Sunday 19 June 2011

The Sonics and Wire at Royal Festival Hall - 18 June 2011

The Sonics

Here I am, back at Ray Davies’ Meltdown.

First onstage tonight are Wire. Newman, Lewis and Grey are dressed in black, with current live guitarist Matt Simms in a white shirt and kept to the side of the stage. There is a clear hierarchy – you know who is in charge.

Wire’s set this evening is eclectic to say the least. They start with three tracks from their latest ‘Red Barked Tree’ period. There is no chat or even an acknowledgement of the audience. This is all business.

I’m sat about four rows from the front, in direct line with the speakers. Every time that Grey touches his drums, my internal organs move. You remember that sequence in Jurassic Park where the water in the glass ripples to the approaching footfall of the Tyrannosaurus? That’s my bladder.

Just as I’m crossing my legs, the band obligingly breaks into ‘Kidney Bingos’. Very funny.

Wire continue with new song ‘Please Take’, which already feels as though it has joined the pantheon of their all time greats. Newman, caresses the words “Fuck off out of my face, you take up far too much space” as though he is crooning a lullaby.

We also get yet another new version of ‘Drill’, this time around with the emphasis on the words rather than the riffs – it ends up almost acapella.

They are in more forthcoming mood during their encore. They announce that they will play a song that is “so old that we are not sure if we have ever played it live before”. It’s ‘Outdoor Miner’. Remarkable.

They conclude with five minutes of feedback, just in case anyone has got too comfortable.

Ray Davies himself appears to introduce The Sonics. He says “These guys were in the garage before The Kinks even had a car!”

They remain a formidable bunch. The hair may be white now, but they still have an almost military bearing about them.

They are a revelation. They sound like every rough and raw rock and roll record you ever heard.
Vocals are alternated between the dignified keyboard player Gerry Roslie and the wonderfully Benny-The Ball shaped guitarist Larry Parypa, who belies his small stature with a screaming rasp of a voice.

The set ranges from covers of standards such as ‘Lucille’ and ‘Money’ to songs from their recent e.p. such as the excellent ‘Vampire Kids’.

The audience has been sat in their seats throughout, but once the band unleash ‘Strychnine’ the dam breaks and there is a mass charge down the front.

For the remainder of the evening folk are dancing in the aisles, in the balconies, down the front. Every guy grabs a gal, everywhere around the world. It’s great.

The band and the dancers bawl along to ‘Psycho’ and for a split second we are back in the Sixties.

The Sonics were always a bit of a secret back in their heyday. Ray Davies intimated that “they scared the hell out of us”. It’s good to see gigs like this giving these guys their due.

Monday 13 June 2011

Yo La Tengo at Royal Festival Hall - 12 June 2011

Yo La Tengo

I’m not really sure why I am here.

I don’t know anything about Yo La Tengo. It’s a Sunday night. This is not my usual habit at all.

This is my second successive evening at the Ray Davies Meltdown. Tonight the great man himself introduces the band. Davies has known them for years and he’s a genuine fan.

Yo La Tengo have been going for nearly a quarter of a century. In that time they have amassed a vast body of work. They are extremely adaptable and have always amused themselves by imposing their own rules and constraints to make the music making process fresh and exciting. They have always relied on their fans to come along for whatever adventure they are currently on. It is a wonderful place for a group of musicians to be in.

On the current tour Yo la Tengo play two sets each evening. The nature of the first of these is determined by a spin of a wheel that is labelled with nine different possible outcomes. These range from a commitment to play a bunch of songs that begin with the letter ‘S’ or songs starting with vowels, to performing a film soundtrack. There is even a possibility that the band will act out an episode of a classic American sitcom in its entirety.

Tonight the wheel is spun and we get... a set by Yo La Tengo’s garage rock alter egos Condo Fucks.

For the next half an hour or so we get a non-stop freewheeling explosion of squalling feedback and guitar mangling. In what will become a theme of the whole night, Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew swap instruments and vocal duties throughout.

Condo Fucks are a covers band, but there is little that I recognise. The one track that is instantly familiar to UK audiences is a version of The Troggs’ ‘With A Girl Like You’. It is considerably faster and more scuffed up than the original. I suspect that there may have been a Richard Hell cover in there too.

Kaplan in particular gets into the mood, swinging a guitar around his head and using it to generate swathes of white noise and static. It’s a terrific show.

After a short interval Yo La Tengo re-emerge as themselves. They start with an immensely long, apparently semi improvised piece in which various band members take turns to solo against the backdrop of a metronomic bass riff from McNew. It is very indulgent, but crucially, very impressive.

