The O2

Mott the Hoople

Symphony Hall, Birmingham - 11th November 2013

O2 Arena, London - 18th November 2013

In November 1974, a moderately successful British rock band saw their latest single falter at number forty-one in the charts. It was a bitter blow as they believed it to be one of the best songs they had recorded and had poured their hearts and souls into it. With their previous single reaching only number thirty-three, it looked as though their run of big chart hits was over. A month later and the band fell apart completely with the recruitment of a new guitarist causing more problems than it solved and the singer collapsing through nervous exhaustion. For any normal band, that would have been the end of the story, but not for this one. Thirty-nine years later a booking is made for a reunion show at Birmingham's massive, four-storey Symphony Hall. The venue is sold out weeks in advance. It's an astonishing thing when you think about it – utterly incredible. But we are not talking normal here. We are talking about Mott the Hoople and with this band anything is possible. Hold on to your hats; the rock and roll circus is back in town.

Since the split in 1974 the only sight of Mott had been a glorious reunion week in 2009 when the band's original line-up played five sold-out dates at the Hammersmith Apollo. It was to be five dates again in 2013 but this time the show took to the road, beginning in Birmingham and then travelling to Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle before finishing off at the O2 Arena in London. The O2? Mott at the O2 in 2013? Absolutely fucking incredible.

You could almost taste the excitement and the anticipation in the packed Symphony Hall as the time nears for Mott's entrance. The crowd roars as the sound of Holst's Jupiter announces their imminent arrival and the band explodes on to the stage with the expected 'Rock 'n' Roll Queen', their debut single from 1969 which still hits as hard as it ever has done. The band look in fine fettle. Lithe singer Ian Hunter belies his years, moving around the stage better than men half his age and owning it totally; the man has charisma oozing out of every pore. He sings, he plays guitar, he plays bass, he plays piano. He doesn't chat much to the audience as Mott work their way through seven classic albums; this is a rock show and there's no time for that. Indeed, guitarist Mick Ralphs probably does more talking. He's carrying more than a few pounds and a few deep lines, no doubt deserved retribution for his part in creating the godawful Bad Company, but back in the company he should always have kept he drives the band onwards with some crashing riffs and some delicate fretwork that leave you breathless. His solo as Hunter sings the incredibly moving 'Waterlow' is utterly spellbinding; there's more than a few lumps in throats and watery eyes.

Despite the typically Mott moment of the lighting failing during the second song, leaving the audience ruthlessly exposed in the house lights to the excoriating 'The Moon Upstairs', the problem is soon resolved and it is good to see the band adapting their 2009 set with the inclusion of different numbers, with a couple being dropped including Ralphs' 'Ready For Love' and – amazingly – all time favourite 'Sweet Angeline'. We do get to hear a first, however, in Verden Allen's grinding 'Soft Ground' from the All The Young Dudes album. It's nicely done as well, incorporating Allen's deliberate intonation and the choral backing vocals which give it added edge. Allen, memorably descibed by Hunter at the Apollo four years previously as "the twat who first left Mott the Hoople", also looks in fine trim. The star of the show, however, remains bassist Overend Watts who looks superb in a long red shirt and pointy boots, bending over his bass, and probably feeling glad that he doesn't have to spray his hair silver these days. He takes over guitar to deliver his contribution to 1974's The Hoople album, 'Born Late '58' and is clearly happy to be back in his home town. "I was born in Birmingham you know," he declares, "In the eighties." Another surprise, especially given the history of the song, is 'Violence'. Watts drags out an enormous Flying-V bass with a scimitar attached to the end of the neck. It makes a fantastic noise as the band crash through the song which once led to fisticuffs in the recording studio.

With original drummer Dale Griffin suffering from early onset alzheimers and being unable to play this time around (though he managed to get on to the stage for a couple of songs in 2009), the drums are manned by former Pretenders sticksman Martin Chambers, a fellow Herefordian who used to play with Allen in The Cheeks. He fits in perfectly as Mott the Hoople manage to do what they have always done so magnificently in the past: create a huge wall of sound that weighs down on you and pins you to the spot. Though the music veers from gentle ballads through out and out rockers to catchy pop songs and racheting proto-punk tornadoes, it never loosens its grip. This band is so powerful on stage it's frightening. As backing singers begin to appear – mainly the band's children, along with legendary tour manager Stan Tippins – Mott end the show with a rapid fire run through their singles, three to close and three for an encore: 'Honaloochie Boogie', 'All The Way From Memphis' and 'The Golden Age of Rock 'n' Roll' followed by 'All The Young Dudes', 'Roll Away The Stone' and that legendary number 41 hit, 'Saturday Gigs'.

