Arab Strap - O2 Ritz, Manchester

by Andy Brown Rating: Release Date:

There’s something initially strange about the idea of going to see Arab Strap perform. After all, this is music associated with post-party comedowns, blurry eyed odes to lust and heartbreak and hangovers that last for days. Albums such as the sublime Philophobia contained material that often seemed too intimate, too close to the bone, to listen to with friends. On top of all this, the idea of seeing Arab Strap live in 2016 only became a reality when it was announced a few months ago that Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton had got the band back together for round two.

I’m full of anticipation and crammed into the centre of the crowd at Manchester’s illustrious Ritz when the band opens with ‘Stink’ from their much underrated swansong The Last Romance. The first thing you notice is just how full and developed the band’s sound is live. The volume is cranked right up and I’m reminded how utterly fantastic that final LP really was. It also immediately challenges my idea that Arab Strap is somehow a solitary pleasure as the song thunders along with the help of a full live band.

Following the rush and rumble of ‘Stink’ with the crushing, noise-laden ‘Fucking Little Bastards’ seems only appropriate. The song remains dark, broken and murky but is now significantly bigger, fuller and fiercer than its recorded counterpart.  We’re two songs in and I’m completely hypnotised.

It’s been years since I first heard Arab Strap (‘Piglet’ on a free NME CD) and their music has taken on a strangely nostalgic quality. It’s akin to someone trawling through your diary and telling everyone about the nights out you’d almost forgotten (“and I’d always planned to have a look/in your special Winnie the Pooh book”). As Moffat jokingly quips after playing a beautifully seedy rendition of the aforementioned ‘Piglet’, “people don’t change; deep down they’re the same cunts they always were”.  

Moffat has always been an incredibly precise and honest lyricist and there’s arguably no better example of this than ‘New Birds’. I close my eyes early into the song and it’s a thoroughly engrossing experience. The music recalls the quietly intense drama of Slint masterpiece Spiderland as Moffat delivers the emotional gut-punch of a characteristically heart-wrenching tale of love and lust, “but you have to remember the kiss you worked so hard on/ and you’ll know you’ve done the right thing”.

Halfway in and Malcolm and Aidan treat the us to a stripped back acoustic section, choosing songs from a box of requests that stood by the merch stall earlier in the night. The Ritz is a fairly big venue yet there’s something very intimate about seeing these two long-term friends perform, the highlight coming with the suitably melancholic ‘Who Named the Days?’

With the full band back on stage, they launch into something of a Greatest Hits set. If only these songs had become genuine hits, what a fantastic world that would be.  A dark and somewhat magical rendition of ‘Cherubs’ pulsates and throbs as we’re blinded by strobing lights, nosier and seemingly more complex than the album version and setting a hypnotic and vaguely threatening tone in the process.

My heart is well and truly racing by the time they unveil the ever-wonderful ‘The Shy Retirer’ as Moffat sings, “you know I’m always moaning but you jump start my serotonin”. Like old friends these songs know me better than I know myself and it’s a thrill to hear them in all their live glory. Suddenly these songs seem ideal for venues like this, leaving the bedsits and pub corners behind and embracing the big crowds and bright lights of the city. This gear-shift is in no small part down to the bands contributions and performance; extra guitars, a violin and pounding drums propelling these lo-fi hymns into the stratosphere.

This communal euphoria reaches its zenith with two of the bands finest anthems, ‘The First Big Weekend’ and ‘There is no Ending’ These two songs seem to complement each other perfectly, the former recalling a decadent and unforgettable  weekend from long ago as the latter points the way forward with optimism and hope. It would be something of an understatement to say that it’s been emotional.

The band started with a bang but choose to leave us with the slow, barroom smooch of ‘Soaps’. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful songs in the bands cannon and a crestfallen ballad up there with the best of them. It’s been a truly exceptional evening and while shows like this ensure the bands legend, you can’t help but wonder, where next? Moffat and Middleton have had prolific and impressive careers outside of the band but there’s no denying the uniqueness of what they create together. Here’s to the past, present and future of the mighty Arab Strap!

 

 

 

 

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