It’s approximately 8.25 at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Jim Bob has not long finished an excellent acoustic set and Alice Cooper is bellowing ‘Hello, Hooray’ across the PA system. Whether or not this choice of between set music has been chosen deliberately or is just a welcome coincidence remains to be seen. However, its lyric concerning letting the show begin and pulling in the audience is certainly apt. Tonight, the near capacity crowd are very keen…and – in some cases – especially so, since they’ve got a good idea of the night’s set list. Stourbridge’s finest, The Wonder Stuff, have promised that their first two albums – 1988’s ‘The Eight Legged Groove Machine’ and 1989’s ‘Hup’ – will be played in full. These are albums that still mean the world to most of The Stuffies’ loyal fanbase. They’re also albums that have the potential to be enjoyed by listeners who might not have connected with them that first time around. More than just nostalgia, the coming set is automatically geared towards fantastic songs. High spirits and a lot of crowd singing are both guaranteed.
More venue filling music follows and the house lights dim to a huge roar. Instead of the full band emerging, frontman Miles Hunt wanders on to the stage alone. It’s immediately clear he’s in a fabulous mood tonight – something that’ll make the pending show seem even better. Taking on the mantle of a cabaret showman, complete with red curtained backdrop, he outlines the evening’s performance before introducing the rest of the band one at a time. It’s a simple, yet very effective approach; something that lends proceedings a sense of occasion beyond that of an ordinary gig. Each musician is greeted in a friendly and appropriate manner by the audience, with violinist Erica Nockalls clearly a fan favourite. The rousing cheer she receives is notable, but it’s got nothing on the response given to guitarist Malc Treece. The band’s prodigal son, Treece last performed with The Wonder Stuff in 2012 and no-one is happier to see him back as Hunt himself. With a genuine warmth and a smile, he tells the audience that Malc is “back on stage left, where he should always be.”
The current line up of the band is very strong indeed. On record, it’s a Wonder Stuff that’s very different to the band that gave the world hits like ‘Its Yer Money I’m After Baby’ and ‘Welcome To The Cheap Seats’. An older and more cynical band, maybe, but one also capable of being rockier than ever. This comes across very well on a short set of new material from 2019’s ‘Better Being Lucky’, played as a warm up for the main event. ‘Feet To The Flames’ (in a rendition that comes across with spirit, although a little distorted), ‘Lay Down Your Cards’, ‘No Thieves Among Us’, ‘Don’t Anyone Dare Give A Damn’ and ‘When All of This Is Over’ are varied enough to give a strong flavour of the new record while still leaving enough new treasure for listeners to discover in their own time. Tonight more than suggests a couple of these songs have the potential to become future staples. Deservedly so, too, since ‘Lucky’ is the band’s most consistent work since 1993’s ‘Construction For The Modern Idiot’.
The new material is well received, but Hunt clearly feels the crowd could give a little more. “You liked that, but I’ve known you c***s for a long time…”, he says, somewhat playfully. “You don’t like it as much as the old stuff. Go and buy a beer; go for a piss. We’ll be back in fifteen minutes and we’ll have loads of it.” …And true enough, when the band re-emerges after a short recess, the mood in the venue is even more excitable.
Expecting the opening bars of ‘Red Berry Joy Town’, it’s actually a greater pleasure to hear the lesser played ’30 Years In The Bathroom’ kicking off the main set. Placing ‘Hup’ first is a smart move; it’s a great album, but has more mood changes than ‘Eight Legged’, which means the audience won’t reach burn out too early. It’s going to be a long night after all… ‘Radio Ass Kiss’ is clearly a fan favourite and the front half of the venue explodes into a bouncing frenzy; the track’s distinctive hook also gives those further away from the action the first real opportunity to belt out their lungs in appreciation. Keeping the audience on their toes, the band aren’t approaching ‘Hup’ chronologically either; ‘Them Big Oak Trees’ brings plenty of baggy-ish jangle, before the mood is hugely elevated by the evening’s first hit – the joyous ‘Golden Green’. An introduction suggesting the song represents “the time [The Wonder Stuff] invented country and western!” more than fits with Hunt’s cheeky mood this evening and the performance that follows has so much energy you’d wonder how they’re going to see the next ninety minutes through. Hunt is in superb voice; Nockalls moves around the stage with grace and a real presence as she adds the busy string part that’s so integral to the track, while Treece throws out several big, jangling chords. If it were unclear before, everyone in the room is witnessing a band that’s absolutely on fire…and the band, in turn, are witnessing one of the most enthusiastic crowds on this current tour.
‘Cartoon Boyfriend’ and ‘Unfaithful’ bring the mood down to a more manageable level in a very natural way and the brilliant ‘Piece of Sky’ takes on a genuine poignancy as Miles points out that so much has changed since the song was recorded. “We’ve lost some good people along the way”, he says, in reference to original rhythm section Rob “The Bass Thing” Jones and Martin Gilks – both still sadly missed. “Maybe you have too…so this song is for them.” A simple but effective dedication to friends and loved ones, relevant somehow to almost everyone in the room and sure enough, ‘Piece of Sky’ is, by turns, both uplifting and sad. The band’s playing – by now, really warmed up – cannot be faulted.
