Happy Mondays – review

Roundhouse, London

It's hard to explain why the weeks leading up to Christmas are thought to be such a good time to see old bands. Yet year after year, promoters pack the party-season schedules with nostalgia acts. Tis the season to be seasoned, it seems. Perhaps everyone is capitalising on the warm, inchoate fondness brought on by a double shot of tradition and mild inebriation.

The Prodigy aren't an outfit you'd immediately think of when hanging the mistletoe. And yet their sepulchral beat assault remains a potent draw, filling two nights at Brixton Academy, ostensibly to mark the end of the world. You could argue that the Prodigy lack the courage of their nihilist convictions – there is a new album, How to Steal a Jet Fighter, for 2013.

The Pogues, meanwhile, have been a yuletide fixture for as long as the Magi. It's probably the one time of year when Shane MacGowan will consent to be surgically removed from his bar stool and hooked on to a microphone by his remaining teeth. The band, of course, have Fairytale of New York in their arsenal – that magisterially boozy alternative to the berserker jollity of Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody. This has been the Pogues' 30th anniversary year and they have filled the O2 Arena with celebrants.

Over in Camden, by contrast, the Roundhouse is half empty. C-c-call the cops: it's a crime scene. Manchester's Happy Mondays reunited earlier this year, with the prime line-up of Shaun Ryder, Bez, drummer Gaz Whelan, Shaun's estranged brother Paul "Our Kid" Ryder back on bass, guitarist Mark Day, Paul Davis on keyboards and co-singer Rowetta playing their first dates together in 19 years. Hatchets have been buried. There's a new album in the works. One working title is Designer Vagina.

They are really not the woebegone and hangdog outfit that this low attendance suggests. Rowetta, for one, looks 20 years younger than she ought to; the Happy Mondays' press officer insists it's really her though. Shaking tassels, changing costumes (from naughty Santa to goth milkmaid), she hollers her parts with game vigour. In rude health, Bez is the only jester whose antics never grow old.

And even if some songs tonight are very wayward remixes, this band know how to play together. Day's smeary guitar is never without a wash of effects, while Whelan keeps the whole mechanism tight but loose, brow intently furrowed. There is funk aplenty in the bass lines.

But it's a curiously uncheering spectacle. You might have thought that a band who played a 13-date UK tour and three triumphant nights at Brixton last spring might have seen out 2012 with a deserved bang. Instead these last dates feel like a final hopeful squeeze of a shatterproof plastic beer bottle that has already been drunk dry. There is a great deal of space here in which to shuffle about to Hallelujah (or "Hallayloojur!" as Ryder gnaws it).

Why? How? The Mondays remain an uneven experience, but songs such as Judge Fudge rumble convincingly towards a lasting groove. Loose Fit gels magnificently.

Perhaps the competition is too stiff at the moment. The Stone Roses reunion is dwarfing the Mondays too, what with their three massive outdoor gigs in Manchester last June and more big dates to come next year. Even though the Roses were always the bigger band, Happy Mondays were arguably more original, with their louche, category-shrugging soup of dance beats, psychedelia and barely concealed threat. On top were Ryder's yelped pronouncements, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge had he been raised on a Salford housing estate. Ryder's a little more wooden these days, his hair buzzed too short, but he still packs presence.

Although Bez's stint on Celebrity Big Brother in 2005, and Ryder's time in the jungle in 2010 (not forgetting Rowetta's turn on X Factor) have been credited with reminding the public that they were still alive (and clean), there may be an issue of credibility here. Diehard fans aside, people may now treasure the Mondays more for their antics than their avant-funk. Their 24-hour partying days are over; their reunion may be running out of steam too.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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