The seemingly inexhaustible jukebox that is my brain has a regular supply of new music added to it, by account of my voracious appetite for new songs and new artists to excite me. But amid the constant playlist updates are some releases that have been there for what seems like forever.
/Into the Pit/209/Red Box
/Into The Pit/Bands
/Into The Pit/Venue/Date
I would have been eight or so when my dad first picked up the debut Red Box album The Circle and the Square. Played often enough that it remained imprinted on my brain, I ended up with a (taped) cassette copy of my own at some point, and it remained an occasional favourite for many years. I never forgot about it, and when I saw that Cherry Red had re-released it in 2008, it took no time at all to pick it up – after all, by this point originals were impossible to find (unless you wanted to pay serious £££), it hadn’t been repressed in nearly two decades, and I rather wanted to be able to pay for an album I loved rather than relying by this point on a downloaded copy from the internet. This latter point is an important issue – thanks to label and rights changes over the years, there are a number of releases now entirely unavailable unless you can find some dicey download, and invariably I’d like to pay some money for such a release.
But as well as that cherished debut, the band – in various guises, but always with Simon Toulson-Clarke as principal songwriter and lead vocalist – have continued in fits and starts since, with a second album (Moving) nearly sunk entirely by label interference and indifference back in 1990, and then a resurrection for third album Plenty in 2010, and now, at last, a fourth album Chase The Setting Sun this month.
To mark the release of this new album, they decided to test the water in London with a small-scale show split into two parts, in a venue often better associated with punk. The plan was to play an earlier set at about 1900 for the benefit of the invited press, a short break and then a longer set with fan favourites and various talk along the way. I managed to miss the opening minutes of the first set, thanks to local traffic chaos after a fatal crash earlier in Finsbury Park, so missed the no-doubt rousing For America that opened the first set.
/Setlist/Red Box/first set
Chase The Setting Sun
This Is What We Came For
Lean On Me (Ah-Li-Ayo)
/Setlist/Red Box/second set
Heart of the Sun (acoustic)
Don’t Let Go
Billy’s Line (acoustic)
Gods & Kings
But no matter, as the rest of both sets was glorious. The first, shorter set concentrated perhaps on the punchier, poppier material – so three of the standouts from the new album, and the two top-ten hits the band had back in the eighties. And these songs between them neatly help to explain where the band have got to. The new songs are perhaps more restrained, from writers older and wiser, and content with their place in the world. But critically they keep the hooks, the open-eyes to music from across the world (even if that influence is more subtle than it was), and a clean, bright sound that makes it easy to feel like the songs are familiar, and friendly, already.
I probably shouldn’t have worried about Lean On Me (Ah-Li-Ayo) not being played, though. Their biggest hit and probably most enduring song, it was introduced by Simon with a story or two about the encouragement they had from the label at the time (at least one person of which was at the show), and how surprised they were when it blew up and hit the top three (still a major thing back in 1985). Hearing it live at last – and with a choir of vocals from pretty much the entire crowd providing ecstatic assistance – was something of an emotional wrench, but in a good way. It felt euphoric, a joyous release about the benefits of people working together to reach a common goal, and I’ll admit that I might have shed a tear or two while singing along myself.
The second set, most of the journalists invited along apparently gone, was very much fan service. Only a handful more new songs, and even a few deviations from the planned set to play fan requests instead. The acoustic take on Heart of the Sun was lovely, but was eclipsed by an extraordinary Billy’s Line, a song of youthful hope extinguished by poverty and loss, that was absolutely devastating in acoustic form (and even when missing the final, critical verse that explains it).
We perhaps needed a brighter moment after that, and it came in the form of one of two Buffy Sainte-Marie covers played – clearly Toulson-Clarke has a fascination with that legendary Canadian First Nation singer, as they’ve covered a number of her songs over the years. Saskatchewan, I’ve always thought, is a paean to a homeland, a wish to return home, and as such is something of a universal concept, but no less affecting for it.
Elsewhere, there were unexpected songs, like the charge of Train that amid mostly more restrained songs in the second set, didn’t half stand out as a result. Chenko finished things off – as it was the starting point for the band, I guess – and to my surprise was played in the more obscure, faster-paced original version, rather than the stately, slower variant that eventually made it onto The Circle and the Square. I’ve never been sure which I prefer, but then, I can love both, right?
I honestly had no idea what to expect from this show, but the hefty crowd – almost all of whom ensured they were there in time for both sets, despite the early start – and friendly nature generally of the evening, with Toulson-Clarke continuing to pick old friends in the crowd, and tell more stories around each song, made it a hugely enjoyable evening. It also, of course, scratched a long-standing itch, and to be able to hear some of my favourite songs ever in a live setting after all these years was at points a little overwhelming. Here’s hoping that they will play again over here – the new album deserves to be heard more widely.
Writer’s note: this write-up has been in the works for a good few weeks, and was meant to be posted a week or so after the show, but got caught up in dealing with the aftermath of a family bereavement – hence only posting this now.