Sunday 29 June 2008

The Bookhouse Boys / Isosceles -The Borderline

Isosceles @ Voodoo Rooms 27/3/08

Jack Valentine holds his guitar to his cheek and gets ready to rock.

Isosceles have come down from Glasgow to play to what starts out as a pretty depleted Borderline. Like all great live acts, the Scots don’t give a stuff about the sparse attendance and the empty space in front of the stage, instead launching into a full tilt set that belies the circumstances.

Valentine is a real star in the making, his guitar swung around on a short strap, often held in the air and cradled to his bosom like a loved one. His boundless energy, manic dashing about and occasional Chuck Berry duck walk speak of a guy who is thoroughly enjoying himself. And this enthusiasm extends to the rest of the band.

Jack is ably abetted by William Aikman, who pounds away on a Hammond organ, producing sounds that are less traditional accompaniment and more semi-random skronks of noise. It all works very well, as does William’s singing along with gusto.

A mark of a good band is that although I have never heard them before, their songs instantly hook into my brain, and I and the rest of my group have started using the chorus of “Get Your Hands Off” for fun and giggles ever since I saw them.

They end with a rousing version of the single “Kitch (sic) Bitch” and those of us who were there give them a big cheer and an ovation. Isosceles are enormous fun, and I recommend them without reservation.

We saw The Bookhouse Boys on the Camden Crawl, and enjoyed them so much that here we are again to see them headline in their own right.

They are impressive before they’ve even played a note - a nine piece unit squeezed onto the small stage, dressed in black, and including two drummers and a trumpet section.

Singer/guitarist Paul Van Oestren marshals his troops marvellously, bending down from the throng to emote into a microphone which seems set uncomfortably low, but which enables him to croon to the audience. This low posture is also useful for pleading and emoting through songs such as ‘Dead’ and ‘Tonight’, both of which are wonderful this evening.

Stage left, the other main vocalist, Catherine Turner, has poured herself into a black sheath dress that is slinky and sleek and any other similar adjective you can think of. ‘Femme fatale’ doesn’t even begin to do it justice.

A band this size is always going to make an impact, and when they are in full effect on the instrumental ‘G-Surf’, they take your breath away. Van Oestren admits that tonight they have one stand-in drummer and one of the trumpeters has played on despite a broken wrist, but never mind the logistics, the Bookhouse Boys are a wonderful band.

It’s been a damn good evening, with two bands who must surely progress further up the music business ladder. I commend them both.

Sunday 22 June 2008

My Bloody Valentine at London Roundhouse

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. So it may be true to say that in the nearly two decades since they last actually DID anything, that the legend of My Bloody Valentine has grown to such an extent that these reunion/reactivation shows at the Roundhouse are anticipated very eagerly indeed.

I have to hold my hand up at this point. Although I am happy to admit that they have their moments, I’ve never quite seen what all the fuss was about.

I first came across the band at the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town in 1986, when they were just one of many of the so-called ‘shambling’ bands of the era. At that time, their most distinguishing feature was not their music, but their haircuts – the whole band had long fringes that hung down to their mouths, making it impossible to see who was who.

I caught them again on the Jesus and Mary Chain ‘Rollercoaster’ tour of 1992, when My Bloody Valentine had established themselves as a live band of rare power. I remember them filling the Brixton Academy with a deafening noise for around 45 minutes, and it being mesmerising – far more fun than the headliners were on that occasion.

Their records always seemed weedy and underpowered, but in 1992 it was thought that the next MBV album would be the one to do them justice. And of course, it never came.

Over the years, the legend grew. They became titans because they weren’t around to sully their reputation. It was the James Dean syndrome. Dying was the best career move that boy ever made.

Now, incredibly, they are back. Although whether it is the lure of ready cash or unfinished musical business that has caused this to happen is still uncertain. There are rumours of new material, and another attempt at re-mastering the two albums for which they are best remembered, ‘Loveless’ and ‘Isn’t Anything’. Rather reassuringly, these last two are allegedly delayed because Kevin Shields can’t draft new sleeve notes.

