Everything changes and nothing changes. In a world increasingly driven by social media, file sharing and downloads the acid test for an artist is still the live arena. That is where you get to see the strength of their back catalogue set alongside the quality of newer material and, crucially, are they still fully engaged or going through the motions?
The chilly winds that signalled the start of autumn also blew Hugh Cornwell to North Wales. The Tivoli in Buckley is a venue that stands defiantly in favour of live music and, in a region where such places are perilously rare, deserves all the support it can get. Likewise Hugh Cornwell, who really doesn’t need to be here tonight but is up there performing a set that ticks every box and is clearly relishing every minute of it.
Hugh was always the wittiest of Punk’s agent provocateurs with a canon that ranges from extra-terrestrial links to the Bible to travelogue songs that would make Judith Chalmers green with envy. Throw in his career as an author and love of cricket that led to him singing Golden Brown on Test Match Special and you have one of our most vital artists. And now he’s only gone and recorded one of the most interesting albums of the year, a collection of covers with Dr John Cooper Clarke handling vocal duties. You should be intrigued. You will be impressed.
Tonight’s set kicks off with a track from Guilty, one of the best albums of Hugh’s whole career, Black Hair, Black Eyes, Black Suit before rolling straight into the leering, sneering brilliance of Nice and Sleazy. This pretty much sets the pattern for the evening with songs from Hugh’s solo and Stranglers career sitting very comfortably alongside each other.
The recently released collection The Rise and Fall of Hugh Cornwell features heavily in the set tonight. Under Her Spell, First Bus to Babylon and Beat of My Heart showcase a songwriter who has always had the knack of a different perspective, razor sharp lyrics and red-hot tunes. Sadly the audience are left to go hungry as Snapper is off the menu tonight but the theologically challenging hymn with the naughty video, God is a Woman, shows that the old fox can still bare his teeth. In fact, the tracks from last studio album, Totem and Taboo, are as strong as any played. Stuck in Daily Mail Land is a quirky pastiche of suburban existence and the encore of A Street Called Carroll is a personal highlight.
The set includes a healthy number of Stranglers classics with a raucous singalong to Always the Sun, the malevolent melody of Hanging Around and two beauties from La Folie, Tramp and a slightly menacing version of Golden Brown.
Always distinct from their contemporaries and ahead of the game, the Stranglers’ innovation is arguably best summarised by The Gospel According To The Meninblack and two tracks are delivered tonight. Second Coming is an unsettling yet triumphant mixture of quasi-religious musings, haunting melody and challenging time signatures which the excellent rhythm section delivers very well. Thrown Away was not expected by this correspondent and yet here it is, brimming with extra-terrestrial excellence, even without keyboards.
The set is closed by Nuclear Device with Hugh relishing the “Bruce/Sheila” sing-along before the encores of Street Called Carol, Golden Brown and Tank bring the evening to an explosive climax. Without a pause Hugh is straight off to the merchandise stall for a meet and greet. He was sixty-seven years strong a few days earlier and almost forty of those have been shared with us. I swear he’s enjoying it more and more as time goes by.
Hugh will release This Time It’s Personal with Dr John Cooper Clarke on October 14th.
To read an interview I did with Hugh in 2014, go here
Thanks to Mark Drury for the photo