Monday 27 April 2009

Camden Crawl Day Two - Saturday 25th April 2009


Back again for Day Two of the 2009 Camden Crawl. There are more folk about than yesterday, what with it being a Saturday and all, and it is gloriously sunny.

So best to get inside quick. Starting off in the World’s End once more, we catch the end of a set from Bleech, who are just as much fun as they were yesterday.

A venue we have not been to yet is The Constitution, a pub set alone along the Camden canal. Upon arriving, the bad news is V V Brown getting into a car and driving off. The good news is that a band is set up and about to play.

This is Innerpartysystem, a metal/emo dance act who are officially slated to play the midnight slot at one of the bigger venues. In this tiny space they are little short of incandescent. To say the band are full-on would be an understatement, they scream and roar and pound their vast banks of equipment so hard that a roadie has to hold onto it throughout to stop everything from flying everywhere.

An unusual feature of this act is that their sound engineer is equipped with a microphone and can be seen hollering along in the background. The band are pouring sweat, and the guitarist cadges drinks from the crowd, before spraying beer all over the ceiling and diving into the throng. Subtle they ain’t, great fun they are.

Deafened and cheerful we head into the Electric Ballroom to catch a routine set from General Fiasco. Others with me enjoy them more than I do, but I get distracted by a vintage pinball machine and shamefully spend the time playing that.

Next we squeeze into the long, humid corridor that is the Black Cap to watch The XX. This lot are very interesting, being almost the complete antithesis of the sort of act that you would associate with this venue. They are spindly and intense and quiet, recalling nothing so much as an electronic take on Young Marble Giants. Those at the back can’t see them, and their calls threaten to drown the band out. Definitely ones to watch.

Across the road we find Hexes in full flow. They are pretty much exact copies of The Computers from yesterday. Hardcore, screaming etc. OK in small doses.

At this stage of the evening, something strange happens. The venues on the Crawl stop letting people in, and make them queue outside instead. This is not because the places are busy – The Electric Ballroom is barely half full. It seems to be a ploy to make a venue look attractive because of a line of bodies outside. After a brief hiatus its into the Earl of Camden for The Laurel Collective.

This band are jolly sorts, if rather underpowered. They have gathered comparisons with TV On The Radio, but this seems more to do with the personnel in the band rather than any specific musical similarity. The crowd likes them, and this small space suits their handheld percussion and twitchy rhythms.

In the Jazz Café, we find Xrabit & DMG$ stripped to the waist and leading a tiny but enthusiastic audience in a call and response routine. We’re a bit too late to make much sense of this, but everyone is sweating profusely and having a ball.

We’ve come for the next act, Goldielocks, aka the Queen of UK grime. When she comes onstage, the DJ has been playing a set of cheesy House bangers and the vibe is more like a hen night than an urban club. However, Goldielocks is a real pro and works the crowd with tracks such as ‘Smash & Grab’ and ‘Kids’. She can’t quite keep the exasperation and annoyance off her face –this is not her usual crowd and they don’t really know what is expected of them. It’s an enjoyable set, even if she isn’t enjoying it much herself.

So, that’s the Crawl for another year. The organisers will doubtless point to the success of the Roundhouse enormo gigs, but the rest of the venues seem to be losing out. I’ve seen some very good acts and doubtless missed many more. Roll on next year.

Camden Crawl - Day One. 24th April 2009

Me My Head

Hey, hey – it’s Camden Crawl time again. It’s the annual opportunity to trawl through the streets of north London, attempting to catch a load of bands playing in the many small venues that occupy the area. It’s a chance to see someone interesting in somewhere unusual.

Except that this year it is not. The Crawl has got ever bigger and bloated over the past few years, and it has long ago abandoned any pretence of edginess or innovation. This year, the Roundhouse has been added to the roster of venues and this vast shed dominates proceedings, staging a succession of performances showcasing the bland face of staid, safe, lowest common denominator major label radio fodder. It is telling that separate wristbands and extensive queuing is required for the privilege of attending – sucking bodies away from the other events that are going on. Indie landfill (to use the common phrase)has it’s place, but the organisers would surely be better staging these performances as events in their own right at some other time.

