Friday, 16 December 2016

Memories of 2016 gigs #12

#12: Placebo
Newport Centre, Newport - 12 December 2016
Support: Minor Victories

It’s 20 years since Placebo released their self-titled debut album. That’s quite impressive for a band like them, who seemed to find a bit of a niche audience - girls who wanted to be boys; boys who wanted to be girls. They’ve succeeded, I think, because of the quality of their material which, in spite of what some people say, has actually remained strong. They are also a band I’d never managed to catch live before so I reckoned a show in my adopted home town really ought to be the one I finally got to. Mind, coming just five days after Pixies blew my mind, body and soul into the middle of the next decade it would be a tough ask for them to live up to that.

My mood was lifted higher on arrival when a glance at the t-shirt stand revealed that the support band was Minor Victories who have released one of my top five records of 2016. Featuring Rachel Gosling of Slowdive, Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai and a fella from Editors, their soaring dreampop has raised my spirits numerous times during the morning commute this year. Live, they’re a little more organic, replicating some of their keyboard and strings sounds with guitars, but it was no less uplifting. Scattered Ashes was immense and is a strong contender for my Song of the Year.

So things got off to a decent start. But then weird stuff began to happen. The stage setup included a couple of large screens to either side displaying visuals. No sooner had Minor Victories left the stage than the screens started to play – get this – an ADVERT! For Placebo’s new greatest hits album. A FUCKING ADVERT! Now that is something I have never seen before at a gig. Then there was a lull. Now normally the gap between support band and headliner is when the tension mounts and the guy on the sound desk plays some tunes to help build the atmosphere. But it all felt strangely lacking – the music was so quiet you could barely make out what was playing. The audience was a little odd too, a decent proportion seemingly being women in their 30s who were likely rabid Molko-ites in college but probably haven’t been to a gig since they left and rarely get out these days. God, that sounds awfully snobby of me, but it just didn’t feel like a normal gig crowd, you know what I mean? The atmosphere felt flat and never really lifted that much throughout. When the lights went down, I didn’t feel ready. Hopefully Placebo would soon kickstart my appetite.

Except that they didn’t come straight on. Instead, the screens at the sides of the stage displayed images of Leonard Cohen as Who By Fire played over the PA. A nice touch to be fair, but still no sign of the band. Then, the massive screen at the back of the stage flickered into life and we were shown... an old Placebo video! Yes, someone had the bright idea of warming the audience up by screening the Every You Every Me promo. I have absolutely no idea why. Again, I’ve never seen that done before and, to be honest, I’m not sure I want to see it again.

Eventually Placebo emerged, and I finally thought this is where it all starts to click into place. But, for me anyway, it didn’t. The Newport Centre is not a big place – you can easily fit four of its auditoriums into Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena where I was last week. It’s a place where a band and its audience are close to each other, presenting an opportunity to engage on quite a personal, almost intimate level. Not a place, then, to completely overwhelm the entire experience by blasting continual gaudy visuals at us. There were cameras filming the band and beaming the images live onto the screens. The screens around the actual stage the band was playing on. A stage that we were all pretty close to. Now, you can get away with that in a large place where people further back can appreciate it, but here it was just an imposing blast of neon that completely detracted from what I wanted to see – the band.

And that was the biggest problem for me. No matter how good Placebo were – and they were very good – I kept being distracted by the visuals and special effects. A couple of times I found myself having to tune back in to the music as I realised I had been concentrating on the screens.

So what did they play? Well we were promised a career-spanning set that included lots of old songs that they had promised never to play again. So Pure Morning, Nancy Boy, Slave To The Wage, etc were all given a welcome airing. Sadly, my two favourite early Placebo tracks – 36 Degrees and Teenage Angst – were slowed right down, taking away much of the impact they’ve always had on me. Without You I’m Nothing, however, was superb and the one proper moment of full engagement I had with the show. Even the screen showing footage of the band hanging out with David Bowie didn’t diminish the effect. Also noteworthy were For What It's Worth, Space Monkey, I Know, and Too Many Friends, a song about people's obsession with social media and which contains the lyric "My computer things I'm gay / What's the difference anyway / When all people do all day / Is stare into a phone." Up to that point, there had been numerous phones held aloft filming sequences of the show (all with horrendous picture and sound quality, no doubt). During this song, however, the phones mysteriously disappeared from view...

There were two encores, the gaps between sets being abnormally lengthy. The second encore was essentially a run through their version of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill. I’ve always quite liked Placebo’s reading of this song; it’s kind of spectral and haunting. A shame, then, that live they build it up into a noisy beast. Another disappointment.

I know it’s unfair to compare two bands with each other, but the previous week I saw Pixies in a large arena with no special effects bar some lights and a smoke machine. No pomp and ceremony, no visuals, no gimmicks – just a pure, kick-ass rock & roll show from start to finish. And they slayed every single one of us. Placebo should have been there to see how it’s done. There’s no reason why they can’t slay an audience just by playing their songs – they’re more than good enough. If they were to do that, I might be tempted to go and see them again. As it was, I was left yearning for Minor Victories to come back on and play Scattered Ashes again...


1 comment:

  1. Quite a contrasting review from your last one. That's a real bummer. Pixies may have ruined it for you on the show front for a while.