Friday, 27 January 2017

The Blue Aeroplanes - New Album "Welcome, Stranger!" and Live at The Islington Academy January 21st with Ian McNabb

The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
So, The Blue Aeroplanes are back! Well, I say back but I suppose they have never really been away, it just feels like it such is the full-on fanfare surrounding the release of their superb new album “Welcome, Stranger!”. Armed not only with their strongest set of songs since the classic double whammy of “Swagger” and “Beatsongs” in their early ‘90’s prime, they also seem to have landed a dream PR company, Prescription, to represent the album. Abundant radio sessions and interviews have been complemented by glowing reviews in everything from The Guardian, Uncut and Mojo to seemingly every music web-site and Blog under the sun. The band are also out and about on a U.K. Tour to promote the album and I was chuffed to bits as I hadn’t seen them play since back in 2011 and surely that’s way too long for a fix of the Aeroplanes’ very special live experience. However, my initial excitement was dampened when I saw their choice of London venue, the dreaded O2 Islington Academy. Now, I had promised never to go back there again, but then it is The Blue Aeroplanes. Anyway, it’s a Saturday night but then the Academy announce a ridiculous curfew of 10pm. It just makes me thankful that The Blue Aeroplanes have their hearts in the right place with their taking over of the running of The Fleece in their Bristol hometown as we desperately need more decent small venues run by people who care about live music.

Ian McNabb at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
With doors opening at 7pm they push out the surprisingly high profile support of ex-Icicle Works frontman Ian McNabb to an almost empty hall at 7:20pm. Luckily, the Aeroplanes have generously allocated him an hour and the numbers quickly swell so by the end of his set he has a large, raucous and receptive crowd singing along. At the front, one guy in particular is giving it his all terribly loudly and terribly out of key, so terribly in fact that Ian suddenly stops playing mid-song to ask us “just who the hell is that?” and people standing nearby gleefully point out the unashamed culprit. It’s a classic moment and causes a lot of laughs. There’s a shout to play something from his new album and Ian quips, “Ah, didn’t you know, there isn’t a new album, I made it up. So I’d just like to say thanks to those who pledged their money but I’m disappearing off to Thailand”. It’s great to hear the Icicle Works classics “Evangeline”, “Hollow Horse” and “Understanding Jane” again and there’s such a great reaction that Ian confesses “I always heard that London audiences were a bunch of c*nts, but you lot are alright!” He’s not only in fine humour but fine voice too and I regret not following up on his solo career after the Icicle Works split, something I will be quickly rectifying.

The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
Suddenly there’s that familiar whooshing of jet engines through the P.A. and The Blue Aeroplanes appear. There’s been yet another line-up change since I last saw them back in 2011 at The Borderline (which you can read about here by the way) and I had a thought that the Aeroplanes are rather like a football team who may lose the bulk of their squad every transfer window but manage to keep hold of their star striker up front, loyal centre half at the back and the tricky enigmatic flair player on the wing, in other words they still have front-man Gerard Langley, brother Paul on the drums and dancer Wojtek Dmochowski remaining. So, despite languishing in the lower leagues for a while they can still be relied upon to deliver a result when it counts and they have certainly delivered with the new album "Welcome, Stranger!" as is proven when they launch straight into the excellent new single “Dead Tree! Dead Tree!”. Unfortunately the sound is atrocious, the thud of a ridiculously badly mixed bass and bass drum pretty much obliterates everything. Next up is the old favourite “Yr Own World” from “Beatsongs” and again the muddy sounds means that the usual intricate Aeroplanes guitar work is all but hidden in a syrupy mess. I’m right down the front, some other people around me are moaning about the sound too but luckily things do improve and as the good-natured pushing, shoving and singing along gets increasingly rowdy I’ve all but forgotten where I am and I’m determined not to let the Academy ruin another evening. 

The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
“This is not an exercise in nostalgia” front-man Gerard Langley warns us before glancing at the already perspiring dancer Wojtek standing at his side, “this is just exercise”. Indeed, despite a fair few of us in the audience getting out of breath just from nodding our heads up and down in time to the music, quite remarkably Wojtek does not let up throughout the whole one and a half hour set. Gerard quips “Wojtek will be releasing a fitness DVD soon!” In fact his intriguing mix of gymnastic, aerobic and balletic movement have been as much a signature of The Blue Aeroplanes over the years as Gerard’s ever present shades and their quest to cram as many guitarists as possible on stage at the same time. Wojtek is so important to the general feel of The Blue Aeroplanes that he even gate-crashed the band’s recent Marc Riley session prompting the DJ to comment “if you ever wondered what a man dancing on the radio looks like, that was it!” 

