Once touted as the next Lennon and McCartney, Chris Difford (lyrics) and Glen Tilbrook (music) never came close to reaching those dizzying heights of pop music perfection, but as the leaders of the well-loved British pop and new wave band Squeeze, they were responsible for some of the catchiest pop songs of the past four decades.
Most of those hits were on display this past Saturday night, August 31st, at the Chicago Theatre, where Difford, Tilbrook and their band (Yolanda Douglas, bass; Stephen Large, keyboards; Simon Hanson, drums; Steven Smith, Percussion; and Melvin Douglas, guitars and mandolin) played to a delighted full house of Squeeze aficionados. The result was an evening packed with memorable songs such as “Squeezing Mussels From the Shell,” “Cool For Cats,” “Tempted,” “Black Coffee in Bed” and the indelible “Up the Junction,” the one time that Squeeze ever approached the brilliance of Lennon & McCartney (if you haven’t heard it, listen to it on YouTube with the lyrics on screen, and you’ll see what I mean – it’s a melancholy, fatalistic, funny and hopelessly addictive tune about young love, marital entrapment, betrayal and despair.)
I noted that the audience was filled with “Squeeze aficionados,” and by that I mean there were likely not many people there who were being exposed to Squeeze for the first time, given that the group has been around in various incarnations for the past 45 years (!) or so. And those that were new to Squeeze might not have quite understood the love and devotion this group rightfully receives, since the sound mix (muddy) and the audience (singing along very enthusiastically) tended to flatten out the ever-distinctive melodies and often brilliant lyrics. “Cool For Cats” is one of those songs that, if you play it once, you’ll end up playing it a dozen times – and then singing it to yourself for the next week or two at work and in the shower. Ditto “Pulling Mussels From the Shell” – even before you figure out what the title means (let’s just say that it’s a delicate metaphor for an indelicate act.) But hearing these songs for the first time in a concert, even in a venue as fine as the Chicago Theatre, is just, unfortunately, not nearly as cool. In fact, one of the best moments in the show was an audience sing-along of “Tempted,” where the pure melody shone, unencumbered by excessive instrumentation. More moments of simplicity along those lines would have been good to hear.
Still, sound engineering issues aside, it was wonderful to see Difford and Tilbrook looking in great shape and, after all these years, still performing together effectively and enthusiastically, and evidently as affectionate towards each other as ever. And the band was (or “were,” as the Brits would say) top-notch, especially the drummer and bassist. If you’re already a Squeeze fan, you can still catch them in four other U.S. cities on their current tour. And if you’re not familiar with their music, note that, 45 years on, their old recordings still sound fresh and their new ones hew to that same catchy standard.
Opener KT Tunstall (“Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”) easily and confidently transcended her opening-act status, performing with appealing brio and confidence. Introducing what she described as a Bo Diddley and Patti Smith mash-up, she said that writing a song is like “pouring stuff into a juicer and seeing what comes out.” She and Squeeze both know how to, well, squeeze a lot of pleasure out of pure and simple songs.