This was my first rail outing to Manchester since Public Service Broadcasting at the Ritz three years ago ended with the dreaded Bus Replacement Service return-trip, and came 18 months after my last Ruby Lounge visit, for The Blue Aeroplanes. And again I was rewarded with a memorable set.
This time there was barely chance to catch more than a song and a half of the support, Rothman Jack. To be honest, I’d forgotten who was joining them, but the moment I looked up from the bar – after a schoolboy error, asking for ‘bitter’ and being handed a can of John Smith’s, when I thought the days of the floating widget were way behind us – I remembered it was none other than Vapors stand-in guitarist Dan Fenton, son of David, leading a rather dynamic three-piece.
On this occasion they were bringing down the curtain on their time together, to appreciative support from a clued-up and warm (in more ways than one) gathering. Have I mentioned the temperature yet? Dan certainly looked like he’d been through the wringer on this hot, late June night by the time we’d headed out into the throng, giving his all, but his band were soon taking a collective bow and heading off, big smiles all round.
That left me briefly contemplating father-and-son combos, seeing as David and Dan have already put in several shifts together, covering for first-choice wing-man Ed Bazalgette. I thought first of Neil and Liam Finn, then Lloyd and Will Cole, plus Johnny and Nile Marr, later adding Bob and Ziggy Marley, Bob and Jakob Dylan, Ron and Jesse Wood, John and Jason Bonham, Tim and Jeff Buckley, and even John and Julian Lennon to that list, though wondering if many of those had even shared a stage. I’ve probably missed a few key examples. No matter.
Conversation back out by the bar was soon put on hold, heading back into the main room (to be fair, there was only a black curtain separating the two) as tonight’s star guests took to the stage. Now, I went through the significance of the re-emergence of this wondrous outfit last time I had the pleasure of catching them, at Liverpool’s Arts Club in November 2016, so I’ll spare you a bit of that, but again emotions were never far away for this fellow Guildford old boy. An introductory backing track more associated with Frankie Goes to Hollywood in some circles was in keeping with the band’s turn of the ‘80s New Clear Days theme, dynamic sticks-man Michael Bowes, with lurid green bandana in place, soon leading from the rear in what proved to be another startling shift on drums. By God, he can play, and however restricted your view when you catch this outfit live, ensure you’re well placed to see this drumming colossus putting the thrust back into power pop.
To be fair, that ‘power pop’ label is something heard more from transatlantic fans looking to categorise the post-punk and new wave scene, but was one used by my fellow commuter on this occasion to describe a band he knew little of before other than links to key tracks I suggested online. But it seemed fairly apt all the same. Incidentally, I could say we’d travelled from Deepest Surrey and Edinburgh respectively to get there on the night, but to be honest it had barely been a 20-mile ride across Lancashire.
Michael not only hits those drums hard but also seems to inspire all before him, never short of a cheeky grin or beaming smile to light up the stage. I’ll forever associate his role with his predecessor, Howard Smith, but Michael has quickly made this his lookout, adding plenty of verve and no lack of panache. What I like is the air of mischief between him and bass player Steve Smith, another not bothering to hold back the smiles. They’re clearly having fun, playing for all the right reasons and loving what they’re doing. With that shaggy mane and his Trojan Records t-shirt, Steve’s the epitome of cool, having not long stepped back off a plane from the Algarve, interrupting his summer engagement with his other band The Shakespearos, seemingly unfettered by the experience. Laid-back and on the money all night. My only gripe here was the sound in the Ruby Lounge, not allowing us the best chance to wallow in those glorious Rickenbacker basslines, lost somewhere in the mix at times.
I could say the same about Ed and David and their guitar and vocals. It was all a little ‘soupy’ to fully immerse yourself in the first third, the between-song banter also lost. At first, the venue’s imposing pillars ensured Ed was just out of my eyeline apart from occasional cross-stage jaunts, but we moved ever closer as the night wore on, the sound far better from around the time the ‘Daylight Titans’ surrounded on song seven.
Half a dozen new tracks were premiered, and from opener ‘Secret Noise’ onward the signs are good for that long-awaited third album. The band seamlessly fitted those among the more established, and third number ‘King L’ certainly impressed, as did ‘One of My Dreams’ and later number ‘Letter to Hiro (No.11)’, giving rise to its earlier first LP cousin, ‘Letter From Hiro’, Dave handing over vocal duties to the assembled, who didn’t let him down. And while I couldn’t fully appreciate amid that earlier sound the wondrous ‘Trains’ and ‘Live at the Marquee’, by the time of ‘Cold War’ ( my travelling mate wondered if it was ‘Cod War’, referencing past trade friction with Iceland, giving an entirely different steer on the lyrics) and ‘Somehow’, they were on top form.
Now Wilko Johnson’s pudding bowl years are long behind him and Ed’s joined him on the shaved head front (I know, his was always a far more stylish cut), it’s easier to see common ground in stage presence and guitaronics. And beyond the moody posturing there’s a nice interaction between him and an adoring crowd, those occasional darts across stage to seek out Steve for vocal duets a delight. Ed also mentioned how past Manchester visits seemed to coincide with momentous happenings for The Vapors, not least news of their initial deal and ‘Turning Japanese’ chart success. And while Dave comes over more reserved, he’s equally cherished and fully engaged, the nervous energy working well, keeping him and us on our toes, yet he also seems to be in control.
On a hot, sultry Friday night in the metropolis, I can think of few more fitting songs than ‘Waiting for the Weekend’, and while ‘Spring Collection’ for me seemed out of place deeper into the set, it’s more than welcome wherever. As for ‘Jimmie Jones’, it was perhaps my least favourite Vapors single, yet I’ve grown to fully appreciate it, and it sounded fabulous on this occasion. It was only a matter of time before we reached ‘Turning Japanese’, and I’m pleased the most recognisable song still has a feelgood factor for the diehards. This is no pop novelty, it sounded just as fresh tonight, and credit for that to the band themselves for still being able to so convincingly knock it out, so to speak.
They still weren’t quite done, one eye on the time as the band slipped into debut single, ‘Prisoners’, showcasing the band’s early new wave promise, then the mighty ‘News at Ten’, up there with The Undertones’ debut 45 among the most perfect expressions of teenage angst.
The band returned of course, penultimate number ‘America’ signposting their next big adventure, October’s three-night NYC return, before trademark finale ‘Here Comes the Judge’, the minute-hand against us now, the last train beckoning and us reluctantly inching towards the exit amid this expansive live masterpiece, dashing up the steps as the final chord rang out, into a still humid night, yomping back to Piccadilly and platform 14, determined not to let the trains get me, another great night in The Vapors’ company already etched into the memory.
I’m loving this revival, not least having missed out first time round. I see no reason why there won’t be many more great nights to come either. What’s more, we should have another album to savour soon, 37 years to the month after Magnets, and on this evidence we’re in for a treat. And in the meantime I’ve always got those first LPs to see me through.
The Vapors are back in action at the Actress and Bishop in Birmingham on July 28th and the Junction 2 in Cambridge on September 8th, before a three-night sell-out at New York City’s Mercury Lounge in October then a return to Portmeirion’s Hercules Hall on November 10th, followed by dates at Olby’s Music Room, Margate (December 7th); Lewes’ Constitutional Hall (December 8th); The 1865, Southampton (December 9th); and Nell’s Jazz and Blues, London (December 15th). For more details, head here.