Placebo | Cruel Hearts Club
O2 Victoria Warehouse, Manchester
22nd November 2022
Placebo bring their European tour to Manchester for a performance that sees the band determined to live in the moment: Looking forward rather than living on past glories while taking aim at the self-centred narcissistic cell phone generation.
Since their conception in the mid-1990’s Placebo have always been a little different. They’re the perennial outsiders who stood aloof from the Brit-pop guitar bands of that era; visually, sonically and lyrically. They’ve always been determined to follow their own path and tonight they’re politely asking us to put our phones away. We’re greeted with a series of on screen messages requesting that we, “Be here now and enjoy the moment” and advising that “Taking photos or video on your phone is not welcome at this gig.”
Support act, Cruel Hearts Club’s selling point may not be unique but it’s certainly unusual. Young mothers by day, rock band by night. They’re a trio with plenty of rock riffs, harmony vocals, singalong choruses and some acerbic lyrics. It’s a simple but effective sound with visual appeal and echoes of the more raw side of 1970s glam rock. Their performance builds steadily, really coming to life with a trio of tracks toward the end. Dirty Rotten Scum, Suck It Up have instantly singable choruses while the slower, more reflective, Where Has The Summer Gone highlights the quality of Edie Langley’s voice. They’re definitely worth checking out again.
As the lights fade, Brian Molko’s voice echoes out of the darkness. He’s politely reiterating the on screen requests to refrain from using phones. Applause ripples through the crowd. It’s a pleasing response.
The slightly discordant opening chimes of Forever Chemicals begin proceedings. It’s pure Placebo; doom laden in tone with recurring themes of drug use and isolation. They follow it with Beautiful James with its chorus that’s just made for singing. It’s the second of 11 tracks lifted from the Never Let Me Go album and another that stands as testimony to the material’s strengths.
The new songs keep flowing. Hugz, dealing in self-doubt and more urgent in pace, features another great chorus line, A hug is just another way of hiding your face. It’s followed by Happy Birthday In The Sky; simply a great melancholy ode to grief that somehow builds to an almost uplifting cry for help.
With Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal at the helm, Placebo’s signature sound has remained relatively unchanged over the years; it’s just been filled out with keyboards and synthesiser wash. Suddenly though, I’m reminded of their more spiky origins. Bionic takes us back to their beginnings. Immediately more urgent in pace and with complementary lyrics. It is indeed, “Harder, faster” with guitar much more to the fore. Played back to back, Twin Demons, another new track, shares that commonality of urgency and guitar.
And so it continues . . . Chemtrails is equally impressive but is it really aligning with conspiracy theorists or just expressing a yearning to escape the hear and now? As song follows song from the new album, all are received warmly but it’s probably a minority that actually seem familiar with the material. That changes with Try Better Next Time. The opening chords are met with immediate recognition and the chorus brings the first signs of mass appreciation.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. The first 45 minutes tonight have been great but over the next few songs the intensity and momentum seem to wane. There’s nothing wrong with the material or the delivery. It just comes across as generic Placebo. Fortunately, they’ve got old classics, Slave To The Wage, The Bitter End and Infra-Red to re-energise before they close.
Returning for an encore, they open with Tears For Fears classic, Shout. Apparently chosen as a motivational call to arms against environmental and political ills, I’m not sure how many present appreciate the back story but the crowd enthusiasm is undeniable and they certainly do “shout.”
Fix Yourself is initially downbeat. In its own way, it’s another call for a rejection of political values. Live though, the song’s taken to another level by an almost orchestral coda. The four backing musicians have been faultless throughout, laying down a perfect framework for the frontmen. However, special mention must go to Angela Chan, alternating between keyboards and violin. Every time she picks up the electric violin she brings another dimension to the sound.
Almost inevitably, they close with Running Up That Hill. Slower and more bass heavy than the Kate Bush original, this is no cheap cashing in on current screen popularity. Placebo have been playing it for almost 20 years. It’s a great way to finish.
So, the decision to play Never Let Me Go almost in its entirety at the expense of old classics: Bold self-confidence and forward looking or self indulgence. Mostly it worked. For me there are 6 or 7 tracks worthy of inclusion in any Placebo set which is testimony to the album’s quality as a body of work. The Stones famously keep saying, “You can’t always get what you want,” but it would have been good to hear old classics like Pure Morning, Special K, Taste In Men. I could go on.
As for the phones . . . What a great step forward. There was no heavy security and yes there were a few in evidence. Their owners furtively taking them out for a quick snap before returning them to their pockets. Most though were happy to comply. As a reviewer who often finds himself at the back of venues it was brilliant. Instead of trying to view proceedings through a sea of phones, I could actually see the band. Placebo really does deserve to be applauded!
We have a small favour to ask. Subscribe to Louder Than War and help keep the flame of independent music burning. Click the button below to see the extras you get!