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The Levellers performing ‘Levelling The Land’ + The Wonder Stuff @02 Academy, 17 March 2011

Review for Birmingham Live!

Back to the 02 Academy again for what is probably the gig of the week. The Levellers performing ‘Levelling the Land’ plus (in the words of Miles Hunt) ‘special guests’ The Wonder Stuff. This gig is, in real terms, a double headliner – local lads The Stuffies are still likely to sell out The Academy, while The Levellers on a normal tour, would probably fill just over half capacity. Subsequently tonight’s gig is sold out, the place is absolutely rammed.

And so to Part 1 of tonight’s performance. The Wonder Stuff formed 25 years ago (the actually ‘date’ is celebrated at their London gig of this particular tour) out of the ruins of ‘From Eden’ whose members would also go onto form the other Stourbridge Grebo band Pop Will Eat Itself. Being at Stourbridge Art College and a regular of the drinking dens of the Turf, Exchange and Mitre in Stourbridge, I saw them come together, form and have success. Stourbridge would empty and relocate to local gigs at The Hummingbird or Powerhouse when the lads were playing. So it’s kinda bizarre after all this time that I get to review them.

The version of the band twenty-five years ago is far different from today’s band. Current members Miles Hunt and Malcolm Treece were joined by Martin Gilkes and Rob ‘ Bass Thing’ Jones (both of whom have sadly departed this mortal coil all too early.) Their timing was spot on, indie music was king, 12” vinyl sold like nobody’s business and the initial vinyl’s of ‘Unbearable’, ‘Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More’, “A Wish Away’ and the chart success ‘It’s Yer Money I’m After Baby’ put them in the right place at the right time, with hard touring that gave their first album ‘Eight Legged Grove Machine’ great tracks – exceptional live. Three albums later, the band split in ’94, never again to record original tracks, only to occasionally re-emerge to play the nostalgia hits.

Their current line-up in addition to Hunt and Treece includes Mark McCarthy, Hunt’s current collaborator fiddler Erica Nockalls and one time member of The Poppies drummer Fuzz Townsend. As Hunt points out later in the gig: “Looking at here at start of a Stourbridge supergroup – Fuzz Townsend from Pop Will Eat Itself agreed to join us on this tour…. (To the audience) Fuck off! I’m talking. It would be like members of Duran Duran joining Spandau Ballet! Cos it fucking is.…”(to laughter from the crowd).

So just before 8pm, on they come Hunt: “Aye, Aye Birmingham” straight into “Red Berry Joy Town”. Hunt has returned to his former self – long tousled hair, leather jacket and cowboy shirt. He’s still pretty vocal, although maybe not so cutting as he once was. Hunt: “Over to you brother Treece” and into ‘Here Comes Everyone.’  Hunt: “Nothing Like Coming Home ey? We wrote this song about a 1,000 years ago. We wrote it in Pigeon Park. Wrote it about Birmingham” straight into ‘Caught In My Shadow.”

‘Welcome To The Cheap Seats’ Hunt makes an acknowledgment to lost talent Kirsty MacColl, who featured on the single. The crowd complete the girlie vocals. Then a track by Hunt and Nockalls ‘Fill Her Up and Foot Down’ before back to Stuffies hits and a plug to the 25th Anniversary T-Shirts being sold tonight.

Then to the older and class tracks of the night, ‘Give, Give, Give….’, ‘Unbearable’ and probably the Stuffies at their best, the venomous and tub-stomping B-Side, played at the original gigs “Ten Trenches Deep.” Worth seeing for this alone.

The set ends and they receive rapturous applause from the audience. Far out? Not sure – this version of The Stuffies are a shadow of their former Grebo selves, the original model contained far more clout, venom and kick back to mid-eighties recession. But Miles is still pretty captivating, still up for the put-downs. A guy in the audience was seen to be wearing  a typical Stuffie / Poppy T-shirt from the day – “The Stuffies Ripped Us Off At The Powerhouse” 1988. They didn’t rip us off tonight. Quite good fun. So if you fancy a re-run they’ll be back on the 15thDecember to play “Never Loved Elvis” in its entirety.

