Note – this review first appeared in the Morning Star newspaper. Web version here.
In Camden Town on a cold January night, a man down the front is crying and bellowing along to the closing track of a band’s sixteenth studio album: Oblong of Dreams, a paean to place and belonging worthy of Wordsworth.
Up on stage, Nigel Blackwell, Britain’s greatest living songwriter, is an unassuming type, his genius known only to a lucky few.
Half Man Half Biscuit’s wonderful, warm and endearingly obsessive fan base are all here, packed like expectant sardines after drinking weak lager in a Camden boozer.
While many of their era have long since sunk into a morass of nostalgia tours, new tunes met with a rush to the bar, Nigel and the boys are more vital than ever.
This is an extraordinary achievement for a band who, if they exist in the public imagination at all, exist as a dimly remembered novelty act who wrote a couple of silly songs about football and post-punk oven gloves.
The Biscuit, as no one calls them, only manage the trip down south occasionally, as it’s a bit of a trek from The Wirral and Nigel is a home bod.
The mood here is celebratory and reverential, heightened by a recent rumour that 2022’s The Votorol Years, with its elegiac closer, is to be the band’s swansong (it isn’t, barring bike accidents).
Live, they are sounding better than ever, eternally held together by Neil Crossley’s distinctive bass, and enlivened by new-ish guitarist Karl Benson’s melodic playing.
Twydale’s Lament, off 2005’s Achtung Bono, gets a joyous and unexpected airing: riffs, road rage, sarcasm, posties at the pub quiz, and smug couples enjoying jasmine ice cream.
These three and a half minutes contain more twists and turns than most bands’ careers.
Midnight Mass Murder – played at Sheffield’s Offbeat last month, so officially an indie dance floor banger – is a companion piece to Vatican Broadside, and both explode into a melee of moshing and terrace chants. But there’s so much more going on here than sarcasm and irreverence.
Awkward Sean, for example, is the latest in a staggering run of rich and sympathetic character studies. As with the man of extraordinary fires in Little Of The Way Of Sunshine, there are a lot of Awkward Seans here tonight – and I am one of them.
Other highlights include a frantic Tommy Walsh’ Eco House, coupled with a story about a man being disappointed by Dignitas’ breakfast options; Big Man Up Front, a hurtling Spaghetti Western dissection of car violence and toxic masculinity; and a cheery communal singalong of Grafting Haddock In The George.
“Age, trampling upon youth, powdered my head with the snow of fifty winters,” howls Nigel, poetic as ever even during a song about pub-to-pub fish salesmen.
It is said that 99% of Half Man Half Biscuit fans look like David Quantick, but this is a more age and gender mixed audience than I’ve seen before. Kids who grew up with the band are now old enough to pogo alongside their parents – much more edifying than jogging.
A near-perfect cover of I Fought The Law sends people home bouncing after a profound, life-affirming gig – full of solidarity, wisdom, silliness, and songs to plan your life around.
Half Man Half Biscuit 2023 dates:
Fri 17th Mar, Assembly, Leamington Spa
Fri 14th Apr, John Peel Centre, Stowmarket
Sat 15th Apr, The Junction, Cambridge
Fri 28th Apr Welly Club, Hull (rearranged from Dec 2022)
Fri 19th May, Liquid Rooms, Edinburgh