They say you should never meet your heroes, for fear of being disappointed. So, it was with that trepidation that I walked toward the theatre. I’ve been a fan of Graham Parker ever since a nice man in Oz Records convinced me to buy the Howling Wind LP in late 1976.
As the evening progressed, I bumped into several old friends, including a school friend last spotted in April 1975, and none of us could agree on how many times Parker had previously played in Newcastle (two or three) but we did know the last time had been 1982. So, tonight was a big deal indeed, especially as no one else had heard the Three Chords Good album from last year.
The concert got off to a great start for the 100 or so who weren’t filling the city centre bars, as one of England’s finest ever songwriters, Glenn Tilbrook, performed his duty with great style and aplomb. He opened with a rousing "Take Me (I’m Yours)", full of Spanish guitar flourishes and a passionate rendition of a brilliant song.
Tillbrook interspersed tracks from his latest album Happy Ending (LP, CD, and download all in one handy package) with Squeeze classics "Tempted" (eye-wateringly brilliant) and "Some Fantastic Place" (booked for my funeral). He also blew the dust off "The Truth" -- a little-known song from his grumpy years.
The 40-minute set ended with another new song -- "Ice Cream" -- which had a glorious sing-a-long chorus: “I want to buy you an ice cream/AS BIG AS YOUR HEAD” It got the rapidly filling hall in just the right mood for the main event.
The atmosphere could only be described as electric, as the lights went down. When Parker’s diminutive figure could be made out in the shadows, the 500 plus crowd roared their welcome, and the noise only got louder when they recognised the opening bars to "Fools Gold". After all of these years of waiting, I couldn’t have asked for a better intro.
With only a short gap -- to regain his breath -- the band seamlessly went into "Hotel Chambermaid" and followed that with a slightly less than blistering "White Honey". The latter had everyone around me nodding their heads in agreement. The 30-year wait had been worth it.
As the applause died down, Parker laughed. “Here are the words you’ve been dreading: we are going to play something off the new album.” I was more than happy to hear these songs but, as Parker knew, not many others had heard the album. Half-way through "Snake Oil Capital", however, I saw a few people shuffling their feet in time to the skanking beat.
Soon afterwards the band went into "Howlin Wind" which, I’d forgot, also had a slow reggae beat. I couldn’t help think that Sting must have heard that album while putting the Police together.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the whole night, it has to be said that the pace dramatically dropped during the middle half-hour, with one-time fiery songs like "No Holding Back" and "Lady Doctor" being played at a more sedentary pace than most people would have liked. But, we had to remember how old the band members are these days.
When I’ve visited the Academy previously, it’s always been packed out and the bands were more of the louder rock persuasion, which brings me to the sound. It was not good at all. What needed to be crystal clear coming out of the speakers was "muddy" and "bass-heavy", which meant Parker’s slow nasally, Estuary drawl got lost a few times on the subtler songs. But, judging by the amount of beer being drunk, I doubt many people noticed.
Things picked up again in the final straight with "Love Gets You Twisted" -- extraordinarily excellent. Even though he no longer has the bravura of youth, "Stick to Me" was still pretty damn angry. The ever-intertwining guitars of Brinsley Shwarz and Martin Belmont put many a superstar to shame.
Another personal favourite, "Watch The Moon Come Down", got an airing. It was made extra special by Bob Andrews and his swinging organ. That man is so very underrated.
The band were now whizzing through the back catalogue with nothing -- including guitar and organ solos -- clocking in at over four minutes. Songs like "Discovering Japan" and "Nobody Hurts You" sounded as fresh as the metaphorical daisies. Parker’s cheeky introduction to "Local Girls" got as big a cheer as the band got when they exited the stage.
After a short gap Parker, still wearing his trademark "Elvis in Vegas" shades, Andrews, and bass player Andrew Bodner returned for a spellbinding version of "You Can’t Be Too Strong", before the rest of the band filed on stage for the infectious Reggae beat of "Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions". It was all over far too quickly ... or was it?
As smiling fans filed out in an orderly fashion, a few hardy people called for “More!” They were to be rewarded, with a belting version of Graham Parker and the Rumours' signature tune: "Soul Shoes". It was just coming to an end as a few puffing and panting fans re-entered the hall.
When I arrived home my wife asked if I’d enjoyed the concert. I actually took too long thinking about it. Yes, I was thrilled at seeing the whole band together after all these years. Yes, they had sung a lot of my favourite songs. But the muddy sound and the flat middle section left me feeling disappointed.
Should they keep the band together and return next year to a smaller venue more suited to their sound (Sage 2 springs to mind), I think that has the potential to be a brilliant evening.