Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Manic, Maudlin, and Mayhem: the Fat White Family Tour Hits Cardiff’s Globe

There isn’t quite another music experience like going to a Fat White Family gig. With four studio albums, many a line-up reshuffle, and a long list of eventful tour dates under their belt, they really feel at times like the band the word ‘controversial’ was invented for. 

They are also, for all the complexities and fine touches of their studio output – which has steadily been growing in ambition and challenge level from record to record – still very much a live band: you can’t truly appreciate what the Fat White Family are about without watching them take to the stage (and, more often than not, climb off the stage too).

What they, indeed, are about changes from year to year: the aficionados who were there at the very beginnings will remember the rowdy, chaotic early shows, very much channelling the original punk spirit à la Sex Pistols. These days, and perhaps in keeping with the direction the world of grassroots music – and the world in general – has taken, there are a few more layers to contend with: a good dose of sultry, a more refined take on the politically polemical, and even a bit of melancholy. The lovers of the mosh pit have nothing to worry about, though; under all that, the chaos is very much still bubbling.

The Cardiff date of the tour (coming hot on the heels of fourth-and-perhaps-final studio album, ‘Forgiveness Is Yours’; although it is also very much part of the Fat White Family experience that each album, and each tour, may well be the last) was moved last minute from the brutalist, hangar-like Tramshed to the more intimate space of the Globe, which came, really, as a blessing in disguise. This is very much a band that likes to get up close and personal with its audience, and the Globe is the perfect space for it. The space may have felt cramped and sweaty, especially when the mosh pit got going and frontman Lias Saoudi went on an inevitable rampage through the crowd; but cramped and sweaty is how a Fat White Family gig is supposed to feel. If there is one constant element to their live performances through the years, it is a very deliberate effort to make the audience face its own discomfort. In the era of the safe space, it is rare to find a gig that feels like a conscious pursuit – gleeful in places, confrontational in others – of the uncomfortable; it might not be for everyone, but there is something cathartic in it, if you’re ready to surrender and go with the flow. Art, after all, is uncomfortable business.

First, however, something a little unexpected in the form of the opening act, Irish multi-instrumentalist John Francis Flynn. Traditional Irish music may not be what one expects to hear at a Fat White Family gig, but the link with the band’s own roots is there, and there is a deliberate roughness to some parts of Flynn’s take on it, a careful blend of biting and deadpan to his delivery, that infuses it with more than a bit of that old punk spirit. His take on ‘Dirty Old Town’ was positively rousing, and it got the room singing. Quite an apt beginning to the proceedings, all considered.

The main set, of course, cranked up the dials on the energy levels, and did it fast. It was a dream setlist for any Fat White Family connoisseur, and an excellent introduction for any unwary beginner who may have wondered in without knowing what they were in for. The much-requested classics from the band’s beginnings were there – ‘I Am Mark E. Smith’ got a roaring welcome – as were some personal favourites from later records. 

It is always astounding how ‘Feet’, a track that is heavy on sultry electronica and feels like it would be a better fit for a late-night club than a live gig, translates seamlessly to the stage. Much of the credit, for this and other equally smooth performances on the more heavily layered tracks, goes to multi-instrumentalist Alex White, who is a true asset to the band and an absolute pleasure to watch as he leisurely switches to instrument after instrument in the background. The fact that he makes it look easy adds an extra level to this feat. This is a band with a lot of experience in live performance, though, and it shows: food for thought – or it should be – for those who might be tempted to neglect the performance aspect of grassroots music.

Then there are the tracks from the new album, and here comes the truest display of range. As with prior records, it turns out that this, too, sounds better live: perhaps because the band infuses the performance with a lot of soul, in unexpected and sometimes dark ways. There is a confidence of voice in these new tracks that ranges from sarcasm to playfulness: ‘Work’ is hectic (like day-job schedules often feel in real life) and an invitation to mosh; ‘Religion For One’ is darkly maudlin and full of vivid lyrics; ‘Bullet of Dignity’ is an occasionally trippy reflection on aging without surrendering to the rules of society that feels very topical to what the band is doing. ‘Today You Become Man’, a starkly personal account of Saoudi’s older brother’s circumcision as a child in rural Algeria, is half spoken word, half fever dream, and the kind of thing it’s hard to imagine any other band performing live – and with such a visceral, frantic abandon that it just works.

Controversial, especially these days, feels like an empty word: perhaps, all in all, for a gig like this, challenging is better. Challenging in the way that it deliberately pushes the boundaries of an audience who has grown used to boundaries being paramount; challenging in the way that it commands abandon and at the same time evokes lingering thought. Challenging, also, in the way that it questions what a punk band – if the word punk even still makes sense – is supposed to look and sound like. The end result is exhilarating. Perhaps is the very precariousness of the band’s existence that works the magic: all existence is, after all, precarious, so we may well abandon all restraints and just run with it, for a couple, beautifully intense, hours.


Chiara Strazzulla


Images: Chiara Strazzulla

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