A good old-fashioned double-header in the exquisite company of the best band currently "active" on Planet Earth. We'd booked the Islington tix before they'd announced a few provincial dates, and thought, Portsmouth on a Sunday? Why not?
So Rachel, Tim, Penny and I hit the road just after 6, and despite appalling traffic, parked up in Southsea before doors at 8. Knowing how bad the support were, we repaired to a local hostelry to pass the time, only to go into the venue at 9 to find they'd not even been on yet! D'oh! So we hid in the darkest recesses of the WWR bar while Pure Reason Revolution were on, once again peddling the kind of self-indulgent choral prog rock bollocks we fought the punk wars to kill off! Tim and Penny decided to stay at the back to get a Mew overview at this wide venue, but Rach and I wandered onto the dancefloor, stage right, for their entrance.
Without wishing to overstate matters, at this time in 2005, Mew are the best band "active" and currently making music on the planet. The sheer scope, breadth and haunting beauty and majesty of their work has in fact rarely been exceeded, and "Frengers" for me is probably one of my top 10 albums ever. They are the high watermark in music everyone else aspires to, and currently falls way short of. Got that straight?
Just wanted to make that clear, that the standards they have are colossal. And so, to start off, this set disappointed somewhat. A discordant yet intriguing opener was followed by the familiar drum crash opening of "Am I Wry? No", yet something seemed missing. The frenzied devotion of the crowd, that Mew thrive on and feed off, was absent, and subsequent "156" and "Snow Brigade" run-throughs only served to lift the admittedly sell-out crowd slightly above somnambulence. I remarked to Rach after a no more than lukewarm reaction to "Wry", "they'll have to work hard to win this lot over".
Then, it all changed, with "Zookeeper's Boy". A lush, slow burn of an epic, this new number is even special by Mew standards, its' sonic breadth and reach never exceeding Mew's grasp, but its multi-layered vocals, and pure falsetto lead from Jonas, fair taking your breath away. That solicited a huge ovation - finally!
A touching "Eight Flew Over", and a joyful and plangent "She Came Home For Christmas", and Mew were finally hitting their stride. A clutch of newies followed - the straightforward stomp of "Special" and the J Mascis "Grave" duet - J's image projected onto the backdrop, breaking up the dreamscapes and Beatrix Potter imagery of cats and rabbits in military dress playing violins. Then a strident, Savage "She Spider" closed a swift 50 minute set.
A jagged, nervy encore of "Apocalypso" preceded the slow-burning climax of "Comforting Sounds", which featured bassist Johan fulsomely praising the crowd - really though this was the other way around, as this was a minor triumph from Mew, an object lesson in how to startle and win over an initially apathetic crowd.
What a difference a day makes! And the question as to how two sets can be identical yet wildly different was answered emphatically at Islington. Rach and I only this time; we left at 6, parking up at the NI Centre at 8, and stayed in the venue lobby this time to avoid the support, gorging ourselves on merch instead! Hit the venue - heaving, another sell-out - and got a good spot near the front, stage left, for Mew.
They came on at 9 and played the exact same set as yesterday, but what a difference! This time, the drum crash of "Am I Wry? No" was greeted with a huge ovation, and Mew were soaring from the outset, bristling with confidence, power and strident, majestic brilliance. Once again, "Zookeeper's Boy" was an early highlight, the astonishing music complemented by the other-worldly images of dancing tigers and ballerina cats on the backdrop. Weird to the extreme, yet strangely fitting.
Every move Mew made tonight was greeted with huge cheers, and the band - particularly Jonas and Johan - reflected that enthusiasm back in their performance. Jonas' voice, at times strained the previous night, was choirboy pure and glitteringly emotive, and Johan brought the rock, the low-slung bass receiving a battering as his angular frame threw shapes, hair seemingly flying everywhere! Again, the set was blink-and-you'd-miss-it swift at 50 minutes (if only I could make 50 minutes go that quickly at work!), and again, the sinister, jagged "Apocalypso" and "Comforting Sounds" closed the proceedings. This time, however, as Johan thanked the crowd for being awesome on this, their biggest London gig to date, it made more sense. The crowd had played their part, and Mew had responded in kind by raising their considerably high standards even higher. Home by 12, still awestruck.
So Mew; untouchable right now, but even more so in London, it seems. And next year they're playing the larger-still Shepherd's Bush Empire...!