Musical polymath Barry Adamson released his ninth album ‘I Will Set You Free’ on his own Central Control label in January, supported by this solitary date at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Since the separation of Magazine, the post-punk quartet formed by founding Buzzcock Howard Devoto, Adamson initially made it his business to loan out his distinctive bass style for the likes of Iggy Pop, The Gun Club and Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, before settling into making solo music filled with twisting noir plotlines, shady characters, deceit and all-round murkiness. Those imaginary soundtracks effortlessly led to real soundtracks for the likes of contemporary noir posterboy David Lynch, Adamson writing his own award-winning short story and directing his own short film, 2011’s harrowing and inventive ‘Therapist’.
At some point in his solo career, Adamson found his voice, and it was the vocal side of his work that dominated his set at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Adamson was joined by largely the same band of adaptable musicians that worked on ‘I Will Set You Free’, with the hasty addition of the casually cool Maxwell Sterling on bass, freeing up the bandleader to dance, vamp and generally goof around the stage unencumbered by his instrument. As a unit, Adamson’s band are capable of effortlessly shifting from the sun-drenched warm pop of current single ‘Turn Around’, through the snarling punk-funk of ‘You Sold Your Dreams’, the chilled John Hughes soundtrack pop of ‘Stand In’, right through to full-on freeform jazz experimentalism.
The stage was decorated like a smoke-filled, pimped-up Scandinavian boudoir, all sheepskin rugs and shimmering mirrors, somewhere between a cosy jazz club and an ABBA video. The kitsch set provided the unlikely setting for a black-clad Adamson to groove onto the stage in shades, feathered top hat and gold chains like some sort of voodoo soul preacher for a white-hot take on the urgent, nihilistic ‘Destination’. Howling guitar distortion and motorik Krautrock drums filled the ordinarily austere Queen Elizabeth Hall, Adamson ending the song with lyrics nabbed from Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’, linking his newest material back to the post-punk scene he first emerged from in Manchester at the end of the 1970s. “Dance! Dance! Dance!” urged Adamson, something lost on the mostly static audience.
Adamson and his band ran through faithful renditions of tracks that appeared on ‘I Will Set You Free’ and its Stax soul-infused predecessor ‘Back To The Cat’. The optimism of the new album’s title track was here introduced with a cautiously muttered “hopefully” from the frontman before the band launched into a groove dominated by Sterling’s grinding bass and the psychedelic organ riffs of veteran Adamson collaborator Nick Plytas. Most of the slower songs in the middle of the set were enhanced by delicate orchestral accompaniment from the Trinty Strings, including the folksy acoustic rendition of ‘The Long Way Back Again’ and an emotional ‘If You Love Her’, which Adamson introduced with a reference to being hit by a “love truck”. A horn quartet raised the temperature of the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the dirty, low-slung funk of ‘Black Holes In My Brain’ which was dominated by a bassline co-opted from Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner-City Blues’. The set’s strongest track found Adamson retrieving two tiny skull head maracas from a Marks & Spencer carrier bag, cynically calling them Howard and Dave after his two former bandmates in Magazine.
Quite the congenial host, the concert found Adamson quipping and cracking cringe-worthy jokes between songs, coming off a little like a much groovier Rolf Harris. To complete the likeness, he even introduced the version of the darkly humorous encore track ‘Jazz Devil’ with a “can you guess what it is yet?” The version played here lifted the clipped glam electronic framework of Iggy Pop’s ‘Nightclubbing’, offsetting the grungy synth rhythm with noisy guitar feedback, loud big-band horn blasts and crashing drum sections, Adamson’s melodramatic narrative seeing the track’s protagonist freely yo-yoing between heaven, earth and hell throughout the song. With that exception, and the dark synth soundtrack piece that the band came onstage to, the set was largely devoid of the noir that coloured Adamson’s early solo and soundtrack work, finding Adamson in upbeat and optimistic mood throughout; with such inventive and affirming music on display, perhaps we can forgive him the odd cheesy one-liner.
Words by Mat Smith
Photo by Andy Sturmey