Wednesday, October 31, 2007

They say party, we say party!


Like I was going to go to North America and not take in at least one gig...

Too late into New York for the dream bill of Arcade Fire / LCD Soundsystem / Les Savy Fav / Blonde Redhead at Randall's Island a week earlier, too far from Williamsburg for the free Fiery Furnaces in-store appearance the same night, still out in the sticks when the Raveonettes tour called in on Toronto - but, thanks to Friday's visit to Rotate This, we discovered !!! were in town the night we got back to Toronto and promptly snapped up tickets to see one of the bands who really made our Glastonbury this year.

As the name would suggest, the Opera House has in days gone by played host to a form of entertainment generally considered more high-brow and "cultured" than rock 'n' roll. The ornate frame around the stage serves as a reminder of that past, making the experience of seeing a gig there, even given the scuzziness of the floor and bar areas, similar in nature to witnessing the collision of the sacred and the profane which very often takes place at the Point in Cardiff (such as when the Melvins were the visitors).

By the time we make it in, past three separate check points - ID (you've got to be over 21), pat-down security search, ticket - the support band are well into their set. If the member of staff at Rotate This who sold us the tickets is to be believed, this is Lioness. He had urged us to get there early to see his friends perform. Their take on The Gossip with added keys may be more than just idle chatter, but ultimately nothing in their set dazzles as much as the huge-haired vocalist's gold lame dress. But no matter - (Dead Kennyism ahoy) they're not the mane attraction.

One thing that's struck me so far during my time in Canada is quite how keen Canadians are to distinguish themselves from their near-neighbours. Many eagerly impress upon you their British roots, and certainly in their general politeness and reserve - in contrast to the stereotype of the brash, whooping, loudmouth American - they feel like close relations. Which is all very well in most circumstances - but not at gigs. According to our hosts and fellow concert-goers, Toronto crowds are notoriously restrained - so, from their perspective, the frenzy which ensues after the headliners take to the stage is all the more surprising. Of course, Jenni and I knew what to expect - if anyone could bring the party to Toronto, loosen limbs, animate arms and set feet in motion, then !!! could.

This is the New Yorkers' final date on their North American tour in support of latest album Myth Takes, and the set is as a result comprised primarily of new material. 'All My Heroes Are Weirdos' is inventively percussive 70s cop show funk as viewed through a hipster's shades, not to mention a succinct explanation as to why John Frusciante loved them so much he insisted they accompany the Red Hot Chili Peppers on tour, while the stomping beat of 'Yadnus', pounded out by not one but two drummers, can be set alongside that of Battles' 'Atlas' as evidence that the glam revival is well and truly underway. Much as Big Apple predecessors Blondie were a new wave band seduced by disco, !!! are a punk band that have internalised the rhythms and aesthetics of dance music so completely that the joins are no longer visible - and in any case you're lost too deep in the groove to want or try to look for them.

Principal drummer Gerard Fuchs might be sporting an interesting moustache and bassist Justin Van Der Volgen might look like Mick Fleetwood had he been kidnapped, kept in a cupboard and fed nothing but magic mushrooms, but the real star of the show is frontman Nic Offer. Phill had it absolutely right when he said that Offer is the worst dancer imaginable. He whirls and prances about the stage, jumps up on the amp and grabs his face theatrically. Most amusing of all, though, is when, with arms straight, he holds out his hands flat, jittering about like a paunchy and slightly sweaty penguin undergoing electric shock therapy. You might be forgiven for thinking this would be a bad thing for an ubercool band for whom dancing is so important, but the exact opposite is true - Offer's complete lack of self-consciousness, the way he hands control of his body over to the music so entirely, is precisely what makes the crowd lose it to the extent they do. We might all look just as ridiculous, but we just don't care.

We get an encore that Montreal didn't ("so you've got to go extra crazy") and the roof never comes quite so close to being blown off as at the climax of 'A New Name', Offer wandering around with his arse hanging out after co-vocalist Shannon Funchless rips the seat of his jeans.

The repeated "Don't stop" refrain of 'Bend Over Beethoven', an echo of Junior Senior's one-hit-wonder disco gem, seems to be as much them encouraging themselves to keep going - their equivalent of Thomas the Tank Engine's "I think I can, I know I can" - but, out of exhaustion and sympathy for the soles of our dancing shoes, it has to end at some point. Unfortunately.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Can't get enough, but I can get it

Von Südenfed.
London Heaven. 18oct07.