The Roundhouse is heaving with people tonight – a good proportion of whom were in nappies the last time My Bloody Valentine were a serious proposition.

I’m up on a gantry at the back of the auditorium. It’s a good position to see the crowds below and their reaction to what promises to be an assault on the senses.

The lights go down, and the strobes come on. The band wander on, plug in and bam! the noise, even this far away, is sufficient to make you pray that your earplugs hold out. It’s an almost physical sensation, your body in distress, even if your brain allows you to cope.

Bilinda Butcher’s vocals are pretty well inaudible, and Kevin Shields himself can barely be heard. This doesn’t really matter, as MBV were never about the vocals - on the relevant songs it was just sufficient to know that there actually were some.

If you take the volume away, there is not much going on here. This is music as spectacle, a challenge to test the mettle of the audience. The whirling projected images, the strobes and the noise all serve to disorient, and as an exercise in sensory overload it certainly works.

They play the ‘hits’ and those tunes with something to grab hold of, such as ‘Soon’, stand out and add structure to what is otherwise interchangeable material. What is impressive is that despite the circumstances, there is no random thrashing of instruments, every chord has been considered and is precisely performed.

The show stopping finale is ‘You Made Me Realise’ which has become the opportunity for the band to take everything to the max and subject the audience to a twenty minute burst of repetitive riffing and drumming, while the strobes go off every few seconds. It is punishing, and is meant to be. The band apparently refer to this passage as the ‘holocaust’, and it is certainly a gruelling experience. However, if a band disappears for twenty years, others can appropriate their schtick, and I have certainly seen the likes of Sunn 0))) do the same thing for three times the length. In cowls.

Meeting up afterwards with an acquaintance who had been a few rows from the front of the stage, I am told that people were fainting and being removed. Job done, then.

I think that My Bloody Valentine have largely lived up to their reputation, and that honour has been satisfied. Nevertheless, they’ve blown their cover now, and unless they disappear again for another decade or so, they are now going to have to actually deliver something other than tinnitus.

Saturday 21 June 2008

Gang of Four / Tom Tom Club - Royal Festival Hall

Gang of Four Photo: Matej Grgić

Back again to the Festival Hall for some more blasts from the past courtesy of Massive Attack’s Meltdown.

There are two acts on this evening, both of whom dabble in their different ways in the dancier end of the punk/ new wave spectrum of the early Eighties. Each have their adherents here tonight, but as on Wednesday, I suspect that there are very few people who are here for both.

First of all we get the Tom Tom Club, a band that have always been overshadowed by Talking Heads, or rather by David Byrne’s polymath solo career. Not that Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz give a hoot.

The Tom Tom’s may closely resemble a bunch of teachers having a jolly time in music class, but what they lack in prowess, they make up for in sheer good spirits. Tina is chatty in a new blue dress and sister Vicki has a prodigious pair of dancers pins, which she wields to good effect.

The band play the same, slightly ponderous, halting funk that was always their stock in trade. It may lack the genuine bounce of Tackhead, but it shows that new kids on the block like Vampire Weekend a) didn’t invent this stuff and b) can’t hold a candle to the oldsters.

The Tom Tom Club only really had two decent songs, ‘Genius of Love’, and ‘Wordy Rappinghood’, both of which get extended outings tonight. And these still sound fresh and fine. The other material this evening is forgettable at best, and I will gloss over a version of Hot Chocolate’s ‘You Sexy Thing’ which is very not good indeed.

The band are a light hearted, easy start to the evening. I doubt that they are particularly bothered these days, and just perform for the fun of it. I’m happy to indulge them.

Gang of Four on the other hand, are back with a vengeance. Jon King and Andy Gill may be the only two originals left, but they have a new single and an album ready to go.

Tonight, they are joined by Gail Ann Dorsey on bass, a tiny but authoritative figure, who strides around the stage, trying, often vainly, to keep out of the way of King, who is almost out of control this evening.

As might be expected, Gang of Four’s set is based substantially around songs from their debut ‘Entertainment’ album. It is good to see these songs played live, with the fire and passion that they deserve, rectifying the awful production values of that record.

