Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Seeing red


Ever felt like you're the anomaly responsible for raising the average age of a gig crowd above 18? Well, I don't tonight. The dads chaperoning their daughters are doing that...

Fact number one: Peggy Sue & The Pirates have nothing to do with Pete & The Pirates. Fact number two: judging by the absence of peg-legs, pieces of eight and shoulder-perched parrots, neither are they particularly piratical.

The Brighton-based duo - yes, there are only two of them - have supported Kate Nash and so it's no great surprise that they come across as being in a similar vein, albeit possessed by the maverick spirit of someone like Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes. Instruments come and instruments go, but always centre stage are their voices - strong, dovetailing, busily improvising additional sound effects (standout song, the single 'Television', ends with them imitating static), but for these ears too often irritatingly accented. Blood Red Shoes drummer Steven Ansell appears for an acoustic cover of his band's 'Take The Weight', but that's about the only time the chattering classes of sixth formers actually pay them much attention.

Slightly less straightforwardly cast in the role of prelude to the main act are These New Puritans. The Southenders played here as recently as January and have actually cancelled a headlining show of their own later in the month to appear in this support slot.

At times, there's something promising about the violent disco created by the two nerdy-looking mop-heads on stage, as thin as anorexic streaks of piss. Take single 'Elvis', for example: an indiefied Fall set to a thwacking great synthetic beat. But at others - the jackbooted Missy Elliott stomp of 'Swords Of Truth' (over which I guarantee you'll find yourself singing "Get your freak on"...) - it's distinctly underwhelming. And then there's 'Numbers AKA Numerology', on which they think they can get away with singing embarrassingly idiotic piffle like "What's your favourite number? / What does it mean?" by virtue of the fact that they're referencing mathematics, just like all good young angular NME-favoured bands should.

And so to the headliners.

As a wise man once opined, anger is an energy. That same wise man may have gone on to appear on ‘I’m A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here!’, but his point remains valid – and that’s why the room is soon positively crackling with energy.

There’s no denying the fact that Blood Red Shoes are mightily miffed. Halfway through the set, Laura-Mary Carter furiously flings her guitar to the floor and storms off stage right, her partner Ansell following sharply after.

This is no inexcusably arrogant diva-ish strop or childish temper tantrum, though. With long-awaited and unfortunately delayed debut LP Box Of Secrets finally about to hit the shelves, the duo have been bedevilled by malevolent technical gremlins from the off (the set delayed for the best part of ten minutes, the intro tape left to loop over and over again), so it's hardly surprising they've become increasingly frustrated in their attempts to showcase a bunch of songs in which they passionately believe. "It's hard not to get worked up sometimes", Laura-Mary admits to me afterwards.

When they reappear, apologetically, the anger hasn’t dissipated and - further riled by The Man’s joyless limiting of the stage invasion encouraged by Ansell to just Peggy Sue & The Pirates and one lone fan - they set about those same songs with a ferocity that the recording process just can’t capture, mainlining their furious art-punk assault straight into our earholes. An explosive live act at the best of times, tonight their abrasive reimagining of Nirvana if they’d been on Kill Rock Stars rather than Sub Pop is in a different league altogether.

In truth, Box Of Secrets is ingenuously titled, a whole clutch of the songs – ‘It’s Getting Boring By The Sea’, ‘I Wish I Was Someone Better’, ‘You Bring Me Down’ and most recently ‘Say Something Say Anything’ – having already seen the light of day as singles and on the band’s numerous jaunts the length and breadth of the country.

But there’s the rub. It’s fitting that such serious contenders for the title of the hardest gigging band in Britain should take their name from a story about Ginger Rogers having to rehearse a dancing sequence so many times her white shoes turned red. After all, it’s precisely that kind of dogged tunnel-vision determination and dedication, even at risk of exhaustion and personal injury, that defines them.

