Wednesday 23 September 2009

Music Go Music at Institute of Contemporary Arts, 22 September 2009

Music Go Music (Image with kind permission of The Music Fix)

When you think of Saturday night television back in the Seventies, it is usual to reminisce about Morecombe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Mike Yarwood and the rest. You remember the sketches with nostalgia. But there was another facet of these shows – that moment when the hosts went for a lie down or a bottle of whisky and the special guests came on. These tended to be ‘middle of the road’ acts such as Clodagh Rodgers or The New Seekers and they often played the same slot every week. It was an innocent time of big hair, brilliant smiles and songs about kittens.

...Meanwhile, in 2009, Meredith and David Metcalf from ace Californian outfit Bodies of Water have had an idea…

…There is a wash of dry ice across the ICA stage. There is a backdrop of twinkling stars. There are indeterminate shapes on the stage that are revealed to be an enormous harlequin mask and a giant hourglass with ‘Time’ written upon it.

The band come onto the stage and it is as though we are back watching a soft-focus video of that golden age of light entertainment. The guys all have hair that is so long and bouffant that they are practically treading on it, the girls are all blonde and feather-cut like Farrah Fawcett-Majors. This is Music Go Music and this is an evening of retro-magic.

They are fronted by the beaming, nervous figure of ‘Gala Bell’, who has one of the strongest and clearest voices in all pop music. The power that she generates is quite something, particularly as it seems to be mostly effortless, the notes never wavering no matter how loud she sings. From certain angles she looks a bit like Meredith Metcalf...

The set closely matches the running order of the new album ‘Expressions’ and starts with the Pink Floyd ‘Great Gig In The Sky’ wails of “I Stand Alone”. The sound in the venue is initially all over the place, probably because the engineer is flummoxed by a seven piece band, most of whom seem to be singing at full belt like this was the closing number of a West End musical.

However, things soon get properly on track with ‘Light Of Love’, merely the first of a number of songs that don’t just reference ABBA but which are so good that somewhere Meryl Streep is climbing into her dungarees in order to sing them in a musical.

The usual ICA audience is as fashion conscious and circumspect as hell, but faced with this onslaught (and MGM genuinely ROCK) they wave, clap and stamp along. These songs are utterly preposterous, so over the top that there can be no resistance. The sheer gleeful euphoria is overwhelming. ‘Gala’ is enjoying herself so much that most of the time between songs is spent in fits of giggles.

There isn’t a weak song in the set, nor any moment when the illusion slips. During the chorus of ‘Explorers of the Heart’ I find that tears of joy are misting my glasses up.

It’s not all ABBA though. The epic ten-minute single ‘Warm In The Shadows’ is a pure Studio 54 disco stomper that is built upon the bass line throb of Blondie’s ‘Atomic’. The only thing missing is a glitterball.

The show ends with The Carpenters-esque ballad “Goodbye Everybody”. Like everything else tonight, it is perfectly judged.

I absolutely loved this show. This makes the Seventies look so good, that you wonder why we got rid of them.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

The Farrs, Hindley, Death Cigarettes at Mother 333 12th September 2009

The Farrs

Do you believe in love at first sight?

It was promising to be a pleasant but routine gig at Mother/333 (what IS this venue called?) on Saturday, and as is my habit, I got there in good time for the support acts.

First up were The Farrs, who had travelled down from Leeds for the evening. And in a small room in front of no more than a couple of handfuls of people, I witnessed one of the most devastatingly powerful sets of the year.

At first glance, they seem a regulation band – guitar, bass, drums and a singer – and when they start off at full pelt it augers good things.

Half an hour later I am deaf as a post and in tatters. The Farrs start explosively and just keep motoring, faster and denser throughout the set. They do not let up for a second. It’s like being run over.

Singer Harley is a revelation, never static for a second as he charges about the venue like a mad man, tearing at his clothing, grabbing at girls in the crowd to dance with, spinning them around until they are left dizzy and bewildered, as he moves from one to the next.

Each song is more breakneck than the last, and the band (Ross, Ads and drummer Helen) do well to hold themselves together as Harley bashes into them, his T shirt by now hanging in rags from his body. The energy that the band puts out is astonishing.