Jon King is a man possessed tonight, flailing, arm waving and in a move peculiar to him and no other front man I have ever seen, repeatedly locking his hands on his knees and bouncing around the stage like a gorilla. It is a punishing performance, and at several points he physically collapses at a song’s end. This is not done for effect- at one point Dorsey scampers forward and calls for assistance from off stage, convinced that King has done himself a serious mischief.

Andy Gill is more dignified, content to stand centre stage and discharge metallic chords from his guitar. Even he can’t entirely resist a bit of theatricality, and after a protracted opening sequence to ‘Anthrax’ he hurls his instrument across the stage.

Meanwhile, King performs his recent live party piece, the systematic destruction of a microwave oven with a baseball bat. Shards of plastic and metal fly all over the place, and the barefoot Dorsey decamps to the far side of the stage while the debris is swept up.

The crowd (surprisingly young) lap all this up, and stand through out. The set ends with a triumphant ‘Damaged Goods’, and not the song that they are probably best known for, ‘I Found That Essence Rare’. Whether this omission was a result of time constraints or just plain orneryness is of no import. Tonight, Gang of Four showed that an old tiger is still a tiger, and they are not ready for extinction just yet.

Thursday 19 June 2008

Mark Stewart and the Maffia / Stiff Little Fingers at Royal Festival Hall

Mark Stewart

Tonight’s performance has been arranged by Massive Attack, in their role as curators of this year’s Meltdown Festival, held on and around London’s Southbank. It is a slightly odd double-bill, with very little obvious correlation between the fans of one act and the other.

This means that when I take my seat for Mark Stewart and the Maffia, there are quite a number of empty seats around the place.

Stewart is a veteran of the Bristol music scene and in the early Eighties, his desolate, apocalyptic visions of a paranoid, surveillance-obsessed society seemed dark and histrionic and uncomfortable. He never really got his due at the time, but his legend has increased over the years and it is possible to draw a direct line through to the bleak industrial stadium rock of the likes of Nine Inch Nails.

Back then, Stewart was a haunted figure, apparently terrified of live performance, often shrouded in total darkness or completely hidden from the audience behind banks of speakers. He barely played live at all.

Tonight he is transformed. An introductory video clip shows him dancing around his house and saying that he left the music business for a time to spend more time with ‘brickies’. Whatever these guys told him, they have taught him how to finally enjoy himself on stage.

Mark Stewart bounces into view like an old prize fighter, light on his feet and constantly on the prowl. His voice is still unique – a distorted scream, treated and warped by Adrian Sherwood’s dub-trickery on production duties. It fades, it echoes, it explodes in violence and a deafening wall of feedback.

To call the Maffia a backing band does them scant justice. Drummer Keith LeBlanc, guitarist Skip McDonald and bassist Doug Wimbish are a fearsomely powerful unit, each a stunning musician in their own right, whose day jobs have included playing for the likes of the Rolling Stones, and (back in the day) acting as house band for Sugar Hill Records, where they laid down the funk for some of the biggest disco hits of all time. And yet they always return in their Tackhead/Maffia guise to assist the giant Stewart, who towers over them by a good foot and a half.

Wimbish’s bass can move your internal organs about, and watching him slap and scratch at it changes the entire way that you look at the instrument. McDonald is petite and fastidious, triggering searing shards of sound form guitar and keyboard, lost in his own world of noise.

Tonight Mark Stewart runs through a repertoire of old and new material, often seguing songs together in a free-style manner, literally lost in music. So entranced is he that during ‘Survival’ he falls over a monitor and almost lands in LeBlanc’s lap. He finds this hugely funny - which it is. The lyrics may be dark, but the music is unstoppable.

Stewart leaves the stage to a standing ovation, promising a ‘knees up’ later.

Headliners Stiff Little Fingers have filled the venue with their own fans, and have their own agenda – it is thirty years since their debut album ‘Inflammable Material’ and they are here to play it in its entirety. Kind of.

