“We’re the support act,” says Paul Draper with a smile, as he and his band play tracks from his new solo album ‘Spooky Action’. He’s only semi-joking; tonight at The Haunt the former Mansun singer will play a marathon double set, starting with new stuff, followed by a complete run through of 1997 classic ‘Attack Of The Grey Lantern’. The show does indeed turn out to be a game of two halves – a relaxed and gently supportive crowd for set one, followed by the main Mansun event, which is a jam-packed, joyous, communally cathartic singalong.
Draper’s comeback album ended a period of almost 14 years of silence. ‘Spooky Action’, released last year, more than put paid to any suspicions Draper might have lost his edge during such a protracted absence. The album was an all killer no filler collection of stompy, electro-tinged tunes informed by personal events. It nearly didn’t see the light of day at all though, having begun as a 2003 solo project which was shelved and, to all intents and purposes, erased.
Just one copy survived, on a DVD-R which ended up in a studio assistant’s loft. Draper rediscovered the disc when he decided to play some solo stuff at a Mansun fan convention, and the overwhelming response led him to revisit and rewrite the album, with new collaborator Catherine Anne Davies aka The Anchoress, whose album he had produced. Put simply; ‘Spooky Action’ came into being quite literally because of the fans. They kept the flame alive, and one senses that tonight’s double set is a thank you from him to us. The fans were asked online to vote for which Mansun album they wanted to hear on this tour, and tonight, for the opening date, he makes good on his promise to play ‘Grey Lantern’ in full.
Set opener ‘Don’t Poke The Bear’, teases us with an extended dramatic band-only intro before Draper himself walks on to a roar from the crowd. Sporting a shaggy beard, he’s looking grizzled in a good way – long gone the eyeliner and sleek curtains hairstyle of late Britpop. This is a more laid back, less fussy Paul Draper.
“I might fuck this up,” he warns, sitting down to play an acoustic version of ‘Jealousy Is A Powerful Emotion’. His stage manner is gently self-deprecating, and this is the first of many apologies he makes tonight in advance of potential mishaps. It’s the start of the tour, so some of these songs are unproven in a live context, yet this slight nervousness, though palpable, remains endearing. We’re sharing a moment with him, and everyone is just delighted to see him back on a stage.
After a tentative start, the set really hits paydirt as the band kick into ‘Friends Make The Worst Enemies’, a standout cut from ‘Spooky Action’. His backing musicians are tightly drilled and capable of rocking out in a reassuringly non-cheesy way. Ben Sink is a particular revelation in this regard, a fresh-faced guitar virtuoso who resists any urge to gurn or strut whilst soloing.
The band return for ‘Attack Of The Grey Lantern’, and the front section of The Haunt fills to capacity. Everyone is here for a nostalgic trip to the 90s – and at certain points Draper’s delivery is almost drowned out by a wall of audience members who shout every line of lyric at him, even on non-single cuts like ‘You, Who Do You Hate?’ The performance is very faithful to the record, with no radical reappraisals of the songs but, to be fair this is what the audience want.
The original record, an ambitious surreal concept piece with seguing tracks, sound effects and string sections, would have been difficult to perform faithfully as a live piece when first released, but digital technology has allowed all these bells and whistles to be included. There are shouts of delight, for example, as the strange backward squeaking noises at the start of ‘Mansun’s Only Love Song’ come out through the PA. These odd little touches are the things we loved about the album, and Draper seems delighted to serve them up. His keyboard player and backing vocalist Christina Hizon marshals all these beats and textures with aplomb, as well as providing the little comedy piano flourish at the very end of ‘Wide Open Space’. It’s all there.
What does Draper make of all this? We can’t help wondering how it feels for him at age 47 to revisit the 90s world of stripping vicars and taxloss lovers he presumably once thought he’d left for good. This question seems wonderfully answered by the encore, however, where the band come back on to play the album’s hidden track – the ‘Open Letter To The Lyrical Trainspotter’, with its crowd-friendly singalong chorus of “The lyrics aren’t supposed to mean that much, they’re just the vehicle for a lovely voice.” Buoyed up by love from the audience and this readymade lyrical disclaimer, it feels like he’s more content than ever before to just enjoy the moment and have fun with it all, without taking it too seriously. We’re right there with him.