Leicester Square Theatre, London 31 January 2010
“I don’t want you to think that just because we’re playing a theatre you can’t enjoy yourself tonight,” announces The Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly by way of introduction. “This isn’t a drama, it’s …” “Comedy!” heckles an audience member. “Yes!” agrees Vini, “It’s a farce!”
As the group members take the stage, to eager applause, there’s little doubt that we haven’t gathered to see some hip new kids on the block. Reilly’s long-term cohort, drummer Bruce Mitchell, cuts a fantastic shadow; like a less beaten down Serge Gainsbourg. Still, at the age of 69, he puts 99% of contemporary drummers to shame. There’s something hawkish and Ronnie Wood-like about Reilly, his features appear almost wood-carved, his clothes barely clinging to his famously skeletal frame. Keir Stewart, triggering samples and playing anchoring bass beneath Reilly’s chiming guitar lines, has the look of a cheery local stand-up. Viola player John Metcalfe and Tim Kellett on trurrrpet appear modestly dutiful, although Reilly introduces them to playful derision (Kellett being a sometime member of Simply Red and responsible for Olive’s mega-club hit, ‘You’re Not Alone’, while Metcalfe has worked with, deep breath, Pete Gabriel).
It’s pretty obvious from the outset that tonight’s Durutti Column were rather hastily stapled together with very little thought for the presentation. Or even the music. “We haven’t rehearsed,” confesses Reilly, “we never did.” Even so, there’s an undeniable charm about the ramshackle improvisation. Tempos slide, cues are missed and keys are various. Stewart takes an age to tune a guitar and Reilly regularly hits bum notes. Not that the audience cares one iota. Judging by their greying whiskers, like me, they have been with The Durutti Column for the long haul and have long since forgiven Vini Reilly his foibles.
Since their conception in 1978, the Column have been prolific, yet infuriatingly inconsistent. As with that other long-running Manchester saga, The Fall, seldom does a year go by without another DC album. They arguably hit their critical peak in the late ‘8os when Reilly not only rode shotgun with Morrissey (on the album Viva Hate) but also formulated their most sublime and cohesive work, The Guitar & Other Machines. Since then, he has seemed curiously unsettled, trying on hats with new technology and collaborators, when in fact, what attracts hardcore Durutti Column fans is the lyrical, romantic beauty of Reilly’s guitar playing, particularly in tandem with Bruce Mitchell’s skittery drumming.
And it’s such moments that win the most vivacious response tonight. With just Reilly and Mitchell on stage, the pure Durutti essence is exposed. ‘The Beggar’, from 1982’s Another Setting album (tonight’s only Reilly lead vocal), may be rough and ready but it possessed of a bleak, introspective beauty. ‘Sketch For Summer’, from 1980 debut album, is devoid of producer Martin Hannett’s chirping synthesised dawn chorus, but still puts a collective lump in the throat of the Leicester Square Theatre faithful. ‘Jacqueline,’ historically the icing on the cake at DC concerts, has Reilly and Mitchell winding themselves and the crowd into a sonic tizzy with a barrage of chiming Telecaster, stuttering Rhodes and fizzing brushes. It’s here that Mitchell gleefully grabs the spotlight with a series of electric, improvised jazz drum solos that almost tear us off our seats. Joyous applause follows.
When the fireworks clear, however, we’re reminded that we’re not only here to enjoy The Durutti Column but to pay homage to Tony Wilson (subject of their widely lauded recent album, A Paean To Wilson), Reilly’s mentor, close friend and Factory Records Svengali. Wilson’s voice intones eerily from the PA but only to berate New Labour. It’s an odd moment. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Thankfully, the group surge headlong into the encore, a mesmeric spell of squealing feedback that Reilly sculpts by weaving slowly around his amp. It sounds like an exorcism. It will take more than that to rid us of Tony Wilson’s legacy.