Tonight’s Arab Strap reunion show is An Event, with a build-up that began back in June when the duo announced a mini-tour of 20th anniversary shows. This first Barrowlands show sold out in 40 minutes, and a second date was added on the Sunday night for those that missed out on a ticket. Social media excitement has been intense, with frontman Aidan Moffat, a very active and popular Twitter presence, commenting that his page now resembled a Swap Shop, as tickets for each date were negotiated between fans. As he says to the crowd later, having played Newcastle, London and Manchester earlier in the week, this is the “big one”.
And where else could this gig be other than the Barras? The atmosphere outside is buzzing and electric in the October cold, perfectly complementing the venue’s famous sign. Friends meet up with each other and old acquaintances shout over the stairs, with all of Glasgow seemingly in the house tonight. Up the stairs, an apron bearing the legend ‘THE BIGGEST COOK YOU’D EVER SEEN’ hangs proudly (ooh er!) in the merchandise stall, promising us a special sort of show from a special sort of band.
If the anniversary release of a remixed version of The First Big Weekend and the celebratory vibe of the weekend perhaps over-emphasises the hedonistic party side of their music, then opener Stink reminds us that they were always more interested in documenting the inevitable hangover. ‘Burn these sheets that we’ve just fucked in,’ Moffat croons menacingly, sounding as caustic and bitter as when this tale of toxic infidelity was released in 2005, though now a happily settled father of two.
The rehearsal process and three prior gigs have set Aidan and Malcolm (Middleton) and the rest of the band up for tonight nicely, and they sound impeccable. The playing is tight and Moffat’s voice rich and clear over the crowd. There has been discussion in the lead-up interviews about the change in his voice over the last decade, but if anything it has improved. Its clarity highlights the raw honesty of the lyrics in Stink – ‘do what you want, don’t expect me to kiss you’ and ‘just be polite now and get down and lick her’. It’s pleasingly obscene and emphasises that ten years later there really aren’t that many musicians, especially males, brave enough to be as intimate as this in their lyrics.
Ten years of distance allows for their oeuvre to be assessed anew, and the originality of their body of work is stunning. Even Middleton commented in an interview last week, ‘It’s only years later that I appreciate Aidan more for what he was doing. I think at the time I didn’t. I think he’s definitely unique.’ Now their absence has cemented him as one of our best lyricists. Seventh song, New Birds, a story of being tempted by an old flame, demonstrates this with its beautiful spoken word verse:
‘But you have to remember there’s this other kiss. And she’s sitting at home, wondering where you are and what you’re doing. And you work hard on this kiss and you know it inside out, it’s as much yours as it is hers, and it took a long time to get right, it took months of practice and months of embarrassment but now you’ve got it perfected and you’ve been looking forward to that kiss all week.’
Of course, Arab Strap is as much about the beautiful soundscapes created by Middleton, a solid and mostly still presence stage left. New Birds perfectly encapsulates this dynamic, as his languid and melancholy guitar riff is actually cheered with proper shouts and whoops from the audience.
This is followed by the moody and reflective Don’t Ask Me To Dance (‘And maybe I’m not very vocal because I’ve used the words before / And the more they were repeated the more they were ignored’) which serves to highlight that half way through tonight’s set, barely anybody is. From the back of the crowd, the band can be seen lit up in colour through a sea of unmoving, middle-aged male heads. Though there are notable exceptions, the majority are barely even nodding along. It’s a poor show for a Saturday night in Glasgow, but the slightly perplexing setlist is to blame too. By keeping their two big “bangers” – The First Big Weekend and Shy Retirer – for the end of the first set and the encore respectively, it takes a while to kick off properly. Obviously everybody is going to have a different dream set list from six albums’ worth of material, but it is hard to fathom why four songs off 2005’s The Last Romance have been included over fan favourites like I Would Have Liked Me a Lot Last Night and Where We’ve Left Our Love.
To be fair, there is a request part of the evening, with fans given the opportunity to nominate a song for an acoustic encore. This includes the reflective Confessions of a Big Brother. In this way and many others they make tonight’s hometown gig about the fans. Moffat’s banter increases over the night as those bottles he keeps swigging on stage do their magic, and there’s a very heartfelt big up to the crowd for making the gig sell out in 40 minutes.
As the crowd is full of family, friends and those that have drunk and danced with them over the years, it’s fitting that much of tonight feels like a conversation. Hilariously, Moffat seems genuinely exasperated and pissed off when the crowd boos at his mention of the gigs in England earlier this weekend. There’s also a very funny moment when he changes the lyrics in The First Big Weekend from describing a girl he danced with not as a “pig”, which has always struck a rather unnecessarily nasty note in such a joyous song, to “in fact, supermodel material,” prompting audience laughter and cheers. A decade older, and a little bit wiser, Arab Strap have never sounded better. For those doing a double whammy and partying on at tonight’s gig and after party – we salute you!