The Futureheads and The Cornshed Sisters - Manchester Royal Northern College of Music

At the request of the headliners, a fellow Sunderland four piece complete the bill, delivering daredevil harmonies and coupling homespun folk to deft balladry. The Cornshed Sisters are a joy and a delight. Their voices fuse together, a great wave, warm and unstoppable. They hold back in whispered reverie and then open up and rattle the walls. They have a few fans already on side but most of us rev up from pitiful ignorance to pathetic adoration in a convincing half hour. On a smooth reworking of Annie Lennox’s ‘Little Bird’, they too “glide across the sky” but they shine brightest on their own originals. ‘Dresden’, with its “If love was bombs…” refrain, lingers longest but it’s their easy charm and giddy raucousness that draws in us newbies. They are Cath, Liz, Jennie and Marie. They’re not really sisters but, boy, they’re sisters. And Marie is Marie du Santiago (now more sensibly Nixon), once of the splendid Kenickie. If, like, you really need convincing.

“That’s a very respectful silence. It’s not intimidating or anything, don’t worry about that…” If tonight’s presentation puts The Futureheads almost awkwardly ‘on show’, perched modestly above the orchestra pit in this most rarified of Manc venues, they make sure to get playfully disrespectful with the novelty. Last time they were in town, they took 2010’s XFM Winter Wonderland by the very scruff (“Okay, Manchester. 24 minutes. Seven songs. That okay with you?”) and gave fiery reminder of their surging punk credentials.

A seated hall, a savvy choice for this acoustic tour in support of the acapella Rant album, actually allows for a bumping up of the shenanigan levels. Delivering a mix of new stuff, choice covers and fan favourites keeps them onstage for 90 minutes. From a breathless acapella start (Richard Thompson’s ‘Beeswing’, all juggled harmonies and clockwork counterpoint) to a raucous finish (a skiffle-y jaunt through ‘Hounds of Love’, the Kate Bush song they purloined most artfully), they populate their set with strange little high spots, unexpected showmanship. A raft of covers sees them reinvigorate Kelis (‘Acapella’ – duh) and Black Eyed Peas (‘Meet Me Halfway’). Barry apologises: Will.I.Am had plans to join them but his “fucking UFO broke down.” Before being joined by The Northern Quarter Boys Choir for ‘The No 1 Song In Heaven’, Barry asks if anyone knows it and who it’s by. “That’s right - Sparks. I could never work out if they were brothers or married.”

And so it goes. A sea shanty here, a hanging song there, they have the balls to limit reliance on the back catalogue. ‘Struck Dumb’, ‘The Beginning of the Twist’ and ‘Decent Days and Nights’ are recharged via brushed snare, twelve string and banjo but other favourites bite the dust. They demonstrate their usual wit, charm and foul-mouthed good humour, and with more chance to properly engage, fill the hall with laughter. Barry, in Rupert Bear frockcoat and glued-on cherry red DMs, becomes Band Leader and camps it up with winning sourness (“We’re from Sunderland, as you probably know. Somewhere you’re only aware of because of football. It’s not like any of you will have actually been there...”) Ross plays affable cohort, wry commentator on the lunatic pronouncements of his band mates and keen (see above) to puncture audience silence. Jaff swaps bass for cello, is ribbed for both his physical and vocal height, and generally beams at the onstage interplay and mishaps. This whole getting-to-know-you malarkey offers its most amusing return in the expertly dour figure of drummer Dave Hyde, who shuffles centre stage when required but finds every opportunity to question lyrics, miss cues and act the grump.

Though their entrance (shuffling on with a load of equipment and cradling cans of bitter) marks them out as Good Lads but Shit Rock Stars, this startling performance, built on a seam of proper and canny showmanship, is further evidence that they stand some way above the merely solid and reliable. Rant is a fine, admirable achievement. But, too playful and too downright weird to go up against their best work, it’s perhaps best viewed as a reinvigorating artistic diversion. Watch them get back to the day jobbing like tomorrow ain’t an option. Tonight’s warm response and healthy turn-out reminds them we’re still here and we’re sticking around. It reminds us why: indefatigable, hilarious, unique, The Futureheads couldn’t be ordinary if they tried.

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