Spearmint triumphantly bowed out of their latest chapter at London’s Water Rats on Friday. The ‘jukebox’ gig, billed as the band’s last for a couple of years, saw the full span of Spearmint’s career covered in a set chosen by an online fan vote.
Opening proceedings was Simon Love with his band The Old Romantics. Starting with several songs from his first solo album It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, the set then took in the title song from Love’s summer EP Tennis Fan, his highlight with some characteristically clever wordplay. Towards the end of the set, both Love and guitarist Dan had the chance to let rip on some solos. Xs and Os, from the leader’s old band The Loves was another high point before the band finished with a storming Motherfuckers.
It’s not quite clear whether the band’s biggest achievement was the schoolboy-frequency of profanity towards the end of **** Is a Dirty Word, or that The Old Romantics managed to get six of their number (including keyboard and trumpet players) on the Water Rats’ famously small stage, but either way the crowd were suitably warmed up and more than one wry smile was encouraged by both Love’s lyrics and his dry between-song banter. Good start.
Next, grungy indie-rockers Fever Dream had their turn. Their set sadly seemed to blend into one long dirge save for a few nice drum patterns from Cat Loye, low-fi bass effects of Sarah Lippett and humming guitar from Adrian Fleet. Too often the London trio’s sound was monotonous and repetitive, with Fleet’s vocals lost in the melange. On reflection, they seem like a strange choice of main support for Spearmint when Simon Love was a much better fit stylistically.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long until Spearmint set up their kit and emerged together.
And their 23-song setlist was extremely fresh, neither too bogged down with the entirety of A Week Away, nor filled with niche B-Sides. Although not “full Springsteen”, it managed to take in several cuts from favourite albums like A Week Away, A Different Lifetime and Oklahoma!, with one song apiece from lesser known efforts My Missing Days, A Leopard and Other Stories and News from Nowhere.
Of course, in a set chosen by the fans lasting just over an hour and a half (sorry Liam Gallagher…), there are always going to be a few tricky performances to execute. But some of the best moments came during the songs which really shouldn’t work live, chiefly the picks from Spearmint’s best concept album Paris in a Bottle.
All evening, frontman Shirley Lee was on top form, grinning and making jokes and witty comments. Lee actually thanked the crowd for making him perform the eight-minute epic First Time Music, where he brought a flimsy wrestling-style metal chair onto the stage to sit and read the story, raising a few chuckles in the process. The vote also saw Shirley needing to step into the breach to sing a jaunty What’s Wrong with Breaking up Anyway? with mournful undertones, the closest we got to a disco atmosphere.
The funky Psycho Magnet, one of the limited edition singles lifted from Paris in a Bottle and co-written by Lee and Toby Carter several years after their hit with We’re Going Out, was a bit more straightforward. Andy Lewis’ bass lines were superb throughout, with this thumping effort perhaps the best as he excelled on some of the more recent tunes like Man and the Moon.
What was striking was how genuinely pleased the band seemed to be there. The co-ordination of the band’s backing vocals and handclaps was fun and there were smiles on faces from start to finish, a refreshing change when today it sometimes seems in music that the more miserable you look, the better you are. Lee switched between his famous customised guitar and a handheld microphone almost every song, regularly moving either side of the stage to sing alongside Simon Calnan or play guitar with James Parsons, snatching a grin or joke with his colleague each time.
After a sample to open, the Lee/Lewis composition of Left Alone Among the Living was performed with some superb guitar from Parsons and backing harmonies from the band. This was the first of several songs for which Lee headed to the very edge of the stage to belt out his lyrics to the noisy crowd in the pub’s small back room.
On the subject of samples, used behind various tunes, we also got Lee’s authentic/novelty (delete as appropriate) cassette player treatment for opener A Week Away, improved immeasurably by Calnan’s backing vocals.
Despite a couple of technical gremlins getting into his keyboard around the middle of the set, Calnan provided an excellent counterbalance to Lee with his vocals, also contributing tambourine. When his keys were working, they sparkled, evident no more clearly than in the popular Vivian, placed second in the set.
