New Model Army is the Family. Support, care and love exudes from every NMA audience, warming and inspiring. Would I like the chance to spend time with the Family again at the Phoenix in Exeter? Yes please!
Local Plymouth band, Mad Dog Mcrea, opened the gig with their usual foot stomping combo of folk rock, pop, gypsy jazz, and bluegrass; the perfect support act for what was to follow. After 10 days of touring alongside NMA, they’re heading out on their own tour, kicking off in Newquay at the Music & Ale Festival on the 25th November.
It was short break while fans got their clogs on and shouts and shrieks started to bounce off the walls every time a roadie came up to tune the guitars. And then, on they came: Justin Sullivan (front man and lyricist); Michael Dean (Drummer); Dean White (Keyboards and guitar); Marshall Gill (Guitar); and Ceri Monger (Bassist), straight into a loud and proud 'Burn the Castle' from the new album 'Winter'. Mosh pit rousing complete.
The mood changed to acoustic when Sullivan picked up his guitar to sing the haunting and impassioned new album title track. A celebratory plea of “Bring me the snowfall, bring me the cold wind, bring me the winter…” filling the intimate auditorium.
Then, another change of pace as Monger gets behind three huge drums and weaves the rhythm through a focussed 'Part the Water'.
Fate is tempted as Sullivan implored it to "catch me if you can.” Gill’s harmonica solo in Drifts pulls the emotive vibe back to haunting again.
Sullivan introduces Born Feral with “we hope this isn’t us and we hope this isn’t you…”
Sullivan as always and thank god, was never more than a few words away from a political metaphor. A troubadour with a beady eye on the world’s ills, he expresses the dark side through his filter of love, which to me is magical.
“Everywhere you go there’s a nasty whisper in the ear. Poland for the polish, Britain for the British,” he said, “we must have very short memories to forget where that shit leads… and anyway we’re all from everywhere anyway.” Then he launched into an acoustic riff of 'Die Trying' written in 2014 as the refugee crisis was hitting a few headlines, but not yet captured the hearts of many.
The political theme continued, with a crowd-pleasing oldie, 'Purity', after all, the Army have never shied away from telling it like it is and with such passion.
Watching the interaction Sullivan had with his crowd, the way he owned the stage, it’s so easy to see why he’s so loved and respected here. He dedicated '51st State' to the memory of Ashley Cartwright who wrote the lyrics back in 1986 as a protest against the growing involvement of Thatcher to US interests. And with a knowing nod to the crowd conveyed that nothing really changes.
After a bare and brilliant, 'What a Way to Go', the band left the stage empty and forlorn before the encore started with rousing oldies, 'Between Dog and Wolf', followed by 'Christian Militia' and a memory stirring, for me, 'Poison Street'. I first heard this track played at Reading Rock Festival 1989. My first ‘festie with my bestie’, the beginning of our almost 30 year love affair with the Army. We were at the front, where we’d pushed our way through to get ready for The Mission, and Sullivan, like a conjuror and a wizard, raised his arms and sang. “We were singing in the rain…” just as it started to pour down. We were awestruck and hooked.
Another clearing of the stage and then a further encore, on strode their violinist Shir-Ran Yinon, filling the auditorium with the breathtaking opening refrain that all fans know and love. Sullivan came on and the pair of them had a musical conversation that as far as I was concerned, could have gone on for days, then the foot stomping started as 'Vagabonds' rang out around the auditorium.
'I Love the World' finished the gig as Sullivan, his face focused and intent and impassioned, hiked the mike stand onto his shoulder; a magician calling forth natures spirits to come and save our world from corporations and greed. The intent known and held as his ended with palms in a prayer position.
While waiting for the band to come on I got talking to Declan Tyler from Redruth in Cornwall. He told me that he was at the Army’s very first gig in 1981 and has followed the band ever since. His girlfriend was wearing his original leather jacket decorated with a now-faded hand painted Ghost of Cain album cover. This loyalty I think, and I may be wrong, is unique amongst Army fans. The way the Family follows the band from gig to gig and they all look out for each other. It’s a collection of bright sparks in a dim, cynical world. His girlfriend, an Army virgin until this gig, clasped hands with me from time to time when a particularly poignant few words were sung. I have never been to an Army gig where something like this hasn’t happened. A connection made and a loving moment shared. Pure New Model Army.
Words by Kate Sermon
Photography by Matt Roffe