Monday, February 13, 2012


Shacklewell Arms, 10feb12

With the failed prototype Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong consigned to the under-stairs cupboard, three of their members (Jing, Jang AND Jong one assumes) have turned up in the latest red hot proposition to dangle itself in front of the eager ears and eyeballs of London’s zeitgeist surfers.

Being a free in, those without tickets are told to gather for potential scraps and morsels in case of holder’s not making an appearance and thus the bar is a jostlefest, the corridor to the backroom like a department store entrance on Boxing Day morning, and the live room, once open, sucks in its stomach to allow for the capacity rules to be bent like a gymnast’s spine.

As Toy hit the stage, the doors cease to flap, the crowd congeal like toes in the pit of a size-too-small slipper amp blows, to the clear agony of frontman Tom Dougall who sighs “everything’s broken” like a man who should be wrapped head-to-toe in bandages rather than a black polo-neck. Happily a replacement is pushed through the forced frottage and the gig kicks off as if nothing troublesome has happened.

If anything the interest in being part of this crowd does not translate into heady atmosphere, but this might be partly down to Toy having that vaguely detached, ice-cool thing going on (although no-one seems to have told keyboardist Alejandra Diez, who beams like an airline host throughout).

Not that the gig is without oomph. At their best, crashing around with elongated kosmische codas with seemingly effortless gusto, they are much more than pilot fish swimming in the safety of The Horror’s shark-like slipstream. However, some songs have a tendency to simper, and at these moments, they are much less.

Their biggest challenge will be to escape the shadow of their Horroring advocates, given the similar waters and direction in which they travel. To my mind though Left Myself Behind knocks anything I’ve heard by them ‘Orrors into a cocked hat, and an increase in the motorik muscle-psych approach would drive things forward in a much more arresting manner.

Taken from the Vanity Project fanzine site

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

2011: 25 gig salute

An appraisal of the highlights of a year's gigging by this correspondent can now be found at the Vanity Project site.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

CD Review: FAC. DANCE: Factory Records 12" Mixes & Rarities 1980-1987

Those forking out huge amounts of money to see The Stone Roses’ reunion shows this Summer might be surprised to learn how unfashionable indie music was in certain quarters during the Eighties. While admitting to a liking for The Chesterfields of The Brilliant Corners was never something to be entered into lightly, even a penchant for the decade’s big hitters was often sneered at – The Smiths, Bunnymen and company were ‘white boy indie’, music for bedroom dwellers (as opposed to Alan McGhee’s later bedwetters) and often played out to sparse audiences.

This was never more the case than in Manchester itself. While the Roses and Mondays have been afforded retrospective credit for firing up The Hacienda, the boom that nonetheless failed to save such a poorly run concern was largely the result of Music of Black Origin – achingly trendy nights like Nude and Hot brought acid house and funk to the masses while Thursday’s Temperance night was a poor third in the hipster canon.

Given that Joy Division were already abandoning the post punk template on tracks such as Isolation, their successor band’s swift embracing of dance music should have come as no surprise. Sure, it was always leavened with a dose of guitar – not least from Mr. Hook himself, but interviews with the foursome have always seen them quick to distance themselves from their indie roots.

As the primary act on a label whose other main assets, A Certain Ratio and the Mondays also owed little to Swell Maps or the Buzzcocks, New Order’s influence in Factory was profound. As a unquestioning fan of the brand, I was quick to lap up anything to do with it – the rectangular cassette boxes drew me in and I was soon investigating every obscure act the label could produce.

Pre-internet, this was always difficult – so the release of a double album of early Factory rarities brought back a few memories. It’s not one for completists – the accent is largely on dance music (Stockholm Monsters do not appear) and all the songs are twelve inches . Also, neither New Order nor the Ratio feature – one suspects more box sets could be in the offing.

The result is a fascinating breakdown of the influences on early Factory from a host of acts which, given they nearly all hailed from the one city, represent a robust musical scene. An array of former punks, purveyors of industrial experimentation and other assorted council house kids and scenesters make up the dramatis personae and if the music seems raw in comparison to post-1987 house and techno, it’s a good overview of how England came to be influenced by the sounds of Detroit, Chicago and New York, while applying its own rain addled spin on things of course.

Several tracks are straight up commercial – Shark Vegas’s Pretenders of Love sees a soul diva wailing over a vaguely New Orderish beat but isn’t that far away from Go West territory, and three tracks from 52nd Street nod vigorously towards The Big Apple. John ‘Jelly Bean Benitez’ remixes the version of Cool as Ice herewith included and Diane Charlemagne (later to provide vocals on Goldie’s Inner City Life) lends vocals to a track that Paul Morley announced as NME Single of the Week on its release.

There are anomalies – The Durutti’s Column’s plaintive fretwork is out of place in a dance compliation, good as it is – but many of the oddities provoke respect at the breadth of the Factory roster – from the Trojan records style dub reggae of X-O-Dus to Blurt’s Beefheartian work-out on Puppeteer; from twelve minutes of minimalist clubby beats on The Hood’s Salvation to Swamp Children’s warbling that recalls a range of acts including The Beatles of Revolution Number 9 and The Slits.

Most rewarding ultimately though are Section 25 – especially on their album opener, Looking from a Hilltop and the curious Royal Family and the Poor, a front for the projections of just one man in Mike Keane and critically berated at the time. John Cooper Clarke lends vocals of a seriously situationist bent to Art on 45 and Motherland contains a breathless vocal croon over low key but luscious synths.

So, it’s a real pot pourri and naivete is very much to the fore – angular skinny white kids attempting to conjure up the spirit of The Paradise Garage while remaining in thrall to Throbbing Gristle doesn’t sound like a great combination, but it largely works and just about every track stands up as a historical timepiece. Congratulations to Strut Records for making it all available.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Film Review: Anyone Can Play Guitar

What constitutes a scene? If Madchester and Merseybeat were defined by a restricted time period, the argument put forward by the makers of Anyone Can Play Guitar that Oxford had an identifiable flowering of talent – enough to define a city – seems unconvincing. A tradition maybe – after all, the bands that made up this grouping operated over a good ten to fifteen year period. Nonetheless, as a Berkshire boy trained to be suspicious of anything from the shadow of the dreaming spires (Joey Beauchamp included) , I was a little cynical on pressing ‘play’ – this despite having recently moved to the city and been talked into purchasing a copy of the DVD by the salesman at the marvellous Truck Store.

Add to that the paucity of the goods on offer. Radiohead? OK – genuinely good. Ride? Decent also – the commercial end of shoegaze they may have been and not a patch on My Bloody Valentine, but in retrospect a clear link between C86 and Britpop with some rattling good wig outs. Talulah Gosh? Vilified at the time for overdoing the tweeness – I liked them but then again I was a saddo. Supergrass? A sugar rush of singles but ultimately a trifle cartoonish. Foals? A ‘haircut band’ as Pitchfork would sniffily define them. As for the others - the acts that form the lion’s share of this documentary – the Candyskins, Swervedriver, The Unbelievable Truth, Rock of Travolta and some band called Dustball whom we were led to believe could have altered the whole course of musical history – footnotes surely.

But the brave attempt to start a record label in Shifty Disco, the establishment of the Zodiac as a premier live venue and club and those mainstays The Wheatsheaf and Jericho Tavern playing the Eric’s/Boardwalk role all provided a focus for Christminster’s disparate musicians to huddle around, and the thesis gradually becomes more convincing as the film continues, lugubriously narrated by Stewart Lee and starring a bevy of talking heads.

The result is a satisfying exploration of twenty years of indie music – a microcosm of the world at large with all the musical styles represented. Ed O’Brien represents Radiohead and there are engaging interviews with Mark Gardener of Ride and Gaz Coombes of the ‘Grass, as well as the movers and shakers from Shifty Disco itself. Sure, there’s no Thom Yorke but the movie ends up navigating the shark infested waters of copyright law rather well – Radiohead’s choicest cuts were presumably too expensive but other classics are present and correct. Fascinating too is the portrait of an eighties and nineties Oxford of a more down at heel tinge – not at the doorstep of the Bodleian I’ll grant you, but along the now suffocatingly gentrified Walton Street in particular.

