Review: Arctic Monkeys’ generation-spanning masterclass at Ashton Gate (29/5/23)


(Photo by Paul Gillis/Reach PLC)

Eighteen years since they emerged from Sheffield with 2005 debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, Arctic Monkeys remain a 21st century musical behemoth. That album’s distinctly Northern-flavoured navigations of fledgling nights out and youthful hometown hijinks have evolved – via a long stint of L.A living – into the orchestral, soul-tinged jazz pop of recent album The Car. It’s a manifestation of Arctic Monkeys as a rare beast of longevity among their numerous mid-noughties indie peers; in the post-internet age, the ‘Monkeys’ have maintained highly irregular, pre-internet levels of notoriety. They’ve absolutely earned the right to do what they like, musically.

That being said, the main strength of tonight’s show is the band’s unflinching approach to delving into their older, more stadium suitable, material. It seems to be understood that the subtleties of The Car’s loungey balladeering would sit rather askew within 27,000 capacity venues like this. The dusting down of long-exiled favourite ‘Mardy Bum’ is an immediate call to arms; it’s the first full band performance for a decade and the crowd promptly go ballistic.

Refusing to step off the gas, frontman Alex Turner and his bandmates accelerate through a riveting first seven tracks dating from 2013 album AM and earlier; the frenetic intro of ‘Brianstorm’ is propelled by superb, powerhouse drummer Matt Helders before the breakout main riff induces further pandemonium within the audience. ‘Crying Lightning’ and ‘Teddy Picker’ emphasise Turner’s natural aplomb as a craftsman of rock riffs; akin to the chants emerging from the Ashton Gate terraces on a weekend, the crowd heartily echo them back toward the stage.

‘The View From The Afternoon’ features pitter-patter drum assaults which are utterly clarifying of Helders’ Agile Beast nom de plume, and a lyric that excellently captures the precarious combo of teen drunkenness and access to SMS technology: “There’s verse and chapter sat in her inbox/And all that is said is that you’ve drank a lot.” It isn’t until the languid ‘Four Out of Five’ – the night’s only survivor from 2018’s Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino – that we’re able to catch our collective breath; it’s a moment within which several audience members opt for a dash to the bathroom.

Clad in dark, pinstripe suit, opened denim shirt, shades and a red cravat, bouffant-haired Turner largely keeps audience relations to a minimum. Having previously witnessed him in his preening, overtly dramatic hand gesturing guise in The Last Shadow Puppets, it’s most welcome that he has opted to dial it back. He occasionally raises a left leg on to a foldback speaker – a stance this is part suggestive, part power stance – as he hammers away at his Epiphone. Elsewhere, he robotically offers intermittent stock gratitude: “Terrific. Thank you. How kind you are.”

It’s an impressively tight and sonically satisfying performance from what is now a veteran act. The only noticeable glitches are for meteorological reasons beyond even the interventionist means of iconic rock heroes. A glorious May evening has given why to a chill in the stands and, as with the rapturously received ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’, there are very brief moments that appear lost in the breeze.  

The simple but muscular riff of ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ was absolutely born – along with the rousing group vocals at the chorus – to be played in stadiums such as this. This is the optimal moment when the inevitable sea of smartphones and torchlights emerge from the palms of thousands within the audience. In a late, mini-flurry of new tunes, the band opts to showcase three songs from The Car; Turner goes acoustic and a wash of synthesised strings decorate soul-infused slow-burner ‘There’d Better Be a Mirrorball’. It’s enthusiastically received for a new tune but it appears to be ‘Body Paint’ – with Turner’s falsetto delivery and the bubbling melancholy of its main riff – that has the most potential as a future favourite.

The ”one more song!” chant that has recently become de rigueur at gigs often seems incongruous and lacking in ambition. Arctic Monkeys indeed return but for three more tunes; ‘Sculptures of Anything Goes’ completes the trio from The Car while ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and R U Mine?’ are closing crowd-pleasers.

And it’s ‘Dancefloor’ that provides two reasons as to why this was such a mesmerising gig. Firstly, it’s the ultimate confirmation of the band’s lack of shame in giving the audience their earliest and most defining tunes. Secondly, it’s a song that is soon to leave its teens and there are myriad sightings of young friends embracing and singing along to a tune that is roughly of ages with them. Tonight, we’ve seen why Arctic Monkeys have emerged from the mid-2000 indie ranks to become an elite, generation-spanning rock group.

Scott Hammond