Graham Coxon has shifted up a gear this year. His latest album Happiness In Magazines saw the sometime Blur axeman back with his old band’s old major, Parlophone, and Parklife producer Stephen Street twiddling the knobs. He’s been exhibiting his art at London’s supertrendy, ICA. His well-documented battle with the bottle has given way to a teetotal period, and this headlining tour is taking in big barns like Kentish Town’s Forum.
Support came courtesy of Mower, an energetic three-piece signed to Coxon’s label Transcopic, whose debut album Street also produced. Eschewing real surnames for that of the band, the line-up features a strong rhythm section and Mat, singer and guitarist. The Nirvana set-up belies a Kinks ambition, and Mat’s voice called to mind The Darkness‘s Justin Hawkins’ high-pitched squealing. Thankfully the owner felt no need to sport spandex – but the band’s exertions had the mosh pit bouncing happily along.
It was clear that headliner Coxon’s set would not be an acoustic showcase. The Forum’s cavern-like space begs to be filled with noise that acoustic guitars simply don’t make, and his latest album was a marked shift towards rhythm-driven rock and away from the quieter ditties of The Kiss Of Morning. Thus it proved. Alongside bass, keys and drums were two electric guitars – one played by Coxon, naturally – and after an eager entrance the frenetic pace was a marker for the set.
Coxon, bespectacled, in shirtsleeves rolled and wooly black tank top, leapt about the big stage as though enjoing himself. His band, by contrast, looked as though on autopilot – the peril of musicians ordered to play rather than being part of a collaborative creative process. But as their front man, despite telling the audience “I love you” early on, Coxon seemed ill eat ease. Whenever he spoke into the mic it was inaudible – he’d begin speaking before being within mic range, then tail off. He’d play guitar wank-out solos with his back to the audience. He’d sing staring at the floor. And it was difficult not to feel pity for the keyboardist who, for most of the set, was charged with the thankless task of nodding his head rather than playing.
Material from the new album memorably included All Over Me and Bittersweet Bundle Of Misery. Live, material from this album sounds especially early-Blur – even the under-used keyboard. Gentle ballads of the Coffee and TV and You’re So Great ilk were nowhere to be found, and neither was any Blur material. This was a set from a man rightly promoting himself as an artist with a significant body of his own material, and one revelling in his status as guitar hero – he even swapped to bass at one point.
Several tracks from the superb third album The Kiss Of Morning were aired, but the arrangement was firmly of the now – everything louder and harder than the album versions. Coxon’s voice still won’t reach the lowest notes for Bitter Tears, notes that one Mr Damon Albarn’s baritone would’ve comfortably intoned. Baby You’re Out Of Your Mind was similarly cranked up – but I was hoping for some variation, and Coxon’s voice had begun to grate.
Just then, the set ended, but a lengthy encore was in store. Unexpectedly, we were treated to a cameo from fellow rehab escapee Pete Doherty, latterly of The Libertines and now of Babyshambles, shuffling about the middle of the stage and plainly not wishing to take away any of Coxon’s hard-won limelight as he sang The Libertines’ song Time For Heroes. And still, Doherty received the wildest applause of the evening. His charisma all but blew Coxon away and, in one song, he created variation in an otherwise largely samey set of guitar noise.
The faithful applauded a supreme guitarist well able of crafting impressive songs and ploughing his own particular furrow, despite niggling doubts over his ultimate ability as a front man. Whether such efforts lead him further in a commercial direction remains to be seen.