But even more fascinating are the extra on the DVD with Andy Bell talking regretfully of his decision to allow The Sun to use Hurricane No. 1’s music and Mark Gardener trying to conceal his financial jealousy at his mate ending up in Oasis. Then, the Young Knives are wheeled out for a eye poppingly embarrassing interview – having initially refused to take part in the piece, they had a change of heart and treat us to half an hour of explaining why they are an Ashby-de-la-Zouch band as well as bemoaning the fact that their countryside homes disallowed them from properly exploring the Oxford nightlife – Keith Moon probably wouldn’t have let that stop him.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Magic moments

The Magic Band.
London Scala. 30nov11.
Dublin Button Factory. 02dec11.
Nottingham Rescue Rooms. 07dec11.
Leeds Irish Centre. 08dec11.

What sells the Magic Band as being something more than merely a Captain Beefheart tribute act is the fact that they contain some genuine ‘originals’, people who recorded and played out Don Van Vliet’s music with the man himself at the helm.

The stories around the recording of their most celebrated LP, Trout Mask Replica, where the band were essentially contained within a house under Van Vliet’s sometimes brutal dictatorship for nine months until the complicated sounds were tightly perfected, are sometimes exaggerated, but not by much. Two of the soldiers that went through those productive, but harrowing, POW-like experiences are represented here in the form of bassist Mark Boston (named ‘Rockette Morton’ by Van Vliet) and drummer John French (aka ‘Drumbo’).

With Van Vliet not only retired from the music business since 1982, but also departing this mortal coil in December of last year, you have a team without their captain, but with French as the most ‘loyal’ Magic Band member (in terms of albums recorded and tours undertaken, and the man often charged with turning Van Vliet’s unorthodox creativity into a readable musical ‘score’), it is appropriate that he should fill those big shoes.

Thankfully, French is an excellent blues singer in his own right, taking his cue from Van Vliet in much the same way as Van Vliet did from Howlin’ Wolf. Whilst he hasn’t got quite the same range, the growl is as hearty as you need to capture the essence of what watching Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band live must have been all about.

I was four years old when Beefheart retired and as such relish any opportunity to witness what is as close to the real thing as you could get. Okay so previous ‘Magic Band’ tours have seen a full complement of former colleagues in the Beefheart line-ups (Gary Lucas and Robert Williams no longer being involved), and are now augmented by drummer Craig Bunch and guitarist Erik Klerks, the latter of which was just one when the last Beefheart album was released, but with French, Boston and Denny ‘Feelers Rebo’ Whalley still in place, ‘experienced’ hands still remain on the tiller.

John French reported two years ago that there would be no further Magic Band tours as it was just too complicated to generate sufficient interest from promoters. However, a calling to play at another All Tomorrow’s Parties event has meant a return to touring action. However, with the prospect that the curtain may come down again at any point, I was determined to make the most of this seven date tour, arranging to attend four.

One thing you notice when witnessing the same set four times in eight days is that the highlights will not always be the same. In London, When It Blows It Stacks was of most significance as it marked the point the band settled into their rhythm. Prior to that, for the first twenty minutes, they looked very much like a band who hadn’t played on stage together for a good couple of years, and were undergoing some first night nerves. After that hurdle was overcome however, we were treated to nigh on a further two hours of Beefheart music played beautifully.

The roar after Big Eyed Beans From Venus closed the set, well after curfew, was testament to the excitement with which this return to the stage was being met. Naughty boys that they are though, as French attempted to meet the demands for an encore with an un-set-listed version of the a capella piece Orange Claw Hammer, the plug was pulled on the amplification. Does what is essentially a spoken word piece actually count as breaking the terms of the live music license?

It was over to Ireland for the second date of the tour, and here Clear Spot was raising its head above the parapet, whilst it was also becoming clear that while the start of the set was now coming out with requisite confidence, Steal Softly Through Snow might not be the most effective set opener, even if it does set up some of the more intricate playing that we can come to expect later on.

Whilst tunes like Click Clack are in the set for fans of the bluesier end of the material (French: “they say you’re not a blues band unless you got a train song”), there is also Hair Pie and Smithsonian Institute Blues for those keener on the jagged psychedelia side. Midway through the set, during a winding coda to Kandy Korn, French takes over the drum-stool for an instrumental set. Rather than being half an hour for the musos, for me this is one of the most exciting parts. After all, if you’ve paid, partly, to see ‘Drumbo’, Captain Beefheart’s ‘senior’ drummer, you want to see him, well, drum. In the midst of this is a solo which might be viewed as indulgent but actually fits perfectly between On Tomorrow and Alice In Blunderland. French’s drum stool slot ends with My Human Gets Me Blues which in combination with the subsequent Suction Prints would probably be my favourite part of the set, taken over all four nights. Two pieces which fly off in odd directions and go atonal to a certain degree and yet make the feet twitch. Who says you can’t dance to Beefheart? This is the finest dance music ever made.

In Nottingham, the band added Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning to the set to pay tribute to Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who had died earlier that week; their anecdotes about meeting him touchingly showing that, at heart, they were as much giddy fanboys as those of us turned out to watch them.

On the final night of the tour, in Leeds, French admitted to pulling on the glottal reserves after a heavy personal workload on stage over the course of the jaunt, but the on stage energy did not lapse. Taking place in a working mens club style venue with Christmas decorations obliterating the ceiling, and festive trees upon the stage, the atmosphere took on an added sense of celebration. Here, Nowadays A Woman’s Gotta Hit A Man took on highlight duties, possibly helped by the fact that more ladies were evidence in the audience, and indeed down the front in Drumbo’s eyeline, than at any other show.

Further quality moments were ones we’ve come to expect from a Magic Band set: Floppy Boot Stomp heaving into view like a Fiat Punto through a front room window; Circumstances taking cheeky liberties with two false endings but also taking no prisoners with the force of the inhale/exhale harmonica; Electricity which isn’t hurried, allowed to ebb and pulse tantrically, elongated as though it is suddenly a new age club anthem, and finally Big Eyed Beans From Venus where Denny Whalley’s lunar note floats with a similar sense of forthcoming ‘release’.

So, was it worth seeing them so often in the space of just over a week? Without doubt, as Beefheartian sounds are always ones which reward repeated listening, and the Magic Band perform that material with a real gusto, making it come alive in a way that records can only suggest.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Let's have a party? Go on then

Wanda Jackson.
Kings Cross Scala. 07nov11.

“I’m ready to rock. I know you are” purrs rockabilly grande dame Wanda Jackson as she glides on in a tassled jacket of eye-gouging pink and beneath a suspiciously jet-black bouffant. In her field of vision as she surveys her crowd are younger ladies with a vintage fashion fetish; psychobilly thirty-somethings looking for an insight into the gentler beginnings of their favoured fare; senior girls (around our star turn’s age bracket) in leather jackets and heavy eyeliner; and old lads still displaying their 50’s pompadours like peacocks, albeit with a little more room in the quiff for air to circulate.

Her backing band for UK dates, Wes McGhee’s London Partytimers, are suited, booted and well-drilled. “Finest band I work with” says Wanda, causing one of her charges to remark “I bet you say that to all the boys”. Not so apparently, “You should hear what I say to the others… I’ve only killed about three drummers” she retorts, the wit every bit as sharp as the voice.

Indeed that voice is remarkably well preserved in its 75th year; grazed yelps, glottal howls and country-gal yodelling all still within range, and kept just on the right side of a Sunday night knees up at Joe Maplin’s. Funnel Of Love in particular, as it sashays about on tiptoes, is magnificent.

Riot In Cell Block #9 is an ideal opener for establishing the spirit of the evening, and Let’s Have A Party hardly pushes a stick between the spokes in this regard. As much as parade of ‘hits’, it is a night for storytelling and although the strolling oratory sometimes gazes at the trophy cabinet for perhaps overly elongated periods, you can hardly blame a Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer who has both worked with and dated Elvis, scored #1’s in Japan and had a street named after them in Oklahoma City for not hiding their light under bushel when it can be brought out and used to illuminate the evening of their career.

