Thursday, 24 March 2016

Simple Plan - Happy-Go-Lucky Bubblegum Punks Possess Hidden Musical Depths - O2 Ritz Manchester, Manchester, 23.03.16

“Are you guys ready to party?” Simple Plan frontman Pierre Bouvier shouts at the crowd squeezed into Manchester’s O2 Ritz. Mainly consisting of flame-orange and neon-blue haired women in their early twenties, they scream back incoherently at the French-Canadian’s question. He grins and follows it up with a second query. “Are you ready to jump?” he asks, before the band behind him bounce into the deceptively ebullient suicide cry Jump, a song that goes as far as to lift its title from a Van Halen song that covers the exact same subject manner.

On the nose, definitely, but Simple Plan were never exactly renown for musical or lyrical subtlety. In their line of work, the heart-on-sleeve approach is the default setting; big, chunky riffs revolving around a collection of four chords and stories that probe the general teenage mindset; broken hearts, individualism, outsider status, the unfairness of life, of losers and freaks. It’s a tried-and-tested format, steeped in rock cliché before bubblegum punk took it as a template. Veterans of the scene, they are in Manchester touring behind their fifth record Taking One for the Team. On a stage decked out with senior-prom banners and white amps, they look comfortably at home, in this facsimile of American teenage fantasy; it weirdly suits them, and the eighty-five minute set of power-pop-emo they subsequently roll out.
Simple Plan performing live in 2016. (Courtesy of
On the surface, it’s all a bit too familiar. Handclap drum beats, softer verses, anthemic choruses, on-stage jutting; they rattle through the textbook of pop punk tropes at an alarming speed. There’s the obligatory sex joke about old people. Bouvier introduces half the songs by dropping their titles into contrived anecdotes. Bassist David Desrosiers and guitarist Sebastian Lefebvre even trade instruments during one song. Unoriginal stage patter? Most certainly. But what elevates Simple Plan above their contemporaries in performance is the fact that they are a buoyantly joyous live force who possess hidden depths.

Their opening salvo of the surging pop-rock cut Jet Lag, the aforementioned Jump and old school throwback I’d Do Anything is a kinetic blast that sets the tone and pace for the rest of the evening, all three built upon drummer Chuck Comeau’s dynamic speed and sly fills. Seminal emo-pop anthem Welcome to My Life sees Derosiers delay his bass marginally, producing a neat John McVie-esque tick to the melody. A brief cover of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk allows lead guitarist Jeff Stinco to layer dirty chicken-scratch over the rhythm section in lizard-like fashion. The high point is the calypso-tinged Summer Paradise, the song furthest from their typical sound, all Hawaiian tones and reggae-edged hooks as the band boot inflatable beach balls into the crowd. Lyrically it’s much of the same; but they resonate strongly regardless. The band speak to-the-point on universal themes and never stray into puerile topic territory. Simple Plan understand and sympathise, but wrap it in three minutes of exuberant pop rock each time. It’s catharsis in its base form and highly effective fun.
Pierre Bouvier of Simple Plan, live in
2016. (Courtesy of
Bouvier takes a few songs to ease into the show, but is vocally superb from the off. He defiantly encourages rebellion with a playful wink on The Rest of Us and sears through Crazy with an emotional intensity that prickles gooseflesh. He goes one better in the encore, invoking lighters for blunt-but-effective ballad This Song Saved My Life and leads off encore closer Perfect with an acoustic guitar. “There’s only one reason a band like us can still be around after fifteen years,” he speaks earnestly near the end. “And that’s you.” It may be a well-worn gesture to make; but in doing so, Bouvier brings himself that bit closer to his fans in acknowledging their everyday struggles.

That is perhaps the key to Simple Plan. Critics may snort and deride them, and pop punk, as an out-of-time musical fad that trades in cliché four-chords and lyrical trivialities – but they’re obviously not in touch with their younger side and thereby missing the point. Simple Plan speak to teenage generations in a timeless, accessible fashion; they connect with the “losers” and “freaks” and understand them, yet still have fun. There are no losers here; for a moment, everyone is a winner, and that’s something to celebrate.