Sunday, 9 December 2012

Pulp @ Sheffield Review

Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield
8th December 2012

I cannot remember when I last took in an arena show, though I certainly recall the first time; two decades ago in this very building – then just ‘Sheffield Arena’ – I saw local rockers Def Leppard at the delicate age of 8. Pulp’s last appearance round these parts was just one decade ago, their ‘last ever’ gig at Magna Science Museum which I also attended and that glorious farewell remains a treasured memory.

Continuing the anniversary theme, it is just over two years since the surprise announcement that the band were reforming / ending their hiatus to play some shows. And finally, they have made it home.

The support act slot is taken by projections of home videos, which don’t really work in this space. It does mean that we get a two and a half hour set, especially sweet for those who saw them play restricted set lengths at summer festivals and spent the smiling journey home listing all the great songs they still didn’t play.

Those summer shows had been hit heavy and largely obvious in their song selection. This, their 48th since that reformation, starts just as every other one has with Do You Remember The First Time?  and it appears we’ll have a similar night of pop excellence and gentle nostalgia.

However, second track Monday Morning, perhaps the least played Different Class era track alongside Live Bed Show gives early indication that this will be a more personal affair. Indeed, two songs later we hear the rarely played and little known late era single A Little Soul which at the time was, musically, a rather out of character move and lyrically dealt with Jarvis’ absent father. Not your obvious stadium pleaser.
A duo of big hits and their two well known spoken word / sleazy masterworks (F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E and I Spy) follow and show in breathtaking style that the band has lost nothing of their energy, dynamism and flair. The former in particular is the best I’ve heard it, the stadium enhanced beats adding an epic, colossal and unstoppable force to the track. It’s also the first time I notice that Russell Senior isn’t around. I thought it would bother me, but it doesn’t. Separate guitarists and violinists cover his parts, along with other extra hands and at times the people on stage hits double figures.
Despite this, the focus is naturally on Jarvis. I don’t know what can be said about Jarvis that hasn’t already been said but it is fair to say that he is enjoying every second. He is audibly out of breath after the second song, but maintains the banter throughout, gracious and thankful to the vast 12,000 strong crowd.
The set then heads into unknown territory, places I had hoped that the reunion would have gone since day one. Russell Senior being involved from the start had wrongly led me to believe that all the shows would cover more than their generally acknowledged glory days, but they had rightly gone out and reminded people what made them great first time around, instead of playing the weird stuff and reminding them why they were so damn obscure for fifteen or so years.
Three special moments follow; Jarvis’ sister joins him on stage for a run through My Lighthouse from Pulp’s first record It. In fact, Saskia Cocker is the only other person on this stage tonight who actually played on that recording, back in 1983. It’s followed by Little Girl (With Blue Eyes) from 1985 and Countdown, the latter their last ‘failure’ before perfecting a synth heavy pop sound and breaking through with their Gift Records string of singles and EPs.
Naturally the crowd don’t react in the same way as they do to Disco 2000 and many take it as a chance to grab a pint. But as Jarvis says, most of these songs were written in Sheffield and those that weren’t were written about it. These songs say as much about Sheffield and about the people who wrote them as their hits do and whilst two years of gigging such obscurities would have been a disaster, this is a real treat (for me anyway) and suggests how important it is for the band to come home.
Babies is the only other track from His N Hers we hear tonight. We then get a surprisingly long run of This Is Hardcore era tracks, starting with B-side Like A Friend. Again, I loved to hear it, though I naturally think ‘if you are gonna play a TIH era B-side, and one from A Little Soul it should be Cocaine Socialism, surely?’
This Is Hardcore itself closes this section and is possibly the best I’ve ever heard it. Without doubt one of their greatest songs, it represents everything Pulp were taken to the Nth degree, as dark, as epic and personal as it could get, the flipside, the endpoint of fame and the cravings of success. The sound in the arena, which struggles on some occasions, works a treat here, and every huge bass note feels like a punch to the face of the safe and secure life you have built for yourself. What exactly DO you do for an encore?
The set winds down towards an inevitable Common People. It is just perfect. Considering how many times I have heard it, CP is not a song that really suffers from over familiarity; certainly in the live environment it has an organic life of its own, the band skilfully drawing an increasing crescendo from its six or so minutes, feeding directly from the audience. We are putty in their hands. Not bad for a song that is basically three chords. The stadium is alive; a peerless communal moment.
The encore holds more surprises. The eight plus minutes of Sheffield: Sex City is an absolute joy to my ears; one of those songs you don’t believe you will ever get to hear live. Richard Hawley returns to the stage for a run through of Born To Cry – pretty much the only song I could do without tonight. We wrap up with Something Changed and a brief crowd singalong of White Christmas, before the house lights come up, and a freezing cold Sheffield awaits us all.
So with only a couple of shows left to play, far off in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, what does this mean for Pulp? Apparently at Candida’s insistence, the band grouped together and performed a bow to the appreciative audience before exiting the stage. It would be a fitting conclusion. Generally I am very much against such reunions if new material isn’t forthcoming. Over the years I have developed some sympathy, certainly for the backline of such bands. Jarvis will always be able to make a living off being Jarvis, but I guess it is harder for Nick Banks or Steve Mackay. So maybe a money spinning venture such as this isn’t so bad.
Beyond that, I don’t imagine anyone in the band would relish facing the pressure of recording new material. So maybe this is it. Our trip back in time tonight was our last journey with Jarvis and co. The lasting impression is one of craft. Clever, richly detailed lyrics bursting with ideas and situations that work equally as time capsule records of the life of Jarvis and as timeless pop nuggets, with sophistication and tongue in cheek in fair measures. And the music, still ingrained on our 21st century minds but created in cold rehearsals rooms in a grim northern city, still resonates. Pulp were always aiming, pining for something better, their sounds rich in time and place. It feels like something of a rarity now.
So, aside of being stuck in the seating section of an arena with barely an inch to bust my moves, it was pretty much a perfect night and a fitting ending. Then again, they still didn’t play Lipgloss, Acrylic Afternoons, Pink Glove, Pencil Skirt…
Dean Freeman


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