In a great piece of theatre, the microphone is tossed to an acquaintance in the crowd, who delivers a tremendously shouty speed-rap into the mix. Harley finishes rolling over and over across the floor of the room.

When The Farrs finally come to a screeching halt we all whoop and applaud. Compared to what we have just seen, it seems an inadequate response. The Farrs describe themselves as “an average band from Leeds”. This is disingenuous – on this evidence, they are one of the best bands in the country.

It speaks volumes for the next act that they can even follow that. But they more than acquit themselves admirably.

Hindley (and there’s a name that will attract headlines should stardom ever beckon) consist of singer/guitarist Red, Gemma and Nixie resplendent in silver lame on guitar and bass and drummer Matt.

The band plays an intelligent, shoegazey pop that builds into an atmospheric performance. Red has a distinctive vocal that suits this sound and the guitars interact agreeably with each other. Nixie and Gemma seem in a world of their own, nodding and bouncing, without ever really acknowledging their front man at all. They have a song called ‘The Violent Hour’, it seems rather appropriate.

I like these guys a lot and will see them again.

The headliners are Death Cigarettes about whom I have written sufficiently to say only that a) they were great as always but b) there were signs of tension - not least when singer Maya introduced them as “the band formerly known as Death Cigarettes”. Whether this presages a name change or something more dramatic will be revealed in the coming weeks.

A terrific night’s entertainment. I saw some favourites do their stuff (and their show at Offset seemed to have swelled the Death Cigarettes audience), but the story of the evening is the discovery of The Farrs, who may be unknown now, but they’ll scorch the wallpaper off any room they find themselves in.

I’m in love – yet again.

Monday 14 September 2009

Amanda Palmer - Union Chapel 11th September 2009

Amanda Palmer by Martyn Foster
It’s sometimes hard to time your entrance into a venue, particularly if you have not been there for a while.

I have not been to the Union Chapel for probably more than a decade, so when I arrive at around 7.45 and am ushered upstairs I do not think anything of it. As it turns out I am among what at this point are only a handful of folk who have the entire run of the balcony and am able to sit more or less over directly over the stage and get a great view of events below.

The pews below are filled to capacity. In fact some of them appear to be over-filled, with more than one person occupying the same space. A closer look reveals that quite a few of the early audience have brought puppets with them and that some of these are very large and elaborate. A fair number of the audience appear to be in fancy dress too. Such is the nature of fandom.

We are here tonight to see a performance by Amanda Palmer, punk pianist extraordinaire, who is playing a few London shows apparently just for the hell of it, as her solo album came out last year and her other band The Dresden Dolls (hence the puppets) are between projects at the moment.

However, before Miss Palmer, we have Miss Polly Scattergood to entertain us.

Teetering around the stage in bright pink boots and with an enormous plume of feathers sprouting from her shoulder, it would be easy to dismiss Polly as one of those delicate and eccentric young women who have taken Kate Bush to their hearts to an almost unhealthy degree (see also Natasha Khan or Alison Goldfrapp ).

It is also tempting to say that her surname is a firm signifier of her talent, because the standard of her singing and material varies quite drastically between one song and the next. She is never less than interesting, but her breathy voice is so weak that it can barely sustain a note. The acoustics in this venue does her no favours, as much of what she sings is lost somewhere in the void over the audience.

She is received warmly though, and when she is joined by her band, she seems happier and less exposed.

Amanda Palmer is what used to be called a Damned Good Act, in that there seems very little that she cannot turn her hand to. This evening she starts with a couple of tunes played on the chapel organ, invisible to most of the crowd, but not from my lofty, lucky position.

Running centre stage, she sits down at her keyboard and starts banging out a set of mixed Dresden Dolls and solo material. She admits to being out of practice because she is not in the middle of a tour, and that she has had to familiarise herself with her back catalogue by listening to the CDs beforehand.

Indeed, almost her first act is to rip up her provisional set list and just proceed as the mood takes her. Nerves are soon put behind her, as she takes requests from the audience - if you want your song sung it helps to have a puppet.

