(September 2, 2019). Okay, I know the title got the phrase backwards, but backwards is probably the best way to characterize the career of a group whose amazing longevity defies every bit of logic and conventional wisdom held true by the music industry.
How, you ask?
Well if there was ever a band that’s a textbook example of an act not needing to find its validity in Billboard chart statistics or in institutions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammys, or even social media, it’s Squeeze, the venerable British pop-rock band who formed in London in 1974 and is still going strong 45 years later!
In fact, Squeeze – the on-again-off-again group originally out of Deptford and co-founded by the exceptionally talented songwriters Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford – might own the cover and the entire first chapter of said textbook given their resilience and rock-steady fan base.
Oh yeah, and they make some great music, too!
Squeeze, featuring lyricist and guitarist Difford and his longtime cohort, guitarist and composer Tilbrook, dazzled a devoted crowd of some 3,000-plus fans at the Chicago Theatre here Saturday night (August 31), which also happened to be Tilbrook’s 62nd birthday (more on that in a moment).
The crowd, whose average age had to be at least Tilbrook’s, likely didn’t know (or even care) that the band never had an album chart higher than #32 in America or that their only U.S. gold or platinum certification was for the 1982 compilation, Singles – 45s and Under.
Those fans also won’t find this new wave-era pop-rock band in the Rock Hall of Fame and Squeeze has never even been nominated for a Grammy, much less won one, despite having released 15 outstanding studio albums over 41 years, plus various EPs, live albums and compilations along the way.
And they certainly couldn’t have known that Squeeze, the venerable new wave era, post-punk band who occupied more college radio station playlists than pop ones back in the day has only a third of the monthly Spotify listeners (661,054) that their opening act K.T. Tunstall does (1,905,310… more on her later, too).
The songbook of Difford and birthday boy Tilbrook was on great display here Saturday night, as the latest full-band incarnation of Squeeze performed a career-spanning retrospective of 24 tunes from twelve of their 15 albums, including one from the self-titled album by Difford and Tilbrook themselves (the under-appreciated 1984 tune “Love’s Crashing Waves”).
And for Squeeze fans or those who simply love great ‘70s/‘80s (and beyond) pop music, this version of the band did not disappoint.
They kicked things right off with “Footprints,” a 1987 single from the album Babylon and On, which also included their only two top-40 hits in America: “Hourglass,” their biggest chart-wise (which they also played), and “853-5937” (which they didn’t). “Footprints” segued seamlessly into “Big Beng” – a song from their first post-breakup album, 1985’s Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti.
Three songs in, on “Hourglass,” Tilbrook showed off his considerable electric guitar-playing skills by giving the pop tune a harder rock finish than that of the original, and making it seem surprisingly tougher and less poppy.
Next up was the crowd-pleasing “Pulling Mussels (from the Shell),” from their 1980 album Argybargy. It was the first song in the set to get the old crowd collectively on its feet and receive the singalong treatment. It was also an indicator of things to come as Difford and Tilbrook certainly know their way around a good pop hook – this one being no exception as their enlightened fans have been singing it for decades.
Other singalongs included the rousing “Annie Get Your Gun” (from 1982’s Sweets from a Stranger) and the highly anticipated “Tempted,” the band’s signature tune from the classic 1981 album East Side Story.
“Tempted” got special treatment on this night. When Tilbrook announced the tune was next, the crowd immediately rose to its feet – phones in hand (despite unenforced warnings from the announcer beforehand) – and joined the band in a singalong to an acoustic version that was even more poignant than the original – if that’s possible.
And, as if the crowd needed musical instructions for this one, the words “Key of ‘B’…4 measure introduction” funnily flashed on the screens behind the band to guide the song’s intro.
Don’t know if the crowd remained in the key of “B” or not, but they definitely sounded great, almost as if they were hired professionals, with nearly every lyric repeated verbatim and in tune. They even provided the perfectly timed “woo-oo-oo-ooos” and the “dup dup d-dup dups” without any prompting from Tilbrook and Co.
Whether the singalong was a ploy to disguise the fact that the song’s original lead singer Paul Carrack wasn’t on hand to do the honors or a mere testimony to the tune’s iconic status is anyone’s guess (my vote is for the latter). But Tilbrook handled Carrack’s parts masterfully.
The albums East Side Story and 1979’s Cool for Cats were the two most represented on this stop with four songs performed from each. Difford got the rare lead vocal on songs like “Someone Else’s Heart” (from East) and the disco-ey title track to Cool for Cats.
The combination of Difford’s hard-to-describe bass vocal (the word “croaky” has been used, but sounds too much like an undeserved insult) and Tilbrook’s strong tenor is a one-of-a-kind blend that cannot be duplicated. Each member is essential to the mix and their songs’ memorable choruses wouldn’t be the same without either singer.
