All They Wanna Do Is Rock Good-Naturedly
22 Mar 2002: London Arena London
I admit it—I’m an Anglophile when it comes to music. Despite all my pretensions to indie rock nonchalance, nothing gets me more invigorated than a good Britpop anthem. My past experience with big-time Brit bands (Pulp, Blur, even Radiohead) has mainly been seeing them in small clubs stateside to audience reactions ranging from mildly appreciative to lukewarm. Even when I saw Oasis at the cavernous hockey rink the Worcester Centrum while they were at the height of their UK popularity the show didn’t come close to enrapturing the US audience. So when Scottish superstars Travis played a show at the London Arena during my recent vacation across the pond, I had to go, both to finally see a top-tier British act in their native element and as a sociological exercise to observe the differences between the American and British arena rock show.
On the sociological exercise side, I found that, on the surface, the American and British arena rock show are virtually indistinguishable: same cheerless surroundings, same garbled acoustics, same awkward audience placement. Substitute the warm Fosters and Carlsberg at the UK show for the cold Budweiser and Rolling Rock you’d get at an American show and you’ve pretty much replicated the aesthetic experience. Judging from the concert I attended, warm-up acts at a UK arena show get pretty much the same reaction they’d get back in the States—complete indifference. While openers the Doves, emerging Britpop superstars in their own right, played an excellent short set of material mainly from their soon-to-be released album, the Travis fans paid them no mind. When Doves frontman Jimi Goodwin berated the unresponsive crowd by saying that his eighty-two year old granny had more life in her, he wasn’t far off.
All that changed when headliners Travis took the stage, and it was at this point that the cultural differences made themselves a bit more apparent. As the band opened with “Sing” off their latest album The Invisible Band, the crowd set to screaming and bouncing in time with the song, and continued bouncing for most of the night. The bouncing is something I’ve never really completely understood about British rock show crowds (just like I don’t get the constant singing of that country’s football crowds), but it definitely makes for a more joyous sight than the moshing, crowd surfing, and fist pumping of your typical American crowd.
Later in the set, while introducing “Turn” from their second album The Man Who, one of their most anthemic songs, frontman Fran Healy declared, “This song sounds best when sung by 10,000 people at the top of their lungs.” And therein lies the key to understanding Britpop and its endless appeal. While you can sit on your bed and bob your head politely to a Britpop tune, that’s not its intended forum. It’s meant to be heard in a huge stadium surrounded by 50,000 rabid fans singing along note for note. Once you understand this, as long as the presentation is good, you can turn off your usually critical brain and go along. To adapt a saying from that great American showman Bob Knight, if Britpop is inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.
Travis are masters of writing songs best sung by 10,000 people at the top of their lungs and experts at putting on a good show. Despite all their success in their homeland, they still play all their big hits at every concert, with an enthusiasm that belies the fact that they’ve played them hundreds of times before to the exact same adoring reactions. Even “Why Does It Always Rain on Me”, which surely a more cynical band would have discarded from their live act in disgust after the five-millionth rendition, still receives the full-blown audience sing-along treatment. And they have good crowd-pleasing gimmicks, like coaxing a fan to play Sony Playstation on the big screen behind them during “Coming Around” (the intentionally comic highlight of the evening), or dropping down another screen to project baby pictures of themselves during “Slide Show”. They even went full-on Beavis and Butthead by filling the televisions placed all around the stage with images of fire for “The Fear”, a trick I would have thought had gone the way of hair metal but which apparently lives on in the British arena rock show.
The unintentionally comic highlights of the night came mainly from the band member’s individual quirks. Despite all the arena rock trappings, the diminutive Healy cut a childish figure in denim overalls, which made for a rather amusing sight each time he attempted one of his many rock star moves (good rule of thumb for aspiring rock stars everywhere: do not do scissor kicks when wearing overalls). Bassist Dougie Payne also made for a humorous rock figure with his bouncy poses, which resembled those of Blur bassist Alex James more than a little (perhaps British bassists go to some sort of school to learn these moves). Healy is also inclined toward delivering audience pep talks between songs (something which annoyed me to no end in the past when I saw them back home), such as telling the crowd not to let anyone tell them to give up their dreams before “All I Wanna Do is Rock” and dedicating “Flowers in the Window” to “all the girls in the audience from all the boys”, which to these old ears always seem more than a bit trite. But the band’s unabashed good-naturedness and the audience’s genuine delight with every pose and posture tended to make me forgive these lapses. On this night, surrounded by so much British goodwill, the crowd-pleasing Travis thoroughly pleased even me.
And what conclusions did I come to in my quest to understand the differences between the American and British arena rock show? Only these: being an opening act is a rough gig no matter what country you’re in, Brit arena audiences seem to have more fun despite the same ho-hum trappings, and one tends to see a band in a better light when they’re in their native element. And never ever wear overalls when you’re trying to rock out.