CQAF: The Fall

Manc messiah Mark E Smith keeps the audience waiting in Custom House Square

Where Mark E Smith and his band The Fall are concerned, things are never quite straightforward. 

After 30 years on the scene and anywhere between 27 and 93 albums (depending on the counter and the criteria) The Fall, with their unique guitar sound, remain one of the most enigmatic, idiosyncratic and chaotic garage bands around.

With a chequered history of no-shows behind them, the collective sense of relief is palpable when Smith and the band finally saunter onstage - two and a half hours late - for a sold-out Thursday night show in Belfast's Custom House Square.

Though technically a band, Smith has always treated The Fall as his personal vehicle, and his reputation for firing band members for the most spurious of reasons is legend.

That the current incarnation (which includes his third wife Elena Poulou) has been relatively stable for the past two years appears to be reaping creative benefits. 

Playing tracks culled mainly from their well-recieved new album Imperial Wax Solvent, there is a tightness and professionalism to The Fall live that has often been lacking over the past decade.

The Fall have occupied an unusually prominent spot on ‘what’s hot’ lists in 2008, not least due to the recent release of Smith’s no-holds-barred autobiography Renegade, published earlier this year to critical acclaim. 

Cloaked in a hooded black leather jacket, on ‘The Fall Sound’ Smith parodies his new fans and their efforts to ingratiate themselves to his abrasive guitar-driven sound and scatter-gun vocal style.

His wicked sense of humour and trademark belligerence comes to the fore on the Grease-inspired paean to super-strength cider, ‘White Lightning’.

On ’50-Year-Old Man’ Smith contemplates his own aging. Though he still uses speed - apparently as a soporific - the show takes a while to get going, perhaps owing to Smith's advancing years. 

The crowd, an eclectic mix of die-hard Fall fans and indie kids, greet everything with wild hoots. But it's only when, mid-way through the set, the band reach into their back catalogue for ‘Mr Pharmacist’ that the crowd really erupt. 

Ever the cantankerous ringmaster, Smith definitely saves the best for last. The encore, constructed around Poulou’s swirling, Hammond-esque keyboard and his own snarling vocals, brings the show to a frenzied close.

On tonight’s evidence The Fall are producing some of their best material in 20 years and live they remain an inspiring, if occasionally frustrating, prospect.

Peter Geoghegan