In a few weeks’ time on this blog, I will reach gig no.11 of All The Gigs Of My Life, a truly astonishing night that completely turned my little music-obsessed world around: my first ever Mansun gig in April 1997. But for now, I have my 149th and 150th gigs to talk about, and they were seeing Mansun’s singer Paul Draper playing one of the most important albums of my life, the album that led me to go and see them on that amazing night in 1997: “Attack of the Grey Lantern”.
I have a huge amount to thank Paul Draper for. Time and time again in my life, his music has dragged me out of the doldrums and helped me face my fears. The most recent time this happened was just a couple of years ago when I was 40. I gave up on music to a large extent during my 30s, and by 40 my life had hit an intolerable place – rubbish job, unfinished PhD, health in tatters, and quite frankly laughable relationship situation.
And then one night – and apologies for how corny this sounds – I had a dream. I dreamt that Mansun had reformed, and I’d been to see them live, and it was amazing to hear songs like “Wide Open Space” again. I awoke the next morning with a head swirling with memories of how exciting it had been, in my youth, to live and breathe for music, to spend my evenings at life-shatteringly wonderful gigs. And I decided to become that person again.
So here I am now, spending all my spare time listening to music, writing songs, going to gigs, and writing about music. Life is so, so much better now than it was that night, when I had that dream that led me to this point. And at the Ritz and the Electric Brixton these past few weeks, I have experienced the closest possible thing to that dream actually coming true.
Paul’s first solo tour was in September last year, but I missed that due to having the flu. Therefore I was not going to be put off by some mere ice age on the 1st of March, and I hurtled north to blustery, freezing Manchester to see him at the Ritz. I got to the venue around 8pm and found a spot a couple of rows from the front and slightly to the right of centre, figuring there wouldn’t be much of a mosh as all of us Draper fans are far too ancient for that now. Oh, foolish girl.
This was a gig of two sets – one of Paul’s excellent solo material, one set comprising “Attack of the Grey Lantern” in its entirety. The opening set of solo songs began at 8.30pm as the creepy electro bleeps of “Don’t Poke The Bear” filled the room and the band minus Paul took the stage to play its elongated intro. And then there was Paul, all in black, with a full country singer beard, and extravagant 90s-era fringe restored.
And he sounded utterly fantastic. From the deepest depths of his register through to the falsetto cries and wails, his vocal power is truly undiminished – in fact, I would say that his lower register is even stronger than ever before. “Don’t Poke The Bear” was immense, much tighter and more coherent than in its sprawling album version.
“Grey House” and “The Silence is Deafening” were next, followed by a rousing singalong of “Things People Want”, but the highlight of this first set for me was “Jealousy Is A Powerful Emotion”, my favourite track from the album, here performed as a solo acoustic version. Paul’s incredible voice defied adjectives here, as it leapt from his lower register for the verses up an octave for the chorus. In my diary I wrote words like “astounding”, “spine-tingling” and “just amazing” before admonishing myself for my crap vocabulary, but sometimes, those words are entirely justified.
“Don’t Poke The Bear” wasn’t the only song that improved for me compared to its recorded version. I had always found “Friends Make The Worst Enemies” a little dense and impenetrable on the album, but live, it was transformed into a truly magical song, with all its intricate melodic twists at the forefront instead of buried in the mix. Then we stomped our way through “Feeling My Heart Run Slow” and “Who’s Wearing the Trousers” before the interval which gave us “time for a double Sambuca” as suggested by Paul.
There were clearly a few fans there that night who were only interested in the Mansun songs, and they became apparent as we waited for the second set to begin, as a certain amount of pushing-in ensued. I wasn’t too bothered at first – I was pretty ecstatic just to have made it to a Paul Draper gig, to be honest, after missing all the gigs I’d booked on the previous tour – but as the night wore on certain elements of this group became pretty annoying.
But I was about to hear “Attack of the Grey Lantern” in full, and that was all that mattered. This was the album that soundtracked 1997 for me, my first year living on my own as an adult, in London, the city I’d always longed to live in. My first year of being able to see all the bands I loved, and live fully in the musical world I’d only previously been able to view from many continents away in Australia. Nothing evokes that amazing year for me more than this album.
So when the apocalyptic strings of “The Chad Who Loved Me” started up, I could do little but hold my head in awe at what I was experiencing. There have been few gig experiences since the 90s that have seemed so improbable as they unfolded in front of me as Paul Draper singing his way through this song and the following “Mansun’s Only Love Song”.
But this was a very different live experience to Mansun of old. Seeing Mansun live in the 90s was unequivocably a rock and roll experience. There were none of the embellishments or trinkets, loops or samples from the records at Mansun gigs: it was all about four boys making astounding rock music. In contrast, Paul’s Grey Lantern set attempted to recreate the album as faithfully as possible, with every bleep and shout and random sheep noise included. But there was nothing wrong with this. I didn’t go in expecting Paul to reproduce exactly what it had been like at Mansun gigs in the 90s. Paul brought his own version of the Mansun experience to the Ritz, and it was wonderful.
