On October 17, 2014, the pop-venue Grenswerk in Venlo opened its doors. In the south of the Netherlands, close to the German border, it managed to attract a Euregional audience. That first memorable evening’s sold-out performances were by the Belgian singer Milow and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Exactly five years later, Grenswerk celebrated its fifth anniversary with another sold-out house, its own brand of beer at the bar, and the British band Fischer-Z.
Fischer-Z is the musical child of the now 64-year-old singer/guitarist/composer John Watts. The band had been phased out by Watts himself, because he found the band to be no longer relevant and felt they’d strayed too much from their original new-wave/punk roots. As a socially and politically involved artist and musician, Watts continued to make music with other projects and as a solo artist. For the past few years, though, Watts has toured again with a band under the name Fischer-Z.
The new album “Swimming in Thunderstorms” was released earlier this year to generally quite positive reviews. The band, however, has actually drifted even further away from the style with which it gained fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their fame in the Netherlands reached its peak through the band’s legendary performance at the Pinkpop festival in 1981, where the band followed the performance of a newer band called U2. The set from those days, in the context of their most commercially successful album “Red Skies over Paradise,” hit the audience like a bomb, ending with three planes that flew over the main stage with red smoke. The festival grounds indeed had their own “Red Sky.” That was then, this is now.
The performance in Grenswerk was only the second performance during the fairly compact European tour that the band has undertaken to promote the new album. That Watts sees Fischer-Z as his own project is evident from the fact that only three songs from the new album were featured on the set list this evening. The rest was a tasteful amalgam of the well-known Fischer-Z hits from a long past, more recent unknown work, and a number of very originally chosen Watts solo songs.
The sold-out venue in Venlo was mainly populated by many pre-retirement music lovers with their wives and children. A striking number of balding to bald heads reflected the stage light. Looking around, you noticed an above-average number of “important” people and still attractive women who had embraced the gypsy look. Watts and his current Fischer-Z members kicked off with “Wary” from the new album. Unfortunately, that went wrong immediately. Watts had not correctly positioned the capo on his Fender American Acoustasonic Telecaster Natura, so it soon became apparent that it was wrong when the band started playing. Music came to a stop… Start again and just laugh through it. If it had remained this way, it would have been forgivable, but the whole performance was plagued by unmistakable errors in a set that was apparently not very well prepared. A pity for the attentive part of the audience, and especially unexpected for a life-long live performer like John Watts.
“Tightrope” from 1992 was nicely airy. It is an atypical Fischer-Z song and would not be out of place on the set list of a band like Fun Lovin Criminals. Loosely grooving and melting, a nice song. The public showed the first signs of recognition when the band kicked into “Roomed” from the successful album “Going Deaf for a Living.” The older songs were all transposed downwards because, understandably, Watts’ voice no longer sounds like it did more than 40 years ago. “Room Service” was a number according to a proven Fischer-Z recipe: heavily leaning on a catchy bass riff, with angular drums and ska-like rhythm guitar. Still very tasty, after these years.
It is this very basic format, combined with the typical Watts voice, that made Fischer-Z so special more than two generations ago. It was very unfortunate, though, that the bass player thought he had to adjust the well-known bass part of the hit “So Long.” Was the original riff too simple for him? We could only guess at why. You’re not going to change the bassriff of “Under Pressure,” are you? This makes the entire song different.
The band itself was clearly still searching. There was a lot of laughter on stage, not because of the fun they had together, but because of obvious nerves to do it right. They regularly messed up during the countdown, bridges, and endings. This Fischer-Z line-up clearly still have to cover a large number of kilometers in order to perhaps be able to respond well to each other. Watts surprised Venlo by playing “Man In Someone Else’s Skin” from his undervalued solo album “The Iceberg Model.” Even without the horns, the song translated well into this basic version. Nice to hear this live.
“In England” has not lost any of its power over the years. For the first time, the audience sang along with the tagline. With “Wild, Wild, Wild” and “Marliese” as sing-alongs as well, the band then quickly reached the end of their set. The encore came with “the Worker” and “Berlin.”
Watts concluded with his “One Voice” from his solo album “One More Twist,” during which he briefly decried the politically hopeless situation of the U.K. Musically, the show could definitely be improved, since the band still has to do homework. That said, a John Watts/Fischer-Z performance remains something to look forward to. So I’ll see them next time again… but hopefully toward the end of the tour.