Scottish rock gods Biffy Clyro aren’t the first band that springs to mind when you think about a seated acoustic gig. Having attended many of their shows over the years I can vouch that it’s more a case of coming out with your ears ringing and your entire body dripping in sweat. If you can still hear yourself think you obviously haven’t been amongst it enough.
When we spoke with James and Ben Johnston earlier this year during their Australian tour we touched on the MTV Unplugged concert that the band had performed in November last year in London and their upcoming tour of the UK around that, and one of the points mentioned was how weird it was for the band to have a seated gig, given the energetic nature of their live shows.
I can admit now to feeling the same trepidation as I took my seat in the stalls at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, looking around at the constraints of the all-seated audience, as well as the very tight security regarding filming and photography. Obviously Biffy Clyro is incredibly talented and wouldn’t be putting on a show they weren’t capable of delivering, but the niggling doubts were there as to whether it would have the same impact in person as it did when I heard the album (the only time I’ve ever given a perfect score in an album review).
As the lights went down there was the same buzz in the crowd as there usually is before a gig, but there was also a distinct measure of restraint. It felt exceedingly polite and contained, even as the band took to the stage, despite the raucous welcome. It was also the first time I’ve seen them with their clothes on, at least on their top halves, and that was also weird. There was a tree and office chairs on swivel wheels, and it was all a bit batshit mental…but in the very best of ways.
The sound quality was superb. The venue is ranked in the top 10 of the world’s best-sounding concert halls and I can see why. Everything was clear and crisp but also delicate enough so that you could hear all the finer details of the performance, which is exactly what you need when you’re hearing one of the best rock bands on the planet stripping everything back.
As for the performance itself it’s hard to describe without turning soppy, to be honest. Simon Neil is a hell of a songwriter and being able to really hear him and the lyrics, with hardly anyone speaking, is just a gift. He is, in my opinion, one of the best of our time. James and Ben Johnston have always punched out fantastic harmonies and tonight was the top of the pile. Nothing but joy to hear each of them so clearly and really appreciate the excellence of the vocals across the board. Special mention, also, to the acoustic bass. I’m a sucker for a bass guitar at the best of times but there was something magical to be so near to James as he played an acoustic and demonstrated just how good he is as a bassist.
The set list was a killer, with a perfect balance of new and old, mellow and upbeat. Despite doing everything possible to focus on every moment it shot by far too quickly and was over much too soon. The two standout moments for me – Simon singing a new song with just a keyboard accompaniment; and me doing everything I could not to sob during ‘Opposite’. That song has always been a heartbreaker for me and the live acoustic version is devastatingly beautiful. I had to pretend I was looking up at the rigging a few times, even though I was frantically blinking away tears.
As mentioned in the start, the containment of the energy was the weird thing. I swear we could probably have powered all of Wales with all the potential energy in that room. I know that I wanted to leap to my feet right from the start and it was evident people all around me felt that way too, but ultimately I’m glad we were a bit repressed because it did give the opportunity to savour the songs. That said, the finale was too much for everyone’s self-control and the room was on its collective feet for the most epic version of ‘Many of Horror’ I’ve ever known. If you’re going to have a singalong let it be in a room full of Welsh folk in fine voice.
According to the lyrics to the new song Simon wants to be adored. I don’t think there’s any danger of that not being the reality. What a gig, and what a privilege.
As Dust Dances
Different Kind of Love
Friends and Enemies
God & Satan
Many of Horror
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The reviewer attended “Biffy Clyro Unplugged” at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, Wales on 18th September 2018.