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Setlist:

1. Red Berry Joy Town

2. On The Ropes

3. Here Comes Everyone

4. Caught In My Shadow

5. Mission Drive

6. Circle Square

7. Welcome To The Cheap Seats

8. Fill Her Up and Foot Down (Miles Hunt and Erica Nockalls track)

9. Animals and Me

10. Mother and I

11. Golden Green

12. Size of a Cow

13. Don’t Let Me Down, Gently

14. A Wish Away

15. Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More

16. Unbearable

17.  Ten Trenches Deep

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Listening:

For the Stuffies at their best: ‘Eight Legged Groove Machine’ (1988)

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And now onto Part 2 –  The Levellers performing their classic “Levelling the Land” on its twentieth anniversary – one time anthem for the traveling, eco warrior and indie communities. Set starts of with video footage of the ‘fight’: eco warriors, Thatcher, music of the time and on come the raggle, taggle family troupe that is The Levellers complete with dreads, long hair and a mixture of hats.

The current line up of Mark Chadwick, Jeremy Cunningham, Charlie Heather, Simon Friend, Jonathan Sevink and Matt Savage fill the stage, bouncing around – they are hugely energetic live, opening to the classic ‘One Way’ eco-anthem for the masses – the crowd enthusiastically sing and bounce along.

The main tracks including ‘Fifteen Years’ are cracking tonight. One of the main pluses about The Levellers is Sevink the fiddler, a very tall dude, who leaps around the stage and is stunning in his playing.  They are not a chatty band – they just do what they do very well: punk, folk, Irish-inspired, fiddly, bouncy music.

A cover to split the album ‘Devil Went Down To Georgia’, complete with red back-lit set, Chadwick raising his hands as horns, audience clapping along and the welling dervish fiddler. ‘Battle of The Beanfield’ (about the ’85 police repression of a peace convoy attempting to set up a festival) still has all the angst and venom about the times – audience in full participation of the words.

‘Levelling the Land’ over – back on for the encore – ‘Hope Street’, ‘ Carry Me’ and ‘Cholera Wall’  – Chadwick getting the audience to clap along, Sevink winding the track up and up on his fiddle. Off and back on for a second encore: the happy-go-lucky ‘Beautiful Day’.

The Levellers are, in general, good fun, with lots of energy, and lots of people of stage, continuously bouncing along. The New Model Army (somewhat surprisingly) do the eco-rebel-against-the-system angst much better. Don’t get me wrong, some Levellers tracks are great eco warrior anthems – but after a while – the songs can get a bit samey, and murge into one another.

But if you like them – you can totter on down to their ‘Beautiful Days’ festival in August, now in it’s 9th year, featuring The Levellers, Carter USM, Big Audio Dynamite and gypsy kings Gorgol Bordello. No sponsorship or branding – like that idea.

And a problem with bands playing an album in its entirety, is that there is lulls between the hits and classic tracks – it was the same with Primal Scream, reviewed earlier in the week. ‘Cos if you’re touring on playing an album you’ve got to play the lot.

On the whole I have to say, tonight’s gig was fun. It certainly wasn’t Unbearable. There was quite a distinction between the Stuffies fans and Levellers fans (made up of stalwart fans, usual eco warriors and family tribe who usually follow them around). With the fiddly links between the two bands, I’m guessing that both bands made more fans tonight. The place was packed from the start at 8pm to 11pm finish. All for 25 nicker. Enjoyable night. Hup!

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Set List:

1.  One Way

2. The Game

3. Fifteen Years

4. The Boatman

5.  Liberty

6.  Far from Home

7.  Hard Fight

8.  The Dance Before The Storm

9. Sell Out

10. Another Man’s Cause

11. Devil Went Down To Georgia

12.The Road

13. Riverflow

14. Battle of the Beanfield

Encore:

15. Hope Street

16.Carry Me

17. The Cholera Well

Encore 2

18. Beautiful day

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Listening:

Levelling The Land (1992)

Levellers (1994)

Zeitgeist (1995)

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More information on the Beautiful Days festival 19-21 August 2011at www.beautifuldays.org