A cult of personality, a strong one, can hook a blue whale like it’s a bag of feathers. The trouble is it can also blot out the sun. Any project that involves Mark Edward Smith is likely to be affected at both ends of the scale. With his day-job too, a Fall line-up these days essentially being MES + present spouse + assorted extras. Americans with hats and beards? Blokes pulled out of a Salford boozer? An elderly relative in the rhythm section? One can never be quite sure what will await, such is the reputation of MES as the brakeless, careering motor of The Fall’s revolving door, and such is said personality cult built on.

Without doubt, I am the perfect example of one who follows the Smith train whether it’s sticking to the rails or crashing through embankment hedges. However, when I heard MES would be working with German electronic duo Mouse on Mars the idea of his lyrical vision, not to mention his gurgles, growls and gargles that often bark out apropos of nothing amidst intro or instrumental break, being allied to some tasty beats, it went much further than blind faith. I was pretty certain the fruit of their union would instantly sew up my ‘best of 2007’ nomination six months in advance of December’s deadline. Upon receipt, ‘Tromatic Reflexxions’ was certainly no disappointment. My album of the year, just as I’d imagined.

I mention blind faith, but that’s not strictly accurate, as I like to think I can appreciate flaws in both output and performance. For instance, the ‘Interim’ LP put out a couple of years ago really was just filler (I guess it had the decency to titularly advertise itself as such) and their appearance on Later with Jools Holland in 2005 is best forgotten. Indeed, gigs can be very hit and miss, but then these things can be subjective. Fall fans as a whole appear to use the internet forums set up for us to discuss more what we dislike about the Fall’s vast output than what we actually like. Then there are those who don’t get it at all, the ‘drawling’ thing I mean, but I see it as much more than that – it’s instantly identifiable vocalisation and it’s a sonic drug I find difficult to pinpoint the hook within, or wean myself off. Without doubt, MES rolling a solitary ‘R’ or yelping a ‘WHUP!’ by way of punctuation has infinitely more soul than a painted popstrel warbling through their range. It’s been known to give me goose-bumps, but then Mark E. is quite an imposing character generally.

Being the undoubted commanding force in the Fall, you imagine MES manages his team like Captain Beefheart running a Scout troop (locking people up in sheds, that kind of thing), but with Von Südenfed, you get a new feeling of equality. The three members appear on a par both in terms of size, and latitudinally, on the record cover, with Mark Edward looking less gnarly and aged than usual, coming across quite the cheeky scamp in fact. Perhaps a return to the electronic experimentation that characterised the Fall’s mid-90’s output has taken a few years off him, and even brought him to heel.

During Fall gigs, his band mates have long got used to him fiddling with their amps and crashing index-fingers down on keyboards. Considering the amount of buttons and knobs available on the table at the back of the stage tonight, it should be a Christmas afternoon playtime for our Mark, but he appears more restrained until the final quarter, when he cuts mischievously loose. Certainly, the wandering on and off stage that has characterised many a Fall gig hasn’t been curtailed for this collaboration, despite the low-profile of Andi Toma and Jan St Wener at the rear which leaves the stage distinctly uncluttered and thus could be mistaken for a summer fete PA, albeit a rather dark, underground one.

For that reason, the cult thing I mentioned earlier and the fact that live electronica is generally not much of a spectator sport, it is difficult to take your eyes off the vocalist. Of course, there are plenty of times he takes the choice away from us, by shuffling back in the direction of the dressing room with microphone still glued to the side of his cheek-chewing grimace. Otherwise, MES is unjustifiably mesmerising, an undoubted presence in any room he stumbles into.

Whether he be reading lyrics from a hefty, semi-shuffled ream of papers, seemingly grabbed from a busy middle manager’s filing out-tray; staring out into the crowd like a benign dictator sinking into senility; or dancing in the far corner of the stage like a hen night Auntie tottering along the edge of a pavement, our gaze remains fixed.

As such moments where the union works less well tend to be accentuated - where the beats drown out the more intricate lyrical missives or where the singer has to try, with all the sureness of foot of a vertigo-ridden pensioner on community service litter duty, to retrieve lyric papers that have slipped and scattered across the stage. At these times the sun, albeit briefly, is blotted out.

However there are plenty of hooks to drag the show out of any holes it might teeter over. Indeed, it works best when kept simple, MES intoning the more memorable lyrical hooks from the album in forceful repetition. Lines like “I am the great MES” (rather wonderfully, he flicks through his lyric stack before going for that one), “I am the DJ tonight” and “the German fear of the Österreich”, all commanding and locking in with the caustic electro-grooves that sound great blasting down Heaven’s tall tunnel space. For this reason, single ‘Fledermaus Can’t Get It’ gets a great response that is more to do with the confidence with which it is performed, rather than mere recognition.

