Dates of travel: 20 October 2018 to 21 October 2018
Location: Brussels, Belgium
Have you ever bought a ticket for a gig without knowing for sure what country you’ll be living in when attending it? And the gig is two weeks before your wedding day? And your wedding is in your home country, where you don't currently live?
Such was the conundrum for this die-hard Bloc Party fan in early 2018 when manna fell from the heavens, and the Silent Alarm Tour was announced. London's solitary date sold out in a flash (naturally, for this is a British band). Not to worry; we make plans for big times. Get bogged down, distracted.
We were living in Qatar, whilst in the process of moving to London in the United Kingdom. The wedding would be taking place in a little town called Elgin in South Africa.
The gig was five months away. In Belgium.
Kiss Me Before It All Gets Complicated
Anniversary album tours are now, more than ever, becoming standard practice for artists or bands who have been around long enough to celebrate one of significance. Declining album sales, more life on the road, the simple passage of time since Sixties-to-Nineties heydays; the heady air of nostalgia hangs heavily over the modern music landscape - particularly in the rocky territory.
Bloc Party clearly missed the boat in 2015 when their landmark debut (2005's Silent Alarm) reached a decade of undying influence, and unfairly-high expectations for their subsequent four albums. But like having your birthday cruelly fall on the same day a loved one dies, the time just wasn't right back then to be celebrating milestones (or millstones).
Two members of the 'autonomous unit of un-extraordinary kids reared on pop culture between the years of 1976 and the present day' had moved on under a cloud of speculation and latent bitterness. First to go was drummer Matt Tong in 2013, followed by bassist Gordon Moakes in 2015.
This left founding members & guitarists Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack to pick up the pieces of the Bloc Party b(r)and. 2016's transitionary Hymns and a tour supporting it were the embryonic establishment of Bloc Party, Mark II.
Why Can't You Be More European
Scheduling a slew of single stops equally across European capitals did not speak to a band looking to bunker down for a lengthy warm-up circuit in smaller clubs in Manchester or Birmingham (although one cramped show in a community room in Leeds qualified as a brief dry run).
Wherever we would be coming from, London had already claimed its own for the homecoming leg. Instead of a quick evening out midweek after work, the RSVP now included an overnight stay abroad and the probability of having to book annual leave.
Brussels hid between the branches, unassumingly presenting the only weekend option amidst the trendy likes of Paris, Amsterdam or Berlin. And it could be reached by train within two hours from the almost-certain new home in London. Beats hiring a car.
There could be no hesitation, having seen how quickly dates could sell out. A single-album tour (played back to front!). A chance to hear b-sides from that era! A new country regardless! We'll surely have the decor and dessert sorted by then.
For Richer, For Poorer, For Better, For Worse
There were clouds in the distance. The months ahead contained unprecedented delays and torturous uncertainty to our long-term living situation.
Visa responsibilities and decisions had knock-on effects we hadn't even thought of when we started. In July 2018 alone, there were the back-to-back shocks of missing my own groomsman's wedding in the USA (during the period of handing over my passport for the new visa), and saying goodbye to my fiance a few days later as she started her new job in London ahead of me.
Yet in this time, there was meant to be another joyous celebration being planned. More like an unyielding deadline upon which hinged the happiest day of our lives.
Bloc Party had been a near-constant presence in my life since Silent Alarm; through phases of adolescence and love, through trends and disappointments. Amidst the storm and stress, I kept limber with a 5-star playlist of their works; easing back into songs worn so deep into the brain it left crosses on my eyes. Silent Alarm got rewired and replayed in its new retrograde form. Always new depths to the devotion.
With alarms of all kinds going off around me, the most silent of them helped give me the peace to accept my reality, but not to let the disruption and despair consume this dream. England, I'm coming for you…in time for an 'I do'.
We Will Wait For You On The Other Side
Just how far into the future the boarding for Britain would end up being left little time to think about spontaneous sorties to neighbouring countries. Touching down in London in late September 2018 set me on a collision course of fresh-off-the-boat start-up admin and wearisome wedding tasks involving big budgets & big emotions.
As much as we wanted 'A Weekend In The City', a move that extravagant so late in the game would be stealing crucial couch-time - or shifting it towards another ball in the high-stakes juggle. The opportunity cost was too great to traipse for two days and nights around the capital of Belgium as a tourist.
So the coordinates were set: we had 24 hours (including sleep) to complete this musical mission. If that's the way it is, then that's the way it is.
Warmed-up from Leeds, Bloc Party began a busy week in some big centres. Starting in Amsterdam, they delivered each night the full Silent Alarm album as promised in a fixed main set. After years of memorising moods and transitions between songs, the reversed running order was a refreshing twist for fans. Kicking off a show with the dreary dirge of 'Compliments' seemed crazy on paper, and I was intrigued as to how this celebration would move along in concert.
