Modern English

Colchester Festival, Colchester - 27 August 2011

"Even at a mere 40 minutes this was still gig of the year"

[Modern English: Robbie Grey]

One of the advantages of attending the Music for A Darkened Theatre Festival earlier the same month was I heard that not only had Modern English re-formed, with the largely original line up, but that they’d also been gigging. Extensively touring in the US (where they are better known) last year and appearing at a few select locations in the UK this summer. Having been a serious Modern English fan shortly after their first appearance in 1980, and having only seen them once before (I can't remember when but it was years ago at the Marquee in London), I immediately logged on to their website to find they were headlining at the Colchester Free Festival in just a couple of weeks time on the August Bank Holiday weekend. Having decided not to attend Infest the same weekend this year, my previously (fortuitously) clear calendar was immediately booked; and in a fit of salivating excitement as the prospect I don’t mind saying.

By regular gig going standards, this one had a somewhat unusual audience mix of children, families, dads and sons (the former seeking to educate the latter in the ways of ME) and the die-hard, greying haired fans from the 1980s. The briefest of Bank Holiday showers made many reach for their umbrellas, however it quickly passed as the wind got up and the dark clouds were displaced by blue skies to the DJ sounds of New Order, Talking Heads and The Human League’s Being Boiled. My second Modern English gig was under way.

Some dyed in the wool fans of the 4AD years (the band’s original label) might have thought the slightly incongruous sight of such a cool, cult act headlining at a local authority free festival a touch demeaning. But Colchester being the spawning ground of the group, one of England’s most criminally overlooked, this was merely the boys quite literally coming home after so many years scattered and the only excuse many needed to travel to the historic Roman town and hopefully experience the sheer excitement of seeing this fine band perform on stage again.

[Modern English: L-R: Gary McDowell, Ric Chandler, Robbie Grey]

The setting, as the warm evening sun emerged again, was actually kind of charming. The extensive and well-manicured gardens and Colchester’s Norman castle are undoubtedly the historic town's prize asset. The band’s early art school intellectual look had inevitably shifted somewhat down the years, replaced with a more eclectic melange in part reflecting each member’s various stories in the intervening period. Lead vocalist Robbie Grey’s baggy bright blue T-shirt and red plastic sunglasses, initially a touch disconcerting, as it happens, blended nicely with the festival’s equally bright, primary-coloured logo. Always the most visually arresting member, lead guiatrist Gary McDowell, still sporting his trademark long peroxide hair – though here it was in the form of a tied back Mohican rather than one of the gravity-defying styles of the mid 80s. In another visual development, he was now virtually covered head to toe in tattoos – possibly an outcome of living in Thailand for several years during the quiet years. Synth maestro Stephen Walker was the only member to wear a full suit - casually accented by a loose-fitting thin tie. Bassist Mick Conroy was instantly recognisable in his glasses, his blonde hair slicked back, looking low-key dapper in a dark two-piece. In summary, visually they combined to look the epitome of mature rockers who still have style but nothing to prove. The more relaxed presentation is undoubtedly reflective of where the original members are now.

I had no anxiety about the music coming up to expectations, having spent the days running up to the festival researching their 2010 US gigs, watching footage of them performing, and being seriously impressed with the quality, accuracy and vibrancy of their live sound – so could dispel any concerns about embarrassing representations of former glories. They clearly still had it. I mean really had it. What’s more, their latest album Soundtracks (which somehow also snuck out past me last year) put their disappointing post-4AD releases firmly to one side, magically capturing the essence of those first three albums and at the same time representing a genuinely contemporary Modern English.

[Modern English: L-R: Robbie Grey, Mick Conroy, Steven Walker]

It took no more than the opening five seconds of the clarion Someone's Calling to know we were in several sets of safe hands and in for an evening of our lives. The next 40 minutes (it should have been 50 – but had to be cut short due to a schedule overrun) may have been all too brief, and flew past, but what a 40 minutes they were! Only one song in the set came from the latest album, everything else came from the glory days of those first three: Mesh and Lace (1981), After The Snow (1982) and Ricochet Days (1984). It wasn’t quite a greatest ‘hits’, nor was it long enough to be a comprehensive selection of their best of, nevertheless, it was a choice selection they served up to a hugely appreciative audience. An audience that, given its diverse make-up, one might have though included a significant indifferent contingent, but perhaps it was because this was a local free council festival predominantly for local people, there was a tangible sense of community and, it seemed, that Modern English were being recognised (and celebrated) as something of local heroes. As one of a hardcore of the non-locals present, it was heartening to be a part of what felt very much like a mutual love-in happening between the six men on stage and the audience looking up to them from the castle gardens.

The most satisfying and rewarding aspect of this gig is just how fucking good the band sound. Having found a drummer in Ric Chandler who is up to the crucial job that original member Richard Brown had in creating that distinctive Modern English style, he faithfully and respectfully recreated the key attributes of the songs, including all those memorable incredibly fast fills, with a stripped-back kit that delivered all the basic right timbres and tones. The other recruit is the extremely cool-looking Steven Walker on guitar. With his full beard, waistcoat, blue jeans, white leather shoes and sunglasses he looked every bit the hip west coast American rock band stalwart (though he may also be from Essex for all I know!). His musical as well as visual contribution nicely rounded out the core four members. 

[Modern English: L-R: Stephen Walker, Gary McDowell, Ric Chandler]

Leader Robbie Grey, still has the lean physique and features he always had, looked in good health and spirits and his performance toyed with the audience and band, never taking the entire enterprise too seriously, but at the same time seemingly acutely aware of just what it is that makes Modern English such an important and exhilarating band. The sense of the band being ‘comfortable with where they’re at’ was reflected in Grey adapting some of the vocal delivery, often to avoid some of the sustained higher notes of the recorded compositions, perhaps because he’s no longer able to do them justice, or perhaps simply because of his relaxed demeanour sees no reason to be hampered by convention. Potentially, such changes could seriously undermine the melodic, anthemic nature of many of their lead vocal lines, but you got the feeling he was just making singing songs that were 30 years old still interesting for himself as much as for the audience. As it never negatively impacted on the character or impact of those classics, only the seriously hung-up could find fault in the subtle revisions.

That this festival took place in the band’s spiritual home probably meant that the Modern English fans who attended purely because of their presence got the best possible reunion gig they could want. The only thing anyone would have asked was simply more of the same, but even at a mere 40 minutes this was still the gig of the year. All we need is to see Modern English on a full UK tour next year. See you next time boys – it’s great to have you back. 9/10

Setlist: Someone's Calling, Tables Turning, Swans On Glass, Black Houses, Soundtrack, Life In The Gladhouse, I Melt With You

Rob Dyer