It smells of nothing much but stale cider and unpunctuality, though it turns out later that I had my timings wrong and the opener, Louise Distras, is only 15 minutes late. I got there pretty early, but je ne regrette rien – the early bird catches the front-row standing positions, and I could see every glint in Louise Distras’s eye, every flick of Jimmy Rip’s supple wrist, every barely perceptible twitch around the mouth of Tom Verlaine.
Television haven’t appeared yet, though. Their opener is a female Billy Bragg, and though she’d probably appreciate the comparison I’m sure she’d bristle at the reductionism, so let’s just say she’s a proud working-class Northerner with plenty of spunk. She channels the themes and preoccupations of Gang of Four through the spirit of the Clash – cynicism shot through with optimism; implicit (and explicit) reiterations of the redemptive power of music; exhortations to shed our false consciousness. Nothing new, then, but rousing stuff nonetheless. ‘When you stop being who you are, you become who you want to be,’ she declaims, and for a little-known aphorist punk from Wakefield, she’s not bad at all.
After several microwaved slices of quasi-Marxist invective, there’s a song about her guitar, which she claims her mother smashed up when she [Louise] was at the tender/raw age of thirteen. It’s called ‘Bullet’, and is fittingly rapid and streamlined. She finishes up with ‘The Hand You Hold’, a feminist anthem, and although none of the feminism here is as nuanced as, say, Patti’s early stuff (an unfair benchmark, perhaps, but an understandable one considering the CBGB band Distras is supporting), it’s involving, and that’s the point. In any case, 21st-century feminism’s a whole new ballpark; Distras tackles media/corporate moral bankruptcy with verve and an unerring focus on how women and girls are affected. This righteous guitarist could do with some radio exposure; I’d happily endure ads to listen to her.
The headline act is keeping us waiting. Sure, minutes after they’re due onstage, pre-recorded bells start tolling ominously, but it soon becomes more of a time-buyer than an expectation-builder and we’re slightly miffed by the time the band turns up – to rapturous applause, of course. Their tuning-up is wondrous: Tom and Jimmy tweak their axes a little, while Billy Ficca is making shimmers checking tightness and texture. Without us even noticing, the four instruments gradually cohere to create an overture that steadily builds until it explodes into ‘See No Evil’, at which point the collective release of band and audience tension floods the room.
Te-le-vis-ion – it goes to my head. And to my hips, and my feet, and my heart. Seeing them live reminds me of this; the bountiful instrumental passages are wordless screeching gospel, all dynamics with no brakes, an onslaught for which the Shepherd’s Bush Empire audience is primed.
Tonight’s audience is particularly shitty. The usual hipsters and nostalgics are present and correct; the moron in front of me with her eyes glued to her iPad for half the night is physically present, mentally absent, and incorrect in every way. These characters are all benign; less so is the heckler who taunts Tom Verlaine continually, so much so that he has to be dragged off by a security guy when we’re about three songs away from the end. Tom’s a good humour man, though, and he’s seen everything like this. He ignores the persistent heckler, who by this point has made himself an enemy of hundreds. ‘Every gig I go to, there’s always some guy goin’, “Come on Tom”’, japes the guitarist calmly, putting on a mock-British accent. ‘I can never figure out what the fuck he means.’
Many of the tunes are practically note-for-note simulacra of the original album versions, but they’re performed with such commitment, verve and proficiency that to complain would be churlish. No-one would describe the album versions as “polished” anyway. The guitars and drummer have lost none of their power; only Tom’s singing is softer, less abrasive. Rather than diminishing the music’s power, his voice gives it an elegiac quality. The music’s timeless, but the musicians aren’t.
Fred Smith is his melodic, reliable self, while Jimmy Rip wrenches notes from his guitar through flicks of his wrist; he isn’t showy, but neither can he hide his passion for his axe. It shines in the light like Shadowfax. Billy Ficca deserves a special mention: his skinsmanship is effortless, even at 64. He’s worked with Jagger, and could easily pass for a Stone; he’s one of the few drummers in history to out-cool Charlie Watts.
Sometimes you get the feeling these aren’t just musicians on stage. They’re conduits for electric inspiration, antennae for supernal signals. Jimmy’s solo during ‘1880 Or So’ is nothing short of staggering, and by the song’s end it’s hard not to feel drained. When Verlaine begins the climb during the second half of ‘Marquee Moon’, we’re borne up by the supercharged ambrosia of liquid arpeggios, and when he and Jimmy climax it’s the best orgasm you never had. I close my eyes and hold up my hands so that it can flow through me too. The formidable foursome is building on their formidable legacy by making some of the most incendiary live music around, and if they come to London again, you’d be a fool to miss them.