Chumbawamba, Sheffield Library Theatre (12/03/2010)

Chumbawamba made a welcome return to the live stage at the Sheffield Library Theatre, where they were promoting their new album, ‘ABCDEF’, on their current European tour.

Chumbawamba have maintained their recent change of musical direction to folk music without losing their political and pop sensibilities.

The decision to strip down to a five-piece folk act was their most natural change yet, as their sound is not a huge departure from their works with EMI Music and One Little Indian during the 1990s.

The result is a rejuvenated line-up and a new set of songs that look set to be their strongest yet.

Judging from tonight’s performance, the group have matured like a fine wine.

Without temperamental members like Alice Nutter and Danbert Nobacon, they have mellowed and seem far more relaxed.

They approach subjects like racism, politics and religion with less aggression – and are also happy to maintain a healthy amount of satirical humour and cynicism.

This humour was something that was flirted with in later releases in their original incarnation – such as ‘Amnesia’ and ‘Ugh! Your Ugly Houses‘ – and this has become a more prominent factor in recent records.

For instance, ‘Add Me’ is a clever and witty attack on social networking that has all of the charm and craftsmanship of earlier pop gems like ‘Timebomb’.

They are as influenced by the Beach Boys as they are by Karl Marx; they now look refreshed and they are no longer preoccupied with making political statements.

They were also in good enough spirits to gleefully reference Johnny Cash, Chas & Dave (a running joke made by support act O’Tooley & Hidow) and their biggest hit ‘Tubthumping‘ during their performance of ‘Charlie’ – which was a delightful tribute to Charles Darwin.

The stripped down nature of their acoustic session is one that helps to bring earlier singles in a new light. The understated way in which ‘Homophobia’ was performed meant that they no longer needed to rely on a slick studio production for the song to have an impact.

In the studio version, for instance, the lyrics felt secondary to the song itself; the lyrics had more of an impact in the live acoustic version and the chorus was just as catchy as the studio version.

One can’t help but feel that songs like ‘Add Me’ would have been nowhere near as good, if it had been recorded for a more mainstream audience in mind.

However, updated interpretations of other fan favourites like ‘The Day the Nazi Dies’ and ‘Song on the Times’ are less successful.

They are performed as a capella in a pretentious attempt to highlight the importance of their political lyrics.

It will no doubt strike a chord with a politically-minded audience, though, and it does tie in nicely with their ‘Folk against Fascism’ campaign.

It is, however, more limited musically. It comes across as cold and emotionally distant, and is a bit too sententious for its own good.

While it was done with the best of the intentions, it is a shame that they have do not have the discipline to keep to their folk sound throughout.

Other efforts, that are just as striking lyrically, show just how effective Chumbawamba are at articulating their anarchic political and social commentary, while using more contemporary methods.

The sombre folk sound of Chumbawamba, alongside their luscious melodies and hooks, is one that helps to make the lyrics even more shocking and striking.

For instance, ‘Torturing James Hetfield ’ – an ironic tale about torturing the Metallica front-man after he sanctioned Metallica songs to be used as a Guantanamo torture method – has a delirious chorus, and is deliciously sinister and cruel.

It was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening and has the potential to be a future pop mini-classic.

Despite some inherent flaws, Chumbawamba are a charismatic and thoroughly enjoyable live act.

They are finally starting to hit their stride, after several years of finding their true voice, and the final pieces of the jigsaw are starting to be pieced together.

They have achieved far more than ‘Tubthumping’, but they still need to remove that jigsaw piece that does not quite fit.


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