Fleetwood Mac, Wembley Arena | reviews, news & interviews
Fleetwood Mac, Wembley Arena
Fleetwood Mac, Wembley Arena
Insanely popular band abide
The first signs were good. I've been to a lot of shows by “heritage bands” in my time, but I don't think I've ever seen a crowd for a band of Fleetwood Mac's vintage that had such a relatively even age distribution. Sure, it was weighted towards the greying end of the scale, but every age group down to teens – including teens there in groups under their own steam, not just with parents – was well represented, right across class boundaries too.
But then Fleetwood Mac have always been a lot of things to a lot of people. From the bluesy sixties underground Peter Green era, through the spectacular Seventies pinnacles of rock-Babylon mega-success following Green's decline and departure and the arrival of sparkly-eyed Californians Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, to the shiny pure pop of their late-Eighties Tango in the Night creative swansong, they covered an awful lot of ground (all documented in the recent BBC documentary Don't Stop). Everyone was hoping their setlist might suit their own tastes – in my case the Tango In The Night songs of my schooldays. Sadly they did not play this.
On stage, the band managed the extraordinarily impressive feat for such a repeatedly split-and-reformed act of actually looking like a band. Other than the lack of Christine McVie, who has seemingly permanently retired from live performance, this was the classic seventies/eighties lineup of Nicks and Buckingham out front and the founder-members' British rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie (the original “Fleetwood” and “Mac”) on drums and bass behind them – plus backing vocalists and two session musician multi-instrumentalists in the wings.
Fleetwood and McVie looked rather like a multimillionaire Chas & Dave with their matching flat caps, waistcoats and beards, while Buckingham had the air of an over-dressed pervy music teacher and Nicks of a wonderfully batty goth aunt, complete with one black glove, tinsel hanging from her sleeves and a mic stand draped with witchy decorations. But somehow, among the arena lightshow and moving set decorations, despite all the history, they still looked like their relationship was musical.
And it is. From the swagger of “The Chain” (from the quintillion-selling Rumours) onward it was clear this is more than just some ageing drug casualties propped up by technology and extra staff. The 12-string guitar jangle of Tusk's “I Know I'm Not Wrong” showed how much Fleetwood Mac's work prefigured the whole of eighties alternative rock as well as the mainstream – making them the missing link between The Byrds and The Cult. “Second Hand News” was a mighty country-rock stomp, showing precisely how much the band were always connected to heartland America. And “Rhiannon” and “Sara” showed how much Nicks's voice was born to age gracefully, it's catches and cracks only made more affecting by age's emphasis.
Nicks, in fact, despite what could in a lesser performer have been annoyingly kooky affectations, held the whole first half of the show together. Where Buckingham's between-songs addresses to the audience seemed horrendously worthy, full of Californian therapy talk about “shared appreciation” and “how important it is to just have fun”, her chat was insouciant, sincere, ditzy, and her memories of late-Sixties San Fransisco before they played “Gypsy” entirely absorbing. If it hadn't been for her the first half of the set could have felt like the best dads-down-the-pub-on-a-Sunday-blues band in the world.
Buckingham had his moment, though. Just as we began to find his therapy-speak self-indulgence too much, he played solo the most astonishing acoustic version of Tango in the Night's “Big Love” and we were won over entirely. He is the kind of performer who will never, ever be cool like Nicks – despite having reached the pinnacle of everything that should be groovy, he will always be trying that bit too hard – but his musicianship was able to overcome that.
And it was his musical direction that dominated Fleetwood Mac's golden age, and thus this set, bringing in a fantastic diversity of influences to the show. The baroque counterpoint of his solo acoustic guitar tracks, the Appalachian gospel harmonies of an absolutely stunning “Storms”, the way he made the riffs in the verses of “Gold Dust Woman” sound like The Stooges, and most crucially to the Fleetwood Mac we all know and love, his sparklingly rich arrangements – all showed a truly brilliant musical intelligence still at work. It's just a shame he didn't seem able to realise that people appreciated him for his music rather than for his attempts to be cool: his stagecraft, constantly reaching out to the crowd for the affirmation of their hungry touch and frotting his guitar in a creepily quasi-sexual way, was as desperately needy as Nicks's was coolly inviting.
No matter though: Nicks and Buckingham were both brilliant, their faults only emphasising the other's strengths. It's just a shame about their rhythm section. If it weren't for the obvious bolstering sense of band history from having the four of them on stage together that stimulated Nicks and Buckingham to perform so well, Fleetwood and McVie's musical contribution would have been nothing that hired hands couldn't have provided. Whether being dragged up front to play on a tiny drumkit – like a 6'9” bear on a tricycle – or playing a grand finale drum solo of staggering tedium, Fleetwood was like a session drummer with bolted-on overprivileged annoying-old-hippie mannerisms, and McVie was just an absence. They reminded us that while the band may have many things, including melodic and harmonic skills to match anyone in pop, the one thing they never had in abundance was groove.
Fleetwood's hideous, grunting, would-be-shamanic solo (so invasive and overlong that my wife stormed out into the lobby, snapping “text me when they play a song"), the massive cluster of self-congratulation that ended the main set, and the dreary stomp of “Don't Stop” (a song so blandly motivational Bill Clinton used it in his 1992 campaign) in the encore could have ruined the whole show. So could the lack of any Tango in the Night songs other than “Big Love” (presumably because so many of them were written or co-written by the absent Christine McVie). So it's a measure of precisely how powerful Fleetwood Mac are as a collective entity – as a band - that they managed to leave us remembering stunning moments from a set full of great grown up musical thrills rather than those clunky and immature rockstar indulgences.
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