Who: Sad Cafe
Where: The Cinnamon Club, Altrincham
When: : 22nd & 23rd March 2019
A few weeks ago, I published an article which concerned itself with rock bands who first reached prominence between the late 60s and early 70s and who are now facing questions about their continuing careers following on from the death or retirement of prominent members:
It looked primarily at U.S. bands but did make some reference to UK bands. Following on from this, opportunity arose for a follow up article looking at bands in similar circumstances but this time from the mid-70s to the early-80s and this time UK bands.
Exhibit A: Sad Cafe
Sad Cafe had decided to stage a pair of concerts just outside of their home town of Manchester where their largest audience has always been. They had played the same venue in the Autumn and were now playing two shows prior to considering venturing further afield for a group of “weekenders” later in the year.
The band had begun their recording career in 1977 and their popularity ascended to allow them several hits both at home and abroad between 1978 and 1980. From then on, their sales had not been consistent leading to a period where their best known line-up had fractured between 1983 and 1989 before a full break-up which was followed by occasional comebacks and re-release programmes.
Since their peak period, the band have suffered the loss of two of their lead members who have left this world. First of all, lead singer, Paul Young, of Sad Cafe and Mike and the Mechanics (but not the one who said that wherever he laid his hat, there was his home!) died in 2000 and then keyboard wonder, Vic Emerson passed just before Christmas last year. Vic who had left the band in 1984 also worked with 10cc.
Can a band pick up where they left off? Well, as they say where I come from “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. Let’s have a bite-by-bite account of what we were served by this Cafe (my account here is taken largely from the first night with occasional thoughts from the second show where they benefit from a fuller picture):
- On with the Show
This song (which originated on the band’s second album, Misplaced Ideals) has become the band’s typical opener since 1978. The title is a giveaway.
Tonight, it benefits from an opening salvo from lead guitarist, Dave Day who has been in that booth since their “resumption” last year. His solo is a bluesy affair which then fleshes out into the solo which Ashley Mulford created on the original studio recording and brought to near-perfection on the 1980 live album which saw the primary line-up really lay their stall out. Mr Mulford had an on-off relationship which saw him depart the line-up on at least four occasions by my reckoning and the 2013 tour was a particularly fractious affair and he seems unlikely to be back which is a shame on some levels. Michael Byron-Hehir, who slotted in for Mulford on a number of his departures, now has a regular gig with Barclay James Harvest (featuring Les Holroyd) which mainly confines him to the continent, so Mr Day is on-board and a more than adequate replacement providing the guitar solos, a little rhythm guitar, backing vocals and some lead singing. His lead style is very lyrical, and he takes some of the songs to places where they have not gone before – especially this opener. Another great addition is Neil Shaw-Hulme. The 2012-13 line-up had no sax player and original saxophonist, Lenni who joined the band as a full member in 1980 has had to step down because of a health failure and isn’t able to resume. Like Day, Shaw-Hulme is doing much more than providing a “just-enough” presence and his solos and the way he fills out the sound is remarkable.
2) Black Rose
New lead vocalist, Barry James Thomas obviously has the most unenviable task. A lead vocalist is always central to a band’s style and image and Paul Young with his Jagger-like strut is always going to be a hard act to follow. Some fans want to see a Sad Cafe band out there but are never going to be happy with whoever tries to fill Mr Young’s shoes. Thomas has the even harder task given by the infrequent nature of these shows. Sometimes, it feels as though he is caught between not quite knowing the exact way that Paul used to sing the songs, been a little wobbly on the lyrics and his lack of confidence that is coming and will develop as he has a few more shows in the vocal driving seat. Black Rose was a tour-de-force for Mr Young and the fact that Barry Thomas handles it with aplomb, shows that the band have made the right selection if they are to go forward. He is far better suited, once he has ironed out the creases, than Steve Whalley (no disrespect to Steve, he has done a fine job in other bands) – Barry’s voice just suits this band all the better.
