It has been too long since The Charlatans UK have played in DC. Too long since I have seen one of my all-time favorite bands. That is what I was thinking as I made my way up the stairs at the Black Cat on Thursday night. When I got upstairs, the Black Cat was seriously empty, so empty in fact that I was beginning to worry that The Charlatans’ forthcoming performance might suffer from the lack of energy in the room. As I easily took position right in front of the stage, I began to wonder, has it been so long since The Charlatans played DC that people have forgotten them? Slowly but surely dedicated fans of The Charlatans and Brit-pop enthusiasts began to fill in around me, but every time I glanced toward the back of the room, all I could see was emptiness. Where are all the people?
Thankfully, by the time Tim Burgess and company took the stage, the crowd had swelled to at least give the illusion that the room was as full as these Mancunian candidates for longest-running Brit-pop band deserve. The Charlatans may be at a point in their career where they don’t really care who shows up anymore though. Thursday’s wonderful show proved that be the turn-out large or small, they are putting on a great show either way.
At home in the UK, The Charlatans are still stadium-filling, festival favorites. In the US, where they never really ‘broke through’ like genre colleagues Blur or Oasis, The Charlatans have always been a specialty club act. I’ve seen them rock the 9:30 Club to adoring crowds several times. Their current tour comes after back-to-back canceled tours, and two albums that did not receive major release in the United States; in other words a 4-year absence from U.S. pop-consciousness that judging from Thursday’s turn-out may have finally marginalized them to being purely a nostalgia act.
Of course, any fan of The Charlatans that is reading this is probably cursing at the computer screen right now. I know I would be, because the case for The Charlatans’ originality and vitality as a group is especially strong when considering their new album “Who We Touch”, which drops in the US today. The new album ushers in yet another series of slight stylistic shifts that show off the versatility and enduring-nature of The Charlatans as a group. The new album is thankfully receiving major distribution in the U.S. and the band has finally physically made it to our shores to play some shows in support of it. Whether people show up for them or not remains to be seen. In DC on Thursday, a medium-sized crowd showed for what I am calling “the best show of 2010 that almost nobody went to”.
Now, it is true that DC was stacked with good concert options on Thursday night, but I was seriously surprised that there wasn’t a sell-out crowd for The Charlatans. I mean, Mousetrap fills the Black Cat with young, enthusiastic Brit-pop fans on a monthly basis, and I would have thought some of that programming would translate to some ticket sales for the group that brings us the classic ‘The Only One I Know’. It’s a pity more people didn’t show up because seeing a band of such awesome stature in such an intimate venue is a real treat. Before the band took the stage, I spoke with several die hard fans like myself who were absolutely losing their minds over the notion that The Charlatans were basically about to play a show just for us. In a sense it felt like we were the winners of some contest whose prize was to receive a personal performance from Manchester’s most enduring band.
The basics of my review of The Charlatans on Thursday night are very similar to my review of their show at the 9:30 Club in 2006: “Their performance was spot on – playing, energy, attitude, fun. Tim Burgess has gone from awkward Madchester teen, bouncing around with bangs a-swaying, to the epitome of cool, a Pop statesman in his prime.” Burgess has since reintroduced the killer bangs to his personal style, but otherwise he was his usual playful, elfin-self: smiling, high-fiving, and dancing around with his slo-mo Madchester moves. I am used to watching Burgess from the back of the room, where his weird charisma can captivate. Standing a few feet away from a guy who hypnotizes tens of thousands of fans back home was a rare treat. The first few rows of people at the Black Cat were completely swept up by the experience, singing along every word with him. Burgess seemed to really love the closeness of the crowd. He often high-fived fans or lightly touched their heads as he sang.
For the most part the band were super-tight, laying down some of the most danceable grooves Brit-pop has to offer. I got the impression that some of the new songs have not been played much in front of audiences yet as the band members were exchanging a lot of looks, smirks, and smiles as they played them. Other than a few tempo catch-ups though, the new songs came across fantastic live. Knowing that the band are still working out the kinks in their live arrangement actually made hearing the songs even more special. Particularly the song ‘Your Pure Soul’. Perhaps the slowest song of the night, but also one of its high-points. ‘Your Pure Soul’ is an instant Charlatans’ classic. As much as some fans might cringe at hearing some of the style shifts on the new album, no fan could possibly deny the perfection that this song represents. Especially when performed live. I was mesmerized by their beautiful performance of it. It is a song that will rank up there with some of the best that they have produced in their twenty-year career.
The rest of the set list perfectly covered The Charlatans’ long career and almost all of its phases.* We were especially lucky to be treated to several songs off of “You Cross My Path” which have never been played in the U.S. due to the canceled tours. ‘The Misbegotten’ and ‘Oh Vanity’ really brought the party on Thursday as I had hoped they would in anticipation of their canceled tour a year ago.
In addition to the songs from their two most recent albums, we were also treated to a healthy dose of their debut album “Some Friendly” which turned 20 this year. I was thrilled that they opened with ‘Then’ and later included ‘White Shirt’. “She laughed and then she died” is one of my favorite lines from a song ever. In addition to ‘Your Pure Soul’, the other new song high point came during the encore when The Charlatans unleashed ‘Love is Ending’ on the crowd. This is one of their heaviest songs featuring Sex Pistols-inspired guitar riffs and an ultimate Brit-cool vocal delivery by Burgess. I particularly loved the spacey break-down that abruptly appears in the middle of this song.
Hearing this rather surprising track performed live finally cracked its code for me. I had been watching the video and scratching my head over it for a month. As with most of their style shifts, with this track The Charlatans display a keen sense of doing whatever the hell they please and letting the audience catch up and catch-on once they see the songs played live. In this case, the new album tracks seemed to win the crowd over. Looking around at the dance party front-section of the crowd I didn’t notice any complaints, just a whole lot of people smiling, singing and jumping around. It just would have been nice if there were more bodies doing the same in the back of the room. This show was a fantastic good time from one of the most reliable brands in British music. Let’s hope that their next visit doesn’t take as long as this one did to materialize.
* Noticeably absent were songs from “Wonderland” – Tim Burgess’ experiment with falsetto vocals.
UPDATE: (9/16/10) The Charlatans’ drummer Jon Brookes collapsed during their gig at Jonny Brendas last night in Philadelphia. He is currently in the hospital recovering and we wish him well. The Charlatans press statement about the issue instructs fans to check their websitefor updates on the remaining U.S. tour dates. Hoepfully this will not be the third Charlatans’ U.S. tour doomed to cancelation.