The Gaslight Anthem - Manchester Apollo

…and so, like I said, they carry on taking their stupid pictures, wafting their hair about and squealing and gurning in grotesque, flash-lit tableaux. With the ugly disregard for others that only the irredeemably self-obsessed can carry off, they can’t sit still, can’t quit their incessant cackling, clearly can’t give a rat’s arse for the people sat behind them whose line of sight they’re infecting. They arrive three songs in, squashed into the front of the circle’s rear section (you know to fear the worst when there are a couple of empty rows in front of you as the houselights dim.) It takes them an age to settle. Like nursery kids in the first week of term, they take off their coats like it’s performance art or something. Twenty preening saps, the kind who’re still dim enough to revel in thinking that San Carlo is the best restaurant in town or that wet look leggings are still sharp. No way these fuckers have paid. Hey, neither have I, but at least I’m listening (trying) to the band.

So, fuck ‘em, I think and head for the bar, maybe even home because, to be frank, The Gaslight Anthem have been playing for half an hour and nothing has happened yet. Nothing. And looking around me, with the bouncers telling the odd rebel who stands up to sit back down, tonight’s Manchester crowd ain’t here to party.

But I don’t get to the bar because as I’m turning for the stairs I hear: “Hello, mate.” Just like that. As calm and cool as you like, like we’d been at work together earlier and had said we might bump into each other (despite secretly hoping we wouldn’t.) And nothing at all like we hadn’t seen each other for ten years. Well, blow me down.

“Phil…wow... What are you doing here? How are you? Who are you with? How’s the family? How old is she now? Ten? Ten? Where are you living? You still working at..? Get to many gigs? Why…why are you standing in the doorway of the women’s toilets?” (Future reference - really good view. Bouncers don’t move you.)

It’s Phil. But you got that, right? We were friends. Like, proper friends. Every day at work, dicking about and scheming to make it look like we were halfway competent and vaguely switched on. Nights out. Stuff. Proper stuff. He’d bring the baby round to our house. Unannounced! Imagine it!

And now the baby’s ten. “How‘s your daughter? How old is she now, what - thirteen?” No, fifteen. “Fifteen?!” (Note: these conversations never have someone guessing too old.) And so it goes. Rapid catch up. Friends we’ve not seen for years. The odd one you have seen but they’ve gone a bit weird. Jobs. A new partner and another baby. (What’s he like, eh?) Oddball memories that zip back into view after years away: “You never did tell what the dirt you had on the MD was. Can you tell me now?” (Well, go on then.) Music we like. Places we’ve been. Dreams still, what, largely unrealised? Well, we’re still so young, Phil! The odd nugget of absolute madness: "My new partner' – she’s friends with H from Steps. He's really nice. We go to his house and everything!"

And then: “Mate - tell me. Is life okay for you? Has it all gone okay? You know, are you alright? Are you all alright, all of you?” You look for the edge, the punchline. Grown accustomed to your daily intercourse being a back-and-forth barrage of tiresome piss-taking, parrying digs and witless banter, sincerity seems like a foreign language at times. I think for a moment because he really wants to know. It’s a pointed question. And I think it’s probably best not to answer properly, truthfully. That’s for another day. Leave it for another time, when we’re sat somewhere with a drink and there isn’t a rock band blasting away in the background and someone he’s with doesn’t keep wandering past and shouting: “Phil! Have you seen Kate?” So I think, Nah. Leave it for now. It’ll probably upset him. This isn’t the place or the time. And so I say: “Yeah. Everything’s great. Really good.”

Phone numbers. Email addresses. “Oh for fuck’s sake, please don’t give me your business card!” We should do this again, we both say: “You know how people say, Let’s do this again but don’t mean it? Let’s not be those people.” No. Let’s not.

So. I was going to write about The Gaslight Anthem and tell you how they brought their elegantly scuzzy backstreet poetics to life in a venue to suit. How they blitzed doubts about their recent, kinda water-treading album with a set that picked the shiniest gems from their solid back catalogue and elevated an expectant, capacity crowd. But Brian Fallon seems tired and distracted and they play a poorly paced, unremarkable set that takes a good 75 minutes to spark (‘Great Expectations’) and the crowd don’t seem that into it and the staging is a bit shit with a handful of lights and a cheap canvas backdrop and over the course of nearly two hours you’re drained rather than enervated.

In direct contrast, support band Blood Red Shoes once again rattle the walls with a lean half hour set that sizzles. They teach the headliners a thing or two about dynamics, focus, drive. So, after all that, I thought about it and decided you’d probably prefer to hear about Phil. And me. Me and Phil.

Image courtesy Mike Gray.

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