Interview and review: The Icicle Works, Fibbers

1 Oct 2015 @ 9.44 pm
| Entertainment

The Icicle Works

Fibbers, York

September 25. 2015

Fibbers website

The Eighties revival continues apace, and in the same week that I saw PiL grace the stage of Fibbers, tonight is the turn of Liverpool popsters The Icicle Works.

Most famous for their hits Love Is A Wonderful Colour and Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream), they’re on a reunion tour some 35 years on.

In the intervening years, frontman/ singer/ guitarist Ian McNabb has forged a solo career that has seen 11 albums, critical acclaim and a Mercury Prize nomination, but he’s the first to admit that performing as The Icicle Works, adds a few noughts to the number of people attending the gigs.

Ian: Master of the smokin’ put down
Ian: Master of the smokin’ put down. Photograph © Duncan Lomax / Ravage Productions

In the last few years, he’s become just as well known for his relentless, online tirade of opinionated attacks on the X Factor, celebrity, terrorism, stadium gigs, Jools Holland and just about everything and everybody in between.

There’s a great list of his quotes here, but be warned, there’s some very strong language from this very opinionated man.

‘I think people are scared’

Clearly, this is a man who doesn’t hold back, so it’s with some trepidation that I meet him before the gig to discuss music, social media and record sales.

With such a reputation, I ask if he ever gets heckled on stage.

Anybody that heckles me is taking their life in their hands so no, I don’t get heckled that much – I think people are scared. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and I have mine – but if I don’t like something, I’m going to say so.

If there’s one thing Ian doesn’t have a go at though, it’s his loyal fanbase.

The internet has given us a lot of things, but it’s also taken a lot away, and people don’t buy records any more.

Now, you listen to something on Spotify and decide whether to buy it, whereas you used to have to buy the album to even hear it and have an opinion on it.

Fortunately, most of my audience still want physical copies, and the last two albums have been crowdfunded by the fans which is amazing – god bless them.

Backstage at Fibbers
Backstage at Fibbers. Photograph © Duncan Lomax / Ravage Productions

He’s repaying that loyalty tonight in terms of the set that’s been picked…

We’re not flogging a new Icicle Works record, and people don’t want new material – they can come to my solo gigs for that. They want to hear the songs they grew up with, which probably aren’t as good as they think they are, but it’s a formative part of their youth, and mine, so that’s what they’ll be getting.

I ask him if any changes have been made to the songs.

Not really, but it’s kind of weird singing songs you wrote at 23 when you’re 54. They’re all still in the original key but as long as I can hit the notes, I’ll just get back into it.

Some of those notes are really high though, and I wasn’t a smoker when I wrote them, so it’s going to be interesting as it’s the first night of the tour, so you’re gonna find out what it’s like at the same time as me and the band do.

Ah, the band – quite a collection of musicians, and when I ask Ian who on the stage has sold the most records, he laughs, munches on Hula Hoops and quickly does the maths –

Matthew, the drummer was/ is in Dodgy* so they’ve sold tons of records, in fact I presented him with a platinum disc in 1997.

Roy the bass player used to be in Colin Vernacombe’s band Black, famous for Wonderful Life, and Richard, the keyboard player was in the Waterboys, so basically everyone with me has sold a lot more records than the Icicle Works.

I ask what he makes of the number of bands touring again.

A lot of us are gigging more than ever – we don’t make money from the back catalogue and we don’t get much radio play so royalties aren’t significant, so touring and merchandise are the bread and butter that keeps us going.

Refreshing and generous

Blunt frontman
Blunt frontman. Photograph © Duncan Lomax / Ravage Productions

McNabb is bluntly, but refreshingly open about his financial affairs in his online world, making it clear that he doesn’t make a penny from old Icicle Works record sales, slagging off the building society that keeps threatening to repossess his home, and having a go at people who will happily pay £100 for a stadium gig where they can’t see the band, but won’t spend £15 to see an up and coming band up close in a small venue.

Tonight he’s even using a guitar that he had to sell, and has borrowed it back to do the gigs. No wonder he comes across as angry sometimes.

The online persona couldn’t be more different than meeting the man in person though – he offers me a beer from the backstage fridge which I don’t drink because ironically we can’t find a bottle opener, and he’s just as generous with his answers and his time as he is with the Hula Hoops, so we nip outside to take a few shots ahead of tonight’s gig.

As I leave, he also offers me a place on the guest list. I thank him, but point out I’ve actually bought my ticket, which seems to make his day.

Superb musicianship

Fibbers is far from full, but as soon as The Icicle Works take to the stage there’s a rousing reception, and McNabb urges everyone to step forward into the large void at the front – “Come to the front, you’ve paid for your ticket”.

They open with As The Dragonfly Flies from their eponymous debut album, but the rest of the first set is drawn from later albums, and it’s the raucous sing-alongs Seven Horses and Who Do You Want For Your Love that really shine.

The quality of the musicianship is superb, particularly Richard Naish’s swirling keyboards, but McNabb also gets into his element and the songs take on a rockier sound than their recorded versions.

Swirling keyboards and a rockier edge
Swirling keyboards and a rockier edge. Photograph © Duncan Lomax / Ravage Productions
Nothing dated about the sound
Nothing dated about the sound. Photograph © Duncan Lomax / Ravage Productions

After 12 songs, the band take a 15 minute break which feels like a mistake – some of the atmosphere in the room drains away and everyone seems to be wondering what to do.

They return after a spectacular costume change – well, not quite, Ian’s just taken off his sweat-soaked denim jacket to reveal the Icicle Works T-shirt underneath.

Not sure if that’s a statement of style or whether he’s just been raiding the merchandise stall out of necessity, but it’s a sign that Fibbers has warmed up again and they’re soon back into it, and seem to be really enjoying the gig.

To all intents and purposes, this could be any current band – there’s nothing dated about the sound apart from when Corkill swaps to a fretless bass, and the occasional keyboard sound that’s rooted in the era.

Yes, McNabb ducks a few of the high notes, but they’re filled in by an enthusiastic crowd singing along for him, and the songs fly by one after another, and he is polite, grateful and friendly to the crowd, explaining where each song fits in the back catalogue and occasionally giving us a few more details

But for the most part, he lets the music do the talking and encourages the crowd in the communal singing. They finish with Bird’s Fly (Whisper To A Scream) which sees drummer Matthew Priest working extra hard on the tribal rhythms that make up the backbone of the song and McNabb employing some stadium-esque call and response vocals with the crowd.

The fans were singing till they were hoarse…
The fans were singing till they were hoarse… Photograph © Duncan Lomax / Ravage Productions
‘Thank you York, and goodnight’. Photograph © Duncan Lomax / Ravage Productions
‘Thank you York, and goodnight’. Photograph © Duncan Lomax / Ravage Productions

They come back for an encore of Hollow Horse which is the cue for the bloke next to me to don a rubber horse’s head for some reason. I’m not sure if he’s a superfan and this is his way of paying homage, but if I was on the stage looking down at this guy I’d be fearing for my life.

Maybe it did scare the band because they take a bow and take their leave without playing the ‘big’ hit, Love Is A Wonderful Colour. If I hadn’t met him beforehand, I’d have put that down to McNabb being petulant, but it’s more likely there was a technical problem or they just plain forgot to do it is on the set list.

Either way, I’m not sure anyone’s noticed and it looks like a satisfied crowd (and horse) that’s leaving after a long gig.

*Dodgy play Fibbers on 13th November