A receptive and attentive audience, crammed into a suitably packed pub on the outskirts of Nottingham city centre witnessed a razor-sharp 999 performance on a memorable Tuesday night back in February. As the long-time pub rock venue The Running Horse filled up with eager punk punters, sterling support was provided by Nottingham's own newcomers Pointy Boss, who were followed by seasoned Lincoln-based tribute band The Ex Pistols.
Then it was time for the grinning, and unmistakable, figure of Nick Cash to take centre stage, strap on his guitar, and for 999 to blast straight into the now classic opening number - from the superb 1993 CD You, Us, It! - "Black Flowers for the Bride". On the cramped stage at The Runner there's precious little room to play with, but - sporting a shiny new bonehead cut - Mr Cash delivered his trademark arm-waving, belly-dancing, mike-twirling routines like a man with a mission. Hidden behind him, Pablo, his face locked in a grimace that carries him through each and every song, hammered the snare and powered out the rolls looking as if his very life depended on it. Meantime, the mighty Arthur boomed out bass run after bass run, his fingers flying around the fret board as if nothing could be easier. Guy Days - a hugely under-rated lead guitarist - served up the riffs and soared through the lead breaks with the same confident relish with which he belted out the lead vocals on Takeover's "Really Like You", delivered, as usual, with eyes clamped tight shut.
Down the front it's lively but friendly enough, and there's plenty of chances to share singing duties during the choruses. This reviewer was propelled into the front row by the seductive opening chords of "Me and My Desire", a stunner of a single, but a song that I haven't heard the band knock out live in many a long year. Nick seems genuinely surprised that the front few rows seem to know the lyrics to all their songs word-for-word - but having got used to the idea that we're reliable like that, he trusts us to sing the odd verse down his mike from that point on as well. The numbers tumble thick and fast after that, album track and show stopping single alike, as the band pause only to towel off the sweat and get ready for the next song cue flagged up in Nick's familiar patter. Radio One favourite "Little Red Riding Hood"; the power-driving "Emergency; the crowd-pleasing "Feeling Alright with the Crew"; and — of course — the twin classics "Homicide" and the throat-ripping "Nasty Nasty", are all on offer.
This is brilliant, fantastic, classic 999, served up with gusto, commitment and just that right hint of self-mockery at behaving like this 'at their age'. Determined to honour the crowd with a sweaty, shout-a-long encore, complete with an electrifying version of "I'm Alive", the band finally call it a night. Thanking the audience for their support, 999 don't disappear off back-stage. They're out mingling down the front - hawking T-Shirts, badges and CDs; trading war stories with the fans, and propping up the bar.
Gigging in smaller venues like this these days, and - I'm sure - making next to no money in the process, 999 are out there doing this for the simple reason that it matters to them and to the audiences that turn out to see them. What more could you possibly ask for?
The only suggestion I could make, is that 999 take a risk and trust their loyal audience enough to vary their set more often. They could offer up different numbers from the band's 24 year long career. I can understand why, on today's live punk circuit, they might not want to revisit much stuff from their "poppier" period, captured on 1980s albums like Thirteenth Floor Madness and Face to Face, good though much of it is. But they could make their live set more surprising and unpredictable and still retain its power if they drew from a wider pool of numbers - and not just from the first two albums, but from the most recent two CDs as well.
I'd love to hear them rip into songs like "Tulse Hill Night" from Separates, or "Trouble", from The Biggest Prize in Sport, (or "Lie, Lie, Lie", the B-side from the "Trouble" 45rpm), or "All of the Days" from You, Us It!, or "Damp with Tears" from Takeover, or any of a whole host of others. There's no question that these would make for killer live numbers, and add to, not detract, from the band's live appeal.
Not that there's anything that I'd want them to drop permanently. I suppose, in the end, I just want to hear more 999. And - judging by tonight's blistering performance - you can hardly blame me.
Words: Rich, Pointy