I can't decide if it's heartening or disappointing that a group as critically adored as A Certain Ratio can pull about two hundred people to a small venue underneath King George's Hall in Blackburn on a cold night in November. Heartening I suppose that a band who have sold so few records have a devoted fanbase, many of whom travelled some distance to see them but disappointing that it was only two hundred. On the plus side there was plenty of room to have a shuffle and no barrier in front of the low stage so we were within touching distance of the group. Not that I did touch them- that would be a bit weird. One audience member did spend part of the final song on stage with them, stepping up onto the stage and being given a cowbell to bang.
As ACR took the stage Jez Kerr opened with 'Evening Burnley', a nod to the not very friendly rivalry that exists between the two Lancashire mill towns. Then it was straight into the punk-funk. The group were all dressed in monochrome, fitting the austere sound of their early 80s work. Martin Moscrop's guitar playing bringing the wiry sound, Jez's bass the funk, Donald Johnson more on it than a drum machine and Tony Quigley's clarinet a discordant edge. Do The Du is spectacularly northern, stepped chord changes and muscular rhythms. 'We'll get you dancing later' Jez quips after Flight has filled the room. Half way through Liam Mullen's keyboards start to bring us from the early 80s to the late 80s and we're into the house influenced tunes, a wonderful 27 Forever with Denise's vocals now to the fore and then into career high points Won't Stop Loving You and Good Together. ACR were always in New Order's shadow but these songs show there wasn't much between them in terms of making dance-pop. The samples kick in ('Nice outfit') and we're into full on Hacienda territory with Be What You Wanna Be. Then a wonderful, fully fleshed out Shack Up and after a brief pause we're at the encore with the samba sounds of Si Firmi O Grido, band members swapping instruments, congas, shakers, whistles, bongos, everything you can bang, tap or shake.
Everyone seemed to have a good time, the middle aged Factory heads, the former ravers, the Mums and Dads on a night out, a smattering of younger people. For a group who are no longer a full time job for any of the members, who only do one offs or sporadic bursts of gigs (they played Lille and Paris two weeks ago), they are fantastically tight, able to to turn on a sixpence and shift the rhythms around telepathically. They've just signed a deal with Mute so expanded re-issues of their 80s and 90s albums are on the cards plus something new. You can't say these nearly men and women of Manchester's music scene don't deserve it.