Saturday 25 July 2009

Soko / The Agitator/ Lulu And The Lampshades - Dingwalls, 23 July 2009

There is quirky, there is eccentric and there is completely full-on psychotic. Tonight we get a gradual progression through all three states and it isn’t a particularly comfortable journey.

Things start amiably enough with Lulu And The Lampshades, who tonight are two girls and a guy.There is an effigy of their fourth member, absent in Uganda, and lovingly fashioned out of a mop, a Hawaiian shirt and what appears to be a photograph of a sheep wearing sunglasses. Even more unusually, the missing member has picked the set list and phoned in her contributions via a series of recorded messages.

The band that are actually present pluck their way through a series of pleasant if undistinguished songs via the medium of drums, guitar and ukulele and their cheerful attitude goes a long way to cover up any deficiencies.

The next act is startling, although they completely polarise the audience. My companions hate this lot with a vengeance, but I am impressed. The Agitator is a young man whooping and hollering (Derek Meins) accompanied only by a drummer (Robert Dylan Thomas) laying down a few sparse beats. Meins channels Gospel and revivalist music to batter out a primitive and hugely emotive soul racket.

He also seems to be as deadly serious about his message, which is essentially the traditional entreaty to folk to get up off their arses, shake themselves out of complacency and actually DO something with their lives. He takes great umbrage with a member of the audience who is a bit sceptical at this.

Whatever the personal politics behind it all, it is a terrific technical performance. I have rarely seen such rage and emotion in a singer since the heyday of Cathal Coughlan declaiming for Microdisney and Fatima Mansions. The Agitator are well worth experiencing, if only because if he carries on like this Meins is going to blow a gasket.

Headliner Soko declared herself to be ‘dead’ at Christmas, so it was a surprise when this gig was suddenly announced a few weeks ago.

Soko is a French singer/songwriter who is pretty and cutesy on the surface but quite clearly a very troubled performer, who over the course of her set unravels to an unsettling degree.

What is at first amusing – constantly interrupting herself, abandoning songs, changing instruments, rambling anecdotes, saying “Fuck” a lot in a French accent, - gradually becomes a lot less so when it becomes clear that the incessant fiddling with the equipment and digressions are more than nervous tics and more akin to Attention Deficit Disorder.

When she actually plays, Soko and her hapless violinist Juliet (sadly underused and a bewildered spectator for most of the time) produce delicate, deeply personal songs, many of which have been written, at least according to their creator, within the past few days.

As the evening progresses, Soko becomes gradually darker in mood, rightfully complaining about people talking through her set, but also bursting into tears at one point. Watching her fight her demons in public is not entertainment, but uncomfortably close to a trip round Bedlam to gawp at the inmates. At this point I leave.

A very strange and upsetting end to an exceptionally weird evening.

Monday 20 July 2009

The Birthday Massacre at Dingwalls, 16 July 2009

It can take just the smallest incident to spark a gig into life and make it memorable.

Picture, if you will, Toronto’s Birthday Massacre, performing in a hot and sweaty Dingwalls.

The band is here to promote their new live album ‘Show and Tell’. It is the last night of their European tour and things are going well. Tiny singer Chibi is dressed in school girl uniform and is enjoying herself bustling back and forth on a cramped stage. She is slightly disturbing – the uniform doesn’t really make her look sexy, it just makes her look very young.

The rest of the band are heavily made up in the white face “evil marionette” style that is much favoured in those parts of the rock world that dig Joel Gray in Cabaret. It’s a sort of visual shorthand for “We’re so decadent”, and can be easily washed off at the end of the evening, as opposed to trying to get the same effect through a predilection for underage whores and dirty syringes.

It’s a good solid professional show, but not really taking off. Songs such as ‘Red Stars’ and ‘Blue’ are fine, but everything is a little too neat.

And then one of the audience hands Chibi a pair of bunny ears. I’d seen the guy earlier, dressed in almost random fashion, two thirds military/ leather chic to one third dragged through a hedge backwards. And incongruously topped off with a set of pink bunny ears. He bequeaths his headgear to the singer from within the tightly packed throng at the front of the stage.

Chibi absolutely loves them. Stuffing them on her head she spends the next three songs waggling them or plumping them on the head of whichever band cohort she is standing near. And this mild anarchy causes the band to visibly relax and really let loose, to actually enjoy themselves and let the sheen of sleek professionalism drop a little.

The band jump and bounce through their final numbers. One of these is the Tommy James and the Shondells track “I Think We’re Alone Now”, as popularised by 80’s popstress Tiffany. All merry hell erupts, with the crowd of Goths, punks, crusties and other disparate tribes bawling along to a song from their youth. For a few moments it’s not about looking cool or outrageous, but just being happily daft together.

Chibi and co are back for their encore almost before they have left the stage in the first place. They thank us all and smash into their signature anthem “Happy Birthday”. By the time they crash to a close, the atmosphere is so hot that steam rises from the front.

We head to the back, open the venue doors and find ourselves in the middle of a torrential thunderstorm. Lightning flashes, thunder rolls and water floods past. It is epic and biblical and perfectly in keeping with what we have just seen. Elaborate hair constructions are plastered to faces, black eyeliner makeup runs, T shirts become transparent. It’s like the end of the world. It’s a funny end to a funnily enjoyable evening.