Indeed it was Elvis who dragged her from the security blanket of country music into the hazards of the “new stuff, as we called it then”, but she was to flit between the genres many times, and Hank Williams’ I Saw The Light is a mood shifting moment of the set when she lays on the line her religious beliefs and pinpoints the moment, 40 years ago, when she took the Lord into her heart.

However in terms of ‘how I got where I am today’ influences, Jack White takes almost equal billing with Jesus Christ. His production of her recent, and fabulous, LP The Party Ain’t Over (released earlier this year) is represented with a suite of numbers as we come into the final stretch of the set.

There might be a slight glitch with the pitch on Rip It Up, with Wanda apologetic (but no-one minds), but the manual fade out and back up on Nervous Breakdown is thrilling, whilst the version of Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good is performed with a brilliantly unsettling septuagenarian lasciviousness. Despite asking Jack White to tweak the lyrics of the second verse to make them more “age appropriate”, Wanda keeps with the carpet burns line and also suggestively rests her index finger on his bottom lip, her mouth forming a roguish O as the song comes to its instrumental close.

There is a huge cheer as she reveals she has been recording for 57 years, a keenness to bop as her big in Japan moment Fujiyama Mama plays out, and a slight retreat as she flings unsolicited water at the front row. Despite the worn-on-the-sleeve Christianity, Wanda Jackson clearly retains a mischievousness from her salad days. Thus, performing in front of several generations at once, she remains right at home.

Monday, October 31, 2011

After the wheel

Deptford Bird’s Nest. 28oct11.

Given that guitarist Steve Eagles and Ted Milton (vocalist, saxophonist and the sun around which the world of Blurt orbits) have turned out in suits (albeit with t-shirts rather than ties beneath), it seems slightly wrong that Blurt should be playing out in the alcove of a South London boozer with a gap of about five feet between the stage and the sound desk.

Whatever the space available, it is well filled with bodies gazing intently at the band leader, as his jaw juts out, his face contorts and he taps about like a chap who’s taken a bag of poppers to a tea dance. It’s a home town show for Ted though so he doesn’t have far to walk to sleep it off comfortably.

“Yes! I hear they’ve invented the wheel, since you’ve been away from me” goes the lyric of ‘Plunge’, a highlight of the evening’s set, and indeed most inventions post that epiphanous moment in human history have occurred since Blurt first began troubling audiences. Thirty two years on stage has certainly not diminished Ted Milton’s energy, being the squalling scattergun over the bedrock provided by Eagles cyclical guitar and Dave Aylward’s angsty, shuffling drum beats.

Ted moves between sax and singing regularly with both his instrument and his vocal chords undertaking the same role; howling, wavering, slaloming, shooting and flailing over the sturdy brickwork put up by his bandmates, like a manic Jackson Pollock artwork being superimposed over a stubborn Rothko.

Tonight’s set was less reliant on tracks from 2010 LP ‘Cut It!’ than I’ve experienced in the past, but Blurt have a fine body of jazz-spattered post-punk work upon which to draw and show no signs yet of being satisfied with resting on their laurels.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Drum lift me up

Charles Hayward
Shoreditch Catch. 25aug11

In the mid-70’s, This Heat provided a bridge between the German progressive rock scene and UK post-punk, incorporating loops to advance a pre post-rock, eerie industrial sound. Following their disbanding in 1982, drummer Charles Hayward went on to play with Camberwell Now, Gong, About Group, Monkey Puzzle Trio and Blurt, as well as undertaking session work with groups ranging from Everything But The Girl to Hot Chip to Crass. In addition, he has performed in a number of free improvisation collectives, as well as performing solo.

To some the idea of a drummer doing a solo show will no doubt bring one of two thoughts to mind; noodling prog acts giving their sticksman an ego boost and their guitarists a fag break; or a council- funded community rhythm workshop. Charles Hayward fits neither profile.

First of all one must disengage from the idea of the drum solo which tends to be a case of “let me show you how quickly I can hit all these drums”, and into the idea of the drum lift, where the vocal is of equal prominence. Indeed, the drums are never chaotic, every beat and fill dovetailing with the pre-recorded bleeps and synth washes; Hayward staring roguishly into the middle distance whilst projecting his fragile vocal.

“My maaaaad-ness” he begins, the glint in his gaze increasingly vivid, before moving smoothly into a groove that feet can respond to. A kindly, mildly eccentric presence, he later rises from his stool to pause one song for a good thirty seconds just so that he might peer out at us incredulously.

Rather than showcase lightning speed, he is unafraid to use space and the pregnant pause, whilst his experience of free improvisation means the catatonic beat is consistently side-stepped whenever a full-on groove threatens to take-hold.

The lyrics tend to be the repetitive hook, cycling around a kind of 21st century paranoia; “information rich, information poor” he intones as mantra, at one point backed only by shaken maracas. He may only be one 60 year old man inside one drum set but Charles Hayward’s sets not only engage, they haunt.

*photo found online and was taken at Sonar Festival in 2007.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shout, shout...job done

Old Blue Last. 14aug11.

Time was there were six of these bears, with flutes, horns and all kinds of caper that clattered about like prodigious toddlers high on sugary contraband. They had a disarming tweeness to beckon people towards them, to wriggle under stroking hands like a playful kitten, only to then morph into a beast of pure malevolence, launching the suckerpunch assault of caterwauling chaos.

Now there are five of them and the wind and brass have been replaced with a greater emphasis on synths and while it’s not different per se, it’s certainly not entirely the same. Not that singer and guitarist Iain Ross sees it this way, suggesting by way of introduction here into Foxy Boxer (an atypical ‘oldie' this evening) that “we’ve only got six songs, it’s all the same formula isn’t it – shout, shout.”

However, if they do only have finite methods, they are clearly keener to play the newer versions born of them than delve into the back catalogue. As if to plant a big new footprint down upon the world of pop, their set is top heavy with material from their latest LP The Phantom Forest with popular singles from their earlier years, such as Drink Ink, Stephen F****** Spielberg and Itsuko Got Married, seemingly put out to pasture.

Amidst Joe Naylor’s frisky drumming and the vocal and instrumental fidget provided by three original members Ross, Jan Robertson and Lisa Horton, Charlene Katuwawala is a fairly low key presence but her gritty bass is vital in underpinning the ever increasing maturity within the Bearsuit sound.

With an electro-pop tune like When Will I Be Queen, so bright you could floodlight a goods yard with it, and in A Train Wreck a glorious song which marries a hymnal harmony with both ripening art-pop and post-punk thrust, it is clear that Bearsuit have added plenty to their toolshed since their salad days.

Thankfully though, we cannot look at the Bears and consider them all grown up as fundamentals of the Melt Banana-esque whizz and skid which dictated the pace of their early tunes are still extant in Princess, You’re A Test and, even more vividly, Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop which top and tail tonight’s set.

While there appears to be less of that well defined cutesy-abandon-leading-to-frenzied-assault element, there is still a roughness around their edges and a sense of requiring to surrender to them; that to not be seen dancing during their sets is to meet with their eye-narrowing displeasure.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Krems, 05-07may11

The donaufestival plays out over two consecutive weekends in Krems, a town sixty minutes away from Vienna by train. Krems has been transformed in recent years with cultural spaces breaking out in an old tobacco factory (Kunsthalle) and a former monastery (Klangraum Krems Minoritenkirche) and has dragged a type of city-based arts culture to a picturesque town on the banks of the Danube or, as they would have it, the Donau.

The previous weekend’s line up included esoteric delights such as John Cale, WU LYF and James Blake as well as the gallery exhibitions, performance art and theatrical pieces that continue over to this weekend.

News at the end of last year that Carla Bozulich (formerly of Ethyl Meatplow and The Geraldine Fibbers, now a sonic adventurer both solo and with her Evangelista group) would not only be curating parts of the second weekend, but also putting together a one-off performance to take place in the Minoritenkirche was certainly the hook that reeled me in.

