It’s understandable that less than a week after the passing of his beloved father that Matt Johnson, the guiding force of The The, would need to do a little soul searching. Or Soul Mining if we must. But tonight’s two-hour set seems to be him trying to conjure a little of the old fire and falling just a little short.
The band is late to arrive on stage, but what are a few minutes when they’ve not played in 16 years? They’re dressed all in black, and look respectfully sombre. Before they strike up a note, Johnson wants the crowd to say hello to his young son, who had asked exactly what his daddy does for a living, and to speak briefly about how his father had been more of a friend than a parental figure.
Once pleasantries are over with, the lights dim and there’s a giant white screen behind the instruments shaped like the pages of a book. They start their set with a bluesy Global Eyes and are reduced to minor silhouettes by light hitting the screen from below, mere shadows of what we know and expect. It’s a punchy visual trick, like the set up for David Bowie’s Thin White Duke stage show, and somehow fits the swampy tone of the song. They continue in this Delta basin, television preacher man vein with Sweet Bird Of Truth, and as spectral faces appear on the screen, it feels like they’re attempting to summon ghosts.
The first few tracks are somewhat faithful to the recorded versions but apparently the band is still finding their feet live. Guitarist ‘Little’ Barrie Cadogan is doing his best Keith Richards impression and between numbers Johnson chats affably, asking for phones to be put away and people not to talk too loudly. It’s all a bit sedate. By the time they get to the fourth song, the politically relevant Heartland from 1986’s Infected LP, the screen is ablaze with a collage of home movies, of his father and promo clips of Johnson’s past. It should feel diaristic, nostalgic and clever, yet there’s a sense of disconnect, as the lyrics to the track appear on screen minutes after the song has finished, resulting in a feeling of half-heartedness.
They play an emotional Love Is Stronger Than Death that resonates with all present, and the recent Record Store Day release We Can’t Stop What’s Coming shows that Johnson can still write a tune when called upon. But tonight, the majority of the set is pulled from the Dusk album. It’s not a bad album per se, but the track Slow Emotion Replay seems a pertinent summation of the impact it has on the show. When they do finally perform fan favourite This Is The Day, by contrast it becomes a giant campfire sing-along and is a genuinely moving segment in an otherwise murky middle section. The set eventually finds its steam and builds to a sweltering version of Infected, but as soon as it begins, it’s over.
Of course, they come back for an encore. First its Johnson solo, doing a semi acoustic version of True Happiness This Way Lies, which gets mildly heckled, so in response they do an exhilarating version of Uncertain Smile that shows just how brilliant this performance could have been. It’s the track most have come for, and keyboardist DC Collard plays an almost note perfect version of the solo made famous by Jools Holland on the original. It sets the room ablaze. Collard’s showing off, and Johnson is happily giving him the stage. If only they could have maintained that momentum from the start and kept the fires burning.