Glenn Tilbrook, The Lowry, 17/11/16

Glenn Tilbrook has always been one of my favourite live performers — Squeeze were the first band I ever saw live, and I’ve seen him either with various line-ups of Squeeze, with his backing band the Fluffers, or solo about twenty times in total.

But I have to admit that in the latter part of the last decade, Tilbrook’s solo shows (then usually with the Fluffers) lost a tiny bit of their lustre. His solo performances had started as a way of keeping playing between Squeeze tours, and in the late nineties they’d been wonderfully idiosyncratic, with him just playing whatever came into his head, whether his own hits, covers of everyone from Sonny Terry & Sticks McGhee to Manfred Mann, or tiny fragments (I remember once him doing a bit of “great seconds in rock history”, which included “covers” of David Bowie saying “seven” in Space Oddity and of George Harrison fluffing the guitar solo in All You Need Is Love).

After Squeeze split up, these shows became slightly more organised, as his solo career became his main career, but they were still always enjoyable. But after Squeeze’s reunion in 2008 there were a few years when there was an obvious split, with Squeeze shows consisting only of classics with no new songs, while Tilbrook’s solo shows concentrated on his solo material with only the briefest nod to the past.

This tended to weaken both sets of shows — the Squeeze shows were a nostalgia event rather than a still-relevant band, while Tilbrook’s solo shows were more relevant, but still missing something. One could still enjoy a Paul McCartney show in which he did only his solo stuff, but you’d still be thinking “why doesn’t he do any Beatles material?”, and the same went for those Tilbrook shows, where he’d only do four Squeeze songs and otherwise concentrate on material from his (very good) solo albums. If you’d written a song as good as “Labelled With Love”, one of the best songs ever written, why *wouldn’t* you perform it every chance you got?

Thankfully, in the last few years Squeeze have once again started recording new material — and their album from last year, Cradle to the Grave is their highest-charting ever, as well as being their best since at least 1989’s Frank.

With Squeeze now being a proper ongoing concern again, Tilbrook seems to have been freed up in the last couple of years to revisit his own past in his solo shows, and last night’s solo acoustic show seemed cleverly balanced to appeal to two separate audiences. While he played only two songs from between 1982 and 2009 (the 1991 album track “The Truth” and the comedy country cover version “Genitalia of a Fool” from his 2004 solo album Transatlantic Ping-Pong) in his twenty-odd-song set, the set included eleven of the twelve tracks from Squeeze’s best-selling album, their 1982 hits compilation Singles: 45s and Under (the only song missed was, of course, “Cool For Cats”, which Chris Difford sang lead on), ensuring that that portion of the audience who had that and no other Squeeze or Tilbrook records would hear every song they wanted.

Meanwhile, those of us who have followed his recent career got three songs from Cradle to the Grave, and three from Tilbrook’s 2014 solo album Happy Ending which demonstrated his sheer versatility — “Persephone”, a song whose resemblance to “Friday on my Mind” was made even more noticeable when Tilbrook covered that song a few minutes later, “Everybody Sometimes”, a scathing political song about the way the ruling classes gather round and protect their own, with a gorgeous melody, and “Ice Cream”, a song Tilbrook claims was the signature song of his great-grandfather, a music-hall performer. The lyrics to that last one are, in their entirety, “I’ll buy you an ice cream, buy you an ice cream, as big as your head”.

There was also one song, “Ter-Wit Ter-Woo” from his 2011 collaboration with Nine Below Zero, The Co-Operative, and two of my favourites of Tilbrook’s solo songs, from 2009’s Pandemonium Ensues — “Black Sheep”, a wonderful Beach Boys pastiche with the best use of “ba ba ba” vocals ever (the chorus goes “Black sheep/baa baa baa baa baa baa…”), and “Through The Net”, the best 1967 Kinks song that Ray Davies never wrote.

So the setlist was packed enough with hits to satisfy the casual fans, while still having enough new material of a similar standard to make this more than just a nostalgia trip. But none of that would be important if the performance itself wasn’t so good.

