[10 May 2005]
The Wonder Stuff
Before I say anything else, I must apologize to As Far As. I missed your performance. Entirely. By the time I finally waltzed through the doors of the Boulder Theater, the sound techs were already tuning guitars for the Wonder Stuff. I do like to see how opening acts handle indifferent audiences, and I would have been fair.
I realize that it’s my fault, but I’m tempted to let Friday night Boulder share the blame. It is technically possible to rush the 20 miles home from work in Denver, pick up the wife, drive to Boulder, and find something to eat on a Friday night, all before 9 PM. Yes, it can be done—technically.
Given the turn out for the Wonder Stuff, however, I can’t imagine As Far As fared too well. And while I may be trying a little too hard to justify my tardiness, the fact that the chosen venue was in Boulder at all raises questions. Was the Boulder Theater selected because of its proximity to the University of Colorado, in the hopes that some college students might stumble into the show? Or was it because the House of Blues decided that the two radio stations with close ties to Boulder—the school’s excellent student-run Radio 1190 and the mega-corporate KBCO—were the most likely to maybe ever play a Wonder Stuff song on air? Regardless of the reasoning (and I suspect it had more to do with HOB-contracted venues than anything else), anyone familiar with the Denver-Boulder scene knows how unlikely either of those scenarios truly are. Especially those few of us who are Wonder Stuff fans.
No, what’s really amazing is that the Wonder Stuff played here at all. Despite their now decade-old history as a major chart act in the UK, they were never big in the States. There’s no radio station in Colorado that keeps their name alive on air, and the last time the band’s name was mentioned in connection with this area was when they opened for Siouxsie and the Banshees back in ‘91 or ‘92.
As it was, only the odd assortment of Wonder Stuff faithful would show up at the Boulder Theater on Tax Day. The 100 or so of us in attendance were dwarfed by a theater whose capacity is many times that number. It’s hard enough to be a has-been in your own country, let alone one where you were never really that big to begin with. Thank God, singer/guitarist Miles Hunt wasn’t ready to settle for that mantle.
While I’m stuck in the confessional, I’ll admit that I’d worked to keep my expectations low. I was nagged by the questions of what Wonder Stuff we’d get. As I detailed a bit in my review of the band’s new disc, Escape from Rubbish Island, this wasn’t the same band that captured my heart in the early ‘90s. Sure, I’d never seen them perform then, but you always wonder (hurr hurr) when you’re faced with partially reformed acts. Could Hunt and Malc Treece capture the old sound with new players? Would they bring something new?
What we got was the revived Eight Legged Groove Machine, the same Stuff critics and fans back in the UK are touting. When the lights finally went down, a burst of pre-recorded radio static faded into a collage of typically “British” music, a sarcastic reference to Hunt’s recent desire to expatriate himself from his homeland. The band took the stage and immediately launched into the title track from Escape from Rubbish Island. They came out tight and strong, bringing a rich sound that was wholly underserved by the thirty-some people who actually got out of their seats to stand in front of the stage.
When Hunt finally took the mic and started chatting with us, he was both mocking and friendly, teasing the small crowd for staying in their seats and asking us to hold up little Olympic-style scorecards for each song. He was well-aware of the crowd’s small size, the challenge of cracking an indifferent US market, the pratfalls of being a reunion band, but he handled all these concerns well. Later in the set, before introducing a great run through new song “Better Get Ready for a Fist Fight”, he quipped that the Wonder Stuff had “already done singles with the little numbers—like, one, two, four, and so on”, but now they were really starting to make it into the “big numbers—triple digits!”
Watching the crowd throughout the set, it was obvious that we were all of a kind: 30-ish, still reveling in the songs of our high school and college days, unwilling to let go of our songwriting heroes. Certainly some of the folks in attendance listened to newer, hipper music, but the Wonder Stuff certainly hasn’t captured the hearts of today’s college crowd (in Denver at least). Yeah, there was the one guy who came running down the aisles a quarter of the way through the set, intent on dancing hard and singing along to every song, but his exuberance was almost embarrassing (though who was embarrassed for whom remains an open question).
For his part, Hunt didn’t disappoint. His voice is as strong and clear as ever. The band ripped through a mixed set list that included a lot of old material, tellingly heavy on the Groove Machine and Hup!-era in response to the absence of a fiddle player, and a nice smattering of the stronger tracks from Rubbish Island. Songs like “Radio Ass Kiss” and “Unbearable” brought pleasant smiles and old memories, and the evening had a mild, yet energetic, stride to it that seemed to fit the crowd.
But Hunt and company weren’t exactly content to play to the crowd’s age and numbers. Halfway through the set, Hunt stopped to introduce the crowd to bassist Mark McCarthy—who looked for all the world like an ex-con Alan Cumming fitted with an Interpol suit—and solid, intense drummer Andres Karu. They then launched into a loud, pulsing rendition of “Donation”, showing that these old guard musicians could still rip through a blisteringly intense rock set. Amazingly, Hunt’s voice held out in the high altitude and thin air through some vocal workouts—in spite of the fact that he and the rest of the band were true to their old form and guzzling bottles of wine (ostensibly high-end Penfolds, but I can’t be sure). A great drinker, indeed.
All said and done, with a solid set that included “Ruby Horse”, “Red Berry Joy Town”, “On the Ropes”, and a grinning version of “Piece of Sky” offered up as tribute to Joe Strummer, the lost Ramones, and Rob Jones (the original bassist for the Wonder Stuff, who died of an overdose in 1993), it was hard to say that it wasn’t a good Wonder Stuff show. Sure, I could point out the songs that I wanted to hear and didn’t (I hope I someday live to see “Circlesquare” performed live, and then I will be that overenthusiastic dancing guy), but with the stripped-down, guitar rock-heavy version of the band that’s currently on the road, they still managed to touch a fair amount of their catalogue.
The only real disappointment was the short set. Maybe only an hour and fifteen minutes long, it seemed like a brief stint for a band that had been invisible for a decade. To give the guys their due, though, mustering a great (and long) performance depends, in no small part, on audience energy. To get fired up and play for two hours to a crowd of 100 people, most of whom sat at their table and cheered politely, is probably asking too much.
But if Hunt was bitter or embarrassed about the poor turn-out and non-existent chart success of the new Wonder Stuff, he didn’t let it show. In the end, we all got a really good show from someone who seemed to know he was playing to some old school, maybe even diehard fans—the ones who’d still go out of their way to catch an old favorite on a Friday night. We had real fun. And, if anything, the lack of youthful, hipster posturing was refreshing.
So the Wonder Stuff is starting over and more or less from scratch (though with the benefit of a solid back-catalogue of tunes). It’s hard to say whether they’ll be successful in their new bid to remain active, but if you cared once upon a time, or have had your curiosity piqued by post-break-up discovery, then Hunt and company will put on enough of a show to make you care once more. As their new song says it’s, “One Step at a Time”.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/wonder-stuff-050315/