Review: EXTC live in Portsmouth

Picture (L-R): Terry Chambers, Steve Tilling, Steve Hampton and Ken Wynne

Picture credit: Lou Dommett Young

Edge of the Wedge, Portsmouth, 7 September 2021

If the dream of seeing a member of XTC play live seems remote, the possibility of seeing them up-close-and-intimate sounds like fantasy. But here we are in Portsmouth at the Edge of the Wedge, a black box of a venue with scarcely enough room for a stage, readying ourselves for a two-hour gig by EXTC, featuring peak-period drummer Terry Chambers.

For those of us deprived of the company of others for the past 18 months, the crowd seems plentiful enough, but the capacity for the sell-out gig is only 100. Front-man Steve Tilling taps me on the shoulder as he squeezes his way across the room to take his place on the stage. This is less Madison Square Garden, where XTC supported the Cars in December 1980, and more the Affair nightclub, where they kicked off their careers.

Which seems appropriate because EXTC feel like a band on an upward trajectory. This gig is the third in 2021 after a secret warm-up at Harrow Fest, a two-day “family-friendly music festival” in Wanborough, Swindon, followed by the official kick-off at the Vic pub in Swindon on 2 September. It follows a frustrating hiatus caused by the Covid pandemic which struck just after the first gig at the Vic in the spring of 2020. The immediate goal on the band’s horizon is the Isle of Wight Festival where they headline the River Stage stage on 18 September. Beyond that, they have their sights on the US and Japan.

“It’s tougher than any other XTC thing and
has a bad-ass quality I love”

JASON FALKNER on 25 O’Clock in

What Do You Call That Noise?
An XTC Discovery Book

What we see at the Edge of the Wedge is a band building its muscles in readiness for bigger crowds. Underpinned by Chambers’ mesmerising rhythms, they are a tight, forceful unit. Tilling, previously Colin Moulding’s foil in TC&I, gets promoted to lead singer, his hair a mass of Frank Zappa curls (like punk never happened!) as he rallies the troops in his White Horse of Uffington T-shirt and two-tone trousers. He’s given punchy support by Ken Wynne on bass (yes, he can play Mayor of Simpleton) and Portsmouth’s Steve Hampton, who brings a Dukes of Stratosphear-like wooziness to his guitar parts.

And what a catalogue they have on their side. Where the TC&I shows took a broadly chronological route through the Moulding songbook, this one takes choice material from that set and mixes it up with a complementary number of Andy Partridge favourites. It makes for juxtapositions that seem audacious, not least at the encore where Stupidly Happy holds its own among the band’s biggest hits, as if the 21-year gap between Life Begins at the Hop, with its transparent vinyl and turntable sleeve, and Wasp Star, released on shiny CD, was just a temporal blip.

The singalong in the middle of the one-chord Stupidly Happy turns it into a hit we never knew they had.

EXTC: “What a catalogue they have on their side”
Picture: Lou Dommett Young

This is true of the whole set. Songs that never sat together before suddenly seem part of a unified body of work. Scatter Me, with Tilling gamely taking on the Susannah Bevington soprano part, is just as much a highlight as Senses Working Overtime. No reason Wonderland, with its new funk shuffle, shouldn’t have sprung from the same creative source as This Is Pop or Making Plans for Nigel. It’s all part of the one rich and imaginative canon; like dipping into a selection box of chocolates, except without the ones in purple wrappers you always avoid.

Chambers is a big part of this. If you had any doubts his forceful style could have yielded to the subtle mood of XTC’s post-touring output, they are dispelled here. He convinces you he was behind the drum kit for everything from Big Day to The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead and he makes you hear how these songs could have sounded had the band continued as a live act, not as slavish copies of the lush studio originals but as bold, confident standards to be enjoyed by a crowd.

And, of course, it’s thrilling to watch his clockwork renditions of the Chambers-era classics, whether it’s the relentless stomp of No Thugs in Our House or the infectious bounce of Sgt Rock. On some songs I focus on him alone and try to figure out where in the bar he’s going to hit the cymbals. I never get it.

The all-guitar line-up recalls XTC in its Black Sea heyday, which naturally works well on Towers of London and Respectable Street, but also gives a harder edge to the ornate songs of Skylarking. You might miss the nuance, but these songs are robust enough to take it. The choices are adventurous too; No Language in Our Lungs and Sacrificial Bonfire take this away from an obvious greatest-hits set without seeming out of place or breaking the flow.

And as the flow progresses, so the band settle in. Over two 50-minute sets, they grow from a solid tribute act to a joyous and celebratory band in their own right.


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About the author

MARK FISHER is a freelance theatre critic and feature writer based in Edinburgh and has written about theatre in Scotland since the late-1980s. He is a theatre critic for The Guardian, a former editor of The List magazine and a frequent contributor to the Scotsman and other publications. He is the co-editor of the play anthology Made in Scotland (1995), and the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide (2012) and How to Write About Theatre (2015) – all Bloomsbury Methuen Drama. While at school, he set up the XTC fanzine Limelight, which he republished as The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls (2017). He followed that with What Do You Call That Noise? An XTC Discovery Book (2019). In 2020, he launched What Do You Call That Noise? The XTC Podcast.

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