Photo: Julie Burgess
London, Shepherd’s Bush Empire / Absolute Radio
The first thing that happens is I get tagged.
At a pub in Shepherd’s Bush, the Embrace faithful are waiting. No sooner than I arrive, a label is thrust upon my chest with all the ceremony of bovine branding, bearing me with the title: “Stephen, the writer”. The stickers have been lovingly crafted by staunch Embrace devotee Elizabeth, complete with what has now become an iconic image – the album’s tally marks. Around me, a whole section of the pub has been taken over by similarly branded folk, who have congregated pre-gig in what seems to be a massive group hug.
This is the Embrace Family – into which I have now been adopted/abducted – a collective whose passion for the band is such that even eight years of buggering off cannot diminish. This is the final leg of a tour that began with a Secret Gig in which the faithful were made to dress up as zombies and the military (the corpses vs the corps), and ends here in an emotional farewell that includes many people who’ve been through the whole journey.
As a journalist for over ten years, this writer can with the utmost authority inform you no band has a more fervid and devoted following than Embrace. There are people who have, over the course of this new awakening, travelled from all corners of the globe – Linelle Bird from Australia and Nohemi Davila from Mexico, to name a few – and tonight there is a palpable sense of melancholy that this is all winding to a close.
Well, this was never going to be a party that would fizzle out with a whimper. From our drinkies at the pub, a militaristic march forms en route to Shepherd’s Bush Empire, each bearing the now formidable and ubiquitous marks of the Tallyband.
All these good good people
There had been similar camaraderie on previous jaunts – Bristol in particular was a high point (eternal thanks: Nohemi/Sonia/Eddie) – but there’s something about tonight that makes everything seem more febrile, bringing us closer.
What better way, then, to start the set with rabble-rousing anthem Ashes. Until now, the band had formulaically stuck to opening with the first three tracks on the new album. Tonight, starting with their call-to-arms roof-raiser seems fitting – they have truly risen from the ashes and tonight is proof of that resurgence. The lyrics “Watch me rise…” have never felt so apt, the entire venue already shaking the foundations as a musical epiphany reminds just what this band are capable of. My immediate new-found Family are bouncing me all over the place; next to me, Darren –the world’s most avid Embrace supporter, dear friend and borderline maniac – decides now is the time to squeeze my eyeballs out of their sockets by clamping my head in his hands. All in the name of love, obviously.
The whole venue, within one song, has gone ballistic. This unbridled passion Embrace seem to engender is personified by all around me – the tallied-up clan are either arms aloft or arms around each other. Has there ever been a more appropriate name for a band?
With new album tracks In The End – a stomp-a-thon of a tune – and Richard McNamara-fronted single Refugees, which has the whole place in a huge clapping contest, the seamless segue with the older classic shows just how they’ve maintained their high standards. And in some cases, surpassed them.
The already classic Follow You Home, which has a refrain that will keep you awake at night, and is constantly reprised by an apparent new cult of the “Ahh-ohh ahh-ohh” order (head priest Steven Firth, who wields his bassline with all the scruples of a whore on happy hour), is proof that Embrace still have a knack for addictive melody. Once this song finishes… well, it just doesn’t finish. The crowd keep baying for their choral fix, with Madame Firth all too happy to encourage the frothing throng.
A drummer’s vista
This track has now become to Embrace like a football team’s chant (our farewell to the irrepressibly sweet Sonia Foo upon her exit was a uniform chorus of “Foo-ohhh Foo-ohhh”) and the entire party has adopted this track’s implacable plainsong as a tribal call to arms. Much like the album’s visuals, it is instantly recognisable and creates an indelible bond.
The song is sandwiched between older standards Gravity – a Coldplay-penned track that really has become sub-standard – and debut album classic Come Back To What You Know – which, after poorer appearances in earlier shows, has come back to what we knew. The fact that Follow You Home manages to eclipse both of them says much about Embrace’s resurgent oeuvre. The term ‘instant classic’ has never been more apposite.
Once the yo-yoing chorus eventually dies down, another new classic hits the floor, Quarters embodying its roof-raising refrain of “I feel myself surrender” as the entire room follows suit. Seeming to have crafted a setlist designed to murder by euphoria, Embrace follow this with Save Me, a colossus of a tune that requires a straight jacket for you not to reach for the sky. Down front, in a huge Embrace-mad sandwich of mentalists, the words “Save me” take on a double meaning: I’m both waving and drowning in a sea of flailing limbs and lurching torsos.
And what does actually save me is the arrival of one of the most beautiful ballads ever written. That’s All Changed Forever was the song that made me fall in love with Embrace in the first place, and Danny McNamara’s rendition tonight is heartbreakingly tender – at once nostalgic and forward-looking, the embodiment of the notion of love’s endurance. Tears are shed, and it’s obvious the only thing that won’t change is the power of this song – forever.