Ok, grouse over.

The main Crawl programme doesn’t start until the evening, but there is plenty of opportunity to wander through the various official and semi-official events that take place during the daytime.

I strike lucky right from the off, arriving at the World’s End in time to catch an astoundingly good set from Me My Head, a band that I had previously known and loved as The Moths, but who have expanded and mutated into a five piece who produce some of the finest, adrenaline fuelled pop in the country at the present time. Singer Charlie Moss has a terrific set of pipes, and the band has a real knack for catchy songs. They play for around twenty minutes and blow my ears off. Great stuff and I am energised to go forth and seek other goodies.

Unfortunately, my luck runs out for the next hour or so. I go to the usually reliable Tommy Flynn’s, but run into a couple of nondescript acts, and, heading back whence I came, discover the godawful and ubiquitous King Blues (who are fucking everywhere this weekend) blasting out their derivative bilge. They’re evil, kids, and must be shunned.

My evening’s entertainment starts at the Underworld, where no-frills rock trio Bleech channel the simple pleasures of AC/DC through a female filter and cheer me up again. Their songs are straightforward, crowd pleasing stuff, and it’s good to punch the air and shake my head along to tracks such as ‘Living It Up In London Town’.

Then it’s off up the road and into the Jazz Café for Man Like Me, an act I know nothing about but am eventually completely smitten by. I love acts that relish performance, and we certainly get a show. Ostensibly a three piece, the band have augmented themselves with a brass section and singers, all of whom dance and jive along to a succession of groove-tastic tunes such as ’Carny’ or ‘Single Dad’. The whole joint is jumping, and each song comes with its own dance routine. It’s like an episode of the Muppet Show. This is a good thing.

Off again to Bullet to catch up with Little Death, a band that I knew little about other than what I had gleaned from a quick scan of the internet. The place is about half full, and I get down the front.

This band play a brand of epic, guitar heavy dream pop and they are deafening in this small space. Singer/guitarists Nathan and KC duel with each other, while the metal drummer seems to belong to a different kind of band altogether (He's not mentioned on their MySpace, so this may actually be true). Bassist Julianna lays down a thumping rhythm and hides to one side. I am not diminishing her musical abilities when I say that promoters of this band should make sure she figures prominently in any publicity photos – her legs are longer than my entire body. To quote ‘The Producers’, “If ya got it, flaunt it!”

Down to the other end of town for The Computers at the Purple Turtle. These guys come from Exeter and are strongly tipped. Dressed in matching red shirts, they blast out a ninety mile an hour hardcore racket, that a very small section of the crowd goes mental for, but which seems to bemuse the majority. Fronted by the chatty Alex Kershaw, the band are great fun, but somewhat samey. I also somehow find that excessive friendliness undermines the point of hardcore – guttural screaming seems silly if the next minute you are discussing the fortunes of Exeter City.

Next stop the Underworld for Kasms. This venue is very sparsely attended, and the band seem to have a hard time gathering the attention of those folk who ARE there. Singer Rachael Mary Callaghan pulls out all the stops, crawling around the stage and doing her dancing exercises, but the band don’t really take off this evening. They also suffer from a lack of tunes and all the theatrics in the world can’t cover for this.

Before heading off home, I pop into the Electric Ballroom for the last twenty minutes or so of Wire. They are in their bombastic pomp, apparently seething with rage and making a hell of a racket. They end with a protracted, caustic version of ‘Pink Flag’ with its chorus of “How many dead or alive?”

It’s a question to ponder at the end of this first day of the Crawl. Whether it’s the recession, or the pull of the MTV shows at the Roundhouse, but I’ve not been anywhere today or this evening that is anything like full. Worrying signs.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

P J Harvey and John Parish - Shepherds Bush Empire 20 April 2009

Polly and John by Paul Jay

The stage is bare. There is no backdrop. Are we going to get an extravaganza of whizzy back projection? No.