Their fans have occupied the front of the stage and formed a pretty impressive, if rather elderly, mosh pit. I see one guy balancing precariously on crutches, waving them above his head as he is battered back and forth.

After running through a few of their later songs, which include a tribute to Joe Strummer, SLF get down to the matter at hand. Opening track , ‘Suspect Device’ still makes the hair on your head stand up, and is one of the all time great punk anthems.

Singer Jake Burns may be a little more portly than in his youth (aren’t we all?) but still has an astonishingly powerful voice. He introduces each track in turn and the crowd roar along.

Not all of the songs have worn well. ‘Barbed Wire Love’ has dated badly and ‘White Noise’, the band’s controversially worded anti-racist song seems like an embarrassment to them now – they speed through it, omitting verses and segue it straight into the lengthy track ‘Johnny Was’.

This last is a bit of a revelation. I always hated it on record, lumping it in the same bracket as the Clash’s version of ‘Police and Thieves’, as an earnest but misguided failure. This live version is completely different, played almost as a martial song, with great drumming and the band marching on the spot. It works very well.

Under other circumstances, I would not have come to see Stiff Little Fingers, but tonight they show that they have lost little of their fire and spirit and that they are still worth the attentions of their devoted fan base.

Leaving the hall, my ears are assaulted by a titanic rumbling noise. Tackhead are playing at the back of the Festival Hall’s huge foyer and laying down a dub-heavy funk that has got an ever growing crowd of dancers skanking along.

I go towards the front of the throng just as Mark Stewart emerges in vest and tracksuit bottom to play a second set that is completely different from the one he has just finished in the main hall.

Tackhead morphs into the Maffia and old songs such as ‘Liberty City’ and ‘Jerusalem’ are disinterred. It is wonderful, and the crowd are so into it, (possibly with the aid of drink or drugs) that I see at least two people collapse against pillars or on the floor. At one point, Stewart too stumbles – “That’s twice!” he jokes.

My intended train home is a distant memory, but I’m not tearing myself away from this. At last they play the one song that I have wanted to hear, “Resistance of the Cell”. This was always the key track from the early days, and I genuinely think that seeing the Maffia play it back then is the single greatest live song I have ever heard. Tonight’s rendition does not quite live up to the earth shattering standards of yore, but it is mighty, mighty fine.

Stewart and the gang are still in full cry as I reluctantly leave. What is astonishing is that all his concerns about civil liberty, politics and data control seem more topical now than when the songs were first performed. It is also incredible that the band is not only still together, but can outperform virtually everything else that I’ve seen this year.

Here’s to the brickies.

Monday 16 June 2008

Sparks @ Shepherds Bush Empire

The venue is packed and expectant. Tonight represents the culmination of a project that is so unlikely, so grandiose, that to my knowledge it has never been attempted before, and it will almost certainly never be repeated.

Over the course of the last month Russell and Ron Mael, better known as Sparks, have been playing all twenty one of their albums, in order, and in their entirety. With a few relevant B sides thrown in for good measure. It is a wonderful act of folly, and yet, it has struck a chord with a surprising number of people. Apart from a few years in the early Seventies and again in the early Eighties, much the Maels work has been under the radar of popular perception. But they have remained in the collective unconscious and since they re-emerged with the first of their concept shows a few years ago, they have been welcomed back like lost relatives not seen since childhood.

Tonight is the live premiere of “Exotic Creatures of the Deep”, an album which sits comfortably alongside their recent work, which retain the witty wordplay of their early hits but which experiment with deceptively simple song structures and repetition.

The stage is dominated by picture frames, one of which doubles as a screen against which the brothers can interact.

From the off it is plain to see that Russ and Ron are enjoying themselves hugely, and if they are tired after their marathon achievement, there is no sign of it. Russell bounds from one side of the stage to the other during opener “Good Morning” and Ron is soon up smiling and dancing during “I Can’t Believe You Fell for All the Crap in This Song”.

Alongside animations of a monkey playing a piano during “Let The Monkey Drive” we also get a troop of dancers during “She Made Me Pregnant”. It’s fantastic entertainment.

