For someone who had never heard of the England/Wales border town of
Hay-on-Wye, never mind the annual Hay-on-Wye Art & Literature
festival, the lure of Pulp playing in a 1,500 capacity marquee was
something too quirky to resist.
Having looked up Hay-On-Wye in the road atlas (and getting into many discussions about whether it was actually in England or Wales) I arrived on what felt like the hottest and brightest day of the year. Summer had started, the festival season was on, and Pulp were playing in a dinky market town. On days like these, it's near impossible to stop smiling.
Hay was busy, but not over-crowed, and consisted of a curious concoction of bookish types, youngsters and a wide array of locals, some of whom had given up their time to help at the festival. A few of the more seasoned locals appeared flummoxed by the influx of scantly-clad shade-wearing foreigners.
Pulp were expected to soundcheck in the late afternoon, with a stage-time at 9pm followed by a 1 hour 20 minute set. That gave me a leisurely five hours to work on the tan and to decide exactly where to start the queue.
Their soundcheck consisted of Weeds, F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E, Minnie, Sorted, Hardcore and three new songs. The songs wafted out of the marquee effortlessly. Jarvis' vocals ("Minnie I can feel the pain") wooshed out over to the lush fields and distant hills, reverberating back to envelop the whole town. It made a number of sunbathing Pulp fans very, very happy.
More locals ambled by the marquee while walking their dogs, unlikely to have confronted a racket like this for quite some time. They paused, looked at the emerging queue, then looked up to the marquee. They must have been hoping that Bill Clinton wouldn't be half as loud when he was due to appear at the weekend.
By 8.30pm, we were allowed inside. There were neat rows of seats separated by a central aisle - a format more suited to a village fete or wedding than a pop concert.
After a short while, and with the best seats bagged, it didn't take long for those arriving a little later to try their luck. Rather than choosing a pair of seats half-way back from the stage, a plucky couple strolled up to the barrier and installed themselves bang at the front - and remained standing to boot. They may as well have mooned at the audience and flicked a v-sign for all their consideration.
In a flash, all hell let loose as it became apparent that no-one was going to bother remaining seated. Over the rows of seats, a surge of Pulp fans clambered forward with surprisingly little aggro. I was pleased the inconsiderate couple did what they did. It would have happened sooner or later and I was happy to have landed in my preferred slot right in front of Webbo.
The atmosphere was celebratory as if people were drunk on the sun. The marquee began to fill with so many different people from five year olds to 70 year olds. We know that Pulp have a broad fanbase, but this was really surprising. I'm sure that a few local pensioners came along tonight having never heard of Pulp before, but who were swayed by the description of the band in the festival brochure. It talked of something to the effect of Pulp being the world's best live band, with oodles of wit, showmanship, charisma and insight. While I wouldn't disagree with a single word of that, I don't know of anyone that wouldn't have gone to see such a band given the chance.
Another strange aspect of the evening was that the marquee was really light and airy. The sun didn't set until after 9pm and it felt great not to be tucked up in a dark and dingy venue. Even without the stage lights on, you could see everyone and everything, including a set up on the stage for an additional percussionist, just to the right of Nick.
Eventually Pulp strolled on to the white rectangular stage and
opened with an upbeat Sorted For E's & Wizz followed by
an absolutely fantastic Weeds. When the stage lights came
on, I felt a huge surge of heat, making me realise just how hot it
must get on the stage. I'm not normally that receptive to Sorted,
but it sounded like a genuine effort rather than a band going
through the motions.
Lyrically, Weeds came across as a rallying call to the Pulp troops to re-arm for battle: the fight may have been won, but the war continues. The sonics in Weeds were blisteringly sharp with a fast, regimented drum beat and a sparky chorus that moved the performance up a gear.
The first new new song of the night was Bad Cover Version. Jarvis asked if the audience had ever tried Panda Cola, with many on the front row replying with a rather too excitable 'yes'. "It's nothing to be proud of," observed Jarvis who obviously remembered that it tasted like carbonated cat's piss.
Jarvis went on to make a comparison between Panda Cola and the song, but I was too busy watching Mark as he prepared to play his guitar through an effects board with huge wooden pedals that looked as if they'd been stolen from the organ in a local church. During the song, he methodically depressed each pedal working his way across the board which looked, and sounded really smart. Other than that, there's very little I can remember about Bad Cover Version. Those horrific childhood Panda Cola recollections were obviously affecting my mind.
Like at Highbury, Edinburgh, and the Reading & Leeds Festivals, they played the new version of Common People, the introduction of which went on for ages. During the intro, Candida signalled something to Jarvis. Then Mark almost broke into a smile when he looked at Richard (I said almost). Individually, they were closely watching the movements of the other band members as if they didn't quite know the best point to actually crank up the song. It was amazingly teasing and when it finally came, there was a tangible sense of excitement about it.
F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E started off with Jarvis weaving around the stage clutching a hand-held theremin. It must have been powered off a half-dead Sainsbury's AA battery because it didn't exactly sound too cheeky. Either that or Jarvis didn't hold his mic close enough to it. He handed it towards a girl down the front who fared little better. At least those little theremin squeals made up for the loss of Russell's introductory violin slithers.
And yet only moments later it became apparent that we were about to witness a monumental performance of the song. Any doubts I had last summer about their reworking of FEELING were totally misguided. I was in two minds about what they'd done to it at Highbury and loved it days later at the Reading Festival. Now, nine months later, I find it utterly mesmerising. They ought to get a studio recording made as a future b-side. I'll never forgive them if they allow substandard remixes to bear their name on future releases when they've reinterpreted their songs with results as fine as this.
