Review: Four decades after he first topped the charts this rock star is on the road with a solo tour that looks set to live up to its Utopian tag

There is something quite special about being in the audience at one of Ian McNabb's gigs.

By Sue Plunkett
Monday, 2nd May 2022, 6:36 pm

He has a loyal army of fans who know every line of every song he sings.. and there are a lot of songs in his solo Utopian tour set, around 25 I think. Ian has them in the palm of his hand and one fan I spoke to was quite overwhelmed to be seeing the man he has followed for four decades.

"He has made an old man feel very happy," he told me.

A music industry veteran, it is almost 40 years since the launch of his first album and 2019 marked the 25th anniversary of Ian McNabb's mercury prize nominated solo album Head Like A Rock.

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Singer Ian McNabb on stage at the Waterloo Music Bar in Blackpool

Ian has fronted his band, The Icicle Works, since 1981 and he could never have imagined that 40 years later he would still be on stage singing the same songs. And while I have to admit the 80s is my era I was more of a Wham fan as cheesy pop was my thing back then.

It was seeing Marc Bolan, the iconic pop star of the 70s, on Top of the Pops that inspired Ian to pick up a guitar at the age of 11.

He joined his first band, Young World, at the age of 15 and they played the working men’s club circuit for a couple of years before Ian joined another band City Lights. This band again gigged extensively around the North of England cabaret circuit, but Ian grew tired of playing other people's songs and decided it was time to start writing and performing his own material.

But, inspired by the success of other bands in 1981 Ian, who lists his other musical influences as The Who, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, formed The Icicle Works with Chris Sharrock (drums), and Chris Layhe (bass and vocals).

Reporter Sue Plunkett with singer Ian McNabb

The Icicle Works became part of the Liverpool renaissance movement of the eighties, alongside acts such as Echo And The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, WAH!, Heat, OMD, Black, Dead Or Alive, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, The Lotus Eaters, and China Crisis.

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They signed to Beggar’s Banquet records and scored a top 20 hit with Love Is A Wonderful Colour in the UK and top 40 placings in the U.S, Canada, and Europe with 1984 hit Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream), with their eponymous debut album. Birds Fly had a new lease of life and won a new generation of fans when it featured in the Netflix smash hit series 'Stranger Things.'

The Icicle Works achieved top 40 placings in the UK for all four of their albums - The Icicle Works, The Small Price Of A Bicycle, If You Want To Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Songs, and Blind.

In addition to fronting The Icicle Works, Ian has enjoyed an incredible solo career, performing with artists such as Ringo Starr, Neil Young / Crazy Horse, and Mike Scott of The Waterboys.

I first interviewed Ian back in 2019 when he told me one of his main reasons for joining a band was to try and escape the dole queue in his native Liverpool.

Last Friday was the first time I have seen Ian perform live and the intimate setting of Blackpool's Waterloo Music Bar was perfect. Packed with vintage music memorabilia, posters and paintings it is one of the UK’s fastest growing independent music venues and lives up to its logo ‘small venue, massive attitude.’

We arrived just before the show started to see the stage set with three guitars, including a 12 string, a keyboard and harmonica stand so I naturally assumed Ian had backing musicians. Wrong.

He played every instrument himself as he ploughed his way through two sets, the first an hour and 10 minutes and the second an hour and 15. Ian has a powerful, commanding voice and, at the risk of sounding old, you can actually hear every lyric.

He sings with the passion of man who has lived life to the full and he can make you laugh and cry within moments with songs of lost hopes, dreams and loves. Each song is like a mini masterpiece, a story in its own right with Ian McNabb as the story teller.

Ian McNabb looks like a rock star and sings like one. But he certainly doesn't act like one.

He was ready to meet the fans moments after the show ended, happy to pose for photos and chat. And, although he has merchandise on sale like all artists, the prices are not extortionate. £20 for an autographed sweatshirt was well worth it.

The one thing that marred the gig was the incessant chatter and high pitched laughter of a group of people in the venue, which is more of a pub setting. They obviously weren’t there for the gig so why spoil it for others? There were plenty of other drinking establishments within walking distance they could have gone to. Their attitude showed a real lack of respect for the artist and also the audience.

Until the recent death of his much loved mum, Ian acted as her full-time carer, regaling his fans with tales of her quirky sayings and comments on everything, from her hilarious verdicts to the acts on the Brit Awards to how she firmly believed that her son was a much better singer than Noel Gallagher!

I concur Mrs McNabb.

The Utopian tour runs until September at a variety of UK venues. For tickets and info go to ianmcnabb.com