Thursday, November 24, 2005

Auton-matic for the people


It takes place on the third floor of Portsmouth City Library. The audience is seated in banked rows. There's an interval. There are platefuls of assorted sweets, and it's a bring-your-own-booze event. This, it is fairly safe to say, is not your average gig.

Held as part of Portsmouth's inaugural film festival, the evening features a bill of music and short films from a whole host of local artists - something of a celebration of the city's arts and music scene.

First up are singer / songwriters Chris Perrin (formerly of Thirst, now fronting Zuma) and Josie Watts, who perform one and two of their own compositions respectively. Both are evidently talented musicians, but the spark just isn't quite there. Watts in particular has a stunning voice, but disappointingly mangles and contorts it into a shape which resembles any number of contemporary coffee-table songstresses - a shame.

There follows Top Of The Pomps, a selection of videos shot by Portsmouth-based bands and artists over the past couple of decades. Cranes, beloved of The Cure, and The Beta Band feature, as do surf-skiffle legends Emptifish, shown larking around on the beach. The undoubted show-stealer, though, is the remarkable short film the American art rock band The Residents made for local avant-garde act Renaldo And The Loaf's 'Songs For Swinging Larvae'. Recently screened at the Royal Festival Hall to an amazed audience, it features sinister childsnatchers, sailor outfits and copious quantities of mysterious red liquid. Your guess is as good as mine, but it's certainly one to polarise opinion.

With that, it's time for the interval, and the assembled throng make their way out of the auditorium to sample some of the mysterious - and very alcoholic - red and orange and yellow liquids prepared by DJ Spangly.

The second half of the evening's entertainment kicks off with a special surprise guest appearance from Maria Szyrtisz & The Pyramids Of Mars. Well, when you're a one-man-band and called John, you could do with an arresting stage name. A veteran of the Portsmouth arts scene who once went under the moniker E-Coli, John not only plays but also makes all of his own instruments and equipment (electronic keyboard aside). The one song he plays tonight - featuring keys, tambourine, drums, chimes (played by jerking his right knee), glockenspiel and vocals - sounds like 'War Of The Worlds' as reinterpreted by Chas & Dave. Visuals man Jez - like me witnessing the live Maria Szyrtisz & The Pyramids Of Mars experience for the first time - vows there and then to shoot him a video.

Headline band Autons include amongst their number Tony Rollinson, curator of the event and author of the seminal biography of the Pomepy music scene, 'Twenty Missed Beats'. His co-conspirators also have form - lead singer / guitarist Dave Jones featured in both Screeper and Reinhardt, and guitarist Leon Tricker is better known as electro-art terrorist Qhixldekx.

'Different Eyes' is their impressive opening gambit, Jones's vulnerable yet insistent falsetto a marvel, but neither 'Lamplight' nor new song 'Watery Grave' quite live up to that level. It's with the slower, more reflective 'Maybe' that everything gradually comes together, and a second new song, 'Conspiracy Theory', with its thundering crescendo, maintains the momentum.

It's the last three songs that best illustrate their chameleon nature, however. First Brian Poole aka Renaldo And The Loaf dons a pair of goggles and joins them for a spectacularly stoned take on The Kinks' hippyish 'See My Friend'; then 'Class Traitor', a reworked Screeper club stomper, raises the beats-per-minute count dramatically; and finally the distortion-laden 'Snakes', a paranoid and confrontational gnashing of teeth, brings things to an abrupt conclusion, Tricker's snapped guitar string ruling out the possibility of an encore. Few bands can shapeshift so adroitly, even if it does make for something of a disconcerting experience for the onlooker.


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