Yesterday, Sunday 4th of June, thousands crammed the tramlines, masses crowded the streets and droves of excited, worried, scared and brave souls homed in on Manchester’s Trafford borough.
Millions, nationwide and further tuned in to watch Ariana Grande and the all-star studded slew of famous pop musicians take to the stage to cement and celebrate Manchester as a city united, in what must have been a bittersweet and joyous deluge of emotional tears and smiles.
I wouldn’t know though because I was a few miles away in the centre at a different, not last-minute, multiple-band gig. At the O2 Ritz, from 4 till 10, a few bands took to two different stages and rooms in the lead-up to the “headlining” slot by Chicago’s breezy 2016 breakout band: Whitney.
I was there for Whitney but had the pleasure of making it in time for Bill Ryder-Jones who was on just before for a solo “acoustic” set. “Acoustic” because I thought the wording was funny considering he used an electric guitar. So no piano to perform certain tracks from the only album I knew, 2013’s “A Bad Wind Blows in my Heart”.
He really took me by surprise though, shuffling onstage unexpectedly and so so casually joking and fooling around with himself and the crowd. A very far cry from the image I’d created in my head of a soft, frail, short and dark-haired (don’t ask me why…had to picture him somehow), skinny piano guy with the softest and graceful of voices, slow and somehow low-key and relatable. But he proved a bubbly character between and during songs, interrupting them ad lib to comment on something or someone: basically just coming across as a friendly and cool guy-next-door dude, as if he’d just walked into the living room to play some tunes. Having not prepared a setlist, he took people’s requests but he had kept a certain song for the closer as he played a ripping and gripping cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” to full approval of the audience.
It’s the third gig I’ve been to since that awful attack and just like the other two, this one was still instilled with a certain sense of unity and fellowship that transcended the music.
Whitney came on a half hour later with the softest of intro’s showcasing drummer and lead singer (a peculiar and somewhat spellbinding sight) Julien Ehrlich’s flawless and impeccable high, falsetto-like voice.
They performed most songs off their excellent and critically-love debut Light Upon the Lake, starting with “Dave’s Song” and including the wonderful “On My Own” and “Golden Days” before highlights “Magnet”, an energetic NRBQ cover, and new song “Rolling Blackout” which swirled in various buoyant directions and beckoned bright, shiny and pretty new things were on the horizon, promising more of the summery, relaxed window-down road trip music we’ve come to love. I could be imagining it – or wistfully wishing for it – but I thought I noted a hint of maturity and perhaps an ever so slight bump in intricacy. Their set was so satisfyingly and revitalisingly enjoyable, easy and pleasant, short an sweet, different: the singer’s drum platform taking centre-stage, 3 band members not too obscured behind him, some tight drumming, gusty solos, animated pianist, three-way soloing between guitarist, pianist and the excellent trumpeter, some jamming and with their only album clocking in at just 30 minutes, some refreshing 2 and 3 minute light-hearted songs. They ended with their dreamy “No Woman” to a singalong before the DJ or music-guy or whoever, quickly blasted out some music before they’d hardly left the stage completely.
I started fuming once more to my friend but before I had time to repeat my earlier rant of hating the post-performance music as a disrespectful invasion of musical privacy that should be banned to allow the viewer/listener to bathe in the aftermath of the performance they just witness; before I had time to angrily go on about it, before all band members had fully disappeared from sight, my ire was quenched by one the most beautiful sounds that exists to my ears which is the sound of voices blending into a single powerful voice as they sung Manchester’s newly-adopted, post-attack musical emblem “Don’t Look Back in Anger”.
In the blink of an ear, we were singing along to the famous “soooooooooooooo Sally can wait” chorus from our perched balcony heights, standing up on the couches as the lads a few metres down were swaying, shirtless, belting out the hit, to add to the ground floor’s huge medley of raised arms and heads, mouths agape and eyes and faces beaming.
So quick was the transition that the pianist, looked back (in hesitation, not anger), and decided he’d jump in and join in, raised aloft in the arms of Manchester.
The music-guy was making amends and wasted no time in following that up with another Manchester-themed tune, second time during the night, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. So we ran down and joined in the celebrations of one of the things that makes Manchester what it is, and we danced and we sang and there we were having a party in the O2 Ritz, guy in a park flaying his limbs around and shoving his phone in our faces to film it all, balcony couples dancing away and big making-the-ground-shake crowd we were part of just euphorically singing, jumping and dancing away.
All that was left was to follow a Joy Division tune with a New Order one, “Blue Monday” and to continue the partying. Well, until they switched that off…to little avail as we took it up again for a while until the glum-faced security personnel (seriously, why??) ushered us out.
A wonderful, cathartic and adrenaline-raising ending to this most charming and cheerful of evenings.
And the music-guy had redeemed himself.
P.s.: this is assuming there is an actual “music-guy” and not just a “Manchester playlist” that came on at that point, or a random playlist which just so happened to play those 3 songs in that order.