The Slow Readers Club joined the growing trend of bands putting out ticketed live socially-distanced streams on Friday night with a set broadcast live via Veeps. Featuring a set heavy on their recent top ten fourth album The Joy Of The Return, they delivered a full set of fan favourites in Derby Hall at Bury Met.
The music industry has had to find innovative solutions to the existential crisis it sees itself facing as live shows, the real bread and butter of any successful (or not) band, have been pretty much wiped out for the rest of 2020. The Slow Readers Club have had more cause to bemoan this than most, having taken the risk of giving up well paid jobs at the start of 2019 to go full-time. 2020 was meant to be their big breakthrough; it started with their album following its predecessor Build A Tower into the charts, but improving on its number 18 entry with number 9 in its opening week. As it was released though, the country shut down, the shows scheduled in the UK and Europe in March through May were all cancelled, the rescheduled October UK dates look like going the same way. This live stream aimed to both bring the band well-needed income, given the government's half-hearted support of artists, as well as to quench the almost unsatiable thirst of their dedicated fan base for the new songs to be performed live and to have something approaching the celebratory live experience.
The technology, and the average fan's comprehension of it, is still a work-in-progress. Work laptops not allowing the stream, older TVs not being compatible, the complexities of ticketing and the unreliability of internet connections dominated the chat on the Readers fan group in the build up. Yet it did nothing to dull the excitement of the majority who shared photos of themselves meeting up with other fans, decking their house out as best they can to replicate a gig as they waited for the clock to tick down to 8pm.
As the timer struck eight and the testcard disappeared to be replaced by an empty stage, the opening strains of their intro music I Feel Love blasted out of The Met's full speaker set-up as the band made their way onto stage. Later Aaron joked that this was like the old days with no one in the crowd when the customary roar of approval didn't greet the end of a song. It's both amusing, but also inadvertently a really pertinent summary of where lovers of live music and the people performing it are right now.
Things almost go awry right at the start with Aaron's mic not working for the first couple of lines of Killing Me, but once it kicks in the song's uplifting momentum means that's quickly forgotten. If anyone at home is feeling that this is a bit strange, Aaron assures us that it's the same for them. In particular the lack of applause and cheering seems to make them a little uneasy early on, but they're buzzing for the excitement of finally being able to play these songs on the stage but the acknowledgement that something's missing is an important one, especially for a band whose shows have a genuine communal feel to them. In fact when someone suggests on the chat they should have taken some "READERS" chants off youtube, Aaron takes note for next time.
The set is a balanced mix of old and new. Most recent single The Wait sees Aaron in fine vocal form and the song, like many of the new ones, are bulked out from the lighter touch radio-friendlier production on the album, whilst Cavalcade oldies Plant The Seed and Grace Of God give him the opportunity to really let loose. But what's also remarkable, watching them live for the first time since December, the longest period between gigs since we first saw them, is just how tight a live band they've become without compromising the energy of the songs. David's drumming might look effortless and unfussy, but listening to it here makes us appreciate the complexity, whilst Kurtis and Jim's guitars and bass really make their mark on the new songs like Jericho, All The Idols, Paris and No Surprise.
The new material means some crowd favourites have had to be lost, but I Saw A Ghost revels in its new mid-set spot, free of the pressure of being one of the big songs at the end of set it feels refreshed and even more powerful. On The TV is also relieved of its singalong by the lack of audience participation that can sometimes detract from the song's own powerful message and stands tall and proud under its own weight. Feet On Fire and Block Out The Sun, both from their debut that's approaching its tenth anniversary, still brim with excitement and sound fresher than ever.
There's light and serious moments too. Aaron gets the set order wrong and introduces I Saw A Ghost instead of All The Idols to the amusement of the other three and reads off one of his wife's messages from the live chat feed they have on the wall before realising who sent it. There's also a beautiful tribute, and you can hear the emotion in Aaron's voice as he delivers it, to long-standing supporter and admin of the band's fan group David Oselton who died last week. They dedicate You Opened Up My Heart, a song Aaron had presented him with hand-written lyrics to, as a genuine memorial.
They finish with the three key singles from their last three albums. All I Hear was the opening salvo from The Joy Of The Return, a hint at the album's new direction and with a less personal and more world-view focus in the lyrics. Jim's bassline, steeped in the great Mancunian tradition of that instrument leading songs, signals the opening to Forever In Your Debt, still their finest moment in this fan's humble opinion, three and half minutes that should have smashed down the walls and shattered the glass ceilings that constrained them as a part-time band looking for the same break so many were seven years ago. They finish with a soaring Lunatic, the song that did make the breakthrough for them when it lead the Build A Tower campaign with such success.
It did feel surreal not being in there with friends and strangers, a few beers down, arms and voices raised in unison. But this is the best we're going to have for quite some time (March to now is four months, we're looking at double that again based on recent announcements on most tours). The live streams will work for bands you truly love, as the only alternative to have real time live music, but for a casual fan of any band they might firstly not feel like they're worth the expense and secondly the focus that gets lost at a gig with a run of songs they don't know will have plenty of domestic distractions or simply the chat screen at the side of the stream.
The band put on an almost faultless show, the tracks from The Joy Of The Return really come to life with the four of them performing them on stage and the old favourites still retain their ability to set the feet tapping and head nodding. They still possess the same humility and modesty they've always done - making sure they thank the crew and repeatedly thanking us for being there. The technology that allows this type of event to happen held its own too. Yet if this is the new normal though, it's going to take some getting used to, for both band and fans. For now, it's far far better than nothing at all.