Once the set-list switcheroo had received its initial share of debate, superfan attention turned to the first encore: the 'b-side set' (mostly). Okereke had confirmed prior to the tour's beginning that the Silent Alarm era was fair game: this meant 2004's pair of EP's (Bloc Party and Little Thoughts), perhaps the 2005 non-album single 'Two More Years'? Could I be the one to confirm 'The Marshals Are Dead'? 'The Answer' was just jumpy Youtube footage for now.
Having only seen the previous long-time iteration of the band once in 2012 (at the Rocking The Daisies Festival in South Africa), I fell into a category of fans who had yet to experience Bloc Party, Mark II. The divisive Hymns included work from new bassist Justin Harris, but the young Louise Bartle (on drums) had not yet joined the band-in-repair.
Like many old-timers, I had my doubts whether this new setup could do my favourite album of all time justice, so many years and members removed from its explosive genesis. Still, we can go dancing on a Saturday.
Every Half Hour Is A Countdown
International trains: now that's a first.
Zipping through a tunnel under the ocean for 38 kilometres, we popped out in France bright and early on the morning of the gig before continuing on to the Eurostar's final destination in Brussels. Bonjour and au revoir, I guess.
Not so fast. Belgium's bilingual beliefs were well known (French 'n Flemish mes amies), but we were expecting a more 50-50 experience of the language layout, especially in the inclusive capital city of Brussels. Our chosen accommodation was in Ixelles - a suburb in the south-east that happened to be almost exclusively French. Not a single het to be heard.
I have a tendency to crave and follow authenticity whilst on a trip, no matter how much of a trip it is. It has often led me to picture-perfect experiences, or vivid memories that are pleasing to recall. Very rarely has it provided the proverbial 'egg on the face', leaving one being insulted in a foreign language in Seville, Spain as you doggedly avoid the tourist-trap offerings en-route to dinner.
Lightly fuelled by a Pret takeaway granola pot from St Pancras Station back in Britain, I envisioned turning mere exposition into an integral part of the plot. If brunch was the bubbling beer-brook at the end of the rainbow by Ixelles, then the path there could be a broad browse of Brussels. Good thing the suitcases have wheels.
Early morning tiredness or lugging a wheeled box before mid afternoon check-in didn't dampen our enthusiasm for Le Bistro. How could such a high-star TripAdvisor recommendation ever let us down?
Stepping onto my twelfth country's soil ten hours before showtime, I set sights on Grand Place - a nexus to the north of Bruxelles-Midi station whose royal opulence beckoned so as to contend with the fact that it was in the other direction of the Belgian restaurant we had in mind. The route became a circuitous crash course.
Keep On Walking Try To Stay Up
To cross a border line without having to fly - or just really quickly and comfortably - can leave one with an energetic disbelief. A quick cuppa & croissant at Kaffabar and we got our eyes everywhere, soaking in sips of Tintin-fronted comic stores and quirky wall murals up Rue du Midi, enchanted by the Belgian morning breeze (was it the wafts of waffles?)
At Grand Place, we jostled for space in the square outside the main Town Hall, where a wedding of two people of some notability spilled into the public view. Absorbing the ornate architecture with an eye on the clock (in one's pocket) was the expectation going in. However this time "Google says it's a bit further" just meant more chances to capture a cute local craft store, or encounter a statue at street level.
Le Bistro deserved its denotation as the best bringer of Belgian fare. A simple man with simple desire. Moulet en frites (mussels and fries). Souped in a white wine & garlic sauce for the former, and dipped in mayonnaise for the latter. Washed down with the holiest of Trappist monk beer.
This corner cafe had it dripping down the sides of you, with the Porte De Hal - a medieval fortified gate on the old city boundary - just across the road from your kerbside seating. Authenticity achieved, and arms temporarily relieved.
To Be Lost In The Forest
Blessed with sunny autumn air, we continued our truncated tour of the city before nightfall. Whether it was sampling truffles & Belgian chocolate at Neuhaus Chocolatier, or making it three-for-three with sit-down outdoor meals at a grocer off of Square Du Petit Sablon, we moved with ravenous zeal through the zuidelijke straten (southern streets).
Far to the south-west of town lay (the) Forest. The municipality's proud concert hall (Forest National, or Vorst Nationaal, in the local vernacular) was the 8,000-capacity arena where (the) Bloc Party was due to begin. Huddled on a bus that started going further and further from the central city lights, language barriers were lowered when a blonde woman next to us suddenly asked in English "is this bus going to Bloc Party?". Her accent appeared local, but it was hard to tell in the increasingly-crowded vehicle. I was hoping someone would let us know.
