The cowbell is a curious instrument. Once it was the sole preserve of either denim-clad ’70s hairballs (check out Free’s ‘All Right Now’ and Blue Oyster Cult’s mighty ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’) or bovines. Then the Happy Mondays decided that they needed to give Bez something to do with his hands when he wasn’t occupied playing the maracas, and this humble percussion instrument was transformed into a totem of whiteboy indie-funkdom. The Rapture built a career around the judicious application of theirs, while tonight Leeds-via-Shrewsbury psychonauts The Sunshine Underground only seem really happy when they’re bashing away on one.
Their three singles so far gave some indication of this band’s real reach, veering between baggydelic shuffling and, on ‘Commercial Breakdown’, a sort of mini-Muse. But tonight they’re most exciting when they ditch the strictures of clenched-buttock faux-funk beats and Cure-style yelp-punk for excursions into jazz-tinged space-rock. All those long nights playing at rave-themed psychedelic warehouse parties mean that when the band stretch ‘I Ain’t Losing Any Sleep’ out into a saucer-eyed monster, it chews up the relatively lacklustre recorded version’s concise indie.
Best of all, though, is the chaotic finale, in which the support act – satirical grime scamps Yes Boss – storm the stage to help their fellow citizens out. With the Boss’ beats underlaying their guitar scratching, The Sunshine Underground are suddenly transformed into the whooshing electro-rock monster that they always had in them to become. By the end of the song, all four cowbells onstage are battered and bent beyond recognition – the mark of a good night, it seems.