OK – here’s the preamble – let’s explain something quickly about getting tickets for gigs at Sheffield’s legendary Boardwalk venue. Say you buy two or more tickets, then you get one piece of paper, and the number of tickets purchased written in a box in the corner. Now picture the scene outside the Boardwalk for tonight’s sold-out gig from Wirral legends Half Man Half Biscuit.
There are two queues. One is for those with tickets. One is for those desperately hoping that someone with a 2 person ticket has had to come alone, freeing up a space. As I step through the doors, a couple on the latter queue are separating – one spare space has come up, so one’s going on in while the other (along with the rest) continues to wait in hope. There’s no question of giving up – here is a band, always fiercely independent and unfashionable, who inspire a level of devotion from their fans that is simply humbling.
It continues inside too. Everyone is waiting with bated breath, nervous anticipation written all over their faces, as though waiting at the station for a train bearing a beloved, and long missed friend. Fifteen minutes before the band actually come out on stage, they are sighted in the wings and shouts of ‘Come on out, we can see your heads!’ bring the anticipation level up even further.
On taking to the stage, Half Man Half Biscuit are the opposite of everything we expect about rock stars. Singer/songwriter Nigel Blackwell immediately starts babbling on about the need to take a flask if you’re visiting the craft centre in Wentworth (don’t ask) and I can’t help but notice lead guitarist Ken Hancock is disconcertingly growing to resemble Michael Howard. They launch into The Light at the End of the Tunnel, the opener from 2002’s Cammel Laird Social Club, and pretty much immediately the entire audience seems engulfed by an overwhelming wave of unadulterated joy that is sustained throughout the near two-hours of the set.
There are 30-odd songs mixing old stuff, new stuff, unreleased stuff and probably some that were made up on the spot. There are little asides about a place to buy fresh eggs in Tintwistle, as well the aforementioned craft shop that Nigel may, or may not have ever been to. There are classics (F*ckin’ ‘Ell It’s Fred Titmus!, The Len Ganley Stance, Trumpton Riots) as well as the newer numbers with more up-to-date references to match – most topically even singing about when “the guy from Slipknot went to Rome to see the Pope.”
It may all seem like silly joke songs to the uninitiated, but Blackwell’s lyrics are insightful and often poignant, and always full of heart. This is also a band that are at their best playing in intimate venues like this one, and I can think of no better introduction to Half Man Half Biscuit than checking out one of their shows in a place like this. If you don’t know them yet, you may well be unconvinced after a cursory glance at some of the above song titles – even listening to the albums may leave you unsure – but catch this band playing live and on this kind of form you’ll be a convert for life. Just buy your ticket early.