Four men in dark clothes and battered hats appear and the audience cranes its collective neck. Their wild whoops of joy confirm the presence of the diminutive Polly Harvey, who is dressed in an outfit that is part way between Balkan princess and belly dancer.

The band breaks into the sleazy bluesy grind of ‘Black Hearted Love’. Polly wails and marches purposefully to each band member in turn, as if reassuring herself that each is playing their part. Although tonight’s entertainment is designed to showcase the songs of Harvey and John Parish, the latter is quite content to let his musical partner run the show.

In contrast to past appearances in which she has seemed terrifyingly distant, tonight Polly is positively chatty and genuinely nervous between songs. Yet once the music starts up again she’s all business.

As well as plugging the current album, Parish and Harvey disinter tracks from their previous collaboration ‘Dance Hall at Louse Point’ which came out all of twelve years ago. The contrast in the old and new material is marked – The Louse Point songs are very much variants on traditional blues rock whereas those from ‘A Woman a Man Walked By’ are much more sparse, characterised by lengthy almost- silences that allow space for Harvey’s vocal tricks.

Harvey’s last solo album ‘White Chalk’ saw her leave her usual musical territory and deliberately push herself in new, challenging directions. At that time, this was manifest by piano-led songs and an uncomfortable falsetto. This current set of songs show her still experimenting with her voice, shouting and actually barking like a dog on “‘Pig Will Not”. Her eyes are amused, her smile sardonic. A rare sight indeed – Polly Jean Harvey is having fun.

The audience is wrapt and with her wherever she leads them. When required, they are so still that even the quietest, breathiest utterance from the stage can be heard. Harvey has always had this power over crowds.

With really only one album to draw upon, it is a relatively short set, and one that I would rank as good rather than great. This is a side project and obviously so. John Parish remains a loyal and proficient lieutenant while Polly Harvey is happy to relax for once.

It will be interesting to see what she does next.

Sunday 19 April 2009

David Byrne at Royal Festival Hall - 13th April 2009

The choice of venue can be important. It’s about getting the balance right between a space being suitable for a performer to put on their optimum show and an environment that allows the audience to get maximum enjoyment from that performance.

So, while saying from the outset that tonight’s show by David Byrne at the Royal Festival Hall is an absolute unqualified triumph, the restrictions of this venue upon the audience lead to some strange reactions on their part. Of which more later.

David Byrne has always known that a gig should be an event, an opportunity to have fun with the pantheon of work rather than just turn up, play ‘Psycho Killer’ and take the money. The mischievous spirit that has in the past led to his famous ‘Stop Making Sense’ outsize suit, or collaborations with the likes of Celia Cruz, Twyla Tharp or X-Press 2, is given full reign this evening.

Taking the rather dry title “Plays the music of David Byrne and Brian Eno” Byrne turns this premise into a non-stop all singing, all-dancing joyous celebration of the best bits from his entire career.

The stage is huge and bare, the basic band comprising a bassist, two percussionists, an occasional keyboard and three snappily attired backing singers. All are dressed from head to toe in brilliant white, as is the dapper silver-haired Byrne, twitching behind his guitar.

The band start off with ‘Strange Overtones’, one of the highlights from the recent “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today” album. The sound (as you might expect from a venue such as this) is perfect. As they play, Byrne is joined by a trio of dancers, who perform stunningly physical gymnastics throughout this and subsequent tracks.

Although Byrne has only overtly collaborated with Brian Eno on two albums, the erstwhile former Roxy Music maestro also produced Talking Heads during the period when they enjoyed their biggest artistic and commercial success. This gives David Byrne a chance to dip liberally into the best songs from ‘Fear of Music’ and ‘Remain in Light’.

