Its almost four years since I was in The Thekla – that time it was for Arab Strap’s farewell tour. Tonight was different. It was about something beginning afresh. A lot has changed in four years too, and after a perplexing day at the office and a comfortingly irreverent post-work conversation, I found myself daydreaming through the train ride to Bristol. After all it was something I used to do daily, and in the current work turmoil, I almost felt nostalgic for. Tonight was about looking back too – with The Vaselines together again after twenty years. A second album complete – and the novelty of being able to get it on iTunes almost instantly wasn’t lost. After all, this is one of the most confusingly and oft-reissued bands, with their slim but near flawless canon of material being made available in various collected forms, seemingly at once.
My own introduction to The Vaselines came in the form of the Seminal Twang 7″ of “Dying for It”. This amazing label managed to turn up fifteen gems of eclectic, weird pop music during 1991-92 and introduced me to such fantastic gems as Half Japanese howling through “Turn Your Life Around” and Velvet Crush with their soaring power pop on “Ash and Earth”. The Vaselines contribution was a scorching, punky blast of blues with boy/girl sing-song vocals. I loved it instantly, and played it relentlessly, at least until the “All The Stuff and More” compilation finally arrived. Then of course, Kurt Cobain posthumously championed The Vaselines, and suddenly everyone knew their songs. They just didn’t know that they were their songs.
So tonight, drifting across town without too much thought, I stumbled across a sign advertising a “Minge Fest”. Half tempted to investigate, I pressed on and found a small but motley crowd developing outside the Thekla as the sun dipped behind the houses on Redcliff. I was much relieved not to be the oldest here, and there were some who could clearly have been veterans of the Vaseline’s last performance in Bristol during November 1987. However, there was a surprisingly young bias to the crowd – too young to be accounted for by the Nirvana effect. Some of this contingent had clearly come to see the first support act Parrington Jackson – a professional enough bunch trying hard, and clearly with tons of support from family and friends. I’m not sure if it was because they were pitched against such mighty opposition, or because they squeezed a hurried set into a short slot, but their singer’s elegant frontman act just failed to fly tonight. They had fun though, and for tonight at least had a sense of local heroes about their post-performance schmoozing. There were also a disproportionate amount of flat caps in evidence. Don’t tell me we’re heading down that road again?
Next up were Haight Ashbury from Glasgow, who are travelling with The Vaselines on this UK tour. I confess to a little pre-judgement of their set, and perhaps a disappointment that some other unsigned Glasgow acts hadn’t made the cut. However, tonight showed that this curious three piece can make a racket live. The sound is hard to pin down – a guitar and bass make a swampy, bluesy racket while a single drum beats time, rather like the opening bars of “Be My Baby” by The Ronnettes. Over this, two sweetly harmonising Wilson Pickett style vocalists tell disturbing tales, sometimes veering into a controlled howl of rage – without breaking harmony. If it sounds strange it’s because it is. The whole sixties dressing up thing and the name just get in the way of a really interesting band who are going to be worth following as they develop and change.
Barely time to replenish my drink, as the early curfew meant the stage was prepared for the main event. Right on cue, looking relaxed and genuinely pleased to be here, Eugene and Frances took the stage. Now this was quite a moment for me – quite apart from not ever imagining I’d see The Vaselines, here they were ripping into an opening “Oliver Twisted” which sounded like it had been written last week, not last century. Early in the set, it was revealed that the Bristol show in 1987 was in fact the very first the band had played, and to celebrate this twenty-year long circular journey, a little wine had been enjoyed. This seemed to have put the duo in a frisky mood, and good-natured but utterly filthy banter punctuated the set throughout. It was interesting to note too, how seamlessly the majority of the new material worked into the older stuff – and there was a certain irony in hearing “The Day I Was a Horse” crashing into “I Hate The 80s” – the very decade of it’s birth of course. The simpler, perhaps less charitable view would be that The Vaselines write simple songs which haven’t really changed much. However, I think it’s more to do with how out-of-time they seemed then, with their frantic bluesy riffing and old-fashioned punk sensibilities. Nowadays, all of that stuff is entirely acceptable. So, the remarkably good “Mouth to Mouth” and “Whitechapel” earned their place alongside “Molly’s Lips” and “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam”. During the latter, a young audience member confided in her friend that this was “a rip-off of a Nirvana song”. Several old hacks and I exchanged glances, but I was the only one drunk enough to take issue. I made myself look foolish perhaps, but felt vindicated. For me, the high point of the night was the completion of my own circle – hearing “Dying For It” – as urgent, vital and raucous as on that now very warped 7″ single – itself now near twenty years old.
The Vaselines left the stage bang on their curfew, and I was left to ponder the curious hole in the timetable which left me waiting until the 23:35 train to get home. It was a pleasant enough night to stroll and to watch the station closing down with much needed coffee in hand. On reflection, I’m a strange presence at these occasions, reserved as they are for the younger, hipper crowd – but then, as I realised tonight, I felt that way twenty years ago too! Age hasn’t wearied The Vaselines, and just for a bit, it didn’t bother me either.