A night ride to Saltash sets the record straight
Plymouth Pavilions, Tuesday
If you want to get to the heart of what's going down in any town or city, ask a taxi driver. And so it was, in the early hours, on a ride back to the black, white and gold side of the Tamar, I got the lowdown on the Madness show from a cabbie who had been "working" the gig, carrying punters home.
"How was it?" I asked.
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"Yeah, it was a good one," he nodding sagely, as if he'd been right there in the front row. "But they could have played more of the oldies."
Normally, I would smile sweetly and keep quiet, but I couldn't allow that simplistic, cavalier statement to define what I'd just witnessed.
So I told him that, of course, London's finest purveyors of ska pop could have played more oldies... but they would either have been on stage till dawn, or they'd have left out the six fabulous songs from their brand new album, which are in my humble opinion, right up there with the gems of their back catalogue, if you only open your ears.
Times move on and a band without creativity and imagination is but a factory churning out nostalgia, I declared, getting into my stride. Yes, some try and fail, but when Madness re-emerged in 2009 with their homage to their home city with LP The Liberty of Norton Folgate they opened the doors to a new generation of songs and fans and Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da was following suit, I explained.
The show was fabulous; there was a glitzy, carnivalesque, music hall air about it; a set with drapes, eerie old fashioned clown faces, rich red and blue lighting, the band shadowed Peter Pan-like from time to time against a backdrop that flashed up film clips and classy graphic images. Suggs and Chas Smash were on fine form, suited, booted and shaded, strutting and grooving, the ultimate singing frontman double act. Eccentricity oozed from the whole caboodle – a be-fezzed Lee blasting his saxophone, Chrissy Boy the commander of guitar and funny faces (and midway a, shall we say, interesting rendition of Highway to Hell), muso maestro Monsieur Barso and smiley Woody underpinning the whole deal at the back on piano and drum kit, with a three-man brass section slamming in to swell the climaxes.
The atmosphere in the crowd was happy and jubilant, I enthused; less edgy and raucous and "nutty boy" than past shows, perhaps, due to the band's elevation to national treasure status after their Jubilee japes on the roof at Buckingham Palace and on the back of a lorry at the Olympics.
The deceptively simple, diverse and finely crafted Misery, La Luna, How Can I Tell You, Never Knew Her Name, My Girl 2 – partnered beautifully with My Girl the first – all slotted comfortably into a set that was a vibrant celebration of the band's uniqueness, rather than the kind of chronological greatest hits journey some people might have expected.
Anyway, they played loads of oldies – kicked off with One Step Beyond, Embarrassment, The Prince, NW5 (from Norton Folgate), The Sun and the Rain, Another Weary Day, Wings of a Dove, Shut Up, Bed and Breakfast Man, Michael Caine, House of Fun, Baggy Trousers, Our House, the sweetest It Must Be Love.
Rapturous applause prompted a three-tune encore – the moody skanking newbie Death of a Rude Boy, back to the start of it all with Prince Buster's Madness, with the strains of Night Boat To Cairo bringing an awesome performance to a triumphant close.
And another thing... I danced all night; it made my hair curl.
"Righty-ho. That will be £12.50," smiled the cabbie, as we drew up outside my door.
Plymouth Pavilions, Friday
Criticising a Steps concert feels a little like berating a puppy; the recently reformed 1990s band known for their effervescent brand of cheesy, feel-good pop are just as harmless and well-intentioned.
But Christmas With Steps at Plymouth Pavilions was still curiously disappointing. It was the first date in a mini tour of smaller venues following an arena tour marking the five-piece's return to pop-tastic form.
Clearly Lee, Claire, Lisa, Faye and H felt a need to offer something different after belting out their biggest dance-floor fillers back in the summer, but the concert bore all the signs of something slapped together quickly to capitalise on their return to the spotlight.
The much-heralded Christmas songs were for the most part covers of maudlin ballads which, while well executed, were so far from what Steps are all about as to leave their audience a little baffled. Renditions of depressing Burt Bacharach tunes sat awkwardly alongside more cheery pop cheese; a problem for the crowd, who were one minute jumping to their feet for big hits like One for Sorrow, only to sink disappointed into their seats minutes later for another "Christmas" number.
The band's new song Light Up the World was excellent, if a little un-Steppy, and the three girls pulled off an admirable cover of I Know Him So Well, with Claire once again showcasing the best vocals.
They promised their most popular songs would be squeezed in but some of the biggest chart toppers like Deeper Shade of Blue and 5,6,7,8 were sadly missing.
Instead we were offered songs from the back catalogue not included in the arena tour, as if this was some kind of treat, but all it did was remind you why they'd been overlooked.
The show closed, as it had to, with a high-octane rendition of their most famous hit, Tragedy, which brought the house down.
"Do you want more one?" H shouted. We did – another one of the classics please. Instead we got another Christmas song.