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Stereo MCs
Sixteen Tons 
By Martin Richardson
Returning stars could learn a thing or two from Stereo MCs. Considering it’s been a good 20 years since the band last garnered mainstream popularity, it was tempting to assume the current tour was little more than a cash-in designed to shift a new album to unsuspecting punters who had almost forgotten how they had connected in the past. Yet from start to finish the band distinguished its Moscow debut with a committed and energetic show which reminded audiences how far these guys went to bridge the gap between old-school guitar rock and the emergent dance/techno culture of the late 80s and early 90s.

It’s barely a couple of weeks since this column was applauding the theatrical entrance staged by Rammstein – but Stereo MCs managed an impressive low-budget attempt at the same, without spending the GDP of a small country in the process. Simple but effective, with a blast of dry ice, careful lighting and piano arpeggios backed by power strings, the band smuggled itself on to the Sixteen Tons stage in a fashion which played to the strengths of an intimate venue while still creating a sense of occasion.

Then there was the endless exuberance of frontman Rob B. An ageless, wiry symbol of the post-hippy army of youngsters who, almost simultaneously, discovered the joys of experimenting with hallucinogenics while gathering in a field to listen to music notoriously ‘characterised by repetitive beats’, he retained the same coiled-spring energy of the band’s heyday 20 years past. And most of the other reference points of that age were present and correct as well, throwing spooky hand-shapes and name-checking band, venue and city in between every song to create a pleasingly retro experience. “We came on a train, in the snow, the Stereo MCs in your house tonight!”

Perhaps courageously, the band devoted a good chunk of the show to 2011’s “Emperor’s Nightingale”, a surprise flowering of creativity long after many assumed the spark was extinguished forever. The newest material stood up pretty well – sounding better than the title track from “Deep down and dirty”, the widely dismissed 2001 album, for example – and providing an early highlight with “Sunny Day” and its mesmeric chorus built over wailing sirens. Reports of a return to form have been largely confined to the more obsessive corners of the internet, but that doesn’t leave these claims without substance – this kind of funk fusion may not be as vitally cutting edge as it was in my schooldays, but that doesn’t render it worthless today.

There were other surprises – the band’s calling card, “Connected”, appeared mid-set rather than being saved for an encore, and got the crowd fully thawed out after a slightly hesitant start. However the same track – by far their best known – also suffered from the perennial problem of live shows, with a sludgy sound desk muffling much of the crisp mixing which made this 1991 track such a shock when united two ends of a polarized musical culture back in the day. Luckily, when everyone knows the tune, a missing subtlety or two can be quietly overlooked.

One key part of the band’s output has always been a commitment to a libertarian, egalitarian ideal, again born out of the ’88 summer of love. Lyrically, it informs much of their work – tracks like “Elevate my mind” are self-explanatory, while the likes of “Sunny Day” and “Connected” both call on listeners to educate themselves about the real world and look beyond the obvious. Such was the spirit of the times, and at times it comes perilously close to high-concept poncing around, rather than good honest music-making. But the exuberance of the show, peaking with a raucous sing-along of the great “Step it up” and stretching into four encores – no danger of short-changing this crowd – meant that even the cynics of the 21st century were successfully swept along by the tide. These returning stars are far from burned out yet.

26.02.12
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