As I never tire of mentioning, when I last saw Athlete at Rock City (in February 2004), they were being supported by a pre-"Run" Snow Patrol. In fact, this was the very week that "Run" was released and Athlete proudly informed us that from the midweek charts it looked like their warm-up act were going to make the top 5. "So go out and buy their record tomorrow. Anyway, here's our biggest hit single - it made number 43" said the singer, before launching into "Westside".
At the time, Athlete seemed to be on the cusp of great things: their debut album, "Vehicles & Animals" had been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, and with a bit of TV advertising and a knack for writing memorable tunes, they seemed to have a real chance of some proper success. Since then, Snow Patrol have of course subsequently gone on to multi-platinum greatness, and are being lined up to support U2 as they tour the enormodomes in the summer; but what's happened to Athlete? Well, thirteen months later and they're still playing Rock City, for one thing..... but that's not neccessarily a bad thing..... it was absolutely rammed to the rafters, and it's one of those venues that has a few steps dotted around the place, as well as a balcony, so probably looks like a bear pit from the stage. Nottingham being the happening town that it is, Daniel Bedingfield was also playing at a different venue, so we had some fun whilst parking the car trying to guess who had come to watch which gig. The truth is that the Athlete audience is pretty easy to pick out: although there was a pretty wide age-range present, to be honest, from the looks of it their core constituency is the 20-25 year old student. As you'd probably expect from their new, piano-drenched sound, a good proportion of the crowd were women. We assumed that all the chavs we saw were on their way to see the Bedmeister.... or just to nick our cars.
The support certainly wasn't as good this time - Stephen Fretwell ("the finest singer/songwriter in the UK" according to his website) appears to wish that he was Damien Rice, and he sits firmly in the "the cat / is on the mat / wearing a hat" school of rhyme... and he has dreadful hair to boot.
They've released a new album, "Tourist", which I think went into the chart at number one. They've had a proper top 5 single too - "wires" - so you can hardly accuse them of standing still. They certainly appear to have more stage presence than the last time I saw them as well - and not just because of the delighful brown tank-top the keyboardist was wearing. They've tweaked their sound a little bit too: "Vehicles & Animals" is full of quirky, jaunty songs, but on "Tourist" they have discovered what one might term their "Coldplay" sound - all lush pianos and plaintiff choruses. Their first song just rams this point home. "Chances" makes lyrical reference to a mathematician trying to solve the forumula for love, which is dangerously close to Chris Martin's premise for "The Scientist".... on the whole though, I think the comparison is unfair. Athlete have always used keyboards, and the new sound is evolutionary rather than revolutionary I think - lazy journalists again.
They were really, really good. The atmosphere in Rock City was great and the band seem to be in that charming phase where they can't quite believe how well they're doing, and that people know the words to their new songs - they're all smiles (actually, a lot like Snow Patrol for the whole of last year). "Westside" - their biggest hit from their first album, remember, was played about 4 songs into the set (which was exciting news for the idiot standing in front of me - you know those people who try to squeeze past you, forcing you to turn sideways to let them past, and then they decide to stop right in front of you, leaving you unable to put your hands back down by your sides? He was one of them. He also had no concept of body space, and began edging backwards. Anyway. He left after "Westside" - perhaps he was trying to make it to Daniel Bedingfield before he played "James Dean (I wanna know)"?)
The set was what you'd expect - most of the new album with a dash of the first album thrown in for good measure. They really got the crowd soaring when they played "Vehicles & Animals", which became an acoustically driven singalong with the crowd roaring out the lyrics (the singer actually stopped at one point, and asked if we actually wanted to hear him sing, or if he should just sing along with us), and moved on through "You Got The Style" and finished up with "Wires".... before of course being dragged up onstage for a few more songs by the loudest shouts for an encore I have heard at Rock City.
Catch them if you can - the next time we see them will be in far bigger venues than these. I think they'll get the festival crowds pumping in the summer, that's for sure.
Thanks to Retro-Boy for generously sending me a couple of CDs through the post. I had innocently asked where I should start with Joy Division, and before I know it, I now have pretty much every song they ever recorded, plus most of New Order's output and a good deal of Electronic's. As of last night they were all added to my Ipod and I shall be ploughing through them over the next couple of days. As far as I know, the CD didn't remove "Layla" from my Itunes library, but it's true that I haven't checked that it's still there yet....