‘Let’s Be Other People’ rocks hard with plenty of wah-ed guitar and the well-known ‘Don’t Let Me Down, Gently’, somewhat predictably encourages the front rows to regroup into a bouncing mass…and bouncing mess. There might be a few bruises tonight, but – thankfully – no thoughtless crowd surfing. ‘Can’t Shape Up’ and ‘Room 410’ end this part of the set with a pair of very danceable tunes. With ‘Hup’ tackled with the kind of enthusiasm that rarely comes with live performances of decades’ old material, you’d have to wonder if the night could get better than this.
However, the energy in the room intensifies further with the band barely out of the starting blocks for the ‘Eight Legged Groove Machine’ set as everyone bounces, sweats and yells through the classic ‘No For The 13th Time’, having already enjoyed a brilliant take of ‘Red Berry Joy Town’. Great as these are – and, tonight, they really are – it’s another single, ‘It’s Yer Money I’m After Baby’ that sends everyone into an absolute hysteria. A bespectacled woman at the bar is bravely trying to order a drink whilst singing at full pelt at the same time, while the downstairs crowd are a lurching mass as far back as the venue’s split level steps. As the acoustic strains of ‘Rue The Day’ emerge, the breather is very welcome, especially since ‘Give, Give, Give, Me More, More More’ reignites another huge bounce. A few guys near the back have joined arms and are jumping about, as if they’ve somehow reconnected with their twenty year old former selves, while a younger member of bar staff looks at the crowd’s excitement with bemusement. For her, this must feel similar when 90s indie fans experience older Baby Boomers’ excitement at Neil Diamond. It’s clearly a generational thing…
‘Like A Merry Go Round’ has a flawless appeal and even with a slightly trebly sound the finer points of a great pop-rocker are still evident; ‘The Animals & Me’, although finely played, is somewhat of a weaker link – most likely because everything leading up to this has been so, so good – and ‘Mother & I’ lends the night something enjoyable with a choppy arrangement that sees Nockalls almost sawing at her violin throughout. The album version is great; with so much punch in the performance tonight, its live counterpart is even better. Between these deep cuts, album highlight ‘Grin’ and absolute classic ‘A Wish Away’ invite the opportunity to cause permanent damage to vocal chords. Now thirty one years old, ‘A Wish Away’ sounds remarkably fresh. Finally, and with the finish line now in sight, ‘Some Sad Someone’,’Ruby Horse’ and ‘Poison’ are a reminder of ‘ELGM’s status as an almost filler free debut (hell, even the b-sides and off-cuts from that period ‘Ooh She Said’, ‘Astley In The Noose’ and ‘A Song Without End’ are as good as anything that made it onto the LP). ‘Unbearable’, meanwhile, is intense, fun and tiring all at once. As a live staple, it isn’t necessarily tonight’s most interesting track, but the audience approach it with as much gusto as they can.
With a marathon thirty song set completed, The Wonder Stuff have already given everyone far more, more, more than so many headline acts, but there’s still one more treat. Returning to the stage for a brief encore, Miles says “We argued about where this should appear. It always felt like it should come at the end…” and, with that, the band breaks into a really forceful version of ‘Good Night Though’ that bigs up the track’s dancier feel. Treece uses his wall of amps to create shapes with distortion; Hunt throws out sharp acoustic chords against a funk bass. The addition of violin instead of harmonica lends an extra dimension without making it too different. The unrelenting groove makes it a great way to end the night and once the number has reached its natural end, Hunt leaves the stage, leaving the rest of the musicians to keep the groove going. Gradually, the figures on stage depart one after the other, taking each layer of sound with them as they go, eventually leaving only bass and drums to finish. Much like New Order with their ‘Blue Monday’ programmed loop, there’s a feeling that this could go on for as long as the audience is dancing…but, ultimately, all great things must come to an end.
Full album shows can take the spontaneity out of a performance, something that can lead to a less than inspiring gig. When Pixies played ‘Come On Pilgrim’ and ‘Surfer Rosa’ in full during a five night run at The Roundhouse, they were musically on point. However, as good as the shows were, they felt very mechanical; a strict adherence to keeping things chronological took away any surprises and the band didn’t seem to have fun… None of that concerns The Wonder Stuff tonight. The material is played with genuine vigour; most of Hunt’s stage banter has shown nothing but love and gratitude for the seemingly never-ending fan loyalty that’s been built over the decades. What’s made tonight truly special, though, is the fact that someone has pre-empted the potential for predictability by mixing things up a little to make sure the set flows well and – despite being dictated by the full album set up – actually builds to a thrilling climax. By playing everything in reverse order album wise, we’re taken from the present, to a familiar past in a very simple but effective way. Also, by using the encore to have each band member slowly leave the stage in a similar way they arrived a couple of hours earlier, it also gives a feeling of a performance that’s come full circle.
When The Wonder Stuff played the Empire as a double headliner with Ned’s Atomic Dustbin in March 2018, they were great, but nowhere as great as they’ve been tonight. This show has been amazing in pretty much every aspect. With the audience whipped into a frenzy by the last few tracks of ‘Eight Legged’ and the band visibly having almost as much fun as the crowd, it’s been a pre-xmas night to remember. It’ll have been the last gig of the year – the last gig of the decade – for most of the attendant crowd, making it all the more special. Whether 2019 has been kind or not, what a way to bow out… An absolutely fantastic night.
Read a review of Jim Bob’s support set here.