Julie Christie! has long been a favourite and it provided an early spike in the gig’s energy levels. A potentially difficult live performance, the hilarious Hollywood-focused Say Something Else was tackled expertly, with Lee freestyling and updating many of the spoken verses, including some particularly clever wordplay alluding to his vegetarianism.
Shirley was, er, not quite Clapton-esque next on I Will Sleep Tonight, a more downbeat number written, he explained, about his mother. But after this more tender moment, a boistrous A Trip Into Space and Start Again featuring some sublime Parsons lead guitar bookended the aforementioned Psycho Magnet and a far more relaxed and contemplative but still recognisable version of A Different Lifetime’s title track to make a quartet of songs which brought the mood back up to fever pitch.
Most of the songs from Spearmint’s first two ‘proper’ albums A Week Away and A Different Lifetime were accompanied with singalongs from the boisterous crowd, egged on by Lee’s strutting, the evocative Isn’t it Great to Be Alive being one such number.
Ronan Larvor was peerless behind the kit, adding bite to Psycho Magnet, Start Again, What’s Wrong with Breaking up Anyway? and the two Oklahoma! songs in particular, from the Christmas album revered by many Spearmint fans.
The popular recent track Sunflower Eyes was beautiful, its folky rendition here giving it whiffs of a Shirley Lee solo song.
The inclusion of two songs from Shirley Lee’s first, eponymous, solo album will no doubt have pleased the frontman. After a typically clever Spiralina Girl, A fully electric version of the anthemic The Smack of the Pavement in Your Face roused the crowd before the show’s final wind.
Perhaps the highlight of the gig was a buzzing The Flaming Lips, belted out by Shirley and fans alike to Parsons’ buzzing guitar (aided by an impressive pedal board which needed its own suitcase and blanket to transport). This came as part of a barrage of hits used to close including We’re Going Out, given a certain je ne sais quoi with the spoken introduction this time in French and Larvor repeating his delicious studio work, perennial classic Sweeping the Nation (complete with authentic Dobie Gray sample), a lively Scottish Pop and set closer This Is Green, This Is Grey, an early recording and one of Lee’s personal favourites. Few in attendance could have hoped for a better ending to the show which had promised so much and delivered just about that.
Of course, for a band with such an impressive back catalogue and such a keen fanbase who, according to Lee, voted for a total of 80 different songs in the poll, no-one’s ever going to get their perfect, fantasy set – I’d love to have heard A Bench in the Park, Mike’s Wall or Single Again. However we got as good a mix as anyone could have hoped for with the key singles, more recent album tracks, Shirley’s solo stuff and some choice picks from the early classics.
The fans and Spearmint proved that despite the political events of the last couple of years, some of us can be trusted to vote sensibly, and some others can be trusted to enact the will of the people with skill.
I’m not saying Spearmint should use their hiatus to do a Dave Rowntree and try to run the country, I’d prefer a third Shirley Lee album to be honest. But hopefully they’ll soon be sweeping the nation live once again.
A Week Away (A Week Away)
Left Alone Among the Living (My Missing Days)
Spiralina Girl (‘Shirley Lee’)
Julie Christie! (A Different Lifetime)
Happy Birthday Girl (Oklahoma!)
First Time Music (Paris in a Bottle)
Man and the Moon (It’s Time to Vanish)
Isn’t It Great to Be Alive (A Week Away)
Sunflower Eyes (It’s Time to Vanish)
Say Something Else (A Leopard and Other Stories)
I Will Sleep Tonight (News from Nowhere)
A Trip Into Space (A Week Away)
Psycho Magnet (Paris in a Bottle)
A Different Lifetime (A Different Lifetime)
Start Again (A Week Away)
What’s Wrong with Breaking up Anyway? (Paris in a Bottle)
The Smack of the Pavement in Your Face (‘Shirley Lee’)
The Flaming Lips (A Different Lifetime)
We’re Going Out (A Week Away)
Scottish Pop (A Different Lifetime)
Sweeping the Nation (A Week Away)
This Is Green, This Is Grey (Songs for the Colour Yellow)
See below more of my photos from the gig. If you would like higher resolution versions to use, please do get in touch!