Entitled ‘Eyes & Ears 5: Under The Skin’ it would continue a series of site specific performances that Carla has put together, and use the resonant monastic space to its full potential, rather than having the stage as the sole focal point. In that respect it worked wonderfully, the audience on being allowed to enter wandering between players arranged around the room, with films projecting across the space onto side walls, and also so that flickering images cascaded down the central pillars, encasing us as though in a cage of static electricity.

Then, with the rap of a drum, Carla entered dragging a gong, the musicians leaving their perches to join the full collective on stage (some returning to the floor later to mirror on-stage drum clash, or to offer a mid-set trumpet vigil). Following the entrance, elements of her regular performance weaved in, such as using a child’s mini-microphone toy to sing through her guitar pick-ups [below] like a wailing widow about to turn her mind to vengeance. Baby, That’s The Creeps from the astonishing 2006 Evangelista LP allowed her to go walkabout, descending into the crowd like a preacher; all that’s missing is the hand placed on foreheads and the subsequent flailing limbs.

That is what Carla captures so well in her music, an outsider-art hunger firing practically Pentecostal turbulence. If you’ll forgive me quoting myself, I said in a prior review that “When fully flaunted, [Carla’s voice] is like a feral growl contained in a rickety cage; burnt yet eager, sharing the kind of ragged timbre one might associate with the Rev. C.L. Franklin as he looms over a pulpit roaring the gospel.” That gives a sense of the dark and tattered melodrama just within the music and thus a visual theatricality can be interlaced without it feeling too ‘forced’.

As I say though, as much as it is a chance for Carla to perform this exclusive work, the festival also allowed her the opportunity to showcase both her contemporaries and her heroes. In the case of the latter, the first night was top heavy with them, both Laurie Anderson and Lydia Lunch appearing in the Messegelände main hall: Halle 1.

In what was essentially a full live performance of Laurie Anderson’s latest album Homeland, washes of slender synth ambience underpinned stories, parables and jokes essaying the ten post-9/11 years. At one point, Anderson sat in an oversize armchair speaking to us as though we were grandchildren eager to learn about life during wartime mostly through being on a promise of some toffees. The piercing moments when Anderson picks up her violin act as the start, finish and ‘turn-tape-over’ moments for a set that is otherwise like a ninety minute hypnosis reel.

Later Lydia Lunch also offered a performance of an entire LP, in her case her 1980 debut Queen Of Siam (apparently for the first time, although a tour will follow), and was a much livelier watch; ‘no wave’ era rock n’ roll delivered with a strident PVC boot. Lunch’s group offer a post-punk take on Broadway swing, a gothic cocktail jazz, over which Lunch growls and sways. The highlight of the set was when Atomic Bongos fired out, inspiring here a dancing stage invasion from our curator.

Offering a similar vibrant spirit, despite also now being of ‘veteran’ status, was Marc Ribot and his group Ceramic Dog ( Messegelände Halle 2). Ches Smith running his drum stick along the edge of a cymbal, Shahzad Ismaely pressing at his bass guitar and Ribot tickling his strings so they twinkle; such were the beginnings before they moved into more robust territory, unleashing an unhinged part-surf-part-Hendrix-part-fusion-freak-out stripped down and sinewy blues.

Ribot’s set was certainly a fine way to close the first evening but possibly not quite as impressive as its opening act. Cult-like propaganda videos, golf tutorials, the dark thoughts of unknown children captured on found Talkboy tapes featured among the collaged ‘samples’ that play out in synchronicity on a screen behind The Books (Klangraum Krems Minoritenkirche) [above]. These found visuals and sounds are the kind of foundations upon which our three players build their jazz-trained whimsy beyond-New-Age expanse towards a 21st century folk music celebrating the technology as well as the spirit of the age. For Free Translator, the lyrics of an old folk song are filtered through a number of online translators, through many a language, a dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards phrasing coming out the other side.

Pretty sprightly stuff but, despite this as the kick-off; dense noise and intense sound collage was also well represented at the festival. Hiss Tracts (Minoritenkirche) grouped members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Fly Pan Am and Growing to offer chimes, rolling bells and a terrifying haunted rush. Their half hour piece wandered shimmering like a river and before too long the drone was all enveloping, before eventually petering out to bird song and black.

The darkness continued over at the Evangelische Kirche. Like Hiss Tracts, Tim Hecker has a dark undercurrent but with far more glimpses of light, a sense of hopefulness shimmering out of his deep-think drone. Moving between apocalyptic lows and ethereal highs, a strange divinity occurred perhaps through his interactions with the organ sound.

The following day at Minoritenkirche, Barn Owl would also offer dark soundscapes, although these were evocative of the desert, and of tribalist mysticism. One guitar delved into the underbelly, whereas the other overarched a light swirling with the occasional vocal howl; like Morricone in a dust bowl sky darkened by the swirl.

Another intensive sonic experience the festival offered was former Cabaret Voltaire man and field-recording troubadour Chris Watson who offered a live performance (Kunsthalle) entitled ‘A Journey South’. Less a gig than it was lecture and slideshow, Watson talked through his experiences recording on location in the Ross sea, Antarctica, at the start of last year detailing the transformation of sea ice from solid to fluid in the Austral summer season. Interesting as this was, his collection of recordings such as pressure ridges, glacial caving, melt water and deep ocean current were best experienced as a sound collage installation running throughout the festival in the same room. Invited to lie down on cushions, the quadraphonic sounds attacked and doused as water and ice collided, capturing the ebb and flow as a force of seismic change rather than something gentle and calming.

Another act at the festival offered a similar intensity to the likes of Hecker and Barn Owl, only adding a sense of playfulness, was Gambletron and her ‘Extreme Karaoke set’ ( Messegelände Halle 2) where members of the audience chose the tracks that they would then re-interpret live with noise artiste Lisa Gamble. Watching a keen Carla Bozulich throw herself into a George Michael re-invention was certainly the highlight, despite the best efforts of the lay punters. Certainly a niche product but the right environment for it.

If anything, what the ‘noise’ acts were missing was a beat. Factory Floor [above], however, were on hand (Halle 2) to offer both intensity and pulse; their incessant palpitations underpinning a detached brutal malevolence. Bows attack guitars, vocals are moaned out like injury, beats pulsate like heart attack and when they are on form they ensnare like a venus fly trap.

If this festival bill sounds a bit unyielding dark, then acts later in the weekend offered some lighter relief. Electro flavour of the month, Gold Panda (Halle 2) [below] uplifted without being mindlessly euphoric, Snow & Taxis being a giddy highlight in this respect, while Mount Kimbie (Halle 1) overcame technical difficulties and a dull first impression to seep themselves in slowly.

The Irrepressibles (Halle 1) were certainly very different from anything else on the bill, but went down a treat. My only previous encounter with them was at a cold and wet Bandstand Busking event at Victoria Park last year. There were only about thirty watching, but even in more stripped down conditions it was clear from their choreographed movement that there was more to them than just (just!) the grandiose chamber pop sound. So here they presented their ‘Mirror Spectacle’, reflections making it appear as the more than just (just!) the 9 of them, in their full fallen angel/marionette kit and make-up caboodle.

Death From Above 1979 used the same space (Halle 1) with just the two in the personnel. Back five years after calling it a premature day, bass (and sometimes synth) combined with the drum set to fire out a red hot pop thrash. In Halle 2, Candelilla also offered a power pop style, without being as one dimensional in pace. From the Heavens To Betsy end of Riot Grrl in spirit, the interweaving vocal lines captivated with the simplest of tools.

As the festival drew to a close on the Saturday night, electro and synth ruled the roost, with Ladytron (Halle 1) promoting their new ‘Best Of’ LP with, as you might imagine, a set crammed with career highlights. Had they asked me to write their set list to my specification, I’d have likely come up with something similar to them (although I’m Not Scared would have been very welcome). Early numbers betrayed a slight rustiness, their last record proper ‘Velocifero’ having come out three years ago with live performances few and far between in the last two years, but they soon warmed up to the task, Discotraxx and Destroy Everything You Touch being distinct highlights.

