Primal Scream, Alexandra Palace Park, review: an ecstatic, life-affirming alfresco experience
Thirty-one years after the original release of Screamadelica, Primal Scream have been touring their early 1990s classic across the nation’s outdoor stages (notably at Glastonbury last month) with rare energy and ubiquity. Is it just me or is Paul Cannell’s iconic sunken-eyed sun painting, which acts as the album’s cover artwork, beginning to symbolise this scorchio summer of post-pandemic release?
Tonight at least, that logo seemed to have achieved branding saturation, emblazoned around the perimeter fence in Ally Pally’s gardens, on either side of the stage at the foot of the hill, and on every square inch of covered flesh ranged up before it, as revellers gazed across at the breath-taking London skyline in thirty-degree heat. Move aside, the Rolling Stones tongue, there’s a new kid in town.
The Primals’ leading light, Bobby Gillespie, freely admits that, as post-punk novices, they never dreamt they’d create a long player widely ranked alongside milestones such as The Clash’s London Calling or the first Velvet Underground album. As Gillespie detailed in his colourful memoir, Tenement Kid, Screamadelica came together in haphazard fashion, as a group of singles and remixes inspired by the acid-house boom of 1988-89. Together with house DJ and production novice Andrew Weatherall, their genius was then to sculpt them into a longform listening experience which felt current but went far beyond that emerging genre, blending in blues, soul, jazz, dub and timeless songcraft, ultimately to reach longevity.
“Are you ready for the electric church of rock ‘n’ roll?” Gillespie purred, as his latest line-up took the stage at sundown – and there was that logo again, splurged over his custom-tailored Alexander McQueen suit, and, to his right, on Andrew Innes’s guitar. Initially, though, the mood was akin to a Sunday-service memorial, as Gillespie and the five-piece House Gospel Choir rendered the album’s opener, Moving On Up, in slow motion, until Innes crashed out its rock ‘n’ soul chords, and Screamadelica’s familiar rush of energy took over, the song’s “coming out of the darkness” lyric visibly lifting the assembled mums and dads following Covid’s gruelling trials.
The original Screamadelica team is now tragically depleted: Weatherall passed unexpectedly in 2020, while Denise Johnson, who sang the housey Don’t Fight It, Feel It followed soon after – Gillespie dedicated a funkily discofied version to her. Unannounced, keyboard player Martin Duffy has also stepped away mid-tour (Go-Kart Mozart’s Terry Miles replaced him), leaving Gillespie, Innes and bass recruit Simone Butler to carry the show, which they did with fabulous commitment and warmth, inspiring a wonderful mass singalong for Come Together.
Famously, Screamadelica was sequenced as a “pocket trip” on ecstasy, the inaugural euphoria of the early tracks gradually ebbing into blissful chill-out. Here, the Beach Boys-esque instrumental Inner Flight almost felt like an intermission as hundreds migrated to the bar, but some of the best music followed, including the romantically entangled Damaged – Weatherall skillfully incorporated Primal Scream’s grade-A balladry – and Higher than the Sun, for which a vast sun rose on stage in the twilight, as the band whipped up another freewheeling, funky jam.
At the encore, a Scots piper arrived to render Loaded’s descending horn riff, amid screened images of the band’s late guitarist Robert “Throb” Young riding a Harley Davidson. Throb’s old six-string foil scratched and soloed like a pair of demons (Innes is mightily underrated), and then there was Gillespie, strutting, swooping, air-punching and vocally at a career-best with gospel backing. He and Innes have somehow prevailed to keep the ship afloat, and as authors, visionaries and performers in the now, they deserved every ovation.
When The Smiths’ Johnny Marr dropped by for triumphant post-1991 hits Jailbird, Country Girl and Rocks, it capped off the most perfect night of alfresco gigging – dazzling, emotional and wonderfully life-affirming.
Primal Scream perform Screamadelica at Standon Calling on Thursday 21 July, and at Cardiff Castle on Friday 22 July. Tickets: 0844 844 212; primalscream.net