It would be too easy to start this review with, ‘What a Performance!’ But it was, even if the BOB of 2019 were some way removed from that experienced three decades earlier.
That’s not a dig. I was impressed then and possibly appreciate them even more now, the nostalgia factor only part of the story. But where I seem to recall that back then they were more about indie cool and occasional surliness on stage, the passage of time has swept aside any perceived pretence.
It’s an odd thing. With most bands I’ve followed since that era, there was no more than a few years between sightings. In this case it was 28 years, and I guess we’re all a little longer in the tooth. Life moves on, and I got the impression – talking to two band members in the bar before – that I was just the latest attendee bringing an offspring along who wasn’t even a glint in the milkman’s eye when I saw them last in 1991.
However, as Martin Fry would have us believe, that was then, but this is now, the years melting away as soon as they unleashed evergreen opening instrumental, ‘Extension BOB Please!’ But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start a little earlier, having set off post-rush hour on the M61 and M62 for a 125-mile round-trip to find the nearest show on this long-awaited six-date farewell tour.
I’d clearly have fancied an appearance closer to my Lancashire base, but as it turned out, Wharf Chambers proved an inspired choice, providing the kind of quirky set-up I appreciate from a venue. Besides, time and again I caught this esteemed outfit off the beaten track in my native South East back in the day, the random locations adding to the flavour of some truly memorable gigs, several of which I recalled in a recent feature/interview with Dean, BOB’s drumming Leggett … sorry, legend (wuth a link here if you missed it).
This particular occasion unfolded in the heart of Leeds, in a club run by a workers’ co-operative, a couple of minutes’ walk from the River Aire, my youngest daughter – making her BOB debut three years younger than I did, and 31 years later – describing the adjoining function room as a converted garage.
In fact, the location screamed Yorkshire, not least having chosen to wet the whistle with a pint of Brassneck before heading out the back. With a name like that, I half expected Wedding Present guitar legend Peter ‘Grapper’ Solowka to have brewed it, and I’m not convinced the front-man of support act The Beer Snobs hadn’t already supped a few himself ahead of their short set.
I kind of liked this rough and ready three-piece, their young drummer regularly gazing up at his bandleader, whether to seek guidance or absolution I know not, while the bass player’s flat cap added a further dash of White Rose identity to the proceedings. They brought many a smile to us assembled, even if I can’t be sure that the damning verdict of a loudmouth a few rows behind after the last song was part of the act. I’d hate to see his TripAdvisor reviews.
Soon enough, the main attraction had taken to the stage, a week rehearsing in the Far West of Cornwall and opening nights in Birmingham and Hull paving the way for what we were about to receive (and for which we were truly thankful).
Co-frontman Richard Blackborow took to keyboards for the aforementioned opener, spending much of the evening there, later revealing he was struggling with his back after a slip on an earlier date. In fact, once they’d carved out spaces, there was little else the band could do, restricted by the lack of leg room, a week of intense choreography before heading upcountry largely wasted.
To our right was Simon Armstrong, the ‘60s Beatles cap of the ‘80s publicity shots seemingly swapped for half-moon specs, helping him tread carefully across the massed wires and find the sole setlist, reminding himself what was next, greeting each number with a pleasant surprise, as if the other three had decided on the running order in his absence.
Tucked in behind Simon was a new BOBette to me, fan turned bass guitarist Arthur Tapp (or Arthur Arthurman, apparently) with even less space to negotiate, but on fine form, his demeanour suggesting he was having a great time up there with this cult outfit. And behind those three, Dean led from the rear, so to speak, and was more animated than I recalled, touches of Keith Moon dynamism throughout his performance.
My notes were a little sporadic, but by the time we reached ‘Tired’ they seemed fairly settled, renditions of old faves ‘Kirsty’ and ‘What a Performance!’ suggesting the trusty Swagsack was still intact. I’d reintroduced myself to the back-catalogue on the lead-up via the two splendid Cherry Red double-CD packages, and one of the tracks impressing me of late was ‘Another Crow’, an add-on to the polished-up pressing of Leave the Straight Life Behind and arguably one of the best songs written about the touring process, up there with Mott the Hoople’s ‘Saturday Gigs’ for my ears.
And how were they holding up? Well, Richard seemed to be loving it. Perhaps his painkillers had kicked in, but they were certainly firing on all cylinders, the inspirational call to arms that is ‘Flagpole’ leading to ‘Skylark III’ then a further delve into the distant past with the song that kick-started the BOB story, the naïve lo-fi pop of ‘Brian Wilson’s Bed’ followed by most recent catalogue addition, ‘Queen of Sheba’, available on flexi-disc on the night.
Then came the almost-hit, ‘Convenience’, a rousing crowd sing-song ensuing, mobile phones primed in a way that could never have happened all those years ago when it somehow missed the UK top-40, that iced gem followed by its latest reissue’s B-side, ‘Coquette’.
By now, they were truly flying, a barnstorming ‘95 Tears’ giving rise to the glorious ‘Trousercide’. Favourite day? Today, as it happened. They briefly departed, but returned soon enough for the wondrous title track of the LP that landed shortly after my last sighting.
And there’s another thing. Leave the Straight Life Behind was never quite the album I’d hoped when it landed. I tried, but maybe too hard, in time moving on, the band themselves calling it a day before any more LPs could follow, giving up on the big time, carving out careers elsewhere. But the recent tightening up in the studio of that album by the band themselves has truly added something, and now I love it. Perhaps I was just blind to it first time around, missing the point. Who knows. It certainly deserves wider recognition.
‘Leave the Straight Life Behind’ itself provided my highlight on the night, as I suspected it might, with Simon’s guitar solo supreme. And that’s coming from a scribe who tends to prefer one-note Buzzcocks-like solos to Clapton and Page-esque over-gilded pomp. They then finished with the highly-charged ‘Skylark II’, matters brought to a climactic end, the band clearly still capable of waking the dead on this showing.
This was no polished performance, but the rougher edges added to the experience. And the banter between songs was a touch I’m not so sure I recall to the same degree back in the day. In short, here’s another band from my formative gigging days doing it for all the right reasons now, any desire to achieve pop stardom wisely cast aside.
Yep. BOB have still got it, I reckon. But if you caught this show, the earlier two, or those that followed at the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket, London’s 100 Club, or the finale at Hamburg’s Astra Stube, you probably already know that. Now, we have to just convince them to come out on the road again. So here’s to the next last-ever tour, eh? As Del Boy Trotter would say, ‘No, not goodbye, Margaret … no, just bonjour’.
With thanks to Yorkshire-based non-league football photo blog and research unit (mostly) The Dribbling Code for the Wharf Chambers shots. To check them out on Twitter, head here.