Three days in then, one o’clock in the morning and Bordeaux’s Kap Bambino (Halle 2) are tasked with closing out the festival. No wind down is allowed though as Caroline Martial rips across the stage, like a pocket version of bubblegum and biker leathers period Madonna, bouncing incessantly and making an astonishing impact for their time slot as the room succumbs to dancing with an abandon not seen in the three days hitherto. So, after a weekend that has often been about the art of music, we are brought to a flurrying dervish of a climax by a band for whom the body response is of equal validity to the effect upon the mind.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Nimble round the neck

Meaghan Burke, Dead Western.
Vienna Rhiz. 04may11.

Despite being a native of New York, Meaghan Burke is, as a result of living in Vienna for a number of years, being asked to represent the city’s pop scene at the Popfest Wien free festival. This is the warm-up and it is clear that the anomaly is two-fold: her being merely an adopted daughter, but also that the music she makes is only on the barest of nodding terms with ‘pop’.

That said there are hi-jinks in her business, an embroidered, fresh-faced charm; the manner in which she beams, sporting the ivory being a facial equivalent of Doris Day greeting the day’s business with a windmill slap of a thigh.

Yet she marries this innocence with regular dips into Diamanda Galas style melodrama, the voice flitting and swooping like a swallow, elasticising from trills to treacle. The other act this evening, Dead Western, do something a little similar in that respect, but their singer Troy Mighty’s facial mugging whilst exaggerating his vocal depth only succeeds in grating rather than beguiling. Meaghan Burke’s singing style feels much more natural, and it thus follows that her lyrics about bed bugs and such pass under the radar of irritation.

What might not beat the radar for some listeners is that this is very much a voice and cello performance, with no looping and no gradation. There is not even a reliance on heavy bowing to layer a warming underbelly, the neck of her instrument more often plucked or beaten.

Yet despite this plain set-up, the sound is agile and lively, moving across smoky blues, nimble jazz and scattergun torch song and back with barely a blink.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

goodbye dry eyes...

Notes from the Departure Lounge:

John Maus died over the weekend at the age of 67 after losing his battle against cancer. The name might not mean much to you, and it's possible that his stage name of John Walker won't reverberate that much louder to your ears.... but Maus was the founder member, guitarist and original lead singer of the Walker Brothers. The band was subsequently, and more famously, fronted by the honeyed baritone of their bassist, Noel Scott Engel.... that's Scott Walker to you and me.

Scott Walker is probably my favourite singer of all time. I love the way that he turned his back on a life of proto-Beatles pop adulation to write and perform songs of existentialism and death and Brecht and Brel covers to an increasingly baffled teen audience; an audience that, not surprisingly, soon deserted him for less complicated pleasures. Scott Walker's later career has seen him become a virtual recluse, producing an album at a rate of less than one a decade, chasing a muse that seems increasingly bleak and inaccessible and, famously, uses things like a side of pork as a percussion instrument. All a pretty far cry from the golden years of the Walker Brothers. Songs like "Make it Easy on Yourself" and "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Any More)" are certainly melancholy, but that lush instrumentation and the golden voice meant that the band reached an audience of millions.

Knowing the direction that Scott Walker's career took, it's tempting to see John's role in the band, together with drummer Gary, as being nothing more than supporting musicians who got very, very lucky. There's a scene in the Scott Walker documentary, "30 Century Man", where the band are sitting enjoying tins of brown ale and talking about why they're in the band. John and Gary talk about the money and the girls; Scott looks straight down the camera, unsmiling, and says that he's in it for the music, and I believe him. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was "musical differences" that broke the Walker Brothers up in 1968. They reformed successfully with "No Regrets" in 1975, but the different agendas of the band members were laid bare on 1978s "Nite Flights". There are 12 songs on the album, and each member of the band contributed four. The first four were by Scott, and they are a clear signal of the direction that was to shape his subsequent career: dark, oblique and featuring a song ("The Electrician") that seems to be about torture. The jump from that into far more conventional "The Death of Romance" by Gary could scarcely be starker.

Of course, for all that their might be more than a grain of truth in that assumption about the roles played within the band, John tells a different story in his version:

"I was always the leader of the band. I was the one who said, 'Let's do this, let's do that.' I spent a great deal of time making sure that the group would make incredible music. Most people don't realise that it was I who chose the songs that would become The Walker Brothers' biggest-selling singles..... I was aware that things had changed a lot: Scott had become the lead singer of the group... Now that he was singing lead, I enjoyed the opportunity to create some unusual harmonies, something I had never done before. We knew that we each had an important role, and felt responsible to each other, with one goal in mind, which was to make good records that were unique for the time."

It's also worth nothing that John recorded a version of Jacques Brel's "If You Go Away" in 1967 (it's the title track of his album of that year).... Scott recorded his much more famous version for Scott 3 a whole two years later in 1969......


Monday, April 25, 2011

House music

No Babies, Meddicine
Dalston Lane house show. 23apr11.

With galactic projections ebbing and flowing on the back wall of what was once someone’s lounge, one might expect an ambient swirl from Meddicine but not a bit of it. Instead the beats are uncomplicated and firm of wrist, Monika’s treated vocals colliding with synth stabs and drones. However she seems to suffer both from technical difficulties and the short attention span of a grindcore goldfish, as the pieces are too limited in their length to really bed in. As a groove begins to flow, it’s cut off in its prime; a row of electro ox-bow lakes. As a set of short, sharp vignettes it’s a little slender and would certainly benefit if the set were to be more cohesive with a touch more bob and weave.

Meddicine uses the back wall projection to divert from her retiring stage presence. If No Babies were to do the same, it would be a shameful waste of electricity as at no point would anyone be looking at it. Indeed audience eyes rarely rest even upon drummer Sean simply for the fact he’s somewhat anchored to his post. The others meanwhile seem keen to mingle.

It is abundantly clear when one watches a band make like amateur joggers and undertake a series of stretching exercises and pumps, that what you’re about to watch will not exactly be like Van Morrison tilting his fedora as a single concession to movement.

All five members raise the arms in the air to synchronise their body clocks and provide a fleeting calm prior to the storm they are about to unlock. When it comes it’s like being hit, and for those in the front row it’s more than a simile, as the mobile members of the band treat their audience as a boundary that has to be tested. For singer Kim, we are like the hedges at Hampton Court maze, darting in, out and around, disappearing for some time then crawling out between some legs.

For guitarist Yacob and saxophonist Misha we are more the rubber coating on their Bedlam bedroom, hurling themselves backwards into the watching collective as if oblivious to the hefty instruments they’re twirling about.

For twenty minutes they unleash a kind of Melt Banana meets Black Flag stop/start hardcore aligned with When Big Joan Sets Up bath-tub-down-a-hill jazz chaos, and then down tools, possibly as an act of mercy. No Babies create a twitchy angst funk, an utterly beastly racket twinned with a rather invigorating noise.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Here's the science bit...

Matt & Kim.
Highbury Garage. 23mar11.

Matt Johnson & Kim Schifino first sprung out of the Brooklyn scene in 2004 and it’s hard to imagine that they’ve changed much in the past seven years. After all, the synth playing never sweeps into show-pony virtuosity, the singing is not rich with variation and if Kim is drumming on a track, it is likely to fire out like a buffalo stampede.

Incidentally, if Kim is NOT playing on a track, she will most likely be found stood atop her drums with arms raised, or stepping out onto the supportive hands of the crowd to dance above their heads. While doing this, and even when playing her instrument, an extreme grin never leaves her face, as though the corners of her mouth have been introduced to her cheekbones by way of a staple-gun.

Clearly Matt & Kim learned their trade playing loft parties and front rooms but their skill comes in translating that experience to larger settings. I have seen them twice now, here in a sold out 650 capacity room, and in front of thousands on the Vice stage at Primavera Sound last May. On both occasions, a sizeable body of onlookers have responded like a drunk teen bouncing over the heads of their friends in their parents' garage.

