Review by Gary Spiller for MPM
With the fullness of the Beaver Moon hanging upon high erstwhile Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell brings his latest solo UK tour to the historic city of Exeter.
Classical intellectuals Pliny the Elder and Aristotle once hypothesized of the power of the full moon. Its ability to induce madness across the lands upon which it illuminated, a celestial lunacy.
Cornwell has, no doubt, throughout both his solo career and his 16-year tenure within the ranks of the idiosyncratic genre-defying Stranglers encountered such. Thus, it’s rather appropriate that this tour, drawing its naming from Cornwell’s sensational tenth solo album, is entitled ‘Moments of Madness.’
A metallic winged sculpture of the immortal bird of Greek mythology, atop the building’s entrance, gazes down. There is an expectancy about all those who ascend the moon-bathed stepped entrance to Exeter’s grandiose Phoenix venue. We’re ensured a glimpse into the genius punk poet laureate with the promise of two sets – one casting a spotlight upon the over 30 years of solo material and the other blitzing the expansive back catalogue of The Stranglers.
Running slightly late a bassline resounds, the minimal lighting darkens with the stage moodily bathed by just four blue spots. With a sort of James Taylor feel an intro tape feeds spangly guitars, keys, brass and bongos. Emerging from behind the stage Cornwell follows his bandmates with an intensifying bass. Once in position with heads bowed the band ready themselves in the shadowy light. Cornwell outstretches both hands, a quick tap upon his microphone, before bursting into latest single “Coming Out Of The Wilderness.’ The bass is low-slung and resonant about a solid percussive foundation. The vocals are undeniably Cornwell, spiky and oft irreverent. His raw and bleeding all-black Telecaster reverberates to a 60s drenched Duane Eddy tone as the band belt out this modern-day tale of art of survival.
The sideswipe of ‘Stuck In Daily Mail Land,’ with a touch of Billy Bragg, pokes Cornwell’s song-craft in the direction of the tabloids. Chopping riffage lends itself well to the subject matter. “See that?” he enquires at track-end. “It’s a vibrating microphone, not seen one of those before!” mocking playfully at the errant piece of equipment.
The defiance to push boundaries and defy being pigeon-holed remains as strong as it was in his formative years. Melding Ian Dury and The Specials Cornwell mixes in a ska, reggae vibrancy with his latest title-track ‘Moments Of Madness’ whilst extolling the virtues, in Rolling Stones manner, of his Italian friends in Mexico ability to make quality ‘Lasagna.’ The one-time Strangler revels in a sea of eclectic.
Dedicating ‘Mr. Leather’ to Lou Reed Cornwell chuckles at the mispronunciation of “Axeter” heard on his train journey west. “You’ll find out later!” retorts a wag in the crowd.
With “Only one day left in paradise” Cornwell slips in ‘Beauty On The Beach’ into the set. “Been wanting to play this one for a while” Cornwell comments as way of introduction. Clearly not one to rest upon his laurels predatory rocker ‘Another Kind Of Love,’ similarly, takes its place trucking along.
The creepily entitled ‘Beware Of The Doll’ explores matters of the heart. It’s uncomplicated yet resonant with Cornwell whittling a sweet solo from his white Telecaster. Reminiscent of the darker Stranglers material Cornwell’s ghosting vocals hauntingly reverberate.
The coupling of ‘Big Bug’ and ‘Mothra’ is lifted from the non-vampiric side of ‘Nosferatu,’ Cornwell’s 1979 collaboration with Captain Beefheart drummer Robert Williams. An unlikely pairing, in terms of subject matter, as there could possibly be. The former about Leon Trotsky’s armoured train whilst the latter, with its “machinations of a giant moth,” takes its inspiration from the Japanese fictional monster of the same name.
Penultimate track of the opening set the semi-autobiographical reflection ‘When I Was A Young Man’ possesses a feral edge with Cornwell snarling “My memory has failed on me and left me holding cans.” It’s been an enthralling, captivating hour in the company of Cornwell and his exploration of his solo career however it’s noticeable the swelling of the crowd’s enthusiasm when he returns to hurtle, virtually non-stop, through a varied selection of classics from the Stranglers’ era.
Cornwell and his cohorts, in their second set, dispatch a well-balanced deliverance of not just singles but some choice cuts from those iconic albums of the 70s and 80s. Seven of the ten albums that Cornwell recorded during his time in the ranks are covered; but with such a lengthy list of set-worthy numbers inevitably not all can be aired. Baying for an encore, following a breath-taking 50 minutes or so, the crowd implore “Peaches, No More Heroes!” Wryly Cornwell, stepping back on-stage “If we played them all we’d be here for another two hours.” His retort is met, naturally, with the loudest roar of the night.
Receiving a loud roar of adoration, the eccentric classic ‘Waltzinblack’ – for me the sure-fire resultant product of a headlong collision of Disney and gothic noir – kickstarts the second fifty percent of the evening with a flippant undercurrent. Typical Cornwell, quintessential genius. Manic clowns cackle hysterically as we’re taken through the gothic fairground.
Cornwell whirls his right arm to strike the first chord and with a glorious rumbling bassline, the unmistakable ‘Nice ‘n’ Sleazy – a 1978 top 20 single – strongarms the crowd into action. Singles are interspersed with album tracks such as the moody underpinnings of ‘Tramp’ and ‘Hanging Around.’ The latter retaining every ounce of punch and powerage as at the moment of inception. The monkey on the shoulder approves wholeheartedly.
It’s a stripped back performance, no fuss or thrills. This is purely about the music and perfect for it. Although barely scraping into the top 30 ‘Always The Sun’ is sung word-perfect by the crowd; treated to deserved reverence normally reserved for singles atop the pyramid. Such is the affection this material is rightly held in.
Cornwell’s bleeding heart is exposed in a growling rendition of ‘Thrown Away’ that merrily stomps along marauding on its way. ‘Nuclear Device (The Wizard of Aus)’ is punked right up with Cornwell spitting out the chorus with anti-obsequious venom.
The prickly punch of ‘Goodbye Toulouse’ grabs attention before ‘Skin Deep’ shimmers in glorious, slithering technicolour warning “Better watch out.” With ‘Turn The Centuries, Turn’ storming the castle ramparts so the main body of the set ends as it began with an instrumental. A proto-prog crossover that seeks to set a challenge to Newton’s Laws the eagle soars as the band depart the Phoenix’s stage to loud cheers. It’s been a machine-gun, rapid delivery with not a breath taken; no quarter asked for and none given.
Returning for an encore Cornwell and his two musical companions set about tearing Exeter apart. Bathed, most appropriately, in a warming yellow light the stage is set for an engrossing slowed down ‘Golden Brown’ and the bark of ‘(Get a) Grip (on Yourself)’ notching up through the gears. Derisively mordant Cornwell snarls “The worse crime that I ever did was playing rock ‘n roll.” After two hours at the altar that isn’t a bad crime to have committed.
Photography by Kelly Spiller for MPM