Squeeze – Bridgewater Hall, Manchester – 12/10/15

A few weeks back I reviewed the new Squeeze album From the Cradle to the Grave and gave it a favourable report so I was looking forward to the opportunity to see them live. This show came the end of their tour at what turned out to be a sold out Bridgewater Hall. I came away with mixed feelings.

First off I’ll spare a few lines for the support act, Dr John Cooper Clark, who was promoting his own ‘Anthologia,’ the first anthology of his work. The guy’s funny, there’s no doubt about that. He had me chortling non-stop with his rants about hospital bed blockers, my home town of Oldham (with its slogan, ‘Reversing into the future’) the meandering Evidently Chickentown et al. If you don’t mind potty mouth he’s right up your street; if you do you’re in the wrong place. What I don’t get is why Squeeze selected him. They’re in line for an MBE at the very least in the next Honours List, on the basis of being a ‘national treasure.’ For sure they’ve come up with some dodgy lyrics in their time (“I use a little muscle’…’give the dog a bone…’ etc) but nothing that has only one adjective in it – fucking – and every other word at that. It’s like pairing Sleaford Mods with Katie Melua.

Then, just when we thought we’d seen the back of the comedians, up popped Peter Kay to introduce Squeeze – at length – with assorted stories including one about the filming of Cradle to the Grave, the BBC2 series, locally in Ashton under Lyne and Eccles rather than Bermondsey ‘because the social club in Eccles hasn’t changed since 1973.’ After all this mirth and the appearance of the local celebrity as a bonus it was a fair bet that Squeeze were going to come off second best and that is exactly what happened.

Well at least for the first third of the set anyway. It was a very long one, with 22 songs plus four in the encore – it’s exactly the same one every night which cries out ‘don’t expect improvisation’ – and was played at breakneck speed with very little verbal intercourse with the audience.

Only seven songs from the new album were played all night, two of them during the encore, and from early on the set lost its flow with three highly recognisable songs followed by three that aren’t. Hardly any were introduced for the benefit of the uninitiated. It was interesting to watch from my vantage point level with the stage on the first tier the audience’s reaction as they politely applauded the lesser known ones while responding to those they know well with rapture.

But my main complaint is that until the eighth song, The Truth, there was barely any change of tempo.  Songs seemed to merge into each other. There was none of the dancing in the aisles that I’d read about at previous shows on this tour. In fact there was no movement at all, on the stage or off it. At one point I thought I was looking at the Terracotta Army, all 2,000 of them. A young woman just behind us fell asleep.

Following the song played immediately after The Truth, which was Nirvana from the new album, the band left the stage for what I assume was an R&R break, while a song was played over the speakers, the first time I’ve ever seen that. A rumour quickly spread that Squeeze had left the building.

When they came back on though, the set sprang to life. The three men and one woman band moved towards the front of the stage to join Glen Tilbrook and Chris Difford and the rapport with the crowd that was absent previously finally arrived. Labelled with Love was probably the moment it started to come together.

Musicians that had been tied to a single instrument thus far began playing others – a double bass here; an accordion there, what I think was a lute. (The accordion, a shiny silver thing, looked like a Dyson, prompting my companion for the evening to remark that it was there ‘to suck up the ambience.’) It was needed, believe me. For the first time there was some movement around the stage.

From there on in until the end the show was on a roll. We got a couple of covers one after the other, Harper Valley PTA and Tom Waits’ I Don’t Want to Grow Up, the first of which worked, the second not so much and then it was a Champions League finale with Tempted followed by Pulling Muscles (from the Shell) and finishing with – what else? – Up the Junction; one of the most memorable songs of its era and one that might have featured in TMB’s Classic Song for the Day before now.

The crowd was asked to stand for these last three numbers and to clap along, which they did at first. It was amusing that when the clapping died away and everyone remained stood, absolutely still, they had the appearance of a Sunday morning congregation or a crowd in the Stretford End or Kop reminiscing on pre-Taylor Report days.

The band was back on stage so fast they couldn’t have had time for even a sip of the tea that was provided at various stages of the show, playing four songs, starting with the Elbow-esque Snap, Crackle and Pop, then Happy Days, which Tilbrook observed is being played on the radio (‘and it’s not one of our old songs’) before finishing with a rousing Cool for Cats and Take Me I’m Yours. By now the audience was really up for it but it was time to go home as the band appeared to be doing as they paraded through the lower level and out into the foyer. My one disappointment was that they didn’t play Honeytrap, which is the liveliest song on the new album by far and which should have had the audience rocking in the aisles.

A few observations about the main men. I’d never seen them live before. Both Tilbrook and Difford come across as regular guys, the sort you’d happily play crib with down at the Railway Arms if you’re of that era and you’re missing it, and not the cockney spivs they appeared to be in their early days. Both were dressed extremely soberly and unpretentiously in grey (Tilbrook) and black (Difford) suits that had ‘Man at C&A’ or ‘John Collier – the Window to Watch’ stamped all over them. Tilbrook is very much Numero Uno. He even introduced Difford as if he was just another member of the band instead of the songwriter but Difford, who comes across as a very shy individual, didn’t seem in the least bit fazed.  What little chat comes from either of them is uttered by Tilbrook; Difford merely says ‘thank you, you’re very kind.’ Tilbrook’s voice live is actually clearer, more powerful and generally better than it is on record.

There was a visual part to the show that I didn’t see because it was on a curved screen and the curve put it out of my view. At one stage I craned my neck and could just make out what looked like flies crawling on a map of Sweden. I didn’t bother again. ‘Nuff said.

Collectively they are a tight and well rehearsed band with songs that fully merit the accolade given to their writers and arrangers at the peak of their powers of ‘heirs to the throne of Lennon and McCartney.’ They put on a memorable show, as they’ve always done; it’s just a pity that there wasn’t a little more Snap, Crackle and Pop about that early part of the set.

©D J Bentley 2015.