Playing at the Rock City is one of the coolest ways to start a tour. Almost everyone who's been there has a fond memory either of the venue or of a band they've seen there. Pulp last played Rock City just after the release of Mis-Shapes, some six years earlier. It's a class venue and has such a tiny stage that the frontman from the support band - the Fat Truckers - repeatedly came close to knocking over his bandmates' Korg synth as a result of his loony mechanical dance moves. The Fat Truckers are supporting Pulp throughout the tour, and for many are an acquired taste. Pulp fans either seemed to love them or detest them, but tonight, they show themselves to be crazy and brilliant in equally huge portions. Just how many other bands have songs with titles like 'Anorexic Robot', 'Multiplex' and 'Teenage Daughter'? Having stood on the front row, my ears will ever be the same, such was the sonic onslaught from the PA system, clearly turned up to 11. The FTs should even carry a Government health warning - if your ears weren't buzzing for the following two days, my only conclusion is that you just weren't close enough to the stage.
Anyway, all of that's a side issue, because when Pulp finally came on, they looked as glamourous and content as ever - Steve was 'denimed-up' to the eyeballs, Candida sported a bronze shimmery dress with her now trademark pink cardie, Richard was in his "Sid's Sport Shop" shirt, Mark was wearing a tight beige t-shirt, Nick was in all-over black and Jarvis somehow managed to get away with a torn blue top. They really looked as if they meant business.
As they took up their positions (Jarvis was to run on slightly later, as if he wanted his own round of applause) the stage backdrop showed a time-lapsed sequence of a lilly opening up its petals to the sound of what appeared to be a reverse-looped Origin Of The Species sample. It was dead exciting - they sure know how to make an entrance! With the band playing the intro to Weeds, Jarvis eventually scurried on and ran up to the edge of the stage, jabbing a little yellow shaker in front of his microphone before defiantly pulling it away and then shaking it in time with the beat just before Nick crashed in with the drums. By the time Jarvis' vocal was supposed to start, he was at the left side of the stage strutting, staring and pouting away at us all like a randy peacock. He only just made it back to the mic in time to start. With all this just 60 seconds into the show, you could instinctively tell it was gonna be something special.
Weeds lived up to all it threatened to be - the energy release from it was magnificent, especially from Nick who clearly enjoyed smashing the cymbals every few seconds. Following on with Minnie Timperley served to make the opening burst all the more spectacular. In fact, the fans of the new album who turned out that night would have happily staggered off home after hearing The Birds In Your Garden, which was played along with silhouetted bird animations projected onto the screen at the back of the stage. Afterwards, Jarvis sarcastically informed us that those were three songs currently available on the new album. You half expected him to add the inevitable 'available in all good record shops now'. He was almost making a veiled apology for daring to come on and sing three new songs from an album that barely had chance to sniff around the adolescent realms of the top 10. But my God, if you're going to come on to a hat-trick of new songs, you may as well do it in style.
The customary local chit-chat is always a highlight of Jarvis' repertoire. Apparently, he was having a think on the tour bus on the way up to Nottingham about what the city is famous for, and sure enough, he remembered that Nottingham has one of the most uneven gender balances in the UK, with the female population almost twice that of the male. He also muttered something about a club built into the side of rock face which he'd been to years earlier.
I'm always a bit surprised when they play A Little Soul because although I really like it, I can't imagine them sitting backstage saying to each other: "yeh guys, let's do A Little Soul tonight, I really love playing that one." You just can't imagine it can you? At least it got marginally more crowd recognition than the new stuff did, but if that was an obvious teaser into hearing the 'old favourites' (I hate that term cause it implies old=good, new=bad, which is obviously rubbish), it was a false lead, as they dusted off Laughing Boy which provided the faithful hardcore with one of the biggest surprises of the night. I'm not sure if Laughing Boy was as 'reworked' as Pulp like to make out. It's certainly lost a bit of that country tinge and seemed far more genuine and credible as a result. Either way, it's great to hear them play a b-side as it's something they don't do half as much as we'd like.
Unsurprisingly, the crowd cheered loudly when Pulp played the sleazy opening to Live Bed Show making you realise the audience is not just the first few rows, but also those people lurking at the back enjoying the show equally as much. Everyone knew the words to Live Bed Show which is always a positive sign - it's also a bloody good song which fits in neither the 'chart-hit' or the 'obscure old track' mould. It is, quite simply, a brilliant album track. But the best surprise (at least for me) came right at the end of the song, just after Jarvis sang "cause it's changed from something comfortable, to something else instead". I remembered thinking at this point how great the extended version sounded that they used to play during 1996, but which the band had long since forgotten how to play... at least I thought they'd forgotten how to play it. As the guitars eventually faded out, just when I thought they really had finished the song, Nick pounded his drums - and incredibly - they launched into the extended version leaving us all absolutely stunned! The song feels incomplete without it, but tonight they were actually playing it, and it sounded absolutely amazing - those few moments were comparable to any live Pulp experience I've ever had before.
