Merge Records kicked off their 30th Anniversary celebration season with a special gift for the faithful: a rare visit from Scotland’s power pop paragons, Teenage Fanclub. The beautiful riverside setting had to struggle to keep up with the loveliness the band brought: intricate, perfectly wrought delicate musical petit-fours we gladly gobbled until the last crumb.
When the Fanclub took the stage at the Haw River Ballroom, they quickly announced that this was the last show of a three month tour. Needless to say, the five-man Fanclub was a tight as any rock band I’ve ever seen. Over the course of the nineteen song set, I never heard one bum note.
Frontman, singer, and guitarist Norman Blake was in fine form, pleasantly introducing the songs in his thick Glaswegian accent. Ah, the sounds of home! He was playing a semi-hollow-body Gibson 335 through a Vox AC15 amplifier and sounding great. From my seat in the balcony, with his glasses, he bore a striking resemblance to Mike Myers’ Dad in I Married An Axe Murderer (“Let’s Get Pissed!”) The lean, balding and distinguished looking Raymond McGinty played solid and tasteful lead guitar through what appeared to be a mid-60’s Fender Jaguar (I used to own one just like it, and if I could have made it sound like his I would have kept it) while he sang lead on about a third of the songs. New bassist Dave McGowan (must be a relative? A McGowan from Glasgow…) was a melodic beast on the Rickenbacker bass. Drummer Frances McDonald was solidly on time, and the fiddly bits on keys were provided by Euros Childs. All five band mates sang backup, to great advantage.
They opened with a head-floating ‘About You’ from the Grand Prix record. The set was heavy on tunes from the album Songs From Northern Britain, including a beautiful, Big Star take on ‘Start Again,’ and a Hollies sounding ‘Bad World.’ Man-Made’s ‘Only With You’ was a beautiful, Southern-California styled pop, featuring acoustic guitar and a strong keyboard figure.
There were two songs from the hard-to-find first record, A Catholic Education, but the standouts were still for me the Bandwagonesque songs, an Alex Chilton sounding ‘Alcoholiday,’ and a rousing version of ‘The Concept’ at the end of the set. The encores were ‘The Fall’ from Shadows, followed by a Badfinger cover - ‘Lay Me Down’ - which Norman claimed was the first time they ever played it live. Of course it was perfect. With A Catholic Education’s noisy ‘Everything Flows,’ the show, and the tour, was over.
Adrienne and I discussed for some time the secret of Teenage Fanclub’s excellence: what is it? This was one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time. It seems that they adopt a Big Star version of power-pop that really favors the more bubblegum side of pop. Where a similar group like The Posies incorporates Zeppelin licks and British Invasion bombast, the Fanclub keeps it simple, not very rhythm and blues influenced. They use more of a Beach Boys than a Beatles inspiration. Their British Invasion influences run to the more commercial, such as Herman’s Hermits and Gerry and the Pacemakers and perhaps even early Donovan. And in their hands, there is nothing wrong with that. The Fanclub formula usually involves four chord patterns, 4/4 time, and beautiful harmonies. They have little use for odd time signatures or chord progressions, but their calculations are worked to perfection. They are right now probably the perfect power-pop band. I’m proud of them, proud to be a Scotsman from Glasgow, and proud of Merge Records.