3) Love’s Enough
This song was the opener from the band’s sole album release on the Polydor imprint which was arguably their most consistent studio record. It was an album that didn’t reach a wide enough audience but on tour, this song, in particular, was to quickly become a live favourite. It has energy to spare. Bags of it. A keyboard intro from another new guy, Matt Steele, opens up to a familiar-to-the-audience riff from the saxophone and then into the vocal section. One thing that is becoming very quickly apparent is how much the 4-piece vocals barrage of Sue Wilson-Quin, Ian Wilson, Dave Day and, aforementioned lead, Barry Thomas is such an asset to this line-up. Another notable solo from Mr Day in the bridge section fills this one out to great effect.
Those guitars and keyboards create a wonderful ambience and atmosphere which also emphasises why this band were a little out of their time in the New Wave-saturated UK market of 1980. Dave Irving on drums then picks up a solid beat which along with long-time bassist, Des Tong opens things out for the saxophone to drive the melody of this song which was the only one on their biggest album “Facades” to feature a horn part at all. Again, the bluesy feel of this one suits Barry Thomas’ voice down to the ground. But there are so many good things to mention here – the saxophone, the guitars, the driving rhythm section.
5) Hungry Eyes
After Sad Cafe’s biggest hit (coming up later in the night), record companies became concerned with an attempt at a colour-by-numbers follow-up hit (long-term fans should think “Follow You Anywhere”, “Keep Us Together”) but prior to 1979 there was more variety in the love songs and ballads. Such an example is “Hungry Eyes” which wallows in great acoustic guitar from Ian Wilson, some tasteful sax and keyboard orchestration and another great guitar solo. The mid-section is handled in exemplary fashion by Sue Wilson-Quin who also weighs on great BVs throughout. Again, the bass and drums are phenomenal in the way they drive this one and maintain the energy with no let-up.
6) Strange Little Girl
An interesting selection is this minor hit from early 1980. Not because the audience wouldn’t want it but because it was written by Ashley Mulford and it had been absent from some setlists (e.g. the 1986 tour) when Ashley was in the band. Ian Wilson sings lead on this one with mixed results – he fluffs the first verse on the opening night but gets it right second time out – whilst Sue is once more on harmonies and sings the lead on the chorus. And great guitar work from Dave Day once more whilst Neil Shaw-Hulme adds to the general eeriness with some lines on one of those Yamaha electronic woodwinds.
Another upbeat number from the Ole album with Mr Thomas back on lead (with a few fluffed lines). Day and Wilson handle the distinctive riff well and all the backing vocalists weigh in with Mrs Wilson-Quin sounding particularly admirable.
8) Feel Like Dying
This one from Misplaced Ideals has never been a personal favourite, but I’m a convert. Sue’s voice is better suited to it than Mr Young’s ever was (hey, before the brick-bats start, it’s only my opinion). Des and Dave in the back-line, are hugely important on this one, and it includes a lovely keyboard solo from Mr Steele and more great guitar work.
9) House of Many Nations
Beginning with a shout-out to the overseers of the “Paul Young – Chronicles” album, Alistair Gordon (producer) and Darren Hirst (who he?), this was announced as a tribute to Paul and Vic who both featured on the album.
Matt Steele begins things off with a keyboard sample. On this one, Barry Thomas has moved to percussion and the intro also finds Neil Shaw-Hulme back on his Yamaha WX7 whilst the vocalists trade leads and backing vocals back and forth with Ian Wilson starting things off. The audience receive this extremely well which suggests there maybe a really good opportunity here for the band to ready other new material and introduce it in their live shows.
This song has never been my favourite Sad Cafe moment and I’m guessing if you liked it in the old days then you’ll like it now. The mid-section has a great saxophone break and the presence of many voices on backing vocals opens things out nicely. Things get a little jazz-funky when the keyboards take centre stage and it would be the sort of thing that might work better if everyone felt a little looser, more confident and were willing to explore their solos a little more. If the band are going to keep this one in the set, the new guys need to be more at home with it.
11 & 12) What Am I Gonna Do / Keeping it From the Troops
These songs have nothing lyrically in common with each other,but musically they flow and segue together smoothly and so they were paired in that way on 1980’s self-titled album and have usually been presented in this way in concert. Sue Wilson-Quin handles a lovely lead vocal on the first half of the pair. There’s a lovely touching moment when Mr Wilson chimes in on the line “baby, let me take you; let’s go home” with his wife. Smiles all around. Dave Day’s lead guitar anchors this and the way that he and Des Tong and Dave Irving repeat the driving intro until a given moment when Ian Wilson choose to pick up the riff that leads into the “…Troops”.
