Around about this time last year, Sleaford Mods played at the University of East Anglia to great success and have since released a new album that has garnered considerable plaudits, so its puzzling that they have chosen the smaller, and grubbier, Waterfront for their return to Norwich. Granted, two blokes and a laptop don’t need much elbow room on stage – even the Waterfront’s looked unusually capacious with just the pair of them on it – but we certainly could have done with more elbow room on the floor. Sold out for months, if it was just a case of getting intimate with their audience, the venue certainly fitted the bill.
There was a decent, but smaller, audience for support band Liines (no doubt due to the early start) and that was a shame, as much for those missing the performance as it was for the band. They’ve been compared to both Savages and PINS, and I can see why, but I wonder how much of that is to do with the female line up they all share, and if so it makes me sigh a little that we haven’t yet got passed the novelty of that. They describe themselves as post-punk, and I would instead reach back to the first time that description was used for parallels, and point to the unimpeachable Magazine, albeit with Poly Styrene standing in for Howard Devoto. Like so many “new” acts (at the time of writing, it’s my understanding that they are one of only a handful of bands still in contention for Glastonbury’s emerging bands competition) Liines have been plugging away for a few years now, and it certainly shows in their tight, precise sound. Tamsin Middleton plectrum driven bass playing drives the music forward relentlessly, synchronising perfectly with Leila O'Sullivan’s drums. O’Sullivan is an excellent drummer and a literal timely reminder how creative percussion can take a band up a notch. Meanwhile, Zoe McVeigh, when she’s not singing like Poly, plays like John McGeoch, and I can think of no higher praise. Collectively, they were superb, and a surprising treat for such an early evening start.
Unique is an overused word, but I really can’t bring to mind anyone else quite like Sleaford Mods. The easiest, and laziest, comparison would be with John Cooper Clarke, to which I would add a touch of Attila the Stockbroker’s righteous indignation, together with shades of Sean Ryder’s chippy attitude. But in truth, no one snarls and rants quite like Jason Williamson, despite a lyricism not so far away from performance poetry. And while Fearn may do little more than jig about on stage, beer bottle in hand, having pressed a button on his laptop, he is an important part of the act. He wrote the tunes, for goodness sake, and he is (sort of) playing them. I rather admire his refusal to act out the absurd pantomime of token knob twiddling that so belabours electronic acts. If you haven’t got a real instrument to play, I think he’s saying, don’t bother to pretend.
There’s something pleasingly chummy about the two of them wanting to share a stage in the same way they share the writing of what they perform – despite the fury that permeates their work there is warmth between them that bleeds out into the audience. Although they are described as a political band – and there’s no denying the barbed commentary of set standards like BHS or Bang Someone Out - there is a vaudevillian charm to their live performances. Fearn’s minimal contribution counter intuitively gets a lot of press, but Williamson is no less eccentric. When not preening his cockatoo finger-crest, or high kicking like a tiller girl, he spends much of his time singing to his mate rather the audience, coquettishly turning away as if, deep down, this is all front. On those few occasions he interacts directly with the crowd, he’s charm itself, albeit delivered with rasping, cracked vocal chords.
With a healthy chunk of the evening given over to new material from Eton Alive, I confess to being a little lost for much of the set. The power of Williamson’s work comes from the lucidity of his thoughts and his clever turn of phrase, and while Kebab Spider and Policy Cream offered up snatches of his winning good humour, the evening was more about Fearn’s incessant rhythms, with songs like Flipside tipping the place into early mayhem, where it stayed for the rest of the night.
In the end, I found myself clinging to the more familiar Jolly Fucker, or Job Seeker in their extended encore, because I knew the words, and could make sense of them. While it ultimately became obvious why the Waterfront had been chosen – the pulsing, sweaty, collective bouncing of a euphoric crowd made for a textbook gig – this was ultimately a room full of people faux moshing to a laptop, and I’d be fibbing if I didn’t admit to growing weary by close of play. There’s nothing wrong with folk jumping about like rabid pixies, if it floats your boat, but I’d come along to listen to the considerable wit and wisdom of Jason Williamson. He has something to say – I would have liked to have heard more than just the odd word.