LIVE: The Mission / Blood Brothers – Islington Academy, London 22/07/2015
The Mission have always been a fan’s band. A trite opening statement? Possibly. Also, an incredibly truthful one. Many bands claim to be in it for their following – “We wouldn’t be here without our fans.” Some bands even mean this. The Mission have always been extremely straight down the line with the fans, and the fans have often been placed in positions of surprising influence. The original hardcore fanbase – The Eskimos – were featured on the front cover of the Melody Maker. A panel of twenty fans were invited into the studio to help select the final tracklisting of their third studio album Carved In Sand – which went on to sell in excess of one million units. Fan conventions were the highlight of the gigging calendar. The band arranged fanclub-only tours playing tiny venues in the Scottish isles only months after selling out Wembley Arena. Taping of their live shows was not just permitted, but encouraged despite their record label’s interference to the contrary. During one tour security was personally hired by the band to ensure that fans were not treated poorly. More recently singer Wayne Hussey personally wished happy birthday to a long-time fan via the band’s social media.
Therefore the announcement of a two-night “secret” stand in London by the band’s alter egos the Blood Brothers was greeted with enormous relish. Blood Brothers are the least secret band on the planet. Named after a song originally released as the B-side to Stay With Me in 1986, and pitched as a Mission tribute band featuring members of the Mission, no one has ever been fooled. However, even in this jaded world of instant communication the humour is maintained and there is still a frisson of excitement. Following on from the three Blood Brothers shows in May, which were booked as a warm-up for the band’s first mainstage UK festival headline slot since the 90s (Bearded Theory near Derby), these shows were part of the road to a show at the Amphi Festival at Cologne. To add to the experience the Blood Brothers declared that The Mission would be supporting on both nights. An announcement which led guitarist Simon Hinkler to comment: “Confused? I am.”
Before this all begins to sound like self-congratulatory back-patting, unfathomable in-jokes and cliquishness let me remind you that this is The Mission. Humour is the essence of the band. This is not an austere bunch of po-faced goths who dare not laugh for fear of cracking their make-up. This is a rock’n’roll band rooted in Led Zepplin and Slade who were once called “the world’s greatest covers band” due to their roster of numbers by Free, The Kinks, The Beatles, Aerosmith, Neil Young, The Osmonds and The Stooges. Every gig is a jubilant party. All are welcome. For my own part, I have always been one of the youngest at Mish gigs. I was just too young to have seen them in their glorious heyday headlining at Reading Festival, storming the charts and being thrown off the James Whale Show. So it was beyond all expectations when their 1999 reformation allowed a 21 year old to stand in the dark at Nottingham surrounded by thirty-somethings watching a 41 year old Hussey lead his band onto stage to the strains of Holst’s Jupiter before powering into a crushingly enormous version of Beyond The Pale. Despite being the new kid I was instantly welcomed by all around and have maintained many close friendships with Mish fans ever since. The pleasure that people take from simply being able to stand in the dark and soak up this band is infectious and seems to deliver nothing but goodwill to all.
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The intimate atmosphere of the Islington Academy was certainly appreciated after the band’s previous London appearances at Hammersmith Apollo and Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Its great to see that they can still pack out the big stages, but there is just no substitute for the incendiary heat of a live show caught from mere feet away. Despite this, and despite the incredible pre-gig excitement the venue was only half full as the house-lights dropped and the intro tape began to stir into life. No doubt a legacy of the smoking ban coupled with the cheap(ish) beer available from the pub upstairs. Perhaps responding to this slightly dampened atmosphere the band slunk quietly and unobtrusively onto stage. Regardless there was certainly a very vocal presence of loud cheers from the pit which gradually filled up during the course of opening number Black Cat Bone. This is a truly great track. It established the rejuvenation of The Mission, with three out of four original members who permanently reunited for the first time since 1990. It demonstrates that they have still got the ability to create a howling piece of sonic wonder – mature, entertaining and self-deprecating (the opening line sees Hussey snarling “When you get to my age the candles cost more than the cake / It´s not the white powder anymore that´s keeping me awake”).