The Principle of the Conservation of Energy tells us that energy can never be created or destroyed, only changed from one form to another. In keeping with this principle, Matt, Kim and their audience rebound the revving oomph between each other; the room effervescing to a critical mass. At which point the balloons are released. Not from the ceiling, no – that would be a bit too glitzy showbiz – instead, balloons are thrown into the crowd to be inflated individually and later released on cue.

This is not to say that Matt & Kim don’t use that old showbiz trick of making the audience feel as though they are more involved than any prior audience – and are seeing something different, more intense, than anything the band has hitherto delivered. They claim their last visit to London, at the tiny Old Blue Last, was their sweatiest show. They reference it often, as though the perspiration levels are on a Blue Peter totaliser, until Kim announces after a while that a new bar has been set.

Canard it may be, yet when Matt exclaims “it’s never been like this” several times late in the set in response to the wild enthusiasm of the crowd, he does appear genuinely moved and overcome by delight. “This makes us realise we have to come here more often” he says, at which point the room registers its clear interest in keeping in closer touch.

Photo by wumpie woo (taken 2009)


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Behind the counter

Veronica Falls
Islington Flashback Records. 25feb11.

The time not to make an in-store appearance at a record shop that deals only in second hand merchandise is about a year after releasing an LP. Seeing twenty copies of your magnum opus stacked up with ever decreasing amounts stickered onto the cover would, I imagine, do little for the collective morale.

As such, Veronica Falls pitch up at Flashback at an ideal time, as their debut LP has yet to appear, despite their spending the last 18 months being a support band of choice for Teenage Fanclub, Vivian Girls and Slow Club amongst others as well as being followed and tipped by various players in the radio and press.

Tonight we crowd into this tiny outlet, pushing the band back not only behind the counter but into the office section further beyond. On the cluttered mezzanine, the four members huddle together as though having been cornered by a gang of cosh-wielding muggers who’ve at least given them the chance to busk their way out of a beating.

Even with the matter of the staging put to one side, this is a show that captures a band out of their comfort zone. Ordinarily their shows will often see the reverb pressed to the metal, but tonight the guitars and bass work out of practise amps turned way up to, well, about three, the drums are quashed with a couple of gaudy beach towels whilst the vocals are amplified only by theatrical instinct.

Yet, this challenging environment brings out the best of them as they are forced to work that little bit harder, trying out slightly different harmonies on tunes such as the great Beachy Head where it appears, on the approach in, that the lack of their more natural volume might render the usual punch in these tunes a little flaccid in the wrist.

Instead, they turn a potential crisis of performance to an opportunity, on the quiet, to peacock their janglist nous.


Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Here Zea gear

Dalston Café OTO. 30jan11.

Sweat surges from Arnold De Boer’s forehead and scalp, dripping from his chin with such regularity that a stalagmite begins to form next to his floor monitor.

When I first saw Zea, back in 2003, there were two of ‘em, but a 50% cut in manpower means Remko Muermans is no longer involved. The songs were always Arnold’s in the most part anyway yet you’d have thought with his workload playing and singing with post-punk heroes The Ex, he’d have welcomed a bit of help on stage.

However for yer modern day Zea experience Arnold is handling all duties: vocals, guitar and electronics. Thus it is should be no surprise that his face appears to process more water than the Grand Coulee Dam.

This tour is supporting his fourth LP The Beginner and as a result the vast majority of the set comprises material from that record. Which means no Counting Backwards Leads To Explosions or We Buried Indie Rock Years Ago; two fine singles which, if they were mine, I’d rather be inclined to show off.

Yet this LP has signalled a growth, and a sound clearly influenced in part by Arnold’s recent excursions to Ethiopia and Ghana with The Ex and where his Zea gear was also toured. Traditional elements of his sound, bringing a They Might Be Giants lightness of touch to Chinese-burn fuzz-punk and hectic electro are present and correct, but are joined in the new stuff by a gonzo Africana on tracks like Song For Electricity (a track based on Bogiye by Abonesh Andrew) and I Follow Up Front.

Both are highlights this evening, as are Staande ben ik vergeten wat ik dacht toen ik lag which works a desert baggy groove, and Armpit Elastica where an almost happy hardcore beat is thrown down with lyrics that don’t stretch far from a repeated “I got this itch…”. During this, with no need to carry a guitar, Arnold is free to dance about, and uses this opportunity to hammer out tippy-toe pigeon steps, like Scooby Doo trying to sneak quietly but quickly into a snack-laden pantry.

The real treat though is Bourgeois Blues where the Leadbelly track is updated using the lyrics from The Fall’s Bourgeois Town version, but with a sparse, isolated arrangement where Arnold obtains his pulsing beat by working the fret-board.

Not allowed to leave until putting down two encores, one including the fiery Parked Forever, Arnold beams from ear-to-ear as he insists we all stick around to join him for a drink.

Think it’s fair to say he can chalk this one up as a triumph.


Sunday, January 02, 2011

Popping up, early doors

Highbury Garage. 01jan11.

Shellac are not indefatigable tourers by any means, indeed playing live often just means a little time away from the office for guitarist and vocalist Steve Albini and bassist Bob Weston, the pair being respected recording engineers in the day-to-day.

So, to find them playing their first show of 2011 just 12 hours into it, and just 13 hours after their last show of 2010 (playing for All Tomorrow’s Parties with Sonic Youth and The Pop Group at Hammersmith Apollo), should probably not be taken as them starting the year as they mean to go on.

A mercantile machine they certainly are not. There is nothing in the merch booth this afternoon except for members of ATP staff, Bob Weston’s wife and a couple of toasters, as they distribute Pop Tarts, for free.

Like their gigs, the usual schedule anyway, Shellac’s albums are also sporadic concerns, although Weston claims that there will be a new record “at some point in the future”, and that it’ll be called Dude, Incredible. One heckler then offers Electric Sledgehammer as an option, which is immediately shot down as being ludicrous.

This banter is a fairly regular feature of the afternoon, with more bonhomie than one might expect. From afar Albini can appear to be a thorny, obsessive compulsive type and one heckler asks why Steve “was in such a bad mood last night?” “I was positively sparkling” he replies.

Indeed, you would imagine there would be plenty of bears-with-sore-heads here given the nature of the night before. When Albini asks “hands up who’s not been to sleep yet”, stringy, haggard drummer Todd Trainer raises his arm and smiles like someone who’s spent the last few hours staring into the sun. Clearly, with Bloody Mary’s on offer at the bar, this noon set is regarded as a hair-of-the-dog effort.

What better way to blow away the cobwebs, though, than a 90 minute Shellac-ing where the music will always be as lacking in frills as a hod-carrier’s hankie and as uncompromising as Nicolae Ceausescu’s retirement do.


Monday, December 27, 2010

2010: 21 gig salute

My top 21 gigs of 2010 run-down can be found over at Vanity Project.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bowlie II: one-liners

All Tomorrow’s Parties: Bowlie II
Minehead Butlins, 10-12dec10

Continuing this site’s tradition of half-assed commentary on musical events, we present one-line reviews, in chronological order, of the second Belle & Sebastian curated Bowlie weekender.

Friday December 10th

Daniel Kitson & Gavin Osborn Centre Stage
Comedian and storyteller tells one of his whimsical comedic stories punctuated by singer-songwriter singing whimsical songs that he’s written, following suit.

Teenage Fanclub Pavilion Stage
So solid and unpretentious, they are the nuclear bunker of West Coast style harmony pop.

The Zombies Centre Stage
Colin Blunstone’s hair is as pristine as when they started 49 years ago, while Rod Argent has clearly kept his trousers from that mid-60’s heyday.

Saint Etienne Centre Stage
A funeral, a long drive, a traffic jam and being half an hour late as a result is probably not ideal prep for a set but Saint Etienne turn around their early disadvantages by displaying their hits like a peacock; a belated disco peacock.

Saturday December 11th

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan Centre Stage
A Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazelwood tribute act, but without any of their humour.

Edwyn Collins Centre Stage
Because of his triumph of the will, Edwyn could be said to be immune to criticism, but it is with no concession to his circumstances, yet with nods to Teenage Fanclub’s role as backing band and guest appearances by a Crib and two of Franz Ferdinand, when I say this was one of the best gigs I’ve seen all year.

