After months of hard work promoting the gig, the day arrived with some healthy advanced sales and a decent number of promised footfall on the night (that amazingly fully materialized).

The Manchester rain was non-existent, the sound-checks under the watchful eye of the in-house engineer, passed without alarm and even my struggling football managed to sneak a rare away win at of all places Chesterfield!

With John and Mo running the door like seasoned pros and a fair-sized crowd (that would peak very close to the venue capacity of a hundred later in the evening) already in the recently refurbished concert room, opening act Charlie Big Time began proceedings.
Operating as a two piece perched on stools, like wise troubadours, guitars in hand and vignettes of everyday life tumbling from their mouths, Matthew Pendlebury and Chris Tiplady belied the fact that this was their first gig in years with a near nerveless performance.

Mixing songs from across their back catalogue with some yet to be released but soon-to- be classics, they delivered a laid-back, harmony rich set that didn’t disappoint. Think the early Smiths' quieter moments or the Trash Can Sinatras at their sublime best, ingrained with the poetic wit of Paul Heaton and you’re somewhere close to just how good this Bolton band actually are. The highlights were plenty, but 'One Step Closer To Enemies' was probably the brightest star in an Arabian sky.

The standard had been set and it would take something a little special to follow Charlie Big Time, but Karen are a bit special, even in the unfamiliar guise as a duo (with bassist Hugo Morgan unable to attend and second guitarist Phil Elvins having left the band a few months back) of just drummer Tom Adams and singer/guitarist Davey Woodward.

Opening with the slower/quieter songs from their repertoire such as 'Cloud Men' and the brooding 'Ocean', Karen built on the momentum established by Charlie Big Time and gradually moved things up a notch as the songs became louder and faster, Woodward’s guitar making a mockery of the lack of numbers on stage.

'Broken Stars' really ought to be a smash hit single if there was justice in the world (and, of course, it was released as a single!), while actual single 'Estuary'shone with its autobiographical tale of Woodward‘s 70’s youth. There was even time to roll out 'Growing Up Absurd' from Woodward’s old 80’s band the Brilliant Corners, much to the delight of a happy throng of older fans, before the Kinks indebted 'Lover' brought the set to a breathless conclusion.

Headliners the Chesterfields, fresh from supporting the Orchids in Preston the night before, were not overawed by what had gone before them, but instead took inspiration and served up a blinding set drawn almost exclusively from the first two LPs (1986’s 'Kettle' and 'Crocodile Tears' from 1988).

Despite the fact that only co-frontman Simon Barber remains from the classic 80’s line-up, he was ably supported by Andy Strickland (who did play briefly with the Chesterfields back in the day, but was most noted for fronting the Go-Betweens-indebted the Caretaker Race as well as being the guitarist in the Loft) on guitar, Helen Stickland (no “r” in the name) on vocals and guitar and Rob Parry on drums, van driving and navigation.

It was perhaps Helen that has the hardest task in trying to share the vocal duties that once would have been the domain of the sadly departed Davey Goldworthy, but she did so with aplomb, adding a different dimension to the band, but not a detrimental one.
'Shame about the Rain' sets the tone from the off, with indie classics like 'Goodbye Goodbye', 'Girl on a Boat' and 'Lunchtime for the Wild Youth” proving that time has not diminished any of the pop sheen that made them such loveable morsels thirty years ago.
The closing duo of 'Ask Johnny Dee' and 'Completely and Utterly', perhaps the band’s best loved songs, were also a joy to hear and certainly created some dancing down the front.

A pleasant surprise mid-set was Andy singing an old Caretaker Race song, 'Anywhere but Home' – “it’s in the contract” he joked. It’s also a great track.

An encore of 'Glad for You' and a repeat of 'Shame about the Rain' (for the chap that missed it at the start) brought proceedings to a fine conclusion.

Gig of the year.

Photographs of the Chesterfields and Karen by Marie Hazelwood

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