Clearly tonight the band were having sound issues. This is not the first time I’ve seen an opening track at this venue come out more like a squib than a banger, same happened to Dogs d’Amour in 2012. Consequently, Hussey spent much of the number signalling instructions to engineers and guitar techs whilst Hinkler and Adams tweaked amps, heads close to their cabs. Soundchecks rarely inform how the gig will actually pan out. If this was a slightly disappointing start sonically, the crowd forgave it and as more and more flooded in the energy began to build to the point where drummer Mike Kelly kicked off Everything But The Squeal and suddenly the band had clicked, Adams locked into Kelly, Hussey and Hinkler able to fly.
Opening the set with material from their last album was a welcome assurance that the band still believe in a record that was largely snubbed by the mainstream music press but given rapturous welcome by the fans and underground media including our very own reviewer Andy Close. During the first night the band featured 21 tracks covering all but two of their nine studio albums as well as several B-sides. The second show filled in this gap with incorporation of a song from God Is A Bullet. Not only is this indicative of the strength of material available to The Mission, but also down to how well received virtually all of their output has become by the fans. Whilst the new direction that Masque took in 1992 caused enormous disquiet to both press and followers, it was vindicated tonight by the rapturously joyful reception that greeted Like A Child Again during the second set. However, I get ahead of myself…
The content of this first set definitely represented the later history of The Mission as they next cut into Swoon from their 1994 album Neverland. This is also a great welcome addition to their 2015 setlist as the band’s previous two outings with guitarist Simon Hinkler back in the fold featured only material that he had actually played on. During this set only Dance On Glass stood alone from the period of their classic original line up. The elation that greeted the arrival of a cut from the band’s debut album inescapably led to the first signs of fans being hoisted aloft onto shoulders to stare right into eyes of Hussey, Adams and Hinkler singing every single word in unison. Inevitably the venue security took offence to this and began motioning for everyone to plant themselves on terra firma again, Craig Adams was the first to spot this and strode immediately over to the guard to give a very firm shake of his head, and at the track’s conclusion Wayne pointed out that the fans had been making towers for thirty years and should be left to it: “The only people they’re gonna hurt is themselves!” Security retreated and were not seen again for the rest of the show. As if to placate with a less frenzied number The Mission played the sublime Afterglow, with its graceful build to the climax of the highly sexual content of the lyrics. I’ve always thought that this track sounds like it was a lost session for a Bond theme song?
A few weeks before the gig the band asked which of Hussey’s recent canon of solo songs the fans would like to see included in the set, and clearly Wither On The Vine from 2014’s Songs of Candlelight and Razorblades was the outright winner. My immediate impression was when played by a full live band how much it resembled the material from 2008’s God Is A Bullet, secondly how the mosh pit immediately erupted into action with lots of movement, joyful faces and every lyric being sung back. This atmosphere only increased as The Mission launched into their post-1999 reformation single Evangeline which is clearly still held very dearly by the fans with its lyrics describing the life of a BDSM mistress: “kiss the spike of a Louis fifteen”. Bringing the first set to a close was the seminal Daddy’s Going To Heaven Now which blew away any doubts that may have lingered following the shaky start. The stage was set for the second set….
