The Levellers – Live Review – York Barbican
By Richard Jones, July 2018
Levellers secured their status as one of the world’s top live acts many years ago. Their iconic 1994 Glastonbury performance is regularly voted among the best-ever at the festival with up to 300,000 people flocking to the show, while their 1996 live album and DVD, Headlights, White Lines, Black Tar Rivers, is considered a high watermark in recorded concerts.
Fifteen years ago, Levellers even had the courage to start their own festival, despite not having any ‘corporate sponsorship or branding’. ‘Beautiful Days’ in Devon continues to ‘sell out… by not selling out’ every summer.
So why then, when you are one of the most successful and respected live bands in existence, would you tinker with a winning formula? Well the answer is simple – Levellers have never been afraid of experimentation and, of course, it helps knowing that their adoring fans will lap up anything that comes their way from their heroes.
This year also signals the band’s 30th anniversary and they wanted to do something a little different. Back in March, they released new album We The Collective, a selection of new and old tracks featuring stripped-down arrangements, and this acoustic tour ties in with that shift.
“Pop’s biggest rebels”
I must admit, the show at York’s Barbican Centre did feel bizarre at first, certainly for a Levellers gig. Having seen them over a dozen times over the past quarter of a century, to me their electric concerts have always been about dancing and moshing, getting covered in your mates’ sweat and beer – and, to be honest, not caring which.
But the all-seater Barbican as a venue is nothing like the Leadmill in Sheffield or the O2 Academies where I have seen them in the past. My brother Nick and I felt as if we were about to watch a classical concert rather than a show by British folk pop’s biggest rebels.
Support on the night was originally slated to come from Ginger Wildheart, formerly of The Quireboys and The Wildhearts. But as he was ill, into the breach stepped in singer-songwriter Gaz Brookfield, who warmed the audience up brilliantly with his acoustic guitar and witty topical lyrics.
Then it was time for Levellers to march onto the Barbican stage.
For this gig, the collective numbered ten – old stagers Mark Chadwick (guitar and vocals), Jeremy Cunningham (bass), Charlie Heather (drums), Jon Sevink (violin), Simon Friend (guitar) and Matt Savage (keys), along with four sessionists who brought even more depth to the their sound.
They opened the set with ‘Exodus’ from their fourth album Zeitgeist and just one song in, Chadwick and co immediately had the audience eating out of the palms of their hands.
Folk punk classic ‘England My Home’, taken from their debut A Weapon Called the Word, followed and got the crowd singing along, as did one of my personal favourites ‘Liberty Song’.
However, the best part of the evening was the many unexpected surprises from their lesser-known albums, particularly their sixth effort, Hello Pig and seventh, Green Blade Rising.
Not content with ten musicians, Levellers became an 11-piece an hour in, as they introduced long time touring musician Stephen Boakes to play the Didgeridoo on ‘Elation’ from Mouth To Mouth.
Very few bands are still at their peak after 30 years of existence, and even fewer can keep a crowd entertained without playing their greatest hits or tracks from their best-known album (in Levellers’ case, that’s Levelling The Land, which they have performed in its entirely in the past).
“A different side”
Although the audience were satisfied three quarters into the concert, the place really came alive three songs from the end when Chadwick and the band treated fans to new arrangements of signature tunes ‘Fifteen Years’, ‘One Way’ and ‘Just The One’.
Every member of the crowd was on their feet, with many rushing to the stage to dance along in front of the seated ensemble, including bassist Cunningham who was clearly itching to join in.
If you’d have said to the young revolutionary Levellers 30 years ago that they’d be playing this sort of intimate classical-folk gig in a venue like the Barbican, they would probably have laughed at you. And the same might even be said of their fans who, when attending their electric gigs, know exactly what to expect – and love every second.
However, this evening showed me a different side to Levellers, a band who I thought I knew ‘Outside Inside’. According to their biggest hit, there may be “One Way Of Life”, but this acoustic masterclass proved there’s more than one way to keep the punters happy.
images: Liam Farrelly