down

Polytechnic have returned and I for one am glad. I’ve missed them.

Stage One of their return to action (a four piece, these days) is a gig in a function room above a pub in Chorlton. Maybe 150 people cram into the place to hear. Song One is new. Song One is structurally a lot like something Wilco might create, I think.

There follow more new songs, which sound fine, which will start to make sense on repeat exposure. We reach the fifth song before we hear anything we already know and inevitably, in the face of so much new information, minds wander, heads turn, conversations start. But the fifth song is ‘Man Overboard’ and it shuts everybody up. The power of the song is not in its immediacy, but in the way the momentum accumulates. It’s so slow, but it inexorably shifts through the gears to its haunting, glorious chorus falsetto, the vocals transported by the overdriven roar of this most sleek of bands.

Then, there comes another sudden gearshift, another new song; this time, a perfect, first-time heartbreaker, classic Poly with a nagging guitar intro of the type unique to the Dylan / Yuri / Tim rhythm machine. There’s something special in that triangle, some chemical bond that links the skittering drums, the pumping, smooth simplicity of the bass and the needling, precision hook-and-barb of Dylan’s guitar sound.

It’s a brief moment of pure sunshine, before we are caught in a heavy squall of unfamiliar and more complex material. Dylan, possessed of far more sonic real estate since guitarist Denny’s recent departure, now steps up and takes genuine lead solos, a la Jeff Tweedy (after Neil Young, of course). I, for one, am a huge fan of the bloody-minded solo, one man raging against order and not necessarily fully in control of the writhing electrical current at his fingertips (ah, ‘Fingertips’, now there’s a Polytechnic I still miss … one of their finest moments).

It’s a brave group who are prepared to ditch the old and come back radically new, as even the old school die-hards will struggle to instantly accept and assimilate a set almost wholly shorn of anything they know. Late in the set comes a nod to the old, in the shape of ‘PEP’, but it’s slow tonight, lacking in energy. However, all is soon well again, because of a superb encore.

‘Running Out of Ideas’, that oceanic, unwieldy beast, builds to a critical mass somewhere in its fifth or sixth minute, that point where Peet’s ghostly organ and Tim’s raging, agile drums overpower Dylan’s screams and a moment of sheer ecstasy descends upon me, the ecstasy that comes from walking alone as the evening sky grows dark, watching clouds zoom across the horizon and feeling strong currents, the airstream on your face, cleansing your skin, the first spots of rain…

This is not California. Goodbye, unbroken sunshine.

With such a barrage of new material, it would seem unfair to draw critical conclusions on the strength of one show. Yuri urges me to come back on Friday and watch again. I think he was disappointed with the band’s performance, which was absolutely fine, actually, especially considering it was the first gig back with a new line-up.

So to Stage Two of the comeback; this time, a slightly higher profile club night, Friends Of Mine at Joshua Brookes, in Manchester city centre. Still no pressure, when you consider that this group once stepped out at Wembley Arena.


I don’t get the Italian support act, Jennifer Gentle (who command an impressive crowd and have released an album on Sub Pop, no less), my interest tickled solely by the fact that their guitarist has a very ‘big face’. Entranced by the sheer scale of this moonlike visage, I rant about it to anybody who will listen, comparing it to that of a character from ‘Spirited Away’. There’s something in its composure, the big eyes, the roundedness, the unchanging, serene expression, that makes me feel that way – loquacious with drink, I feel the need to share.

Jennifer Gentle - didn't manage to Spirit me Away

Jennifer Gentle - didn't manage to Spirit me Away


A woman wheels around to accuse me of slagging the band off, when I wasn’t (although friends of mine were). I was merely talking to a friend about the Big Face and the fact that Jennifer Gentle (hate the name) reminded me of The Beep Seals (who are in attendance, paying close attention). The woman asks Noel and I our ages, which we disclose. She’s older than us, by the look of her…

I have no idea what her jive is all about.

You could describe Jennifer Gentle as ‘an uptight Pavement, hired as the house band for a circus big top (having first been taught how to play properly)’.

Onto the main event, then. Half the crowd are in bands. It always means a lot to a group to earn the respect of their peers and it’s a knowledgeable crowd who look on as the four-piece Polytechnic v2.0 take to the late-night stage.

Dylan leads the line with his customary passion. When they started out, he always looked shy and uncomfortable, but these days, the boy busts a gut to give the crowd what they’ve come to see, which is, of course, him, yelping out those most memorable numbers from Down Til Dawn. Again, however, there is a barrage of new material to contend with first.

I catch various echoes from last time, at the Royal Oak – the gentle Krautpop groove of the opening number is easy on the ear, then a ghostly, spectral backing vocal from Peet stays with me, part a song from the stately, ‘Still Spinning’ end of the Poly canon.

They play ‘PEP’ with more vim tonight and the crowd dance, as is usual. A brief on-stage conference leads to the group deciding to reward the hardcore with a quick zip through ‘Cold Hearted Business’, which goes down a treat; although if you listen hard enough, it sounds like Dylan’s blown a little gasket somewhere and the vocal comes out in staccato bursts. No matter.

By half past one, we have almost reached the end. I have heard enough, if I’m honest. It’s late, I’m drunk and they’ve played at least seven or eight new songs. There isn’t much more from Down Til Dawn that I think I need to hear right now, except for ‘Running’, maybe… Then Dylan announces the last song…

My God, it’s ‘Fingertips’, that magnificent B-side!

In days gone by, Dylan played a second bassline on this impending hurricane of a song, but he switches to guitar tonight, with no loss of effect. I punch the air, feeling the power, the urgency, the flow and feel best emphasised by those subtle songs like ‘Still Spinning’ and ‘Running Out of Ideas’, but this time supercharged with negativity. It’s a freak-out; that snap-snap rhythm, beaten out on the snare drum (Tim plays no tom-toms), skips surefooted across a low-frequency quagmire – one false beat and it would be buried.

The music takes you down with it, as Dylan shrieks out his neuroses (at least, that’s what it sounds like – ‘early in the morning, we’re on our way’, it starts, rumbling into life like a monstrous trouble generator and then the lyrics are hard to catch) and all is not, not, not sunshine any more. The atmosphere is dark, dank, the club is cold, it’s 1:30am, it’s Friday night, the music is brilliant, stark, heavy, complex, soulful, technical. Down ‘til dawn alright and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.

Many of the less hardy boppers are gone by now, knowing full well that they won’t be getting another ‘Won’t You Come Around?’ tonight.

A man shouts into my ear, ‘I don’t understand. They have this fantastic talent for pop. Why don’t they just do that?’

It’s not that simple, I think.

Advertisements