The release last month of Alone And Unreal – The Best Of The Clientele was a welcome reminder of all the qualities that make this largely unheralded band so special to those who have discovered them. A retrospective featuring highlights from throughout their career, it was accompanied by whispers that Hampshire’s finest were working together again on new material. The announcement of a rare gig at Islington Assembly Hall added further weight to the theory that The Clientele are well and truly back.
The north London venue was packed to the rafters for an extended bill that also included the modern Americana of The Hanging Stars and ’70s folk-rock survivor Mark Fry. It was standing room only, with two bar areas ensuring a steady flow of beer drinking throughout the evening. This convivial but increasingly lubricated atmosphere unfortunately led to this long-awaited performance ultimately feeling like a missed opportunity for The Clientele. It became obvious early on in their set that the hushed, fragile beauty of songs like Reflections After Jane and We Could Walk Together would be swallowed up by the combination of the Assembly Hall’s wide open spaces and the audience’s disappointing lack of engagement.
The remaining hour of the performance continued in a similar vein – more upbeat, poppy tunes like Since K Got Over Me fared slightly better but the uniquely crepuscular ambience of The Clientele on record was mostly lost. String arranger and regular collaborator Louis Philippe joined the band on stage to narrate Losing Haringey, but his manful efforts were almost completely drowned out by the hubbub of conversation in the crowd beneath him.
Singer Alasdair MacLean’s usually whispered vocal cracked a little as it struggled to fill the cavernous building, although the band’s wonderfully fluid, evocative guitar jangle sounded as magical as ever. The Clientele even tried to inject some very uncharacteristic extended rock workouts to songs like the closing Lamplight, but nothing could dispel the thought that a more intimate venue, with seating rather than standing, would suit their sound so much better.
Whoops and hollers greeted the end of their set proper, yet it was a little sad to see many streaming for the exit as MacLean and his cohorts returned to the stage to play the timeless Saturday, which remains one of the loveliest songs ever written by anyone. The re-emergence of this very special band will be cherished by true aficionados, but some may have left the Islington Assembly Hall to catch the tube home with a nagging sense of frustration that the band’s return to the stage was not the memorable occasion it could have been.