Tuesday, January 10, 2006

SWSL Top 10 Live Performances Of 2005

Loads of gigs and a marvellous festival - and yet I'm still rueing the one that got away: The Arcade Fire, Birmingham Academy, 6th May. Curse my reticence.

Special thanks this year must go to Phill and Kate for helping to expose me to some of the best local bands that Birmingham has to offer (and thanks also to fellow Brummie gig-goers Kenny, Andy and Pete for their company).

10. MERCURY REV, Birmingham Academy, 11th March

"The set is at first heavy with tracks from new album The Secret Migration, latest single ‘Across Yer Ocean’ particularly impressive, with older tracks like ‘Tides Of The Moon’ sprinkled in, and, as with the songs themselves, it takes time for momentum to build. But build it does, and penultimate song ‘Goddess On A Hiway’ is incredible, more than enough to compensate for the absence of ‘The Dark Is Rising’ and ‘Chains’. A three song encore concludes with ‘Spiders & Flies’, and then it’s 10pm and everybody out".

9. THE PUBIC FRINGE, Birmingham Flapper & Firkin, 6th December

"The Pubic Fringe are personal favourites of eccentric curmudgeon Mark E Smith of The Fall, with whom they've toured, and approximately thirty seconds into their set they're one of mine too. Immaculately abrasive yet extraordinarily tight, they're a brutal psychobilly covers band roughly (and that's the operative word here) in the mould of The Cramps with nods and winks in the direction of The Birthday Party and The Stooges.

They sound like they've forgotten to take their medication. Like there's other people's skin under their fingernails. Like if they weren't on stage they'd be in the gutter eating dog-ends.

Vocalist Nazi Sinatra is the inevitable focal point. Clad in a tasselled cowboy shirt, he lurches back and forth apparently using the mic stand for support and chainsmoking, a fact which immediately explains his extraordinary rasping growl.

The set careers through a series of stomping three-minute songs before reaching its peak with a much longer number about "old-time religion" which might be what The Doors would have sounded like (criminally lame rock hack cliche alert!) had they experimented with ketamine rather than LSD and spent their days chewing their own arms off.

Under the circumstances, for me to stand tapping my foot and nodding my head is akin to saying "Excuse me, would you mind leaving me alone - there's a good chap" while being savaged by a rabid pitbull. This music demands a rather less restrained and polite reaction. Curse that English reserve

8. DRESDEN DOLLS, Glastonbury Festival, 26th June

"About this time yesterday I was watching The Rakes. I’ve forgotten everything about them except the fact that they were instantly forgettable. The same cannot be said of The Dresden Dolls. "Brechtian punk cabaret" they label themselves, and who am I to disagree? I’m still desperately struggling to get my bearings, confronted with a sultry gothed-up singer / keyboard player (Amanda Palmer) and a drummer done up like a mime artist who attacks his kit with more ferocity than anyone I’ve seen for a long time (Brian Viglione). Their cover of ‘War Pigs’, the second of the weekend after Hayseed Dixie yesterday, is extraordinary, and ‘Coin-Operated Boy’ is equally striking, not least the section during which they play as though the record has stuck. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before".

7. THE WHITE STRIPES, Glastonbury Festival, 24th June

"Fuck me if Jack White doesn’t look ridiculous with his Mexican pimp ‘tache. And Meg still can’t sing. And we REALLY don’t need marimbas. But when the duo avoid material from Get Behind Me Satan (‘Blue Orchid’ aside, which I hear for the very first time tonight), there’s no doubting they’re electric. The set is a procession of fantastic songs, starting with ‘Dead Leaves And The Dusty Ground’ and taking in ‘Hotel Yorba’, ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’, ‘I Smell A Rat’ and the brilliant ‘Ball And Biscuit’ (split into sections and dispersed) before coming to a close, predictably enough, with ‘Seven Nation Army’".

6. DIRTY THREE, Birmingham Academy, 21st November

"I've never heard Dirty Three before, let alone seen them in the flesh, but they really are something quite special. Call them post-rock if you must (an inevitability, really, given their vocalless songs), but they draw upon folk, jazz and avant garde traditions, live up to their name by leaving you feeling as though you've got dirt under your fingernails and are perhaps first and foremost a punk band - at how many Godspeed! You Black Emperor gigs would you expect to see a fistfight break out immediately behind you, as does tonight?

That said, unassuming guitarist Mick Turner never once threatens to become animated, while drummer Jim White - whose percussive invention behind the kit, even down to carefully and repeatedly dropping a drumstick to send it skittering across the snare, is amazing to behold - is a picture of concentration, only rarely breaking into a smile.

Nearly all of the energy comes from Ellis, who, though stood in the main with his back to the audience, is a magnetic presence. His frequently furious style owes much to The Velvet Underground and particularly 'The Black Angel's Death Song', and he attacks his violin with such gusto that several bowstrings snap each song while flailing his right leg out as if possessed. At some points he plucks the violin like a guitar, and at others shouts into the strings

5. MAXIMO PARK, Glastonbury Festival, 24th June

"The first stupendously good set of the festival, and it comes courtesy of the first half of a Geordie double bill, Maximo Park. A fledgling outfit they may be, but they’ve got fantastic new-wave tunes coming out of their ears - from ‘Apply Some Pressure’ to ‘Now I’m All Over The Shop’, from ‘The Coast Is Always Changing’ to forthcoming single and set closer ‘Going Missing’. And that’s without even mentioning the crowning glory of ‘Graffiti’. Paul Smith is a magnetic figurehead, scissor-kicking around the stage only to stop occasionally and read his lyrics from a book, but in keyboard player Lukas Wooller Maximo Park effectively boast a second frontman - when he’s not hunched over his instrument Wooller hops around chopping the air robotically like a short-circuiting member of Kraftwerk. Lively doesn’t really do this performance justice".

