As is (unfortunately) typical of big-name concerts, the crowd was made to wait a long time for Brett Anderson to begin his set. Still, it didn’t seem to faze them, judging by the sheer enthusiasm and volume with which they applauded any movement onstage (hey, at least this way the sound guys nick some applause for once, huh?). The anticipation hung heavy in the air, but was released completely the second Brett Anderson walked up to his mike; his voice and a single keyboard note were all that survived that the thick wall of cheers. Now, the crowd probably had a minimum of 50% of its constituents desperately waiting to hear some Suede songs throughout the night; to his credit, he didn’t footnote himself by pandering to this. The set was composed entirely of songs from his last two albums, plus some new songs, and these were treated with full commitment by all those onstage. To his advantage, his backing band was very good indeed; all of them were able to make their mark on the show without ever appearing to be trying to usurp the attention from Anderson himself.
While his albums have been softer and more “pastoral” than his previous work, neither adjective really applied to the arrangements that night – the songs were rocked up for the show, and had little of the ruminating quality that pervades his albums, without losing their maturity, forming what I like to call atmospheric rock. This, obviously, suited a live performance more, and the audience were able to move along to the songs exultantly. However, no one moved more than Anderson – he was a man possessed onstage- partly a curious mix of Todd Rundgren and Tom Verlaine’s angular appearances, Michael Stipe and Iggy Pop’s movements, but mostly a gracefully milder version of his former stage character, with his lightly nasal, slightly gravelly voice that would cut through a fog.
The austere Hymn was the opener, full of feeling and sincerity, aided in no small part by a significantly augmented richness in the sound system. Unsung and Brittle Heart were kind of epic in their feel, with the music stuck in eternal rock-‘n’-roll-breakdown mode, soothingly rousing in the way that good soft rock is. Empress/Clowns saw the band exit the stage, leaving just Brett, his guitar, and the crowd to make a connection through the somewhat sorrowful, brooding feel of the two songs combined, with some quite emotional swaying by the crowd. The songs that followed were even better, with the classic combination of a wistful, plaintive voice and teasing reverbed guitar on Chinese Whispers, and the more crusading feel of Back to You. This Must Be Where it Ends was played live for the first time ever, and this went down superbly with the audience. This song had a more rocking feel to it, with a harder rhythm section, wah-ed guitars, and a feeling of blissful relief from something unpleasant coming to an end. The Swans had a wall of guitar that served as the background for Anderson’s voice, like a philosopher’s, passing booming edicts. Funeral Mantra was a manic maelstrom of an encore, with his voice having reached fever pitch, and it and the drums plunged into the song’s concluding part, as he descended the stage to serenade the listeners more closely.
The trouble was that no amount of stage presence can compensate for an inexpertly arranged set. The idea was, evidently, to have a peak, a trough and then a peak in the feel; however, the first few songs did not build up enough to justify the placement of Ashes of Us and the acoustic break – it made one feel disoriented and lose focus, and dampened the acoustic bit’s effect as well. This undermines not only the performer, but the rest of the set as well. It seemed difficult for someone who wasn’t a dedicated fan of his to get into the songs, which often seemed lost between their original feel and that which they were made to adopt for the show (I personally was left a bit cold). Again, the rotunda was definitely not the best sounding place in the world, which was no help.
Having said that, the second half of the set was a distinct improvement upon the first – perhaps a sign that Anderson should stick to an edgier sound. If rearranged smartly, the set could truly do justice to his own talent and experience, while also moving fans and non-fans alike. I think I can say, though, that no one left bored, and his many fans seemed quite content with the show; and on balance, that’s really what matters most.