Shed Seven – Manchester Academy 1, UK (23rd December 2017)

Britpop is dead, long live Britpop. While the two movers in Oasis remain as far apart as those in the Sahara Desert and Blur are still basking in the glory of their first album in 12 years, the band that stood on the sidelines of the “Battle of Britpop” dust-up while those two giants slugged it out quietly released their own comeback album in November, ‘Instant Pleasures’, to positive critical acclaim after a bigger gap of 16 years.

Tonight, with all the students gone home for Christmas and when the only people on Oxford Road were those heading to the venue, mainly 35 to 40-something Generation Ys, or sub-millennials –  Shed Seven was concluding a big tour, dubbed Shedcember. It started in their home city of York and finished intentionally with two sold-out nights in front of 5,000 people in Manchester “cause yer f***ing ace”. Liam couldn’t have put it better.

The gig kicked off in a strangely muted way. Many in the audience didn’t appear to realise the band had taken to the stage in the mist as the theme to ‘The Big Country’ played in the background and the opening song ‘Room in my House’, also the first one on the new album, seemed quite anaemic following supporting act Cast’s excellent finish to their set with ‘Alright’, in which there was an almighty jam and the Liverpool band also played excellent versions of ‘Walk away’, ‘Guiding Star’ and ‘Sandstorm’ in what could have been a headline show of its own. They were in danger of stealing the show.

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But Shed Seven quickly fired up with ‘Speakeasy’ from their debut album ‘Change Giver’ and it was immediately clear that the audience was more comfortable with old favourites. It doesn’t take much to fire them up. Before long, fans were arching their arms, occasionally their plastic beer glasses and sometimes their contents too in the general direction of the stage, joined later by two beach balls.

Frontman and vocalist Rick Witter sounds just like, and from a distance even looks like Geoff, Reece Shearsmith’s character in the League of Gentleman, the amateur hitman who managed to bump off harmless Job Seekers’ Pauline by mistake in the three new episodes aired before Christmas.

But he knows how to win over and keep a crowd, a skill way beyond that of the fictional Geoff. Whether he’s chatting with two youngsters right at the front, introducing them as “the future of rock and roll, ladies and gentlemen”, or joking about not caring whether the audience buys ‘Instant Pleasures’ or not – “we’re not U2” –  or about how the next album will be out “around 2040”.

More importantly, he’s retained his vocal power and easily handled a set that could have been demanding for other 45-year olds.

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Surprisingly, only four Instant Pleasures songs were played in a 17-song set.  Whatever the audience’s preferences – and it may be Christmas – not milking your latest release is a little strange. Perhaps they really don’t care if it sells or not.

As with several other reactivated bands this year (notably Erasure), some of that new material is more thoughtful and considered, and with a consistent message in the lyrics. It’s poppier too, and the new songs should have been highlights but in reality, they weren’t, mainly because the audience seemed to be there for the 1990s standards.

And it is really only in the confines of a live setting that a contrast arises between the new material and the largely anthemic nature of the earlier album favourites.

But that contrast also highlights a slight weakness in Shed Seven. While they can get just about every right arm in the house raised and waving as they did during the long drawn out finale of ‘Chasing Rainbows’ they lack the tunes of their peers. That doesn’t mean they aren’t tuneful, just that compared to Oasis and Blur those melodies seem sometimes to be only half-formed. It may be why they remained Championship hopefuls while the big city bands stormed easily to the top of the Premier League.

The addition of a three-man brass section for some songs certainly helped put some extra oomph into the performance though on early numbers they appeared to be mixed well down which detracted from the reason for them being there in the first place.

Towards the latter end of the set and following a dramatic performance of ‘She Left Me On a Friday’ and ‘Better Days’ in which Rick Witter does a great impersonation of Noel Gallagher in the final line, he declared that it should be a sing-a-long for the remainder of the show and starting with ‘Disco Down’ and concluding with ‘Going for Gold’ it was just that.

It didn’t take much to get them back on stage for an encore and the inclusion of ‘It’s Not Easy’ from ‘Instant Pleasures’ to open it was a perfect counterpoint to the set closer during which it appeared that we’d all stepped into a time machine and been whisked back to the nineties.

If you wanted to be cynical about it you could argue that this type of performance by this variety of band is as dated as Tony Blair, United winning the treble and ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. If you’re super cynical, you might wonder how many of the audience were there because you can’t watch Oasis live any longer and Shed Seven makes for a useful surrogate.

But that would be a great injustice to Shed Seven, a band from a bygone era that proved they are adaptable, can still write great albums, and can perform them with a panache that belies a lengthy hiatus. The only disappointment was that they didn’t play ‘Invincible’ from their new album, which contains a lyric about them not being invincible and being ready to crash and burn. On this showing, there is no prospect of them doing that.