When Television take the stage at the Irish Centre, Tom Verlaine asks for light to plug his instrument in. “Put your glasses on!” suggests someone in the audience. It’s an occupational hazard, when you see the legends you were too young to experience the first time around (Verlaine says that they last played Leeds in 1978). Part of you expects to see them the way they were in their prime, and however much logic is against it, it’s still a shock to encounter them with failing eyesight, greying hair or beer guts. You start to worry about their prowess.
For all his lack of night vision, however, Verlaine is as much of an anomaly as his band has always been. Very much of the 70’s New York punk scene (some regard them as its instigators), Television were nevertheless musically accomplished and innovative while their peers were reductive, and poetically lyrical against a backdrop of dirty realism.
Verlaine himself has always cut an ascetic figure. Ageless in his twenties, he remains so at 66, and his guitar playing is still stunning in its virtuosity, if lacking the free jazz wildness in evidence on bootlegged recordings of early live performances.
The one notable decline, unfortunately, is in his voice. Though I doubt anyone ever loved Television for Verlaine’s voice, it always possessed a certain eccentric charm, likened by one critic to the singing of a ‘cartoon beaver’. Tonight, though, the beaver was more like a frog in the throat, and I looked forward to the instrumental sections almost as much for relief from the voice as for their own sumptuous qualities.
The band retains Billy Ficca on drums and Fred Smith on bass from their 70s heyday, while Richard Lloyd’s replacement, Jimmy Ripp, possesses all the ability of his predecessor, even if the chemistry between him and Verlaine isn’t quite there.
The set delivers virtually all of the Marquee Moon album, climaxing with the title song itself and encoring with See No Evil. It’s exactly what most of the audience are here to see, though there’s a good scattering of younger audience members among the 50- and 60-something original fans.
However, if there’s little from the rest of Television’s studio output, there are two new tracks on the night – one so new that the lyrics are unfinished. This one, the first they play, could only be a Television song, with all the hallmarks of traded rhythm and lead guitar parts.
The second new piece has more of the feel of a film soundtrack, built around a Peter Gunn riff. With no new recorded material since 1992’s eponymous album, it’s intriguing to speculate whether a fourth studio release is in development.
However, tonight is really all about Marquee Moon, and finally being able to see the complex structures of those songs being played, with the interplay of two virtuoso guitarists, makes the almost-four-decade wait well worth it, even if I found myself yearning for those cartoon beaver vocals!
Reviewed by Mike Farren at Leeds Irish Centre on June 2nd 2016. Television are touring the UK. You can catch them at the dates below.
June 6 – Bristol, UK – Anson Rooms
June 8 – Glasgow, UK – O2 ABC
June 10 – Manchester, UK – Academy 2
June 12 – London, UK – Brixton Electric
June 14 – Bexhill-on-Sea, UK – De La Warr Pavilion
June 16 – Haarlem, Netherlands – Patronaat