But Tilbrook is, without a doubt, one of the best live performers there is. His affable, shambolic, stage presence is immediately welcoming, giving the impression of just being a friend showing you some songs, but it belies a *severe* musical ability.

Anyone who’s heard any of Squeeze’s singles will know that Tilbrook at his best is a formidable melodist, but what’s not so obvious is how great a guitarist he is. Jools Holland has described Tilbrook as being “Brian Wilson and Jimi Hendrix in the same body”, and while that’s something of an overstatement of both his songwriting and guitar talents, it’s not *that* much of an overstatement.

Tilbrook is one of the best guitarists-as-accompanists (an important distinction from the Hendrix-style flashy lead player) I’ve ever seen, up there with Martin Carthy or Richard Thompson. Some of the solos in songs where they’re through-composed parts of songs, intended for performance with a full band, perhaps sound a *tiny* bit empty in a solo performance, but far more often I’m astonished by the sheer imagination with which he adapts the songs for solo performance. On “Tempted”, for example — a song conceived as a keyboard-dominated baroque-soul piece — he switches between a two-note figure from the record, a slashed funk guitar part, and an arpeggiated part which sounds like nothing so much as the guitar part from “10538 Overture” by ELO. “Goodbye Girl”, meanwhile, acquires a sped-up country-blues boogie bassline.

His voice, meanwhile, is almost miraculously preserved for a man who turns sixty next year. There’s a *very* slight roughening of tone and softening, and on “Black Coffee In Bed” he changed the melody very slightly in a way that might have been to stop him getting bored with the song but which might also have been to avoid a high note, but his McCartneyesque high tenor voice is still almost identical when he sings “Up The Junction”, “Annie Get Your Gun”, “Is That Love”, or “Labelled With Love”.

In the last year or so Squeeze seem to have finally been getting the recognition they’ve always deserved, as one of the truly great pop bands. That recognition really should extend to them, and to Tilbrook solo, as a live act, too. If you’re in the UK, he’s almost certainly playing somewhere near you in the next few weeks. Go and see him.

(And this isn’t part of the review, but is just me being grumpy. The audience were mostly fine, but I happened to be sat at the end of a row, and the ten people next to me were all men in their late fifties, all of whom came into the venue carrying two pints each. Between their trips to the bar and to the toilet, there was literally not a two-minute period in the entire set when someone wasn’t getting up and going past me. For the first hour or so this meant me having to stand up to let them past, which was hell on my knees. After that, they finally noticed I was using a cane to stand up, and started instead saying, loudly (in a room with very good acoustics when people were trying to listen to music) “Don’t get up, you’re OK”, every time, and then stepping on my feet, every time.

While I’m teetotal myself I have no problem with people drinking. I do, though, question why anyone would spend twenty quid on a ticket to a gig when they planned to spend as much time in the bar or on the toilet as watching the show…)

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4 Responses to Glenn Tilbrook, The Lowry, 17/11/16

  1. Lawrence Radley says:

    Perfect for getting me in the mood – seeing Glenn at the Union Chapel in Islington in a couple of weeks. Hadn’t heard the Brian Wilson/Hendrix comparison before – always thought he was more McCartney then Wilson.

    In a similar vein, gutted that I’m having to give up my Nick Lowe/Los Straitjackets tickets the same week for a family commitment. That’s a show I would really, really recommend. It’s amazing how well they work together.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, I find him much more similar to McCartney, too — although Pandemonium Ensues has a lot of BW influence, and he’s credited seeing Brian and his band as the main reason for wanting to reform Squeeze.

  2. dm says:

    It would be a dream to see Labelled With Love live, that is close to my favourite Squeeze song. Which Tilbrook solo albums would you recommend?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      It’s a great one, isn’t it?
      My personal favourite Tilbrook solo album is Pandemonium Ensues. I find his solo stuff generally weaker than the Squeeze material, because of the lack of Difford’s lyrics, but the melodies and musical invention on that one make up for it. They’re all listenable, though — and probably more musically consistent than any Squeeze album, despite the comparative lyrical weakness.
      (Also, if you can find it, the non-album B-side By The Light Of The Cash Machine is one of the great pop songs of the last twenty years, and was utterly wasted as a B-side)

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