Future of the Left, VK Brussels, 5 June 2012
We had a bottle opener when I was growing up, a tarnished brass thing showing a little boy having a pee. Granny Walton bought it on one of the two foreign holidays she took in her life. She visited Brussels the week that World War Two broke out. They were more or less chased out of the city. Feelings about the British were running hot and high in those tumultuous weeks. It was felt that treaties signed to protect countries from the Nazi jackboot hadn't been honoured.
It took Granny Walton a week to get home. No wonder she subsequently preferred a trip to Blackpool rather than a jaunt over the channel.
I tell Future Of The Left's Andrew Falkous and Julia Ruzicka this story stood on a square somewhere in the middle of Brussels. They're getting as much of a taste for the city as they can before they get drawn into the vortex of interviews, soundchecks, then more interviews, to coincide with tonight's gig at the VK.
This jaunt is my 41st birthday present to myself. I'm a great gift giver - a historic European city I've never visited and some of my favourite music-making human beings; is much better than a billion pairs of socks or a basket of melodramatic cheese the size of the Titanic, you bet.
Some time between soundcheck and meal-time, we go for a wander in the neighbourhood surrounding the venue. There's Falco, me, Jimmy Watkins (Masters in second guitar, doing a PhD in Taping Bottles of Stella To The Forehead), Dan (specialising in inordinate youth and excellence of sound) and Gordon (Glaswegian tour manager, completing his Professorship in Streetwise and the Correct Way to Pronounce Certain Swear Words).
Our carefree amble, replete with Jimmy trying to out-dribble the local kids (pride only saved by his legendary speed - an unfair advantage to resort to when you're playing seven-year-olds) soon loses the spring in its collective step. Men are arguing and pushing each other on street corners. There's a strong whiff of anxiety colouring the aromas of spice and old sewer.
It's only when we return to the venue that we learn that there have been riots in this area for the two nights preceding our arrival. A Belgian woman had been arrested for wearing a full burkah. Apparently, dressing up however you like, and believing whatever you want, is illegal in the home of the European Parliament.
I'm told it's just coincidence that the second time a Walton comes to the city, there is civil unrest. Well, wouldn't it make you paranoid?
The venue provide us with excellent soup, a comical amount of bread, and something with chicken in it. A local journalist tells us more about the riots (in retrospect, we learn it was a bit of stone throwing - the word 'riot' seems somewhat out of proportion with the reality, but - hell - my Flemish isn't great at distinguishing between different levels of social disorder, so I will let her off).
There is sitting around. I have learnt that there is a lot of sitting around for touring bands. The Joy Formidable did a lot of sitting in America. Future Of The Left are also sitting. Maybe it only seems to be a disproportionate amount of sitting? After all, we all sit around a lot, don't we? Regardless of whether we're in an excellent band, or not. On occasion, I notice that they stand up, or walk to the fridge - shaped like a big can of beer... clever - but they sit down again, eventually. The rock lifestyle doesn't seem to be much about the things I've been led to believe by endless hagiographies and rockumentaries. No drugs, no illicit sexual activities, fewer pasties. Lots of sitting.
But sitting isn't entirely benign. I sit on my six-month-old Galaxy SII, at which point it breaks like a cream cracker. Rock and bloody roll.
Here endeth my anthropological study of Future Of The Left's touring habits. They're very much like the rest of us, just exponentially better with four string guitars, lyrical intrigue, bass swinging and in-tune shouting.
Jimmy writes 'LADS' on his forearm in permanent marker in a show of defiance against all the sitting. It's his shared joke with Dan and Gordon. If they see, or do, something young, unfettered and masculine, something that'd make a politically correct editor at the BBC wince, it's greeted with a round robin of "Lads!", "Yeah, lads innit?", "That's lads for you."
I can't join in. I'm a father of uptight age. Every time they say "lads" I whisper "dads" to myself as a hex to ward off their bad influence. I can't even open a bottle of free beer with a lighter. The shame.
I watch a little of the support band. They seem OK. They're Belgian - I think they were Belgian - but they address the audience in English. It's a trilingual country - and that raises interesting political sensitivities. Far better, in some circumstances, to speak in English than risk upsetting someone by speaking Flemish in their face, if they're a French speaker. There's an unfortunate, un-PC joke in that sentence somewhere.
