I’d hazard a guess that there’s not many bands that can headline a venue the size of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire where you’d find band members in the neighbouring pubs before the show happy to chat and have selfies taken with their fans. Then again Cock Sparrer are not just any ole headline band, and as frontman Colin McFaull is quick to point out towards the end of their headline set here tonight “without you the fans we really wouldn’t be doing what we are doing right now”, so they appreciate our support, a hell of a lot. Especially as this, the first gig in support of the release of their latest album ‘Hand On Heart’, has also just happened to coincide with the latest round of rail strikes here in the UK.

For yours truly this means around 7 hours in total on a coach travelling up and back from south Wales for the gig, but that’s nothing compared to the time and money invested in today by those who have travelled from not only other parts of the UK but also Europe and the US, all eager to once again see everyone’s favourite Oi! streetpunk band performing live, and with this aim in common when we all do finally get together we are just like one big happy family.

Having been lucky enough to secure tickets for one of the fiftieth anniversary shows the band put together at The Roundhouse a couple of years back, I’ll admit that I really enjoyed the format of that gig with the band playing two sets instead of having a support act, and here tonight that is repeated, albeit here the first set is a mash up of deep cuts and new tracks and the second being the regular “hits(?)” package. What is really odd though is when the band (once again complete with the Cockettes – James Bragg on guitar and backing vocals and Jet Baker on keyboards and backing vocals) do take to the stage a little after 8pm tonight it’s almost like they are the support band as the crowd is not only initially quite sparse (keep this in mind for what is to follow) down the front but oddly a little subdued when the intro tape of ‘Last Orders’ blasts out of the PA segueing neatly into ‘Sunday Stripper’, a track I don’t think I’ve heard the band play live since the back to back Kentish Town Forum shows all the way back in March 2010. It’s the new songs I’ve been really looking forward to hearing live for the first time though and ‘With My Hand On My Heart’ quickly follows along with ‘Mind Your Own Business’ the opening 1-2 from the ‘Hand On Heart’ album and these two start to warm those of us down the front up very nicely indeed. Of the older tunes included ‘Roads To Freedom’ from the ‘Guilty As Charged’ album gets its live debut, whilst (possibly the only Oi! song to ever be written about Potsdam) ‘Bats Out’ from ‘Two Monkeys’ makes a welcome return after featuring in the Roundhouse set, and then there’s ‘Shock Troops’ deep cut ‘Secret Army’ and ‘Contender’ from 2018’s ‘Forever’ to prove there’s much more to those records than what is about to follow in the next hour. As for the rest of ‘Hand On Heart’ (which is out to buy right now folks, something Colin and guitarist Daryl Smith remind us many times over tonight – and why not) we also get ‘I Belong To You’, ‘Take It On The Chin’ (written with the mighty Spunk Volcano no less) and ‘Here We Stand’ before we return to ‘Guilty As Charged’ for first set closer ‘We Know How To Live’, a song that bassist Steve Burgess apparently wrote as the band’s answer to the Minder theme tune. Well, you live and learn, eh?

As the band heads off for some cheese sandwiches and a small Jack Daniels between sets we are left to partake of our own ablutions and libations, only we would do if we could actually get anywhere near the toilets and bars, as the stalls are now totally rammed. Dangerously so in the case of the stairs leading to the toilets, thankfully though in spite of the skinhead tough guy image egos really are checked in at the door when you go see Cock Sparrer and even when a mate of mine accidentally spills a bloke’s pint bashing into him it’s all okay and hands are shaken with nothing further to be said.

With this in mind, trying to return to our original vantage spot in time for set two is never going to be on the cards, but we are close enough to experience the energy surge as the ‘Overture’ intro tape goes up and the cooling alcoholic rain that falls during the nee-naw, nee-naw guitar intro of ‘Riot Squad’ is actually quite refreshing. Let’s just be thankful it’s not warm, especially given the toilet situation.

Set mainstays ‘Watch Your Back’ and ‘Working’ follow and these raise the temperature even higher, whilst it’s during a frantic ‘Teenage Heart’ that my fifty-something heart decides to play silly buggers with me, and this Droog does indeed have to run, all the way to the medical room for some much-needed fresh air. I have to say the stewards and medical team at the Empire were both superb in responding to my heart issues, and thankfully as I now know what I’m dealing with I only need to take a brief (7-song) sabbatical from the Sparrer party fully raging just a few feet away. My only hope is that the American lady who was entering the room as I was leaving was okay too as she didn’t seem in a good place at all.  

Relocating to the balcony just in time for ‘Because You’re Young’ (oh the irony eh) the first thing  I note is that guitarist Mick Beaufoy is now sitting down whilst playing (apparently he’s not been too well either) and behind the kit Steve Bruce whilst still hammering away like a piston engine has rather sensibly slowed the tempo down a touch for the finale of ‘England Belongs To Me’ and ‘We’re Coming Back’ to not only reflect the fact that the band aren’t exactly spring chickens anymore…but also that they have another double set show to play in Glasgow in a just a few days’ time.

 I said at the top of this review that there are not many bands like Cock Sparrer, and that’s why with ‘Hand On Heart’ in the shops and a series of live shows booked throughout the year to help promote the record we should truly value the time we have with the band more now than ever. That’s because hand on my (dodgy) heart punk rock music doesn’t get much better than this.  Long may it continue.

Author: Johnny Hayward

Buy the new album ‘Hand On Heart’ Here