Review: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds @ The Beacon Theater, NYC

… and the other shoe drops.

Act 1:

Once upon a time in the magical decade of the 1990s, Liam and his elder brother Noel, a pair of lads from Manchester, had a band called Oasis. Oasis turned out to be rather popular with kids on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and all around the world for that matter. The lads from Manchester sold millions of records and played gigs to packed houses in every part of the world. Everybody lived happily ever after. Except they didn’t. See, there was a dark side to the Oasis fairytale, a dark side that would eventually lead to the breakup of the band. Liam and Noel could not get along. There were constant quarrels, and after a well publicized backstage fight in the Fall of 2009, Noel stormed out of the band. Oasis was done.

Act 2:

To be honest, I’m still not 100% convinced that the Oasis split isn’t anything more than some brilliantly evil marketing strategy. Especially with all this talk of a 20th Anniversary (What’s The Story?) Morning Glory reunion tour in the air, there’s a part of me that can’t help thinking that this all some elaborate theatrical performance. Maybe I’m just being cynical. Nah, couldn’t be that.

In any case, both brothers decided to continue. Liam and the other members of Oasis formed a new band called Beady Eye, released an album and went on tour. It wasn’t half bad. I still think the Beady Eye record ranks up there with any of the later period Oasis records. It’s a raucous good time. Noel took a bit of a break and then began work on not one but two solo albums, the first of which dropped in the UK last month and in the states a little over a week ago. Noel then went on tour in support of the record.

As I mentioned above, I like the Beady Eye record. I also like the Noel Gallagher record. This is music, not Twilight, so I don’t think there’s any need for Team Liam and Team Noel bullshit. And though I can’t help thinking that Beady Eye wound up with the style of Oasis and Noel walked away with the substance, I still think I would have preferred one album from both camps with the six best Beady Eye songs and the six best Noel Gallagher songs. That would’ve been a hell of a record. Oh well. The 2015 Oasis reunion tour isn’t all that far off. Having said that, I have to admit that it’s difficult to review either of these records in isolation. The temptation to compare the two is overwhelming. And I’ve never been all that good at resisting temptation.


One thing that strikes me about Noel’s High Flying Birds’ record, however, is how much it doesn’t sound like Oasis. This is a bit surprising considering how much of the Oasis catalog was penned by Noel (see all the good Oasis songs), and that some of the songs on the record began life as songs intended for past Oasis records. The Beady Eye record, on the other hand, sounded like Oasis, a large part of which is certainly due to the presence of Liam’s voice, easily the most readily identifiable element in the Oasis mix. While Noel’s voice is not nearly as distinctive as Liam’s, the guy can still belt out a melody, and his songwriting chops are top notch. Some of the material may sound a little more somber and introspective than we’ve grown accustomed to hearing from the Oasis lads, but the majority of the album is still squarely grounded in the anthemic arena rock that propelled Oasis into the stratosphere. In any case, if there’s a place for a songwriter to get in touch with his self-indulgent side, a solo record is the place to do it. I still think I like the Beady Eye record better, though. There’s a little more rock in Beady Eye’s rock n’ roll than is found in Noel’s solo effort. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to seeing and hearing how Noel would pull these songs off in a live setting.

I only got to see Oasis a couple of times, both in their later incarnation, and both at Madison Square Garden. Both times I felt the band lived up to the hype of playing in the World’s Most Famous Arena(!). I was also fortunate enough to see Beady Eye in the intimate setting of Webster Hall on the band’s first US tour earlier this year. Again I was impressed. My expectations for the Noel Gallagher performance were thus suitably elevated. What follows, however, is not going to make me any friends or influence people.

I was disappointed with the live show (11/15). There was nothing overtly bad about it, yet it failed to live up to my expectations in some significant ways. My first criticism is the set-list. He opened up with Oasis’s “It’s Good To Be Free”, which I’m guessing was intended as a message as much as anything else. Liam and Beady Eye have publicly stated that they won’t be playing any Oasis songs, which is fair enough considering most of them had been written by Noel, and, well, Noel is certainly now free to play whatever the hell he wants.” It’s Good To Be Free” is a perfectly fine song, but the arrangement was a tad bit on the mellow side.

If it was intended to set a mood for the evening, I might be able to understand the selection, but since it was followed by the noisy “Mucky Fingers”, whatever effect was intended was immediately lost. “Mucky Fingers” is far from the best song in the Oasis catalog. It’s a decent enough rocker, I guess, and Noel did handle the vocals on the recorded version… but was it really worth wasting a song slot on it? It’s not like Noel stuck with only playing Oasis songs on which he was the featured vocalist in the recorded versions, nor is “Mucky Fingers” anywhere near the best rocker in the Oasis catalog.

I guess I was just disappointed, having hoped to hear songs like “Falling Down”, one of the strongest tracks on Dig Out Your Soul, or Noel’s collaboration with the Chemical Brothers “Setting Sun”, which, in my not so humble opinion, is one of the best tracks released by anybody in the 90s (fat chance of that one, but seriously that tune is killer). Instead he played “Mucky Fingers”. Maybe there’s someone out there whose favorite song is “Mucky Fingers”, but I wouldn’t want to have a drink with that person.