Julian Cope Pavilion Stage
Dirgey on guitar, sprightly on the mellotron – next time: more mellotron.

Dean Wareham Centre Stage
With Galaxie 500’s gear re-released, Dean Wareham has gathered up his wife and new bandmates to perform songs by his former self, but without any real pizzazz.

Dirty Projectors Pavilion Stage
Struggled to understand the hyperbolic reaction to album Bitte Orca but on the basis of this set, I will need to go back and immerse myself in it once more.

The New Pornographers (above) Centre Stage
Despite watching several stream out to get a good spot for the weekend’s headliners downstairs, The New Pornographers respond to keeping chins up and delivering one of the very best performances of the weekend.

Belle & Sebastian Pavilion Stage
The best set I’ve seen them do since their triumphant homecoming free show at Glasgow Botanic Gardens in 2004.

Jenny & Johnny Centre Stage
Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice collaborate on a set of brisk alt.rock gear.

Franz Ferdinand Centre Stage
A set on the smaller stage that went unbilled in the event’s advance press and, as is often the case, Matinee’s gear changes were the highlight.

Crystal Castles (above) Centre Stage
Alice Glass staggering onto the stage on crutches means restricted movement for both her and the crowd as the energy doesn’t swell quite enough for those watching on eagerly to ‘go off’ in the usual manner associated with Crystal Castles shows.

Sunday December 12th

Stevie Jackson Reds
Stevie Belle & Seb goes partly solo and partly in tandem with Roy Muller for some ideal Sunday lunchtime acoustic fare.

Vashti Bunyan Centre Stage
Possibly the quietest, gentlest gig in history.

The Amphetameanies Reds
Alex Kapranos follows up his appearance with Edwyn Collins with another guest slot in a festival highlight set, but this is merely coincidence as this party 2-Tone outfit are infectious enough to stand on their own 18 feet.

Peter Parker Centre Stage
Glam pop that, as yet, hasn’t really found a distinct voice.

Jane Weaver (below) Reds
Former Misty Dixon frontwoman doing a Gruff Rhys-esque guitar and table-full-of-tricks post-folk thing.

Sons & Daughters Pavilion Stage
Still striking me as a little lumpen, perhaps I’m missing something.

Mulatu Astatke Centre Stage
Ethio-jazz so becalming, the seas around Minehead took the opportunity for an afternoon nap.

The Vaselines Pavilion Stage
Spikiness in the tunes as well as Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee’s on-stage banter.

Camera Obscura Pavilion Stage
Any stage seems classier with Camera Obscura’s Spector-esque pop playing out on it.


Thursday, December 09, 2010

Unlucky for none: Truck 13 2010

My fourth summer in Oxfordshire: high time this festival fun-seeker paid a visit to the one right underneath his nose. Truck is held in one of the two villages my bus passes through on the way to work in the morning, so my previous non-attendance is shameful. Even now, the 1-2-3-4 means I'm only set to experience the second and final day of the bash, though will in the process be setting a new first: two festivals in one weekend...

The day begins in fine fashion: blue skies (again), a lift to the site from my neighbour, no queue whatsoever, a cheerful and welcoming security guy, coffee for a mere quid courtesy of the Didcot Rotary Club, a hook-up and catch-up with a couple of work colleagues, a refreshing (after yesterday) absence of ridiculous and punchworthy outfits and haircuts... How very genteel, becalming and civilised.

So one of the first outfits pressed into Sunday service, Oxford's own PHANTOM THEORY (Barn), are the equivalent of Brian Blessed bellowing "Morning, campers!" through a loudspeaker directly into your lughole. The pair have applied to play twice before, so it's third time lucky - and they're grateful for the company: "Thanks for coming - you could be sleeping. You're missing out". Us early risers are treated to a new song called 'Gary' - "If you can think of a better name for it, come and tell us" - as well as vicious opener 'Trancedog' and a closing track which sounds pleasingly like the Smashing Pumpkins' 'Silverfuck' given a meaty metal makeover. The duo's impact is magnified by being within the concrete confines of the Barn, which may stink of shit but which permits an effective light show at midday and actually makes for a tremendous venue.

Certainly it is compared to the legendary Truck Stage itself - still a flat-bed trailer underneath it all, for old times' sake, but curiously positioned so it's uphill of the audience and coming up a bit short in the amplification stakes. The thankless task of entertaining a listless crowd sunning their way through hangovers falls to BORDERVILLE, who more than compensate for Phantom Theory's lack of pretension with a pronounced theatricality borne out as much by their dress shirts as by their string section and musical eccentricities. It's as if Tim Burton was one of Mumford's sons (actually, he lives in a neighbouring village...). As laudable as it is to be raggamuffins dreaming of being royalty, I'm more interested in procuring a pint of Truck's very own lager, from the Cotswold Brewing Company - at £3.50 a pint a marked improvement on yesterday's £3.80 for a San Miguel.

From dress shirts to no shirt. Having also busied himself drumming with La Roux, I Was A Cub Scout and Young Legionnaire, it's little wonder that William Bowerman should have precious little time for upper body clothing. He's here with BRONTIDE (Barn), whom I glimpsed all too briefly at last year's Southsea Fest and whose taut and muscular (if occasionally self-indulgent) math-metal is a bruising joy. Frontman Tim Hancock, wearing a snapped string round his neck, announces "I've lost my voice - if anyone finds it, can they give it back" - good job they're instrumental, then - as assorted Nightshift scribes look on. What's the collective noun - a hackle?

To the "food hall", which turns out to be a less-grand-than-anticipated tent staffed by an army of Rotary Club members of varying ages and degrees of senility. The construction of my burger leaves a lot to be desired (the cheese is more out than in, for a start), but you can help yourself to as much salad as you want, it's good value and it's all for the benefit of local charidees.

I've read plenty about DEAD JERICHOS (Market Stage) and now finally come face to face with Drayton's answer to Arctic Monkeys indulging in a bit of fisticuffs with Foals. They've certainly got the cocky spoiling-for-a-scrap attitude, a dynamic (if vocally limited) frontman in Craig Evans and a handful of decent enough songs ('She Says The Word', for instance) but they've got some serious tightening up to do if they want to fulfil any potential. Not that the crowd seems to care, a combustible congregation of teens buzzing on youth and booze.

Speaking of which, nearby there's a chap selling Butts beer out the back of a white Transit van. I get a pint of the rather lovely Barbus barbus for £3 and smile at the fact that although he sells proper cider (none of your mass-marketed pear nonsense), he confesses to gritting his teeth when serving it in preference of real ale.

Time to venture a hypothesis: when it comes to band names, "Wild" is the new "Black", "Blood" or "Dead". Wild Beasts, Wild Palms and now WILD NOTHING (Village Pub). Jack Tatum's influences - The Smiths, New Order, C86 - are transparent in the basslines and the gentle jangle of the guitars. Pleasant enough, but not much to stir me - though it does rouse a couple of toddlers with ear defenders to dance around the ubiquitous loon at the front (Big Jeff from Bristol, apparently) like he's some kind of poodle-haired maypole.

Strange and wonderful things have clearly been afoot in Cardiff since I left. It might be stretching the term a bit far to describe ISLET (Barn) as a "supergroup", but they do feature former members of The Victorian English Gentlemens Club, Attack + Defend, Fredrick Stanley Starr and Sweet Baboo. Cardiff indie royalty are also represented in the audience by Harriet Los Campesinos! and Carl of Forecast. Trying to make sense of Islet and piece together what happens is impossible, so I won't even try. Here's a list: one naff brown jumper, one supremely ridiculous moustache, a lot of tambourine abuse and wandering around the crowd, fluid and frequent movement between instruments like some kind of circuit training for musicians, the odd sample, some songs that are almost purely percussive, one song that starts off as reggae and ends up like Rolo Tomassi. They leave us with an exhortation to stick around for Future Of The Left "despite their new members" and me with a curiosity as to whether I really enjoyed them but also a certainty that I want to experience them again.