Safe to say that suffering sabotage at the hands of the fucking Academy and its goons is unlikely to stop them.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Monsters of rock

Inevitably it's impossible to watch Metallica documentary (or rockumentary, if you will) 'Some Kind Of Monster', as I did recently, without immediately thinking of 'This Is Spinal Tap'.

After all, the behind-the-scenes access-all-areas film made during the tortuously protracted recording sessions for their 2003 album St Anger features ridiculously petulant feuds and childish tantrums on the part of James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich while a wearied Kirk Hammett, forever shaking his head, tries to keep the peace with a futile whine of "Hey guys, can't we all just get along?" And that's not to mention the psychologist / relationship counsellor they're paying $40,000 dollars a week to be call day and night...

But the other film that sprang to mind was 'DiG!', because both made for equally entertaining viewing despite my not caring much for the bands they focus on (in the case of 'DiG!', The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre).

And with 'Some Kind Of Monster' it isn't all laughs at the expense of the protagonists. It's actually a grippingly revealing insight into a world that music fans rarely see - one in which egotistical multi-million-selling musicians can suffer from envy and a crisis of confidence just by seeing their former bassist performing with his new band, and in which a band who have founded their career on being loud and angry but who now find themselves in comfortable middle-aged affluence feel the pressure to come up with something that stands up to their back catalogue.

And that's not to mention the way the film unpicks and exposes the creative process itself, showing the trio noodling away in the studio with little clue of how things might take shape - or, rather, be moulded into shape by ever-present producer Bob Rock.

Perhaps most curious is the feeling, unspoken but evidently shared by all involved, that no matter how bad the tensions and arguments get, they should persevere because ultimately they have something special together that should be preserved - misplaced though that feeling might be, when their collaborative brainstorming session for lyrical ideas throws up the line "My lifestyle determines my deathstyle" and they all decide it should make it onto the finished album...

This be the verso


What, me, at a gig at the Jericho Tavern, with not a Glaswegian artist in sight, with my reputation?

Anyway, what can I tell you about the evening's openers BITCHES? Next to nothing, as it happens - my usual crutch the internet has proven useless, and in any case the foursome aren't exactly ideally named for the inquisitive googler. So, with nothing to go on but their three song performance, I can only say that Bitches' brew is unfortunately akin to a dog's dinner, thanks in no small part to the over-enthusiastic synth assault. Perhaps it's a sign of age, but watching the percussionist hunched over smashing out a beat on a mic'd-up metal dustbin, I can't help but fear for his back - maybe their set is so short on doctor's orders? (An aside: they should team up with locals Witches for a split single, if only for comic effect.)

By contrast, I'm already familiar with Deguello, having encountered them two years ago when they came to Cardiff under the wing of Winnebago Deal. On that occasion, bassist Rusty Needles lambasted the crowd for being "lame", but tonight the shoe's on the other foot, the trio seeming to have lost their way somewhat since then.

Stretching to straddle a musical divide, though often admirable and occasionally inspired, can often be perilous, and that's the problem here. Two-thirds of the band seem to want to be in Melvins, and the other member - guitarist The Earwig, preoccupied with playing a miniature bell and then some tape-recorded vocals into her pick-ups - pulls in the direction of the trippier, freeform material of Sonic Youth's early career. The result is an uneasy and not very convincing amalgam - a neither/nor, rather than a best of both worlds.

Two-thirds of headliners Future Of The Left - whom I've repeatedly missed seeing in their native Cardiff - WERE actually in a different band. All you need to know about Mclusky is encapsulated in the fact that they once released a one-minute-long blast of head-drilling noise called 'Joy' as a single and then included it on an album called My Pain And Sadness Is More Sad And Painful Than Yours. Fond of the same eardrum-scouring guitar sound and caustically black wit as Steve Albini's Shellac (one of their final B-sides was christened 'Dave, Stop Killing Prostitutes'), they were very much the anti-Stereophonics.

