Photo credit: Robert Masys II
15 Nov 2001: The House of Blues Cambridge, Massachusetts
Somewhere in the annals of rock music is a graveyard for bands that have had the misfortune to be compared to the Beatles. That comparison is one of the most overused clichés in the history of pop music, and has probably buried far more acts than it has helped. For each act that’s had a noted songwriting similarity to Lennon and McCartney, there has inevitably been a pile of reasons why they simply weren’t as good.
Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, the main songwriting duo of Squeeze who for 25 years and 13 albums churned out distinctly well-written, British, and - surprise—Beatles-esque pop music-weathered this storm better than most. It’s true that good reviews and a rabid fan base never translated into commercial success for Squeeze, especially in the United States, but it’s also true that their legacy is capable of standing alone, making the Beatles comparison unnecessary.
And perhaps that’s why a couple years after the end of the Difford/Tilbrook partnership, Glenn Tilbrook—Squeeze’s main lead vocalist—is a notable concert draw in his own right. According to Tilbrook, Squeeze’s demise was attributed primarily to a disagreement between Chris Difford and Tilbrook about touring; Difford didn’t want to, and Tilbrook did. Tilbrook has said that he still loves touring, and judging by his November 15 solo acoustic show at the House of Blues in Cambridge, he means it.
Since the releasing his solo debut “The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook”, he has returned, fashioned with the dual images of a seasoned, accomplished singer/songwriter and as a showman. Tilbrook was always a talented songwriter, and few questioned his impressive (for a pop musician) lead guitar abilities, but now he’s putting on shows worth talking about. And with a rigorous tour schedule (he noted after the show that his plan is to return every three months), he’s aggressively trying to build a post-Squeeze name for himself.
Confession time: A series of very unfortunate incidents caused me to miss the beginning of Glenn Tilbrook’s show. No fear, however, as Tilbrook himself was also a tad tardy, preventing me from missing much of the excitement. The House of Blues show began inauspiciously enough (despite Tilbrook’s tardiness), as he rattled through a mixture of Squeeze originals, songs from his new album, and covers (Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” was one of them on this night). Because he plays largely from audience requests and because these shows are tailored for fans, a mid-period album track like “Tough Love” is just as likely to be played as a hit like “Another Nail For My Heart.”
The cozy nature of the House of Blues lent itself to a show with a high level of audience participation. Tilbrook didn’t just welcome requests and sing-alongs, he invited the audience to play along any way they could—once passing a drum to an audience member to bang on through “Another Nail for My Heart”. When he launched into “Hourglass”, the cheery (if slightly goofball) hit from 1987 that was Squeeze’s highest U.S. singles chart entry, the audience tried their best to imitate the bongo break in the middle of the song. He couldn’t resist, however, stopping in the middle of the song to critique the audience, urging them to try it again when he cues them by “raising [his] brows in the James Bond of the Roger Moore variety”.
After “Hourglass,” Tilbrook informed the crowd that because of time constraints he wouldn’t have enough time to play everything he wanted to. But because of this, he stated his intention to stage the end of the show outside. The crowd was of course a bit puzzled as he launched into his final pre-encore numbers, rousing versions of classics “Another Nail For My Heart” and “Take Me, I’m Yours”.
After hurrying back onstage for the encore, he served up a country-rock reworking of “Annie Get Your Gun” before closing with a stunning B-side called “By the Light of the Cash Machine,” co-penned by Ron Sexsmith.
The show was interspersed with as much witty banter as it was music, but while such things may seem annoying and detract from certain acts, Tilbrook manages to pull it off with ease. He’s more than just a songwriter now—he’s an entertainer, and a real crowd pleaser too. And that leads into what happened next.
The crowd filtered out onto Winthrop Street, excitably discussing Tilbrook’s plan to come out and play in a few minutes. During the fifteen minute wait, excited audience members could be seen calling friends—urging them to hurry to Harvard Square right away, because that guy from Squeeze was going to play for free. Another fan was overheard saying that the show was the “strangest concert [she’d] ever been to”.
When Glenn Tilbrook finally emerged, the crowd swarmed around him, effectively blocking the street to traffic. Quickly moving to a nearby park, the true magic of the evening began. Tilbrook hopped on top of a bench and picked right up with a sing-along of “Piccadilly”, much to the delight of the remaining audience members.
In another one of his unscripted moments, he decided to stage an experiment that admittedly confused quite a few of the audience members. Before playing “Is That Love”, he asked for four volunteers with cell phones; he had two act as broadcasters—one holding the phone up to his guitar, the other holding it up for his vocals—and they each called one of the other two volunteers, who acted as receivers. The idea was to create a “stereo experience,” so the two receiving phones could be passed to audience members who could listen to the vocal and guitar split between each ear. I’m not sure if it worked since the phones never reached me, and the experiment did take too long to set up (Tilbrook himself apologized for the delay and urged members of the audience to “have a meal, see a gallery, take in a film, and then try back”), but most of the fans didn’t mind. Some of the curious onlookers who had not been inside at the House of Blues show did however seem to be extremely confused.
Following the labored cell phone experiment, Tilbrook began one of his now-famous “walkabouts”, where he continued to play while leading the audience through the neighborhood. At this time, he launched into “Goodbye Girl” and was off on foot, up to Mt. Auburn Street and over to Eliot Street. The crowd—at this point a mixture of die hard fans, passersby, and even a few of the neighborhood’s homeless who sleep in the aforementioned park—flocked down the street behind him, merrily singing along. He encircled the block twice—speeding up as he went.
The finale, the Squeeze staple “Pulling Mussels (From A Shell)” came next, as Tilbrook continued to lead his ragtag band of followers around the streets of Harvard Square. He continued to speed up—darting in and out of traffic and crossing streets-before shocking the entire audience by knocking on the window of a minivan stopped at a red light, and then hopping inside, all the while continuing to play. The van’s passengers seemed more amused than scared (they did, after all, let him into the car), even as the crowd moved into the street and encircled the van. When the light turned green, the van drove off—though it went less than a block before Tilbrook got out again. After running around the block one more time—this time finishing the song partway through the trip—Tilbrook finally stopped running at his “vintage” touring RV, signing autographs and meeting the faithful few fans who had managed to keep up with him through the last few songs.
That Tilbrook, 44, is still recording music that’s every bit as enjoyable—even if less groundbreaking—than Squeeze’s new wave-era output is fairly remarkable. But his live show, half composed of charming acoustic renditions of Squeeze songs and half of lively interactive comedy, could be what ultimately wins him new fans and woos back old ones who had long forgotten about Squeeze. But most importantly, he’s proving that he’s plenty comfortable with his output, with his fans, and with the fact that he never became the next Paul McCartney, because even after 25 years he’s still on the top of his game.