There’s something about the lyric of this song that always reminds me of the Carry On film that starred Phil Silvers (normally Sergeant Bilko for those with long memories) in the Sid James role (Carry on — follow that camel). Seeing the guys in their foreign legion gear in the 1980 promo film they made for their record label probably didn’t help. Anyway, lyric aside – which actually isn’t bad – this is a great instrumental piece with charging bass, and great guitar and sax riffs. Tonight, it finds Mr Thomas back on lead vocals and is sharp and impressive.
13 & 14) The Further Adventures of Mad Alan / Fanx Ta-Ra
The opening bars of this one were (I believe) played by Vic on keyboard and were the closing bars of the preceding track “The Further Adventures of Mad Alan” and are now played on guitar and sax and lead into a passionate lead vocal on the song which was the title track for the band’s debut album. Now, if you wanted to pigeon hole that first album, it would come much closer to the progressive rock genre than the more mainstream AOR sound of their later work. That means that the keyboards and guitars have really opportunity for a work and Dave Irving drives everything along with pounding drums. Variety, they say, is the spice of life and this band has it in spades. Oh and more from Sue on lead vocals.
15) Everyday Hurts
There is a time in every successful band’s night when they must stop and get to their big crowd-pleasing number, and this is the time that Sad Cafe reach there. Passing over minor hits like I’m in Love Again, La-Di-Da, Nothing Left Toulouse, and the U.S. hit, Run Home Girl, tonight they will concentrate on just two. This one, the ballad, was their biggest (by a country mile) and unenviably stereotyped them in some people’s minds. Tonight, it is a huge audience sing-along with the male leads trading vocals. And it sounds great.
16) My Oh My
And then comes the moment when needing an extra acoustic guitar, Sue Quin becomes that extra guitarist. This Stones-y rocker was a medium sized hit in the UK and is the exact opposite from its big sister “Everyday Hurts” in lyric and intent. It brings the show proper to a rousing conclusion and for the first-time a few people are up-and-dancing – particularly on the second night. Great stuff.
17) Rat Race
Now if I were the band, I would have slowed things down again a little for the encore before heading to another rebel rousing rocker which occupies a similar territory to its predecessor. “Rat Race” was a b-side during their Polydor sojourn and became a big concert closer straightaway. Guitars, drums, bass and that Yamaha thing all chime in to give it bags of exuberance and all the voices are registering and present. Nice. but perhaps it could have used something to build into it.
The second night…?
Well, an even more evocative opening guitar solo from Dave Day on “On with the Show”, “Strange Little Girl” moved to no.3 in the running order, and then “Hungry Eyes” 4th. Consequently, “Love’s Enough” was shuffled down to 5th. “Misunderstanding” was performed 6th and “Feel Like Dying” in turn also moved up to 7th. “House of Many Nations” came in 8th and after more wonderful guitar work, it was followed by “Emptiness” which had been much earlier in the show the previous night. Fortunately, before this starts to sound like the results of the Grand National show, the rest of the show did revert to the set list from night 1. I know somebody somewhere must need all this detail, so I have included it – although I have to admit my memory scares me sometimes…
So, a triumph return on home territory? Undoubtedly. Can they draw an audience like this further afield? Probably but only with persistence. Are the audience keen to see them attempt that? Certainly, the long-time fans I spoke to. Will those aching limbs allow them to give it their all? I’m hoping so.
 Here I must declare a bias (of taste only). I have had a considerable involvement with Sad Café over the years. I engineered the re-release programme which saw their principal albums re-released in the UK and the U.S. and particularly in Japan . Also, I had considerable involvement with a posthumous release to honour their deceased lead singer, Paul Young (“Paul Young – Chronicles”), and also worked with ITV and a production company to bring about a release, “Access All Areas” which captured the band at their peak on a joint CD and DVD release. I have not profited financially (in fact, operated at a considerable loss) in any way from these releases and I have currently no formal involvement with the band or their promotion on any level.
My record of their releases can be seen here: