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HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT (The Robin, Bilston,Mon)

05-12-2007

Half Man Half Biscuit

Picture: Mary Sweeney

Pulp and the Arctic Monkeys both learned a trick or two from these (wrong side of the) Mersey scallies. Steve Beauchampe admires the wordplay, Mary Sweeney gets the pix.

Some artists almost defy description, or certainly analogy. Ubër manic Japanese noise combo Melt Banana, deeply mysterious Californian band The Residents and the late Viv Stanshall to name but three.

Truly no one else is ploughing a musical furrow anywhere near them, they have no peers, their individuality so strong, so unique, that comparisons seem as absurd as they would be uninformative.

To this list should most definitely be added Half Man Half Biscuit, a group who ply their trade so far from the mainstream that of those folk old enough to remember their brief and, I’d wager, uncomfortable brush with fame in the mid-1980s, most might imagine that they were long consigned to musical history, a one hit wonder novelty act with a name that made you chuckle briefly.

So here we are at the excellent Robin 2 in Bilston, December 2007, and Nigel Blackwell, the bard of Birkenhead, who never did give up the day job (actually, he didn’t have one in 1985 but now works in the public sector), is fronting England’s most consistently brilliant folk group in a revelry of gloriously witty and hilarious songs about the daily trials, tribulations and aggravations of life for the ordinary Joe and Josephine.

Most of tonight’s audience (numbering around 600) have been with the band from the start, and are seasoned Biscuitmen and women (ok, 90% of them are men), and the saying that with age comes wisdom seems here to be at least a little appropriate.

Discerning customers indeed…because this is one band you really have to search out, particularly when the likes of Metro and The Birmingham Mail have eschewed previewing the gig, preferring instead to recommend Crowded House at the NEC (give me strength!!!!!).

Comedy may be top of the lyrical agenda, and the band may be doing this as a sideline to their regular employment, but there’s nothing less than total professionalism about their approach, with Blackwell and bassist Neil Crossley (both founder members), Ken Hancock (guitar) and drummer Carl Henry spot on all night, ably assisted by the clearest sound mix I’ve heard at a rock gig for a long time.

Beginning with Restless Legs, we are treated to over 100 minutes of selections from the band’s repertoire, Blackwell’s sharp features and naturally furrowed demeanour belying the humour within.

His inter-song banter ranges from the legality of Muttiah Muralitharan’s bowling action to the contents of his dad’s Christmas list and how crowded Mount Snowden gets on a summer Saturday, but it’s the lyrics we’ve really come to hear, delivered over the band’s hallmark punk/indie thrash.

Bottleneck on Capel Curig, Fucking 'ell, It’s Fred Titmus and a new song, Bad Losers on Yahoo Chess are as good as their titles suggest, while What Is Chatteris? combines two regular Blackwell themes, lost love and obscure English towns: "You never hear of folk getting smacked on the bonce/although there was a drive-by shouting once…but what is Chatteris if you’re not there?/I may as well be in Ely or St. Ives."

It’s easy to see Blackwell’s empathy with life’s losers and absurdities, as in Tending The Wrong Grave for 23 Years (you’ll find it on the Saucy Haulage Ballads EP): "Curse those in charge of plots/Curse those forget-me-nots/I’ve been sharing my inner most thought with an William MaCrae/I’m inconsolable and at times uncontrollable/oh, but she doesn’t know this, she’s 200 metres away.…I’d walk up in autumn and run up in spring/To the wrong grave for 23 years,"

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Is The Light of an Oncoming Train) parodies middle class pretension: "She stayed with me until/She moved to Notting Hill/She said it was the place she had to be/Where the cocaine is fair trade/And frequently displayed/Is the Buena Vista Social Club CD.…But when you’re in Matlock Bath/You don’t need Sylvia Plath."

The other recurrent themes in Half Man Half Biscuit’s work are forgotten British comedians (tonight Blackwell references both Arthur Askey and Arnold Ridley and once penned the lyric: Sometimes instead of Arthur Lee/I’d much prefer some Arthur Lowe), D-list celebrities (they give us 1980s classic Bob Wilson, Anchorman) and the music industry, something which, by the band’s wilful desire for obscurity (they once declined a chance to play the Reading Festival and have never undertaken anything resembling a proper tour, preferring one off gigs that allow Blackwell to reach his own bed at a reasonable hour) they have remained on the periphery of.

Tonight’s set list includes Vatican Broadside, in which the singer out of Slipknot gets short shrift from the Pope, Four Skinny Indie Kids Drinking Cheap Lager In A Camden Boozer and a storming Joy Division Oven Gloves.

Old favourite All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit and, as we’re in Bilston, Monmore, Hare’s Running leads to We Built This Village On A Trad. Arr. Tune and regular show closer, The Trumpton Riots the barnstorming song that brought them into public consciousness over two decades ago.

There’s a new album due by the spring, but with Christmas gifts to buy, why wait? A dog may lose its charm by the middle of January, but a Half Man Half Biscuit CD, perhaps Achtung! Bono or Trouble Over Bridgwater (think about it!) is guaranteed to give years of pleasure.

More pictures - click here

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