The hottest night of the year so far, and I was Going Underground. Not as a safe haven from the Sounds From the Street, but to hunker down and resolutely celebrate cultural values increasingly under attack.
This was the first of two gigs I had in the week following Ariana Grande’s ill-fated North-West visit, each re-instilling hope for the future through the power of live music, the first at a club synonymous with pop’s sparkling past.
And while Paul Weller was talking about London when he wrote, ‘My heart’s in the city, where it belongs’ four decades ago, it could easily stand for Liverpool or Manchester on this day, which just so happened to mark his 59th birthday.
This first date was at a sweaty club below the streets of Liverpool rather than some corporate enormo-dome, but was every bit as much about commemorating the May 22nd, 2017 tragedy, giving a middle finger to the small-minded bigots who prey on the troubled and misguided in a bid to turn us back to the Dark Ages.
From The Jam’s acoustic show isn’t a million miles from the live wonder of their full electric show, the main difference the lack of a drummer and the fact that Russell Hastings and Bruce Foxton are perched on stools throughout.
While the original Cavern closed in early 1973 and was filled in during construction work on Merseyrail’s underground rail loop, on the evidence I saw and felt on Thursday, fair play to all those involved in this nearby rebuild, the spirit of that famous venue intact, a sense of history retained. And the artwork around us inspired me to promise a return when it isn’t quite so packed, this time with a proper camera.
In the aftermath of a difficult week, there were always going to be shadows, but there was a grim determination to get on with it, and it’s difficult to think of more compelling performances delivered from a seated position.
It was standing room only beyond the Live Lounge stage, with a battle to get an unencumbered view, my mate Jim feeling he was transported back to some dodgy nightspot in Blackburn in the late ‘70s, caught between a couple of canoodling couples as he was. At 6ft 4ins I can block out most distractions, but the pillar to my left meant I had to crane my neck to see what Hammond organ supremo Andy Fairclough was up to.
I say about an acoustic but electric performance, and part of that was down to a large section of the audience knowing every word. In the unlikely event that Russell might freeze and forgot his lines, his understudies were on hand.
There’s always something magical about this part of Liverpool for a music fan, and even our short walk from the car involved a few landmarks, including the Cunard Building which last summer hosted the marvellous About the Young Idea exhibition, the Eleanor Rigby sculpture, then on Mathew Street itself a chance to pose with bronze depictions of John Lennon and recent arrival Cilla Black.
As Russell put it, this was the band’s ‘second hometown’, and after descending the steps to the venue, you can’t help but be impressed by those Mount Rushmore-like Fab Four carvings.
Elsewhere, The Rolling Stones look on in an illustration in the far bar, while on stage the in-house support was more than a run-of-the-mill Lennon lookalike, adding character to his chosen covers, from The Word through to Stand By Me and all points between.
Soon, the PA blared out Circus and our special guests arrived. And while this was no sonic triumph – the sound weaving in and out and only really resonating for the last few songs – the technical team did their best, the quality of the songs and our trio’s delivery seeing us through.
The Jam spirit was there from the off, as if spurred on by an electric charge trapped within these famous walls, tonight’s in-crowd playing their part from the opening chop-chords of Saturday’s Kids and bass throb intro of When You’re Young right through.
There was certainly joy in the songcraft and the performance of Foxton, Hastings and Fairclough, and while slightly obscured I could see a look of animation every time I caught sight of the latter, facial expressions adding to that sense of urgency.
David Watts seemed apt in the surroundings, Ray Davies’ 60s vibe nailed by Bruce and his cohorts, while the poignant Liza Radley and Butterfly Collector were a real bonus, showing the strength in depth of Weller’s songwriting.
Between those b-sides, Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’s introductory Underground rumble initially made hearts flutter after Monday. But here was a powerful story touching on the evils of extremism and ignorance, its message truly resonating.
There was Bruce’s signature tune Smithers-Jones of course, while if one song underlined a sense of history it was Larry Williams’ Slow Down, afforded an early-rock-n’roll feel in this setting, road-tested at The Cavern by The Beatles 15 years before Woking’s finest took it to a new audience.
Russell asked we join the band in a minute’s silence to the victims of the Manchester Arena atrocities, suggesting 60 seconds of hush then a resounding ‘fuck off’ to its perpetrators’ philosophy. We were up for that, but talking at the bar – having not heard the message rather than being ignorant, I’d like to think – continued for most of it. Yet while it didn’t go quite to script, the point was made.
When they resumed, Strange Town seemed a perfect barn-storming choice, while English Rose neatly encapsulated fundamental values that bring us together, irrespective of creed, colour or nationality. ‘Choose love’, as Manchester poet Tony Walsh put it so evocatively the day before.
A horticultural theme continued with the poignant Carnation, another welcome surprise from a catalogue of delights following in Life From a Window before Foxton and Hastings’ Now the Time Has Come from Smash the Clock, now a year old, solid proof that this is so much more than a heritage band.
But there was always a karaoke feel, and so the massed voices accompanied on That’s Entertainment and Start, before Thick as Thieves and In the Crowd reminded us this was no obvious hits package.
And what else but Going Underground to finish, not just for our subterranean location but also an in-built reminder to make use of a forthcoming snap election, hopefully to change things for the better.
They returned for three more songs, In The City – 40 years after its incendiary release – followed by further hymn to class struggle The Eton Rifles and the ever-evocative A Town Called Malice, Weller’s early-80s vision of Anytown or Anycity UK every bit as relevant 35 years on.
And as Weller put it, and Hastings delivered on the night’s finale, ‘Time is short and life is cruel, but it’s up to us to change this town called malice’.
For a link to this site’s most recent interview with Russell – Spirit of ’77 – All Around the World with Russell Hastings and From The Jam – and links to many more Jam-related features and reviews, head here.