Towards the end of Courteeners’ mammoth Heaton Park homecoming, frontman Liam Fray addresses the 50,000-strong crowd with candour. “Manchester, you probably don’t know [but] we’ve had a bit of a difficult year as a band individually,” he says. “But we aren’t individuals in this band because we’re a team.” He then launches into the us-against-the-world anthem ‘Here Come The Young Men’.
Previously, the 34 year old told NME that he’d been going through “personally the worst couple of years I’d ever had”, which makes tonight feel like a celebratory exorcising of past demons and the opening of a new chapter.
As a band, Courteeners have had more reason to wear flak-parkas than most. They’re frequently dismissed as something only people in the nebulous ‘North’ understand – like Eccles cakes or making eye contact on public transport. Critics treat them more sneeringly than Jacob Rees-Mogg giving a rating to an Uber driver who can’t speak Latin. It’s a snobbery referenced by the group on last year’s ‘St Jude Re:Wired’ vinyl, which was emblazoned with a review quote from 2008: ‘I can confidently predict that exactly no-one will be listening to it in 10 years time.’
Part of it is surely to do with class: witness the broadsheets that treat the northern working class in the manner of a David Attenborough safari (“Look at them roaming in their natural habitat!”). Courteeners write tracks that simultaneously hold a mirror up to the lives of their fans (with references to working in Debenhams or planning what to wear on a night out weeks in advance) and offer an escape from it. All backed up with colossal choruses.
Yet any derision has fortified them with a taut ‘Us V Them’ edge, and – as a quintessential band-of-the-people – their gigs are rowdy communal chaos. Striding onstage to spiritual antecedents’ Oasis’s ‘Morning Glory’, the city’s other Liam – clad in rock star sunglasses – receives a hero’s welcome. Confetti canons erupt to straight-for-the-jugular Killers-esque opener ‘Are You In Love With a Notion?’, as a rainbow of coloured flare smoke lights up the sky.
The ramshackle Libs indie of ‘Acrylic’ takes us back to 2008, with a chorus that sticks more than the beer-soaked floor of your favourite indie disco, while ‘Take Over The World’ and ‘Van der Graaff’ mine Coldplay maximalism. Before the elegiac ‘Small Bones’ (essentially an M-postcode take on The National – ‘Bloodbuzz Openshaw’ anyone?), Liam references the technical difficulties they’re seemingly having. “Can you hear us Manchester? Not like that fucking Strokes gig the other day where you couldn’t hear fuck-all,” he says, referring to the US band’s muffled All Points East show which rendered Julian Casablancas even more mumbly than usual. Sleek, pop endorphin rushes are provided by ‘Lose Control’ while the house-indebted ‘The 17th’ is another perfect riposte to those who falsely assume the band have spent 10-plus years in a lad-rock holding pattern.
As he’s minutes away from Middleton – where he grew up – Liam gives a shout-out to his hometown (“Anyone who wants to boo it, get up here and I’ll give you a fucking slap!”, he responds to pantomime-heckling). “You don’t know what it’s like to stand here and see this many people here for the same thing,” he adds. “It’s making my heart swell. Two years ago, at the Cricket Ground, we weren’t allowed a proper party really,” he continues, alluding to the fact it took place merely days after the Ariana Grade suicide attack in the city. “Tonight’s a proper fucking party!”
That proper fucking party includes an acoustic section where the audience is asked to choose between ‘Please Don’t’ (rejected) and ‘Smiths Disco’ (played) – which transports us to a time when you could listen to Morrissey without feeling the involuntary urge to hurl a milkshake over yourself afterwards. “Look at this for a fucking B-side!”, he beams, basking in lairy love as every word is boisterously bellowed back at him.
Although they celebrated a decade since the release of ‘St Jude’ last year, tonight isn’t about the past as three tracks from their soon-to-be-released sixth album – influenced by excess, addiction and self-improvement – are previewed.
First out of the traps, the reflective ‘Better Man’, seems hinged on the latter, with its soul-searching self-reflective lyrics of ‘Nobody’s perfect/Nobody’s perfect/Go on, give us a hand’, and echoes of REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’, while the semi-acoustic, sensitive Kleenex -indie of ‘Hanging Off Your Cloud’ is primed to elicit mate-hugging at festivals.
The pace is picked up for standout newbie ‘Heavy Jacket’. Accompanied by sirens and red lights, it’s a swaggering Royal Blood-meets-The Charlatans number (as noted before, it has a beat that sounds like the intro from Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’) which shows that Liam’s way with a needling, memorable couplet is undiminished : “Here comes the silver spoons on the silver screen,” he snarls. “Where’s our next Caroline Aherne? The best we’ve never seen.”
From there, it’s the home-run of ‘Cavorting’, ‘Modern Love’ – which comes on like the stardust-coated platonic ideal of a Strokes song – ‘Here Come The Young Men’, the bulletproof ‘Not Nineteen Forever’ and closer ‘What Took You So Long?’, which references ‘Tomorrow’ by James – who, along with fellow Mancs Pale Waves and Australian Oasis- surrogates DMA’s (a kind of ‘Foster’s Supernova’), are the support acts.
As they depart to mass euphoria and a flurry of Carlsberg bottles tossed in the air like mortarboards at a graduation, you feel Liam’s annus horribilis has been cathartically washed away. And, as The Courteeners play to their people, rock’s eternal critical outcasts are receiving their dues.
The Courteeners’ setlist was:
‘Are You in Love With a Notion?’
‘No One Will Ever Replace Us’
‘Take Over the World’
‘Bide Your Time’
‘Van der Graaff’
‘Hanging Off Your Cloud’
‘Here Come the Young Men’
‘Not Nineteen Forever’
‘What Took You So Long?’