Few bands split popular opinion like Stereophonics. To many people, they were (and still are) up there with the big beasts of indie-rock in the late 90s and early 00s and, unlike the majority of their peers, they still remain an arena-filling band of some note 20 years later. To many others, however, they are an incredibly average middle-of-the-road rock band that somehow survived where others faltered. The speed at which the Brighton Centre sold out, and a venue that showed little sign of people dropping out even despite the paralysing freeze from the “Beast from the East”, would indicate that the former is nearer the truth – though the ensuing couple of hours would have done little to reverse the naysayers’ point of view either.
Support came from a surprisingly static Ten Tonnes, otherwise known as Ethan Barnett. His performance was a good fit for the main act, his indie-pop feel-good vibes bringing The Kooks strongly to mind. There was no hint of Barnett looking out of place on the big stage, but he will want to look at adding some stagecraft and presence to what is a very likeable sound. Gratefully received by a fairly (and understandably) muted crowd still warming up their extremities with the help of the bars scattered around the venue, it was a promising step up for the highly-rated youngster.
As soon as Stereophonics took to the stage, any lingering remnants of the deep freeze were immediately dispatched. Bathed in red light at the end of a short runway, Kelly Jones kicked the night off with ‘Chances Are’, taken from last year’s Scream Above The Sounds. As a statement of intent, it was a promising one and was quickly followed by one of the stronger tracks from that album in ‘Caught By The Wind’. From there it was a setlist dominated by their early halcyon days and their recent resurgence as a four-piece, with new additions Adam Zindani on guitar and Jamie Morrison on drums bolstering the remaining original members in Kelly and Richard Jones (no relation). With only a couple of songs from the middle decade of a long career, it summed up the band’s attitude to those years of drift where a rapid turnover of band members undermined a stratospheric beginning.
Tonight, their confidence in the newer tracks seemed well founded. While big tracks from the past like ‘Superman’ felt stodgy, and even their gargantuan hit single ‘Have A Nice Day’ felt a little too beige, moments like the much-better-live-than-on-record ‘Geronimo’ gave a new spark with an extended saxophone solo while the finale of ‘All In One Night’ summoned up a crashing storm of sound during a surprisingly raucous crescendo. It was interesting to see audience reactions during these, as tracks that would surely still be a little unfamiliar to many received a rapturous response at their ending. It was the old favourites that rang the loudest with the fans of course though. The singalong to ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ was deafening, and it was followed by far the most effective part of the show as the entire band decamped to the end of the podium. Joking that the effect was lessened slightly due to such a short runway (“It’s much longer at Wembley”, Kelly joked as they were only a few metres further forwards than normal), the group performed a short series of stripped-back versions of some fan favourites.
Perhaps it was the quieter setting or the lack of bombastic rock effects, but hearing tracks like ‘Handbags and Gladrags’ or ‘I Wouldn’t Believe Your Radio’ stripped of all bar the essentials offered a fascinating glimpse into a potential path that Stereophonics could once have gone down but chose against. Kelly Jones’ voice was allowed the space to shine through for perhaps the first time in the night, and it was a reminder of the phenomenal blues voice that he still possesses. Compared to some of the rather routine ‘big rock band in an arena’ moments that occasionally popped up at other points, this felt real and authentic. As the band returned to the main stage, that mood dissipated sadly as the show entered a bit of a ‘filler’ section – at just under two hours long overall, this part of the set in particular could have done with some selective pruning before the likes of ‘Just Looking’ and ‘Traffic’ lifted it once more. These are the moments that many had come for, and a multitude of pints were raised into the air as old friends embraced to the anthems of their youth.
As the night came to a close with the superb ‘Dakota’, it was easy to reflect on just why they mean so much to so many people. When they get it right, they are one of the best British stadium rock bands of the last 20 years. However, for much of the set, a little less polish and a little more improvisation would have been welcome while the middle part of the show could certainly have done with losing four or five tracks (at least). Overall though, there was more than enough gold scattered around to make up for any over-indulgence and, as they head off to yet more sold out arena shows, it would seem that the lovers are still by far out-numbering the doubters.