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Ginger himself has previously said that acoustic gigs only work in small venues. By a similar logic, it could be argued that acoustic gigs don’t really work if said small venue is only half full. Watching the generally unresponsive crowd at Oxford’s Zodiac tonight, one has the feeling that Ginger has misjudged matters slightly. What previously succeeded because it was so special, so unexpected, so unique, is now becoming a little too run-of-the-mill.
Once upon a time, opening a set with rarely-played Wildhearts rock epic 'Sky Babies' would have caused an explosion of excitement from any fan. But while this is the most polished, tight rendition of the rhythmically complex song I’ve yet experienced, it’s all becoming a little too predictable. Where Ginger was once able to generate excitement by slipping rare numbers like pop gem '29 x the Pain' nto his sets, now that those rare numbers have become standard and expected fodder, the excitement just isn’t there. Tonight, in contrast with previous acoustic events, there is a distinct lack of the element of surprise – apart from the SG5 ballad, 'Inside Out', and solo Ginger rocker 'I’m a Lover, Not a Fighter', most of what’s on offer tonight might be expected in a full Wildhearts electric set. 'Sick of Drugs' and 'TV Tan' are anthemic, straight-ahead rock & roll classics, and 'Geordie in Wonderland' never fails to make every member of the audience think for a moment that he’s in The Pogues, but where are the surprises, the unplayed B-sides, the rare solo songs, the Clam Abuse** numbers? And while set-closer, 'I Wanna Go Where the People Go', is the only song to get half of the people in this half-full venue excited, it would have been nice to hear something that hadn’t been done before.
The performance tonight is, if not flawless, so well executed that it seems that way. In Jon Poole and Hot Steve, Ginger has the perfect backing band – two gifted players who have the talent to pull off numbers that The Wildhearts have previously been unable to perform. While there is an element of sadness at the departure of Danny McCormack from the Wildhearts fold, the positive side is that technically hazardous numbers like the Poole-penned 'L.T.D.' are starting to emerge, and to be played with great accuracy and flare. What mars tonight’s performance is that all the bits that are meant to be spontaneous – the jokes, the segue into David Bowie’s 'Space Oddity' in the middle of 'Sky Babies', the apparently ‘random’ moments – are so obviously rehearsed, that there isn’t a modicum of spontaneity about this gig. The guy that gets pulled up in the encore to sing 'Shut Your Fucking Mouth and Use Your Fucking Brain' seems altogether more excited about performing than the rest of the band does.
The songs that come across best are the newest, from the band’s '…Must Be Destroyed' album. While 'Only One Hell', 'Someone That Won’t Let Me Go', and 'One Love, One Life, One Girl' don’t yet have the ‘classic’ status that endows them with a nostalgic, sing-along quality, they have a freshness that hasn’t been retained by some of those Wildhearts classics. For an artist with as large a back catalogue as Ginger, it’s easy to see why he’s tempted to stick to the old favourites. But as is starting to become glaringly apparent, you can definitely have too much of a good thing, and the only way that Ginger will retain his integrity is if he starts to explore the many dimensions of his song-writing potential, surprising us a little more as he stops leaning so much on those apparent crowd-pleasers.