A week into their tour, The Happy Mondays, back to something very close to the original line up, showcased their unique hybrid of rock and rave at Norwich’s UEA with a grandstanding performance that belied their supposed indie status.
In an inspired move, the evening was kicked off not by a conventional support band, but by Jon Dasilva playing tunes. I wonder how many of the younger folk of what was an unusually mixed crowd realised they were listening to the man, back in the day, who was the resident DJ at The Haçienda. Dasilva demonstrated his deft ability to build up layers of pounding sound, coaxing a reticent audience away from the bar and onto a sparsely populated dance floor in readiness for the good things to come. By the time his set reached its crescendo, the floor was sprinkled with older gents, keen to show they still had their fluid round-shouldered, pointy fingered dance moves, as if limbering up for a Madchester marathon. Countless others jumped about, making up with enthusiasm what they lacked in coordination, as the crowd waited with fevered anticipation for the main act of the evening.
They didn’t have to wait long, or face a break in momentum. Dasilva was still being wheeled off the stage when the band emerged and struck up the opening chords of “Loose Fit”. For a few precious moments, all eyes were on the business end of the band, with Paul Ryder, Mark Day and Gary Whelan quickly establishing that, if anything, they are playing better, tighter and probably louder, than ever before. Great musicians, however, are no match for the attention grabbing Rowetta and Bez, and as soon as they bounced on stage, the band became a backing band. Rowetta Satchell, the saving grace of the late nineties reunion, looked unrepentantly buxom in a wholly inappropriate school girl outfit and riding crop, while Bez appeared to be wearing, of all things, a Coldplay t-shirt fished out the wash basket. As she took on vocal duties with a powerhouse voice it’s hard to imagine coming out of a human being, Bez stood front and centre, and did his thing.
No matter how many times you see fifty-something Mark Berry stomping around the stage clasping his redundant maracas, he remains someone – actually something - that defies rational explanation. Yet see the man live on stage, and his importance becomes immediately apparent, for he is the heart of the music, and absolutely loved by his adoring crowd. As the Lord of Misrule pranced about, folk pushed forward, falling over themselves to touch his hand, grab a selfie, or just bask in his messianic presence.
In sharp contrast, Shaun Ryder shuffles on last, hands in pockets and wearing his trade mark zip-up jacket, as if he’s just parked the car but thinks he might have to pop out again later. After a quick swig of a noxious-looking brew, and a hearty drag on his plastic ciggie, we’re soon into the familiar territory of “Kinky Afro”. It’s the first of many of the big hitters from the cannon, including the likes of “Hallelujah”, “Party People” and the inevitable “Step On”, though that still left room for some quirkier material, in what was, as billed, a proper retrospective of thirty years of performing.
A poster boy for misanthropic discontent Ryder was, of course, quick to deride such indulgence, spluttering his contempt for “Judge Fudge”, which he insisted he didn’t know, or “Dennis and Lois”, which he demanded be removed from the set list. It was grumbling of the highest order, and obviously all for show. Smiling beatifically at one of Bez’s particularly ungainly dance manoeuvres, as might a father at his son’s first bike ride, it was perfectly obvious there was nowhere else he would rather be.
A brilliant performance from beginning to end, there was nonetheless the feeling that barely contained chaos might be only moments away. When Bez found a microphone, and therefore his voice, it looked like the moment may have come. But The Happy Mondays were never going to outstay there welcome. After a little over an hour we got an encore of Wrote for Luck, and were then done. Leaving the stage one by one, we ended as we started, with the musicians playing us out, until only Mark Day’s noodling guitar was left. Like true pros, they left the audience gagging for more, which was at just the right time.