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Band portrait by Danny Clifford. Cell phone photo by the author.
When alt-pop superheroes Squeeze last visited Chicago, the group performed at the Vic Theatre in support of 2017’s LP The Knowledge. On Saturday night at the venerable Chicago Theatre, the band led by singer Chris Difford and guitarist Glenn Tilbrook hosted a considerably larger crowd for its “The Squeeze Songbook” tour. The concert celebrated the band’s 45th anniversary and a rich back catalog that long ago earned appellations from Rolling Stone, naming the pair as the Lennon and McCartney of their generation. It’s a heavy crown for any songwriters to bear, but Difford and Tilbrook have done their best to keep it gleaming.
The show opened with “Footprints” from 1987’s Babylon and On, featuring Squeeze’s unique vocal blend with Tilbrook in tenor territory and Difford singing his lyrics an octave below. The song was performed in front of a freshly-customized video backdrop showing the band taking in the sights around the North Loop before the gig. The band then moved smartly into “Big Beng,” featuring Squeeze’s newest recruit Melvin Duffy on pedal steel guitar. “Hourglass” came next in the tightly-paced set, featuring a lively choir of all seven voices on stage. Tilbrook played the first of many rowdy guitar solos, propelled by grinning and mohawked drummer Simon Hanson.
The crashing and idiosyncratic pop of “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)” was the first to bring the crowd to its feet, featuring a barrelhouse piano solo from Stephen Large. The generous 23-song set list that ensued covered 13 albums, including all but one of the crowd-pleasers from platinum-selling hits collection Singles – 45’s and Under. Tilbrook explained that in addition to the fan favorites, the set list was built to include songs might not have been performed since their original release (or at least the tour for the given album). Lesser-heard gems included “King George Street” with its tale of too much drink and domestic discord, and “Third Rail” with its bittersweet story of a faded love affair. Difford sang lead vocal for East Side Story’s “Someone Else’s Heart,” supported by nimble and gliding bass from Yolanda Charles.
Play track “The Day I Get Home” concluded with a rambunctious, New Orleans-styled second-line rhythm from Hanson and percussionist Steve Smith (on extended loan from his frontman role with Dirty Vegas). Another surprise from Play was dark and witty rocker “Wicked and Cruel,” added for the first time on the tour. The Knowledge was represented by “Please Be Upstanding.” The song’s twisted chord structure and ladder-scaling melody were handled with aplomb by Difford and Tilbrook, and the whole band shone on the shimmering classic-pop chorus harmonies alongside Duffy’s weeping steel.
“So, we’re out on tour celebrating 45 years,” said Difford. “That’s a lot of birthdays – and by the way, it’s Glenn’s birthday today, if you didn’t know!” After a blazing “Annie Get Your Gun,” Difford returned to the topic. “Take lots of videos,” he said. “Send them to your friends and tell them you were at Glenn’s birthday party. They’ll be well jealous!”
Difford soon had another turn at lead vocal. “This is a song that was a hit for us in the UK 40 years ago,” he said when introducing the band’s iconic “Cool for Cats.” “It was partly inspired by Benny Hill; I don’t know why.” The song was expanded with a giddily heroic arena-rock guitar solo by Tilbrook and benefitted from more skillful bass by Charles. The band’s New Wave bona fides were on display during “Slap and Tickle,” revamped as a dark ‘80s alt-rocker a la Gary Numan and Giorgio Moroder. The song was a furious and frenetic synthesizer workout for Large. The soulful “Tempted” was stripped to its essence as an acoustic song, leaving ample room for every voice in the Chicago Theatre to sing along with Tilbrook. Large left the stage to try his hand at the theatre’s house organ.
The overall performance was such a master class in pop-rock perfection that even Tilbrook had to laugh when his guitar solo went uncharacteristically and spectacularly off the rails during the effervescent “Another Nail in My Heart.” Afterward, he acknowledged the spill, but brushed it off with good humor. “I’ll have to congratulate you for … seeing a poltergeist enter my fingers and tell me to play the completely the wrong set of notes in that solo,” said Tilbrook. “Quite unique, I’m sure you’ll agree. Cheers loves!”
Squeeze departed after a final track from Argybargy, “If I Didn’t Love You.” The band returned for an encore with the galloping “Take Me I’m Yours,” followed by “Is That Love.” The Motown and doo-wop homage “Black Coffee in Bed” was rendered at accelerated speed, but stretched to include band introductions and a special treat. Birthday boy Tilbrook, aged 62, was surprised with a cake and candles to extinguish, as well as a video from home. The film featured loved ones led by son Leon Tilbrook singing “Happy Birthday,” which the crowd heartily joined to the elder Tilbrook’s apparent delight. It was a charming note to end the evening in high spirits.