It’s my birthday today. I’m 23.
After buying myself some shoes in Nottingham, I get on the Birmingham train with one minute to spare. When I get there I call Caffy. She offers me a plus one for tonight, but sadly today I don’t have a friend in tow.
I go to the tourist information to find a B&B for the night. The woman behind the desk asks me why I’m here and when I tell her it’s for the gig, she says they could have sold all the tickets for it three times over. I take another train out to Birmingham International and from there a taxi to the B&B. I miss being the person who gets a free bed in someone else’s hotel room, £25 for the night is the top end of my meagre budget. Everyone else staying here seems to be here for the gig and when the bus back to the NEC shows up it’s full of likely candidates.
The NEC is huge, with echoing phosphorescently lit halls, like an empty airport with travelators and bright white walls. The Arena itself is separate and enormous. It’s the same guy on the door as last night but he doesn’t do any winking tonight. It’s a long walk from the box office to the performance space, past hot dog stands, beer stalls and merchandise. I buy a plastic-tasting beer and finally get inside. The ceiling is lower than in Manchester so it doesn’t seem so cavernous, but the inertia of the gathered audience in the face of James Lavelle’s DJ set is infuriating. I drink my cup of froth and wait for Teenage Fanclub to come on. When Norman Blake plays the glockenspiel, someone shouts out “Jonny’s is bigger!”
DJ Shadow sounds more subdued than last night, it’s the shape of the room and the mood of the people. I have a go at moving about, I sometimes wonder if I’m the only person who comes to these gigs wanting to dance.
When the band appear, Thom sings Exit Music and it’s a bit wobbly. It takes 3 or 4 songs but then things start to fall into place and Subterranean is the song that flicks the switch. Jonny in the corner bathed in golden light, its beautiful and I feel lifted; like I’m feeling the feeling again. Even the green lights of the emergency exit signs at either side of the stage look like they’re calling me out of myself. I have space to move about, no one has elbowed me, I’m not being pushed around, no one cares if I dance like a maniac. The crowd have improved, I can feel it all around me, people are getting it.
They play Creep and the karaoke is in full effect, Thom is hamming it up, emoting and playing at being Frank Sinatra, doing all the actions, flashing his skinny body at the right moments. I scream and shout and jive my way through My Iron Lung, Just and Electioneering, there is no crush and I don’t have to fight to stay upright like I would have to in a smaller venue. At the end of Climbing Up The Walls, Jonny hits a weird note and Thom creases up, “What the fuck was that?!” Jonny comes over to the mic, but unable to explain himself he just says “I’ll get me coat.” Fast Show-style.
They play The Tourist, then the rest of the set list is a blur. Maybe I am getting over my need to be at the very front. The stage here is big and too far away for the sort of fan contact you might get at a smaller venue, I stopped worrying about that and let myself get swept away by the music.
When they’re done, I wheel around to the funereal jazz outro tape for a while until I find Caffy and get herded with the other pass holders into the “corporate hostility suite”. I see Tim to say hello to but he looks harassed. I join the Hall Or Nothing table with a journalist each from Melody Maker and NME. There are not many drinks and when some turn up I’m lucky to grab the last warm can of coke. I’m having trouble speaking, I’m not very good at talking to new people at the best of times but here everyone seems to be in the grip of their own in-jokes. They’re all driving back to London tonight so no one goes looking for booze.
There is a flyer for the new issue of Select on the table. Thom is on the cover of the magazine and the strap line says “I was ready to kill.” Caffy is not very happy about this and now is not the moment to talk about it. Jonny and Colin are around but there is no sign of the others. People are filtering away, it’s not really a party tonight, I wanted something to happen but no one knows it’s my birthday.
By the time I’ve found a pay phone so I can order a taxi, the place has emptied and there is nothing stopping me from doing a little exploring. I suppose I was hoping for a happy coincidence or to run into someone. I have to wait for my mini cab, as usual I’m in no real rush to leave, so I have a look outside to see if I can see where the bus is parked, but everything is behind a fence. I like to imagine the band were in there somewhere, having their own after show with the Mo’Wax crew…