Review: Half Man Half Biscuit
Durham Gala Theatre: 29 April 2022
There’s just something about a Half Man Half Biscuit gig that’s not quite like anything else, especially for repeat offenders like me . Yes, it’s a roomful of mostly middle aged men jumping up and down like loons and not worrying about the arthritis until you can’t get out of bed tomorrow morning, and yes the singing sounds like you’re in the away end on a rainy January Tuesday in Stoke, but it’s a properly beautiful place to be on a spring Friday evening in Durham. The Gala is always a nice place to come, even though this particular gig has been delayed for over a year now¹, but some things are always worth the wait. The first things to do are obviously to hit the merch stall, and find something to drink. The new ΜΟΛΟΝ ΛΑΒΕ² t-shirts are ace, so obviously I got one, and the Atlantic Pale Ale in the bar was more than acceptable, as was the vista from the bar terrace as I drank it. Then again, given my own particular bias for Durham, I would say that wouldn’t I?³
For several reasons, mostly because I was enjoying taking in the ambience of being actually out out again for the first time in a bit, I didn’t see the support act, so I can’t really tell you anything about them. Sorry, lads. The upshot of all this is that by the time I wandered into the room it was nicely buzzing, and properly rammed full, with the lads just about ready to come on.
First number was Worried Man Blues, the old Woody Guthrie number. Opening with a cover isn’t that usual, but it seems a nice one to go with for lots of reasons. I could go into a rhapsodic Andy Kershaw style discussion here about how Nigel Blackwell is a modern day troubadour in the same tradition as Bob Dylan. There’s probably a PhD in that for someone, somewhere, or at least a fairly hefty AHRC grant, but right now you’d be very much within your rights to give me a clip round the ear, tell me to stop being such a ponce, and give my head a wobble, so I’ll leave it for now and get back to the point. The set is what you’d expect, really: a mix of old and new, pretty much all of which the audience can, and do, sing along to, with gusto. There really is nothing quite like a room full of people shouting “Fuckin’ ‘Ell It’s Fred Titmus” on cue when the moments arrive. You can see the big dumb grins when they do. There are lots of these moments.
Good news is that the songs from the latest album, The Voltarol Years, fit in seamlessly. Everyone knows the tunes, and belts out the words to the likes of I’m Getting Buried in the Morning like good ‘uns. Towards the end the affecting Oblong of Dreams has everyone joining in the “Clouds part, show time, cowslips and celandine” refrain with more than a hint of wistful reflection (or even recognition), perhaps. As ever though, it’s rum mix of the old and new, but decrepit lags like me usually go away very pleased that there are at least a couple of numbers from the dawn of time in there to keep us happy.
The other great thing about these shows is the interplay between the band, (well, mostly Nigel) and the cheeky mob in front of him. There are the obligatory, Hello Cleveland style greetings to start the evening. Tonight it’s, “Lovely town et cetera. I don’t know what Roger Whittaker was moaning about”. And throughout the evening there are passing references to the Venerable Bede and St Cuthbert, erstwhile of this parish, as well as the obligatory callouts to VIPs in the audience⁴, and service station etiquette at Tebay. The only minor issue seemed to be the sound mix. Earlier, I know some at the front were saying it was a bit quiet, and that there were a couple of tweaks made. As the show went on, I still thought Nigel’s vocals were a little bit quiet for us at the back. but overall it didn’t spoil the fun at all.
The other moment of minor intrigue comes towards the end, and the encore. What’s going to be in there? Well, apart from the obligatory Dukla Prague Away Kit, there’s a nicely knockabout cover of Blitzkreig Bop before the evening’s proceedings are rounded off with Every Time a Bell Rings. All of this is more than entirely agreeable, and everyone leaves with the aforementioned big dumb grin plastered across their faces. I certainly did. You know the score by now: “blah blah national treasure”, “blah blah, miss ’em when they’re gone”. But bugger me they are properly, properly good, and this is how gigs are supposed to be.
¹ Originally scheduled for 26 March 2021
² Supposedly from the Spartan legends. When Xerxes came to Leondias demanding the 300 surrender their weapons, these were the Spartan King’s words to him: “Come and get them”.
³ Eat your heart out, Mandy Rice-Davies
⁴ Tonight’s included Dame Ellen MacArthur, Carol Kirkwood, and Barry Fry amongst others.
Worried Man Blues
The Trumpton Riots
Tommy Walsh’s Eco House
I’m Getting Buried In The Morning
She’s In Broadstairs
Fuckin’ ‘Ell It’s Fred Titmus
Token Covid Song
Deep House Victims Minibus Appeal
Big Man Up Front
Venus In Flares
Running Order Squabble Fest
Ode To Joyce
Fear My Wraith
Joy Division Oven Gloves
National Shite Day
For What Is Chatteris?
Oblong Of Dreams
We Built This Village On A Trad Arr Tune
The Light At The End Of The Tunnel Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train
Midnight Mass Murder
All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit
Every Time A Bell Rings