By: Gaz Cloud

Photos: Gaz Cloud

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Hammersmith Apollo, London | March 6, 2015

The trend for bands to play classic albums in their entirety is an example of the changing face of the music business. In the age of crowd-funded projects and superfans voting on setlists via internet forums, the idea is a canny and obvious one: give the people what they want. Whilst a near-guaranteed banker, the strategy’s subtext is that the artist’s new material is not as valid as their older, nascent offerings. Usually marketed as if the audience were crying out to hear each and every album track from the chosen record played in order, the genuine appeal of these shows is the safety inherent in such a ploy – there’s no chance of coming away from such a gig having suffered through an artist’s new direction, or being subjected to material that, god forbid, the gig-goer isn’t already familiar with.

Having said all that, the main sticking point with these shows is that most acts simply do not have a bona fide brilliant record to their name. You know, one where every track shines, in which every minute of the runtime feels nothing less than essential. Here, Underworld differ from other artists reliving past glories. dubnobasswithmyheadman, a stately 21 years old, is an album with high points and higher points. Dark, seedy and altogether innovative in its lyrical approach, the record also saw the completion of the band’s transformation from 80s art synth pop weirdoes to bearers of the new flame, incorporating progressive house and techno elements into their song structures in a way no other band came close to at the time.

The expected feast of nostalgia opens with something new and unexpected. A crowd of ravers old enough to have been there first time around are treated to a sumptuous starter from the Warm Up crew. It’s not entirely clear which of the melodic techno party crew are manning the decks on this occasion, but, as their name suggests, these guys know how to set a scene. Deep and sensual, there’s plenty of melody on display and the set is punctuated by riveting bass lines that breathe life into the expectant crowd. The Warm Up DJs are never showy, as befits the early hour, and breakdowns consist more of an absence of beats than any great revelatory climaxes. Aidan Doherty and his fellow selectors are creating quite a buzz these days, and should be applauded for carving out their own place in London’s busy club scene, all the while sticking to their guns musically.

Underworld take to the stage and it’s immediately apparent that something’s not quite right: Rick Smith, the band’s main instrumental creative force in the studio, is missing due to illness. Although a duo on record, Underworld have been a three-piece for live purposes for a long time. Thankfully Darren Price is on hand to man the controls, and as he and Karl Hyde launch into ‘Dark and Long’, any fears that we might be about to experience a diminished performance are allayed. Granted, there’s less of the interplay between Hyde’s voice and the dub echo effects than might be expected, but otherwise it’s note-perfect.

Hyde and Price opt for the album mix of ‘Dark and Long’, rather than the clubbier ‘Dark Train’ version, and this sets the tone for the rest of the set. Longer hybrids tunes such as ‘Cowgirl/Rez’ are jettisoned in favour of the LP versions: close your eyes and this could be an album playback. The sonic facsimile doesn’t stop with the machines, though. Karl Hyde’s vocals and guitar are as accurate a rendition as Price’s throbbing sequences. Hyde mumbles the cut-and-paste, stream-of-consciousness lyrics to a delighted, sing-along crowd. It’s hard to fathom how Hyde is not seen as an equal of The Fall’s Mark E Smith, the other great proponent of this lyrical style.

Whilst the cascading drums of ‘Mmm… Skyscraper I Love You’ and ‘Cowgirl’ provide expected thrills, it’s the opportunity to hear lesser performed tracks that really makes the evening so exciting. ‘Tongue’, the token ballad, is executed with aplomb by Hyde, its unfussy guitar setting off his vocal. ‘Dirty Epic’, itself a song crafted around an existing club track released by the band under the alias Lemon Interrupt, is delightful. No attempt is made to bolster the piece with additional beats, and it’s truly surreal to watch a crowd of fully grown men and women jumping around to such a strange and emotive piece of music, shouting ‘here comes Christ on crutches’ and raising their arms to the sky.

Oddly enough, the only disappointment is the album closer. ‘M.E.’ always sounded like the link between their former incarnation and the new, sleeker 90s outfit the band had become. On the LP, the tune provides a relatively optimistic ecological closing statement, with stacked basslines layered underneath the dayglo synths. Live, the piece suffers as Hyde switches to a bass guitar, as opposed to the 6-string guitar he’s favoured all evening when required to add more than words. He opts to pick out one of the more insignificant of the track’s bevy of bass lines, leaving the heavier low-end to Price. For the first time all evening the beats don’t have the impact they ought, and it’s a subdued end to the main course.

Dessert comes in the form of a three track encore that remains focused on the era of dubnobasswithmyheadman – these would surely be the bonus tracks should a lazy record executive be compelled to reissue a single CD of the album with extras. ‘Rez’ is the liveliest segment of the whole evening, vindicating the band’s decision to perform ‘Cowgirl’ earlier on with no hint of this tune in sight. ‘Dirtymouth’ looks to be exhausting for Hyde, as he puffs on his mouth organ to perform a 7-minute riff with no pause for breath. Surely this was looped on record, but tonight’s rendition surpasses the studio interpretation. ‘Born Slippy (Nuxx)’ is as rewarding as ever, although hearing the track at an Underworld gig is always more enjoyable an experience than seeing the band perform the same piece at a festival. Surrounded by a crowd now mostly up on their evening’s medication, the ‘lager, lager, lager’ refrain sounds celebratory.

There’s much more to Underworld than their hit single, of course, and in spite of this near faultless show it would be a mistake to consign Smith and Hyde to the nostalgia pile. Tonight serves as a reminder of just how good Underworld can be at their best. All the band’s subsequent releases, whilst never quite managing the consistency of ‘dubnobass…’, have their merits. Here’s hoping it’s not too long before Underworld set out to move forward once again.

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