Next up came A Little Soul, and depending on what group you fall into, you're either bored of Pulp playing it, or you'll never tire from hearing it live. I've always fallen into the latter group, if only because the hand-claps allow for a bit of audience participation. Then there's Richard Hawley's guitar solo which is a highlight in its own right.
The projector screen behind Nick showed clips from the A Little Soul promo video which features the childlike doubles of each band member. At least when Pulp perform A Little Soul they deliver it with charm and spirit which must make it difficult for people to be completely bored by.
Trees was the second brand new song of the night. It could become a bit of a mellow track on the new album depending on its production. It seemed to be held together with a gentle, repetitive riff from Candida. Overlaying the keyboards, Mark tinkered about about with a guitar slide and an E-bow giving the song a smooth musical undercurrent. Jarvis kept singing the words "useless trees" and he didn't elaborate on the subject matter beyond saying that "trees are all around us". He observed how people carve their initials into trees, not realising that as the tree grows, the carving becomes increasingly distorted and snarled.
Minnie provided the highlight of the night for me. Like at Highbury, Jarvis introduced it by mentioning a 'Scottish dream' he once had. I'll be amazed if Minnie isn't one of their first two singles to be lifted from the album.
The percussionist (Pablo Cook, who performed alongside Pulp in late '95 and 1996) really got into his stride. When he wasn't theatrically smashing his 6-foot high mounted cymbal, he'd be banging, twisting and whirling an assortment of percussion instruments around. But what surprised me the most was that I didn't hear a single beat in the entire show where he and Nick were out of time with each other. I'd love Pulp to take Pablo on every tour. Thanks to him and Nick, a new energy and depth was injected into the live sound.
No balloons. No girls in short skirts and tight tops. No nonsense. But as usual, a performance of Party Hard which became a one-sided competition between a sluggish, out-of-time mosh-pit and the lean mean drumming machine that is Nick Banks. He works up the tempo to such a pace that the song ends up imploding under its own colossal presence, taking a tired and exhausted crowd with it. It's brilliant to watch and even better to be a part of. Party Hard radiates its energy and exuberance. Now, let's hear that Sunrise instrumental and we'll really be having it, having it, yeah!
A decent This Is Hardcore now seems to form the spine of all Pulp sets. Jarvis began, rather appropriately, with his gangly body strewn across the stage, holding the microphone above his groin and positioned a few degrees from the vertical. Pervy get!
But the real excitement came with Sunrise, although it got a slightly mute reception at first just as you'd expect from a new-ish song. The projector screen behind Nick showed a film clip taken from a plane flying above the clouds into the setting sun. It contributed to the feeling of unrestrained euphoria when the band finally went for it in the last half of the song. It really is one of the best 'slabs' of sound that Pulp have ever made, and you can't help but have high expectations for it on the new album.
Wicker Man, one of the last in a line of new songs finally made it's debut. Let me tell you: it was well worth the wait. An epic three-part spoken-word narrative which combines the imagery of David's Last Summer with the flair of I Spy, less its revenge and drama. I didn't listen to many of the lyrics but recall Jarvis singing about someone jumping a gap and possibly falling into a river and saying that he wouldn't have jumped that gap himself, "never in a million years".
It'll be one of those songs where most people reach for the lyric sheet at the first play, without considering the music until later listens. In time, this song could well be considered the most sublime moment of the album.
At the end of the song (which spanned about 8 minutes) Jarvis told us that it was a true story, except for the bit about a sweet factory which he said was actually in Chesterfield. I'd really love to hear it again, if only to listen more closely to the story he was telling.
Help The Aged continues to be performed as sprightly as ever and it was good to see Hawley playing along with masses of enthusiasm. At one point, even the percussionist was singing the words.
As for Mark, he was playing along so effortlessly that his fingers appeared to be slithering the length of the fret board. In fact, if there was such as thing as a man of the match award for Pulp shows, then Mark would easily have won tonight. At times he might well appear to be in a perma-sulk but I honestly believe that he's developed and broadened his horizons as a musician. You've only got to look at his ever expanding corner of the stage to see that it's filled with gadgets, accessories, guitars, keyboards and all manner of kit. His influence permeates the new material more than you'd expect it too, and if you ever find yourself at the front of a Pulp concert, just take your eyes off that Jarvis bloke for a minute or two and watch Mark. Then you'll see what I mean.
Jarvis explained that the final song probably wasn't the most appropriate to end with. Ooh... Death II perhaps? Okay, maybe not. But if morbidity was to be the closing theme, then The Fear fits the bill perfectly. A few over-enthusiastic cheers for the song prompted Nick and Candida to look at each other in bemusement, making me wonder if they'd told Jarvis that he could never get away with playing it as their closing song. Well, he could, and although it wasn't the best attempt they've made at it, it was still a great way to close the show.
Looking back, it seems surprising that the set wasn't a bit more experimental, especially with the Homelands Festival just around the corner. The setlist, which omitted the last three songs, indicated that they were going to play the same set for both the Hay and Homelands festivals, but exactly how a dance audience are going to connect with them is anyone's guess.
As for tonight, I've decided that marquees are definitely the future. Standing at the front, there was an impressive clarity to the sound: it was never distorted, never too quiet and never too loud. I don't know if that was because of the marquee, but it was definitely the best sounding Pulp show I've ever been to.
After the new songs that Pulp debuted last summer, and the three new tracks performed tonight, you'd be crackers not to be wildly impatient for the new album (oh, only three and a half years since This Is Hardcore, since you ask). But the more you think about it, and the more you realise how good the new songs are, the more churlish you'd be to bemoan Pulp's extended absence. It may have been a while, but tonight demonstrates that it's been worth the wait.