Therapy? – Belfast, Empire Music Hall – 26 April 2017 Print E-mail
Written by Mark Ashby   
Wednesday, 03 May 2017 05:00

Like most rock fans of a certain generation in this wee part of the Über Kingdom of Rock ‘N’ Roll, I grew up with one band who stood head and shoulders above any other on the local scene in terms of their innovation and their readiness to experiment, take chances and push musical boundaries further than any of their predecessors or contemporaries (and, it could be argued, many who have tried to follow in their footsteps since). That band, of course, are Therapy?, who built a reputation not just because of the factors just mentioned but also because of the enduring respect in which they have held their fans, and how this is reciprocated, as was proven tonight.

 

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Although T? have been an integral part of my musical life in this little corner of the Überverse for nigh on three decades, it had been quite a while since I had seen them live: somehow, I had managed to miss their last two tours when they pulled into town. In fact, I have to turn the clock back more than five years, to the tail end of 2011, when I saw them three times in the space of as many weeks: the first was a brief appearance at a showcase staged as part of the first ever Belfast Music Week, and this was followed by back-to-back appearances at that year’s iteration of Hard Rock Hell (when it was still in Prestatyn). That weekend earned them the title of the “loudest band to ever play HRH” – but it also saw them perform an intimate acoustic set, something which perhaps set in train a journey which has led to the new ‘Wood And Wire’ unplugged album and this brief run of supporting dates up and down the island of Ireland.

 

Now, it’s very rare to see a band who are renowned for their dramatic intensity, especially in their live shows, taking everything back to such a basic, organic level as just two guitars, two microphones and the most basic of drumkits. But, that is what tonight is all about, and the venue is suitably rammed with a combination of diehard Therapists? and those merely curious to see if the trio could actually pull it off… the answer for the latter comes extremely quickly as they crash into first set opener ‘Trigger Inside’, Andy Cairns wide-eyed and staring madly into the room as if he is invoking and then channelling the spirit of that other “man in black”, Johnny Cash.

 

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Of course, one feature of unplugged shows is that they give an opportunity for the artists concerned to engage more closely with their audiences: rather than the usual “this song is called…” type intro, they afford the artist the chance to tell the stories behind the songs. And tonight is no exception, as Cairns is in erudite form, naturally sprinkling his tales with shards of wicked Northern Irish humour… Our first dark tale of the evening is that of what was supposed to be the writing process for their third album, ‘Nurse’, at a remote studio in Carlow: Cairns explains how all was going well until a friend arrived with supplies of speed, acid and tequila… “we did get much writing done over the next two weeks” he laughs, before dedicating ‘Disgraceland’ to Donald Trump!

 

Next up, before the ‘Tides’ wash over it, it’s the tale of how he moved to the Irish town of Dun Laoghaire, following in the footsteps of Samuel Beckett: “I thought it would be the place to find the muse – but all I found were heroin dealers and prostitutes… and I made friends with them all!” Yep, drugs seem to feature a lot in his stories. ‘Living In The Shadow Of A Terrible Thing’ is introduced as their attempt to “sound like Neil Young – it didn’t” produces the first real singalong of the evening, while ‘Evil Elvis’ sees us him regaling us with the tale of dyeing his hair black in order to look like some of his rock ‘n’ roll heroes: “Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley… they all had dyed jet black hair – I looked like fucking Elton John!” He ends it with a suitably Presley-ish “thank you very much”, complete with curled lip – something which he will repeat throughout the evening in affectionate homage.