….And what a set this proved to be. The capacity crowd were whipped into a frenzy by the much-loved Dambusters intro tape, every single audience member singing along and grinning foolishly at one another knowing that something special was about to occur. The four musicians that strode onto stage, clutching ice buckets and bottles of red, clearly showed the swagger and arrogance of a gang that were about to let rip. Hussey had left his black suit jacket backstage so as to be able to move more freely and instantly blasted into the wall of sound that is Beyond The Pale, Hinkler staring intently at his etched Zemaitis and Adams beginning to sway along to Kelly’s rhythms. Without a moment’s break the Mish then burst into their first ever single Serpent’s Kiss and crowd absolutely erupted!! From this point in there was never a single moment where folk were not being held aloft on shoulders, in towers or pyramids. The mosh pit was alive with joyful fans slam dancing, waving hands aloft and creating that symbiotic energy that a band both feed off and create. A triumvirate of early hits followed – Like A Hurricane, Naked And Savage, Severina. The latter featuring the gloriously simple and pure backing vocals of Julianne Regan now sadly on tape due to a lengthy bout of stage-fright which has kept one of Britain’s most talented singers off our stages for over a decade.
With the centre point of the set rapidly approaching the band changed up gears yet again and began to thunder through Belief, Like A Child and The Crystal Ocean with its deceptively simple chorus “Shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake me down, shake me round and around” having an enormous effect on the fans who were able to join in so fervently with the request! Hussey leaned over and rewarded one lucky fan with his bottle of red – another ancient tradition enacted (I have one of these bottles myself!). The enormous hit that is Wasteland – the band’s highest charting single which just missed the Top Ten – followed and predictably led to not only a sea of ecstatic on-shoulders fans, but also to a revival of throwing clouds of torn shreds of paper into the air. The set closer was chosen as the highly appropriate Swan Song with its falsetto refrain of “It ain’t over until its over” hinting at a number of encores yet to come….
The most delicately beautiful track ever produced by the Mish (and their second highest chart single at No. 12), Butterfly On A Wheel, always leaves me wondering how Simon Hinkler feels about the lyrical content given that it was penned by Hussey about his guitarist’s doomed relationship with All About Eve’s Julianne Regan. Tonight Hinkler was poised perfectly, charming utter magic out of that Zemaitis to accompany such an exquisite ballad of lost love. Such a refined first encore demanded a frenzied second with the fans being rewarded by the song taken most personally by this good-natured bunch of loons – Blood Brother. Originally referencing Wayne’s friendship with The Cult frontman Ian Astbury, but soon taken to heart by the devoted following as their own unique anthem. There was absolutely no surprise that this segued majestically into the enormous anthem Deliverance (strong memories of the footage of Hussey held aloft by the crowd shaking has microphone at Reading 1989). The band’s swift exit was greeted by vast applause and cheers, but with an groundswell undercurrent of fans chanting ever louder “Brother, sister, give me, give me, Deliverance, deliver me…” for over three minutes as a plaintiff to the Mish to return. And return they did to perform the tremendously grandiose paean Tower of Strength. Another personal song written about the birth of Hussey’s daughter but taken by the fans and reinterpreted as their own anthem as dozens reacted to the opening lyrics “You raise me up / When I’m on the floor / You see me through / When I’m lonely and scared” by clambering aloft to create their own towers.
And suddenly it was over. Three hours of shattering glory, a sea of ecstatically jubilant faces and a venue strewn with plastic glasses and the shower of a thousand shreds of paper cast adrift into the Wasteland….
Under normal circumstances Thursday 23rd July would have dawned a shoddily hungover, wistful and blue day, but the promise of the second Blood Brothers show meant that the atmosphere only built again as the day wore on. And when the band hit the stage it was with the same zest that they had emerged for the second set the night before. The gloves were off.
Now, there is simply no point in me boring everyone to tears by the chronological nuances of the setlist a second time. Suffice it to say that in content the second night was relatively similar to the first, however the band were good enough to add a few extra numbers in the form of a third track from The Brightest Light (Sometimes The Brightest Light Comes From The Darkest Place) in the first set and early single Garden of Delight plus Grip of Disease from B-sides collection Grains of Sand in the second set. Only Blood Brother was dropped. This was remarkable in itself because the set was longer despite Hussey announcing that he was suffering badly from a heavy cold and a fever. Poor guy. The last time I saw him perform was a solo gig in London last year and he was suffering then too. If there is one thing that all singer’s dread its vocal problems caused by illness, so props to the man for sticking out the show. In truth I wouldn’t have noticed the struggle in his vocals. As he has aged Hussey’s vocal line has developed and become more raw as opposed to his silky earlier style, and personally I’m good with that. The shredding angst of The Brightest Light really suits the new vocal, although his solo albums show that he still has that more intimate and smooth style at his disposal if required.
