Joe Kennedy wasn't sure about the current line-up of The Fall group, but a recent gig at Brixton Electric saw faith restored - it was that good, he writes, that he almost felt as if he was in non-London

The last time I saw The Fall, and it was too long ago, was upstairs in a pretty small venue in a hard-as-nails northern city. It was early in the days of the current incarnation of the group, which since 2013 has also been the longest-serving line-up, allowing for the recent addition of Daren Garratt as an additional live drummer, and the striking impression was of the sheer muscle of the configuration. What it was put to use for that night, in front of a typical northern Fall crowd of CAMRA types and lads in Stone Island gear, was the production of an intensely confrontational smear of sound in which few songs as such were discernible and which felt more like an exercise in durational art. It was a fantastically good show, and it has stayed with me consolingly over the last few years as I’ve started to doubt the continued efficacy of the Melling-Greenway-Spurr backbone: in fact, my disappointment with last year’s Re-mit largely stemmed from the fact that the album seemed to represent a limit point for a cast who seemed finally to have brought a degree of glasnost to Mark E. Smith’s historically troubled camp.

There are ways in which The Fall can succeed live without seeking out quintessences of aggression and discordance. One of these, and it’s not a characteristic solution for Smith, is to live up to the professionalism he has eulogised – not least as ideal personality traits for his musicians – for years in a live performance. Longstanding Fall fans will understand that ‘professionalism’ is generally, in this context, a honed commitment to prole art antagonism rather than an aspiration to Coldplayesque smoothness, but the Bingomaster has not always been able to exert this at shows. To see him intensely focused on the music, and the general aesthetic project, he’s put his entire adult life into, and to see him act like he unequivocally believes in it, and to perhaps even hear songs treated as songs rather than as starting lines for militant agitprop, is something I’ve quite liked the idea of for a while.

I’m not expecting this on arrival at Brixton Electric. I bump into a guy I know from the match who, it turns out, has never seen the band live before. I’m genuinely surprised about this, but I can’t hide my scepticism. If truth be told, I’m dreading a shocker. The last band I saw here were Swans, and the frustrating little exigencies of the venue, which felt over-full that night, combined to send me into a spiral of cynicism about the band. I buy my mate Steve and I a can of Red Stripe each and the fact I end up ten pounds lighter from the transaction fuels my sense that there is no way this can possibly go well.

But: it does. It really, really does. There is no fifteen-minute period in which the band perform a vamp which gets incrementally less vampish the longer Smith fiddles around in his dressing room, and he comes on, if not quite part of the unit, then definitely at least clearly affiliated to it. Okay, his vocals are a bit wayward in the first song, which I’m going to put my cards on the table and say I don’t recognise, but fills me with idiot joy in exactly the way that those olden-day Fall tunes where the backline, geed along by an Una Baines keyboard line, would career to the boundaries of control and just about hold it together. The whole audience seems to get involved in the adrenaline surge; the gig feels, briefly, distinctly un-London. Smith looks as grumpy as ever, but he also looks well, determined, involved and concentrated. He launches ‘The Remainderer’ by grabbing Pete Greenway’s otherwise almost-superfluous microphone, but there’s none of that wandering round the stage, a caricature of his own caricatured Carrier Bag Men, fiddling with the amps or Elena Poulou’s keyboard settings.

It turns out, however, that the audience are happier than Smith with how things are going. In between ‘The Remainderer’ and ‘Cowboy George’ he tells The Fall’s own tour engineer to stop fidgeting and leave it to the house. It’s a really succinct and, by his standards, reasonable way to address the problem, and the sound does become palatably better. In turn, this seems to energise an already pretty strong performance, giving us late-period Fall at their chunky, coruscating best. Subsequently, ‘Bury’, which I’ve never really trusted on record, is clanking, malevolent north Mancunian brilliance and Shift-Work’s interpretation of The Big Bopper’s ‘White Lightning’ is an exhilarating tour of Smith’s musicological worldview. As ever, I can’t identify everything, which is not necessarily a drawback with this band, and there are some drawing-board versions of songs which are good enough to suggest that the doldrums of Re-mit and Ersatz GB – by a country mile the worst Fall album – are about to be exited impressively. It’s only at the end, during the encore of ‘I’ve Been Duped’ (which we pointedly haven’t been tonight) that the amp-fiddling happens, and, on this occasion, you can actually see the logic behind it. It isn’t so much that Smith is unhappy with how they sound, it’s that he’s using the amplifiers as instruments in themselves, adding crests and spikes to the sound. It recalls Can or Lee Perry rather than a man cantankerously hitting the television in the hope the picture will improve.

So, this is a pretty top-drawer Fall show. It’s dangerous to draw conclusions about any band’s health, let alone this band’s health, based on a solitary live performance and a scattering of new songs, but I leave feeling more optimistic about them than I have done for some time. The measure of their effectiveness is that I manage to forget I’m in London until I’m almost all the way home: briefly, the rentier-crushed Johnsonian dystopia feels more like Preston or Sunderland, a provincial town where Time Out and pheromone dating are just inconsequential bad dreams and your flat is unlikely to be subject to a whimsical 350% rent increase overnight. If I’m homesick, something must be working.

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