Review: Explosions in the Sky, Manchester

by Karl Hodge

There was supposed to be an Explosions in the Sky review here – but I didn’t go.

A creative commons licensed image of Mark Smith from Explosions in the Sky at another gig I didn't go to.

A creative commons licensed image of Mark Smith from Explosions in the Sky at another gig I didn’t go to.

No one was paying me to review Explosions in the Sky, fortunately. If they had been it would have been a matter of professional courtesy for me to go.

In case you are reading this and would like to pay me to review some live music for your magazine at some point in the future, I absolutely would have gone to see the Texan post-rock band Explosions in the Sky for money. Just so you know.

It’s also quite important that you know that I really like Explosions in the Sky. I enjoy listening to them as I commute to work. Their new album, The Wilderness, the one they’re touring, is as good as anything they’ve done. I’ve listened to it three times. You should probably buy it. It is not Explosions in the Sky’s fault that I did not go to see them.

I have, in the last few years, not been to see a variety of acts who I had tickets for. In most cases there were extenuating circumstances. In some there were not.

It all started In 2008 when I didn’t go to see Echo and the Bunnymen. I’d booked to see them at the end of their Ocean Rain tour. The tickets were up in the Gods at what was then called the Liverpool Echo arena. I had only recently started dating my current girlfriend and we had even booked a hotel nearby; a Premier Inn.

As the date got closer, I began weighing the discomfort of going to see Echo and the Bunnymen in a stadium against my desire to see Echo and the Bunnymen in a stadium. I began to visualise how very far away Will Sergeant and Ian McCulloch would be from my seat, how little of them I would actually see. I pictured waiting outside the stadium toilets for my girlfriend, a little afraid that there might be another exit and that she would get lost.

I imagined shuffling through the crowds for half an hour after the encore and walking back to the Premier Inn in the Liverpool drizzle.

A wave of agoraphobic panic swept over me and I put the tickets on eBay. I titled the sale “Echo & the Bunnymen tickets, Liverpool” instead of “Echo and the Bunnymen tickets, Liverpool” to save space.

Only one person found my listing and they bought both tickets for 99p.

Until that point, I had never considered that not-going-to-a-gig was a thing people could do. Usually when you’ve gone to all that trouble, but you just don’t feel like it, you tough it out anyway. Whenever I thought to myself ‘I don’t really fancy going tonight’ I would hear a voice, probably my Mum’s voice, saying ‘You have to! You’ve paid for those tickets and now you have to go!’

Somehow the act of not going to see Echo and the Bunnymen had freed me. It had bound and gagged the Mother of my mind and bundled her into a cupboard. I could still hear her, but she was muffled and far away.

After that I was able to not go to see a variety of bands I had promised I would go to see. More specifically, I did not go to see Magazine on their reunion tour with Barry Adamson. I didn’t go to see The Sisters of Mercy at Leeds Beckett University. I didn’t go to see Killing Joke – three times. Once because I couldn’t park near the venue.

The apogee of me-not-going-to-see a band was Radiohead’s UK tour in October 2012. I say “tour” but it was actually one of three, unprecedented, non-festival dates in arenas – one in Manchester, two in London. I was going to Manchester. Of course I was, this is FCK LDN.

I bought my tickets a few days before everyone else, as a member of the fan club. A limited number were released on March 7th a full seven months before the gig. I sat online at 9 in the morning, refreshing the page until I was able to make my purchase. The seats were awesome. Close to the front of the lower tier, right next to the stage.

I marked the day in my calendar. Things were pretty shitty in my personal life that year. Work wasn’t going well for me or my partner. We had moved twice in six months and were running out of money. Whenever we felt really down I would say “we’re going to see Radiohead!”

Then, about three days before the gig, while I was joylessly typing out an application review for a computer magazine, I sneezed. The next morning I woke with aching muscles; a deep, penetrating throb that made every part of me feel heavy. I couldn’t breathe. I had to tilt my head to one side to free up one nostril at a time. The stuff that trickled out was luminescent.

The day before the gig it had spread its tentacles into my lungs. Breathing now sounded and felt like glass cracking in my chest. It hurt to move my head. It hurt to move at all. It all hurt.

“I might be alright tomorrow,” I said to the floating effigy of Mr. Firth, a junior school teacher who once threw a piece of chalk at me. His eyes glowed as yellow as the matter I was coughing up.

“Who are you talking to?” said my girlfriend, from the other room.

“No one,” I said, “I think I might be hallucinating.”

Then I remembered that my girlfriend had gone to work two hours ago – and realised that I would not be going to see Radiohead.

In the long list of gigs I have not gone to, Explosions in the Sky at the Albert Hall in Manchester on the 22nd of April 2016 is nowhere near the top. We didn’t even really have a very good reason not to go. We just felt too tired.

It was a Friday and it had been a long week. The band didn’t even come on until 9:00. We walked past the venue at 7:00. Lots of people were queuing up. A load of white guys with beards and lumberjack shirts, some nerdy types with cord jackets and glasses. Quite a few Japanese girls. They were queueing behind crash barriers arranged in a zig-zag. People were filtering past a pair of security guys, really slowly.

We had been debating whether to go to the gig all the way down Deansgate. When we got there, we intuitively knew that we were not going to see Explosions in the Sky and carried on walking around the block. It grew dark and we walked around Manchester instead. We walked through St. Annes Square and tried to see inside the town hall and we talked and talked.

We kissed outside a fish and chip shop and I asked my girlfriend if she thought we should get married. She said yes.

“It’s inevitable, really,” she said.

And then we tacitly agreed that wasn’t actually a proposal and that we would try again at some time in the future.

The thing I forgot to say is that though we didn’t go to see Explosions in the Sky, we did see Explosions in the Sky.

Manchester Evening News previewed the gig with the words: “You wouldn’t recognise them if they passed you in the street.”

As it happens, four men passed us in the street earlier in the day. One of them looked South Asian, another was balding. Apart from him, they all had collar length hair. They were approaching middle age but were dressed kind of hipster. Like hipster Dads.There was a distressed leather jacket on one guy, another had pointy boots. They were giving off a muso, band vibe.

The Manchester Evening News was right, you wouldn’t recognise Explosions in the Sky in the street – and by the time I’d punched their name into Google Images they were already gone. But it was them. Explosions in the Sky, on the way to get noodles from Tampopo or a couple of beers from The Mitre.

Us? We were going in the opposite direction.