If Andy Falkous and Jack Egglestone's new outfit Future Of The Left - completed by former Jarcrew man Kelson Mathias - don't quite match up to their former incarnation, then it's not for want of trying. Aggression and bleak humour still skip along merrily hand-in-hand in Falco's world; debut album Curses kicks off with a track called 'The Lord Hates A Coward', and also features the single 'adeadenemyalwayssmellsgood' and diplomatic fence-sitter 'Fuck The Countryside Alliance'.

What's new are the keyboards, which means that some songs are - shock horror! - guitar-free zones. It's bemusing to think that the odd long-time Mclusky fan has been decidedly less than gruntled by this new development, given that Mathias's bass remains reassuringly bone-rattlingly heavy. If the pitbull that is their music occasionally gets close to licking your cheek, it's never far from clamping its slavering jaws around your head and puncturing it like a cheap balloon.

For a band no doubt used to crowds going bezerk, they do a good job of hiding any disappointment at the by-now familiarly reserved Oxford reception with which they're confronted, pondering why the restaurant over the road undersells itself as the Standard Tandoori when the fayre merits the description "fine" ("Is the It's OK Chinese just down the road?"), and urging us to visit the merchandise stall to keep Egglestone's "beard trimmed and eyes hopeful" and roadie/tech Mitch in snazzy blue trousers. When the tempestuous and lengthy set-closer is brought to an end by Falkous and Mathias gradually dismantling Egglestone's kit while he plays, it's clear that most people don't need much persuading to part with their cash.

Leaving the Jericho Tavern after Malcolm Middleton's gig last month, I noted how it somehow felt appropriate that it had been pissing it down before the gig but had stopped afterwards. This time I've barely got ten yards down the road before I have to sidestep an enormous pile of beige and orange vomit. Somehow appropriate, again.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Sweeping the nation

A quick round-up of some recent small-scale gigging action around the country, recorded as much for posterity so I can track my movements as much as anything else...


Locating The Rainbow makes me feel like an intrepid voyager into uncharted waters - walk as you must into Digbeth past the newly razed coach station, past Sanctuary and the Barfly, past the Irish Centre, past the Custard Factory - but when we arrive it's not just with a sense of relief: this is obviously a very welcome addition to the list of music venues in the heart of the second city. A spacious old Victorian pub that's been refitted with more of a yoof edge, it has a permanent stage set up in a roofed courtyard at the back.

It's one of The Rainbow's regular 444 Club gigs (a commendably simple philosophy: four bands for £4 until 4am), and we've been drawn here tonight by the presence of StRANGEtIME, first on the bill. It's been some time since I last saw the trio (over two years, to be precise), during which time they've changed bassists (Chris Maher's the new man), released a single which got airplay on Kerrang! Unsigned, and had a Mercury-nominated act claim enthusiastically that lead singer Kate Finch "sounds like an angry dog" (Fyfe Dangerfield of Guillemots).

Of the material aired tonight that's new to these ears, aforementioned single 'Personality Disorder' and the title track of their first EP 'Oneitis' impress the most, but 'Ex-Boyfriend' still packs the biggest punch, its ferocity and directness leaving a bloodied nose, a contrast to some slightly soggy moments or over-complicated drumming elsewhere. That 'Dressing Up' appears to have been dropped from the set is inevitably a source of disappointment, personally speaking, but everyone has to move on at some point.

As do we - just as the smell of sizzling burgers begins to get me salivating, we head off in search of a karaoke party at a Chinese restaurant in the Jewelry Quarter. The name of the restaurant? Wok 'N' Roll. I believe I may at some point have provided wine-fuelled backing vocals for Cyndi Lauper's 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun', but hopefully it's all just a bad dream...

(You can read my West Midlands gig-going companion Kenny's take on the night here.)


Buffalo may be a decent enough (if pricey) watering hole, but as a venue its upstairs room could hardly be worse - long and narrow, with the stage at one end and around a corner which means that half of the audience funnelled in to watch has got a partial view, at best, of the performers. So it makes sense that the owners might decide to branch out and open a new establishment.

