Money too tight to mention? Not after this farewell tour it ain't
Of all the Manchester punk rockers who were at the Sex Pistols’ infamous 1976 gig at the city’s Free Trade Hall, Mick Hucknall has strayed farthest from his roots. There hasn’t been a trace of punk or new wave in Simply Red’s music for years.
The band – well, we call them a band, but even hardcore followers would struggle to name the other members – have long been a byword for radio-friendly, unit-shifting, middle-of-the-road soul. It’s not cool to admit liking them, but Simply Red haven’t sold 50 million albums, had two US number ones and been nominated for three Grammys for nothing.
This farewell show at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena begins with a video montage of the past 25 years, interspersing news footage of everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Susan Boyle with clips of Hucknall in his younger, leaner days.
The 50-year-old that eventually saunters onto the stage is an altogether portlier, puffier proposition, though that could just be the tweed jacket and waistcoat. The red hair is shorter than before, the goatee greying, the eyes sunken, but the voice remains magnificent. Hucknall explains he is recovering from the flu – picked up in tropical Indonesia, oddly – and that he might struggle with some of the high notes. If he hadn’t said, we wouldn’t have noticed.
As well as sounding as good as ever, it’s nice to discover that for all his past acts of hubris – the gold teeth, the Hollywood girlfriends, the celebrity eateries – he comes across as a genial enough figure. He gives plenty of props to his musicians, the longest serving of whom, saxophonist Ian Kirkham, has been with Simply Red since 1986, and isn’t too pompous to play a spot of air guitar alongside axeman Kenji Suzuki.
He’s also down with the fans too. ‘Give it some, girls’, Hucknall grins, as a couple of women leave their seats to dance at the front. This, of course, has the effect of annoying the hell out of the people whose views are now blocked by the pair waving their arms and handbags about. It also irks the Odyssey staff, who try to get the girls to sit down. Hucknall is having none of it. ‘Oi,’ he grunts at the chief security guard. ‘Bugger off!’ The humbled bouncer slopes off as sheepishly as a burly man with a headset can.
Setlist-wise, it’s pretty much non-stop crowd-pleasers. ‘Home Loan Blues’ is dedicated to those who are struggling in the economic downturn (‘Even rich b*st*rds like me,’ insists Hucknall), ‘For Your Babies’ is renamed ‘For Our Babies’ by brooding dad Mick, while debut hit ‘Money’s Too Tight (To Mention)’ still sounds fresh after a quarter of a century. The closing wham-bam of ‘Stars’, ‘Fairground’, ‘Something Got Me Started’ and ‘If You Don’t Know Me by Now’ pushes the audience over the top.
The cynical will insist this isn’t the end, that Hucknall will make a few solo records, play the theatres, and then reform Simply Red for a cash-cow reunion tour. But Mick is adamant. ‘Don’t watch this space,’ he shrugs. It’s a downbeat end to an otherwise mesmerising performance.