Photo credit: Heather McDonald
Ho - ly - shit. Finally, this legendary British punk-pop band lives up to its recorded legacy in the live setting! This was my third or fourth Buzzcocks show, and while the others were perfectly fine, this is the one that kicked my ass and reminded me why this is my favorite group ever. I have been pummeled by the Buzzcocks, and I have never felt better. I am a true believer.
Apart from giddy guitarist/vocalist Steve Diggle announcing “It’s great to be back in Chicago!” at the start of the show, there was no time for small talk during the Buzzcocks’ blistering one-and-a-quarter-hour set. The band had hardly taken the stage before storming into a rundown of the finest moments of their early career. By the time they snuck a track from their new self-titled album into the set seven songs in, the Buzzcocks had the crowd in a complete, sweat-drenched frenzy. Whereas the shows supporting their ‘90s albums found the band performing some less-than-stellar selections while fans waited politely for the classics, this time around they are supporting an album that’s a start-to-finish winner, and the choice of new songs they highlighted couldn’t have been better. “Jerk”, “Wake Up Call”, “Driving You Insane”, “Keep On”, and “Friends” found their way into the set, as did “Totally from the Heart” from 1996’s All Set, but the rest of the show was dedicated to some of the finest singles of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
While the chaste bottle of wine or champagne visible onstage might have given the impression that the band’s grittier days were behind them, nothing could have been further from the truth. The more appropriate symbol was a sticker reading “Punk Rock” that graced one of the band’s amps. The statement was only half tongue-in-cheek, even if bassist Tony Barber, who along with drummer Phil Barker joined the reunited version of the group in the early ‘90s, was the only one who looked the part with his spiky hair, tattoos, and combat boots. Although the band’s original rhythm section of bassist Steve Garvey and world’s-fastest-drummer John Maher will never be matched, Barber and Barker come close. It was fun watching Barber thump at his low-hanging bass like a modern-day Paul Simonon, and Barker’s strengths shined through on older songs like “Love You More”.
The real stars, of course, were original members Steve Diggle and vocalist/guitarist Pete Shelley, whose lovesick, angst-ridden songs dominate the band’s oeuvre. The duo’s intertwining guitars and vocal harmonies seemed to flow naturally and instinctively. They were also as stylistically stripped down as the songs, sporting T-shirts and jeans, with Diggle’s creeping dangerously close to, but never achieving, butt-crack level. With moves stolen straight from Spinal Tap, however, Diggle made sure his arse wasn’t the focal point of the show. During the incendiary version of “I Believe” that closed the proper set (which had half the crowd singing “There is no love in this world anymore!”), Shelley stormed off-stage while Diggle launched into the most insane and inspired guitar solo I’ve ever witnessed. He slashed at his guitar with his hand, played it with his mic stand, then took it off, laid it on the ground, and whacked at it some more before propping it, still wailing, against an amp and barreling off the stage.
There was no way they could top that ending, but they came back for an encore anyway—and from the sound of things, there probably would have been a riot if they hadn’t. After five more roaring classics, the lights came up, the ears started ringing, but the wave of energy kept flowing. And the band went off the very next night to begin a stint opening for Pearl Jam, during which they will probably be woefully underappreciated. God help ‘em.