The guitarist once called the singer “a tuneless knob”. The singer accused the guitarist of cocaine abuse and rampant egomania. The former childhood friends didn’t speak to each other for 15 years after their band split up. As recently as 2009, the guitarist insisted they wouldn’t get back together. Yet here they were – The Stone Roses, in their home city of Manchester, playing to 75,000 fans. The group that modestly called its second album The Second Coming was attempting something that even Jesus has not tried yet: a third coming.
Friday’s show at Heaton Park was the first of three in Manchester: the 225,000 tickets sold out in 68 minutes. On the back of a single album, their 1989 debut, The Stone Roses are revered as the key British band of their era. Sandwiched chronologically between The Smiths and Oasis, they also represent the heyday of Manchester as a citadel of youth culture. “The time is now!” a young Ian Brown declared when the quartet played a huge outdoor show in the north-west in 1990.
At 49, Brown still projects Manchester Man’s characteristic qualities of cockiness and self-possession. But what was charming in his 20s has grown costive in middle age. “Well now?” were the singer’s opening words at Heaton Park, as though challenging the audience to rise to the occasion. It would have been better if he and his band mates had managed to – but a flat and disjointed performance provided dismaying proof that their time is no longer now.
The opening song was “I Wanna Be Adored”, accompanied by 75,000 pairs of lungs. This had the happy side-effect of masking Brown’s notoriously weak singing, but respite was shortlived. Less anthemic numbers exposed the easily reached limits of Brown’s voice, the singer tunelessly groaning his way through “(Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister” and “Sally Cinnamon” as he walked vaguely around the stage. The physical swagger of old was gone: like an ageing sportsman, Brown’s legs are gone.
Meanwhile, his co-Roses – guitarist John Squire, bassist Gary “Mani” Mounfield and drummer Alan “Reni” Wren – played as though they were strangers. Mani and Reni’s tight rhythms clashed with Squire’s noodling riffs and elongated solos. The Byrds-influenced guitarist of the first album was nowhere to be seen; instead Squire was in the rock-god mode of the widely panned Second Coming. A tediously long solo in “Fools Gold” was particularly egregious: Squire seemed lost in a private classic-rock fantasy.
The show ended with another singalong as they played a series of classics from their debut, climaxing with “I Am the Resurrection”. But the feeling of flatness lingered. I don’t begrudge the immense financial reward the Roses are receiving for their reunion: mismanagement and record label disputes meant they did not profit from their work as they should have first time round. But the artistic damage is another matter. Their return exposes the slim foundations on which their reputation rests.