Just hours before her band play their first show in twenty years, Emma Anderson perhaps speaks for them all when she tweets her pre-gig state of mind: “Nervous.” And despite an immediate confidence booster in return from one Tanya Donnelly (“You will be great. Because you are great.”), a musician about to turn back the clock in similar fashion, those nerves are still apparent as she takes to the stage. The return of Lush is, it seems, enough to give all of us the collywobbles. Crammed into Oslo’s tiny upstairs hall, three hundred hardy souls raise their voices as Anderson, Miki Berenyi (“Hello! No red hair – get over it.”), Phil King and Justin Welch fumble with leads, pedals and straps, and prepare to test the muscle memory of two decades away from live performance. And then a hush, unfathomable anticipation, the deepest breath shared across the rammed room: what will this be? We’re nervous for them. Berenyi settles, eyes Anderson, nods, and they begin to play.
There goes the script: Lush begin again with their finest, perhaps best-loved moment. And not for them a stealthy (safe) mood piece to enter. No, they opt for the delicate arpeggios and switchback trik-trak of one of their oldest songs. As new drummer Welch chops away at that cliff edge pre-chorus gear shift and King, as ever, provides ballast beneath the harmonies and the dual guitars, Lush come alive. Everything old is new again. Again. The sound is vast and enveloping – a medal for the sound engineer tonight, who’s gone for volume and clarity. The mix is detailed and clear (as it really needs to be) and still the walls shake.
Straight into ‘Breeze’. Straight into ‘Kiss Chase’, still the most convincing indicator of their Split era songcraft. Without a pause, a barrelling ‘Hypocrite’ (that booming, artfully purloined Pixies tribute/pastiche) sets the place alight. Only then do they take a breather – literally. “Fuckin’ hell!” gasps Berenyi. “This is exhausting!” Well, quite. A sea of smiles signals support – some of us haven’t drawn breath for twenty minutes.
As if there was ever any doubt that Lush couldn’t smartly curate their own golden (but often under-appreciated) back catalogue, they pick at it with care and with courage. A chiming ‘Lovelife’ is reminder that their mid-career way with a groove provided for some beautiful and unexpected diversions. ‘Thoughtforms’. ‘Light From A Dead Star’. ‘Undertow’. They zig-zag greedily around their own unique history.
The second half of the set gains momentum. Is that the material or do they simply start to believe a little bit more once the scary part is over and it’s happening and they’re doing it? Maybe the connection between band and audience tightens, deepens? Either way, they make fire as they hit the hour mark. That classic SNUBTV performance of ‘Etheriel’ from a million years ago suddenly loses its lustre because present day Lush inject it with new-found magic. “That was our ‘baggy’ song,” mutters Berenyi. “Allegedly…” (Lush were never, even at their most playful and populist, as ordinary as, gah, baggy.)
There are cheers as Berenyi introduces ‘Out of Control’, their comeback Blind Spot EP‘s highlight. “Awww! Thank you,” she says. “That’s normally the point when people head for the bar.” A ferocious ‘Ladykillers’ is a rare nod to ‘recent’ Lush. ‘Downer’ is brutal: credit for how quickly they mastered melody, piecing together deceptively complex vocal and guitar lines, but some of those initial recordings – austere, visceral – still burn.
The crowd, mesmerised and energised, is most definitely of the same fine vintage as the band. And while their forthcoming headline dates proper will no doubt confirm the curiosity of the clued-up youth, tonight is rock solid older heads – bar, for accuracy’s sakes, this older head’s daughter and friend, who barely have forty years between them and reduce the average age tonight by, ooh, a week? (Nostalgia, you say? Get a grip. No one thought they’d ever hear these songs again. No one thought they’d want to or need to hear these songs again. The band, too, you suspect, locked them away and severed the connection. Beneath their decision to start again lies more courage than many might imagine.)
They finish the main set with ‘Sweetness and Light’ and you remember: this is their finest moment, this is the one. As Anderson and Berenyi hit those opening chords, Oslo goes berserk. Anderson’s default mode throughout has been as it ever was, every now and then looking up from her guitar to frown, almost in bemusement at the crowd: why are you all here again? But now she’s smiling, playing freely. Welch navigates the band through that central, swirling feedback-soaked breakdown before a pinpoint step-through into Anderson’s solo. Berenyi shreds alongside, lost in music and, seriously, there are people around who take it in with eyes closed. There is euphoria and there is Lush playing ‘Sweetness and Light’ in 2016.
An encore set begins with ‘Stray’, that spectral overture to the Spooky album, but not before Berenyi dedicates it to Chris Acland, whose absence is keenly felt tonight, and to Welch, whose contribution drives and anchors Lush’s future. There is warm and sustained applause for both. ‘Desire Lines’ is epic, bruised and tender. ‘Leaves Me Cold’ erupts. By now, they could blindly stick pins in their remaining repertoire but these are diamonds regardless, expertly selected.
“I was shitting myself yesterday,” confesses Berenyi before they close with ‘Monochrome’. Then, as perhaps a reminder that perfection from the off might be pushing it, and there’s a small matter of US dates and two huge shows at the Roundhouse still to come, she fiddles with her guitar as she struggles to find the chords. “It’s not easy remembering these songs, you know! It’s been a fucking long time.” “Too long!” someone calls out. Too long. Lush drift through their final song, that woozy, hazy, devotional, and they ascend. “The world is beneath me but slowly it’s falling away,” sings Berenyi. As with much of this dazzling set, it comes alive anew and makes for a stirring ending.
All around, people grin like loons, talk animatedly. This, says the buzz, was something. A pointed and poignant bridge across a generation, Lush were never ever this youthful and alive. The possibilities! In an era of hiatuses, half-assed splits, empty-headed feuding and tacky reformations, Lush 2.0 feels valid, vital and true. Great? Donnelly was only half right. Tonight they were great and then some. But then, though we may well have forgotten at some point over the years, they always were. But this time around, for a band whose innate modesty is still as becoming as it is ridiculous, you suspect ‘great’ won’t quite be enough.