Chemistry lessons

Joe Costello finds himself at the Utilita Arena with the Chemical Brothers.

The evening began inauspiciously when a combination of a critical misreading of the pickup instructions from the Twickets seller combined with the vagaries of the Cross City Line meant Plans A, B and C all went out of the window altogether. Pre-gig travel arrangements would require more column inches than this review will allow to explain in all its farcical detail.

One of the issues with arena concerts in Birmingham is always having to research whether the frequently rebranded by corporate sponsorship venue is what I still call the NEC or the NIA; the latter in this case which at least allowed for brief visit to the German Market while it is still relatively quiet and therefore at its most tolerable, before a relatively leisurely stroll to the venue with ten minutes to spare before they took to the stage.

It doesn’t seem credible somehow that The Chemical Brothers are promoting their tenth studio album For That Beautiful Feeling and are doing so in a venue of such size, but their popularity shows no sign of waning when most of their contemporaries are either no longer active or have long since joined the ranks of heritage acts, embarking on tours playing only the crowd pleasers. The audience demographic here was similar to that of the band themselves but with a healthy proportion of younger faces as well. There’s certainly a case that they are the most consistent music act of the last thirty years.

And yet the entire set they perform is one of crowd pleasers; the most recent albums, the aforementioned latest and 2019’s No Geography are the best represented during the course of the two hour set that I logged an impressive (for me at least) 3½ miles on my step counter while barely moving from the six feet square area I bobbed about within for most of the evening. There’s no mass exodus to the bar or the loo as these are played – they are greeted with a comparable degree of enthusiasm to the better established parts of their back catalogue.

The visual side of the show is as important as the music, despite what Half Man Half Biscuit might have to say on the matter. Each song performed has its own accompanying filmic backdrop on the video walls, typically featuring animated figures of some description engaged in some athletic activity. Show opener Go is accompanied by wire-framed gymnasts leaping across the screen, a dayglo marching band parades for No Reason, mutant models stalk the catwalk during Got to Keep On, Tom and Ed’s stage presence largely cameos, similar to their fleeting appearances in their own videos.

With such an archive of material to draw on they run the risk of missing out on some fan favourites but address this through deft use of medleys. I couldn’t tell you precisely what they consisted of or what they segued into but Elektrobank, The Golden Path, Setting Sun and many more each got a minute or two’s airing as part of a greater whole, as was a mashup of Star Guitar and New Order’s Temptation so there’s a high possibility of hearing at least an extract of a personal favourite.

The pair return for a three-song encore, ending the night with their traditional show closer The Private Psychedelic Reel, accompanied by a blizzard of close-ups showing detail from stained glass windows of the Middle Ages, the most demonic of which are synched to excerpts from Sympathy for the Devil that weave their way through the main track to great effect.

And that was that; no doubt we can expect more of the same in another three or four years time for album number eleven. My sister pointed out that most shows on this tour were over the weekend, presumably in part to ensure more of a party atmosphere but I can’t help thinking it also allows greater recovery time for the band and their core audience. Either way, I hope to be in attendance once again next time around.