Groove Armada play a ‘Late Night’ show at the Brixton Academy to a packed audience
What is about to follow will probably involve lots of grumbling, but that says more about me than the gig. I can be hard to pleases on times.
Groove Armada occupy a funny old place for me. Not quite techno, not quite funk, not quite a festival band – but at the same time all of these things. On my shelves I have them filed next to the likes of Leftfield, Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, but they are nothing like any of those bands. They are a mainstream chart act that manage to have kept one foot in the cool camp. I can’t think of any other band that have managed to do this. Maybe no else has done this.
Like most people I first sat up and paid attention when the second album, ‘Verigo’ was released in 1999. An absolute dance classic. I then went out and bought the first album, ‘Northern Star’, which had a similar cool vibe. The third album ‘Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub)’ had elements of genius, ‘Superstyling’ and ‘Suntoucher’, but was already starting to wander into slightly different territory. 2002’s ‘Lovebox’ was duly purchased in the hope that it would be another ‘Vertigo’, but my tastes and the band’s tastes were clearly going in different directions. Another five albums came and went and to be honest, I haven’t knowingly heard anything off them.
I caught them live a few times around the turn of the century but have not felt the need to see them for almost two decades. then they announced their final tour and Brixton would be their last ever gig – so we snapped up tickets (actually, we were slow off the mark but it sold out so quickly they added a second night). Now, I’m sure I read at the time that it was the last ever gig, but they have several more lined up through the summer, so clearly I read it wrong, or dreamt it, or they changed their mind.
I am all for a bit of all night partying, but Brixton is not the easiest of places to get to – or more importantly – from. The venue website makes a big deal out of planning your trip home but apart from advertising it as a ‘late night event’ and having a ‘3am curfew’, trying to find out what time the Groove Armada set would actually finish was trying to find out if Boris had cake at one of his parties. So – in the end, we opted to drive.
it is a long time since I visited Brixton. The last time was probably to see Ozric Tentacles and Eat Static for one of the old ‘Pongmaster’s Balls’, probably around 1993. A lot has changed since then. Gentrification has well and truly set in and our pre-gig drink was in a bar that only served craft beers. I think the bar was actually called Kraft Beer.
We eventually head for the venue, Brixton Academy, or the O2 Brixton Academy to give it it’s full title. I don’t like big venues, and this is a big venue. (Although with a capacity of 5,000 many would disagree – these things are comparative). I’m also deeply suspicious of venues that are sponsored. Thay said though, I fell in love with Brixton Academy the first time I went there, which would have been The Clash in the early eighties. The main attraction is the sloping floor that results in a good view no matter where you stand. No doubt this is down to it starting out life as a cinema
Originally known as the Astoria Variety Cinema, previously known as Carling Academy Brixton, currently named O2 Academy Brixton as part of a sponsorship deal with the O2 brand, it is a mid-sized concert venue located in South London, in the district of Brixton. Opening in 1929 as a cinema, the venue was converted into a discotheque in 1972 then was reborn as a concert hall in 1983.
After walking through the obligatory gauntlet of ticket touts, then squeezing through a succession of sniffer dogs, metal detectors, bag checks and strip searches we finally walk into the really rather impressive art deco auditorium. (They don’t build ’em like this anymore. No pride you see.)
Queuing for the bar doesn’t take long, but given the price, it’s not something you would want to do often. (Hey, it’s London, this boy from the valleys will never get used to it.)
Determined to make sure no one can get a train home, the crowd are warmed up with an elongated set by a DJ that, to this philistine writer, was anonymous. This to me sums up one of the reasons Groove Armada have been so successful. They are a band. Watching a DJ is not really a spectator sport. Some people bob about, but I think most people are thinking the same as me. (“Fucking get on with it, I could have caught a train and not polluted half of south London if you had done a shorter set.”)
Eventually the bouncers* have enough as well and wheel him off. (*They might have been stage crew actually.)
The lights go down, the band sneak onto the stage and the lights go back up. The crowd goes wild.
Now I knew that the set would not be just aimed at me, just all those oldies from two decades ago. In fact I wouldn’t really want it to be all retro. But a lot of the new stuff (less than twenty years old) is not really my thing. I’m quite used to seeing bands performing stuff I don’t know, in fact I usually relish it, but I found myself thinking, “just play some oldies”.
I don’t think everyone was thinking that, cos many were singing along, waving their hands in the right place and going crazy after each song.
And then the opening chords of ‘I See You Baby’, reverberate around the room. People had obviously been keeping something in reserve, cos the building went wild. Miserable me breaks into a smile, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I actually shed a tear. It was amazing. For about a minute.
Now I’m all for bands evolving and not standing still, but this version goes off into waters not charted for the original, and I’m not convinced it is improved upon.
Then there’s the elephant in the room.
Half way through the set they started experimenting with some sort of 360 degrees surround sound thing. For the first song they used it on I was impressed. The sound swirled around the room like some sort of Pink Floyd gig. I remember mentally noting how I should big up this effect in this review and suggest more bands should do it. I think the sound engineer must have overheard me thinking this and did it again. Several times. Unfortunately it didn’t have the same effect when repeated. The noise coming out of the back of the auditorium didn’t seem to have any connection with what was coming out at the front. It was just distracting. Like a fire alarm. Only less reassuring. Especially when practiced in the middle of the best song of the night so far.
Clearly, deep down, the band know that their old stuff is their best stuff and are familiar with the concept of leaving the best to last. The set eventually became more familiar and there was less improvisation. Superstyling starts and when people realise what it is (I said less, not no improvisation) once again the crowd goes apeshit. It reminded me a little of the rave scene in ‘Matrix Reloaded’. The Academy became Zion, and we were not afraid. The walls of the cave shook – and then they buggered off.
The tempo slowed for the start of the encore, the glorious ‘Sand Dunes and Salty Air’ enveloped the crowd, and we drifted off out into late night Brixton to get some fresh air.
As I said at the outset, this review says more about me than the gig. I’m pretty sure the majority loved every minute of it and, if truth be told, I’m glad I went along. The sound was clear and crisp (at least at front of gig) the lighting was professional and spectacular, the view was good and the vibe was pretty special.
On reflection, what have we learned?
- Twenty years ago Groove Armada produced two and a half albums of the most sublime dance music ever.
- I have been to lazy to check out their more recent stuff
- They have achieved mainstream chart success without losing their street cred (a rare achievement)
- Brixton Academy is the best venue of its size in the country.
- Whilst I still think you can’t beat a small sweaty club where you are up close and personal with the band, a good PA combined with a spectacular light show is something to behold
- Surround sound is incredible when done properly
- Surround sound is infuriating when not done properly.
- Beer prices in London are just plain ridiculous.
- I can be a miserable git on times. But I still know a good thing when I see it.