Michael Hann

Lovely slice of Cosmic Scouse: Michael Head & the Red Elastic, at EartH, reviewed

Plus: a support band to watch

Gentle and dreamy: Michael Head & the Red Elastic Band. Image: Kevin Barrett / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the more bizarre but recurring tales about how the music of Liverpool has been shaped over these past 45 years concerns Courtney Love, the American musician famed, music aside, for being married to Kurt Cobain, and for being wildly unpredictable. This story claims the 17-year-old Love, who had travelled across the Atlantic to be near the bands she loved, introduced Liverpudlian musicians to LSD, setting in train a decades-long phenomenon known as ‘Cosmic Scouse’.

The slight problem with this is that Love only came to Liverpool in 1982, by which point the musicians she had come to celebrate – Echo & the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes among them – were well into their careers, plainly already making psychedelic music, and already well acquainted with hallucinogens. But the fact remains that for decades now, Liverpool and its environs have produced scores of bands that believe civilisation peaked in 1966: the Stairs, the Coral, Clinic, the Zutons, the Icicle Works and more.

Michael Head, for more than 40 years, has been among that number, making records with an array of bands – now with the Red Elastic Band – all of whom owed some debt to the great LA psychedelic band Love. During that time, he has repeatedly been fêted by music writers as the greatest songwriter in Britain, but the public were never biting: the nearest he came to a hit single was reaching No. 44 with Shack in 1999. It would be fair to say, though, that his obscurity wasn’t entirely the public’s fault. Head took reading Coleridge, Huxley and Burroughs a bit too literally, and lost years to heroin addiction. Head is now 62, and long past the point of winning new audiences: the crowd at EartH was largely around his age. He’s long past the point of expecting more, too – he seemed truly astonished and delighted to have not quite filled the 680 seats in the room. The humility made it all rather lovely – it gave it the feeling of being at a private gig, rather than an undersold show.

Head played an acoustic guitar and sang softly, while Nathaniel Cummings wove electric arpeggios into the spaces left empty, and Martin Smith soloed on the trumpet. The songs were gentle, dreamy and lovely, wisps of melancholy and regret, distinctly autumnal in tone, and – unsurprisingly – the Red Elastic Band songs were of a piece with the notional ‘hits’ of the past. When the band departed the stage after a euphoric, spellbinding version of Shack’s ‘Miles Apart’ – miles better than the studio version – the crowd kept up the refrain until the band returned to cover Love’s ‘A House Is Not a Motel’, which might have been a bit on the nose, given what had come before.

I’d intended to devote the rest of this column to the American singer Mitski, who played four sold-out shows at the old Hammy Odeon last week – 20,000 people, made up of three-quarters teenage girls who’d heard her on TikTok, and a quarter middle-aged dads who first heard her on 6 Music or read about her in the Guardian. And I was going to talk about how David Byrne’s presentational influence is seeping through into live performance, in which lovely but absolutely conventional country rock is supplemented by what appears very much like interpretative dance, and a spot of mime – ‘Look! My body has become a rag doll! Look I’m throwing myself to the floor!’ – admittedly to rather beguiling effect. But having sold 20,000 tickets, Mitski needs no help.

‘I’m here to defect.’

So let me tell you instead about the band who opened for Head, making their London debut. Keyside, from Liverpool, have a not very good name and a not very good logo printed on their kick drum, both of which led me to expect some lumpen lad rock. But no, for here was the Cosmic Scouser mantle passed down: singer/guitarist Daniel Parker scampered and skipped across the stage like an undertrained puppy, and the songs – big and beaty, simple and melodic – conjured up the memory of Lee Mavers of the La’s.

When you have seen enough support bands through the years to fill an entire festival summer with underwhelming trundlers sure to disappear from view before the last Portaloos have been packed away, it always feels something of a miracle to see one that seems to have arrived fully formed, absolutely certain of what they do. The usual caveats apply: there are only five songs on Spotify, and lots can go wrong. But Keyside were absolutely terrific. I’ll be back next time they come down the M6.

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