A new venue for me, and a cracking one at that. Initially set up as a bar with in-house art gallery and performance space, The Talleyrand – around four years on as a venue, give or take the odd break for pandemics – certainly proved far more appealing than the journey there on a foul autumn night, Lord SatNav sending me a long way round the M60, coming in via Stockport East, my eldest daughter arriving in the opposite direction via a city centre train to Buxton.
In case you’re wondering (and even if you weren’t), it’s named in honour of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord (I guess they couldn’t fit all that on the sign outside), who in the early 1790s headed for Levenshulme to escape Madame la Guillotine, sticking around a couple of years before heading back to become Napoleon’s crafty chief diplomat, Monsieur Bonaparte later elegantly dubbing him ‘shit in a silk stocking’. Or was that a demand?
And while there’s probably a neat line I could work in there to seamlessly bring me to the history of The Chesterfields, I’ll just have to admit I’ve missed a trick and make do with the fact that they decided not to play ‘Storm Nelson’ on the night (from the LP, Bouilloire).
My second live show in five days, and a perfect follow-up to The Undertones with Hugh Cornwell in Lytham, both The Chesterfields and The Amber List (new rule: all support bands should include a Cornwell) gave committed performances suggesting they’ve come a long way recently. And I don’t just mean the Isle of Wight, Dorset and Somerset in the case of the headliners.
I’d struggle to find links between West Country indie darlings The Chesterfields and their Lancashire-based support too. In fact, despite visiting my better half in Lancashire since 1989, the year in which Amber List frontman Mick Shepherd’s band, Big Red Bus released their self-named debut LP on cult Preston label/shop Action Records, I wasn’t aware of them until this century. I did however catch the original Chesterfields live for a second time that year, Davey Goldsworthy having left at that point, sole ever-present Simon Barber sharing vocal duties with brother Mark that time at the University of Surrey.
But The Amber List certainly impressed on my second sighting of their honed down three-piece, perhaps the right size of combo for such a narrow stage, just enough room for Tony Cornwell’s lead guitar amblings and Mick’s DMs, which drew the eye at times. There were just three of us in the room when they opened with ‘Red Lines and Promises’, that Jo Cox-inspired number seemingly ever more relevant with this shit-show of UK politics we have right now. But quite rightly the room soon filled up, that one of just four songs featured from splendid 2021 debut LP, The Ache of Being, indicating how fast they’ve evolved, having the confidence to do that.
Those songs were accompanied by two numbers from a pre-pandemic debut EP, and several new ones helping highlight their formation switch. The original four-piece line-up worked well, but this combination – completed by drummer Simon Dewhurst – works even better, appearing to offer more freedom to experiment and, erm, rock out.
While they finished with ‘New Day Calling’ and the mighty ‘Home’, new tracks such as ‘Did It Really Happen?’, ‘Slowburn’, ‘First Steps’, ‘Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’, ‘White Lies’, and ‘Half a Life’ also impressed. And although I’ve cited the like of Gene and The Las’s before now as possible influences, I was also getting heavier references now, including mid-term That Petrol Emotion.
I’m pleased to say the harmonies remain sublime as well, all three pitching in, and while Tony denies knowledge of any Neil Young & Crazy Horse-type guitar fixation, I could see them pull off a winning take on ‘Cinnamon Girl’ at the Amber List office Christmas party. Time will tell.
On to the headliners, and the first of four confessions. ‘Shame About the Rain’ was always perhaps my favourite Chesterfields song. It appeared on more of my compilation tapes than any others. But today’s take leaves me wanting it sped up, and it doesn’t help when they start the set with it. Maybe build up to that, then ramp it up a bit. And now I’ve got that out of the way, here comes the praise … and plenty of it.
From the moment they hit new LP opener, ‘Bitesize’, they were on great form, any nerves seemingly dispelled. And as with the support, the word confidence is important here, as is the case – ditto The Amber List – with the harmonies, Simon and ‘out front’ bandmates Helen Stickland and Andy Strickland (I get bored of mentioning this, but yes, different surnames, nearly but not quite the same) on form throughout.
My second confession? First time I saw this version of The Chesterfields, perhaps nostalgia saw me through. Privately, I felt they were trying just that little too hard, as if subconsciously apologetic for considering resuming without Davey, killed in a hit and run accident in 2003. But they stepped it up between Preston’s The Continental in February 2017 and Manchester’s Night & Day in September 2019. And three years on, it’s even better.
That sense of guilt I felt was under-scoring it has long since gone, any mentions of the former lead singer (Simon also sang lots of songs, but I don’t think he’d take issue with that description) mere celebrations, recalling halcyon days and a true force of nature.