This flying-by-the-seat-of-her pants approach is really charming, and it is to her credit that she can pull it off. She talks of her boyfriend, the author Neil Gaiman, and even sings a song that he has written, called “I Googled You” – it is the only time of the evening when the ick-factor gets ramped up.

Having stopped to announce that she is going to play two long ballads, Amanda is struck by the realisation that she is playing in a church on September 11th, and instead plays a quiet tune about New York City.

Later, she tests out a piece of classical music that she has learned, for no other reason than to prove to herself that she can play ‘proper’ music.

Polly Scattergood makes a guest appearance up on a balcony, singing a husky, torch song version of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ which brings out the full despair and horror of the song that has traumatised children for years.

Somehow, Palmer gets through her set and has played all her hits – ‘Ampersand’ ‘Runs in the Family’ and ‘Backstabber’ are particularly good.

For an encore it is Amanda’s turn on the balcony, her leg swinging precariously over the edge as she strums a ukulele and croons a languid version of ‘Makin’ Whoopee’, before charging back down and blasting through ‘Oasis’ with the assistance of Polly Scattergood and her band.

It has been an enchanting evening, with the ever charming Amanda Palmer an excellent hostess. In her hands, tonight we are all puppets.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Offset Festival - Sunday 6 September 2009

Bo Ningen


Arriving full of vim and vigour for day two of Offset, we first happen across Jessica Larrabee aka She Keeps Bees. Judging by the persistent effing and blinding, she is not a happy camper. This may be something to do with her equipment, but she is too angry to make this clear. What she does play seems ok in a sub-PJ Harvey kind of way and we look on with happy bemusement.

Stepping into the next tent we find that proceedings are running at least half an hour late. This enables us to enjoy the majority of a set from Brontosaurus Chorus, who are a kind of mini-Earlies, incorporating trumpet, cello and string section. And they are really good, being absolutely spot on for a sunny Sunday afternoon. I have seen them before and rather dismissed them, but today they are perfect for the time and place.

Meanwhile, on the main stage, S.C.U.M. are performing at the hottest and sunniest time of the day. Contrary to expectations, they do not wither or burst into flames when exposed to sunlight, but instead put in a fine performance that is part Sisters of Mercy, part Echo and the Bunnymen and wholly about looking so damn cool that lesser mortals should just go away and kill themselves. Much the best that I have seen them, and it shows that they do have something going for them other than distortion and dry ice.

Stage timings in the tents have gone awry (something to do with the generator that powers the site), so I happily stumble across Artefacts For Space Travel some time after I would have expected to have missed them. Main man Joe Walsh and chums wow a packed tent with a blistering punk set. They annoy the organisers by overstaying their welcome, milking the crowd for support, but they are the only band over the two days who I see doing this.

Next up come Death Cigarettes, whom even casual readers of this blog will realise I have more than a soft spot for. As a fan, I really want them to do well and they do not disappoint. Once they get going, the tent is soon filled and enjoying itself. Singer Maya is a bit apprehensive and unusually restrained, staying on the stage throughout. However, to compensate, she screams herself breathless, finishing the set with a face as purple as a plum. New song ‘Horses’ sounds excellent and final number ‘What Went Wrong?’ is an absolute stormer. I feel as proud as a parent.

The next act is so completely off the hook that for the rest of the day you can hear people around the site discussing it- it is the “Were you there?” moment of the day. I have seen Bo Ningen before in a show that was relatively sedate (audience nudity, guitars passed through the crowd) but today they are like the Apocalypse. To a heaving tent they start with the all-vanquishing whoosh of a space shuttle taking off, seemingly screaming off in all directions. Their set is simply astonishing, because it is so perfect – each member of the band is the coolest guy you ever saw, the space-Jap-metal rock din they make indescribable. The sheer momentum and violence- both sonic and physical - is astounding. Settling on a humungous dirty riff that would make Black Sabbath soil themselves, the band end with a guitarist kicked face first through the crash barrier (the security guard in front of me actually cringed and covered his mouth) and drummer Mon-Chan hanging upside down from the main pole holding the tent up. I am wet with terror and glee at the same time. Genuinely one of the most amazing performances I have ever seen.

