The legendary wordsmith is as much a stand-up comic these days, his one-liners and winning anecdotes soon banishing thoughts of my nightmarish drive into the city.
Before we knew it our special guest in black was bringing us up to date with a tour of the more upmarket Beasley Boulevard. The old master wasn’t strictly in black though, my prime vantage point ensuring I could admire his Roy Orbison shades and trademark suit with black drainpipe trousers hugging those liquorice stick legs, but also his brown suede Chelsea boots.
There was something else I couldn’t quite suss at first, until I realised the old spiky treatment of those dyed-black tresses was gone, Johnny now sporting an out-of-the-shower straight long-hair style. He rocked that look as well though.
He was soon on to one of his favourite subjects, growing old, not revealing his age as such, just hinting, ‘Let’s put it this way, I don’t buy green bananas these days’, while informing us that his blood type had been cancelled last week.
The razor-sharp-witted salvo of one-liners continued, the people’s performance poet moving on to thinly-veiled hints at those closest to shuffling off this mortal coil, such as ‘one-way tickets to Switzerland’ left on hospital pillows.
He also tackled a more optimistic view of Alzheimer’s, not least a few unexpected pluses about that degenerative disease (I’ll let him explain), before launching into Bedblocker Blues, which he subtitled ‘The older I get, the better I was’.
From there, the Inspiral Carpets’ Dr Reliable covered everything from masturbation and Irish/Jewish heritage (with a few borderline gags) to value-for-money prostitutes and why he’s never been to Oldham, although he wondered aloud if his Trouble at t’Mall would mean anything to the citizens of ‘this sophisticated seaport’.
Johnny’s observations on marriage and his general failure in that capacity followed (‘We split the house. I got the outside’), describing weddings as ‘funerals where you can smell your own flowers’, before the more optimistic I’ve Fallen in Love with My Wife.
Then he left us on a further JCC classic, Evidently Chickentown introduced with an anecdote about how BBC sound technicians filed for repetitive strain injury while working the swear-word bleeper during an early live recording.
Soon enough, the lights were down again and an introductory film was aired on a big screen – with shades of Public Service Broadcasting – to herald the main act’s arrival. And it turned out that our next new wave legends – back on that earlier sartorial elegance theme – also still scrubbed up pretty well.
Squeeze, 2015-style sees the founding At Odds Couple – Chris Difford and salmon pink-suited Glenn Tilbrook – joined by multi-instrumentalist Stephen Large, Last of the subtle Mohicans drummer Simon Hanson and new face Lucy Shaw, the band warming up with a semi-acoustic Hourglass and Is That Love?
But it turned out that the gremlins were in the works, Glenn leading the band briefly off again before a swift return and what Chris Difford dubbed a bonus track, the founders adding an Everly Brothers-like Annie Get Your Gun. The sound still wasn’t quite right though as they moved on to Another Nail in My Heart.
Glenn in particular was struggling to enjoy the experience, although most of the crowd appeared bemused as to what the problem was. Yes, there were elements of a Squeeze soundcheck, but I think we just felt privileged to witness one first-hand.
They were soon back on track, a neat jam giving Chris the platform for a somewhat laid-back Electric Trains (more of a Sunday service mix), a precursor to two selections from the new album, Only 15 and Beautiful Game, the latter accompanied by grainy images of past footie internationals.
By then, Melvin Duffy had joined in, initially playing pedal steel but like his band-mates switching instruments throughout, on what proved a busy night for the roadie on a night of regular swings ‘twixt and ‘tween semi-acoustic and rocking.
Glenn’s wondrous fretwork followed on the always-emotive Some Fantastic Place, bringing to mind late great local George Harrison, before a string-laden, further poignant moment, The Truth, from 1991’s Play.
The band were back to Cradle to the Grave for ‘Hot Chocolate and Chic mash-up’ Nirvana, Lucy in her element on bass and backing vocals as the glitterball spun and caught the light.
Glenn was left alone at the electric piano for the more moody Sweets from a Stranger track The Elephant Ride, blue-suited Stephen then taking took his place while Lucy switched to double bass for an acoustic-underpinned Everything, this beautifully-pensive cut from the new LP feeding into a crowd-pleasing, somewhat majestic Labelled with Love, Stephen on accordion this time (or perhaps I should say squeezebox).
A gloriously-storming, yeehawing Slap and Tickle saw the band lined up stage-front, the At Odds Couple’s bandmates in something of a skiffle, cajun and bluegrass musical stand-off (havin’ fun, y’all).
Chief instrument-switcher Stephen added innovative Ray Charles-like Wurlitzer touches on Black Coffee in Bed, Glenn’s impassioned delivery complemented by backing vocals galore, an extra-mellow feel underpinned by Lucy’s bass instinct and Simon Hanson’s brushwork. Besides, why should drummers always have to hang out at the back?
They were on a high now, the crowd chipping in on vocals for a glorious Goodbye Girl, which received an acoustic country makeover, footage of the band’s formative days on the screen adding extra nostalgic value.
By then, Stephen was on melodica, Melvin on mandolin, Lucy adding a driving bass and Simon going mad on the bongos, in what was fast becoming the ultimate busking experience. And the mighty acoustics of the Phil were nicely complemented by the gospel of Open from the latest album, its rousing spiritual feel leading neatly to title track Cradle to the Grave, Mr Tilbrook now on ukulele.
Glenn’s uke also punctuated a neat delivery of late-60s country hit Harper Valley PTA, Melvin giving his all on pedal steel, while Chris stepped back into the breach for a Lou Reed-like shamble through Tom Waits’ I Don’t Wanna Grow Up, band and audience alike clearly having fun.
A thrilling finale followed, GT’s vocal and Stephen’s piano kick-starting Tempted into a full-frontal assault on the senses, a storming Pulling Mussels (From the Shell) keeping us on our feet before Up the Junction – 36 years old and still as fresh as the day it was recorded – took us out in style.
They were soon back, the new album’s emotive closer Snap, Crackle and Pop framed by surprisingly-poignant scenes of early ‘70s traffic, Glenn’s bluesy guitar and Stephen’s subtle keyboard at its heart. And Glen and Chris are clearly still on a high about the radio airplay coming their way for the equally-evocative Happy Days, which was next.
Finally, Chris led us through an almost-celebratory Cool for Cats amid a visual backdrop of press clippings from the early days, before the At Odds Couple and their entourage saw us out on Take Me I’m Yours, mobile drummer boy Simon heading a conga around the stage before this treasured sextet jumped off and threaded their way down the middle towards the exit, a little overtime following, signing all and sundry for a devoted, ecstatic clientele.
- With thanks to Sara French at Republic Media