It’s approximately 8:30pm. The house lights are wavering and there’s a growing feeling of tense excitement in the venue. Spent in the company of various bands from Britpop’s peak, the Star Shaped Festival has already provided a very enjoyable afternoon, but there’s also been a definite feeling throughout most of the day that a reformed Sleeper are the biggest draw, so perhaps this tense and nervous feeling is more than justified. There’s a lot riding on their return and this next hour.
The theme from Cheers pours from the speakers whilst Jon Stewart (guitar) and Andy Maclure (drums) take their positions on the stage. Louise Wener emerges from stage left to take her place at the microphone. Turning to face a London crowd for the first time in almost two decades, she stands still and says nothing; she just looks at the crowd and smiles a gloriously toothy grin and the audience, in turn, explodes with delight. Just her appearance back on a stage gets a much bigger response than any of the afternoon’s other acts have received for anything. It’s lovely…the heightened mood makes it almost a picture perfect moment. She stretches out the opening bars of ‘Pyrotechnician’ in an almost playful fashion and everyone seems fit to burst. With the thrashing opening bars of the main melody, it’s literally only a second before the crowd erupts into a mass of bouncing and lurching bodies and the tune itself comes across with an angular style and confidence. Wener is in great voice and it’s great to watch Jon adding various guitar textures to this great tune. As one of the more overlooked tracks from the debut album (1995’s ‘Smart’), it makes a perfect set opener. Moving through a ferociously taut ‘Dress Like Your Mother’ and ‘Delicious’ without missing a step, the band falls into a hugely confident stride, almost as if they’ve never been away. From a great vantage point from near the back of the ground floor, it’s entertaining to see an audience that’s not only swept along with the moment, but truly unified.
‘Lie Detector’ and ‘Statuesque’ – classics from 1996’s ‘The It Girl’ – show off new wavish greatness, with the guitar riff from the latter calling out above our heads with clarity, before ‘Vegas’ is given it’s full due with a saxophone as per the superior single recording. At this point, the venue seems almost airless and arguably the sweatiest its been since the Skindred headline show in May 2011. Asking if we’re “drunk enough for ‘Atomic’ yet?”, Louise announces “the disco part of the set” featuring a great version of ‘Nice Guy Eddie’ and the expected Blondie cover and there’s a feeling the audience won’t keep up with such frantic pace. Asking if everyone “wants to hear a new song”, Louise creates an obvious but brief frisson (“it’s a new direction, more arty…and might include mime”, she quips), but it’s all a ruse of course, and after breaking into ‘Inbetweener’, everyone joins in a particularly frenzied bounce where plastic glasses fly, spilling dregs of beer as they hurtle through the air (each tiny spillage costing a small fortune). The whole day has been leading up to this very moment it seems…and Sleeper do not disappoint. Ending the main set with ‘She’s a Good Girl’ (the lead single from 1997’s often overlooked ‘Pleased To Meet You’) seems an odd choice at first, but everyone needs a breather and introducing something unexpected from the third album gives an already perfectly structured set a feeling of completeness.
With the acoustic strains of ‘Miss You’ the encore has an understated start, before ‘Lady Love Your Countryside’ and monster hit ‘Sale of The Century’ whip the audience back into an absolute frenzy. With Wener clearly overcome by the response the band have received on this occasion, she invites us all into one last furious bounce. …And then, seemingly as quickly as they arrived, it’s time for Sleeper to leave. While it would be interesting to hear the spiky XTC-isms of ‘Glue Ears’, or perhaps revel in the retro power pop of ‘Stop Your Crying’, there’s only so much time…and as the band exits, it’s more than obvious that this has been a fantastic hour; a gig to treasure. More than cheap nostalgia, far more than a chance for teenage crushes to be fully reawakened, this set has shown how the power of the best Sleeper material remains undiminished. Their fusion of Blondie-esque pop melodies, pop-punk riffery and lyrical vignettes of lost souls and broken relationships stretch back further than the Britpop age that spawned and embraced them, and Sleeper themselves – now older and more confident – are fiercer and tighter than ever in the musical stakes, able to breathe new life into old classics at almost every step.
While the future of the band remains uncertain, this gig has been amazing. It’s great to have Sleeper back, even if only for a while.