In the summer of 2014, the Levellers issued a comprehensive greatest hits package, bringing together almost all of their single releases and promo videos in one place. Following a few festival shows, the band’s full tour staged at the end of the year was to be a celebration those hits to date. Tours often gain that certain something extra after a few shows, but right from this first night in a provincial theatre on the Kent coast, it’s clear from about three songs into their ninety minute set that Brighton’s favourite sons are on fine form.
From the moment Mark, Simon and co arrive on stage, they appear very calm – as befitting of an act with so many years’ live experience. Although the set consists solely of hits, it seems an odd choice to kick off with the very well known ‘Beautiful Day’– at this early juncture the band seem sedate and most of the audience appear to be surprisingly indifferent. Whether this has to do with the slighter older crowd present on a work night, or the chosen venue remains to be seen but, before long, things pick up pace. A trip back farther in time brings fantastic renditions of ‘Fifteen Years’ and ‘Belarus’, the hard chug of the latter sounding particular fearsome from the balcony. With bassist Jeremy thrashing his signature dreadlocks at stage left and Simon getting to cut loose with a distorted guitar on centre-right – all set against a monochrome lighting – there’s a real menace. Faced with such a prospect, pockets of the capacity crowd finally start to cut loose.
‘World Freakshow’ and its upbeat folk vibes really please the attendant crowd, this tune – now nearing a quarter century in age – sounds as buoyant and fresh as ever, before ‘Far From Home’ brings a welcome wave of nostalgia and the excuse for a hearty singalong. ‘Together All the Way’ and ‘Dog Train’ fly past in what feels like an instant, the former’s performance boosted by a guest appearance from the legendary Pauline Black, whose band, The Selecter are providing sterling support to the tour), before Mark Chadwick takes the helm for ‘Julie’, showing off his voice in a stripped back setting, a voice sounding every bit as good as it does on record. At this point – if it wasn’t already abundantly clear already – it’s obvious the Levellers are a damn fine live act. There’s barely a duff note in any of these performances and the stage presence comes naturally throughout, with Chadwick just bantering very naturally between songs without feeling the need to raise his voice or show any false bravado. As the final notes of ‘Julie’s vocal melody fades, there comes this particular gig’s finest moments. Guest musician Stephen Boakes appears with a didgeridoo and face paint and performs the end section of ‘The Boatman’ before the band launch into a great rendition of the 1992 hit ‘This Garden’ accompanied by a great light show. [At this point, the mood in the balcony is lifted farther once a very drunk woman is escorted from the premises]. Still standing as one of the Levellers’ best known tunes, the anthemic ‘One Way’ finds both band and audience almost taking the roof off the Folkestone venue in what is undoubtedly the show’s natural peak.
As with all high points, there’s a gentle comedown. Here, a chance for reflection comes during ‘Too Real’ (arguably one of the set’s lesser-known offerings). Despite being overshadowed a little by its heavy riff on this occasion, ‘Hope Street’s social commentary has an obvious relevance and the band attacks it accordingly, with Mark and Simon’s harmonies on the chorus being suitably tight. Another trip back to the Levellers’ beginnings, fan favourite ‘Carry Me’ remains a fabulous folk song and sounds fine with band and audience in unison, before the set pulls to a close with three of the night’s stronger performances. More recent singles ‘Cholera Well’ and ‘Come On’ show the Levellers to have pretty much the same spark as they had when writing ‘World Freakshow’ and ‘Carry Me’ so many years previously, with ‘Come On’ especially inviting to those willing to raise their voices en masse. Finishing with a storming ‘Liberty’, the crowd erupts again in pretty much the same way it had for ‘One Way’, proving that no matter how many years pass, the ‘Levelling the Land’ material still resonates within the hearts of most. ‘Just the One’ leads off a two song encore with an odd indifference (much like ‘Beautiful Day’ some ninety minutes previously), before a raucous cover of ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’ ends things on a very high note, with a very strong feeling of unity within the audience.
For the longtime fan, with so many album tracks are ingrained to memory, this gig (and tour) doesn’t give as complete a picture of some shows past, but very much like the greatest hits package, the current set showcases how many great hits the band have at their disposal – and based on this performance, this is no mere nostalgia trip. So many bands start to wear around the edges after so long on the road, but the talents the Levellers possessed in the past are still very much there in the present, their music as well-played as ever. With this tour taking stock of some twenty five years, let’s hope the future brings more greatness.
[Read a review of the Levellers ‘Greatest Hits’ here.]