effort and judging by the smiles on their faces both the crowd and band were loving every minute.
The brief seconds in between each song were consistently filled with shouts of appreciation and encouragement from the crowd. With the above in mind it should be noted how important a part they played in the night. Gigs like this just would not work with a crowd who doesn’t have a genuine love for the band. At most gigs the sad truth is you will hear very little during the slower songs as sound is drowned out in chats of last night’s GoggleBox. However, this was not most gigs. There was no inappropriate chat or no inappropriate shouting. Instead, the crowd were engaged and participating from the very first second. They would not have had a chance for any inappropriate chat or shouting as they were too busy singing along to every. Single. Word.
It was the band’s performance of ‘Bubbles’ that really triggered something in the crowd. Right from the very first note something just switched and for every 1 person that jumped to their feet the security’s bloody pressure jumped ten times higher. Soon the whole auditorium was up and it was a lost cause for any kind of health and safety, the security guards looking round in panic as they tried to control a whole room that had just positively erupted. The song was highjacked from the headliner’s, all taking a step back to allow the crowd to sing the last chorus as they applauded us. You could see their genuine appreciation not only at this point but throughout the gig, evidently happy to be here and to be sharing the experience with us. This was a definite highlight.
‘Bubbles‘ was promptly followed by ‘Machines‘, the juxtaposition of the two songs making the latter even more hard-hitting. It was after this the band left to the demands of the hungry crowd, shouts of ‘Biffy F***ing Clyro‘ erupting again until the crowd got what they wanted. This time Neil walks onto the stage alone, only the glow of one singular lightbulb swinging on a rope in front of him lighting up the stage. As soon as the crowd realised he was about to sing without a mic they gently ‘shh’ed each other as Neil held his finger to his lips. What followed was an amazing version of ‘Friends and Enemies’, the rest of the band soon walking on stage to sing along acapella. It becomes a literal singalong, the band singing at the same volume as the crowd, both sounds combining to become even more powerful than the crescendo of claps that start to build.
They assume the normal positions for ‘God and Satan’ before playing the crowd out with the much anticipated ‘Many of Horror‘. While not most fans’ favourite due to a popular cover by another artist, it was the perfect song to end the night on. This was because, despite any objections, it was guaranteed every single person in that room knew every single word. The whole room stood again almost like a choir, the Scottish trio allowing us to sing out the final chorus ourselves. It was an immensely powerful ending to an even more powerful evening, and one Neil notes they might not do again after this tour.
Judging from the band’s reaction Belfast done what it does best – yelling in terrible Scottish accents and dismissing any rules of health and safety. Judging from the crowd’s reaction, the band done even better. It truly was Biffy Clyro in a way we have never seen them before. MTV Unplugged reminded us that behind the tattoos, bone shaking guitar riffs and ‘Biffy F***ing Clyro’s are a band with immense talent, talent that doesn’t falter even when its laid bare, stripped back and open for all to see. It was a night dedicated to the amazingly truthful, hard hitting and beautiful lyrics that are at the core of every single Biffy Clyro song, lyrics we won’t forget as we will continue to sing every single word.