The swaggering homecoming kings lap up the adulation. Academy 1, Manchester (April 19)
Just as every band on every tour tells every crowd that they’re the best so far, every region and city of the UK believes they have a unique identity and a musical heritage to die for. Manchester, eternal cliché that it is, does seem to have a stronger civic pride than most.
The rapid rise of The Courteeners and the fervent support they enjoy in their hometown, where they sold out this 2,000-capacity venue – their biggest to date – in a matter of hours, echoes the history of other populist bands from the city. Their fans seem only too ready to slot them into the illustrious canon of down-to-earth, lyrically sharp, working-class intellectual bands that encompasses Joy Division, Happy Mondays, The Smiths and The Stone Roses.
As the crowd awaits the band’s arrival, a spontaneous football chant breaks out, the city’s sporting and musical heritage apparently one seamless whole into which the their detailed, locally specific songs fit neatly. No-one seems to mind that half the crowd are singing “City” and half “United”. But does shouldering such a weighty history do a young band like The Courteeners any favours? Liam Fray certainly knows how to play to the home crowd. Towards the end of ‘Please Don’t’, he weaves a lyrical snatch of The Stone Roses’ ‘Standing Here’ into the coda, while ‘What Took You So Long?’ segues into ‘Tomorrow’ by James and Fray introduces ‘No You Didn’t, No You Don’t’ with a dedication to “The Roses, Oasis, The Smiths, James and New Order… and you lot.”
There is however, a potentially atmosphere-killing moment three songs in, when a mysterious buzz emanating from the PA becomes a ghastly, overwhelming crackle. An irritated Fray smartly ditches repeated attempts to start ‘How Come’ in favour of crowd-pleaser ‘Acrylic’, subtly altering the lyrics to “Have you heard Manchester go/Da-da-da-da-da-ay-oh…”, pulling all back into the moment.Still, for all the enjoyably bouncy homecoming atmosphere, you can’t help feeling that, while lyrically Fray’s songs can certainly stand proud alongside previous local heroes, the actual tunes don’t have the punch or inventiveness of a Smiths or a Roses. The importance Fray places on words is evident from album ad campaigns that reprint entire lyrics, but for the band to really live up to their claims of greatness, the music needs to be just as arresting. While tracks like ‘Bide Your Time’, with its sweet and jangly Johnny Marr-ish rockabilly guitar are catchy and skippy enough, there’s something just too familiar about their sound in these post-Arctic Monkeys days.
Performance-wise as well, while there’s an insane amount of energy coming from the sweaty, crushed crowd, the band themselves are fairly static. Consequently, a pared-down interlude of ‘Yesterday, Today & Probably Tomorrow’ with just violin and Fray’s guitar, is drowned out in a cavernous venue of fired-up Mancunians.
When Fray does put his guitar down to roam around, though, he owns the stage, every inch the natural performer. His half-jokey rock’n’roll arrogance (he takes the stage tonight wearing one of his own T-shirts) is pure showmanship, but he’s obviously grateful for his success as well, repeatedly thanking, “every single person in this room” and concluding the night with, “Manchester, you’ve been fucking brilliant. I expected nothing less, just like you expect nothing less than for us to be brilliant.”
Reservations aside, songs like ‘No You Didn’t, No You Don’t’ and ‘Fallowfield Hillbilly’ are genuine gems, funny and sharp, and a welcome reminder that good music isn’t the exclusive property of the über-cool kids or the art school. The Courteeners are certainly good enough to make you glad of their existence, if not yet quite good enough to live up to their self-proclaimed birthright.