This Wire article was written by Ian Bourne, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Natalie Whitehouse.
Many bands from the punk years are happy to play retro festivals, filling their sets with old favourites. So Wire might be expected to play ‘12 X U’, ‘I Am The Fly’, ‘Map Ref. 41oN 93oW’ and ‘Drill’. Other groups with extensive back catalogues have adopted the “whole album” approach to touring – performing entire LPs, in order. But Wire are not like other bands. Even before punk had fully flowered, they were moving into post-punk territory and creating art-punk.
Wire do a few older songs, as a gesture of goodwill to their fans and because they enjoy playing them. Tonight’s encore at the Dome includes the 40-second punk epic ‘Brazil’ from their first album, ‘Pink Flag’ (1977), and ends with ‘Used To’ from 1978’s ‘Chairs Missing’. Near the end of the main set, they play ‘Blessed State’ from 1979’s ‘154’, a deceptively sweet number sung plaintively by bassist Graham Lewis and surely an influence on Henry Badowski’s great disappeared album from 1981, ‘Life is a Grand…’ Spare guitar splinters into a cascade of chiming chords before the track roars into loud psych-punk. Earlier on, Lewis also takes lead vocals on ‘Mekon Headman’ from 2008’s ‘Object 47’, endowing it with heavy bass.
Half of this twenty-song set is from their fourteenth album, this year’s ‘Wire’, starting with the first track, ’Blogging’, which is delivered with 21st century confidence. Sets earlier this year included the whole of the eponymous album and firm favourite ‘Drill’. Typically of Wire, that song and ‘Shifting’ from ‘Wire’ have already had to make way for unrecorded newer material — ‘Nocturnal Koreans’, which already sounds polished; and ‘Wolf Boar’, featuring waves of guitar from Matt Simms. These come either side of a couple from 1988’s ‘A Bell Is A Cup’ – ‘Boiling Boy’ and ‘Silk Skin Paws’ – featuring main vocalist/guitarist Colin Newman on a 12-string instrument, brilliantly slick key changes and shifts in pace like a car moving through the gears.
Wire have influenced countless musicians. They are doctors of noise. Layers of spacey guitars on top of simple-sounding tunes and relentless drumming make new tracks ‘Burning Bridges’ and the faster ‘Joust & Jostle’ timeless. The gig moves into its stronger second half with the faster and harder-edged ‘High’ and the catchy, poppy ‘In Manchester’. For ‘Sleep-Walking’, Simms is bent over his guitar on his knees making noises from hell, against Lewis’ thudding bass. Wire create several walls of sound and a buzzsaw motorbike dirge. Robert Grey’s drumming is loud, but focused and deliberate.
‘Stealth of a Stork’ from 2013’s ‘Change Becomes Us’ is extremely fast and short, with great ironic mid-song changes, ending with an upnote that is a classic Wire punk sign-off. The same album provides the middle song of the encore, ‘Adore Your Island’, which cleverly mutates and repeats classic rock riffs before deviating into manic nuggets of punk. A similar spirit drives ‘Split Your Ends’ from this year, with Grey drumming seemingly too quickly for the rest of the song, in a good way.
The set’s three final numbers from ‘Wire’ build to a powerful climax. ‘Octopus’ is driven hard by the rhythm section. On the guitars, Simms’ washes of noise interplay with Newman’s thoughtful post-power-pop. ‘Swallow’ gets an unusually long intro, while technical issues with Newman’s numerous pedals are resolved, but builds and builds before leading into the majestic ‘Harpooned’. It’s like discovering clarity out of mud, as Wire mix sonic barbarism and beauty, creating a primeval connection. From the white noise, loud and repetitive, snatches of melody come back and back again, providing loops of recognition and shards of purpose to the dirge, illuminated by sudden dramatic key changes in Newman’s singing.
The night’s final song, ‘Used To’, is churning, writhing and sexy. Wire have ended just about every concert this year with the same track, and the overall shape of the set — all, or nearly all, of the new album, interspersed with choice songs from the past 39 years — has not changed. “It’s basically the same set; we just play it better now,” says Newman afterwards, standing by the merchandise stall. It’s justifiable self-confidence.