Live Music + Gig Reviews

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds @ South Facing, Crystal Palace Bowl, London

28 July 2023

A blend of songs from new album Council Skies, Oasis classics and sardonic banter, with support from Johnny Marr

Noel Gallagher

Noel Gallagher (Photo: Matt Crockett)

It’s been a bit of a Britpop comeback summer with the re-formed Blur and Pulp wowing huge crowds around the country, with the former also releasing a new album. The other Big Beast from that mid-’90s era, Oasis, won’t be back together anytime soon, but Noel Gallagher (with his backing band High Flying Birds) has been on a transatlantic tour promoting his fourth solo album Council Skies. They headline the sell-out opening show in the third annual South Facing Festival at Crystal Palace Bowl, supported by revered ex-Smiths axeman Johnny Marr.

The two Mancunians Gallagher and Marr – now in their late 50s – have a lot in common apart from being friends and collaborators: lead guitarists turned solo musicians, both to some extent perform in the shadow of their iconic former bands whose more flamboyant lead singer they have fallen out with. Not to mention both having penned some of the finest British rock songs of the last 40 years.

With a relaxed crowd enjoying the early evening sunshine in south London, Marr and his tight band play an excellent hour-long set that extends across most of his career. Not having been the lyricist or singing with the Smiths (apart from the odd backing vocal), it took Marr a long time to go solo after joining other bands like The The, Modest Mouse, and The Cribs as well as doing a lot of session work. But after a false start with support band the Healers, in the last ten years he has recorded four accomplished solo albums. A consummate professional though not a natural frontman, he has developed into a pretty decent singer – able to hold his own in front of an 8,500-strong crowd.

As well as showing the diversity of his output from well-crafted indie rock to electronic dance pop, Marr wisely mixes up songs from his solo career with those of the Smiths – which he knows people want to hear the most. He kicks off with the synth-driven standalone single Armatopia whose easy vibe goes down well. The motorik beat of Spirit Power And Soul (taken from last year’s album Fever Dreams) has more urgency. There’s an effective, bass-driven account of Getting Away With It (the first single of Marr’s supergroup project Electronic with New Order’s Bernard Sumner), as well as a surprise cover of Depeche Mode’s rocktronica I Feel You.

But of course it is the five Smiths tracks played that get the biggest audience response. Marr has the problem of singing songs made famous by Morrissey’s unique vocal style, but he does okay. Their debut single This Charming Man – 40 years old! – with Marr’s trademark chiming guitar is sung-along lustily by the crowd, as is the famous distorted tremolo-laden How Soon Is Now? He signs off by dedicating the poignant There Is A Light That Never Goes Out to the late lamented Sinéad O’Connor to much applause.

“Even if he lacks Liam’s swaggering stage presence, he makes up for it with his sardonically witty, sometimes confrontational banter with the crowd”

Noel Gallagher has settled into his solo career much more seamlessly – helped of course by the fact that as well as having been Oasis’s main songwriter he also sang some of their best-known songs. Many would say he is a superior singer to brother Liam – he may not have the same ballsy rock’n’roll delivery, but he is more melodic and can reach the higher notes better. Even if he lacks Liam’s swaggering stage presence, he makes up for it with his sardonically witty, sometimes confrontational banter with the crowd. Accompanied by a cardboard cut-out of the treble-winning Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola next to his beloved team’s colours, he can’t resist baiting local football fans.

Gallagher takes a different tack from Marr in terms of setlist order – but he has a new album to plug. He frontloads his one-and-a-half hour show with five tracks from Council Skies, followed by half a dozen from his previous solo albums, and only then getting to a raft of Oasis songs – cannily warming up the crowd for a big climax. He even makes a joke about it: “Do you remember a song called Stand By Me?” Cue big positive response. “Well, we’re not playing that.” His solo career has been successful albeit in an unspectacular way, moving well away from the raunchy feedback-saturated anthems of Oasis towards a smoother, more mellow, classic-rock sound that accentuates his talent as a tunesmith.

The well-received Council Skies album is his most personal so far – though here its rich orchestral arrangements are rather thinly synthesized. However, a trio of female backing singers with percussion called the Roxys (Piney Gir, Amy Ashworth and Emma Brammer) – adding to the backing vocals of keyboardist Jessica Greenfield and former Zutons bassist Russell Pritchard – make a massive impact, swelling the sound to great effect.

Lead single Pretty Boy (which featured Johnny Marr on the record) makes a great opener with its hypnotic tick-tock beat, haunting Mellotron melody and big shout-out chorus. The beautiful, summery title track with its unexpectedly bossa nova jazz groove exerts a seductive charm as the sky starts to slowly darken. On the uplifting Easy Now former Oasis guitarist Gem Archer takes the guitar solo (as he does throughout, with Gallagher playing rhythm guitar). Early solo single AKA… What a Life! – with its propulsive beat and rousing chorus – comes across well, while the stripped-down ballad Dead In The Water features just Gallagher on acoustic guitar and Mike Rowe on piano.

Notably, the Oasis tracks that Gallagher performs are – apart from one – ones he sang originally himself, and they suit his lighter tenor better than the gutsy songs that Liam tended to belt out. They include the quirky The Importance Of Being Idle, the beautiful B-side The Masterplan and Little By Little, with many of the enthusiastic crowd joining in the chorus and punching the air.

Encores start with a pedestrian cover of the Bob Dylan standard Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn), but conclude with two crowd-pleasing Oasis hits. Live Forever is performed very differently than the effervescent original, with former Oasis drummer Chris Sharrock just playing tambourine and soaring female backing vocals – more like a wistful ballad than a youthful anthem, no doubt reflecting the three decades that have passed. Inevitably, Gallagher closes with the classic Don’t Look Back In Anger, leaving the audience to sing the end of it unaccompanied – though he does have the last word with one final quip about Manchester City winning the Champions League as he exits the stage.

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