10 Feet Tall, on Church Street, is an ambitious attempt to bring together a street-level delicatessen and cafe-bar, a mezzanine restaurant "individually styled with high ceilings and an array of period lamps and chandeliers to create a truly modern twist on a gentleman's library" and a gig venue all under one roof. Time will tell if it works out, but the upstairs room has already played host to Son Of Dave and Johnny Foreigner, amongst others.

Tonight, though, it's the first Mish Mash, an eclectic night of music set to become a regular feature on Thursdays. A great meal from Canteen under our belts (more about that some other time), we arrive to discover we've just missed a band playing what's described to us as "Arabian funk". The Gentle Good - aka Gareth Bonello, who played last year's Green Man and whose sweet finger-picked folk has charmed the ear of 'Whispering' Bob Harris amongst others - was also on the bill, but he too has been and gone.

In the event, then, our first live action of the evening comes courtesy of Mish Mash organisers Lone Pine. I've seen them once before, almost two years ago to the day, and I'm automatically predisposed to be unkind, simply because of the way that, on that occasion, their idle, inconsiderate chatter intruded upon the quieter moments of the headline act My Latest Novel's set. In the wake of that support slot, they played three dates with Radar Bros, and that certainly figures - authenticity be damned, they desperately want to be My Morning Jacket. But they're kept grounded by leaden-footed songs, and, lacking the experimental ambitions of the likes of Wilco, they're unable to alchemise what is essentially solid and staid Americana into something much more interesting.

The evening's nominal headliner is Orcop aka Gwydion ap Hywel (yes, he may well be a Welsh native, fact fans). A purveyor of ambient laptronica, Orcop was recently asked by Lily Green to monkey around with her sweetest song to date, 'Mr Ladybird' - the result sees the dreamy quality of the original retained but set to a sharp and ever-so-slightly sinister beat that sounds like balloons being pricked. While his songs aren't totally obtuse, however, they are a radical departure from what's gone before - that's the point, of course, but, with many of the taps behind the bar having been drunk dry by a thirsty crowd determined to mark the beginning of the long Easter weekend in style, the fractured beats aren't exactly conducive to dancing, not matter how hard a handful of spectacularly arrhythmic punters try.


Saturday night, and all’s quiet. Seriously, Chichester town centre is deserted. It’s like we’re in the middle of the opening scene from ’28 Days Later’, only it's the low-budget version set in a sleepy and frightfully middle-class market town.

Thankfully, though, there are signs of life if you look hard enough - in La Havana, to be precise, an underground bunker of a bar / club which is tonight playing host to Autons. (That's the Portsmouth electro-rockers recently expanded to a foursome by the addition of a bassist, not the Australian band with a song called 'Pooing A Brick' or the Texan metallers who released Big Girls Look Better In Sweater Weather, in case you were wondering.)

The gig is in effect something of a warm-up for an imminent mini-tour, organised to promote their second single 'Election Singer'. In truth, twitchy debut release 'Snakes', which benefited from airplay courtesy of both Steve Lamacq and Rob da Bank, is much stronger than a follow-up that overdoses on stodgy, reheated pub punk guitar. Set highlights include 'Maybe' (though the new concluding mantra perhaps lays on the environmental message a little too thick), the glam-stomping reworking of the 'Dr Who' theme tune 'Recondition', and 'Snakes' B-side 'Ice Major', propelled by a fast and furious fist-in-the-air beat.

I'd probably recall more if I hadn't cracked my head off the curved low ceiling so many times...

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Now who art worthy, thousands cried holy

Billy Childish & the Musicians of the British Empire.
Dalston Barden’s Boudoir. 29mar08.

I have some history in the garage sphere. I used to do a record and merch stall at gigs for Portsmouth’s The Green Hornets. There I was behind me table loaded with mono LPs, with the quiff and crushed velvet knee-length jacket to go with it. It’s not a genre I’m an expert about though - I know what Toe Rag Studios is and what it represents, but that’s about it – but it’s a music that gets my knees a-movin’, whether tickled by crushed velvet or not.

