Placebo, The Horrors & Silversun Pickups
Live @ Birmingham LG Arena
December 8, 2009
Review & Photography: Steve Bateman

When I’ve interviewed bands in the past, one question that has never failed to stop and make musicians think is: ‘What’s the best gig line-up that you’ve ever seen, including both the headline act + supports?’ The reason that I mention this, is that because tonight, with a bill including Placebo as headliners + The Horrors and Silversun Pickups in support, this could easily turn out to be one of the best gig line-ups that I’ve ever seen in all my gig-going years! Arriving early at the newly-refurbished Birmingham LG Arena, to ensure that I catch all three groups and don’t miss out on a moment of the action, it’s somewhat of a shock to enter the venue only to be told by security, that for tonight’s performance, the show has been downsized from a 15,000 capacity to a 4,000 capacity, due to the small number of tickets sold. Although huge in Europe, it would seem that in the UK, Placebo still remain a cult concern – but to be honest with you and like many other devoted fans here in attendance, we all agree that it will be a privilege to be so close to the band and see them in more intimate surroundings anyway.

Ingeniously, for times when things like this do happen, the new-and-improved Birmingham LG Arena now has a moveable stage, which this evening, has been pushed close to the back of the arena with a sizeable standing area in front of the stage and seating to the back + sides. We could almost be at the O2 Academy! Taking to the stage at 7.20pm, the Silversun Pickups (who hail from Los Angeles) waste no time in getting their point across, with an amped-up set of melodic and distorted grunge gems, neatly showcasing their dream-pop leanings! Possibly feeling a need to prove themselves in their allotted 30 minute timeslot and harbouring a silent / steely determination, it still seems that throughout the quartet’s urgent performance, they are relishing the opportunity to win over hearts and minds, with both frontman Brian and bassist Nikki all smiles and appearing delighted to be alive! Not putting a foot wrong and quickly gaining the audience’s respect / patronage, it’s a fine start to proceedings!

Interestingly, in-between the support acts on Placebo’s Winter Tour dates, a Short Film Festival is being screened before the gig and during the artist changeovers on the main stage screens. “The ShortsTV Live Music Film Festival, launched at the Paris show on the 24th October, features the work of 8 highly talented international film makers for which Placebo themselves shortlisted.” The 8 short movies are competing with one another and fans can vote @ for their favourite film, with one eventually being named ‘ShortsTV Live Music Film Festival Winner’. A DVD of the films is also available to buy and part of the profit from the sale of the DVD goes to the Somaly Mam charity, a non-profit organisation dedicated to fighting the $12billion per year sex-trafficking industry.

Back to the show… Looking like stars, sounding like stars and performing like stars, The Horrors are the next group to step up to the plate. Stalking the stage and with a blood-curdling howl / croon, the flailing Faris leads his fellow bandmates through a typically monochromatic musical labyrinth – a fantasia packed with depth, nuance and rancorous grandeur. Business as usual then! Weaned on a diet of Cramps-esque garage rock, goth and post-punk, and now with forays into Krautrock, psychedelia and shoegaze, their dystopian set begins with an hallucinatory Mirror’s Image, with the remainder made up of choice-cuts from their sophomore LP and NME’s Album Of The Year, Primary Colours. The loudest cheers are understandably reserved for the final pair of (best known) songs, the Phil Spector Wall Of Sound referencing, Who Can Say, and the beguiling / epic, Sea Within In A Sea. It’s extremely heartening to see such talented young musicians coming into their own and well on the road to becoming an essential band. Their musical transformation in 2009 has been nothing short of revelatory, and by showing flickers of what’s yet to come, they are a group to fall madly in love with!

After two highly enjoyable and rewarding supports + a couple more Short Films, at 9.10pm, it’s time for the main event – the elegiac alt.rock of one of my all-time favourites, Placebo! Building tension and excitement, the artwork for the trio’s latest and sixth record, Battle For The Sun, is beamed directly onto a large white curtain, before slinky silhouettes slowly begin to appear and the drape drops to the floor revealing the band. The first thing that hits you, is the lavish stage production – no expense has been spared and Placebo have really gone to town this time around. With a spotless white floor, banks of bright lights, slick / sophisticated arthouse films being screened and both Brian + Stefan looking dapper (Stefan wearing a rather fetching silver suit and Brian sporting a crisp black shirt, eye makeup and lip-gloss), it all looks very professional and is a vision of magnificence that will no doubt be a live spectacle to remember!