An impossible act to follow, but in the next tent I am consoled by the twin drummer assault of Methodist Centre, who are a meat and two veg Oi Oi Saveloy very basic punk act of the type that you don’t see much these days. They are as two-dimensional as a cartoon, but they are fun and a bit of an antidote to some of the more precious acts around.

I’m glad to catch Bearsuit, who are dressed in feathers and beaks and who play a delightful set that showcases their position as if not quite the godfathers, but certainly the older siblings of the twee-core movement. You don’t underestimate the power of a punch from a foxy boxer, as their song has it.

The XX have become the darlings of the age, and their tent is so packed that I can only loiter under the flaps, listening to their quiet intensity. I have problems with their album and I have problems with them live – they have an interesting sound, but they have no actual songs that you can cling to- getting a grasp of them is like nailing jelly to a wall.

I have a similar lack of empathy with Dananananaykroyd on the main stage. They have a fanatical support who worship them, but to me they just seem to be as silly and superficial as a shouty Goldie Looking Chain. One for the kids, I guess.

Wild Beasts are much more ‘adult’ in their appeal and initially at least they are seductive, with a blend of guitar and keyboard that is kind of dance-y but also a perfect backdrop for their falsetto vocals. However as they go on, I find them less appealing and more annoying – not because they are bad but because they are utterly one dimensional – you get the same feeling from one song as you do from the next. Rather like The XX, I get the impression that they make the type of music that is played in the background to a dinner party, where you only notice it when it stops.

Wandering around the site, I hear a promising sound and chance across the Santiago based band Panico, who absolutely rock our socks off. Singer Edu is a brawny, sweaty, macho guy who lasciviously pays court to every woman in the audience. The band twitch and judder in a febrile, synth based groove that is propelled by two percussionists. More dancing ensues, and we are lost in the rhythm. A tremendous performance that culminates in the singer licking the front of a T-shirt before swirling it into the crowd. I love them to bits. Like the Berlin Brides of the day before, it is left to the bands from overseas to provide sex rather than style.

We finish the festival stood behind members of Panico as we watch The Horrors on the main stage. They have their moments but the sound, which is never good, doesn’t allow those on the fringes of the crowd to engage. During the ‘final’ song Sea Within A Sea the keyboards break down completely, and what starts as an instrumental passage becomes first a desperate exercise in filling in and eventually a complete collapse. The band storm tersely off stage and Offset (for me) is over.

It’s been a terrific couple of days and plaudits go to all involved. Sure, the security could have been a little less heavy handed and the site would have benefited from some litter collectors (by the end it was like a rubbish heap from District 9) but I’m sure that the crowd and the bands by and large had a whale of a time. I saw some stand out performances and also ticked off a number of acts that I had not previously seen. All at a reasonable price in an accessible location. Top marks all round.

Offset Festival- Saturday 5 September 2009

Berlin Brides

After the great success of last year’s event, I am delighted to attend this year’s Offset Festival, two days in Hainault showcasing the best new (and old) bands around. It’s a complete antidote to normal festival fare in that experimentation and boundary-pushing are positively encouraged.

Over the course of the weekend I saw around forty acts, so I can’t mention them all here. Let’s just go for the highlights…

In a strange piece of synchronicity, the first act I see on my arrival is the first that I saw last year. An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump are on the main stage, and in fine fettle, taking it in turns to sing, bang the hell out of a simple drum kit and blast along on a bass guitar. Having previously only seen them in gloomy churches or darkened rooms, it is surprising how well they go over on a big stage in broad daylight. A good start.

A swift detour into a tent finds LR Rockets enjoying themselves, bounding over the barrier that separates them from the crowd. The singer nearly trips over a small child who is sat directly in front of him. He smiles and waves at her and she smiles and waves back. It’s all very good natured.

Outside, various lads from Cementemental are titting about with effects pedals, screaming into loudhailers and generally being boisterous. At an event like this, such scenes are treated with the benign feeling that you might experience passing a ‘Guess The Weight of the Cake’ stall at a village fete.

KASMs are on the main stage, looking a bit lost and desperate. This becomes a theme over the weekend – I think that only relatively few of the acts who are playing in the open air quite have the chops to really put themselves across.