As this is an album played in full, there are some songs that are less effective than others – “The Director Never Yelled Cut” seems as though it is not a song that will find its way into their live canon very often. Final song ‘Likeable’ doesn’t really live up to its title either. These are mere niggles though, and songs which on record had not previously stood out for me now make perfect sense. I particularly like “Lighten Up Morrissey” which name checks the man, who by putting Sparks on at his Meltdown festival around five years ago, helped to revive the fortunes of the band.

The second set of the evening comprises fan favourites, obscure material and songs that the brothers like themselves. Not being an über-fan, I am not as familiar with this part of the show, but I am reliably informed that ‘Big Boy’ and ‘Changes’ are things that no one had ever thought would see the light of day. Most pleasing for me is a gargantuan version of “Dick Around” and the encore, which is “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us”, the song that originally propelled them to fame.

The evening and the twenty-one album project comes to an end in triumph and a lengthy ovation. The Maels are visibly moved by their reception.

Sparks are one of the wonders of the modern musical world. We will miss them when they are gone.

Saturday 14 June 2008

Fleet Foxes @ ULU

Photo: Michael Maly

It starts in the dark.

Beach House shuffle onto the stage and start playing. Listlessly. They don’t seem particularly happy with the crowd or themselves. May be they are pining for their native Baltimore. Despite the stage being virtually unlit, they want the lights down even further.

Victoria Legrand sits at a keyboard and declaims croakily, while a white-suited Alex Scally picks at a guitar. The songs all plod by at a steady but interminable ten miles an hour and I calculate distances to the bar through the heaving throng.

It’s too far and too busy, so I grit my teeth and wait for Beach House to gradually run down…slowly…to…a … …stop.

Although the lights are barely brighter when Fleet Foxes come on stage, the mood changes instantly. It is as though the sun has come out. This young and predominantly very hairy band gathers closely around a seated Robin Pecknold and prepares to party like it’s 1970.

Right from the start, these guys hold the audience at rapt attention. This is secular sacred music, beautiful harmonies in praise of nature rather than a supreme being.

Initially, the only percussion is Pecknold banging his microphone stand with his palm, safe in the knowledge that this and THAT VOICE will be enough to compel everyone in this hall. In later moments, the band will rock out surprisingly forcefully, in jaunty hoedowns that even incorporate a bit of that old prog rock stand-by, the violin bow sawed across guitar strings.

What is also heart-warming is the jaunty good humour of the band, with plenty of banter between themselves and the audience (including a running gag about really being U2).

But it is all about those voices and THAT VOICE. Pecknold has a set of pipes that ring clear as an bubbling mountain crick, as pure as the untrammelled snow in a hidden Appalachian glade. The other band members harmonise like Beach Boys (only those with beards, mind – the hairless guitarist stands mute). Listening to these guys sing is awesome, in the literal sense that it fills you with the kind of awe that takes all sense of self away.

“White Winter Hymnal” is a celebration of innocent play, with kids with “scarves of red around their throats to stop their little heads from falling in the snow” as the song has it. You don’t just hear this song. In your mind’s eye, you see the events unfold.

Occasionally the rest of the band leaves the stage and Robin Pecknold just sings unaccompanied. The most astonishing song of all is the tale of the drowned ‘Oliver James’ whose pale body is fished from the river and “washed in the rain no longer”. I kind of stop breathing during this.

It’s a short set (if there is a fault with Fleet Foxes it is that their songs often sound like scraps of something bigger), and once the crowd snaps out of their reverie, they cheer the band to the echo. A colleague exclaims that tonight’s performance is “mythic” and will live long in the memory. It certainly won’t be quickly forgotten.

It ends in the light.

Thursday 5 June 2008

Those Dancing Days / John and Jehn @ 100 Club

Heading into the 100 Club at around half eight it seems that the timings of tonight’s bands are all over the place. There is only one support act, John & Jehn, and they are already in the early throes of their set. They are billed to play for half an hour. The headliners, Those Dancing Days, who have released a grand total of two singles so far, are down to perform for a daunting hour and a half. And pigs might fly.

