The Woodentops /Uhr/ The Amber List – Preston, The Ferret

I can’t quite believe this was my first Woodentops sighting in 35 years. Last time was at 1987’s Glastonbury Festival, me a mere 19-year-old (still am in some respects, I know).

Truth be told, I’d seen far too many bands that weekend for these complex Rough Trade favourites to make the impression on me they might have. But I soon followed up my purchase of cracking debut, Giant, with Live Hynobeat Live, and that’s been on the turntable and in the CD drive so many times down the years. A truly colossal record, up there with … let’s see … Ramones’ It’s Alive, The Rezillos’ Mission Accomplished (But the Beat Goes On), and That Petrol Emotion’s Final Flame on the live LP front.

A great singles band too, ‘Move Me’ and ‘It Will Come’ still capable of jumping right off the deck and transporting me to the dancefloor at a moment’s notice. As for ‘Travelling Man’, that track regularly ended up on my compilation tapes. Honestly though, I still have the cassette of Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway, but after those souped-up numbers on the live platter, I wanted more of the same, and it took time to grab me. In retrospect, there’s some great songs there. More to the point, three and a half decades on, founder members Rolo McGinty, Simon Mawby and Frank de Freitas, plus more recent arrivals Wayne Urquhart and Vesa Haapanen still cut it in a live setting … big time. And their 2022 treatment of those second LP numbers made me see it in a new light.

But let’s start at the beginning of this stunning Sunday night three-hander in Preston, Lancashire, with openers and WriteWyattUK favourites The Amber List (our most recent feature/interview linked here) already into first number ‘Red Lines & Promises’ as I walked into this troubled Preston venue.

Ah, did I not mention that? There’s a question mark over the future of this treasured local, a ‘for sale’ sign having appeared, those involved behind the scenes working on solutions to save The Ferret, with help from the Music Venue Trust and a few city councillors. There’s also a move to put together an application to register the pub as an ‘asset of community value’, something hoped ‘might buy us some time’, those running the joint keen to remain positive, stressing there’s a couple of years left on the lease, while doing what they can to ensure it’s around far longer. For more detail, and to help support the cause, follow the link at the end of this review.

I’ve mentioned before The Ache of Being, the debut Amber List LP, and played live its songs bear up to closer inspection, this seasoned four-piece (with various past credits to their names) very much a unit, frontman Mick Shepherd swapping bass, vocals and guitar duties with bandmate Tim Kelly, each giving great accounts of themselves, while Tony Cornwell coaxes sublime sounds from his guitar, and drummer Simon Dewhurst holds the shape with aplomb.

Six of their seven song set came from that album, ‘Home’ and ‘Back to the Start’ showing them at the top of their game before they went out all guns blazing on ‘A New Day Calling’. Sadly, I learned later that was it for Tim, (amicably) stepping away to concentrate on his Longhatpins recordings. But I’ve no doubt both parties will continue to impress, The Amber List set to reconvene as a three-piece. Cheers for the ride so far, lads. It’s been a blast.

Next up, Uhr, who only made their debut last summer across town at The Continental. I missed that, but I’d heard a couple on tracks online, instinctively knowing I was in for a treat. And what a performance, with nods to early Buzzcocks and Magazine and sonic hints of a post-punk industrial landscape previously scaled by the likes of The Fall and Gang of Four.

My last visit to The Ferret was for Girls in Synthesis in late 2018, that emerging London three-piece putting in an intense, memorable shift, one that night’s support, Erskine Brown, clearly took note of. I also enjoyed the latter’s set (with my review here). It gave hope for their future, and now two-thirds of that combo, dad and lad (not always in that order) John and Jack Harkins are back, this time bolstered by former Cornershop, Common Cold and Formula One driving drummer David Chambers.

Unsurprisingly, bass player/lead vocalist Jack’s admiration for The Stranglers’ J-J Burnel figures in his in-built musical DNA, while the spirit of Wire is definitely … erm, wired within (totally wired). But while Jack, John (lead guitar/effects) and David wear their influences on their colour-coded polo tops (something that in other hands could turn a bit Chigley or The Wiggles, but somehow suggesting a post-industrial vibe here), they’re very much their own beast, with art-rock sensibilities too. As for the sound, never mind the bandwidth, get a feel of that Stihl pulse, kids.

Highlights? Fellow attendee Ann Nazario recorded and uploaded two Uhr songs I’d have chosen (follow the links to ‘Written Reply’ and ‘Butterfly House’ below), the latter certainly still etched on my memory. In fact, during the headliners’ set, I closed my eyes – lost in music – and reckon I could still see John ‘shorting’ at the climax, his bandmates long since departed.

As for the five ‘Tops, any lingering concern this wouldn’t be all I’d hoped were soon jettisoned, the band straight out of the traps with frenetic WFCOTH opener ‘Maybe It Won’t Last’. They were on their way now, that LP given extra balls, the surging rockabilly rhythm more out-front than it was with those original ‘80s keyboard flourishes.

