Can it really be ten years ago when I first saw The Hoosiers? Bottom of the bill at the then fledging Latitude festival, I didn’t know who they were, but I did notice how Irwin Sparkes was belting the tunes out as if he knew he was going places - which of course he was. Six months later, two biggish singles, both of them infuriatingly catchy earworms, helped push the newly released “The Trick to Life” album into the platinum zone. By the same time next year they were only a few bands off the top spot on the Other Stage at Glastonbury, the biggest showcase in the world. It rained a bit, as I recall, but then it always does. I don’t suppose they noticed. Helped along by a crowd of forty thousand worrying about Ray, and surrounded by dancers dressed up as Wonder Woman and Bat Girl, Sparkes and his drumming chum Alan Sharland must have felt they were on top of the world.
So what are we doing in at The Waterfront in Norwich, upstairs in the bijou Studio? Who knows whether the booking of this tiny venue was the result of self-effacing modesty, a curious attempt at exclusively, or just a cock-up (the gig inevitably sold out weeks ago) but the Studio space is infinitely superior to the larger sweatbox downstairs, giving the gig an air of a private party for those lucky few attending. Nevertheless, you can’t help but ask – whatever happened to the Hoosiers?
It’s while mulling over such things that Nikki Ambers crept on stage and, despite an unassuming presence, showcased a powerful and beautifully soulful voice in an all too brief set. Conran didn’t overstay his welcome either, in the second support slot, and while there was something of the X-factor in his choice of covers, there’s no doubting the raw talent of the fellow. Accompanying himself on guitar and keyboards, he’d do well to place more confidence in his own compositions, which we didn’t hear nearly enough of.
And so to the Hoosiers, here to perform in its entirety the album that very nearly made them huge. With “The Feeling You Get” repurposed as intro music, they’ve already sneaked in one track from “A Trick to Life” as they bounce onto stage. Dressed in primary coloured suits and branded t-shirts we are some way from the Spiderman costumes of old, but the warm welcome from the crowd is familiar enough. Unencumbered by worries that they might be fans of the “wrong” sort of band (at the height of their fame the Hoosiers were famously awarded “Worst Band” by the spiteful and already largely irrelevant NME) the audience is a pleasingly varied and motley crew, brave enough to let their own taste trump received opinion.
Starting proceedings with “Worried About Ray”, a song the band traditionally close with, is an early sign that the gig won’t be following a traditional trajectory and, sure enough, with the poptastic confection of “Goodbye Mr A” swiftly following on, the two big singles are done with almost before we’ve started. What this does, though, is give breathing space to the more reflective, melancholy numbers that have previously sat in the shadows. The rarely heard “A Sadness Runs Through Him” and “Everything Goes Dark” reveal a depth and maturity to their songs that is easily overlooked. While not all tunes bear such close scrutiny (there’s a reason “Clinging On For Life” isn’t on a normal set list) it’s never less than interesting to see how such obscurities translate onto the live stage. What becomes quickly apparent is how little substance there is to those wearisome accusations of plagiarism. There are hints of ELO and shades of the Cure, snatches of Stackridge and intimations of Supertramp, but heard live and in context, the overwhelming impression is not one of robbery, but rather one of eclectic influence, combining to produce a sound very much their own.
Charging through the album in something close to real time (little chat was involved) meant the album’s eponymous track seemed to come around all too quickly. Cunningly, the band closed the first set on the rising crescendo of its deceptively wise sentiment, lending new meaning to the encore chant of “one more song” which, after a brief pause, was the final piece of the “Trick to Life” jigsaw, a stripped back version of “Money to be Made”.
I think the crowd would have left happy after that, but the band had other plans, and a clear message to deliver. Ploughing on for a good half hour more, set list regulars “Choices” and "Pristine” (and a Billy Joel cover thrown in for good measure) signalled, should we be in doubt, that while nostalgia is all well and good, we should keep in mind that the Hoosiers have continued to defiantly plug away writing and performing songs with wit, energy and commitment. The audience may have gone from forty thousand to two hundred, but they were two hundred people that truly loved a band that, with grace, charm and good-humour, acted as if genuinely blessed to still be on stage in front of folk that wanted them to be there. The trick to fame, it would seem, is not to get too attached to it.