The Woodentops Live: Back On The Love Train At Last

"You’ve always been at the back of my mind…" Wyndham Wallace welcomes The Woodentops to Berlin’s Lido Club.

History has not been kind to The Woodentops. Though they achieved a moderate level of critical and commercial success during the late 80s to early 90s, in the succeeding two decades they have been forgotten by all but their most committed fans, a marginalised footnote to a footnote, occasionally namechecked alongside the likes of Thrashing Doves for their unlikely association with Ibiza’s nascent Balearic scene. Even those committed fans, therefore, must have been surprised when Rolo McGinty decided to give The Woodentops another spin. The world hadn’t exactly been crying out for a reunion, and they’d never been one of those bands that looked like candidates for critical rehabilitation anyway. Here they are, though, back on stage in Berlin for the first time since the Wall fell, with a run of dates in the UK ahead of them. But Berlin’s not been kind to them either: there are less than a hundred people in the audience.

"Lots of room to dance tonight," McGinty jokes as the band arrive, but fortunately his good humour is well placed for, within a minute of opening track ‘Get It On’ beginning, this sparse crowd has entirely forgotten the disappointment of having to revisit past glories in these less than celebratory circumstances. The Woodentops always had a reputation for breakneck live performances, with songs from their two somewhat jangly albums given a generous dose of rhythmic amphetamine, and it’s clear nothing has changed. Throwing down a couple of new songs as an additional bonus, they rattle through their catalogue as though their tour bus could leave at any moment and they don’t want to skip a beat before it goes. But, even though this sporadically seems to leave McGinty struggling to deliver his lyrics in time, it’s not a sign of impatience, especially given the hefty number of songs they call upon. It’s simply the way they do things, and it’s night on impossible to resist.

It’s not just the pace of their performance that’s athletic, either. The songs themselves have muscled up, with guitars ricocheting off one another and Paul Ashby’s drums clattering like the repeated and synchronised collapse of a kitchen cabinet. The band may lack the attention to visual presentation that has become a prerequisite of 21st Century indie – McGinty himself looks like a carpenter who’s taking a tea break – but it’s clear that they have the stamina of a group half their age. Their amped up approach has other benefits too, revealing hitherto overlooked elements within their music: ‘Good Thing’ revels in an Afrobeat treatment that would make Vampire Weekend dizzy, while ‘Last Time’ hints at funk and disco in its revitalised DNA. Most surprising is the makeover given to ‘Everything Breaks’ in which a slouching, almost baggy beat builds towards a phosphorescent climax, Simon Mawby’s Gretsch summoning the spirit of Johnny Marr’s finest work with The Smiths, McGinty himself almost bellowing the song’s final lines, "See the stars shine so brightly for me tonight".

Maybe its lyrics like these that are behind McGinty’s desire to tear through their setlist. The Woodentops might have been credited with leading the indie/dance crossover but their lyrics were more often tender than hedonistic, even when given to ecstasy-glazed optimism. Consequently, perhaps, McGinty sought back then to bury his sentiments beneath this musical rush since they were at odds with the audience that found the band rather than the one that their label, Rough Trade, might have expected. ‘Good Thing’ is especially intimate, an understated tale of separation and reunion from a loved one – ‘Thanks for the card that you sent / I hung it on the wall / I always read those letters, yes I do / Even if I’ve read them before, again and again" – yet tonight those words are lost in the mix. The tremulous vulnerability of his voice, however, remains firmly evident, not unlike Terry Hall’s, and what the band lack of their studio albums’ sparkling sensitivity is more than made up for by a performance that makes perfect sense of their popularity with late 80s Ibiza DJs. Songs are stretched to breaking point, simple melodic motifs repeated over and over again as if they were tied to a techno template, or – in the case of their original Balearic crossover, ‘Why Why Why’ – given an impressive if short-lived Trenchtown makeover. (The band, let us not forget, worked, albeit unsuccessfully, with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in 1986, and Skip McDonald also joined their line up late in their ‘first’ career.)

Furthermore, they’re not afraid of cranking it up, as they do a number of times – ‘Why Why Why’ later falling prey to a delightfully extended squall of feedback – or combining unlikely styles, McGinty’s wrist-snapping strumming of his semi-acoustic still dominating proceedings even when the rest of the band are lost in the kind of ska beloved of The Specials or the rock ‘n’ roll and doowop hybrid of ‘Give It Time’. And though one or two of their tunes suffer from a structural similarity, Ashby intermittently battering out a slightly over-familiar tattoo, the undeniable truth is that this is way, way more than an exercise in nostalgia. In fact, were one to arrange a Pepsi Challenge style blind taste test, The Woodentops might well come out on top of most contemporary indie rock. If they can incite a middle aged crowd of balding Berliners to shake their rumps, then the kind of crowds that one hopes will greet their UK shows will definitely want to leave their coats at the cloakroom. The band that history forgot are back and at the top of their game, with such unlikely bending and blending of genres frankly as timely as it ever was, if perhaps a little too subtle for youthful ears. So while they may not have made the kind of lasting impact that other recently reunited bands have, you get the feeling they’re not just here to pick up the fees. In fact, as McGinty laughs upon his return to the stage for a third encore, "we’re suckers for this as well. " More than most, therefore, The Woodentops deserve another chance to secure their place in the history books. "Give it time," McGinty sang in 1986, but it should never have taken this long…

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