Having followed Prefab Sprout since about 1988 and disovered the delights of all their albums since, Prefab Sprout were one of the few bands that I have been genuinely excited to see live. I can honestly say that Prefab Sprout haven't put a foot wrong yet in terms of their album output; this is all the more remarakable considering that their style of music is basically just AOR (Adult-Orientated Rock) a much derided genre - and sometimes rightfully so - given it's normal refusal to adhere to musical fashion. Paddy McAloon and his able band have managed to write songs which are strangely addictive and what's more, they are a group whose music can appeal to most people's mothers.
In fact after seeing the average age of the crowd there would have been nothing embarrassing about taking my mother along. The term 'gig' didn't seem appropriate on this evening, it was very much a concert, or even a performance. When Paddy emerged in David Crosby-style beard, the first thing to be noticed was that he seemed to be wearing the same outfit he wore on the last tour, some 10 years ago. The white shirt and black waistcoat combination was given another airing and inside it beat the heart of one of Britain's best songwriters of the last 20 years.
Staright away the band launched into I Remember That, a soulful number from 1988's From Langley Park To Memphis Album. Neil Conti, back in the fold, after being absent from the recording of 1997's Andromeda Heights, provided fleshy drumming which at times threatened to swamp the subtle guitar techniques of Paddy whilst his younger brother Martin contributed accomplished and understated bass which is exactly what bass guitarists should do normally unless your name's Peter Hook. The other member of the touring party was keyboard player Jess Bailey who was replacing Wendy Smith; who in turn had recently given birth and understandably chose not to tour.
What was most striking during the two-hour set was that the group actually managed to play their way through 29 songs. This was in due in no small part to the lack of show-off keyboard or guitar solos; generally the songs were played pretty straight as they were on the albums or singles. The one notable exception was on the occasion when Martin and Neil left the stage to 'take bags of drugs or whatever rock stars are supposed to do' as Paddy joked and it was clear that he disapproved on this kind of fashion too. The stripped down version of first single 'Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)' with just Paddy on guitar and Bailey on keys was a delight as was the gentle lullaby that is 'Swans' which followed it.
The biggest cheers, however, were reserved for the standouts from 1985's 'Steve McQueen' album, arguably their best effort in a career which has been synonymous with high quality. 'Goodbye Lucille #1 (Johnny Johnny)', 'Moving The River' and 'Bonny' demonstrated that the 80's weren't just about synthesizers and poodle-perm rock but also about cleverly constructed, nagging melodies which send regular shivers down the spine. In truth, though, all the tunes played were delivered with precision and even though some missed the delicate harmonious vocals of Wendy Smith, Jess Bailey proved a more than adequate replacement in the keyboards department particularly in the glorious flourish that climaxes 'Moving The River'.
During the lean years between albums in 1990-1997 McAloon wrote for the actor/producer/director/singer Jimmy Nail and 3 of these songs were given an airing. Frankly, they didn't add much to the evening's entertainment and probably sounded better with Nail's more aggressive vocal style rather than the Sprout's frontman's hushed timbre.
McAloon's on stage patter was heart-warmingly humble, constantly thanking the audience for their continued support during a decade of little new material from the band. He even attempted a few half-hearted jokes perhaps the best one being when he commented that Celine Dion would be covering some Jethro Tell tracks; "I've heard my Heart Will Go Aqualung and believe me, it's great". But you had to be there to appreciate it.
Rumour has it that the Sprouts will be bringing out a new album before the end of 2000, provisionally titled Sleeping Rough, according to Q Magazine. A new single will be released which will be familiar to many, the title track to Sunday evening drama 'Where The Heart Is' but this is not one of their best efforts it has to be said; too unassuming and not ear-tugging enough to merit more than a 'oh, that's a nice song' comment. Hopefully, the songwriting muse is still with McAloon despite his advancing years but whatever happens, some people left the Royal Concert Hall knowing that they had witnessed greatness.