Despite this illness Hussey was able to wryly regale the crowd with a tale of young guy who had turned up to the show the night before thinking that it was the Willy Russell musical Blood Brothers (a bargain at the price if it was!), bought two teeshirts and then complained when four old guys sauntered onto stage(!). The Mission then smoothly began the intro to Swoon. It was during this number that I began to fully appreciate why Mike Kelly has been so warmly welcomed into the hearts of the fans as arguably the best drummer since the departure of Mick Brown in 1996. Although the drum machine opening of the song left Kelly with little to do except swig wine straight from the bottle (another fine old Mish tradition), he was catching Adams’ eye the entire time in some private joke which had them both creased up with infectious laughter prior to taking a Lars Ulrich stance looming over his kit ready for the moment when his part kicked in. And when he did begin playing he was just a joy to watch – charismatic, determined, bang on time and constantly communicating with Hussey and Adams. During the lengthy instrumental outro to Daddy’s Going To Heaven Now, Hussey was planted on his knees beneath Kelly’s riser in perfect and powerfully emotional unison during the crescendo of the dark bathos to the music.
The second set was again received with elated glee by another capacity crowd. Hussey’s vocals seemed to hold up well and in any case every single larynx in the venue was ably assisting him at every moment. A slight lull prior to Severina led the singer to invite anyone that knew the song to stand onstage and perform it with the band to give him a moment of respite: “Come on, you lot all know the words to this better than I do!” Sadly there were no takers in what could have bizarrely been like that moment in Rockstar when Bobby Beers lifts Izzy onto the stage to do Stand Up And Shout! Despite his cold, Hussey seemed proud to announce that the band would be taking an entire year off to write and record a brand new studio album in time for a 30th anniversary tour in the Autumn of 2016. After the success of their last release this was greeted by thunderous applause.
The rest of the set powered through and reached dizzying climaxes peaking during another massive rendition of Wasteland. Hussey must have been relieved to take a short break before the encores. Especially so as he placed himself in an enormously vulnerable position by edging back onto the stage alone except his guitar and poignantly dedicated the U2-tinged track Father to his recently bereaved friend Nick Cave with its simple and emotional refrain “I won’t forsake you / Don’t wanna break you / Don’t wanna make you / Make you, make you cry”. The choice of Butterfly On A Wheel perfectly complimented this extremely bold and reflective song and was duly acknowledged by a visibly moved audience.
The final gear change came with the Neil Young cover Like A Hurricane, so long a live favourite of the fans before another astonishing rendition of Deliverance during which I reluctantly and momentarily cast my eyes to the back of the room to wonder at an entire room full of people with arms aloft in tribute to one of Britain’s most under-rated, part-forgotten, yet best-loved bands of all time. The final encore of Tower had such an effect on the Mish that Craig Adams was noticeably grinning with an expression that he clearly had not a single shred of control over – and on the opposite side of the stage the normally more reticent Hinkler was also seen to be looking up and out at the sea of arms with a broad smile plastered across his bearded face before mounting the stage monitors and surfing across them (the most physical he had been all night!). Hussey himself seemed utterly bewildered by this vast reaction to a song he penned as long ago as 1987, often dropping his guitar and gesturing for the crowd to take up his vocals before once again roaring into life.
The final moments of the gig were a blur of tears and smiles and cheers and rapture as the band raised their own arms in tribute to the most loyal and devoted fans on the planet. The Mission have kept the faith with the fans, and the fans have been faithful to The Mission.
Photos: Shaun Neary
Review: James Wright