It doesn’t seem so long ago that people would jokingly refer to ’90s nostalgia, mocking the trend for ‘School Disco’ and ‘Guilty Pleasures’ evenings which mined the ’80s for their soundtracks. Yet at some point these ironic references quietly shed their pointedness and we’ve ended up with plain…nostalgia. The clearest current example is ITV’s The Big Reunion, where a gaggle of ’90s pop bands who were already slightly naff in their day have reformed. With its confessional interviews and frequent tears it’s sold as some insight into the journey of fame, but there’s little doubt that much of its audience is simply revelling in seeing the soundtrack to their student days resuscitated and reclaimed. You could say the same for the reformations of bands like Pulp and The Stone Roses – Suede have very much been in the minority in recently releasing new material, the rather good Bloodsports.
In this context it’s difficult not to be sceptical about the return of Dubstar, a synthpop band who enjoyed a brief period of minor success in the late ’90s. While vocalist Sarah Blackwood enjoyed cult appeal as part of electro group Client following Dubstar’s demise in 2008, it’s easy to imagine that the currently voracious appetite for all things ’90s would have seemed like an easy way to rack up gigs and appearances. The news, however, that the group have been working on a new album suggested that more interesting things were afoot.
London’s tiny (and trendy) Lexington is a curious choice of venue for Dubstar’s live return but within seconds of the band taking the stage it’s an understandable one: Sarah Blackwood’s nerves are palpable. As if to allay fears that this is a cash-in reunion, the band open the set with their relatively obscure cover of I’m In Love With A German Film Star and follow it with The View From Here, an album track from 1997’s under-rated Goodbye album. By the time we get to Anywhere, one of the key tracks from their debut Disgraceful, it’s clear that something magical is happening on stage. Steve Hillier and Chris Wilkie are in fine form, their muscular dreampop backing belying the fact that there are only two of them. Blackwood, meanwhile, delivers a star turn, possessing the kind of charm which would see her slot neatly alongside contemporaries Lauren Laverne and Cerys Matthews at BBC 6music. She is in fine voice and, though nervous, she clearly feeds off the crowd’s affection (as she makes clear several times, friends and family have travelled far and wide for this gig) and seems humbled that people still want to hear these songs.
And what songs they are. It’s been easy to forget Dubstar since they fell into inactivity but tonight it’s impossible to ignore that they were frequently brilliant. Their cover of Billy Bragg’s St Swithin’s Day packs a hefty emotional punch and you can feel everyone in the crowd swooning at its beauty, while their biggest hits Not So Manic Now, No More Talk and Stars inspire unlikely dancing and amiable singing. Thrillingly, a trio of strong new songs bode well for the new album – indeed the first, a melancholic track built on a foundation of commanding synths and featuring lyrics about ‘crying in the rain’, is one of the set highlights. A second sounds not unlike Blondie doing an uptempo cover of Madonna’s Crazy For You while the final new number is one of the wistful ballads which Dubstar do so well.
Such a ballad is responsible for the most special (and clearly unplanned) moment of the gig. Goodbye’s Ghost certainly exemplifies Dubstar’s knack for sorrow and yearning with pithy lines like “Yes I’m eating well/I still cook for two you know” being loaded with bittersweet loss. Whomever the song is about, it still proves raw for Blackwood who breaks down in tears midway through the song. In a truly joyous moment, the crowd explode into encouraging cheers and applause while her bandmates whisper in her ear, bringing a smile to her face. It’s an impossibly tender moment, made all the more special by the gig’s intimacy and it makes the emotional attachment which the audience have for this band (and these songs) obvious.
Dubstar seem relieved by the time they leave the stage, no doubt pleased that it’s largely gone without a hitch. This does disservice, however, to a return which is both celebratory and exciting. Far from wallowing in ’90s nostalgia this gig finds a band with something vital to offer 2013. That new album can’t come soon enough.