It’s sometime after 10.20pm and the downstairs of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire is completely rammed. There’s barely any room to move. It didn’t seem this busy when Carter USM‘s Jim Bob played his brilliant sold out show here just a week earlier, but that’s probably due to more people being in the balcony. The majority of people may be downstairs for this second London double headliner between The Wonder Stuff and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin tonight, but that has the effect of adding plenty of atmosphere. Whatever the crowd logistics, it’s impressive the Stourbridge lads can still pull such a huge crowd on their second night in such a large venue.
The Wonder Stuff have just finished a rousing rendition of ‘Golden Green’ in front of a particularly boisterous audience and frontman Miles Hunt appears agitated. Taking to the mic, he has something important to get off his chest. “Those people who’ve reached our age”, he says, “…who think its acceptable to bounce around on people’s heads… They’re all c**ts!” Rightly, he’s got no time for the many crowdsurfers who’ve been flying about this evening. Pointing at the security in front, he continues: “…these guys work hard to keep everyone safe; they don’t need you making their job more difficult.” Addressing the security directly, he informs them that he “doesn’t want any more of that at [the] gig” and gives the order for any further surfers to be ejected, to audible booing from certain sections of the crowd.
Up to this point, it’s been a stellar performance. The gig’s first half has mixed well known classics with the less familiar, in a thoughtful setlist that has ensured that any slightly deeper cuts don’t get lost on an audience who’d rather just hear the obvious hits. ‘Red Berry Joy Town’ – the opening cut from 1988’s ‘Eight Legged Groove Machine’ – provides a great opener for the live set, warming up both band and crowd, before the 90s pop classic ‘On The Ropes’ provides the evening’s only nod to ‘Construction For The Modern Idiot’, while signifying the gig ahead will be a belter. The band are clearly on good form, even if the sound quality is a little distorted and bass heavy. Unlike when Night Ranger played here, it’s clear enough to pick out the finer points of the sound [Jack Blades, take note] in an arrangement that really accentuates the best parts of a ringing guitar and Erica’s violin. Given how good this track has been, it’s a pity there’s nothing else representing ‘Idiot’ tonight, but given The Stuffies’ broad and appealing catalogue, choosing a set that pleases everyone must be a truly impossible task.
Representing newer material, ‘Don’t You Ever’ and ‘For The Broken Hearted’ shows how The Wonder Stuff’s sound has evolved but still retains a jangling folk heart that contrasts feel good sounds with sneering lyrical concerns, but it’s – perhaps predictably – the selections from 1991’s classic ‘Never Loved Elvis’ that seem to get some of the biggest responses. The brilliant ‘Mission Drive’ allows the whole band to lurch into a musical frenzy with it’s indie-rock-meets-folk-jig style really working the violin, while the lovely ‘Caught In My Shadow’ pushes forth Hunt’s vocal chops in fine style. A millstone around the band’s collective neck, hit single ‘Size of A Cow’ makes its inevitable performance, thrilling a bouncy crowd – including crowdsurfers and beer spillers – and despite the band’s obvious disdain, it’s played with a great spirit. Given Hunt’s clear dislike, it might have been good to hear absent hits ‘Don’t Let Me Down, Gently’ or ‘Full of Life (Happy Now)’ instead, but tonight, it’s not to be. Perhaps one of the most crowd frenzied moments of the set’s first half, ‘CircleSquare’ feels like a giant party – a throw back to the feelings generated by 2017’s Star Shaped Festivals – and the aforementioned ‘Golden Green’ is greeted with an equal ferocity.
A lesser band might have lost part of their audience following Hunt’s impassioned outburst at the night’s reckless surfers, but the remainder of the set is equally high spirited…and the would-be surfers take Hunt’s promise very seriously . ‘Cartoon Boyfriend’ seems perhaps a little lacklustre, but from herein, the band maintain a commanding presence throughout deeper cuts ‘Room 512’ and ‘Here Comes Everyone’, before a shared consciousness of enjoyment – between both band and fans – ensures that a run of familiar hits ends the evening on a maximum high. ‘It’s Yer Money I’m After Baby’ is clearly still a fan favourite, sounding terrific this evening and allowing people to blow out their lungs; Hunt’s preferred ‘Radio Ass Kiss’ is a welcome piece of nostalgia on which – as before – the separation between instruments helps make it a great performance despite the volume being a touch too loud on this occasion. ‘Who Wants To Be The Disco King’ is suitably raucous and, perhaps best of all, during the main set’s closer ‘Give Give Give Me More More More’, a young boy in the balcony with his dad is yelling at full pelt. He’s thrilled to be there: start ’em young; help mould great and eclectic tastes – your kids will thank you for it later!
The encore is short at just two songs, but they’ve been chosen very much to show contrast. The well known ‘Unbearable’ whips the ground floor into a frantic mass one last time, while the lad in the balcony appears to be yelling “I didn’t like you very much when I met you!” while pointing at someone we can only presume is his brother. Fantastic! By now, the rear of the venue by the bar is as claustrophobic and as sweaty as fuck. If that’s the vibe so far from the front, you know it’s been a great night… Closing with a semi-obscurity shows off Hunt’s tendency for the unexpected with the band’s heaviest performance of the night: ‘Ten Trenches Deep’ mightn’t especially be a fan favourite, but the way it fuses distorted guitar lines and a heavy grinding bass to create an ominous atmosphere on this occasion lends a very memorable end to an already great night.
So, with everything all over, the man in the rear stalls who spent at least half an hour shouting for ‘Ruby Horse’ didn’t get his wish, but with such a well curated set it’s hard to imagine he’s going home disappointed. In fact, the only vaguely negative aspect this evening has been the duration; since it’s been a shared headliner with Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – Stourbridge’s other best export have played a really solid set – The Stuffies have only played for approximately seventy-five minutes, but with twenty songs and minimal chatter, they’ve really made it count. Nostalgia has rarely felt so good.