Middleton heavyweights The Courteeners are no strangers to the very biggest of stages. They’ve played to a sea of adoring fans in their stomping ground many times – but in a post-pandemic world, the event carries extra magnitude. Shortly after the 50,000 tickets sold out for the Old Trafford Cricket Ground show, frontman Liam Fray declared on Instagram: “This will be really fucking special – God bless the fans.”
Kicking off with ‘Sucker’, openers The Big Moon exude an air of cool, their gritty and melodic guitar lines ring out blissfully as the sunshine beams down on us. Singer Juliette Jackson struggles to contain her joy when she says, “It’s nice to see your smiling faces”, while the band coast into the golden indie-pop of ‘Barcelona’. Reading the scale of the event, they drop a rousing cover of Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’, but their own material is the real winner – a highlight coming with their dreamy and melodic anthem ‘Cupid’.
Up next, Blossoms seize the moment as if they’re topping the bill. Ever the snappy dresser, singer Tom Ogden emerges in a snooker green suit and strikes a pose that channels his inner Jarvis Cocker. The hungry crowd erupts for opener ‘Your Girlfriend’; Ogden absently thrusts the mic towards the crowd as they belt back lines and bouncing mosh-pits pop up from back to front.
Tonight outlines a tangible next step for the band who headlined Manchester Arena a few weeks before. It only takes the closer of ‘Charlemagne’ to see that they’re on the brink of heading to the very top. A track now well and truly in the echelons of Manchester classics, it’s a moment of pure energy that simply gladdens the soul. “Scream, Manchester!” Ogden beckons as their anthem sends masses crashing into each other. Mancunian hero Johnny Marr might have turned his nose up at their Rick-Astley–fronted Smiths project, but tonight proves they don’t need cover songs.
Marr himself is next to take to the stage – and the iconic Smiths guitarist also relishes his moment with the mastery and poise you’d expect. He reads the anthem-hungry crowd and gets his hit-stuffed set underway with ‘Panic’. The generation-defining lyrics “I wonder to myself / Could life ever be sane again?” carry more poignancy than ever before, given recent world events. It isn’t long before chants of “Johnny fucking Marr!” echo around from the home support as he obligingly serves up tunes that are now in the DNA of this city.
“Has anybody peaked too soon?” he ask before launching into solo cut ‘Easy Money’, followed by hauntingly beautiful ‘Hi Hello’. Aside from the stone-cold classics of ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, ‘This Charming Man’ and ‘Getting Away With It’ , the most profound moment comes with a deeply moving version of ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’. The ballad cut through the rowdy thousands like a scalpel: “Good times for a change / See, the life I’ve had / Can make a good man bad.” It’s a moment of pure poetry.
After Mancunian bangers blare through the PA – including Oasis and The Stone Roses – The Courteeners get their party started with the traditional set opener of ‘Are You In Love With A Notion?’ and customary flares paint the sky red. It’s a towering track that’s emblematic of how the hell the four got here, a proper headline anthem that speaks to the masses with lyrics for the dreamers: “You’re going to quit Debenhams / Elope and get married in the sun.”
The track is the perfect gateway to a set that sees the band cherry-pick from their six albums to date. An early flurry from their iconic debut album ‘St Jude’ brings an air of nostalgia and chaos, Fray standing in his trenchcoat and belting out the ‘Cavorting’ lines: “She can’t stand still because of 16 pills that she’s taken in the minibus.”
The new material ensures tonight isn’t all about nostalgia, though. ‘Better Man’, from 2020’s ‘More. Again. Forever.’, offers vulnerability, depth and striking melody. It’s a testament to the fact that Courteeners never strayed too far from their main stage appeal. The band are often thrown unfairly into a lad culture bracket, yet the substance on display shows deep artistry.
Fray’s solo encore boils down what makes his band such a force: incredible songwriting that’s accessible from all walks of life. ‘The Rest Of The World Has Gone Home’ is a deeply romantic and lesser-heard airing, while ‘Smiths Disco’ feels incredibly apt given Marr’s earlier appearance. The band return for a second encore of their biggest anthems including ‘Not Nineteen Forever’ and ‘What Took You So Long’ as fireworks burst high above the stage.
It’s a signal that feels like a colossal beacon to proclaim Manchester is alive and kicking, sent out by a band who have climbed the hill in their own way. There’s no doubt that The Courteeners have added to the rich lineage of Manchester’s music scene again tonight. This has perhaps been their Maine Road moment – their Spike Island – pulling them even closer to their devout following.
The Courteeners played:
‘Are You in Love With a Notion?’
‘No One Will Ever Replace Us’
‘Bide Your Time’
‘Take Over the World’
‘The Rest of the World Has Gone Home’
‘Hanging Off Your Cloud’
‘One Day at a Time’
‘Not Nineteen Forever’
‘What Took You So Long?’