(No, not an incredibly belated review of the second Bloc Party album, but a reference to an actual weekend spent in the city it references with a very dear friend of mine. Oh, and the gigs we went to, of course…)
Kasabian @ London Wembley Arena, Saturday 14th November 2009
If my opinion of Kasabian‘s latest album in my Mercury Prize round-up seemed a little guarded in its praise, that’s because, well, it was. I wasn’t desperately impressed by the band’s attempts at experimentation – truth be told, I preferred the songs that sounded more like their previous work. I also wouldn’t doubt that the ‘big’ tunes are what the majority of tonight’s audience are here to see – and I know it’s a massive cliché to talk about the crowd at a Kasabian gig, but in this case their response to certain songs went at least some way to proving me right. But more on that later. The stage set-up is obviously inspired by the title of the band’s latest effort, West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum, with various psychiatric trappings, roadies wearing lab-coats emblazoned with the word ‘SANE’, confusing statistics and (probably fictional?) patient reports flashed up on the big screens before the gig even began. The giant ‘video-frame’ (for lack of a technical term) that the band performed in was a nice touch too.
So, after an on-screen countdown that ran down twice without any sign of the band and an overly long message at the top of the frame that culminated in the phrase ‘Now Or Never’, the curtains were finally pulled back to reveal the full extent of Kasabian’s lunatic asylum – and the band themselves, of course. After riding through a perfectly decent B-side (called ‘Julie And The Moth-Man’, apparently) on the back of the crowd’s pent-up expectation, they waste no time in dropping the first of their heavy hitters, ‘Underdog’. Predictably, the crowd goes nuts, and fair play to them because it’s a MASSIVE tune – and I’ll admit to being suitably caught up in it too. So much so, in fact, that it only now strikes me as ironic that Tom Meighan sings “I’m the underdog,” when he quite obviously believes the exact opposite – he’s more ‘top dog’ than underdog. (Ok, that was bad…)
The band relentlessly keep up the pace, blasting through more big numbers – ‘Where Did All The Love Go’, ‘Shoot The Runner’, ‘Cutt Off’ – but then the gig falls into a lull that it’ll take about two and a half songs to break out of. First up, the lead singer from chronically boring opening act Dark Horses took to the stage to perform Rosario Dawson’s role on ‘West Ryder Silver Bullet’. Unfortunately, it’s one of the dullest songs on the new album, taking about five minutes to go precicesly nowhere – and rather than give the gig a much-needed shot in the arm by following it with an up-tempo song, the band are content to saunter along with ‘Thick As Thieves’, which pretty much kills the crowd entirely until the chorus of “La La La”s towards the end. It’s only when we get to the chorus of ‘Take Aim’ that the gig really feels like it’s started to get going again. Meighan’s absence during this song is notable – while Kasabian’s frontman exhibits an apparently unshakeable belief that his band are the heirs to Oasis’ throne, guitarist Serge Pizzorno doesn’t quite appear to have the same sense of confidence.
It’s a good job that ‘Empire’ comes crashing in afterwards to turn the throttle back up to the maximum, and Meighan salutes the crowd with an utterly obvious cry of “WEMBLEY YOU ARE FUCKING EMPIRE!” With the crowd firmly back on their side, you can easily forgive the band for stepping down just a couple of notches with ‘I.D’ – although that’s largely because it’s pretty ace, in a woozy, trippy sort of way. Sadly, another mis-step is forthcoming, with ‘Ladies And Gentlemen (Roll The Dice)’ being another snore-fest that not even a dedication from Meighan to ‘absent friends’ can save. After that though, it’s all business from here on out – ‘Processed Beats’ and ‘Fire’ are predictably huge, while ‘The Doberman’ proves that Kasabian *can* do a slow song without boring the audience to death. They wrap up their main set with a one-two punch – softening us up with ‘Fast Fuse’ before delivering the hammer blow that is ‘Club Foot’.
