Although I’ve never been the biggest afficianado, I must admit it felt a little strange leaving Brighton on the morning of Pride. Struggling across the parade line to cross town, missing my planned train in the process, waiting for the next, nearly empty train to depart, whilst on either side of us trains packed with glittery revellers prepared to disembark and party hard. I, however, was bound for Kentish Town to see live, in some cases for the first time, some of the bands that had ruled the airwaves during my early years as a burgeoning music fan. Britpop is back, in a way of sorts. It’s not exactly back in the mainstream, chart-bothering way, but then the charts are quite a different beast to those we obsessed over in the 90s. There are radio stations around the country that have stuck doggedly to a non-stop 90s programme since the noughties began. Star Shaped have been running their nostalgia club nights for a while now, but this is their first music festival experience: a touring all-dayer packed with names from the Britpop era (*correction – in fact we are late to the table and Star Shaped put on a Shed 7 fronted festival last year). Many of these bands never actually stopped touring, or have had only the briefest of hiatuses, but it must be a long time since so many have been found gathered together in the same place.
Having missed my planned train I arrived in time for the beginning of My Life Story’s set. My Life Story were known for their extravagant 12-piece orchestral touring group back in the day, but in recent years Jake Shillingford has stream-lined matters so he can more easily take the show on the road, with a rocking five-piece band. It works for them, having never seen the band in the early days it was great to see what a great frontman Shillingford is. Despite having a back catalogue the audience were least familiar with, their rousing performance really got people moving and cheering. He even managed a costume change, from a black suit to a white one, in order to pull out their best known track ‘12 Reasons Why I Love Her’ at the end of the set. There were times when the full band would have been appreciated though, such as ‘Strumpet’, where the trumpets were really missed with the audience not quite remembering the melody well enough to make it a successful sing-a-long moment.
Next up were Dodgy, who surprised me by performing one of my favourite sets of the night. As was entirely suitable for the Britpop era, me and my brother had a fierce sibling rivalry that divided along music lines. He tended to get the Oasis albums while I went for the Blur ones, and he got Dodgy’s excellent 1996 record Free Peace Sweet. With all the fine tracks they pulled out from it tonight, the nostalgia really started to kick in. That wasn’t what impressed me though, as Dodgy have been continuing to make new music recently and refused to only play the past tonight. The harmonies of their early hits had marked them out as Britpop’s answer to The Beach Boys (if The Supernaturals weren’t claiming it) and I can see their love of American music hasn’t left, with their more recent tracks tending towards a slight Americana feel. These guys are just a great band, evidently still writing strong songs, so I intend to check them out away from the nostalgia train soon. The highlight of the set for me though was from that classic album; ‘If You’re Thinking Of Me’ seemed to even surprise the band, with singer Nigel Clark saying it sounded better than the first time round, it certainly sounded gorgeous to me.
Space followed bursting with character and with, perhaps, the most up-to-date sound of the night. Back in the day I found the samples and break-beats on their debut Spiders a little incongruous. Whether it’s my taste that’s changed, or their ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ on the music tech front they certainly sound fresh and full tonight. And what a wonderful bunch of songs they’ve got. That debut album is jammed full of classics, from the obvious tracks like ‘Female Of The Species’ to the less well-remembered like ‘Mister Psycho’ they didn’t put a foot wrong throughout the set. Lead singer Tommy was clearly in his element: in the classic tradition of slightly diminutive singers with larger than life personalities, he stalked the stage alternating between his guitar and a bottle of red, charming the audience and with as fine a voice as he had 20 years ago. My favourite moments all came from their second album Tin Planet, one I shamefully didn’t even get at the time! ‘The Ballad Of Tom Jones’, complete with 90s Cerys Matthews on a video screen singing the duet lines was a highlight, but it was ‘Begin Again’ which stood out, with its grandiose Bond-esque strings and killer chorus about the man who would kill for love.
When Sleeper stepped out onto the stage it was clear they were going to steal the show from the huge roar that opened up from the crowd, one that would barely die down enough for Louise Wener to open the set with the first few bars of ‘Pyrotechnician’ solo: just vocal and an ever so slightly shaky bit of guitar playing. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was nervous after that reception: nothing quite primes an audience for excitement like a 19-year hiatus. Everything that had gone before suddenly felt like a build-up for this momentous return. I was one of the many teenage lads who had a solid indie kid crush on Wener back in the day, so much so I bought a blue telecaster after seeing her playing one on Top of the Pops! Within a couple of tracks it was clear she still had all the chops that made the band so irresistible back in the day, her sultry breathy vocals as effective on me now as they once had been. A few tracks in, ‘What Do I Do Now?’ really cemented this set as a triumph and everything soared from then on in. The band swelled with an additional guitarist, freeing Wener to patrol the stage, and later they borrowed My Life Story’s keyboard player to give a full-bodied sound to tracks like their cover of Blondie’s ‘Atomic’, which sounded fantastic. Finally closing a three-song encore with a rousing fast-paced take of ‘Sale of the Century’, the crowd erupted so uproariously that I didn’t envy The Bluetones having to follow them.
I needn’t have worried though, The Bluetones are old pros: seasoned professionals, with a great bag of tunes and, you might imagine, a fountain of youth at their disposal or a series of paintings hidden in their attic. Having had one of the most solid post-Britpop careers after the heydey, these guys produced another three albums and continued touring up to 2011, keeping the band going long after the two hit albums that they tend towards tonight. Lead-singer Mark Morris didn’t even stop then, touring as a solo artist for several years before The Bluetones reformed to tour in 2015. They perform a solid and consistent set that doesn’t need ramped up expectations to please the crowd. They prove themselves with a set, so full of ear-worms it makes you wonder why their later efforts weren’t more of a mainstream success. Perhaps now with a 90s revival in full-swing they’ll have more joy, although perhaps that’s a foolish thought, considering how at home and how celebratory they come across tonight. Morris makes a few quips about the nostalgia-fest but ultimately lands on the right side of sentimentality, praising the event and the camaraderie it has created in a group of bands who were more likely to be at each other’s throats with rivalry the first time round. ‘Solomon Bites The Worm’ from their second album has always been one of my favourite songs of the entire era, but again I’m surprised to find it’s an also-ran that wins the prize for most memorable track of the night. ‘Cut Some Rug’, with its fairly nonsensical lyrics, seemed to really strike a chord with me and the gathered masses. I was transported back to some 90s nightclub I was barely allowed to be in, singing my heart out about ‘blitzkreig and the doodlebug’ and ‘salt upon a bubbling slug’.
Well played Star Shaped, well played.
Read our 2017 interview with Lousie Wener from Sleeper HERE.
Read our 2016 live review of Space at The Haunt HERE.