For me personally, this was also a very different experience to my Mansun gigs of old. I almost always used to be at the barrier, getting my lungs crushed by the weight of the crowd and my head nearly kicked off by low-flying crowd surfers. This time, I was in the mosh, which meant, I had to mosh! Which was undoubtedly fun, but it felt wrong, and I resolved to get down the front for my next Draper gig.
“You, Who Do You Hate?” turned out to be bloody amazing live. I will admit to sometimes thinking about this song as basically “the one before Wide Open Space” on the album, but in its live version, it was elevated to a major shout and point experience, as we all reached towards Paul crying out “You, yeah!” over and over.
The next few songs I had expected to be full of emotional resonance for me: “Wide Open Space” and “Stripper Vicar”, the first two Mansun songs I ever heard. And yet I could not wallow in emotion as I was forced to MOSH! It was a demented celebration to be sure, but I am seriously far too old for this. I had barely enough breath in me just to shout “plastic trousers!” And you know, a little bit of me actually did want to wallow, rather than leap about like a deranged being.
Around this time, a couple of the aforementioned annoying gits came crashing into the front rows with seemingly only one aim, which was to be as disruptive as possible and take selfies while doing it. I tried to ignore them and focus on the amazingness of “Disgusting”, “She Makes My Nose Bleed” and “Naked Twister” but in truth I was very glad that this was not the only Draper gig I had planned, as I really wanted to experience it from the barrier, free from gig idiots.
At this point Paul joked about running out of words at the end of the album and that we had to sing along with the innumberable “na na na” refrains that feature in the next two songs – a storming “Egg Shaped Fred” and un utterly unbelievable “Dark Mavis”. This last song had never been played live in the Mansun years, so I hadn’t known what to expect from a live version, but I certainly hadn’t expected it to be quite so incredible, with it’s dark, gorgeous melody rendered so powerful in the live setting, and somehow “Mavis, what he will wear!” becoming a rousing call to (and from) the faithful.
Then the band were off, and it was time to shout and stamp and holler until they returned and played “An Open Letter To The Lyrical Trainspotter”, which was a huge, camp, swayalong ending of pure joy.
I had been due to head to Sheffield the next day, to see him again at the Leadmill, but the frozen conditions made travelling east too treacherous, so I headed back home to London. One tiny week after this arctic adventure, however, I strolled out in my spring jacket to see Paul at Brixton. A whole season had come and gone in the space of this tour.
I got to the Electric a bit after doors and managed to find a space to the far right on the edge of the barrier. Once again Paul came on at 8.30 and rattled through a brilliant solo set, though sadly devoid of the acoustic “Jealousy” this time. I am just glad that this version is going to feature on the upcoming EP Three, released on the 16th, because I feel an intense need to hear it again!
Paul was in great spirits and in amazing voice again. The band were in brilliant form. It was Christina Hizon, formerly of the Pet Shop Boys’ band, who impressed me the most, playing the keys with some seriously cool charisma, as well as providing brilliant backing vocals. As a keyboard player myself I love to see women on the keys and I will follow Christina’s career with great interest.
The atmosphere was appropriately electric that night. Despite having a couple of oddly unmoved ladies to the left and right of me, there was overall so much love for Paul in the room, so much joy at just being here, hearing those songs. Wonderfully, there was an equal amount of enthusiasm for both Paul’s solo songs and for the Mansun songs of our youth.
After a storming solo set concluding with a joyous “Trousers” and a singalong refrain of “you took a liberty with me! no no no!”, we had again a “ten” minute break which was actually more like twenty. I didn’t really care how long the break was. I was down the front, in Brixton, waiting to hear Paul Draper sing Mansun songs. I kind of wanted that moment to last forever.
And it was something else, being right there at the front when the strings of “Chad” started up, just as they had for my first ever Mansun gig almost 21 years ago. Even if Paul immediately started talking all over it, which definitely would not have happened back in the day! There were moments during this set when I just shut my eyes and it was 1997 again. None more so than “Wide Open Space”, when I was finally able to wallow in a way I hadn’t back in Manchester. Unlike some of the other songs, “Wide Open Space” is pretty identical in its current live version to how it sounded at a Mansun gig in the 90s. “Taxloss”, in contrast, was a 100% rock stormer in the old days – and bloody amazing – but here it has all the album version’s embellishments including of course the disco breakdown, and is equally a thing of demented joy.
The crowd were incredibly up for it, carrying on the “ooh ooh ah ah!” refrain of “Taxloss” after it finished, prompting the band to reprise the song for a few celebratory moments. And after “Dark Mavis” – equally as wonderful as at Manchester – as we were waiting for the band to return, a football-style stomp and chant of “Draper!” filled the room. And once again we swayed along to “Lyrical Trainspotter” and I couldn’t help thinking that such a great little pop song might have made no.1 if he’d given it slightly less sarky lyrics. But that’s why we love it, of course.
And at the end, as Paul gathered his band mates together for a final bow, there was such warmth and joy in the room. It truly had been a celebration, not just of the past but the present as well, and the fact that we’ve all made it here from the 90s and onwards through this quite frankly bizarre century, and yet can still get together and hear the music that means the most to us, and look forward to more music to come from Paul.
And of course for me it had, quite literally, been a dream come true.