American folk music has traditionally been a vehicle for social comment, meaningful political discussion championing working classes, and exploration of the human condition; from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen to Joni Mitchell. However, Manchester Academy 2 witnessed the culmination of this important muso-social tradition in an insipid performance from The 502s, one defined by massive amounts of sound and energy, with very little actually being said or enjoyed.
For the whole 70 minutes of self-indulgent performativity, the relationship between crowd and band had the distinct air of Disney on Ice, as though the 502s were a novelty act there to entertain children. Bright multicoloured lights, smoke machines, and creepy, permanent stuck-on smiles. Skipping onto stage (late) to begin the night with, ‘Hey Julia’, The 502s, whose average age seems to be just over the 30 mark, had come dressed in multi-coloured shorts and Hawaiian shirts, a sight quite difficult, it appeared, for much of the crowd to take seriously.
“I thought I was coming to see the B-52s”
The audience seemed split, a marked difference between the noticeably young and unenthused old, who seemed have been dragged along. The general feeling in the crowd teetered between bemusement and a general air of being sufficiently entertained, with many apparently enjoying themselves but unsure how to show it, deciding eventually on a slight sway and head bob. It felt a lot like being a parent in the audience at a performance of The Wiggles, with much of the crowd begrudgingly enduring an overly earnest, overly American act that at times bordered on irritating. “I fucking love that song”, hollered a phony, affected American accent following a rendition of ‘Summer Wind’. The band laughed it off as a good-hearted joke – I wasn’t so sure.
The 502s seemed reliant on theatrics over any real musical conviction or direction, the entire performance flirted with pantomime, seeming, at times, quite desperate. Idle band members jogged on the spot and exaggeratedly mouthed along with the songs. They gathered around Ed Isola during his unnecessary banjo solos (which were frequent).
An undeniably talented brass player whose general behaviour and use of a clarinet like a stage baton (toss, catch, heel kick, jazz hands), gave the distinct impression of the genie in a primary school production of Aladdin. A particularly perplexing moment was the whole band leaving the stage for a 30-second sax solo which riffed on Bob Marley’s ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’, performed in the style of a drunk uncle a bit too late on at a family gathering.
The crowd itself was an interesting mix: young children, families, merch-wearing middle-aged women, and perhaps the highest concentration of Stetson hats and snake-skin cowboy boots ever witnessed in Academy 2. I moseyed over to say “howdy” to a pair of these gunslingers: “I thought I was coming to see the B-52s,” said Dan, ‘The Urban Cowboy’ (his words), “I was looking forward to Rock Lobster.” Ethan, another gig goer, described them as a “BTEC Mumford and Sons,” proceeding to describe how he doesn’t like Mumford and Sons.
The band rifled through most of their new EP and first album, from ‘What to Do’ to ‘Stories to Tell’, with jangling banjo, melodica, keys and brass, all of which sounded very similar from song to song, with very little to discern one from another. The 502s were playing music which could easily be used as background music in a cartoon, or transition music for a cheesy sitcom based in the American South, or, in fact, just a whole scene from Teen Beach Movie.
“BTEC Mumford and Sons… and I don’t like Mumford and Sons”
Towards the end of their set however, the crowd was united by their most popular song, ‘Just a Little While’, and for 2 minutes and 50 seconds the atmosphere changed to that of a proper gig. There was unanimous enjoyment and a switch in crowd behaviour that came close to moshing, but not quite – there was even a girl up on shoulders.
The afterglow of this brief rave was short-lived as the band bundled into an encore beginning with ‘Feels Good to be Me’, a song which sounds as though it could have been written to play for children on CBBC as a lesson in self-esteem, and ended with a long-winded rendition of, ‘Stories to Tell’, with each band member running across the stage to take their turn at singing a line. Weirdly, the evening turned into a scene from a US super-church, as brass player Joe Capati used his time on the mic to sing in gospel-style, an earnest: “Can I get a hallelujah?” The girl on shoulders had by this point climbed down.
Overall, the 502s particular brand of bastardised pop-folk was not well received by the majority of Mancunian gig goers that night, the general lack of meaning or message, and the cloying, sunny earnestness leaving a saccharine taste in the mouths of many who endured it. It’s a style lost in translation perhaps, more at home in Florida, enjoyed by a cosy, American religious moderate right, than in Manchester on a biting November evening. Despite the lack of any lasting or meaningful impression made by their music, The 502s were, in fairness, capable of providing sufficient circus-like entertainment for about an hour, if not taken too seriously.