There was little chance to catch a breath as ‘They Can Say What They Want’ kept the groove going, before ‘You Make Me Feel’ took us elsewhere, a Rolo love song (and I reckon most of us present would have been reticent to give anyone their last Rolo on this showing) acting as a curveball. When someone suggested to me this was his Paul Simon moment, I found it hard to get that vision out of my head, but I was thinking more Mark Knopfler. And think what you will but those three disparate acts all know how to write great songs.

‘Wheels Turning’ was stronger than the recorded version, Frank’s ‘Fashion’-esque resonant bass smouldering, playing Tina Weymouth to Rolo’s David Byrne. As for most recent recruit Vesa, he was tapped into a Prince and the Revolution-like groove, Rolo and Frank’s fellow founder Simon then taking to a little slide-action on another mighty UK almost-hit, ‘Stop That Car’.

While Simon, erm, initially fretted over the sound, he soon got stuck in, carrying the air of a modern-day Django Reinhardt – wispy ‘tache possibly leading me to that conclusion, his playing confirming it. Meanwhile, Frank (late Bunnymen legend Pete’s younger brother) and Vesa were locked in from the start, Rolo – as is his wont – gyrated quirkily and initiated each number, and Wayne, convincing with cello and keyboards alike, picked up the vibe and ran with it, albeit from his side-stage perch.

One of the moments to gather breath came with a more pared-back ‘Heaven’, but with no less given to the cause throughout, the lack of numbers present (it was after all Sunday night in the Republic of Prestonia) certainly not leading to anything less than a 100% approach to performing from all three bands. And fair play to them for that.

Even tracks I previously felt lukewarm towards, like ‘What You Give Out’, worked here, Rolo’s all-in delivery proving somewhat infectious, the positive vibes difficult to dismiss. And while the pace slowed some more for the rather lilting ‘Tuesday Wednesday’ (Knopfler and Simon back in my head), the venue somewhat bending under the groove on a song arguably more Waterboys than Woodentops in original form, ‘In a Dream’ notched things back up in a fitting finale to the featured LP section, the original more Big Audio Dynamite meets ‘Homosapien’ era Pete Shelley feel (nowt wrong with that either, but it was very much of its time) replaced by a far more dynamic take, the band firing on all cylinders. An unexpected highlight.

I couldn’t tell you a right lot about the ’Tops story from there. My own global travels ensured I missed the band’s next more dance-oriented Balaeric beat phase and ‘Tainted World’ era, and I’d lost touch by the time of ’92’s downing of tools. As with many more acts I loved, life moved on and I drifted away. But on the strength of this performance, I’d missed a few more treats since the Granular Tales reboot, that LP represented here by ‘Stay Out of the Light’. We even got a bonus Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry-inspired dub number, memories of the accidental Roundhouse studio meeting that inspired the second LP’s title re-stoked.

I wish I’d got along to the Giant revisited tour, but Sunday night kind of made up for that, and I’ll be keen to catch Rolo and co. next time they’re out and about, to get back on board that Love Train. You can probably tell I wasn’t taking notes and never saw a setlist. Accordingly, I may have misremembered some of the part two songs, but ‘Well Well Well’ and ‘Why’ impressed. I think they played debut 45 ‘Plenty’ too, and should have known if they did ‘Love Affair for Everyday Living’ or ‘Move Me’. Problem was that I played all three later that night and couldn’t be sure by the time I scribbled my notes a few days later. Answers on a postcard, please.

As for that other lost hit that somehow wasn’t, ‘Good Thing’, the opening phase gave the impression we’d caught the band in post-split laidback Caribbean castaway lounge band residency status, but slowly but surely the song joyously came to life. And my other highlights included that stonking run through ‘Love Train’ and the gorgeous ‘Everything Breaks’, which was stuck in my head as I headed home beneath a full moon, temporarily back into my mid-‘80s world, resonating as much now as then, that line, ‘See the stars shine so brightly for me tonight’ still with me.

After such a full-on set, it seemed rather churlish to expect them to return from the upstairs dressing room to give us any ‘more’. Thinking of Vesa’s contribution alone made me ache. Besides, this was three great bands for the price of one, another fine example of how this venue pulls in impressive names and should-be-names. And there are (ahem) plenty more of those lined up.

If you want to see bands at a proper intimate venue that aren’t just about covers of ‘Wonderwall’ and the like, The Ferret and not so far off Continental are the place to be. There will be more of the same in your happening town too, no doubt. Use those venues, support them wisely, and drink in the atmosphere … while you still can.

For the latest regarding community efforts to save The Ferret in Preston, head here. Six songs from the night were captured by Ann Nazario for her splendid YouTube channel, linked here. Meanwhile, for all the latest from The Woodentops, head here. The same goes for Uhr and The Amber List.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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