The best example of this was on the Cool for Cats track “Slap and Tickle,” in which D&T share lead vocals throughout. The song in its original form (which, like most of the other tunes, was nicely replicated live) was a perfect blend of funk, disco and punk – and easily could have found a home at R&B radio in the late 1970s had, say, a black band done it (with no changes needed in the production).
But it was Tilbrook who had much of the spotlight Saturday night with a voice that hasn’t lost any of its quality in 45 years, in fact it may even be stronger.
Other vocal standouts for Tilbrook in a night full of them included the anthemic, call-and-response jubilation of the gospel-esque “Cradle to the Grave” from the band’s 2015 album of the same name, and the stellar “Another Nail In My Heart,” from 1980’s Argybargy.
On the punky “In Quintessence,” another joint vocal effort by D&T from East Side Story, we couldn’t help but notice a couple of guys in the front row (stage left) who were rockin’ out Beavis & Butthead-style to what was likely the band’s fastest tune ever.
On the next song, the mellower “The Day I Get Home” (from 1991’s Play), the band showed its versatility by highlighting the tune’s uncharacteristic Afro-Caribbean rhythm track that Squeeze brought to a rousing crescendo before coming to a hard stop, generating wild applause from the audience.
The opening act for Squeeze at this stop was fellow U.K. artist K.T. Tunstall, the 2000s-era folk-rock singer/songwriter who, on first glance at the playbill, seemed like an odd pairing for a post-punk pop band like Squeeze. But Tunstall played nearly as much to her alternative rock side as she did the folksy one on this night.
Plus Squeeze clearly has an appreciation for singer/songwriter types (Marshall Crenshaw has opened some dates, as has Tilbrook’s son Leon). And it’s nice every once in a while to get musical variety on a concert bill like this.
Tunstall turned in a highly impressive one-woman show with her six-string in hand and her left foot’s adept use of the loop pedal and floor tambourines providing the needed backup vocal and percussion accompaniments.
She performed eight songs including her 2005 Grammy-nominated single “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and its upbeat, Patti Smith-inspired follow-up “Suddenly I See” (a song I ranked as one of my ten favorites of the 2000s, and on which Tunstall injected a Bo Diddley beat Saturday).
On “Black Horse,” for which Tunstall revealed a surprising connection to the band Squeeze and original member Jools Holland (calling the song their “love child”), she playfully mashed it with the old 1977 Ram Jam tune “Black Betty.” On another of her tunes, she did a mash-up of “Walk Like An Egyptian.”
She also channeled the late Tom Petty on a cover of his “I Won’t Back Down,” which further showcased the singer’s versatility. If nothing else, it made me wonder why she hadn’t been even bigger than her one major hit album in America suggested during the 2000s.
But then, that seemed to be the theme of the night as the same could certainly be said of the show’s headliners.
Squeeze are certainly in the right place and time now though. It’s the 2010s (well, at least for a few more months), where legacy artists can have great-selling tours that prove to be the great equalizer for those acts who no longer populate radio and streaming playlists (or who never really did to a great degree in Squeeze’s case).
And Squeeze is clearly benefitting while proving that they’re just as worthy as any other set of 60-something year-old rockers on the touring circuit today.
To close the show Saturday night, Squeeze served us the soulful classic “Black Coffee in Bed” during a three-song encore that included “Take Me, I’m Yours” from the band’s self-titled full-length debut album, and “Is That Love?,” another great track from East Side Story. (Has anyone else ever wondered whether Eurythmics got inspiration for “Sweet Dreams” from “Take Me, I’m Yours” with its similar synth patterns and “dreams are made of this” lyric line in the hook?)
But it was what happened during a break from “Black Coffee” that summed up the night’s affairs.
During band introductions as Difford was singing his partner-in-song’s praises, he cued up a video of Tilbrook’s family back in England who wished him a happy birthday as a stage hand brought out a birthday cake lit with candles that Tilbrook promptly blew out, while smiling gleefully.
And then, like clockwork, the birthday boy launched right back into “Black Coffee,” during which he led the audience in another singalong, this time infused with snippets of the “Happy Birthday” song to acknowledge his own special day.
In the end, it was a spectacular two hours of pure fun and enjoyment, but I’m not sure who had more – the audience or the band, who were clearly in the moment for much of this night, even laughing and frolicking with each other on stage at various points.
As Tilbrook, Difford and their stellar band finally took their bows and exited stage left, I couldn’t help but hope for yet another encore.
This Squeeze was just that damn good!
Squeeze’s set list at the Chicago Theatre on August 31, 2019:
- Big Beng
- Pulling Mussels (from the Shell)
- Up the Junction
- King George Street
- Someone Else’s Heart
- Third Rail
- In Quintessence
- The Day I Get Home
- Please Be Upstanding
- Annie Get Your Gun
- Cradle to the Grave
- Cool for Cats
- Slap & Tickle
- Love’s Crashing Waves
- Wicked and Cruel
- Another Nail In My Heart
- Goodbye Girl
- If I Didn’t Love You
- Take Me, I’m Yours
- Is That Love?
- Black Coffee in Bed
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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