There are some bands that, for one reason or another, you end up seeing quite a few times. For me, The Vaccines are one of those bands. I’ve seen them play to a few hundred at Concorde 2 and to many thousands at the Gentlemen of the Road festival in Lewes. But the standout gig was when they headlined the Brighton Centre back in May 2012, their performance that night was so good they even released it as a live album.
In the intervening period, I feel the band have both lost their way and, to a degree, found a new style. After making their name with an infectious debut album, what else would you expect from The Vaccines, but a somewhat dissatisfying follow-up. It was good, but not quite good enough. And then they went all experimental releasing the below par single ‘Melody Calling’, which marked a worrying change of direction for the band. It meant that all-important third album was really going to be career defining. Would they go back to successful formula of their debut or continue on their wayward path?
In the end, despite their hitherto immediately identifiable Ramones-like sound being borderline-unrecognisable on most tracks, the resulting record ‘English Graffiti’, although inconsistent, was a lot better than its predecessor. Sonically, it did mark a departure for the band, but their venture into Arctic Monkeys territory at least made the album sound like they were maturing as songwriters. I have to admit, on first hearing I wasn’t that keen, but with repeated listens it’s now grown on me.
Even though 18 months previously they’d headlined London’s O2, I was a little surprised that they were back at the Brighton Centre. Having played the far smaller Concorde 2 earlier this year and been one of the ‘surprise’ acts at this year’s Great Escape in May, it did strike me as a little ambitious. But The Vaccines are clearly an ambitious band. Indeed, only recently Justin Young said they want to be considered one of the biggest and best acts in the world!
Walking into the venue the first thing that surprised me was how empty it was. Unusually, both the side balconies were draped off and the floor itself was sparsely filled, something I haven’t seen in a long while. What also caught my attention was the amount of lighting. This was a big rig. There were no video or LED screens, just loads of lights, an abundance of mirrorballs and a dozen or so large Chinese lanterns hanging at different levels above the stage. What there connection or purpose was I have no idea.
Whilst the venue might have been less than two-thirds full, those who were there created a lot of noise and the atmosphere was great throughout. As seems de rigeur for all bands who reach a certain status, everyone was dressed in black and white and to continue the monochromatic theme, all the instruments, bar I think one acoustic guitar, were white: the drums, the guitars and the bass. They were also augmented by a fifth member — Timothy Lanham — on keyboards and guitar and, if I’m not mistaken, there were occasions when some backing tapes were also used.
Being The Vaccines, there were no shortage of songs, even though most of them are extremely short. The sound quality was impressive, especially the massive, almost Springsteen-like drum sound. That was very different from what I can remember from previous Vaccines gigs, but it did mean the drums were far more dominant than the guitars or bass. I’d always considered them a guitar band, but this time — even though he continues to overdo the guitar posing — Freddie Cowan’s playing felt much more understated.
Perhaps, the sound balance had been altered to compensate for Justin Young’s voice. At one point he admitted he’d lost it and asked the audience for help. To be honest, if he had vocal problems, he did a good job of hiding it. Sadly, there was no escaping ‘Melody Calling’ which once again proved no better live than it is on record. For me, it’s the worst Vaccines song by miles. The best, of course, and by some way, are still those from their 2011 debut. That said, ‘Dream Lover’, ‘Minimal Affection’ and ‘Give Me A Sign’ from the new album were good additions to the set, as was kicking things off with the raucous ‘Handsome’.
Had I not seen them before, I would have left thinking I’d witnessed a really good show. But memories of previous gigs meant it didn’t feel that way to me. It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly was missing, but sometimes you just sense there’s something amiss. Like it or not, they’ve made a conscious decision to shift direction. Whether it was a wise career move, only time will tell. On this occasion, the one thing you can’t accuse The Vaccines of is selling out.