Then we're wandering through the venue's downstairs innards trying to find the stage.
"This is like Spinal Tap," I say.
"Everything on tour's like Spinal Tap," says Jimmy.
This is the first time I've seen 'the new' line-up of Future Of The Left. Last time I watched them - getting dragged off stage at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, for having the audacity to sing their songs using exactly the same lyrics as recorded on all of their publicly available albums, Jimmy had just been added to the line-up. Julia is the newest addition, but only from my perspective. They've toured Oz and made a (truly) fantastic album in the interim.
The set begins with Arming Eritrea. That has to be the most insidious, slipstream of an opening riff in all contemporary music? I expect the audience to erupt, or explode, or at least jump up and down a lot... but they don't, really. Heads are nodded. Some feet are tapped. Hands get clapped at appropriate moments. It's like being at a gig with a roomful of me's. I didn't sign up for this!
By all accounts, Belgian audiences are - and I appreciate that this is a gross generalisation - a little standoffish and reserved. I'm sure there are individual members who wrestle panthers before bed, but they're keeping themselves pretty quiet tonight. Which is a shame, because the band are tight and wide and a multitude of other contradictory adjectives I'd like to use to convey the opinion of 'most excellent'.
Julia's rolling style brings a propulsive momentum to the whole set, exemplified by the remarkable new song, Beneath The Waves An Ocean. Jimmy brings flashing sabres of extra guitar, brilliantly delivered co-vocals, inordinate confidence.
"Why has he got LAOS written on his arm?" someone asks me.
"His family are from the Far East."
Oh, and a surreal otherness to proceedings.
Jack drums with a power, intelligence and lyricism (and I do mean 'lyricism') so rare, I wonder why I hadn't noticed it as much as I should have done before.
And Andrew is the phosphorescent core of it all. Whereas in the latter stages of the last line-up (Kelson, Falco, Egglestone), Future Of The Left - as a live experience - had become something of a red giant... massive sounding, awe-inspiring, but a little flabby around the edges (too much talking, however hilarious it frequently was). This is a white dwarf. By that I mean all of the energy and excellence has been focused, tightened, worked and beaten into an hour-or-so of sound, humour, song and fury that has no equal.
The fact that all of this flaring electromagnetic aceness is getting sucked into the black hole of the Belgian audience - who take much more than they give, which is their prerogative of course - makes this show a seven rather than a 10.
No doubt the curtailed public transport services (due to 'the riots') have affected attendance (it's still a good turn-out). But there's something lacking - and it ain't down to the band. They play so well, I soon lose any frustration with the crowd in the awesome storm of noise. Highlights: The Lords Hates A Coward, Sheena Is A T-Shirt Salesman, To Hell With Good Intentions, Failed Olympic Bid, I Am The Least Of Your Problems... but, you know, I saw an even better show in Manchester a couple of nights later - with a crowd who'd turned up to lose themselves in a rock show - so, I'll save the specifics for that review.
Somewhat strangely a whole other, mental audience replace the supine one for the last two songs. Lightsabre Costcutting Blues (not its title, but I wouldn't want the Daily Mail to have any more ammunition to fire at my beloved BBC) and Lapsed Catholics wake the throng like cattle prods.
I go for a wee before the end. I've been crossing my bladder for 20 minutes and I'm old, now. I need a wee, or a chewy toffee, after an hour of standing up.
Post gig we drink a few beers, load the van (at which point I demonstrate a certain amount of usefulness in the carrying-things-and-guarding-the-van department... I've found my level!). CDs, t-shirts and records are sold. We forget the 'merch board' and drive 15-ish miles to a hotel that thinks it's a holiday camp disguised as a prison.
We sit down for a bit and then lie down and sleep for a bit more. Sitting feels much more rock n roll after a gig than before. P'raps it's the whiskey in my hand or the thrill of having seen one of the best bands in the (certainly, *my*) world.
Tomorrow there is a long drive, a ferry, an interview and a chance for the band to reacquaint themselves with wives, girlfriends and cats back in Cardiff.
I go to bed having been forced to drink an unprofessional amount of beer by Gordon. My last thought is a fleeting regret that I'd given up on the rock 'n' roll dream when I did. The regret is quickly replaced by a real sense of gratitude and privilege that I know such excellent people and such an incredible band.