Sunday, 6 February 2011

774 MEW, Choir Of Young Believers, London Shepherd's Bush Empire, Tuesday 10 November 2009

One of the most disappointing gigs for years probably had its' roots back in 2006. It was then we learned that following extensive touring, Johan, the Hugh Jackman lookalike, Pixies fan and bringer of the low-slung rock hard edge to Mew's wistful, atmospheric mood music, had decided to leave the band. How would this affect the Mew-sic, we wondered? Finally, the answer came in "No More Stories" this year, easily Mew's weakest LP, a clutch of insubstantial flyaway songs, bereft of anchor or anger, sounding upbeat and poppy but really lacking in substance. Did we buy an A-Ha album in error?

Nevertheless, we still bought tix for their subsequent tour - if the new stuff wasn't much cop in comparison, at least we could look forward to the usual plangent brilliance of the songs from "Frengers", Mew's 2003 defining masterpiece, still one of the top 5 albums of this decade, and possessing in "Am I Wry? No" easily the best single of the noughties. "Live", after all, for me, this was the band who in 2003 looked down on The Gravel Pit in the "best live band" stakes!

So, despite a last minute panic (Rachel feeling very tired and not really up for a London show) we hit the road just after 6, leaving the kids with Grandma and parking up after a surprisingly smooth run in our usual Shepherd's Bush spot about 1/4 to 8. Got into the venue and nursed cokes near the back as support Choir Of Young Believers came on, peddling a dusty alt-country mood music, occasionally like Band Of Horses, only less hooky and with fewer tunes. Rach liked them but I think they matched her tired mood.

We took a wander onto the packed floor for this sold-out show, craning our necks for a Mew view. What I saw instantly worried me - there appeared not to be a drumkit onstage. Uh-oh... Mew came on just after 9, opening with a couple of slow-burn, atmospheric new numbers which drifted by on the breeze wafting the vast swathes of choking dry ice into this nevertheless enthusiastic crowd. Then the funky choppy bass strafes of "Special" erupted and we were away...

Or so we thought! In retrospect, "Special" stacked up pretty well to this particular "live" treatment, drum machine loops to the fore, being uber-beaty and funky anyway. However a subsequent "Zookeepers Boy", one of the 2 high watermarks in their canon, normally a stunning marriage of majestic harmony and melody, was handled roughly and sounded like it was smothered with heavy blankets. Therein lay the problem - Mew's best material is so precise, so full of beauty and melodic clarity, that it doesn't respond well to roughhousing in the way, say, American Hi-Fi's stuff would. And the tape loops and drum machine beats really worked it over badly, smothering the sound just as the dry ice smothered the usual half-remembered dreamscape backdrop films.

"Am I Wry? No" escaped relatively unscathed apart from the middle eight, "156" and "Apocalypso" sounded more muffled, then after a short and puzzling interval at 45 minutes, they returned to concentrate on the "No More Stories" material which, once again, failed to impress or stick in any way. A set-closing "Snow Brigade" was however murdered, unrecognisable from the thing of soaring beauty it normally is. "I could cry," said Rach, and I felt the same.

Encore "Comforting Sounds", its' quiet plaintive opening leading to a symphony of wonder, was the only song even approaching what Mew are normally capable of, but we left at the end, mystified and immensely disappointed. One of the best bands of this decade well and truly imploded in front of us - I hope to God that this is a temporary aberration. Either that, or the "Bring Back Johan And A Drumkit" Mew-vement begins here!

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