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The Verlaines – Live at the Windsor Castle, 1986 (Schoolkids)

25 September 2022

Thanks to Schoolkids for bringing this underrated gem from the days of college rock and jangle-pop into the light. The Verlaines had been in action and developing for five years by the time of this concert recording in Auckland, New Zealand, with 1985 debut album Hallelujah All the Way Home and 1984 EP 10 O’Clock in the Afternoon to the band’s credit along with scattered songs released on New Zealand indie label Flying Nun. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Graeme Downes has said that the two-night stand in May 1986 was recorded in order to capture a live version of his first-ever composition “Slow Sad Love Song” prior to recording it for the then-upcoming Bird Dog album. The song begins as a somber bedridden lament over a friend’s suicide and coalesces into thrashing catharsis. It’s fortunate that the tape was rolling at the Windsor Castle for both complete shows. The set previews seven of Bird Dog’s ten songs in revealing performances. The early version of “Only Dream Left” is rendered as a straightforward guitar-pop ramble, compared with the eventual album’s swinging piano-led waltz. Songs like “Take Good Care of It” will appeal to fans from R.E.M. from Chronic Town through Reckoning, Let’s Active, Game Theory, early output by The Church, and other kindred spirits from the era. In addition to the then-fresh material, the set also includes a clutch of enduring favorites from Hallelujah All the Way Home. The furiously strummed “Lying in State” bemoans struggles with the opposite sex while escaping the confines of jangle-pop to land squarely in jangle-punk territory, with Downes’ vocal suggesting influence upon Material Issue’s Jim Ellison. “For the Love Of Ash Grey” is a cartwheeling uptempo charmer with shades of mod heroics by the early Who and the Jam, tracing a winding path behind Downes’ cascading chord progression and drummer Robbie Yeats’ dynamic shifts. Bassist Jane Dodd propels the frenetic and appropriately incendiary “Pyromanic.” Downes’ heady lyrical couplets during the crashing “Icarus Missed” suggest that the mythical figure wasn’t felled by flying too close to the sun, but rather was shot from the ground. The set concludes with an eight-minute version of contemplative but explosive pop epic and signature song “The Ballad Of Harry Noryb.” “My being splits; one half walks out and sits in the audience and grins,” sings Downes before ruminating upon a series of character flaws in need of mending. Live at Windsor Castle, 1986 exhibits some of the limitations and flaws of a 36-year-old board recording, but the results are highly listenable with a strong “you are there” vibe. It’s lucky to have such a portrait of Downes in his youth and a snapshot of the evolving Verlaines from the early days of a compelling arc. Schoolkids presents the album as a 2xLP set on translucent sky-blue vinyl to match the sleeve’s gig-poster artwork.