THINK OF A free open-air gig on the first day of summer and you’d probably imagine hippies, loud rock music and lots of mud. All credit, then, to 808 State. Seven years ago this innovative Mancunian electronic dance combo rescued the arenas from hoary old rock beasts such as Simple Minds by playing huge, DJ-led gigs; this time around, they tackled the hoariest of Spinal Tap clichés with equal aplomb.
The gig was billed as 808 State — Live And Free, which may well refer as much to the band’s release from a four-year studio incarceration spent producing their rapturously received comeback album, Don Solaris, as to the price of admission. In place of sweaty rock we had 808’s shimmering, pulsating grooves, and the only hippies present were of the resolutely 1990s, body-pierced variety. This was a coming together of the sharpest dance/electronic tribes, not quite — as Jarvis Cocker would have it — “20,000 people standing in a field”, but a similar number gathered in a cobbled courtyard. Which neatly ruled out the mud.
The band members themselves wore definitive, mid-decade Manc clobber (outsized sports gear, baggy checked shirts) but you strained to see them on a tiny stage worryingly reminiscent of The Stones’ ill-fated podium at Altamont. No matter. There was much to admire elsewhere: the gigantic lasers beamed on to the surrounding buildings, the overhead trains which seemed to be a surreal part of the show, and Graham Massey’s distant, twin-necked axe, lifted straight from the Tap scene involving Jazz Odyssey. A nice ironic touch, for 808 State provided dazzling electronic odysseys that, bolstered occasionally by Massey’s soaring alto sax, invoked blistering bebop and the jazz rock of seventies fusionists Weather Report.
In keeping with the occasion, there was the odd whiff of prog-rock indulgence, but the crunching grooves of ‘Joy Rider’ and ‘Cubik’ stole the show. By the end, the amphitheatre was a mass of revelling bodies, like some vast shamanic rain dance. Hmmm, I was wondering why those sports tops all had hoods.
© Dave Simpson, The Guardian, 24 June 1996