With the lingering spectre of the night’s duller songs still in my mind, I suggested to my friend Euge that the encore will consist of “something dull off West Ryder, and ‘L.S.F'” – to which she promptly replied that I should “stop being so cynical”. She was quite right, as it turns out – I was so pre-occupied with the fear that they might waste five minutes of my life playing ‘Happiness’ that I ended up being completely blindsided when they opened their encore with ‘Vlad The Impaler’. They even gave us a nice little surprise by getting Noel Fielding on stage to reprise his role from the song’s video. I mean sure, all he did was prance around and punt a few fake severed heads into the crowd, but it was fun nonetheless. Possibly a disappointment to the guy at the bar who enthusiastically told me about a rumoured appearance by Noel Gallagher though…
Happily, the band surprise me again by following up with a high-energy performance of ‘Stuntman’ (another song that had completely slipped my mind), before the night closed with a rendition of ‘L.S.F (Lost Souls Forever)’ that was nothing short of anthemic. So anthemic, in fact, that the the song’s closing refrain of “LAAAAAA LAA LAA, LA LA LA LA LAAA LAAAAA” could be heard echoing through the streets and tube stations of London long after the confetti cannons had stopped (seriously, even when we were miles away from Wembley there were *still* people singing it).
It’s fair to say that a band like Kasabian present an interesting conundrum for the ‘self-respecting music fan’, or whatever pretentious phrase you wish to use. Clearly, they see themselves as a ‘band of the people’, and that doesn’t just mean lager-lads – a quick look at the people around me during the gig makes it clear that the band appeal to a broad cross-section of ages and genders. They’re often snobbishly derided as appealing to the ‘lowest common denominator’, an opinion that’s somewhat supported by reaction to the band’s more experimental numbers – give the crowd a song like ‘Thick As Thieves’ that deviates from the usual Kasabian template and what do they most easily identify with? The ‘La La La’ bit they can chant along with. In a similar vein, the huge cheer that the word ‘Ecstasy’ gets when it appears at the top of the ‘video-frame’ before the encore speaks volumes. But should that matter? Surely we should focus on the band themselves rather than dismissing them due to elements of their fanbase?
However, you can also pick holes in the band’s performance. Tom’s stage banter is pretty much brain-dead – aside from the ‘Empire’ reference I mentioned earlier, we get such gems as “WEMBLEY, YOU ARE ON FIRE!” (take a guess at what song that came after), something about seeing “lots of whites of eyes” during ‘Stuntman’ (yeah I get the lyrical reference and all but… what?), and about a million demands to “PUT YOUR FUCKING HANDS IN THE AIR!” There’s also my previous complaint about the slow songs, never mind the fact that if you think too much about it the band’s lyrics tend to fall into the ‘anthemically vague’ category – the type of thing you can chant along with without caring very much about whether it really means anything. And I’m sure people more astute than I could unravel the very music itself until there’s nothing left but a mess of derivative threads.
But the band are, for all their faults, entertaining – at least to me and the thousands of others present here tonight. I’m not trying to justify the inherently flawed “popular = good” defence, but what I’m trying to say is that a band shouldn’t immediately become some sort of musical pariah just because they’ve become popular. Critics may sneer at Kasabian’s fans, lazily tarring them all with the same brush. But I’m not a lager-lout. Or a thug. Or an idiot (some may disagree with that last one, but shhh). But I like Kasabian. I mean sure, I’m not going to rush out and declare West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum “album of the year” (seriously now Q Magazine, do you realise how daft that makes you look?), and I don’t slavishly adore them, but I do like them. If that makes me a bad person in some people’s eyes, then so be it – but if you genuinely hate the band then surely you should be able to articulate why that is without resorting to cheap shots at their fanbase? It’s fair to say that a person’s taste in music can say a lot about them, but not all the time. Sometimes, even the most cynical or snobbish music fan must want a simple pleasure, no?