Stereophonics’ third album, Just Enough Education to Perform, was released on 11 April 2001 – and in August of the same year it found its way into my beginner’s CD collection. Therefore, when the announcement came that the band would be doing some relatively intimate shows in which they’d play the full album (an increasingly popular concept in recent years) followed by a mix of new & classic songs, I knew it was vital for me to be there. As luck would have it, the London date landed on a free day and would take me back to the Shepherd’s Bush Empire; I fell in love with this venue when I went to Roger Taylor’s Outsider tour show back in October, for its history and also the excellent view of the stage from the seats on level one. The only slightly stressful aspect is the seating being unreserved (unless you happen to be on the band’s guestlist), so I ended up queuing for about 45 minutes before the doors opened just to be on the safe side – thankfully it paid off.
Although I think I do prefer some of the Phonics’ other studio albums, J.E.E.P. will always have a special place in my heart due to the timing of its release; prior to 2001, I’d almost exclusively bought classic albums (probably all Queen, to be honest), so this marked a step into the present for me. And I wasn’t quite old enough to be thinking about going to see the band live, which means I’ve only ever heard the singles performed on subsequent tours – the album tracks remained just that, despite classics from Word Gets Around and Performance and Cocktails getting an airing in several sets. After this mini-tour, I really hope they take one or two on the road for next year’s Oochya! arena tour, as they all work superbly as live tracks with the current touring personnel.
Even though some people had given away the odd set spoiler, I was caught off-guard when the band launched into Surprise straight after album-opener Vegas Two Times, as it features as a ‘hidden’ track at the very end of the re-released version of the album – this did make me wonder whether they’d decided to surprise each audience by playing it at random points in the J.E.E.P. set, but they missed that particular trick (according to Setlist.fm, anyway). It works so much better in terms of the dynamics of the set by not being at the end, so I can absolutely understand why they made that choice – it goes out quite softly, whereas Rooftop is an epic rocker that is a natural closer.
Watch Them Fly Sundays and Maybe are two of my favourites from the album, so it was an utter thrill to finally hear them live; the extended outro for the former (a choice made for a handful of the J.E.E.P. songs to take advantage of the live environment) was one of many excuses for the crowd to go wild – and I suspect it would fit in rather nicely with the forthcoming new material. I always love it when a band makes the effort to extend some of their songs for the live shows – it can get a bit self-indulgent if overdone, but sprinkling these across a set is a special touch, and potentially allows for some unique moments if the band really gets into it.
If pushed to name an all-time favourite Stereophonics song, I’d probably plump for Mr. Writer; it’s much heavier than you think, and the addition of Tony Kirkham & Gavin Fitzjohn means the live version can get even deeper and darker – combine that with the biting lyrics and you’ve got an incredibly dramatic (dare I say, theatrical) number on your hands. It’s moments like this when I wish that Kelly Jones was open to doing some kind of theatre work (doesn’t have to be a full-blown musical – it could be a piece of gig theatre or a play with music), as his songwriting style is so perfectly suited to it. Maybe someone will convince him one day…
Whilst the first half of the show was pretty much guaranteed to go as everyone expected, playing the entire album in order, the remainder was a bit more up for grabs. There had been a promise of new material, which I took to mean the new singles Hanging on Your Hinges and Do Ya Feel My Love? – it did indeed, and these were two really memorable points in the show, with the former kicking off ‘encore 1’ and the latter already sounding like a Phonics classic. I had hoped that an as yet unreleased track might make the cut, as an extra pre-Christmas tease for the new album, but that’s basically the only wish of mine that didn’t get granted. I can live with that!
Spotting Gavin wielding the baritone (I think) saxophone can mean only one thing: it’s time for live staple Geronimo. This foot-stomper is always a highlight for me. The rest of the show was a great blend of songs from across the Phonics’ back catalogue – as the years go by it must get harder & harder for the band to narrow this down to a single setlist. So much so that it appears they did a bit of a mix & match job across the seven shows! Excellent news for those lucky enough to get tickets to more than one venue, and a good way for the band to test out several different tracks along the way; I’m just glad that they kept Traffic in for this show, really. (It just wasn’t the same when they left it out at Kentish Town in January last year!)
It was a nice mix of slower & more upbeat songs, with standout moments including C’est La Vie, Mr & Mrs Smith, and A Thousand Trees – I also enjoyed Stitches getting an outing, as it didn’t feature in the most recent Kind tour. By now the final couple of songs are pretty much nailed on, with mass crowd singalongs of Maybe Tomorrow and Dakota sending the audience out on a real high. About to celebrate 25 years since their debut album, Stereophonics have seriously honed their craft and become an incredible live outfit; Jamie Morrison is a beast of a drummer, and quite rightly gets a powerhouse of a solo, founding member Richard Jones grooves away on the bass (but rocks hard when the time comes), and guitarist Adam Zindani has become integral to the band whether on solo or plugging away with the rhythm parts. Kelly Jones himself is a consummate frontman – not only is his voice going from strength to strength, but he’s a great storyteller (with a knack for comic timing) and in my opinion he’s a seriously underrated guitarist. Stereophonics just keep getting better & better – and so this was not at all a bad way to end my gig-going year.
All in all, it was nice to be out…