Starting with a heavy-duty and gutsy For What It’s Worth, the throbbing brute force of the guitars and needling riffage soon gives way to the coup de grace and Placebo’s USP, Brian’s voice. As he sings: “And no one cares when you’re down in the gutter, got no friends, got no lover,” you realise that it has long been his distinctive nasal delivery and inflection that adds so much magic and mystery to the group’s music. Like an iron fist clad in a velvet glove, an unflinching Ashtray Heart replete with its rampaging chorus, confirms that for the next hour-and-a-half, fans are going to be in for a white-knuckle ride! A chugging Battle For The Sun, sees its passive/aggressive nature and the repetitive scatter-bomb verses, being sung by fans as if they’re under the influence of mind-control. Although still exploring the human condition, albeit without the brash sexual androgyny and drug excess of Placebo’s original archetypal musical habitat (Brian is now the proud father of a son), much has been made about the band’s overhauled / recalibrated sound and the almost sunshine optimism that saturates their cache of new Technicolor songs. With Brian stating that “Battle For The Sun is Placebo's first album with a single unifying theme” – so much so, that it could even be seen as a riposte to the pained, forlorn and darkened despair of previous effort, the magnificent, Meds.

Perhaps this is why the group are keen to promote these tracks over a lot of the oldies, opting to play yet more recent music in the shape of liquid gold laments, Speak In Tongues and Follow The Cops Back Home – the latter being a signature and butterflies-in-the-stomach ballad, that Placebo have always done oh so very well! Just as I begin to wonder if any classic singles will be dispensed and if the band are planning to revisit all corners of their career, the aerodynamic and mind-blowing Every You Every Me stutters into life to deafening applause! Onstage, you can’t take your eyes off either Brian or Stefan for a millisecond, as they dart and zigzag all over the place, toting their guitars like dangerous weapons – backed-up with a tattoo-torsoed powerhouse on the drums in newly-recruited Steve Forrest, whose chemistry together, guarantees that they are all on the same musical page. A silk-spun Special Needs, sees Brian in full-voice, before a knife-edged and ocean-deep Breathe Underwater has him screaming: “I’m coming up for air, I wanna see another dawn.” Only after prising an introspective Happy You’re Gone out of thin air, does Brian utter any words to the crowd: “Thank You Ladies & Gentlemen, this is the first date of our UK Tour and for those of you who thought that we’d gotten too big for our boots when we had 6 musicians onstage, well tonight, we have 14 people!” He then jokes, “The difference is though, is that we’re chancers and they’ve actually learnt how to play their instruments… We’re very happy to be here!”

Following more cheers, a militant Julien is played before The Never-Ending Why, prior to which Brian says: “After despair comes redemption – this is a Buddhist song,” clasping his hands together in prayer. Blind, Devil In The Details, a storming Meds featuring the harrowing refrain: “Baby, did you forget to take your Meds?” and a scathing Song To Say Goodbye, take us to the end of the main set, which evidently, has been carefully tailored to favour the aforementioned albums, Battle For The Sun and Meds. Although having a string-quartet, female backing-singers, brass and trumpets onstage, is a novel idea (accurately recreating the bombastic / kitchen sink instrumentation and textures of the new long player), I feel it would have been great to have had some more back-to-basics moments, or maybe even just to have had the first half of the set list with additional musicians. Also, maybe a few extra old songs wouldn’t have gone amiss either, as Placebo have such a varied and rich back catalogue to choose from. Nevertheless, it’s really nice to have experienced these songs in this way, as it’s unlikely that the group’s next tour will take the same direction

After a brief video interlude featuring a body-painted ballerina, for the encore, three of my most prized Placebo songs are played in quick succession; Bright Lights is a slice of pop perfection with a mallowy chorus that goes: “Because a heart that hurts is a heart that works.” Special K races along without a care in the world, whilst during a rabid and ravenous Bitter End, the final: “See you at the bitter end,” is wrung-out from Brian’s exhausted and exhilarated body and left to penetrate and recoil around the arena. Thinking that the show is over, a lot of people begin to leave ready to brave the cold winter night. But for those of us who do decide to stay, patience is a virtue, as we’re treated to a second encore featuring a brand new, freshly-squeezed, Rage Against The Machine-style song called Trigger Happy, which sees Brian wrathfully intoning: “The world’s an unforgiving place, we’ve all heard this before, but we want hospitals and equal rights, instead of fucking wars!” Then it’s a heat-seeking Infra-Red complete with the predatory lyric: “Someone call the ambulance, there’s gonna be an accident. I’m coming up on Infra-Red, there is no running that can hide you, ‘cause I can see in the dark.” Before the band go out on a high, with a chiselled Taste In Men and canons firing confetti into the applauding audience.

“Still growing musically and expanding their sound,” Placebo are going to be around for a long time yet!

A very special thanks to Sam and Sarah @ Division Promotions, for all of their time and help.

Birmingham Set List

For What It’s Worth
Ashtray Heart
Battle For The Sun
Speak In Tongues
Every You
Special Needs
Breathe Underwater
Happy You’re Gone
Never-Ending Why
Devil In The Details
Song To Say Goodbye
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Bright Lights
Special K
Bitter End
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Trigger Happy
Taste In Men

“I will Battle For The Sun
And I won’t stop until I’m done”