Hop & Grape, Manchester (18/3/99)
To my left, a bearded man in a sensible jacket applies lip-balm. witness take to the stage boasting all the experience of a work-experience roadie and the world begins to cave in. Oh dear. Where's my pillow, etc, etc.
Something odd and
miraculous happens approximately three strums into the eventually sublime 'Second
Life'. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Witness are absolutely fascinating. And not at all boring. This is all very confusing.
Not least, one imagines, for Gerard - Gerard! - since the vocalist is quite clearly stoned off his little box - but on the brief occasion when he opens them, his eyes sparkle as brightly as his voice. He's a shambling mess, of course (he rarely moves very far and he hardly says a thing), but he's part Jim Morrisson, part Mike Scott and part Lionel Blair. A nice thing to be. All told, you can't quite hear a pin drop during the more tender acoustic moments, but that's just as well - it would be criminal to risk puncturing the taut, wafer thin atmosphere that Witness conjure.
Tonight's is an absolutely minuscule stage - the drum kit's at the back, yet still only four feet from the stage. But just
as a xylophone tinkler sporting a wild hairdo not seen since Eraserhead is countered by bassist Dylan, bald as the tyres in Frank Butcher's
car yard, so the fact that Witness are musically and, necessarily, physically so inward-looking is levelled by their unusual ability
to perform songs like "Hijacker" - subtly introspective songs which also manage to draw in the audience. And leave us
suspended in mid-air.
Yet witness are no strangers to wily contradiction. Examine, for example, how the songs themselves are structured, with the airy shine of "Freezing Over Morning" a case point. Like their Wigan-based chums The Verve, Witness may understand the languid spaciousness of rock at its most sprawling (most in evidence on final number "6/8" the remaining quarter presumably being saved for the aftershow), but they also manage to condense that aura into the simple, you've-done-your-stuff-so-get-on-with-it approach to brevity that most ordinarily tends to find itself rooted in the domain of the pop song.
As the band slide through the moist recesses of a Roses-esque 'A/D' and into the first chorus of 'Quarantine', a punter exclaims, rather loudly, that Witness "have got proper tunes, haven't they?" Indeed they have, but it's the bits in between those choruses that dazzle, the band winding each song around a spiral of beguiling charm that's odd to find in a band on a university tour. The students in tonight's audience look much the same as when I was at university, though they do have better cheekbones. Further proof that Laughing Boy Ashcroft's influence on the world should not be underestimated.
It can't be denied that enjoying Witness throws up the same deadly questions as enjoying springtime walks in the country. Does it mean you're getting old? That you're becoming your dad? That you'll suddenly have to give up clubbing? The answer: No to all the above. It just means your eyes are open.
Peter Robinson (Melody Maker)
Freezing Over Morning
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