Gospel-like album closer Thief On My Island has had dubious showings on this tour, mostly due to the vocals, but tonight it absolutely soars. Rumours of Danny McNamara’s ailing voice have abounded since the start of this re-emergence – and some have been justified – though tonight not a single note is out of place. There’s also an elevation in his onstage persona that makes his already tall physical status even higher. He’s beaming; he’s reaching out to the crowd, who are probably all too familiar by now – even pointing a few recognisable faces out. The only thing missing is a stage dive. Danny? How about it? Be assured, this lot will catch you. And then proceed to eat you.
Following this is All You Good Good People. What more can you say? I’m back to waving and drowning, and this is where the crowd actually becomes louder than the band. Their most iconic track is given a huge airing to what is pretty much an iconic collection of fans, and the embodiment of the track’s titular address – there are no more good good people than this.
The encore is herded in with more “Ahh-ohhs” from the whole of Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and album opener Protection spills its dark electro/soaring-pop paradox into the starving crowd with electric-shock vigour. One Big Family, on the other hand, has myself and my adopted brethren in a hands-aloft mass surfing on the track’s unstinting energy and sentiment. We got family here, for sure, and the love it’s sharing is absolutely palpable.
Which all makes perennial show closer The Good Will Out almost too much – its triumphant coming together outro, while as stirring and life-affirming as ever, is also the sound of journey’s end. While in the audience there are moistened eyes and tender embraces, onstage even guitarist Richard McNamara has tears in his eyes. It really has been a beautiful journey, and as it is with the end of summer, the taste is as bitter as it is sweet.
We had a time – and these are such times you never want to end…
Myself, stage front, with an absolutely beautiful collection of people
And suddenly they begin again.
After the fond farewells, the very next day sees the band due for an acoustic session at Absolute Radio, a station whose mostly insipid output is nevertheless welcoming Embrace into the fold. The times they are a-changin’. I’m not scheduled for attendance, but a kindly invite from a fellow Tallybanner – big hugs to Katie and DonLo – means I’m centre stage at the radio station’s HQ mid-afternoon for an audience with Embrace…
Except I’m not. Meeting up with the rest of the faithful in Leicester Square at the Capital Radio/Xfm building – where it’s assumed the Absolute studios are also based – we soon discover, ten minutes before the start of the recording, that we’re at the wrong fucking building. Absolute, it transpires, is absolutely not here. It’s a taxi ride away, and it’s starting to piss down.
Like a bunch of escaped lunatics, we’re running towards an understandably hesitant cab driver, and once inside it’s ‘tally-ho!’ for a newly soaking wet tallyband.
By the time we’re in the Absolute offices – having abandoned the cab because of roadworks and legged it through a pissing-it-down Noah would’ve raised an eyebrow at – we’re at the studios and standing in a tiny space barely a few feet from the band.
“Hello again,” singer Danny greets with sardonic knowingness. He’s familiar with all of us goons – even as we stand there in our rain-themed camouflage.
Kicking things off with old favourite One Big Family, which seems quite apposite, Richard McNamara takes centre stage and our small crowd are with him all the way, taking up the chorus with gusto but slight hesitation (this is being recorded, right?)
Fears are allayed when Danny demands we join in on the next track Ashes, last night’s rabble-rouser now an almost mournful, introspective number – a song stripped down to its bare bones. On hearing these tracks in their rawest state, it becomes clear that, despite Embrace’s huge sound, these songs can stand alone without the bluster – because they’re built from the ground up. These are songs that have been crafted organically. It’s the way Embrace have always worked. In this environment, it shines through.
Me and Rik (thanks for the crouching, lanky)
As if to prove this, a febrile version of lead single Refugees, for such a massive sounding song in its recording, translates to an acoustic setting with a tenderness that is breathtaking. Richard’s vocals are delicate, and the accompanying music is possibly more dramatic because of its understated delicacy. The measure of good songwriting, for this writer, is how well it can wear its own skin when stripped bare. This stuff is handsome in extremis.
The final track, the already legendary Follow You Home, makes for quite a hilarious scenario. The gathered crowd are still very conscious of the recording, and thus dubious about whether it’s OK to shout their lungs out. With such an impossibly shoutable song laid out before them, it’s like a scene from A Clockwork Orange, the faithful almost puking with restraining themselves at the song’s refrain. The floor is spared from puke, and everyone just lets goo-ohh ahh-ohh ahh-ohh…
After this, the band sticks around for a chat and some photo shoots with a bunch of people who are the most devoted group of fans I’ve known, and some of the most special people, making the end of this road so much more poignant.
There aren’t enough walls and there aren’t enough pens to tally up just how much this experience has meant to me – not just the music and the re-emergence of a band I have loved from the start (and the fact I got to be their biographer), but from all the beautiful people I met along the way.
The fact is, the tally marks are an apt symbol for a collective who’ve not only been counting the days, but are forever imprisoned by a love for something they wear proudly on their chests. Embrace, likewise, elicit exactly what their moniker suggests – just a gigantic hug from people who still know how to love music, and recognise how that relates to being with one other.
In the end, Embrace embodies just that: togetherness.
Stephen Brolan, May 2014
*An edited version of this article will be published in Record Collector magazine in the UK and Filter magazine in the US. Embrace’s Absolute Radio session will be broadcast on Sunday 8 June: http://www.absoluteradio.co.uk