The Bluetones, The Hedrons
Jay Mansfield 06/10/2007
Commonly described as being Britpop survivors, The Bluetones perhaps have more in common with the legendary Japanese soldier still fighting in the jungle not knowing that the war was over years before.
Emerging from Hounslow at the peak of Britpop, the Bluetones' first album Expecting to Fly went straight to number one. One single, “Slight Return” was ubiquitous in the summer of 1996 and “Bluetonic”, with its jangling riff oddly reminiscent of a pinball machine, sound-tracking Sky Sports' Football League Cup coverage. It also contained the lyric, “And I can't put my finger/On the time things first went wrong.” For the Bluetones, their time when things first went wrong was after second album Return to the Last Chance Saloon was released into the midst of the Britpop backlash. It did reasonably well, charting at number eleven and providing two more top twenty singles, but it was the band's last fling with genuine commercial success - though they perhaps remain a name at the back of people's minds, as in, whatever happened to…
Bearing that in mind, it's perhaps not as much of a surprise as you'd first think to find them playing a headline gig at the laudable Darvel Music Festival. Organised by Sheila & Neil McKenna, the Ayrshire equivalent of Michael and Jean Eavis, the bands and spectators find themselves in slightly more civilised surroundings here; no muddy cow fields to tackle, instead all performances take place within the stately town hall building. Most of the bands on this year's roster (notable names being Capercaillie, Phil Cunningham & Aly Bain, and the Hamish Stuart band) operate outside of the prevailing musical fashions (ok, that's a polite way of saying none of them particularly bother the compilers of the UK top 40 music charts much; not necessarily a bad thing), but all still have their throngs of appreciative devotees to play for.
On the penultimate night of this year's festival, a more contemporary flavour is apparent. The Bluetones' somewhat disparate support comes from Mancunians the Headlines and Glasgow's own Hedrons. The former are a young five piece with Johnny Marr guitars and tremulous singing and they sound a bit like Maxïmo Park. They crucially also possess today's de rigueur indie band accessory, the small scale synthesizer, which the singer, archly, occasionally picks out a few notes on. They do earn points for being utterly unfazed by the drunken local who joins them on stage to “dance” along to their final song. Bluetones singer Mark Morriss later describes the same individual's dancing as like “Bez suffering an epileptic fit”.
The Hedrons, following in a rich tradition of ferocious female four pieces (such as the Donnas) deliver a noticeably heavier sound, with no concession to the nonessential. Charismatic lead singer Tippi provides a focal point for her band's pulverising live sound with her effortless stage craft, and performs the last two songs from the midst of a slightly bemused crowd. Set closer, the fine “Once Upon A Time” is essayed by Tippi from the top of one of the venue's tables, as patrons scramble to rescue their drinks.
The Bluetones themselves then have something of an act to follow. Fortunately, like Crowded House, you know more of their songs than you think. And they play their hits bloody well. Guitarist Adam Devlin is the very picture of concentration as he delivers dextrous and mellifluous guitar riff after riff, and singer Mark Morriss proves himself to be an amiable and charming front man.
Their set is drawn liberally from a back catalogue of five albums and several singles (including the excellent “Marblehead Johnson”), and illustrates that while the band haven't anything in their recent history to match the sheer (possibly nostalgic) thrill engendered by hearing the introductions to “Slight Return” and “Bluetonic”, last year's vintage of “The Last Song But One” and the raucous “My Neighbour's House” prove that their quality control hasn't evaporated nearly as much as their drop off in sales would otherwise suggest.
That said, with the reformation of the Verve and Shed Seven for tours in the winter, perhaps it's time for a reappraisal of the work of this old soldier.