If this is the start of the UK mini-tour, then it must be the Glasgow ABC. For the third time in four years, TSOM kick-start a short series of British dates with an appearance at the Sauchiehall Street venue, and the security staff checking the tickets are bemused as about half of those filing into the narrow entrance laugh in their faces when they state that there is to be no photography or filming “at the request of the band”, somewhat against the tradition of half of the crowd uploading every Sisters performance onto YouTube, seemingly with Elditchian approval. And so up the series of unpromising staircases to the venerable venue itself, built in 1875 and at various times in its past a cinema, ballroom, circus and even ice rink (plenty of potential here for lazy headline writers), but for the past two decades one of Glasgow’s top rock venues, with a standing capacity of 1300 and decent sightlines for all.
A quick trip to the merch stall – still piled high with the same old stock – confirms the feeling of déjà vu, and I make a mental note not to raise my expectations too high, as there will be surely few surprises ahead on what may turn out to be a depressing evening. The feeling of imminent dread grows as support band Black Moth file onstage to total indifference, their sub-Sabbath stoner riffs, regular time changes and so-so female rock vocals having failed to excite me on record. Strange bedfellows for a Sisters support one might think, but taking their fashions and musical influences from about 1971, they could be said to have more in common with the “spirit of Altamont” (often quoted by Eldritch as being part of rock’s rich lineage of which his band were the inheritors) than the Sisters themselves, and in a well-paced and faultlessly-executed set, they slowly win the crowd over, saving the punkier numbers (everything is relative) towards the end of their allotted half-hour and looking triumphant (rather than just relieved not to have been bottled off) by the end.
Enter the Sisters. And for once – possibly the first time ever – everyone can see them – not only is there less dry ice than at many past gigs, but the camera ban is being carefully policed, and with the average audience member nowadays pushing fifty (there were hardly any under 35’s in attendance) very few feel like clambering on each others shoulders these days, let alone building pyramids. Surprisingly launching straight into a rocking Lucretia My reflection, the band had the first ten rows bouncing from the off, but after a brief “Welcome. Welcome back” from Von, it was into the now traditional “Ribbons” and “Crash and Burn” as second and third songs, with the sound balance perfect by the latter, and the singer’s voice at its most powerful for a while. The next half hour was a little more hit and miss, Von clearly struggling these days on a truncated Body Electric, which was followed by a fairly standard Alice, a different sounding arrangement of ARAAHP and the new cover “Police Car” followed by its soulmate medley “Dr Jeep/Detonation Boulevard”. The trickle to the bar was becoming a flood, but a vibrant “Dominion/Mother Russia” had the whole venue up and dancing for the first time to get things back on track. However. There was a further dip in intensity with an unfamiliar run of songs for the casual fan (Summer, Jihad – the first genuine surprise of the set-list, an under-rehearsed Valentine which saw Catalyst and Eldritch’s vocals clashing discordantly at the end, and Arms, which had the singer launching into his first rant of the evening against Americans), but one more word from Von “Meanwhile…” say the band launch into what in many ways has become their signature tune, “First and Last and Always”, and this time, the ABC audience was enraptured in a way which would remain until the gig’s end. The main set, exactly an hour as usual, ended with the customary second half of Temple of Love, at the end of which the singer introduced his acolytes “On guitar, Mr Ben Christo…and the fantastic Chris Catalyst” to rapturous applause. Not many bands could get away with playing two slow songs at the start of an encore after such a high octane end to the main set, but the live debut of “1959” certainly kept spirits high, inevitably fleshed out with Ben’s guitar noodlings. The first encore ended in bizarre fashion, with a typically lacklustre “Flood” interrupted by a bizarre rant from the vocalist at a guy in the front row who had been allegedly mocking the camera ban. “You’ve been doing that a lot tonight …” Von bellowed at him, wagging his finger in his face, at a moment when he should have been intoning the chorus of “Flood”. Back in the 80s, this would have been followed by a withering put-down that would have caused the offender to slink away in embarrassment. However, the singer unconvincingly continues “…and it’s not helping”. Hmmm. As it was, the band’s management asked security to intervene, and before the second encore the hapless (and physically slight) chap was escorted to the back by two burly bouncers. “Well that was weird” said Von, leaving the stage. You should have seen it from where I was standing.
Any feeling that things were going to end on a sour note were dissipated by possibly the best second encore since the days of Sister Ray, with Von and the boys launching into a crowd-pleasing more, followed by a vitriolic and incandescent Vision Thing, in which Von stated that he still hates Americans and ended by stating loud and clear once again (in the words of the verse added to the song in the early 2000s “This…war...is...wrong”. A final, sing-a-long “This Corrosion” ended the show, which saw the band receive a deserved and prolonged ovation from a crowd who had seen a rejuvenated band in top form.
This gig was the first in the UK since Chris recently completed ten years’ service in the band, and having given lengthy eulogies to previous guitarists who have had short but influential stints in the band, it’s only fair that I pay tribute here to the two young men (Ben next year completes his own decade of duty as a Taylor’s dummy, hired hand of God, or whatever other phrase you prefer) whose efforts have encouraged the reclusive Eldritch to keep the band on the road (albeit fitfully).
With their own (distinctly non-goth) musical interests keeping them fully occupied between the lucrative Sisters tours, both Catalyst and Christo are down-to-earth, decent guys who not only respect the band’s history and traditions (and Eldritch’s pre-eminent role in the band), but have been more than happy to engage with what must at times have seemed a scarily obsessive fanbase both in person and on social media. Equally importantly, both can cut in on stage, and as accomplished musicians have helped (via a couple of new songs and a variety of new arrangements of old ones) to keep the setlist fresh, even for the most recalcitrant long-term fan.
Even more intriguing, however, is that they seem to represent the Ying and Yang of Von’s own personality. Cataylst is at heart the snotty punk rocker, the creative DIY musical impresario, with a ready self-deprecating Yorkshire wit, the living representation of Von’s Leeds reincarnation. Christo on the other hand represents Eldritch’s Southern English roots, the more feminine, sensitive side of his lyrical personality, and of course his long-term flirtation with classic soft rock of the 70s and 80s, the posing rock god. Both are now fully embedded in the band, as they are in the affections of long-term fans.
With Eldritch’s voice and health having seemingly started to fail, many of those heading into the O2 last night may have wondered if this might be the last time they would see the band live. However, on the (non-recorded!) evidence of this gig, rumours of their demise would appear to be premature.