‘I Zimbra’ is all martial drums and marching, ‘Air’ is a breathy sigh and ‘Heaven’ just as the title implies. The choreography is frantic, with performers often dragging Byrne and his singers into ever more outlandish routines.

The band even performs a couple of tracks from ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ a record on which all the vocals were found recordings. Tonight these tracks are sung by Byrne himself, who jokes “My name is Dave. I shall be your sampler for this evening.”

A trilogy of songs from ‘Remain in Light’ and the audience cannot contain itself any further – pouring down the front from all corners of the auditorium. “Once in Life Time” is spectacular, ‘Born Under Punches’ equally so. Byrne joins in with the wild dancers, flailing his guitar as they leap over both him and each other.

Once up, the audience doesn’t know what to do with itself during the relatively quieter moments. This causes some friction amongst those who want to sit down and can’t see. A couple in front of me argue and storm out.

The mood is such that the band are never going to get away with a single encore and tonight we get four, including a blazing version of “Burning Down The House” featuring Byrne and the band sporting white tutus, for no reason that can be clearly defined.

And finally, finally, despite all claims to the contrary, the band are joined by a bald figure in a white suit. It’s not Dr Evil, it’s the mighty Brian Eno himself, and he is lauded to the rafters. As well he should be.

This has been an exhilarating performance, which has featured one of music’s greatest innovators on stunning form. A towering evening

[Sorry for the delay with this – my computer had a fainting fit and has only just revived]

Thursday 9 April 2009

Le Tetsuo, Rob The Rich, Friendship at Camden Barfly 4 April 2009

Le Tetsuo by Bonnie

Heading into the venue we find it sparsely populated. This is the problem that faces all up and coming bands – there is a vicious cycle in which you only play to your mates, who then leave the performance area to celebrate with you, leaving the venue empty for the NEXT band and their handful of acquaintances. So no-one gets to play to folk who haven’t already seen them and no-one gets to play to anything like a full room. It is the most depressing aspect of ‘paying your dues’.

I’ve come across Rob The Rich before. I liked them then and, some nine months later, I like them even more. This gang of lads aren’t doing anything spectacularly original, but they are gaining in confidence all the time and gathering together a tight set of songs. They have a dedicated lead singer but they really take off when he is joined on harmonies by the guitarist. It’s a joyful noise and a welcome one in an age of thick-ear lout rock. Songs such as ‘Escapado’ and ‘Art Project’ are excellent. It’s horrible to damn a band as ‘promising’, but this lot really are well worth your time.

Not so Illness. I could joke that they make me sick, but that would be overstating the case. They do however leave me cold and indifferent. I have almost no tolerance at all for exclusively instrumental bands of any stripe, so this duo is pretty much doomed with me from the start. One bangs a drum, while the other riffs on his guitar. This stuff is easy and it’s dull. I give them three songs to do something notable and then I’m outta there.

Le Tetsuo is the band who I’ve nominally come to see tonight. I like their recorded work and yet I’ve never seen them play live before.

The concept of a ‘Norwich Sound’ is a subject for another day, but I have certainly found that there is a common streak that runs through many of the bands from that city. It is best described as a kind of ramshackle quirkiness, a fragmented strain of pop that may appear ‘twee’ but is so restless that it never stays within any definable category for more than a few beats at a time. Le Tetsuo sit squarely within this bracket.

They rattle along pleasantly enough, but never quite hit the heights. Jack strums his guitar and sings; Charly clutches her bass and joins in. It’s all very listenable but all fairly unremarkable. The venue is like a morgue.

The headliners are another guitar and drum pairing called Friendship. They do have vocals, which automatically puts them higher up the scale than Illness, but they still aren’t very engaging. They are enjoying themselves, but we're not. A gradual gloom descends and we leave early.

It’s been a frustrating evening. The best band on the night were Rob The Rich, who are working their way up the musical pyramid and should by rights be gathering more attention. Le Tetsuo were jolly enough but rather subdued and the remaining acts were no good whatsoever.

You can’t hit the jackpot every time.