Despite the uncertainty surrounding their immediate future, The Courteeners return home to play a triumphant Friday night gig. Chris Duffy was there to witness it.
Over the past five years, Middleton natives The Courteeners have, like clockwork, returned to Manchester to play their annual homecoming pre-Christmas gig. Beginning at railway station-turned-arena Manchester Central back in 2009, just prior to the release of 2nd album Falcon, they have since taken in Manchester Apollo and Manchester Arena. In addition to their annual winter shows, the band also enjoyed two sell out summer shows at the city’s Castlefield Bowl earlier this year.
This year’s festivities had an added precursor after lead singer and enigmatic talisman Liam Fray stated just days prior to the show that this would probably be the band’s final gig before a hiatus lasting “at least a year”. As we know, in music, such claims are best taken with a pinch of salt: after all, we have all been waiting with baited breath for JLS’s supposed split for what seems like an eternity. And by the end of the evening Fray’s declaration and the future of The Courteeners seemed even more undecided.
If a dreary Friday 13th in Manchester was to mark The Courteeners last foray for any extended period of time, then they certainly went out in style. It is little more than expected; in a city that has a rich history of producing bands and artists of great quality The Courteeners are the latest to be taken under Manchester’s wing as “their band”. Speak to anyone in the pubs and clubs on the week of a Courteeners concert and it seems everyone knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone who is going – that is, if they’re not going themselves. They’re no Smiths or Joy Division, of course, but it’s pretty clear they’re the best Manchester has at the moment and they are treated as such by a fanbase which tonight Fray heralds as “The best fans in the f**kin’ world.” You could tell he meant it.
Just a few hours prior to Fray’s proclamation, just after 9:15pm, the band swaggered on stage and were greeted with cheers and chants – aimed in particular at the charismatic front man. Standing front of stage, arms held aloft, Fray takes in the scene as Manchester chants his name back at him. Latest single ‘Are You In Love With A Notion’ has become the standard set-opener over the past year or so, replacing the aptly named ‘The Opener’ – Fray’s ode to “The city I love” – which gets a welcome airing later in the night.
The band proceeds to thunder through a set list in keeping with most of the tour so far, with the only notable addition being local favorite ‘Fallowfield Hillbilly’, from debut album St Jude. Most of 2013’s ANNA is present, including singles ‘Lose Control’ and ‘Van Der Graaff’, and all are warmly received by the 14,000 or so in attendance.
Early St. Jude singles ‘Acrylic and Cavorting’ along with non-album single ‘That Kiss’ are sung back at the band word-for-word. ‘Take Over The World’, the biggest single from second album Falcon finishes the main portion of the set and ‘The Rest Of The World Has Gone Home’, from the same record, is the stand out number from Fray’s solo-acoustic interlude.
Fray then welcomed his bandmates back to the stage one-by-one, as if they were being introduced for their final victory lap before their impending aperture. The tried-and-tested formula of balancing out recent tracks with beloved classics is one that aids The Courteeners well, but it seems the real gems still lie in blockbuster tracks from their first album. While newer additions such as ‘Here Come The Young Men’ and ‘Push Yourself’ are received well, they pale in comparison to the chaos that ensues during the final few songs of the night.
‘Not Nineteen Forever’ remains the bands most popular song, prompting the the arena to seemingly bounce in unison. Plastic cups are tossed high in the air as blue smoke bombs and red flares are set off in the standing section. It’s a glorious sing-along and a sight to behold. The crux of it all sadly is that ‘Not Nineteen Forever’ is a song that The Courteeners have yet to surpass. It has been the highlight of their live sets for five years and as good as it is, it seems even by the band’s own admission they need to mix things up a bit – “we’ve played those songs a lot, I think we need to go away…and reassess really for the next ‘phase'”.
The only song that can cause the same level of music-induced mayhem is perennial set-closer ‘What Took You So Long’ (interspersed with James’ ‘Tomorrow’ from the 1997 album Whiplash). As is so often the case, it provides the band’s last hurrah for the evening; confetti shoots from cannons below the stage and 14,000 bawl the infectious hook at the top of their lungs all the way back to their Manchester suburbs. It’s a fitting finale to an excellent – and possibly to this chapter of The Courteeners existence.
As for immediate expectations; Fray is talented and marketable enough to make inroads as a singles artist, which seems a viable option at this stage but what the future holds for The Courteeners as a band, only the four of them know. One thing is for sure – if this was the last we see of Manchester’s premier band for a while; they certainly went out with a bang.