I last saw Suede at the Hammersmith Apollo just over a year ago, an utterly fantastic gig which left me itching to see them again as soon as possible. So I was a bit disappointed that this year’s April tour occurred in a time when I was too busy with work to be able to scoot around the country in band-chasing mode (though I did manage a little squeeful moment when Brett Anderson unexpectedly sat next to me on the tube one day). My one wish was for one last London gig before the Blue Hour era was over – and with the announcement of this gig, my wish came true in spectacular style.
However, the reason that this gig had to occur at all is less than good: long-standing crew member of both Suede and the Pretenders, John Brandham, suffered a stroke, leaving him unable to work for the foreseeable future. And so Brandaid was born – a one-off co-headlining gig from these two legendary bands, all in support of raising funds for John to help him in his recovery.
So off I strode to the Shepherds Bush Empire this wintry November night. I will admit to being a little anxious about this gig, not because of the bands, but because of the venue. It’s a beautiful and legendary building for sure, but every time I’ve been to a gig there in recent years, for example, at the Manic Street Preachers gigs in May of this year, the downstairs area has been so packed and crowded as to make me feel unsafe. It’s one thing for there to be a bit of crushing and jostling in the heat of the crowd, but with the small size of the Empire’s standing area, it can make it feel like there’s nowhere to escape to. I nearly bought myself a balcony seat for this gig, but was unwilling to pay extra to be further away from the band, and so I braved the downstairs crush once again.
As I entered the venue just before 8pm however, I began to wish that I’d paid that bit more for the balcony. The floor area was so tightly packed that I couldn’t even enter it from the right hand stairs, and so had to watch the beginning of the Pretenders’ set from the upstairs bar area. I finally made it onto the floor from the left hand stairs, and found a tiny pocket of space by the side bar, from which I watched a nearby behatted bloke start to throw punches at other crowd members before being escorted out by security. Shepherds Bush Empire was definitely living up to my expectations as my least favourite venue in London.
What with all this kerfuffle, I was not able to focus on the Pretenders’ set as much as I would have liked. They rattled through a selection of their classic hits in spirited form, to great appreciation from the crowd. I will admit to being not overly familiar with their back catalogue and was pleasantly surprised at how rocky and even punky many of their tunes were. It was a fine start to the evening.
But the main event for me was Suede. This band has been in my life for 27 years, and while I haven’t followed every single tour or album, they hold a huge place in my heart. I was overjoyed at this unexpected chance to see them one more time before they presumably disappear to focus on recording the next album.
However, as they took the stage, I thought I might have to have my Suede fan badge revoked altogether, as I had no clue what the first song was. Happily though, this turns out to be because it was an entirely new song, and not because I’m a negligent fan. “White Boy On A Stage” was a fantastically sinister and sleazy tune, reminiscent of the trashier side of “Dog Man Star” such as “This Hollywood Life”. If it’s an indicator of the direction of the next Suede era, then we have an almighty treat ahead of us when they return.
Next up was “Outsiders”, with Brett clambering atop a speaker stack to holler and point his way through the triumphant chorus. This was the first time I’d actually been able to see him, and so I took the opportunity to grab a few pictures. Then I put my phone away and didn’t take it out for the rest of the evening. I was just in the mood to experience this gig the way I used to in the 90s, totally in the moment, not worrying about capturing as much as possible for posterity.
And I’m so glad I did, because this was a gig of storming tune upon storming tune, and endless barrage of hits with so many moments where all you want to do is leap and point and shout along. I found myself alongside a pair of cheerfully tipsy blokes, and together we danced and sang and pointed our way through “So Young” and “Filmstar” and “Trash” and all the many other anthems for the alienated that make up much of Suede’s back catalogue. It was so nice to a part of Shepherd’s Bush crowd that just wanted dance and celebrate together rather than shove and hit and trample.
But for all the raucousness of many Suede classics, it was the quieter songs that really hit me in the heart this evening. “Pantomime Horse” was glorious to hear, even more so because it was played at John’s request, and it was a shimmering, shiver-inducing rendition of the song.
But best of all for me was “The Wild Ones”, which Brett performed solo with just an acoustic guitar. He sat away from the mic and just let his voice project into the venue as he sang this most yearningly beautiful song. The crowd at first sang along somewhat tentatively, but after the first chorus Brett exclaimed “sing along!” After this, we gave full voice to the second verse as Brett sang it completely a capella. It felt like such a massive privilege for us to be able to just lose ourselves in singing along with him. To hear my own voice in my ears along with Brett’s as he stood singing just a few metres away, all mingled in the thousand other voices, in a room where nothing mattered more in that moment than singing this untouchable song, was indescribably wonderful. It was one of my best gig moments ever.
The main set ended with the ever-joyous “Beautiful Ones”, and as chunks of the crowd made their way out for an early exit, I was able to scoot forward to find a large empty space behind the very front of the throng. As no one else had raced forward to fill this space with me, it meant that I had my own mini-dancefloor from which to sway along to “Life Is Golden” and have one last shout and leap and point to “New Generation”. It was an excellent way to end this fabulous gig.
For all my misgivings about this venue, it ended up being a night of glorious fun and celebration. It was wonderful to be able to support this band who mean so much to so many of us, in helping out someone who has been so important to them behind the scenes for a very long time. The year has definitely ended on a high for Suede fans, and it looks like there are exciting times to come whenever the next album arrives. For Suede fans in 2019, life truly is golden.