I like the energy of garage; I like the fact that it’s coarse and rugged, but more often than not performed by musicians who espouse a distinct sartorial élan. All the garage rock n’ rollers I’ve ever known have always been pretty well turned out. However waistcoats, flamboyant silk shirts and shiny shoes will always be trumped by military uniforms, braces and the kind of handlebar moustache a family of six could hang their washing from.

So, with me, Billy Childish and the Musicians of the British Empire hit the ground running (most likely with imitation bayonets). Billy, of course, is a bit of an everyman: part of the Medway scene; a poet; a painter; a founder member of the Stuckism art movement; and an author of several volumes of poetry and autobiography. On top of this, he has recorded more than a hundred LPs in a variety of guises; Thee Milkshakes, Thee Headcoats and Wild Billy Childish & The Friends of the Buff Medways Fanciers Association (aka The Buff Medways) being, arguably, the most well known.

More salaciously his name appeared prominently in Tracey Emin’s tent. Furthermore, in recent years, he has been lauded by, and fallen out with, the White Stripes, while he also turned down an offer to appear in the 2006 Celebrity Big Brother house. All this info is a bit gossip rag though and Childish is more representative of a Fugazi-esque work ethic – getting down to business without all the exploitative add ons. His website states firmly “I do not like fashion culture.”

“Welcome to our Stoke Newington re’ersal” he says by way of greeting tonight, later adding, “What other bands would let you come to their re’ersal…and charge you ten quid for the privilege?” As it goes, it’s only seven sheets yer in, representing particularly good value, what with the Flaming Stars providing sturdy, and suave, support.

Buff Medways tune Dawn Said, recent BC&TMOTBE LP title track Christmas 1979 and the grizzled gospel of an a capella John the Revelator are the stand-outs in a vivid, stout and sweaty set, but it appears not everyone is satisfied, one heckle requesting that the guitars be turned up; “What? That’s like asking Beethoven to turn up his Moog” is Billy’s swift riposte.

While you might not get unexpected tangents or substantial changes of pace from Billy’s guitar, Nurse Julie’s bass or Wolf Howard’s drums, they stir in all the ingredients you need for an absorbing and distinguished garage set. As Billy himself said early in the evening, “nothing wrong wiv a bit of drums an’ racket.”


Tuesday, April 01, 2008

If you go down to the woods today...

Dead Meadow - Old Growth

A telling title, Old Growth. Referring to what we Brits call "ancient woodland", the term suggests at once both the primeval and the evolutionary - and as such it's perfect for Dead Meadow's latest full-length offering.

On the one hand, it's largely familiar territory to Meadow afficionados, an album hewn out of 70s hard rock and stoner metal played by three men who seem to have been raised to the sound and on the philosophy of Black Sabbath's 'Sweet Leaf'. On the other, it's a natural progression from its predecessor Feathers, a development of sorts if one which actually involves the Bostonians pruning back their trademark rambling jams to a more conventionally manageable length.

A huge fan of being borne off on the backs of the unfettered beasts of Shivering King And Others, though, and having once witnessed them play precisely four songs in supporting Mogwai, I'm uncomfortable with what is, relatively speaking at least, a new-found sense of focus. Only opener 'Ain't Got Nothing (To Go Wrong)' is allowed to drift beyond the six minute mark (drab final track 'Either Way' only lasts for nearly eight minutes because of the electronics tacked onto the end), and it's the clear stand-out. Tellingly, its closest rivals for that status, 'Till Kingdom Come' and 'What Needs Must Be', would both rank as lesser lights on previous albums.

Elsewhere, the self-restraint seems artificial - paradoxically, the "growth" turns out to be a self-imposed inhibition - and the consequence on tracks like 'I'm Gone' is a disappointing conservatism. That it's followed by 'Seven Seers' and 'The Great Deceiver', tabla-heavy psychedelia and lumpy Led Zep blues-by-numbers respectively, doesn't help.

Dead Meadow have always been sonic somnambulists, but at times on this record they do just sound tired.