UK Forest Tour.
A complete audience recording circulates on the This is Hardwood bootleg CD.
If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise. Pulp, the most urban of pop groups, are doing a series of weekend shows in Britain's forests. Instead of woodchip on the wall, which they sang about in Common People, there is woodchip on the floor of the bar tent. These may be the only gigs ever at which you can buy an azalea.
Music can be wonderful in a woodland setting but there needs to be some mystery and romance, some hint of what woods represent in fairy tales. Bedgebury Pinetum, billed as the finest collection of conifers in the world, places the stage on a rather ordinary lawn. Even the towniest Pulp fan is left pining for something more rustic.
A further problem is the light. The fact that this place is greener than most rock venues does not make it any less grey. The show unfolds under a blanket of wan English twilight which refuses to disappear until the second encore. There is a time for playing outdoors, and it is August and September.
It's a shame because the curiosity value draws a broad crowd, including babes in arms and kids on shoulders, and Pulp are on form. Jarvis Cocker, in bare feet and mud-brown flares, is impassioned during the songs and debonair in between. When an origami bird lands on stage, he serenades it with I Believe I Can Fly.
An urban realist let loose in the Garden of England, Cocker injects extra feeling into his tales of love, loss and leisure centres. He conjures up menace for This Is Hardcore, sultry sexuality for My Legendary Girlfriend and a nice hint of derangement for Common People. But this still wasn't the trip it should have been.
Jarvis Cocker, his graceful fingers pushing his fringe out of his eyes, is discussing a sartorial challenge. "I can't get my shirt to tuck in," he frets. "I've not worn it before. Bad choice. Too stiff." The same could be said about Pulp's decision to play in this visually stunning but atmosphere-free part of Kent. With its souvenir shop and lovingly cared-for greenery, Bedgebury inspires a respectful tranquillity in the air and a muted detachment on stage. Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll remain strictly lyrical affairs.
Pulp have been around so long, dissecting kitchen-sink dramas with nagging keyboard rhythms and disco basslines, that their charisma, once founded on their basis as perpetual outsiders, now lies in their secure place in the pop establishment. Cocker is so integrated into public consciousness that the audience are here as much for the monologues as the music.
And he doesn't disappoint. During the claustrophobic and desperate Feeling Called Love, Cocker prowls the stage, snatching at the air and throwing himself into a spin like a cat tormented by an invisible ball of string. Then he thinks for a moment. "I dedicate that one to my wife-to-be, because she hates it," he announces. "Put that on after the first dance and it'll be the shortest marriage in history."
Cocker's wry humour is intrinsic to Pulp, but tonight, despite a short burst of R Kelly's I Believe I Can Fly (sung to a wooden bird), the mood is one of reflection rather than joy. The latest album, We Love Life, uses nature as a metaphor for the mundane, and although the new material ripples and sparkles, it never leaves the ground. Sunrise is slight until a heady rush of beats kick-starts your heart. Cocker jumps around the stage like an overexcited kid at his first school disco. Although he dances with abandon, his face remains poker-straight.
This Is Hardcore is majestic and Help the Aged tender, but both maintain the downbeat mood. Even Sorted for E's and Wizz sounds less like a celebration of misguided decadence than a weary government health warning to Just Say No.
But when Pulp lighten the mood, they're fantastic. A surprise rendition of their 1989 single My Legendary Girlfriend is revelatory, Cocker's low whisper and tiny gasps are sexy against the rhythm. Joyriders is a menacing singalong. But Pulp prefer to play with rather than on nostalgia: when they turn Common People into something from Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, they take their albatross and wring it by its neck. If only they had had this much fun earlier.