Balancing comedy and music in a serious manner is a hard act. An extremely hard act. Very few have pulled it off whilst still being seen as “professional” musicians. It’s a balance that Matt Berry has struggled with in the past, but with his latest album and tour, it feels like finally he has achieved it. It certainly helps that he opens with an extended instrumental number, a walkthrough of his new material which pulls snippets of riffs and beats from later songs and separates them with loud, building walls of sound, his backing band the Maypoles expertly twisting and weaving their way throughout. It’s a chance for Matt to not only introduce the band to the audience, but to set the tone for the rest of the night. And while he may well still be centre-stage, more than holding his own on the synths and occasionally the guitar too, it’s the Maypoles who you are experiencing at full force. These are skilled musicians, not afraid to hold out, going all out. It’s sometimes haywire, and this means just sometimes a little jarring, but it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the tone they are aiming for, slightly weird or odd but unique.
With that instrumental arrangement, you enter the quirky world of Matt Berry. It’s a world not only of a mix of funk, of bluesy synths, but of guitar-driven folk, of morphing and transforming between the genres in quick bursts. Its songs off his new album where I feel he’s at his best; “One by One” and “Beam Me Up” the perfect examples of his new found approach, the first a personal yet satirical take on his mother’s battle with illness, the second an abstract take on an alien abduction. It doesn’t need to be in your face funny, but the song’s humour tends to resonate with you. That’s not to say that his older material is done a disservice.
“Solstice” is the pinnacle of the show, a song about metamorphosis in the bang centre of a gig which does exactly that. Easing through massively different sections, you hear hints of other artists all blending together, all united by an X-Files like synth. In “Snuff Box”, there is once again the chance to show off the band, a round of improvisations warmly received by the crowd. It’s often clear who the big influences on Berry’s work are, none more so than Frank Zappa, so when Berry covers the song “Mr Green Genes”, and it must be said does it particularly well, it’s to no real surprise.
It’s a real shame then that “Take My Hand”, easily Berry’s best hit so far, just doesn’t feel right. The sacrifice of folkier elements of the bands mean that this feels like a different song to the original, stripped back and less glorious. But the addition of Xylaroo, the night’s support act (definitely check them out!) for one last song in the encore brings that happier cheer back. The new material is a definite hit, but Berry has to watch that in taking himself in a new direction he doesn’t alienate the older songs.
He’s an acquired taste, a product of the quirkier world of British comedy, but with this new tour and album, the future looks exciting for Matt Berry & the Maypoles.