Madness at Sussex County Ground review

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The last time Madness came to Brighton they played two shows in one day at the Brighton Centre. With no bigger venue apart from the Amex (which has still only ever hosted two concerts) the only choice for those with bigger ambitions is the cricket ground. It too has hardly been well-used by bands (just Sir Cliff, Sir Elton and JLS have played there in recent years) but unlike the Amex, there are good reasons why its underused. Being overlooked by flats, means noise is always an issue and needing to keep the playing surface pristine, means a big chunk of the infield is out of bounds.

Despite this, the nutty boys arrived in Hove in the middle of what they had modestly billed as the greatest open air tour in the history of rock n roll. Whilst it’s true that virtually all of the 19 venues they’re playing are football or cricket grounds, as well as racecourses and even Silverstone, attaching the word ‘greatest’ to anything massively raises expectations about what you’re going to see.

I must confess to being a bit of a Madness fan. I thought they put on an excellent show at the Brighton Centre and I really liked both their last two albums, even though neither spawned any hit singles. But that was some three years ago. Nowadays, for the younger generation at least, Madness are that band who played on the roof of Buckingham Palace during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. For most madheads, they’re the nutty boys who had a shedload of hits back in the day. And that day was a long time ago now.

Pre-show, two things about the gig surprised me. One was the line-up. Two unknown bands do not make for a good reason to get to the venue early. Surely a couple of ‘names’ would’ve given the event more of a feeling that it was going to be a bit special. And secondly, the lack of promotion. Was there any? No wonder so many people seemed to be unaware Madness were actually in Brighton, well Hove actually.

I heard around 8,000 tickets had been sold, but numbers were hard to judge as most people were standing near the stage and a cricket field is pretty big expanse of grass. All around, non-paying fans gathered on balconies and rooftops. Some had a great view, others had to be content with looking at the back of the stage and hearing the gig. Those on the pitch were a curious mix: groups of middle-aged men and families with young kids. This was about the former reliving their youth and the latter bringing their offspring to perhaps their first ever gig.

Not many bands attract an audience quite like Madness, it’s about having fun, wearing silly hats (fezzes and pork pies were in abundance) and drinking beer (Madness even had their own brews for sale) Despite the abundance of alcohol, the atmosphere was as good-humoured as you could wish for. The music helped of course, Madness have always been about good-time songs you could sing-along and move your feet and arms to, and that’s precisely what most of the audience had come to do.

Despite being famous for being a seven-piece, few probably realised that Madness today are a man down. Chas Smash aka Cathal Smyth left the band at the end of last year and whilst Suggs is – and always will be – the voice and face of Madness, Smyth usually sung with Suggs on most of the songs, sang lead on some of their biggest hits including ‘Wings Of A Dove’ and ‘Michael Caine’ as well as being the booming voice at the beginning of ‘One Step Beyond’ There was no mention of his departure, but his absence left a big hole that sax player, Lee Thompson – now sporting white mutton-chops – and guitarist Chris Foreman aka Chrissy Boy tried to fill. For all their endeavour, it just wasn’t quite the same.

Indeed, when compared to that Brighton Centre show, the same could be said of the whole gig. There’s not much to their live show, which at times felt like a band going through the motions, more interested in having one big payday than having one more big hit. It’s not that they were in any way bad, more like they were – to quote one of their own songs, yesterday’s men. With nothing new to promote, this was all about reliving past glories. Indeed, of the 26 songs they played, just two came from their last two albums and one of those was a reworking of ‘My Girl’.

They did however – unexpectedly – start the show with a new tune called ‘Grandslam’ which I confess to not having heard before. Of course, having had their first hit way back in 1979, they do have a prodigious back catalogue. Even so, it was a shame that some of their more recent songs like ‘Black And Blue’ or ‘How Can I Tell You?’ never got an outing. With one golden oldie following another, for large chunks of the show you could almost have been watching a tribute band performing their Greatest Hits, rather than the real thing.

The one time they did try something different, it was, to quote another of their own hits, an embarrassment. For reasons best known to himself, guitarist Chris Foreman (looking like some dodgy children’s entertainer in a baby blue fedora and a pale pink Gresham Blake suit) chose to murder Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’. And if that sounds bad, it was. As a Brighton resident, he’ll need to keep his head down after that transgression!

Fortunately, it was soon forgotten as the band moved into their finale of classic Madness hits. As the sun went down, the stage lights and illuminated Madness sign did their thing and the audience did theirs, singing along to every word and skanking on the spot. Most I’m sure had no complaints.

I can’t imagine there were too many from the residents either, for this was unquestionably the quietest outdoor gig I’ve ever been to. That of course is the big downside of the venue, which to me should be left for cricket and cricket alone.

I have to say I wasn’t bowled over by the gig. Yes, there were great songs, and yes, the atmosphere was great too, but for most part, it lacked that special something Madness once had in abundance. At best, they were good, but this show never came close to living up to its billing. Personally, a couple of nights at the Brighton Centre would’ve been so much better.

Photos by Images Out Of The Ordinary

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