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SMOKING BAN
:: Puressence ::
17 November 2004 / The Lowry Theatre / Salford
By Cath Aubergine

"Puressence concert?" asks the Womens Institute skirted usherette. It's not hard to distinguish us from the Lyric Theatre's rather more cultured looking clientele. In the Lyric bar, formally dressed couples sip wine by the glass. Down the corridor in the Quays bar, there's a run on pints and crisps, and scruffy people looking for somewhere to have a sneaky fag. Puressence have a large contingent of loyal travelling fans and it's like a family reunion: the German bunch have arrived, here's the London lot - hugs are exchanged between people who haven't seen each other since the last gig. The band mingle unobtrusively: let The Others and their ilk think they invented the band-and-fans-as-one-big-gang thing, if it makes them feel important. This is the way it's always been here. Lowell Killen sucks on a cigarette and grins under his unruly mop: it was just over a year ago he was catapulted from fan to band: here at the Lowry his remarkable E-bowed guitar work on "You Move Me" wiped away doubts about the new boy. Fans still talk about it in near reverential tones. So needless to say expectations are high tonight. Only Aziz Ibrahim is running well over time in there doing his ubiquitous Anglo-Asian folk-dub warm-up act, and it's a choice between him and having a drink - and, for many fans, a smoke. The Government's new curbs on smoking in public places, announced today, may be excellent news for the health of bar staff everywhere, but rather less great for support bands.

Eventually a back projection flickers into life and a smart young man emerges... surely not! Jimmy Mudriczki in a stylish black suit? Only with that cheeky scally face that's hardly aged over his decade in the business, and the prominent fag-packet-shaped lump in the pocket, the words "court appearance" are whispered in various corners of the hall... It's a fine effort though. Lowell, rather less well turned out in his trademark baggy-and-then-some denims, picks up an acoustic guitar. They open with the soulful "Life Comes Down Hard", and for a minute could be the kind of "proper tunes and nice singing and none of that horrible noisy stuff" duo you could take your granny to watch. Then they're joined by the rest of the band, plus a session keyboard player - so much for Acoustic then. It's a strange one, this craze for bands to go and do an acoustic show in a classier venue than they're used to - often the protagonists, such as Puressence and Badly Drawn Boy - are amongst the scruffiest in the business. You wonder what they are trying to prove - is it some heavily underlined claim that We Are Proper Musicians Too You Know?

Puressence have nothing to prove: that they have more great songs than anyone can remember is without doubt. "How Does It Feel", an average album track yet always brilliant live, and tonight is no exception. It's not even remotely acoustic by this point. Down in the stalls, feet are tapping. Usually by three songs into a Puressence gig there's a bouncing, grinning, sweaty throng crowded around the stagefront. Another wine gum? Ooh, thank you. However, the crystal clear acoustics do allow maximum appreciation of brand new songs, "Sold Unseen" for example, a gorgeous soaring ballad of lush minor chords and that voice - a definite contender for a future single which would soon show the likes of Keane how it's really done - or interesting takes on old favourites such as a beautiful voice-and-piano "Understanding".

The things get slightly odd. As Jimmy defies the rules and lights up, the words "September 11, 2001" appear on the backscreen. The hazy introduction to "Standing In Your Shadow" begins. "Are the American people being told the truth?" asks the screen, and "Is the truth important?" followed by a rapid-fire raft of off-the-shelf (or at least off-the-web) conspiracy theories regarding whether the third plane really crashed into the Pentagon and suchlike. The band play their best-known song in front of this as if it's not there. Never a band to show a great deal of interest in politics - at least nothing you would know from their music - it's a strange experience, like watching split-screen. The tune ends under the single, stark word "IRAQ". Nobody's quite sure what to make of it. Whatever, Jimmy's soon got a beer in his hand - all right for some - and dealt cheekily with a heckler. "I know it's suppose to be acoustic, but.... is it fuck!" heralds a momentous version of another recent set addition "Don't Forget To Remember", and old standards "This Feeling"and "Turn the Lights Out When I Die" sound massive - and sitting still is getting ever more frustrating. "Near Distance", still hauntingly beautiful after all these years, closes the main set.

Many of the crowd will be back for the second night, such is the nature of Puressence. For these, it's an interesting diversion from sweaty little venues and human pile-ups, although to the casual viewer it seems to fall rather between two stools. One loyal die-hard's brought his partner for the first time tonight - she doesn't get it, and he concedes it wasn't the best idea. The long-distance travellers will have spent the day soaking up Manchester's culture, couldn't-have-ordered-it-in-better drizzle and many pubs. Closer to the weekend, local fans will probably be up for more mischief too. Drinking and smoking restrictions may be flouted, chairs may be danced on. But here we walk away, quietly discussing the performance; and like the civilised theatre-goers we're generally not, bid the Womens Institute skirted usherette a polite goodnight.


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