Inside again we are treated to a superb performance from Berlin Brides, who actually hail from Athens, Greece. This predominantly female band specialise in an upbeat electronic punk-funk that has everyone dancing along in no time. These women are genuinely earthy and sexy, in a way that the prim gals from say, Ipso Facto, are not. The songs are often concerned with bedroom matters too, notably signature tune ‘Failure To Wank’ and the tale of the bi-sexual ‘Scooter Boy’. Tremendous, smutty fun. from Sitcom Serf on Vimeo.

On the main stage The Chapman Family are deconstructing their songs to such a degree that they are almost unrecognisable. There is much guitar mangling and tying themselves up with microphone leads. At one point front man Kingsley slings a bottle of beer into the crowd, who throw it back at him.

Inside once more, The Duloks are entertaining a packed tent and getting everybody to pretend to be octopuses. The Duloks barely really play at all, instead they just have everyone crying with laughter as singer Mira discusses the need to have proper roadies who are old and grizzled as opposed to the catalogue model waifs who are performing these chores at Offset. There is also a prolonged riff on the ethnic make up of the audience, culminating with the observation that “This tent is fully integrated – We’ve got a black and a cripple!”

Later, I stand in a largely deserted tent, watching the very odd Tulipomania, who make a sound that is not unlike the music that bands played before punk came along and blew all that ‘serious’ nonsense out of the water. In a weekend where many bands are out to shock or offend, it is interesting that a sure way to make folk walk away is to have a thirty-plus year old man play guitar solos at them.

Future Of The Left are on the main stage and seem to be going through the motions. Ok, you’re angry, we get it. What else do you do?

The Slits will be headlining later, but until then, Wet Dog make a very acceptable substitute, being women of a certain age playing a mildly enjoyable post- funk. Being an oldster myself I can remember when Wet Dog were still so raw that the drummer had to stop a set because her arms were sore – it’s good to see them still going and having fun.

A real highlight is the performance of Drum Eyes, the occasional band led by DJ Scotch Egg and pals from Trencher and The Boredoms. Today they have two drummers and play a long, loping drawn out dubby space rock. This kind of stuff only really works in the live setting and it is great this evening. Even better, Damo Suzuki wanders on and starts intoning, eyes screwed up, in a world of his own. Wonderful stuff.

At this point our group separates, with one member opting to stay for Suzuki’s own set, while the rest head off to catch a show from R O M A N C E. And yes, the capitals and spacing are apparently important. This group are allies of fellow Shoreditch denizens S.C.U.M. (capitals, spacing etc) and like them, are as keen on presentation as music. A certain suspension of disbelief is required as while they have the foxiest bassist of the weekend, and a guitarist who has cheek bones that could slice you open, they are fronted by a singer who is as camp in looks and appearance as Matt Lucas from Little Britain and who sings in a foghorn shout that falls some way short of Kirk Brandon of Theatre of Hate/Spear of Destiny. So they teeter on the edge of absurdity, but like tightrope walkers, they are safe provided that they don’t let their guard down. On these terms they are greatly enjoyable, and I haven’t seen such a fine Flock of Seagulls haircut in a long while.

On the main stage I am unexpectedly stirred by The Futureheads, a band that I had sort of written off some while ago. Tonight they look to be in their element and actually get some decent interaction with the crowd. They finish off with Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds Of Love’ and everyone has a good time.

Inside once more for Factory Floor, I meet up with my friend who stayed for Damo Suzuki. His mind is so blown by the majesty of what he has just seen that it is impossible to get him to focus or get anything coherent from him. He liked it, a lot.

Factory Floor are now a three piece, the newest member being the mighty Nikki Colk, the ex-leader of Kaito, who are still my all time favourite band. So it is good to see her in action again. Factory Floor are absolutely brutal tonight, a deafening, repetitive machine noise accompanied by relentless strobe lighting effects. They start to a packed tent which gradually empties as folk run for cover. They are impressively bloody-minded in what they do, but the experience is much like banging your head against a wall, in that it feels better when they stop.

Senses reeling, we relax with a cup of coffee and The Slits, who are capering around on the main stage, pursued by various members of the crowd and security personnel. They are ropey, ragged, silly and fun.

I’m exhausted, and this is only the end of the first day…