Possibly over-extending this theme, “Slow down Ronnie”, a lyric from a recent b-side, is intoned over the last two songs of the main set and then the encore, only the latter of which is actually ‘Slow Down Ronnie’. Still, it’s always been Mark E. Smith’s nature to treat the stage as his primary school sandpit, and that’s what makes anything he is involved with such an exciting proposition. There genuinely is no telling how it’s going to go, but the one guarantee is that it will be fascinating, whatever happens.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

Going underground


Hard to believe that, just a few feet above our heads, fat white-socked American tourists are waddling around on the cobbled streets of Covent Garden, soaking up the afternoon's very belated summer sunshine and looking generally puzzled by the concepts of juggling or wearing a top hat, painting yourself silver and standing very, very still on a plinth.

For down here, in the Gardening Club, night has already fallen. And one suspects that New Zealander Lily Green, a long way from both home and her adopted hometown of Cardiff, rather likes it that way. Her rich, complex and dramatic songs - including one seeing the light of day (such as it is) for the very first time - seem perfectly suited to the red-lit subterranean venue decorated with drapes billowing from the ceiling. Set closer 'Patience' might be prefaced by an ambitious cover of Jimi Hendrix's 'If 6 Was 9', with its lyric about "wav[ing] my freak flag high", but in this context she fits right in.

In many ways, the next act is even more at home in what resembles a decadent 1930s strip bunker. Patti Plinko And Her Boy are what you might call memorable. An impeccably coiffured young woman strumming a ukelele and drawling her way through a cover of Ella Fitzgerald's 'Stone Cold Dead In The Marketplace' like George Formby gone burlesque during a WWII air-raid; a man, presumably her boy, accompanying her on acoustic guitar and wearing a waistcoat, cravat, bowler hat and gas mask; another man, completely silent, wearing a long highwayman's coat, tricorn hat and gas mask and stretching lengths of red ribbon menacingly between his fists like the fetish music scene's answer to Bez. I can't even begin to think what the Americans upstairs would make of this.

Patti believes in suffering for her art, having lost her job through staying too long up at this summer's Edinburgh Festival - but at least it paid handsome dividends musically, bringing her to the attention of The Dresden Dolls' Amanda Palmer, with whom she dueted and who has since labelled her (astutely, it has to be said) "a mad fucking Doris Day meets PJ Harvey", and subsequently scoring her a support slot on the current Puppini Sisters UK tour. Not to be missed, basically.

Three pints and the best part of a bottle of wine down and it's not even 5pm, so it's probably for the best that we duck out for a bit of fresh air and to meet friends in passing - not least because I'm later reliably informed that the next band are (inevitably) a disappointment. Plenty of acts come to prominence despite having saddled themselves with a name they have to carry around like a particularly rotten albatross, whereas, judging by their MySpace samples, Confrontiers are a band on whom the name is wasted.

Wasted is exactly what I am by the time Goodbye Sergeants hack through their set, and, as the wine continues to flow and the memory of Lily and Patti lingers, I find myself retreating further into a snidey, sniffy attitude about the lame fare now being served up. Confrontiers missed out, but no such luck for Goodbye Sergeants, who are destined to get both barrels. Beneath the veneer of de rigeur street-smart Arctic Monkeys gobbiness, they are pub punk of the most crass kind. 'Boy Band Kind Of Way' is the bludgeoningly unsubtle single upon which they appear to be pinning their hopes of fame and fortune. But I suppose you have to stick your mortgage on your three-legged horse to win the race when all your others only have two.

The headliners - at around 6pm - are Rays, about whom it's difficult to be so animatedly critical. Familiar influences they can't transcend (Grandaddy, Big Star), sure; a generally insipid take on West Coast rock a la The Thrills, yep; but, unlike Goodnight Sergeants, at least in 'Where Did It All Go Wrong?' they have a tidily constructed and airbrushed aural grenade that could well explode if lobbed in the right direction, under the right conditions and with the right sense of timing.

So, where did it all go wrong, then? Round about the time we got our third bottle of wine, perhaps? No, earlier, I think - the moment Patti Plinko left the stage.

You can't win 'em all, though, so fair play to the folks behind Jealous Of The Daylight for putting on these unusual Sunday afternoon/evening gigs in a setting that's itself a bit out of the ordinary - and for giving an old Nottingham acquaintance of mine, Pete Schiazza, gainful employment taking photos for their website.