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What It Feels Like for a Boy: The Charlatans, Starsailor, and Musings on Transatlantic Masculinities
The Charlatans UK + Starsailor
29 Jan 2002: Irving Plaza New York
While there were days, once upon a time, when being in a rock band was a surefire ticket to heterosexual cocksure-ity, such an era is over and done. And thank goodness: personally, I was sick and tired of closeted male rockstars singing girl-getter anthems; I was sicker and tired-er still of the veritable emotional wasteland that was most songs-for-sentiment by men, especially love songs. Sure, you’re in love with her, but would you bleed for her? Sure, he turns you on, but what will you sacrifice? Sure, she should leave him for you, but what can you offer, save for money, a cool ride, and a few moments pleasure in the sack? It’s the end of the world as we know it, ladies, gents, and those outside/in-between, and I feel just fine.
So we’ve now got a landscape where masculine standards are consistently questioned, but is the rocker’s key pulpit—the venerable rock show—prepared for such a shift? Perhaps not. If there was anything to be said for the live Charlatans/Starsailor in this regard, it’s this: though there may be many ways to be a boy, he who demonstrates the biggest cajones still laughs last—and loudest.
As the opening act at Irving Plaza Jan. 29, Starsailor, this moment’s (Br)It Boys, already had cards stacked against them. By the time they took the stage, the venue was near full occupancy—perhaps due to the merciless hype that follows this band everywhere, perhaps because the tickets simply listed a start time of 8:00, and Starsailor actually began playing shortly after 9:00. Either way, Starsailor faced a challenge: an impatient crowd of ravenous fans of another band, who’d heard so many good things about these newbies that they were looking to be blown away.
And another thing: it was an audience full of rowdies. To be continued . . .
Time for full disclosure. I’ve seen Starsailor once before, and during the show developed a foolish crush on lead singer James Walsh, as did, seemingly, the entire audience. The no-holds-barred earnestness that’s his forte on the Love Is Here grows exponentially during a concert, and it’s incredibly endearing to watch him squirm during the mishaps that live performances always beget. Yet, although the band’s appearance seemed much the same as it was when they played in here in December, (in fact, was bassist James Stelfox wearing the same outfit?), Starsailor obviously had done a lot of growing up. Most clearly, the songs sounded more guarded, more honed and less spontaneously emotional than they had previously. Opening with “Alcoholic”, one of the most pained numbers on Love Is Here, Walsh’s singing was fairly strapped in, making the emotional energy of the keyboard, guitar, bass and drumming significantly less dramatic. Halfway through the set, they played “Fever” with a square deliberation as opposed to a sensual rush; Walsh’s facial expressions seemed mechanical and put on, less depictions of true sentiments.
That’s not the say that the show was without vanguard or surprises. First, there were new wrinkles—a harmonica solo in “She Just Wept” for one, the finally visible personality of Stelfox for another—that made the show sound outside of routine. And there were (charming, minor) mistakes. As “Lullaby” descended toward its last verse, Walsh lodged out of sync with the rest of the band, letting loose the befuddled, frustrated lead singer that I’d seen previously. “Love Is Here” and “Tie Up My Hands” followed, during which Walsh seemed enraged, enraptured; his hair fell into his face and he wouldn’t wipe it away, his singing electrified and Stelfox smiled, as if to say “there he goes again.” And before catapulting into a their single first US single, “Good Souls”, Walsh let out his signature self-deprecation: “I did my best, I’m only human, I hope you enjoyed the show anyway.”
Was the apologia less out of Walsh’s perfectionist tendencies than it was a placation to the audience, which was overstuffed with unruly soccer-hooligan types, a crowd full of boys who looked as if they hadn’t shed a tear since grade school? “Boring!” shouted the guy behind me, any time there was enough of a lull for his critiques to be heard. “This seems like an eternity!” he yelled later, while guttural ugh-ing erupted from other places on the floor. Walsh, always a gentleman, did what he could with the noisy attacks—mostly shrugging, sometimes quipping back. But the take away was obvious. These were not Starsailor people, by and large, this was not a Starsailor show, and that was to be the end of it.
After an unusually short break, Starsailor re-emerged on stage with—as if they were the bodyguards—members of the Charlatans. Tim Burgess & Co.‘s emergence signaled that the emotional chapter of the show was over, and he and James Walsh joined on vocals in a feat that fulfilled a quintessential dude dream—being Bob Dylan. Their cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was ripe with performative pomposity and rocker guts, and Tim Burgess came off as the obvious ruler of the roost.
Full disclosure, revisited: As an American who had never seen the Charlatans before, from their albums I’d always thought of them as a band halfway between the Happy Mondays and Oasis—capable of delivering, but a little to soft to really be though a bulldozer. In retrospect, boy was I wrong. It is only upon seeing them live that you can truly comprehend their awesome stature as full-fledged rock and roll demons. There is nothing flaccid or half-assed about what they do: they are full steam, 100%, take-no-prisoners.
Onstage, Tim Burgess casts an unbelievingly mesmerizing spell upon all who look on him, like a warlock unable to keep his powers in check. He is both fancy and fierce, a macho dandy, a sweet-pea playing at rockstar playing at animal. For their opening number, “Love is The Key” from newest release>
Wonderland he sassed and flailed, working a too-cool ‘tude while crooning hard on a Damon-Albarn-meets-Curtis-Mayfield falsetto. This was especially exaggerated against the absolutely motionless band. But it was his dancing turned him into Britpop’s Axel Rose, with movements that looked too awkward to be practiced, but too intentional to be spontaneous. Musically, the band ripped the top of Pandora’s box and completely unleashed hell, guitars muscular and strong, egoistic drums, don’t-mess-with-me keyboards. This was sound times ten, as Tim Burgess flashed the sign of the goat to signify that their mission. They might as well have been playing “We Will Rock You”.
But here’s the curious part: I don’t care what you say, it’s damn rough to sound hard when you’re singing is a couple of octaves above your comfortable range. In the midst of so much burly music and cocky bravado, Tim Burgess’ vocals floated with a diaphanous vulnerability. Huh? But why it worked, I’m guessing, is because of the crowd, which was packed with long time Charlatans’ fans who obviously viewed the band as their boys, if not their brethren. Their interaction was nothing short of a revival—menfolk screaming and crying and getting naked (yes, literally), praising Burgess and reaching out to touch him; the Charlatans used the energy to fuel them without appearing to break a (figurative) sweat. (The literal sweat was everywhere by the end, though—it was damn hot up in that joint.) And the Charlatans have a way of making even the most happy-go-lucky of their songs—“The Only One I Know” from Some Friendly for instance—sound like they were written for the mosh pit or jam session. For example, a long musical interlude preceded “Sprosten Green” during the encore, despite that the song hardly sounds deserving on Some Friendly. And “North Country Boy” from Tellin’ Stories was such an event—causing the crowd to shout the chorus back with verve—that even when Burgess played air guitar, it was cool.
In the end, it was obvious who won the battle (if you can call it that) for king of the hill. For a crowd that seemed searching for validation and coolness-by-proxy, The Charlatans scored major points where Starsailor perhaps fell flat. But in truth, both bands were both striving toward very different ends—were in different universes, even—while the crowd came for one thing and one thing only. But then again, boys will be boys.