Some more English had washed up once inside the arena, this time in the form of actual Londoners on the lash for a weekend abroad instead of fighting for 'Ally Pally' tickets back home (as told by two of them). The planned nature of their venture - how consigned they were to the same route we were thrust - spoke to the discouragement one can feel when going after the same point-of-focus for many of your peers. Nah. Belgian blonde from the source, mate.
New tour t-shirt proudly plastered over existing shirt, I felt ready to make the slow creep to the front past Middle Kids' bubbly opening act. The Sydney trio lapped back through the Forest with a clean, dreamy sound that drew some influences from Russel Lissack's melodic mastery. Also raised by wise older half-brothers, the Kids take much of their emotive moves from Arcade Fire, fashioning freewheeling pop flourishes to the indie roll on 'Edge Of Town' and aiming for an artful alt-anthem with 'Mistakes'. I'll pay for you anytime.
I Caught A Glimpse, But It's Been Forgotten
With spades and truncheons, guns and trowels; that is how the (standing) war will be won.
It had been a while since I'd attended a gig - even of a local cover band - so maybe I'd lost the muscle memory needed to be bracing for a highly sought-after live music moment. Three or four rows from the front, and broad shoulders of a few had blocked our left-stage view. Individuals and couples around us held strong, weathering brushes and bumps from the boisterous. I staked a claim for a strategic spot about two rows out, but could only secure enough space for me alone. My fiancé camped behind to the right, within touching distance. We're going to win this.
The bleak snow backdrop of the album cover brightened with smoky shards of light, as Bloc Party took to the stage. Older, blonder, occasionally surer, the remodelled line-up took the 'Compliments' to heart, and brought out the laconic opener-also-a-closer to build anticipation.
One forgets just how fast and uptempo the opening salvo of songs on Silent Alarm are together. Like a British indie rock Joshua Tree: all anthemic all killer. But tonight we whipcrack speed jump; we will run backwards through the Alarm to the first bell, bounding through 'Plans', leaving the weak, leaving the young for 'Luno''s buzz-soaked blur. 'So Here We Are' provided the first goosebumps-inducing memory, as the band locked in for the kaleidoscopic bridge; Bartle on her feet still continuing the beat.
I Made A Vow, To Carry You Home
By this point, Bloc Party had been emboldened, if not befuddled by the obvious joy the crowd were showing for their brilliant beginnings. Pulses prickled during the proclamations of 'Pioneers' before things got rather celebratory in the final minute of 'This Modern Love'. Confetti cannons fired into the crowd for a thrilling finish to a dialogue of detachment amidst desire.
Okereke had an eye beyond the 'Banquet' of crowd-pleasers. The b-side set emerged as two encores; the first heralding an unbelievable combination of would-be kings such as 'Two More Years', 'Little Thoughts', and an elusive live rarity 'The Marshals Are Dead' (only the second time since 2009).
From a body language point-of-view, it was jarring to see 'The Love Within' the lead singer, as his energy spiked during the latter-day divergence. Grooving guitarlessly, Okereke jogged memories forward with 2012's minimalist murmur 'Octopus' and the love-it-or-hate-it Marmite moment from Hymns.
No matter which Bloc Party brotherhood you bleed for, all can say with confidence that the 2007 non-album single 'Flux' is an agreement line for the armistice; a bridge between fans of the first two albums and the hit-or-miss experimental wanderings of future output. The dancefloor-filler with a rocky core brought the drunks and determined together, and all we found were more fists and confetti in the air. Lights up, look down; we're swimming in paper pieces.
"What are you doing?"
"How much space is there in your handbag?"
"We're using this at our wedding."
Whilst happy-drunk fans around us tossed piles of small white paper up in the air, we were the crazy couple stuffing as much of it as we could into our pockets and bags like squirrels for the winter.
This confetti collection travelled back with us to London the following morning, finding its way into my suitcase along with a few special Christmas beers and a giant Duvel beer flag, all procured in the final moments before hopping into a Bruxelles Midi-bound taxi. I even managed a beer tasting and Belgian waffle over breakfast to close off our short city break, still leaving us hungry for future (hopefully less frenzied) visits.
Then the confetti caught a flight all the way to Cape Town, and eventually our wedding venue in the Cape winelands. Thousands of kilometres spent carrying a plastic packet full of seemingly-insignificant paper pieces.
Cue meeting with the decor lady just before match-day, where we sheepishly made a rather specific request.
Two days later: mission accomplished. We got the decor sorted in time.