Pulp - Royal Albert Hall - 31/3/2012

10 Apr 2012

"Amid the grand environs of the Royal Albert Hall, Pulp reach their zenith. Once again. In aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust charity."

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It’s been repeatedly acknowledged that Pulp were always slightly out of time, perhaps ahead of time, throughout their career, until a seismic 1995. Favourably, their breakthrough opus ‘Different Class’ is one of the few albums of the era that hasn’t dated and whose subject matter resonates perhaps more today than ever: dragged-up chic, chancing yuppie playing the pauper, skint romance, druggy disillusionment – themes that define our frustrated age. But Pulp are a celebration of the aspirational, the what-if, the why-not that gives life its worth-living potential – a band that embodies the very notion of hope.

Concluding last year’s international festival circuit with teasing remarks that their 2011 run might well have been a mere, one-off victory lap, Pulp’s 2012 unveils a band simply picking up where they left off. And like the Pixies’ much-vaunted, lengthy/lucrative reunion before them, Pulp are now attaining the reverence and sheer scale that their active recording career never quite delivered – not least reflected in impending, sold out shows in US enormo-domes such as Coachella and Radio City in New York (two nights, in fact).

Tonight sees the quintet effortlessly illustrate that there’s plenty of spice left in the old dog yet. The band’s first time performing in the jaw-dropping grounds of the RAH is a ceremonious affair, and, befittingly, there are surprises in store. After a now-customary visual dialogue that causes as much amusement as frustration, suspending the band’s entrance for ten minutes, imploring the audience to ‘Make some noise,’ amongst cheeky asides, the band walk out in complete pitch darkness, save for kitsch neon P – U – L – P lettering above their heads.

It’s loud and mouths are wide open with shrieks. This level of fanaticism reminds me why I have to see this band every time I physically can. Then the climbing guitar lines of ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’ – possibly their second greatest single – spill out the speakers, the verse swells, and the chorus explodes – and: WOW. Lights, dancing, this entire venue simply loses its shit. And it’s like this for the next 100 minutes – Jarvis skulking the stage like a shabby wizard, punching the air, kicking the air, and – in numerous instances – attempting to f**k the air. It’s sexy, it’s informative, it’s witty, and it’s euphoric. Tonight, Pulp are a barrage of hits and beauty.

And those surprises that we spoke of. Our first one comes via a double helping of tracks from their much-ignored, final album ‘We Love Life’: the sultry ballad ‘Birds in Your Garden’ and a revved-up ‘Bad Cover Version’, replete with hearty female backing vocals, prompting a mass-realisation that this is an album worth revisiting as soon as possible. The seldom-performed ‘Like a Friend’ follows, opening with a restrained and vulnerable vocal before erupting into a glammy stomp. Assisting onstage by this point is the rather charismatic lad-crooner presence of Richard Hawley, whose elegiac guitar playing lifts the heavy arrangements. Jarvis, meanwhile, is smiling, throwing chocolates into the crowd and admitting to nerves (‘I think it’s going OK,’ he half-comments/half-enquires midway through to a resounding swell of appreciation from 5,000 obsessive’s).

Then the lights dim, a string quartet emerges, and a haunting ‘This Is Hardcore’ floods the hall – with the audience encouraged to shine their complimentary Teenage Cancer Trust key ring torches in unison throughout the song. Suddenly the venue is awash with waving dots in every direction, as Jarvis yelps his way through their dramatic lush-porn masterpiece. It’s an eerie and yet inclusive moment – we’re no longer voyeurs; we’re joining in, perhaps against our better judgement, Mr. Cocker our pervy pied piper. It’s a magical moment, bettered only by the acoustic-rave blitz of ‘Sunrise’ which takes off – squealing guitars nestling against a rhythmic wall of sound, comprised of gong, crashing drums and humming bass.

A ‘Different Class’ back-to-back of ‘Bar Italia’ – the affecting closing song of the album, which typifies a generation’s aimless hedonism and subsequent desperation – and their defining ‘Common People’ is almost too much to bear. By this point, tears are in eyes, every single limb is being thrown, and the venue is fully illuminated in brash, yellow flashes. People sing with the abandon and passion that wills on local football teams to top league tables, and by its blow-out close, the screaming is so loud I have to put my fingers in my ears.

Most bands couldn’t/shouldn’t follow it, but fortunately Pulp have spent three decades refining the art of push and pull, the tease of anticipation. Our last special treat of the night is a sumptuous ‘My Lighthouse’ – featuring Jarvis’ sister Saskia on backing vocals, plus school friend Gill Taylor. A song that featured as the opening track on the group’s debut album ‘It’ thirty years ago, it’s the subtlest and most innocent moment of the evening, and proof that – despite his songwriting etiquette unquestionably improving over the years – Cocker was always gifted with the knack of nailing a tune.

Closing affairs with the anthemic ‘Babies’ and a simply riotous indie nostalgia-fest in ‘Disco 2000’, this is immediately signed off as one of those gigs. It makes the thought of returning to reality almost unbearable.

A few days later, Jarvis would go on to say that there’s a chance of future Pulp material. In this exceptional case, and these unsettling times, we think that’s probably a very, very good idea. Poets, ambassadors for the outsider, a mouthpiece for all that makes sense – Jarvis’ band remains a national treasure, and an unstoppable live presence.

Setlist: Do You Remember The First Time? / Mis-Shapes / Razzmatazz / Something Changed / Sorted for E’s and Wizz / I Spy / Birds in Your Garden / Bad Cover Version / Like a Friend / This Is Hardcore / Sunrise / Bar Italia / Common People / ENCORE: My Lighthouse / Babies / Disco 2000

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