Unless you’re a rabid fan of Stephen Jones, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Babybird shuffled off this mortal coil some time ago. Apart from the sprawling solo project Death Of The Neighbourhood in 2008 there’s been precious little from Jones in the four years since Babybird’s last release Between My Ears There Is Nothing But Music.
But there has been recent activity. The new Babybird album Ex-Maniac slithered out a few weeks ago with barely a whimper – a massive shame considering that it is up there with the best material Babybird has ever produced – while tonight is the culmination of a short (although tonight Jones constantly refers to it as “long”) tour around the country.
Kicking off with Black Flowers, Babybird instantly test the audience and their familiarity with the new album. Greeted with an uncomfortable awed hush, Jones quickly ushers the band into more fresh meat. Failed Suicide Club is awash with dark humour, a kind of 12 step recovery programme for the depressed. “Step one – don’t kill yourself” croons Jones, prompting a ripple of giggles. The chorus pulls everyone in with a typically simplistic hook, and by the time Jones’ warm tones wrap around “sitting in a circle – smiling” he’s got the audience where he wants them.
Drugtime is another example of Babybird’s way of mixing the darker side of life with irresistible pop hooks. Who else could take a tale of a lifetime of addiction and make it sound like something Christopher Lillicrap might have come up with if he’d had an unfortunately timed breakdown during Jackanory? It’s curiously joyful.
The band peppers the set with songs from Ex-Maniac, all of it sounding every bit as accomplished as the older material. Unloveable (the recorded version has guitars supplied by Johnny Depp – who has a small penis according to Jones’ between song banter) is a wonderful sweeping ballad that highlights just how poignant Jones can be at his best. Away from his darker lyrics and his sharp tongue throwing barbed criticisms between songs, songs such as this mark him out as something of a romantic. Not that he would seem to agree though. “You’re the Lord Byron of our generation” one fan who’s been granted possession of Jones’ microphone tells him. “Shouldn’t you be in Europe catching syphilis?” he counters. “I’ll be drinking in The Lord Byron later, they’ve got pictures of him in the urinals, and you can piss on him… while reciting his poetry.” Cutting doesn’t quite cover it.
Bastard might though according to Jones, as he dedicates new song Bastard to himself and the band launch into yet another brilliantly constructed pop song replete with razor sharp lyrics. That it’s been booted off the playlist of every radio station is something of a tragedy. “Bastard’s not a rude word is it?” Jones asks the audience who are now well and truly caught in his spell.
Although much of the set comes from Ex-Maniac, there is room for a few older tunes. All Men Are Evil is a particularly malevolent stomp tonight, taking on an almost garage blues feel. Cornershop comes with a Madchester beat hastily jammed into its shutters (attached by shoe-heel obviously), while Bad Old Man is tremendously heavy and filled with brooding menace. Jones might fluff his lines on account of his lyric sheet getting blown about by the venue’s air conditioning, but it doesn’t matter, it’s a hunk of glorious filth, and one of Babybird’s crowning achievements. Jones however stomps from the stage, the very picture of his curmudgeonly reputation.
You’re Gorgeous gets a run out as an encore, but by then its presence is hardly required. The quality of what preceded it (including a heartbreaking rendering of Little Things) proves without doubt that Stephen Jones and Babybird are one of the most criminally underrated bands in the UK. As the band leave the stage for the final time, Jones’ words from earlier in the evening hang heavy in the air “This could be the last ever Babybird show,” he said, reflecting on the lack of album and ticket sales. If it is, this was a great show to go out on, full of humour, menace and romance – but what a terrible waste. Get some new PR, Stephen; if people actually know you’re playing and have a record out, it could make all the difference.