Despite vowing to myself a long time ago I would try and avoid the retro "album live show" phenomenon that has seemingly ruled the live circuit for a good few years now, I've succumbed on occasions. One turned out to be one of the greatest gigs of my life (Spiritualized), another was a nice blast from the past (Helmet), and I'm struggling to recall any others that I've actually attended.
When it came to the announcement that The Breeders were going to mark the twentieth anniversary of Last Splash, however, not only with an album re-issue/re-master, but also with a tour playing the album, and more importantly with the lineup that actually played on the album, I was onto tickets for the London leg like a shot.
Why? Because this album, and certain songs from it, is one of those albums that I have clear memories of events around it. I remember going to then-active Huddersfield record store Fourth Wave to buy the CD digipak release of Cannonball (with it's lurid yellow and green packaging) when I was fifteen, and I also recall taking a while getting into the album when it came out. Because, to put it mildly, it was quite a bit different to the single.
And maybe, that's why the celebration of this album feels appropriate. After all, on the back of one legendary single, this album sold over one million copies within it's first year of release, not bad for an album as diverse and frankly as challenging as this. But also, it was a triumph of a band on a defiantly indie label (4AD), who have continued to promote and release quality indie/alternative music before and since (with more notable, leftfield, hits since, too).
For me, the lush re-issue of the album came first, and I will be covering that in a new series on amodelofcontrol.com that is coming very soon. But suffice to say that time away from the album hasn't deadened the surprising impact of it, and the singles and B-sides that accompany it are rather better than the throwaways that I thought I recalled. Anyway, I'd heard murmurs of how good the return of the "classic" lineup doing the album live had been, so I rocked up to this gig in a positive frame of mind, looking forward to finally seeing the band live after twenty years of waiting.
The Breeders setlist
Do You Love Me Now?
I Just Wanna Get Along
Drivin' On 9
Happiness Is a Warm Gun
When I Was a Painter
Only in 3s
Don't Call Home
Another thing about these kind of "nostalgia" shows – sometimes even from the interviews or coverage before – is that hatchets between band members are hardly buried, and there is clearly a sign of the band simply getting through the show, pretty much to fulfil their obligations and then go and get on with something else. Not so here, where the reunited band were in happy, joyous spirits all night, clearly having great fun revisiting their past, and perhaps also feeding off the noticeable goodwill from the crowd.
But then, when an album starts in the way that Last Splash does, there was always going to be a good feeling in the crowd. The opening two minute rush of New Year packs in grinding, distorted dirges followed by sunny, bubblegum pop, before making way for the song that a fair proportion of the crowd were awaiting – Cannonball, of course.
It's an utter joy, of course, from the first, styrofoam cup-assisted "oooooh oooohs", and Josephine Wigg's iconic bass intro to the rampaging chorus and Kelley Deal's sweet backing vocals, right up to the final drum beat that then unleashed a roar of approval from the crowd. Doing the album in order, frankly, was something of a brave move, as for many this will be the only song they know, and while playing the whole album in order was marvellous for those of us that love the whole thing, the flipside was that during quiter moments later in the set especially, it was notable just how many people were chattering away through everything.
Fuckers. I've ranted about this more than a few times, and I'll keep doing so as long as it keeps happening. In fact, what was more annoying were the couple stood next to me, one of them moaning she "couldn't hear a word of what Kim Deal was saying" between songs. Kim's mic wasn't too loud, but if said person had stopped talking, we both might have been able to hear more of Kim. Just sayin'.
Anyway – the first of those quieter moments came post-Cannonball, as Invisible Man seemed a tiny bit subdued, although any doubts were swiftly blasted away by the rush of No Aloha's second half, whereupon a moshpit erupted and the venue seemed to become one big, happy party. The fun part of this album, however, is the diversity, with apparently unrelated songs stacked next to each other in a tracklist that seems initially to jump all over the place – so the momentum is abruptly halted by the lengthy, almost post-rock-before-we-knew-what-post-rock-was of Roi, where Kelley Deal got to fight with her guitar to tear out the savage riffage, before we head into the sweet, almost apologetic and wistful glory of Do You Love Me Now?, and then to conclude the "first side", the wonderful, heady surf-punk rush of Flipside that like the other instrumentals on the album, always felt far too short…
Many songs on the album have always struck me as somewhat cryptic, Kim Deal never being all that keen on making clear what her songs were about. But the one song on the album fronted by her sister Kelley, that opened the "second side", has no such pretences. I Just Wanna Get Along is a blistering attack on an ex-partner, full of furious venom and bitter hatred, and sounded even better live than ever did on record, a blast of guitars that again was over all too quickly.
The one moment that really seemed to lose the crowd – and end up with the loudest chatter during songs – was the always deeply odd Mad Lucas. A reflective, woozy ballad with little more than shuffling drums, a loud bassline and occasional squalls of guitar, Kim Deal's vocals were put through a pedal of some sort to be almost unintelligable, and maybe, just maybe, this track didn't really work live too well with her vocals so low in the mix. But really, there was still no excuse for the talking.
I've never really liked Divine Hammer, the one stab at straight-up indie-pop on the album, and I was glad once it tipped straight into the instrumental blast of S.O.S., followed by the jagged, stabbing Hag, Kim Deal's moment of dealing out hatred for a little while. As we hit the finishing straight, or so it seemed, the band seemed to relax that bit more, clearly loving the summer fair imagery of Saints, and the country pastiche of Drivin' on 9 that once again, seemed to make so much more sense live.
As the set ended with the brief reprise of Roi (reprise), thirty seconds or so and then done, we were only fifty minutes or so in, and we were left to wonder what other highlights we might get. Hopefully a bit of Pod, or maybe some B-sides? That mic issue meant we only got a hint when the band returned to the stage, with Kim Deal saying something about with it being a London show, they wanted to do something special…and all I caught of the next sentence was the word "Pod".
A fellow gig-goer next to me caught the same, and we looked at each other and wondered out loud if we had just heard what we thought we'd heard. The answer was a resounding yes by the time we had got through both Glorious and Doe – for the encore, the band decided to play all of Pod (their first album) in it's entirety too! And in this context, the pointers of where the band were later to go with Last Splash are all over it. There is the variety – from scorching Beatles covers (Happiness Is A Warm Gun never sounded so menacing) to pretty pop (When I Was A Painter), to hard alt.rock (Hellbound), to curious, macabre tales (the closing Metal Man). There are the sweet harmonies, the guitar riffage that erupts out of nowhere.
But, really, this was an utterly glorious bonus to get at the gig – totally unexpected, and while I'd have liked Safari, Shocker In Gloomtown or even Lord of the Thighs, frankly it felt churlish (and still does now) to complain after what I witnessed here. This was a wonderful show, a band revisiting their past and loving it as much as (most of) the crowd did, with no pressure on sales or promoting new material as such – this was a partisan crowd enjoying two classic albums for the price of one. Yeah, so it was a little shambolic at points, but that added to the charm for me – I wouldn't expect a perfect rendition of the album, and frankly the little bits here and there that were a little out, or done differently, actually added to the enjoyment.
And, this is why I rarely attend such "nostalgia" shows. Few can ever capture the original magic like this, twenty years on.