The Assembly Rooms - Leamington Spa

Saturday 1 October June 2011

Saturday October 1 2011: whilst most of the country will remember it as the day which saw record temperatures for the time of year, others may see it as a day which will go down in history for something much more important - not only the UK's only gig by the current incarnation of the Man band, but a gig which featured a very special guest. Historians of the future will have plenty to write about.

We had booked into a small hotel close to the Assembly Rooms, and were encouraged that the proprietor was wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt; sadly, he had never head of Man. 'Twas ever thus.

James and ReneThe venue was due to open at 6pm with a 10pm finish to allow the place to be repurposed as a club - just like the old Kite Club in Blackpool. The Assembly Rooms is a fair sized auditorium, redesigned by Laurence Llewlyn Bowen so my friend in the Stones T-shirt told me. But I didn't let that put me off. There is a good sized stage and decent lighting set up, but the bar was ale free as expected; still, the air conditioning was on, and what I feared might have been a stifling sweatbox was actually pretty comfortable.

So it was reasonably early that the Man band took the stage, opening with two Twang songs, The Price, a decent but undemanding piece, and Mad on Her, an aggressive stomper. You wouldn't really know they've had a long lay off from live performance - James Beck was throwing in plenty of sharp guitar licks, and Josh Ace seems to have developed his stage presence, looking much more animated than previously.

This was especially noticable in his pair of songs from Kingdom of Noise which were up next, Speak and Steal the World. Both tend towards the melancholic and melodic, Speak was the better to my ears, slow and powerful with James Beck's fluid guitar overlaying Martin Ace's intricate bass lines.

Two more Ace senior songs followed, a raucous Popemobile undepinned by Phil Ryan's swirling synths, and X-Ray Eyes, where the swing Rene Robrahn brings to the table was very evident.

And at this juncture - enter Mr Deke Leonard!

And as we have come to expect on occasions such as this, there followed a protracted delay - equipment problems, tuning issues, general uncertainty. The sense of anti-climax at big moments is one thing that never changes with this band, whatever the line up.

When the six piece did get themselves sorted out, it was for Ride, a trifle tentative, but that's to be expected really. James Beck continues to plough his own furrow, crafting his own solos rather than trying (doubtless in vain) to reproduce what his predecessors have done. This is just as it should be.

7171 took it up a notch - having proven to themselves they could do this without everything falling apart, they could relax a little. Josh's unselfish rhythm guitar underpinned the whole thing, and while James was exploring new ground, Deke's solo was comfotable and familiar.

Daughter of the Fireplace was utterly wonderful - short, sharp, and totally ferocious. James' aggressive, frenzied playing was a perfect match for this song.

Deke abd JoshThe current Man band have been incorporating subtle changes to the older songs they perform, puttng their own imprint on them. This is no bad thing, but at times it made it a touch awkward for Deke as some songs went off in directions he wasn't expecting. C'mon was a prime example - still a meandering jamming piece, the rhythm of the intro and the vocals in the chorus have been remodelled slightly. It didn't distract Deke too much though. Phil Ryan's extended solo was a highlight here.

MACBFGU had a painfully distorted intro, but once it got into its stride, it was a beast; possibly because it's featured it in their set previously, they all knew where they were going.

More stagecraft followed as the band trooped off, then hastily returned -

"We weren't supposed to come off then - we got confused".

The timeless shuffle Romain was next up, ably performed except for the ending, which arrived in stages. But nobody really cared.

A version of Spunk Rock was inevitable on an occasion like this, with James introducing the opening riff. With three guitars and everyone bellowing the lyrics, the sound was a bit muddied, and it was noticably loud. Very loud. But good. Very good.

Bananas was also a no-brainer, and while very good, I got the feeling the were very slightly on autopilot and taking a bit of a breather - except James Beck, who never seemed to give anything less than 100% all night.

Deke explained he had fallen while negotiating the stairs returning to the stage, but the good news is he hadn't damaged his Telecaster. Phew.

To finish off, Martin announced Conflict of Interest as "so funky even you can dance to it". Speak for yourself, Martin... it is pretty good though. James and Phil handle the opening riff, and Rene's sharp, syncopated drumming drives the song quite mercilessly.

I'm not sure who were more apprehensive at the beginning of the night, the band or the crowd, but by the end there was probably a combination of satisfaction and relief on both sides.

So what could have been better? Well, it might be unfair to say so, but there was a niggling feeling that the first six songs were a bit like a support act. This isn't because they weren't any good, but because everyone knew what was coming and were anticipating it so keenly.

Personally I would have preferred to have heard Russian Roulette - the strongest track from a weak album - rather than X-Ray Eyes, but this is a minor quibble. Also, once Deke entered the fray, thee was a real lack of communication with the audience - indeed, the inter-song silence was remarkable. Maybe Martin was quiet as he expected Deke to handle the PR, but it was strange. It was also unusual for the band members not to be introduced.

Overall, a gig which could have fallen flat on its face was a success. Just a shame it's the only UK appearance this year.

There are pics from this gig in the Gallery.

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