Unlike his previous attempts, Jarvis didn't sing anything during the extended jam which was probably good because he never seemed to have a proper set of lyrics for it anyway. But as another surprise, the ending to Live Bed Show was lengthened even further with an additional instrumental - this one all swirling, moody and ambient. It climaxed with Jarvis picking out the strings of a chord on his acoustic guitar, each time getting gradually slower until the song ended - almost 8 minutes later - sounding not too unlike the ending to Radiohead's 'Street Spirit (Fade Out)'. Live Bed Show had suddenly become as pervy as Hardcore, as dark as The Fear and as epic as I Spy. An unforgettable moment.
Having set the scene, the band moved effortlessly into the intro for F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E proving how well these songs sit together in the set - even if some people do use the opportunity provided by two long songs to wonder over to the bar for a chat. At the end of the song Jarvis asked if any of us were in love: "You probably wouldn't tell anyone else would you? The trouble with love is that it's got a very soppy image to it, whereas I do think it is quite dirty if you do it right." Aaaah, only Jarvis would take the time to share a thought like that with us. If the day ever comes when he's desperate enough to write an autobiography, an excellent title would be: "Love & Sex... Dirty If You Do It Right." Now there's a thought.
The Trees is next up, and the crowd finally recognise one of the new songs, though not half as much as you'd have hoped. "Trees have a very boring sex life" - yeah, thanks for that observation Jarv. As he starts his chat about Panda Cola you know it can only mean Bad Cover Version. One of the best things about seeing a band play in a small venue is that the fans get close enough to initiate a little in-between song banter. As Jarvis mumbled on about the inadequacies of Panda Cola, one guy shouted out "Nice Cords" in admiration of Jarvis' blue corduroy trousers (actually, his elasticated belt was loads more retro - a far cry from the flash Gucci effort he wore continuously during 95/96!) "The good thing about these cords look", stated Jarvis, tugging on the legs of the cords... "They stretch!".
Not a revelation of epic proportion you might think, but then he suffered from one of those momentary lapses, and told us why they needed to stretch... "because of my massive cock!". There was much screaming at this point as Steve gazed towards Jarvis in amazement - not in amazement of his cock, you understand, but in the way that Jarvis was so blatantly suggestive. After a couple of seconds Jarvis had chance to think about what he said: "I don't know why I said that," he admitted, with an embarrassed smile. Yeah Jarvis, but if you're going to say something like that, you may as well say it in a city where the women outnumber men by 2:1.
Bad Cover Version sounds every inch the Christmas single that'll probably end up being released in January when everyone's pissed off with Christmas and fed up with dry turkey sandwiches. Oh well. During the second part of the song when Jarvis lists all those pale imitations, he flicked his fingers out into the air, drawing out the shape of a cereal box as he sang "like an own brand box of corn flakes". His fingers then inscribed a circle which he grabbed and flipped over like a record... "the second side of 'Till The Band Comes In." It won't come as a surprise to learn that Jarvis' finger movements were as suggestive as ever - even when he was outlining something as mundane as the shape of a cereal box!
This Is Hardcore and Sunrise closed the main set. Although the very beginning of TIH was a bit messy (they still have troubles getting the timing right), they waited, started again and got it spot on the second time around. Sunrise has now established itself as a live favourite and warms up the moshers ready for the encore. As Pulp walked off stage they appeared supremely pleased with their efforts. They looked relaxed, comfortable and (dare I say it) happy to be playing concerts again. In fact, you'd never have guessed from their faces that they'd spent various parts of the last three years struggling to pull together a new LP.
After a short refuelling, they came back on to play Sorted which began with a sample from the legendary pirate radio station Centreforce FM - clearly paying homage to the lyric in the song. Babies provided yet more excitement and despite Pulp playing it at most of their concerts over the past decade you'd have to be pretty mean spirited not to enjoy it. There was an understandable joy from the crowd, many of whom must have been relieved to hear a good number of songs they recognised. The Fear closed the first encore in superb style and showed itself (yet again) to be one of those songs which only improves with age.
They soon came back to thrill the pants off us with Underwear (sorry!) which got an even better reaction than Live Bed Show. Disposing with the principle of ending a concert on a slow song, they sent us home in style with Party Hard which they romped through at a terrific pace. The ending of the song was so fast and manic that they couldn't have played it quicker if they'd tried. As the set came to a close, Jarvis smothered the ending of Party Hard with his vocoderised coo-ing - something he clearly loves to do.
Wow... what a show! If this was a statement of intent for the entire tour then it'll be a real treat. A marathon 90-minute 17-song set left me feeling like this was one of the best Pulp shows I've ever had the good fortune to get to. With the bright pink tour buses parked round the side of the venue, the only thing left to do was go and watch the band depart on their relatively short journey up the M1 to Sheffield. Although we couldn't find Mark (where does he get to one wonders?), Nick, Steve, Jarvis and Candida all appeared from the stage doors looking weary yet satisfied. Having paced up to the door on the tourbus, poor Steve found himself at the mercy of about 20 excitable fans whilst he waited for someone inside the bus to press the open button! Clearly the driver's gonna have to improve his timing if they're to survive the reception they'll get in Sheffield tomorrow night.