Poseur cocks in aviator shades and "I Heart NY" T-shirts who worship the ground Kasabian's Serge Pizzorno drags his knuckles along and who declare of the Village Pub: "This is the main stage and we're headlining". Yes, SOUND OF GUNS need shooting. Sadly, a glittering career probably awaits. Locals are just as guilty of Big Rock Bluster, though - as A SILENT FILM (Truck Stage) prove. Once upon a time they were a metal band, Shouting Myke, but listening to this blandly epic epically bland guff it's hard to imagine it.

Oh how clever I thought I was yesterday, deliberately missing Veronica Falls (aka The Pains Of Being C86 Revivalists With Morbid Fixations At Heart) at the 1-2-3-4 in favour of other things as I'd be seeing them today. Not so - they're running late due to traffic and might not make it at all. Worse still, does that not also spell trouble for Fucked Up, who'll be making the same journey? It doesn't bear thinking about, I decide, trying to avoid eye contact with the scary checkout girl from Waitrose.

Nottingham's DOG IS DEAD (Village Pub) are a welcome distraction: a rather unlikely but intriguing concoction of vogueish Afrobeat guitars, hollered harmonies borrowed from the Futureheads (particularly on set-closer 'The Zoo'), a generous dash of pop classicism, some Dexys sax (the latter supplied by a chap sporting the most extraordinary ginger Tory Boy bouffant) and - on 'Glockenspiel Song', at least - the irrepressible youthful vigour and barely contained chaos of early Los Campesinos!.

Sandwiched inbetween Foals and Stornaway - who were by all accounts surprisingly upstaged by Bellowhead last night - LITTLE FISH (Barn) were the local scene's darlings. Through signing to hitmaker Linda Perry's Custard Records and decamping across the Atlantic to record a debut LP (Baffled And Beat) which is at long, long last on the verge of release, the duo have become somewhat detached from their original Oxford fanbase, and so this is a chance to reconnect. How will stints on the road with Blondie, Alice In Chains, Supergrass, Eagles Of Death Metal and Juliette Lewis (amongst others) have honed their garage rock craft? Not having witnessed them before, perhaps I'm not the best to judge - but my report card reads contrived, derivative and flat. Julia "Juju" Heslop is a naturally talented frontwoman but her affected accent immediately grates, any edge they may have had has been sanded off and their gurning waistcoat-clad keyboard player looks to have been parachuted in from a limp cabaret act. In short, not worth the wait.

In need of a drink and with the main bar temporarily sold out of Truck Lager, I toddle off to the Butts van and find myself shoulder-to-shoulder with Whispering Bob Harris, Market Stage curator for the day. Could have guessed he'd be an aficionado of foaming ales.

Back in the main arena, I'm confronted by the frankly terrifying sight of Pulled Apart By Horses' pitbull of a drummer Lee Vincent heading directly for me - it always pays to be wary of a man with a big tattoo on the front of his neck, I find. Meanwhile, fellow sticksman Jack Egglestone of Future Of The Left is engaged in conversation with a couple of small children - schooling them in the art of the paradiddle, perhaps, or explaining the lyrics to 'Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues'...

But before Vincent and Egglestone's bands set out to raze the Barn, draw the curtains and light the candles for it's Indie Noir Hour courtesy of CHAPEL CLUB. It's not clear what burden these youngsters are laden with - other than hundreds of single of the week awards and the pressure that comes with significant record label outlay - but burdened they appear to be. That the quintet spend an eternity setting up is symptomatic of a band who take themselves far too seriously and yet never really get beyond moping around in Editors' shadow. At least they have the good grace to endorse Islet, though.

And now there's a tough decision: Los Campesinos! and Blood Red Shoes vs Pulled Apart By Horses and Future Of The Left. The growing queues for the Barn mean it's effectively an either/or situation, not both, and the indoor venue's merits sway me towards the latter pair. Filing back into the Barn after a snatch of fresh air, someone else who's made the same decision observes to his companion: "I've got loads of scars. I'm basically just scar tissue". Well, you've come to the right place for more, my friend...

"So, we're Kula Shaker from Leeds". Enough of the taking yourself too seriously, then. "It stinks in here. You Oxford types..." Pay close attention, Little Fish - PULLED APART BY HORSES (Barn) are dishing out a free lesson in what the result of incessant gigging should be: an eyeball-popping intensity. Showing admirable disrespect for his own wellbeing, guitarist James Brown plunges off the speaker stack, and the crowd bump and jostle as an inflatable cow is batted back and forth over our heads. Steven Ansell and Laura-Mary Carter emerge to add extra clout to the climax of penultimate song 'I Punched A Lion In The Throat', and we're left nursing bruises and bangs with hardly enough time to get patched up before the next wave of attacks.

An ill-advised toilet visit means I'm stuck queuing to get back into the Barn - like cattle in a holding pen, appropriately enough - when FUTURE OF THE LEFT bust out Mclusky's 'To Hell With Good Intentions'. Damn it. Founder bassist Kelson Mathias recently defected to join former FOTL and Jarcrew bandmate Hywel Evans in Truckers Of Husk, but if Andy "Falco" Falkous and aforementioned drummer Egglestone have found his departure difficult, destabilising or traumatic, then it certainly doesn't show. Stepping into the breach (temporarily) is Oceansize bassist Steven Hodson, while they've also added a second guitarist, Jimmy Watkins, to their attack: "I'm not even on Wikipedia as being in the band, so do change that". That Falco's outfits remain a British riposte to Shellac is evident both in the juddering riffs and savage bite of the material - which includes a new track about destroying Whitchurch and another pair of Mclusky's songs mischievously advertised as being by Suede - and in the quality of his banter, whether conducting a conversation with Cardiff legend Jon Rostron in the crowd, describing mixing new material with old as "like letting your kids battle it out with swords" or, when someone answers a question with a smug "The latter", responding "That's what your dad told you to say"... The disassembling of Egglestone's kit as he plays would be an even more marvellous spectacle if it wasn't for the fact that it indicates their time's up.

So, where exactly do you go from there? Well hello there FUCKED UP, for the second time in two nights... The Torontonians may indeed have arrived late from the Big Smoke, as anticipated, but they definitely mean business. The way the guitarist carefully removes his glasses just before they kick off suggests he's either about to get smoochy or instigate a fight - thankfully, it turns out to be the latter (cheers Dad...). Drinks can meets cranium by force, and as the blood cascades down Pink Eyes' face, later wiped on those at the front, I suddenly realise the origin of his nickname. Kids have been drawn from far and wide (probably after sniggering at the band's moniker) and immediately I'm on the fringes of a good-naturedly violent circle pit, giving the youth of today a gentle nudge in the right direction now and again. This venue's probably used to containing charging bulls, and Pink Eyes is soon out meeting and greeting his sweaty public. As people clamour to touch him like he's some kind of lucky charm, he finds the time to pause and pose for photos mid-rampage. Among those caught up in the mayhem (or flattening themselves against the walls) are Islet, Wild Nothing and a fresh-from-the-Truck-Stage Blood Red Shoes. 'Crooked Head', 'Police' and 'Son The Father' form a devastating final trio and we're left to reflect favourably on the carnage wreaked at a generally well-mannered festival thanks to liberal security - and on the fact that tonight's performance in a cowshed in rural Oxfordshire was light years better than yesterday in the cooler-than-thou heart of the capital.

All of which means that TEENAGE FANCLUB (Truck Stage) are the musical equivalent of St John's Ambulance staff, brushing off the broken glass and applying some soothing balm to the lacerations. The age divide is obvious, Fannies fanatics being Radio2ophiles content to snuggle into a nice pair of slippers while Fucked Up ironically attracted the festival's teenage fanclub. But as children gambol about chasing bubbles and the sun slowly sinks, it's hard to imagine a better way for the festival to finish than with their bright harmonies and gentle, graceful Byrdsian guitar pop. 'Ain't That Enough'? Yes, it is.

Comparisons and contrasts with yesterday's 1-2-3-4 Festival have been hard to avoid, and I head for home mentally chalking up a knockout victory for Steventon over Shoreditch.