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The Smile, Manchester Apollo. 19th March 2024

Updated: Mar 20

A few days on from my last visit to the Apollo, I’m back once again, this time for The Smile. My previous review talked of how the rooms are getting bigger and although this trio don’t feel new due to their other output, it’s good to remember they are and that they too are moving up through the city’s gig venues. Granted last time I saw them was at the Academy, which isn’t small, but every time I step inside the Apollo, I’m reminded just how big a space it is… and that’s before I remember about the balcony! It’s packed as you’d expect, but I’m flying solo tonight and use that as an excuse to be a bit lazy. So instead of fighting my way into the centre of the room, I opt for hovering on the side just under the lip of the balcony. Say what you like about venues this size and the disaster that is the bar in this one, but there’s not a bad view anywhere. You could stand by the toilet door and still get a great view of the stage, although I wouldn’t recommend it. There’s been no stage times announced (venues really should do this), but this isn’t my first rodeo and I’m correct in guessing as they ease on stage just before nine. People are stilll settling though as they sooth our ears with ‘Wall of Eyes’. It’s like a calypso lament played in the gentle surf of an abandoned beach on a forgotten desert island. A wall of led strip lights and the head bobbing starts en masse for ‘The Opposite’ with Thom already losing himself in the groove. This is going to be good. It’s been a while since I’ve seen video screens in here. In fact I can’t remember the last time, but they fire up as Jonny takes an already shedded looking bow to his guitar on ‘A HairDryer’. Delayed fragments of Thoms vocal tricking me into thinking he’s not the only one singing up there. This is fairly uncompromising stuff. It’s heartwarming to see them draw such a big and enthusiastic crowd. There's four of them with Tom (no h) on drums and Robert drafted in to deliver all this complexity live. Robert's on a lot of wind instruments, mainly saxophone, but the whole stage is full of toys, pianos, percussion, a bloody harp! Jonny seems to enjoy the subtle flex of jumping between them on ‘Speech Bubbles’. It’s a heavy groove sound. I don’t mean in how it sounds, but how it all feels. I think this is largely down to Tom’s drums. They’re feel loose but tight in delivery, basically jazz. The drummer is always the backbone, but Tom sets the tone for every song. Twisting the timing on ‘Colours Fly’ as the other three work over the top. I won’t lie, it could be said it’s a bit indulgent, if that’s a bad thing which in this case it’s not. There’s not loads of hooks and riffs, but songs like ‘Skirting on the Surface’ do have an energy that draws you in. Thom certainly feels it, geeing up the crowd with a little dance mid song. ‘Instant Psalm’ is a new one or a “New new one” as Thom informs. It’s a slow one with a simple pop melody. It doesn’t grab me, but perhaps it’s work in progress. ‘Waving a White Flag’ is a much different beast with its 70s sci-fi synth score modulation. Tom has to wait to come in on this one, but when he does it builds to a beautifully understated opus. Before ‘Thin Thing’ kicks the pace up a notch or three. Thom’s spacey vocals setting up Jonnys first real chance to shred. There’s a lot of movement during ‘Bodies Laughing’ as everyone seems to decide it’s time to go to the bar or toilet, or who knows why not both. They miss Thom comically leading us into ‘Friend of a Friend’ as he teases us trying to find the right key. The lad in front of me really likes this and in its breakdown we get the first smattering of a singalong. There’s a lot going on, but it feels oddly sparse. I’ve not played the new album as much as the debut and think this one might need a few more listens. ‘Read the Room’ is much more immediate and sets up the driving ‘We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings’ perfectly. It’s clearly a fan favourite and feels a bit like the hit in this set. Truth is though, they’ve got everyone in the palm of their collective hand. Each and every song lapped up. They know what they’re doing as the groove heavy ‘The Smoke’ pounds along with that funk-fused bass. Really all this would make more sense at 3am, it’s that kind of vibe. ‘Under Our Pillow’ feels like a song in three acts, it’s bloody marvellous, even if some around me decide it’s a good time to start discussing their plans for the rest of the week. ‘You Will Never Work in Television Again’ shuts them up. This is thunderous. Thom’s lyrics laced with a venomous snarl, as Jonny’s fringe flys with every crunch of his guitar. ‘Bending Hectic’ then drifts the set to a close, before its epic coda triggers all the strobes. It would be a fitting finish, but thank god it’s not. I wouldn’t want to have missed what follows. ‘Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses’ is an absolute juggernaut live. It sounds like an experimental jam with Jonnys guitar bordering on space rock. Ozrics should try a cover. The synth warmth of ‘Teleharmonic’ then soothes my soul, before ‘Pana-Vision’ sets it free. The piano and bass together are otherworldly. This is my eyes closed moment and I’m quite shocked to be pulled back to earth by the applause at the end. The end is finally here though with ‘You Know Me!’. With the piano, saxophone and Jonny now with a cello, it may not seem like an obvious set closer, but they’re not an obvious band. It takes something special to hold a crowd like this, transfixed for so long with music like this, but The Smile do it with ease. Truly magnificent stuff.


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