Another week in December 2021 had passed, full of stress and uncertainty about the immediate future. Both the progression of the pandemic, and our government’s incoherent and unpredictable reaction to it, were filling me with a deep sense of unease. But then it was Friday night, and I was inside Brixton Academy, my favourite venue of them all, waiting for the Charlatans in a crowd full of happy people, with a glass of wine warming my soul, and listening to a great support set from Martin Carr and What Future. And, just as with my Manics gig of the week before, I felt my anxieties evaporate into the ether. In that precise moment, life felt really good.
I am what you might describe as a casual fan of the Charlatans. They were one of many bands I discovered when I became obsessed with the UK indie scene in 1992, and I bought their second album “Between 10th and 11th” that year after thoroughly enjoying the off-kilter melancholy of its singles “Weirdo” and “Tremelo Song”. But when they moved onto a more classic rock style in the mid-90s they drifted slightly away from my interest, though as a music fan of the 90s their consistently great tunes were a constant backdrop to my life. More recently however I’ve really enjoyed their 2017 album “Different Days”, and for any music fan, singer Tim Burgess has become an iconic figure during pandemic times, hosting Twitter listening parties to unite fans around the world in times of isolation and uncertainty.
I’ve only seen the band once before – as a prelude to David Bowie at the 2004 Isle of Wight festival – but I was not prone to writing extensive reports about gigs that year, and all I noted down in my diary was that they were ‘brilliant’. So when gigs started to happen again this year, and the Charlatans announced their greatest hits tour, I felt it was high time that I made the effort to go and see them again – especially as it was going to be at such a fantastic venue as Brixton.
The first thing I noticed as I waited for the band this evening was how different the crowd at this gig seemed to the crowds at other bands of a similar vintage that I’m familiar with. When I go to a Manics or Suede gig, for example, the experience is very much one of being surrounded by aging indie boys and girls, 40- and 50-somethings reliving our youths and celebrating our life-long favourite bands. At the Charlatans, the crowd seemed much more diverse in age, with even some surprisingly hipster-looking youngsters joining the party, complete with trendy beards and hats.
With such youthful energy infused into a crowd mingled with nostalgic oldies like me, the atmosphere was truly buzzing from the beginning. There’s a sense of intensity and seriousness to the fan response at many of the bands I normally see, like the Manics, that was absent here – the crowd wanted to do nothing but dance and sing with wild abandon from the very start. And stirring up this heavingly energised crowd with expertise was colourful figure of Tim Burgess. From the sprawling monster of an opening track “Forever”, he never stopped engaging with the crowd, prompting many arm waving or jumping outbreaks.
And few bands have such a rousing catalogue of hits as the Charlatans. To a visual backdrop of scenes of the band throughout their history, they surged through a startlingly confident set of classics. Again and again a riff or refrain would start up that shot through your heart like a blast of pure sunshine, forcing you to dance and sing along. From the piercing keyboard explosion of “Weirdo” to the strident groove of “Then” and the intensely infectious “Just When You’re Thinking Things Over”, the atmosphere of sheer celebration remained vividly pulsating throughout the throng. I have not seen such a joy-filled crowd, smiling and dancing with pure undiluted happiness, for a long time.
Halfway through came “One To Another”, which took the gig into another dimension, its pounding piano notes eliciting waves of abandoned delight. This section of the gig was the only one where songs took a more heavy, serious turn, with a sombre monologue from Ian Rankin leading into the starkly foreboding “Plastic Machinery” being a particularly powerful moment. Despite the slightly darker sounds in these tunes, a sense of light and joy still shone through, and the message was overpoweringly one of humanity and love.
From here, the atmosphere only took on new heights. Catapulting on to “The Only One I Know”, the first Charlatans song I ever heard back in the hazy mists of the early 90s, was a pure blast of nostalgic euphoria, and to follow it with “North Country Boy”, that most joyously melancholy-tinged tune from the height of the 90s, was incredible. I’m not quite sure how the 90s-vintage half of the Academy crowd didn’t spontaneously combust in pure elation there and then.
The gig finished as it began, with a sprawling epic – this time “Sprostron Green” – and the screens behind the band were showing scenes of the young Charlatans racing down a country road as though ready to fling themselves into the adventures that lay ahead. And leaving the Academy, that’s just how I felt – once again, live music had been the perfect remedy for a mind full of worries about the future.
Sadly, the days immediately following this gig proved that some of the worries were not unfounded. COVID cases continue to run rampant, forcing many bands to cancel or postpone their remaining December tour dates, including the Charlatans. And I found myself, two days after the gig, laid low with an extremely nasty flu-type bug which surprisingly enough, turned out not to be COVID. It seems that other diseases are in fact still available.
Despite all this, I’m incredibly happy to have seen out my gigging year with the Charlatans. The future may once again be an uncertain thing, but the pure sense of joy and happiness that infused the crowd this Friday night will stay with me for a long time. If new restrictions do indeed come to pass, then the memories of this night will keep me going until the time comes when I can find myself inside a gig crowd once again.