Another odd choice, I felt, was the acoustic version of “Supersonic” that accompanied “Wonderwall” in the middle of the set. A stripped down “Wonderwall”, just Noel on guitar with some piano, worked where “Supersonic” seemed to fall a little flat without the rest of the band. Both songs got a healthy round of applause, so your mileage may vary.

Ten songs from the new record were played (only “Stop The Clocks” and “Let The Lord Shine a Light On Me” were omitted), and they were met with polite applause, but the crowd, trending into middle age mostly, seemed to be eager to hear as many Oasis songs as possible. Though there were some chants of “Liam” sprinkled throughout the night, the cries of “Noel” were far more frequent. “Freaky Teeth” (a song from Noel’s forthcoming album with Amorphous Androgynous) also got a run through in the middle of the set, and despite its unfamiliarity the crowd seemed to enjoy it no less than any of the rest of the new material. I’m going to go out on a pretty short limb here and say that I’m guessing most people in the audience hadn’t even heard much of the new record before showing up and wouldn’t have known that “Freaky Teeth” wasn’t on it. It’s just the impression I got.

The next problem with the set was Noel’s stage presence or lack thereof. No one would ever accuse the guys in Oasis of being the most energetic performers in rock. Indeed, most of the time they seem glued to whatever spot on the floor they happen to be standing on, but when Liam’s on, his charisma usually makes up for it. Noel’s abilities as a frontman just can’t compare. A crouched Liam, hands behind his back, singing up into the microphone is an iconic rock n roll image. Noel hunched over his guitar is not. The most lively and charismatic that Noel got was when he was interacting with a little kid sitting in the front row stage right. Despite the plethora of f bombs he dropped while talking to the kid’s family, the Gallagher charm was present in all of its indecipherable (at least to an American’s ear) splendor.

The last issue with the set was in no way the fault of Noel. The sound kind of sucks at the Beacon. Although it got better as the night went on, the low end was boomy and the vocals were indistinct in the mix when the band was at full volume. That’s especially unfortunate, since the beauty of Noel’s songs often lies in the melodies, and at times they were tough to hear.

That was the bad. But the show wasn’t all bad. There was a lot of good. The band, a true collection of who’s who among musicians in and around the Oasis universe, was great, and there was even an American, Tim Smith, playing guitar! Who says the special relationship between Brits and Americans is dead? Bullocks! (It was a little odd, though, to hear chants of USA! USA! when he was announced.) Russell Pritchard of the Zutons was on bass. Mike Rowe, former touring keyboard player with Oasis, was on Keys. And Jeremy Stacey, the brother of frequent Oasis and Black Crowes collaborator Paul Stacey, was on drums.

Despite the proficiency with which the band members handled their respective instruments, a part of me was left feeling like I was watching a really good cover band. Now I know that Oasis had its fair share of lineup changes, and that at the end only Liam and Noel were left from the original band, but when I saw Beady Eye I never had the feeling that I wasn’t watching the guys from Oasis. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the High Flying Birds. It’s not their fault that they weren’t in Oasis (except for Mike Rowe, who toured with them). Their presence next to Noel simply drove home the point that Oasis doesn’t exist anymore.

There were also some really great performances throughout the night. From the new material “The Good Rebel”, “AKA… What A Life”, “Soldier Boys and Jesus Freaks” and “AKA… Broken Arrow,” all sounded great, and demonstrated that Noel hasn’t lost a step when it comes to crafting soaring arena anthems.

Of the Oasis material the virtually solo acoustic performance of “Wonderwall” was one of those transcendent moments that you sometimes get at a rock concert. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear “Little By Little” get a workout in concert and open up the encore. Although I’ve always thought the chorus of that song is deserving of a better verse, it’s nevertheless a fun song to hear live.

The highlights of the night were, not surprisingly enough, two Oasis songs. “Talk Tonight” was devastating in its beauty and worth the price of admission alone. As opposed to “Supersonic” which was stripped down for the live performance, “Talk Tonight” was speeded up a bit and got beefed up with the entire band playing along. It worked perfectly. It wasn’t by any means a rocker, but, damn, did it hit the spot well.

The other highlight was the closing number, “Don’t Look Back In Anger”. On the last few Oasis tours, Noel had stripped down the arrangement of the song, but on the current tour he’s been playing it more faithfully to the recorded version, and, man, what a difference it makes. “Wonderwall” may have been the song that made Oasis household names, but “Don’t Look Back In Anger” is the greatest anthem Noel has ever written, and it had the entire crowd up on its feet singing along. Even more than “Talk Tonight” it was a magic moment and a great way to end the night.

So it wasn’t all bad. I could think of worse ways to spend a Tuesday night. But it wasn’t as great as an Oasis show. And maybe not even as good as a Beady Eye show. And there’s the 10,000 pound elephant in the room. Oasis was greater than the sum of its parts. Noel’s songs sound best when sung by Liam. The chemistry they have in the studio and in a live setting can’t be replicated. Act 2 in the respective careers of the Gallagher brothers is still just beginning. However it may end, I think it’s safe to say that fans of Oasis are looking forward to an Act 3 that sees the brothers working together again.

Nick Fokas

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