The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
Back to the gig and apart from the three aforementioned original members only guitarist Gerard Starkie is a familiar face from the last time I saw them back at the Borderline over six years ago. In fact this is actually the longest serving consecutive line-up, clocking up four and half years together. It shows in the immediate on-stage chemistry, there's great interplay between them, not just musically but loads of rock and roll posturing and posing, general leaping about and jumping off the drum riser. They all seem to be really enjoying themselves and it's mightily infectious. There’s Bec Jevons on guitar who wasn’t even born when the first Aeroplanes album was released. She's great, looks like she should be in an Indie band in her own right and in fact on further investigation I find out that she actually is, she fronts the trio IDestroy who are well worth checking out although they do make me feel a bit old. Her track “Skin” which she sings tonight reminds of the great Swedish all-girl band Sahara Hotnights and on the new album it seemed a bit out of place at first but then again I suppose the Aeroplanes were always throwing guitar pop nuggets into the mix such as Rodney Allen’s “Worry Beads” on the “Rough Music” album or the insanely catchy “Fun” which is played tonight as an encore and sung by spikey haired bassist Chris Sharp. 

The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
Mike Youe is also on guitars and he's responsible for one of the night's most anticipated moments, yes, that stunning cascading guitar riff intro to the faultless "Jacket Hangs". But as Gerard mentioned earlier it's not just nostalgia tonight as they play all ten tracks from "Welcome, Stranger!" and they sound even better live with each one standing up against anything in their back catalogue. It’s not even the end of January but I’ve already penciled it in at number one in my “Retro Man Blog’s best albums of 2017” list to be published at the end of the year. "Walking Under Ladders For a Living", "Poetland" and "Retro Moon", these titles will all be fighting for space on your "Best of The Blue Aeroplanes" mix-tape soon believe me. However, “Elvis Festival” is my favourite track from the new album with its drum and cow-bell intro and stop-start guitar riff it’s a hilarious but slightly melancholic tale of a provincial Elvis impersonator heading off to strut his stuff at an Elvis convention. “There's a fat man walking in the rain, his jump-suit is getting stained” and then “his wife sewed on the sequins but he made the cape himself”, the lyrics are wonderful and the chorus is sublime - “You sing badly, but no one cares, you are Elvis!” Indeed…someone’s shoving into me down the front and I turn round to see an enthusiastic chap jumping about in full stick-on Elvis sideburns and shades – ah those crazy Aeroplanes fans eh?

The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
“Nothing Will Ever Happen in the Future” is a beautiful song that builds nicely on the refrain “Want to be wanted, need to be needed, love to be loved" and on first listen I thought “Sweet Like Chocolate” might well be the best song the Blue Aeroplanes have ever written, but then I found out they didn’t actually write it. It’s a cover version of some cheesy dance track or other, I couldn't listen to more than 20 seconds of the original but you would barely recognise it as the band have basically just taken the vocal melody and twisted into a classic Aeroplanes guitar riff. Of course we get the classic dance number "...And Stones" and for the encore another treat when the line-up is expanded further by the welcome appearance of original guitarist Nick Jacobs who also plays on the new album and there’s a frenetic run through of the Bob Dylan rarity “I Wanna Be Your Lover”. 

The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
The band have always intrigued me as on one hand when I listen to them I imagine some of their music wouldn't be out of place on the soundtrack to movies like The Wicker Man or Witchfinder General, there's that pastoral, slightly spooky Englishness about them. But then they take a lot of influence from the New York scene of the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and Television and it makes them truly one of a kind. Talking of Television, there's the now traditional final number, Tom Verlaine's "Breakin' In My Heart" sees yet another guitarist join the fun and then a saxophonist jumps on stage too and there's absolute chaos. Bec gets down into the photographer's pit and then she's up on the barrier guitar held aloft above the crowd, goading us on even more as the song gradually falls apart to the sound of a huge and heartfelt ovation. It's bloody marvellous, what a night!

The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
The Blue Aeroplanes at Islington Academy - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog
For more information and news on The Blue Aeroplanes and how to order "Welcome, Stranger!" you can check out their official web-site here. There's a great interview with Gerard in the always excellent "Write Wyatt" web-site here. You can see more photos from the gig at the Retro Man Blog Facebook page here. If you're not already following, please hit "Like" and "Get Notifications" for access to the photo album. There's also a couple of videos at our YouTube channel here.


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