Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band @ Invisible Wind Factory, Liverpool, 16 Dec
Ex-Shack man gets the sort of homecoming he richly deserves
If Liverpool is The North Pole then Michael Head is Santa Claus. The magic, the myths, the meanings... but one thing often gets ignored: the music.
Not anymore. Adiós Señor Pussycat, the brand new album from Head and his eclectic ensemble The Red Elastic Band, has changed all that. That it has been one of 2017's musical success stories is confirmed tonight in the city's Invisible Wind Factory, with around 1200 of us squeezed into the docklands warehouse. The ex-Shack man's usual army of acolytes are present, but Head's biggest crowd in years is full of fans who want to hear new music; he doesn't disappoint and it's the most vital he's sounded in a long time.
Backed by a mini-orchestra on-stage – horn section, backing singers, three electric guitars, keys, flute and cello all fighting for space – the Scouse songwriter is the consumate bandleader fronting his songs with the force they deserve. Working Family sounds massive with the three electric guitars providing a Byrdsian bedrock of jangle, while the jackhammer of Queen of All Saints pummels the more talkative punters into submission with its drive and delicacy. The highlight of the night – Winter Turns to Spring – brings the room to its knees as Head sings one of his loveliest laments alone with just a keyboard for accompaniment.
An acoustic section reminds us of how far Head has travelled in recent years, with fragile takes on As Long As I've Got You and the wonderful Byrds Turn to Stone, but the night belongs to the band and the beautiful racket they make. Wig outs such as Black & White and Sgt Major belong in big spaces like this and it's been a long time since music this widescreen told Head's folk tales. While constant harmonies from the backing singers provide too much heaven for the earth beneath the nails of Head's songs, and a couple of overtly-fussy horn arrangements threaten to overpower much-loved tunes (like the devastating Comedy), the gig is near-perfect.
Let's hope Head derives the same amount of pleasure from the night and takes it with him into the future. His craft deserves it.