There’s probably not many bands who would book someone as good as BC Camplight as their support. Arriving a bit late, I find him battering his piano keyboard with a stool – the usual then. “We saved the energy for the end,” he promises before leaping into an epic, cavernous performance of ‘Deportation Blues’. He forms a neat counterpoint to tonight’s band. Something like ‘Grim Cinema’, with its big, Beach Boys hook, could easily be considered Suede’s brash, trans-Atlantic other. BC Camplight isn’t quite playing American psychedelic rock of the sixties and seventies, he’s too wrapped up in his own mythology. But he’s ground that stuff into a lens that sharply magnifies the artist he’s intent on becoming. Sound familiar?
It’s been seventeen years since Suede last played Wales. They’ve finally returned, on a cold, wet Friday night, for some further adventures with last year’s resurgent masterpiece The Blue Hour. The band take the stage behind an impenetrable curtain of dry ice, and as Brett Anderson strides out of it in a crisp white shirt, they open with its first track, the cult-like ‘As One’. From here on in, and I suspect it’s intentional, it’s hard to separate him from the fertility god that holds this song’s obsessive gaze: “When he smiles / he looks like a fox / but when he holds me / we will be as one”. Anderson’s undergone an incredible artistic and critical rebirth over the last couple of years – a legendary Glastonbury appearance, a much-garlanded memoir, and then one of the best LPs of his career. There’s no one in this room wouldn’t follow this man into the swaying nettles by the underpass. I’m fully signed up as it goes. He’s an amazing writer, a great vocalist, and proves to be an unforgettable front-man tonight. Compelling doesn’t cover it. He’s supernatural.
We get a perfect storm of classic Suede. ‘My Insatiable One’, ‘We Are the Pigs’, ‘So Young’, and ‘Metal Mickey’ pelt through the next fifteen minutes or so. The stage lights turn a livid green for the sleazy, lurching riff that opens ‘We Are the Pigs’, and Anderson leads us to a greedily collapsing, drunken, swinish singalong: “We all watch them burn”. He lassoes himself with his microphone lead for the climax of ‘So Young’, throws himself across the stage into the split-second of perfect silence that severs the spiralling cacophony of ‘Metal Mickey‘s guitar solo from its final verse, and does everything in his power to get this crowd buzzing, moving, ready for anything he wants. The slightly overlooked ‘New Generation’ comes as a welcome surprise, another chance to “spread it around to a techno sound … she and I will soon discover / we take the pills to find each other”. The nineties never sounded like so much fun.
The next set piece from The Blue Hour is ‘Tides’, and by now that shirt is looking a lot less sharp than it was when Anderson first came onstage. You could read this song as a grown-up sequel to ‘The Drowners’. There’s the same metaphor at the heart of each song, that love pulls us under, that it consumes our lives, our personalities and our hopes, but expressed with greater clarity. It’s not a song you’d necessarily write in your twenties. In each case, the drowning is ultimately to be welcomed, but ‘Tides’ is the sound of experience. This isn’t the euphoria of the first kiss, but a song about losing yourself in the work the tides do, a piece of driftwood, eroded and polished by the terrifying, powerful force you’re riding, and which only comes to define you more clearly.
After a sharp detour through ‘She’s Not Dead’, he’s backed by guitarist Richard Oakes for a brave, acoustic version of ‘Stay Together’. Anderson rips through it without the microphone. We’re not exactly in a massive venue, but it’s big enough, and even from way at the back, you can still hear him over the top of the impromptu choir. It’s the kind of thing that might once have earned him a reputation as a bit of a show-off. Luckily though, times have changed. Not only that, but ‘Stay Together’ sounds miles better stripped of its overblown fripperies.
Things could almost start getting cerebral, but then rest of the band are back for the swollen, rutting fuck-fest of ‘The Drowners’. Did I already mention the euphoria of a first kiss? Check that, the situation has escalated – this song’s just necked half a bottle of Thunderbird and it’s coming in to plant the biggest bloody hickey you’ve ever had right on the side of your neck. Brett – and I think we’re probably on first name terms now – starts it off by heading into the pit at the front of the stage and by the end of the first verse has dived into the audience. How he makes it back with his shirt still on is a mystery. Like I say, we’ve been waiting seventeen years for a bit of Brett by ‘ere, and we are not playing it cool.
The next big song is ‘Trash’, which places a grinning, unwashed glottal stop on the word “litter”, but it turns out that they’ve only trotted this one out to warm you up. In fact, the entire show so far has been the mere preamble to the skin-shredding, tooth-and-claw eroticism of ‘Animal Nitrate’. As the last chords die away, Brett seems to think so. “Yes! Yes! Yes! YES! THAT’s why we keep coming back!” he howls orgasmically, “like the sad sacks of shit we are! For a moment like that!” He’s right. There’s no easy way to convey to you, dear reader, quite how thrilling it could actually be to experience a dark room full of the frenzied Welsh singing “Oh, what turns you on, oh?” I fear I must leave it to your imagination, and pass on to other matters.
The rest of the band vanish and after a short speech about how he tells his son “We’re doers, not watchers”, and a quick dedication to The Insatiable Ones, an online fan club who have been pursuing Suede on every date on this tour, we’re on to a second acoustic number. Again, he ditches the microphone, and this time, after discarding the first couple of suggestions from the audience, treats us to ‘Another No One’.
I’m starting to wonder, did no one tell this guy how good their last LP was? Then finally they get their shit together and indulge us with three of The Blue Hour’s most sublime moments, ‘Beyond the Outskirts’, ‘The Invisibles’ and ‘Flytipping’. These songs prove them a mature band at their utterly gripping peak, spinning yarns of “small town dreaming / throwing cards in the fire”, a band who no longer have to resort to the wild paracetamol-shitting surrealism of their early work. ‘Flytipping’ in particular is a heartbreaker:
“What is my name, what is yours? / Do we own these things, what has it all been for? / Flytipping on the road of course / Shiny things that turn into rust / So we show ourselves with all this pretty stuff / Flytipping feels like just enough”
It’s one of the saddest and wisest songs I’ve heard in several years, and I hope they keep it in the set for some time. So much of our existence seems to have been about accruing things, pointless stuff that bolstered up our broken relationships for a Christmas or two, stuff that if it doesn’t end up at the side of the road ends up somewhere. And the implication is that whole lives pass by in this way, that everything we tell each other ends up like this, plastic rubbish, thrown to the worms and the crows who can’t do a thing with it. “Do we fool ourselves with all those pretty words?”
They can’t keep up the doom and gloom for long though. They’re back for an encore, ‘Beautiful Ones’, (yes indeed, another singalong. Apparently it’s a part of the local cultural heritage) and The Blue Hour’s entreaty to be hopeful, ‘Life is Golden’, which, Brett explains, he wrote for his son. It’s become the song they like to finish on these days. And why not be optimistic about the future? Something like twenty-five years ago I seem to recall the music press making some bold claims for this band. I’d say that tonight they just about fulfilled them.