John & Jehn are a French couple, although now based in London. John wields a guitar, sports cadaverous cheekbones and in moments of excitement, rolls his eyes into the back of his head, leaving only the whites visible. It’s not a good look.

Jehn meanwhile starts off behind a huge Farfisa organ, dark and intense, arching her back, before strapping on a bass guitar for the second half of the set to smash the living hell out of it.

Their songs are primitive and rhythm driven, and to my ears at least, the guitar-led tracks work a lot better than those with the organ. As the set proceeds, the pair build up an impressive intensity, jerking around and getting lost in the music and each other. The track ‘Sister’ particularly stands out.

John & Jehn depart, leaving an awful long time for the headliners to fill.

After a gap just long enough to start to be annoying, the five girls of Those Dancing Days come bounding on the stage. The absolute first impression that strikes you is how incredibly young they appear. I’ve seen bands with kids in before, but this lot look like a school music project.

The singer of the band, dressed rather like a junior tribute to John McEnroe, is Linnea Jönsson, and boy, does she have an unusual voice. She has the pipes of a Sixties soul singer, but an unusually low register, so much so that on the occasions when she has to hit a high note, her voice actually breaks and becomes a squeak.

The band show enormous enthusiasm and manage to be simultaneously very basic and very ambitious. It’s like a skiffle band playing progressive rock, in that songs which initially seem to be very straightforward tub-thumping, are stretched longer than is possible wise, and change key and rhythm in unexpected ways.

The drummer in the group is an absolute powerhouse, really driving things along. Similarly, the deliriously happy keyboard player also makes an impression, somehow managing to make a wonderfully danceable racket while at the same time dancing like a loon.

The set bounces along at a fair old lick, and there is a mini rush to the front as they sing “Hitten”. They finish off with an extended version of the eponymous “Those Dancing Days”.

They have played for just over half an hour, as was suspected. This is exactly how it should be. Short and sweet.

Monday 2 June 2008

The Molotovs / Kaputt - Barfly 31st May

We are invited upstairs by Gianluca Brisigotti, who is the first act on and who would quite like an audience. He would quite like a new guitar too, as he’s broken his. Borrowing an instrument from the headliners, Gianluca sings some gentle songs of his own and a Bill Withers cover. He seems a nice young man, but this brand of easy listening is not really my thing.

This is the second time that I have seen Kaputt, but it is the first time that I have really ‘got’ them. They are firmly marshalled by Silke Steidinger and are a tightly-drilled unit. It is this proficiency that defines their sound – songs are angry, muscular affairs that are delivered with a controlled passion.

Although their current status is indicated by their position on tonight’s bill, Kaputt do not sound like an act that are still feeling their way in the world. Every song seems hermetically complete and polished. Silke plugs their single (‘Family Tree’ out now on Too Pure) and touring activities remorselessly. It is this attention to every detail that can make it hard to warm to this band – they make a great sound, have some decent songs, but are so intense that they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves very much. I wish that they would relax a bit and not be so hard on themselves.

Prior to this evening, I knew nothing about The Molotovs and had not been reassured by a cursory listen to their Myspace. However, recorded works and live performances are two entirely different things and tonight they really impress me.

I always feel that a new band has got something about them if, as I watch them in a small venue, that the impression they give is that they are used to playing much bigger stages and that tonight is somehow special. I get this vibe from the Molotovs.

Singer Will Daunt is very affable and has a high, clear voice. He also has complete confidence in the band’s material, all of which feels like the finished article rather than work in progress.

Even though the band use occasional keyboards and saxophone to add to their guitars, Molotovs do not succumb to the curse of multi-instrumentation that affects some other groups- who feel that just because their members CAN play an instrument, that these should be incorporated into all songs as often as possible. Instead, tonight the variety comes from the songs themselves, with each tune distinctive in its own right.

Highlights of the set include “The Letter” with its acapella opening, and “One Up On Me”, surely a future single in the making. But it is all good stuff. The band have a grand time, so do the crowd and all is well with the world. After the gig, the crowd move on. I get the feeling that The Molotovs will be moving on (and upwards) too.