4. SIGUR ROS, Birmingham Academy, 14th November

"As the band walk out onto the stage, the curtain edges across once more and they launch into 'Untitled #8', the final track from 2002's ( ). Eight minutes it takes to build to its explosive climax, all restraint now abandoned in spectacular fashion as the drummer, freed from the straitjacket of the main set, attacks his kit with violent relish and a strobed flurry of projected images strikes the curtain. It's a fireworks display a week and a half too late. It's the sort of all-out sensual assault that would put Mogwai and Spiritualized in the shade. And it's an awesome conclusion to a very fine gig.

Guilty of taking themselves too seriously? Yes. Pretentious? Probably. Mindblowing? Too damn right

3. THE FUTUREHEADS, Glastonbury Festival, 25th June

"This band just doesn’t do disappointment. The set starts slowly enough with ‘Le Garage’ and ‘The City Is Here For You To Use’ before gathering pace and climaxing in style with ‘Carnival Kids’, ‘Hounds Of Love’ (for which the crowd are split in half to sing the two vocal parts), ‘Man Ray’ and ‘Piece Of Crap’. Of their eponymous debut, only ‘Trying Not To Think About Time’ doesn’t get an airing – we’re even treated to a rare appearance of the a capella ‘Danger Of The Water’, in addition to The Television Personalities’ ‘A Picture Of Dorian Gray’ and new song ‘Area’. The band’s front three Barry Hyde, Ross Millard and bassist Jaff have always combined to create some stunning vocal harmonies to overlay their jerky XTC style new wave punk, but over time they’ve developed a real comic repartee, to the extent that they almost come across as a music hall act. As much as I enjoyed them two years ago in the New Bands Tent, they’ve come a long way – from kings of the toilet circuit to stadium rock showmen".

2. LOW, Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall, 19th February

"They might be living up to the billing as a bona fide rock band these days, but that doesn't stop Sparhawk introducing new single 'California' as being about his mother. Although the band seem jovial on stage - they laugh about Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker's kid dancing around to the first Napalm Death record in the empty venue earlier in the evening - the reflective and heart-meltingly sad moments are still there, buried in the middle of singalong set-closer 'Broadway (So Many People)' in the enigmatic line "Where is the laughter?".

They also still have that uncanny knack of making the hairs on the back of your neck stand stiff to attention. Sparhawk's nakedly solo rendition of 'Death Of A Salesman' is something truly special, but Parker is not to be outdone and her astonishingly clear vocals make the hushed 'Laser Beam' one of the night's highlights, along with 'When I Go Deaf', which begins in near-silence before exploding into life with squalling guitar to die for

1. BRIAN WILSON, Glastonbury Festival, 26th June

"JESUS H CHRIST THIS IS FUCKING AMAZING! The overlapping vocals of ‘God Only Knows’ (message to The Futureheads: nice try boys, love Brian), the plaintive downbeat beauty of ‘In My Room’ (Martin: "I’ve always wanted to write the alter ego to this song – ‘In My Attic’"), the soaring verse vocal of ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and the splendid incongruity of ‘Little Saint Nick’ (unlike Swiss Toni I don’t have a Santa hat to hand), all wrapped up with ‘California Girls’ and, better still, ‘Good Vibrations’. Throughout it all the legend himself sits there, calm and composed while all around him are losing their heads".

Every other band or artist I've enjoyed / endured this year:

Amina / Art Brut / Augustine / Autons / Beats Capri / Bellydance Superstars & The Desert Roses / Bloc Party / Bright Eyes / Chester Road / Clor / The Coral / Elvis Costello / The Duke Spirit / Editors / 51 Breaks / Goldie Lookin Chain / The Go! Team / The Graham Parsip Liquidiser Torture Think-Tank (Project) / Hayseed Dixie / Jools Holland / I Am Zeitgeist / The International Karate Plus / Interpol / Jetlag / Kid Dakota / The Killers / LCD Soundsystem / The Light Era / The Magic Numbers (x2) / Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks / Maria Szyrtisz & The Pyramids Of Mars / M83 / Midas / Modey Lemon / Motorcycle Stunts / Needless Alley / New Order / Nine Black Alps / Josh Pearson / Chris Perrin / The Pipettes / The Rakes / Sinistra (x2) / Sons And Daughters / StrangeTime (x4) / Ruth Theodore / 2 Many DJs / Trash Fashion / Chris T-T / Rufus Wainwright / Josie Watts / When Bears Attack / Yourcodenameis:milo

A reminder of SWSL Top 10 Live Performances Of 2004:

1. SONIC YOUTH, Brixton Academy
2. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS, Wolverhampton Civic Hall
3. THE FUTUREHEADS, Birmingham Academy
4. SPIRITUALIZED, Nottingham Rock City
5. MOGWAI, Nottingham Rock City
6. THE FIERY FURNACES, Nottingham Stealth
7. THE ICARUS LINE, Nottingham Rock City
8. PJ HARVEY, Glastonbury Festival
9. FRANZ FERDINAND, Birmingham Academy
10. MUSE, Glastonbury Festival


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