The stars have finally aligned for the return of 12 Stone Toddler. These guys were always one of Brighton’s best loved bands, with a massive cultish following of devotees who would pack out every gig, drink the bar dry and terrify the locals on their rowdy way home. I don’t think I’m being over the top by saying they felt like a phenomenon at the time, producing two sparkling albums that showcased world-class songwriting, musicianship and unique style. Unfortunately the band never managed to get that big break that they deserved at the time, everyone in the know felt they should have gone platinum, been all over our TV screens and toured the world but, frustratingly, word of mouth just couldn’t travel fast enough. Perhaps they were too radical, their originality a sort of a curse in a risk-averse music industry.
Fast-forward eight years and the band are finally back, playing a special showcase set at the Green Door Store, tucked between a series of great festival slots (Glastonbury, Boomtown, Bestival). This was the chance for fans, old and new, to hear some old favourites alongside a decent selection of the songs the guys are currently recording for their third album, which should be with us before the year is out on Freshly Squeezed. It was a lovely warm evening and the show was a complete sell-out, without a support act to distract, the stage was set perfectly for a night of pure Toddler joy.
Chris Otero and Ben Jones are the ideas men behind the project and tonight we get to see the last eight years have been kind to them: Otero’s vocals still soar up from a croon to the highest of notes and Jones’ skill on the keyboards is, as ever, the stuff of legend. They’ve been backed over the years by a Spinal Tap-esque revolving door of lead guitarists and drummers. The new line-up shares a couple of players with the god of hell-fire, Arthur Brown’s latest touring group, and they’ve proven to be the perfect additions to the Toddler team. Helen Durden and Robin O’Keeffe, on guitar and drums respectively, not only bring the requisite level of quality on their instruments, they are both accomplished singers too, adding a new depth to the live show with backing vocals recreating studio ideas in greater detail than before. To top it off they both clearly love being part of the project, as the pair were beaming from ear to ear throughout the show – that kind of enthusiasm is infectious, although not really necessary for the crowd tonight, who all appeared to be major Toddler-philiacs.
They start the show, of course, with ‘Come Back’, a tune penned long ago and the first track on their debut album Does It Scare You?. Along with ‘Candles On The Cake’, which sounds amazing tonight, the renewed Toddler manage to give off the impression that they’ve had a Svengali-like master plan for their career all along – had they planned to take a long sabbatical and return renewed and ready to take on the world from day one? The ‘Candles’ chorus refrain of, “we’re not getting older, we’re just getting better” never sounded more triumphant, with the packed out crowd singing-along to every word. But the main focus tonight was not reliving former glories, instead the band were focussed and intent on showing us their new bag of tunes, which contained some real gems. ‘Piranha’ seemed the freshest of the batch, or perhaps just the fastest, played early in the set, Otero seemed almost surprised by the buoyant reaction from the crowd, “you liked that one, didn’t you?” he purred. ‘My Machine’ clunks along like a broken robot, a classic bit of Toddler, a slow funk with dangerously catchy melodies and a strong whiff of underlying menace. ‘Nice Surprise’ is a perfect rock ballad, with a killer chorus. ‘Ride A Donkey’ was a somewhat more self-indulgent ride, which Otero explained, was more for their benefit than ours; an odd groove that caught the room off guard a little bit, certainly a track I’d love to hear the studio version of, to better familiarise myself with. A little later in the set they pulled out ‘Mirrorball’, which sounded to me more dub than anything the band have done before, with single-potential written all over it.
It was interesting that the band ignored, with the exception of ‘Death In The Zoo’, their second album, opting instead to focus on the debut and a few B-sides and rarities. Perhaps showing us their desire to unlock the potential of those energetic early days, reaching back in order to thrust forwards. Whatever the motivation, it’s hard to imagine a song being better received than their finale of ‘The Rabbit’, which had the whole sweaty room bopping along. They’d have been jiving too if there was any room to manoeuvre! A truly triumphant return for rock’s fat baby, Toddler are back with a vengeance and we can’t wait for their next step.