 

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This is a devoted and knowledgeable audience, who are hanging on every note and word, and laughing uproariously to Cairns’ genuinely funny jokes. And they are rewarded with a thorough exploration of the band’s 14 album discography, from the staccato ‘Skyward’ (“the one that sounds like Hendrix – well, as Poundland Hendrix,” remarks Cairns as first he forgets the riff and then drummer Neil Cooper forgets his intro) from their ‘Babyteeth’ debut through to the ironic pathos of ‘Idiot Cousin’ from their most recent ‘Disquiet’ opus. The stories keep coming, including the windscreen-shattering consequences of giving the fingers to spides and an almost fatal car crash (on the intros to ‘Accelerator’ and ‘Opal Mantra’ respectively) before they’re ‘Gone’ – it’s darkly serious stoner lament accentuated by this re-interpretation more hypnotic than any “full” performance could ever hope to achieve – at least temporarily.

 

One thing strikes me as they move through the second set: while Therapy? have always been there in my Northern Irish hard rock consciousness, I would never have called myself a massive fan (although I did once walk home along the railway tracks after one of their early gigs in a local rugby club, after it over-ran and I missed the last train home) – but it is surprising how much of the canon is ingrained in my memory cells and is instantly recalled with ease.

 

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Seeming much more relaxed in the second segment, they step right back in time, to the very start of their career, with a totally raw version of their first ever single, ‘Meat Abstract’ (was it really 1990?): it’s laconic and fiery in turns, and I can just visualize producer Mudd Wallace smiling down in approval from whatever rock ‘n’ roll heaven he’s twiddling knobs in!

 

And still the stories come – although Cairns seem to have taken Michael McKeegan’s advice to “cut back on the drugs references”: there’s the tale of seeing Peter Gabriel naked in the gym while recording the ‘Infernal Love’ album at his Real World studios (“he’s not called ‘Sledgehammer’ for nothing!”) while ‘Loose’ is a joyous celebration of times gone by, including a cross-dressed encounter with the Army just yards from this very venue.

 

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‘Diane’ shows that the second half of the evening is going to concentrate on “the hits”, both in terms of commercial success and fan favouritism. ‘Potato Junkie’, with its brilliantly insane “James Joyce is fucking my sister” chorus line (and “the reason my mum stopped coming to our live shows”), gets a surprisingly early introduction, and consequently generates a huge singalong. ‘Happy People Have No Stories” sees the guitar solo – “it ain’t happening” – with an hysterical “Neil, Neil, drum like a motherfucker” chant, while Cairns restarts ‘Stop It You’re Killing Me’ as he reckons opening “Hey Hey Hey” chantalong “sounds like a boy scout hut in Ballyclare at ten past seven on a wet Tuesday” rather than a bunch of rockers at half past ten, albeit on a school night! The audience, of course, react accordingly and do our damnedest to raise the roof. But, yer man’s not finished with us yet, getting us to sing the riff to ‘Screamager’ (‘cos again he can’t reproduce it on an acoustic guitar). Cairns repays the compliment by dedicating closer ‘Die Laughing’ to “each and every one of you”, acknowledging that without the fans Therapy? would not have come as far as they have in the past three decades.

 

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This may have been an acoustic gig, but it certainly was one of the rowdiest I’ve ever been to – and, for a change, it wasn’t the eejits talking through songs who were making all the racket, but a devoted audience of (mostly) dedicated fans, many of whom have stuck with this ground-breaking band through thick and thin, responding to Andy Cairns’ opening invitation to “make as much fucking noise as you can”. With their extensive back catalogue, they probably could have played well into the wee small hours, rather than the two hours’ worth of material to which we were treated: as with any band of such an enduring pedigree, they undoubtedly left out a few fan favourites (quite probably because they couldn’t transpose them comfortably to the unplugged format), but there were enough surprises to keep many on their toes. And the stories, of course, were brilliant!

 

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Andy Cairns plays a solo acoustic show at Proud Galleries as part of the Camden Rocks festival on Saturday 3 June. Therapy? then play the Beautiful Days festival in Devon on Friday 18 August, before returning to Camden on Friday 1 and 2 September, when they support The Sisters Of Mercy at the Roundhouse.

 

PHOTO CREDIT: All photos © Marc Leach/ Über Rock.

 

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