The fact that Andy featured with the band briefly in ’87 helps with regard to keeping the right to the name, but that’s immaterial anyway. They’re their own being now – if the various permutations of Simon and Davey-led outfits were The Chesterfields, Mk. I, and the Simon and Mark-led line-up was the Mk.II take on the band, this Mk.III collective – completed by dependable drummer Rob Parry – has now truly earned its place in that story, the strength of the newly-released New Modern Homes LP all the proof needed, and these live performances a bonus.
Andy’s past in The Loft and The Caretaker Race speaks for itself, Rob’s steady input from the back seals his rightful place, and Helen’s certainly come into her own, as I guess the band always hoped would be the case, her vocals, harmonies and songwriting proven in the studio and live arena (even if the word arena is not the one that springs to mind considering the last two Manchester appearances).
Andy’s skills with a pen as well as a guitar are further enhanced on the LP and his live delivery, his first offering on this occasion, ‘You’re Ace from Space’, somewhere between the Velvets, The Go-Betweens, and The Loft. I’m sorry now that I missed out on The Caretaker Race first time around, if the quality of songwriting here is anything to go by. And that contrast with his voice – as was so important with past line-ups – complements his winning way with hooks and licks, so to speak. In fact, the last line on that song brings to mind All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison. Praise indeed.
Confession three. I wasn’t initially convinced about ‘Mr Wilson Goes to Norway’, despite loving the idea of a song from the wondrous Kettle being afforded the ‘where are they now?’ treatment. But having seen them play it live, and now catching it in the context of the LP, I see how good it is.
They delved further back then, with first flexi-single ‘Girl on a Boat’, then gave us ‘89’s pre-break-up single, ‘Fool is a Man’, Simon tempting fate by letting on how he’d got the first line wrong singing it in front of his brother – the song’s author – on the previous date in Bristol. He was word perfect this time though, and it’s a number that’s stood the test of time.
Then came what’s become something of a Chesterfields standard of late, Andy’s sublime Caretaker Race hit that got away, ‘Anywhere but Home’, as good as ever on this evidence. Meanwhile, band and audience alike supplied pretend brass in lieu of a horn section on the mighty ‘Goodbye Goodbye’, which I always imagined – and don’t disappoint me, Simon – was a tribute to Karen Carpenter (‘She said goodbye to love, but she didn’t want to go’), while Helen’s ‘Year on the Turn’ was operfectly delivered. And am I the only one that sees it as this LP’s answer song – from a female perspective – to Davey’s ‘Besotted’ on second album, Crocodile Tears?
Four further cuts from the new LP followed, starting with Simon’s quirky ‘Oh My Ampersand!’ and perhaps my evening highlight, Andy’s ‘Postpone the Revolution’ a late addition, dedicated to his niece on the merch desk. That was followed by a rather raw ‘My Bed is an Island’ before an emotional take on the lead single (the reason for that New Modern Homes title, and among my top-three singles this year), ‘Our Songbird Has Gone’ introduced by a choked Simon in tribute to his former co-frontman, and went down a storm.
There was still time for two crowd-pleasing late ’80s indie golden oldies, the Kettle back on, ‘Simon’s ‘Ask Johnny Dee’ followed by a celebratory, heartfelt and well executed ‘Completely & Utterly’. Or should that be electrocuted, bearing in mind those electric guitars in their hearts? Either way, the crowd called for more, but time was against them, and I reckon they’d scaled the heights already. A triumphant return to Manchester before taking that ‘Last Train to Yeovil’ in preparation for their seven-date autumn jaunt finales in Frome and Winchester.
And confession number four? I feared the overall quality of this LP before it landed. I wondered if ‘Our Songbird’ had set unrealistic expectations. But the follow-up 45s also impressed, then – in the week of this appearance – I got to realise the quality runs through the 12 tracks of New Modern Homes. They came up with the goods, song-wise, made a cracking job of putting them down in the studio, then headed out on the road to deliver them live, in style. Can’t say fairer than that.
I won’t go into details on the other tracks missed off the setlist. Find out for yourself. But I look forward to more of the same from here on in. No pressure, mind.
For this website’s July 2022 feature/interview with Simon Barber, head here. For a February 2017 feature/interview with Simon, head here. And for the follow-up from September 2019, head here. Meanwhile, from May 2021, Andy Strickland talks The Loft, The Caretaker Race, The Chesterfields, and much more here.
For July 2021’s feature/interview with The Amber List, when they were still a four-piece, head here. And for more details about the band, their physical and digital releases, and other live shows, head here and check out the band’s Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.