08 January 2016

The Final Bow

Stackridge have been part of my life since 1973, and on 19 December 2015 they played their final gig at the Fiddlers in their home town, Bristol. Being without a ticket for that evening until almost the last minute (being the band's lawyer has its perks, in addition to an acknowledgement on their last CD) I bought tickets for the previous Saturday in Bridport too - so saw two of their last four or so appearances.

At Bridport, their manager Mike volunteered that the band was better on this last tour than ever (which means since 1969), or the best they have ever been, or something. Who am I to disagree? But I will anyway. It was the first time I had seen this line-up, and they were superb, but to me Stackridge were always the band I saw at Newcastle City Hall in October 1972, supporting Lindisfarne, who had just released Dingly Dell, on their home territory. (I'd gone understanding from the ticket that the support band was some label-mate of the main attraction called Genesis, and was very pleasantly surprised to find they'd been substituted, even by a band I'd never heard of.) James and Andy were still present in the 2015 line-up, but the rest weren't. Mutter (whose own band was support at Bridport and the Fiddlers) put in a couple of guest appearances, and I had the pleasure of meeting Bill at the Fiddlers (adding the last autograph of the original line-up to be reverse side of my Stackridge Rhubarb Thrashing Society membership card), but of Crun there was no sign and Mike Evans would, unfortunately, hardly have been welcome.

The last line-up are certainly excellent musicians, and they have some great material in their repertoire, and they made the best of it with some fantastic arrangements - "Fish in a Glass" (previously one of my least favourite Stackridge pieces, from an album that largely makes me cringe) with ukuleles, which also featured in the lovely and much newer song "All I Do is Dream of You". Much of the earlier material, though, was lacking something - they played pieces like "Lummy Days", "Syracuse", "Teatime", "God Speed the Plough" and the three great songs from The Man in the Bowler Hat ("Fundamentally Yours", "Last Plimsoll" and "Road to Venezuela") so they sounded as much as possible as they do on the record, even down to Clare playing what often sounded very like Mike's original solos, raising interesting copyright questions in my mind. But without Mutter's flute some of them sounded thin.

I also find most of the recent material - meaning, I suppose, later than the first three albums - inferior to the earlier stuff. There are some super songs from the later period - Red Squirrel and Long Dark River from their most recent album, A Victory for Common Sense, for example, and I've even come to like "Highbury Incident" and the aforementioned "Fish in a Glass" (I always liked "No-one's More Important than the Earthworm", the only evidence that Gordon Haskell was once a member of the band - for two weeks, as James explained in his introduction) - but they don't have the quirkiness, or even eccentricity, of the early stuff. "Al I Do is Dream of You" is wonderful, and in a similar vein (to my mind) to "Teatime" (the first song played at the first Glastonbury Festival - indeed, as Andy mentioned, the first note at the first Glastonbury, and it was a B, which he played by way of illustration), but it lacks the verbal wit of the earlier song and the main reason it stands out is the ukuleles - including Eddie strumming away behind his drum kit. Perhaps what the new material lacks is Crun's lyrics? I might be utterly wrong but it's an interesting idea that just crossed my mind.

Stackridge 2015 also missed Crun's presence on stage, and Mutter's. James has always been an entertaining frontman, but in a dry, low-key way, while Andy is not really a natural frontman at all, and among the many things that stood out about the band back in 1972 was that Mutter, Crun and Mike contributed so much to the general madness of a Stackridge gig. There was also the giant cardboard cut-out gnome presiding over the stage, of course - and when gnomes were outlawed a few years ago a large part of the band's appeal disappeared, for me. I defiantly wore my gnome badge at the gigs, though.
 And the Mutter badge, which Linda, his wife, told me they have on a noticeboard at home:

Perhaps what all this means is that with the passage of time Stackridge became just a bit more serious than they were all those years ago, and perhaps that's just a universal progression. But it means that, while I was very, very pleased to be part of the final event in their career (notwithstanding talk from the stage about next year's reunion), I was celebrating memories at least as much as I was enjoying the present and mourning the demise of the latest incarnation of the band. They had much more than just the name in common with the group I fell in love with in 1972, but to me there was a sense that Stackridge had really ceased to exist many, many years ago (I'd say after Bowler Hat). Other fans, if they read this, will disagree, some of them vehemently, although I am certainly not devaluing Stackridge 2015. Perhaps I'm wrong to compare them with their younger counterparts: and now I think of it, I'd hate to be compared now with my 16-year-old self. The final iteration of Stackridge were definitely a fine band, which I'd have gone a long way to see (in fact I did, though not from Tokyo or Philadelphia, like some people I met at the Fiddlers). It's just that I'd have gone a great deal further to see Stackridge Mark I.

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