Shame, live and socially-distanced at Pryzm

By God, it had been a while. The last time I saw some live music was in February, 2020. To say I was a little bit excited, some sixteen months later, was somewhat of an understatement. That the band I was going to see was Shame, of whom regular readers will know I am a fan, was the cherry on the cake, although I wasn’t quite sure how they were going to handle post-punk in a socially-distanced manner.

The answer came quickly, as Stereodista and I entered Kingston’s Pryzm following the obligatory, perfunctory scan of the QR codes that have turned life into a really boring version of Foursquare, and were led up to a swelteringly hot staircase, where we were urged to stand back and maintain social distance from fellow revellers, also queuing and waiting to be guided to their tables.

The setup was, in fact, quite sensible. Not exactly what I’d opt for, but honestly just being able to see an actual band in a real venue is enough of a blessing after so much tedium that complaining would make me feel like a total arsehole. Perched at our cosy picnic table and penned into the disabled elevator, which actually made us appear to have some sort of VIP booth, we ordered two beers and awaited the main event. Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street began to blare out from the speakers — that was our cue.

Shame entered, stage left, decked out in the most knowingly-ordinary clothes possible and an absolute wall of noise greeted my ears. Oh, fuck yes. Angry guitar music, where had you been this past year-and-some? Once I had gotten over the initial wave of euphoria at seeing a band again, I composed myself and started to see what I thought of this promising young troupe.

Drunk Tank Pink, Shame’s sophomore album, was notable for its switch to happier, high-energy songs that were, at times, reminiscent of Talking Heads in rhythm, albeit with an aggressive, guitar-centric thrust. In the flesh, this is even more readily apparent, and is where drummer Charlie Forbes really shines as a linchpin of the band’s energy during Water In The Well, which follows set opener Tasteless from 2018’s Songs of Praise.

The other Charlie — Steen, the vocalist — also brings ample passion to the stage, with an impressive voice that translates well from record to in-the-flesh. The challenge of a socially-distanced show becomes a little apparent, however, when typical crowd-pleasing stage tricks (menacing stares, arms held aloft, leans out into the crowd, etc.) meet with a comfortably-seated front row crowd, all nursing table-served drinks, who simply sort of smile and throw a lacklustre hand in the air where normally there would be groping, sweat and fawning adoration.

Steen’s shirt comes off for Alphabet — apparently a seated crowd can’t hold him back — but it is Concrete that reminds me we need music like this. The energy of this band is only held back by the feeling that my connection to them would be far stronger were I nearer the front, jostling for space amongst a heaving mass of hot, moving bodies chanting “and I hope that you’re hearing me.” In fact, sitting down for live music is really not very punk, which raises an interesting question: is this all really that authentic?

The excellent Snow Day postpones that question, as the band truly deliver on the strongest song from their most recent album, with bassist Josh Finerty really trying to give it his all as he cavorts around the stage, leaping off drums in baggy jeans and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. The acrobatics are appreciated, and somewhat compensate for the (literally) sedate crowd. It feels like he really enjoys doing this, where Steen’s stagecraft feels a little more forced.

“Been a long fucking time,” remarks Steen. “There’s a light at the end of this fucking tunnel.”

I must admit, in the context of all that has (not) gone on under the umbrella of the pandemic, it is hard to disagree. Thank Christ we can start to (hopefully) enjoy live music again — it is the essence of enjoying music — and I certainly enjoyed Nigel Hitter, which followed this brief interlude, and was followed up by personal favourite The Lick.

Is during the aforementioned song, however, as Steen howls “salutaaaationssss!” that I detected some minor fatigue…but I was apparently wrong, as he appeared to notice the same and promptly launched himself up atop the amps, upon which a gaggle of stagehands lept into action to support the structure lest it topple and the whole show were to collapse in an unfortunate accident (which would have been a… shame). It’s so rock’n’roll, baby, don’t you believe it yet?

Something isn’t sitting right (and it’s not because the chairs were becoming uncomfortable)…

In photography, on video and, lyrically, on record, Shame is a post-punk band with a bite we had been long missing in contemporary guitar music. Punk says “fuck you” when you complain about it groping your partner and pissing in the sink, and then carries on. And yet, here we are, politely sat like complacent little sheep, singing “bathe me in blood” along with Steen, apparently completely oblivious to how manifestly un-punk this all really is. There’s absolutely no rebellion present here; perhaps a better term for Shame is “show-punk.”

I feel John Lyndon might be cringing at the audience’s placid complacency (but then again, didn’t he front some insurance advertising on telly once?), and perhaps the punks of yore might query Shame’s chest-beating, sweaty, male “fuck you, I matter” testosterone. It is to be expected that the frontman of a punk group give off distinct vibes of loving himself, but you have to believe the message to “do” this music. Time will tell if the aggression is authentic; Drunk Tank Pink took the group in a noticeably more accessible direction that, when contrasted with Steen’s attempts at a menacing stare during Angie, does not quite ‘click’.

Maybe the band simply need to continue to refine their stagecraft, or maybe I need to see them in a distinctly socially proximate environment, as I also get the feeling Steen is jonesing to leap into the crowd.

This far into the set, however, is is clear that the group need more material to have sufficient “hits” to sustain a set longer than an hour. Fortunately, given the band’s track record to-date, this feels eminently achievable.

Towards the end of Angie, there is visible animation from the seated audience: heads are banging, arms are in the air, but for all of that, there is an equal number of people totally motionless, nursing their beers. What to make of that? The sooner we can get back to “normal” concerts, the better, I say.

The night closes with The Wagon, a song that I wasn’t sure what to make of on record, an opinion which remains unchanged. It feels somewhat like it belongs in an arena, but it is abundently clear that the band aren’t quite ready for that scale of show just yet.

Stereodista and I left the venue in the obligatory orderly fashion and gathered together outside to consider what we had just seen and heard. A few days later, having digested the evening, I am certainly a fan of Shame and look forward to everything they will do in the months and years to come, but I also now have a new perspective, having seen them incarnate, and it is a little unsettling: I am not yet certain that they live what they represent. Perhaps it is age, or perhaps it is schtick, but for all their magnificent songcraft and lyricism (for both are truly excellent and compelling), I am not yet sure it is authentic.

Shame’s tour will begin in earnest in November and you should certainly go and see them. Perhaps you will vehemently disagree with my perspective, or perhaps you’ll sense the same paradoxical subtext to this group. Who knows? We’ll just have to keep watching what they do. In spite of my doubts, I remain a fan and would encourage you to catch them live, if you can.