It's a stunning show and seems to have been over in an instant. The audience is certainly bubbling as it exits, swamping the sole man on the merchandise stall. It's a week of waiting now as Mott head north. In seven days' time, London awaits.

Symphony Hall
That Mott the Hoople could be playing at the O2 is simply staggering. If you've never been to Blair's folly on the Thames, the place is simply enormous; the dome itself covers streets lined with restaurants, it houses a multi-screen cinema complex and the Arena itself is a 20,000 seater. As Ian Hunter commented pre-tour, it is Premier League. The very top tiers were never going to be opened for this event but still the doubts were nagging. Won't this prove to be an embarrassment? Though Mott the Hoople defy all logic, after all of this time surely even they can't half fill this place? Should have known better. There are seats right at the back lying empty but the place ends up at least 75-80% full. The downstairs arena is packed along with all of the tiers nearest the stage. As with all of Mott's reunion shows, the seats become merely a hindrance. Despite the advancing years of many of the crowd, everybody stands. Let's face it, this is not a normal audience just as Mott are not a normal band. These are the faces who tore venues apart at the drop a hat in the good old days, the people who stole cars and bunked trains in order to get to faraway gigs. You don't sit down for Mott the Hoople. You don't sit down for the greatest live band these islands have ever produced.

The set is the same as at Birmingham, though the band are tighter after a week on the road. Hunter again takes the stage with his Maltese Cross guitar, transported right out of the seventies, though there's even less chat as Mott storm through their set and most of the audience are singing along to every word. Old stage favourite and first ever album track 'You Really Got Me' is segued into 'Death May Be Your Santa Claus', and 'Sucker' begins with the first line of 'Jailhouse Rock' (Mott not afraid to admit from where they nicked their riffs). The utterly fabulous 'No Wheels To Ride' gets half an airing; it's a pity the song quickly merges into 'The Journey' before it gets to Mick Ralphs' magical spiralling guitar part and both songs surely deserve individual focus. 'Waterlow' is greeted with "This was from our third album. Sold two copies", 'Walkin with A Mountain' has the audience bouncing and 'The Ballad of Mott' rouses huge cheers when Dale Griffin's face appears on screen at his part of the song, matched only by the ovation for Overend Watts who quite assuredly is "still a rock and roll star". As the bassist drags out the monster Flying V for 'Violence' to the sounds of dentists' drills he assures the audience, "This is going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts us."

You have to ask why a band who split so long ago can still inspire such devotion and the answer is clear. It's quality. Just contrast the fierce intelligence of the words and the music with what else is on offer. Just consider the overriding power of a band who have no macho pretensions and who throw no rock shapes. A band who don't believe in stardom and don't have egos to feed. Contrast the heartbreaking beauty of 'Waterlow', the spitting fury of 'The Moon Upstairs', the deeply felt desperation of 'The Journey', the wit of 'All The Way From Memphis', and the unsurpressable pop glory of 'Roll Away The Stone' with ridiculous support band Thunder and their "This is a song about wanking." If there has got to be rock music in the world, there has to be bands like Mott the Hoople to give it meaning. And there are no bands like Mott the Hoople, except for Mott the Hoople.

Def Leppard's Joe Elliott takes to the stage to join the chorus for 'All The Young Dudes'. He's just the tip of the iceberg. Mott influenced every great band who followed them (and some not so great), or they influenced the bands who influenced every other great band. When they play, the leading lights of the music world come to sit at their feet, yet again and again when they talk, they seem to have no clue of how important they are. Or of how good they are. All great bands tell their own stories and none have done so like Mott, but even they manage to give themselves the lie in 'Hymn For The Dudes'. "When you think you are star / For so long they'll come from near and far," Hunter declares. Not so. Forty years after they disappeared the people are still coming. And they won't stop coming while they have breath in them. Mott can taunt the crowd with their break into "this may be the last time", but it sure as hell better not be. There are more tales to be told yet.

If and when Mott finally decide to call it a day, it won't just be in Birmingham that the lights go out. There has never been a band like them. We won't see their like again.

Set: Rock and Roll Queen; One of the Boys; The Moon Upstairs; Hymn for the Dudes; Sucker; Soft Ground; Waterlow; Born Late ’58; Death May Be Your Santa Claus / You Really Got Me; Ballad of Mott the Hoople; Walkin’ with a Mountain; Violence; When My Mind’s Gone / No Wheels to Ride / The Journey; Honaloochie Boogie; The Golden Age of Rock ‘N’ Roll; All the Way from Memphis. Encore: All the Young Dudes; Roll Away the Stone; Saturday Gigs.


Words and pics, Adam

mott the hoople at the o2

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