‘This is fucking weird,’ says Ginger Wildheart, surveying his assembled fans with the air of a man facing the very thing that, until this moment, was the most unthinkable possibility in the universe.
He’s right. It is. Because these are strange times indeed and tonight’s collection of Wildhearts fans – loyally displaying all the merch they bought during lockdown, bless ‘em – are looking back at the band for all the world as if they’re standing, more than a little embarrassed, in the arrivals area of an airport where they’re greeting long-lost lovers for the first time in ages and have absolutely no idea how they should behave.
There are reasons for that, beyond the obvious. The venue for tonight’s gig has been shifted (‘upgraded’) from the cosy Tolbooth to the rather airier Albert Halls. On health and safety grounds, this may well be a sensible move. On atmosphere, though? Not so much. It means the whole affair is so physically-distanced that it has as much in common with, say, the band’s January 2020 gig at Glasgow’s QMU (where the sweat was as plentiful as the beer) as a pack of foaming-at-the-mouth street dogs does with a cluster of Crufts hopefuls.
But no matter. This is the Wildhearts, after all, and they’ve withstood enough calamity, misfortune and near self-combustion to be able to deal with a slightly staid venue and a crowd that’s less than rabid. Also, they have a cracker of a new album to plug and the chances are, you feel, they’re as glad as any of the rest of us to simply be out of the house.
And you just have to take a look at the faces – mercifully mask-free – to know how much they’ve been missed. When opener Diagnosis kicks off, watching the expressions is like watching Roman candles burst to life Quite simply, it’s the return of unadulterated joy – albeit in a slightly milder-mannered way than everyone’s used to.
These days, the band never seem anything less than slick. With a back-catalogue chock-full of fan favourites, they can chop and change the set lists and still leave the die-hards sated (yet already planning their next batch of gigs just in case a much-loved deep cut might get an airing next time). Tonight’s fare is as broad-ranging as ever, blending such complex, shifting arrangements as Remember These Days from new album 21st Century Love Songs with the pop prowess of Mazel Tov Cocktail from Chutzpah (both ends of the scale are insanely beautiful things for radically different reasons).
As ever, there is rage and passion and desire and tongue-in-cheek humour – all the things we’ve come to expect from a band who refuse to be generically pinned down and who make no apology for always, always being themselves. It’s nigh on impossible to think of another outfit of equal longevity who’re still writing piercingly relevant material and playing it with even more pride than they perform the old stuff (Ginger’s recent tirade against debut album classic Greetings from Shitsville during their online Stabal performance seems to have stuck – it doesn’t figure, though thankfully both Suckerpunch and Caffeine Bomb stay in).
Of course, The Wildhearts have always been at their most extraordinary in the live arena and the new numbers serve to prove the point. Take Splitter, for instance, with its great big chainsaw riff: just when you’re making the Motorhead comparisons, and grinning your head off at Ginger’s Lemmy-esque delivery, the whole thing ignites into a refrain that fizzes like space dust on the tongue, guitarist CJ adding the vocal harmonies to lift the melody right to the heavens. How a piece of craft like this is even conceived, never mind delivered as a blistering live version, is anyone’s guess. But it’s seamless. And utterly brilliant.
A mention must also go to the man with the sticks. It can’t be easy providing the backbeat for a band that often threatens to run away with itself but, like a dedicated student, the doughty Rich Battersby keeps his head down and gets on with drumming that’s just stunningly to-the-point. Watching him keep Caffeine Bomb on the straight and narrow is top entertainment in itself.
By the time we get to Let Em Go, the earlier politeness is pretty much out the window, with everyone merrily belting out the lines about letting the wankers find their own. And by the time the proceedings close the way they always do, with a rib-shaking I Wanna Go Where the People Go – surely the natural anthem for Covid times – the whole thing is feeling a whole lot more like it. ‘Out of the misery/to wash my soul’ sings Ginger and the front-of-stage mentalists couldn’t agree more. There’s bouncing. There’s air-punching. There are the bits where they chant ‘Oi, oi, oi’ while CJ, doing his whirling dervish dance, eggs them on. Not that, by this stage, they need much egging.
And so all is right with the world, or thereabouts.
Sure, it’s still a bit weird. But if we've learned one thing it's that when The Wildhearts are around it can only ever be weird in a good way.