I don’t know any of this stuff, so I’m rather hampered when it comes to describing the events of the rest of the night. Yo La Tengo’s songs seem to broadly fall within three categories – the long, almost Krautrocky wig-out involving lots of guitar distortion; gentle, sweetly sung almost folky ditties, often with beautiful harmonies; and more straight-forward rock numbers.

Instruments are freely exchanged and there is effectively a fourth member of the band, a roadie who constantly supplies them with guitars.

And whichever type of song is being played I absolutely lap it up. I’m in hog heaven. There is nothing that I like more than listening to something that I have not heard before and then having my socks blown off. Yo La Tengo are simply awesome this evening, and I sit mesmerised.

They end with a delightful little piece called ‘My Little Corner of the World’ which features a fine whistling solo. Marvellous stuff.

I am really, really glad that I saw tonight’s show. I’ve now got around a quarter century of music to catch up on.

Sunday 12 June 2011

The Fugs at Queen Elizabeth Hall - 11 June 2011

The Fugs

Tonight I’m here in a by no means fully occupied Queen Elizabeth Hall to see the Fugs. It’s their first appearance in the UK since 1968. I have only a dim idea of what to expect. And the expectation is largely confounded.

There’s some unfortunate business to get out of the way first. The support act is Lewis Floyd Henry, a guy with a hair like an explosion and a really dreadful line in shouty, incomprehensible blues.

Henry sits with his guitar and a small foot operated drum and growls and hollers tunelessly. At one stage he says that two years ago he was busking outside this building and that he has come a long way since then. He really hasn’t.

The most excruciating moment comes when he drags his two extremely young children onstage to help him out. They quite clearly have no idea at all what is expected of them and you just feel embarrassed for all concerned. The venue wasn’t that full to start with, but there is a marked exodus to the bar.

My pre-knowledge of The Fugs is based almost entirely on their nihilist anthem ‘Nothing’ and the nod they are accorded in Jeffrey Lewis’ epic song “The History of Punk on the Lower East Side.” (An excellent dissection of which can be read here).

What we get tonight is much more interesting.

The main singer and songwriter of the Fugs was Tuli Kupferberg who sadly died last year. Tonight’s show is very much a heartfelt tribute to him by the rest of the band.

The current line up of the Fugs has been together for over twenty five years – which still of course means that they date from a reincarnated band that formed in 1984. The link to 1968 is their leader Ed Sanders.

Sanders is every inch the academic, who clutches his song sheets and delivers the set almost as a lecture. This is entirely appropriate to the material – The Fugs may have been long hairs who railed against the Vietnam War and civil rights abuses in the Sixties, but they were also poets and classicists.

The songwriter who gets more mentions tonight than even Tuli Kupferberg is William Blake. The band perform ‘Auguries of Innocence’ and it is enchanting, the band’s voices mingling in beautiful harmonies. And you thought Fleet Foxes invented this stuff!

Other songs tonight come from the pen of Heraclitus of Ephesus (‘You Can’t Walk In That Same River’ introduced by Sanders in Ancient Greek) and “that dour cat” Matthew Arnold (‘Dover Beach’.)

It’s an elegiac, wistful evening. It yearns for a simpler, purer world and nobler values. It’s very touching and I am touched.

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Ladytron and Marina Gasolina at The Forum - 08 June 2011


I’m standing in The Forum being entertained by Figo. Not the mesmeric Portuguese footballer, but a DJ who is onstage and laying down a selection of beats.

It’s kind of alright, but it is a waste of stage. Figo would be just as effective if he was packed away in a booth somewhere. Watching a guy in a hoody tweaking a button occasionally does not constitute a live show.

Lack of charisma is not a charge that could be levelled at Marina Gasolina.

She’s about five feet tall, bunched in a black dress and is a tiny wailing ball of fury. Her band is an unpretentious outfit, happy to bang out a decent line in bluesy, guitar-led rock and roll. There are plenty of axe-hero poses and charging around the stage behind her.

Marina is more widely known as a vocalist with the Diplo–produced Bondo De Role. Left to her own devices, the electronic beats have entirely gone, to be replaced by a fierce and primal sound that doesn’t lack for intensity. She sings and shouts and screws her face up. At one stage she unpins her hair and her head disappears behind a curtain of tresses, the only thing visible her open, screaming mouth.

This stage is too big for her, the venue too empty. But this band would be terrific in a smaller setting and I’d be glad to see them there.

Marina Gasolina - Leone by Sainted PR

Ladytron are a bit betwixt and between this evening. They’ve just released a Greatest Hits compilation and also have a new album ‘Gravity the Seducer’ coming out in September.

The stage is stripped down to the basic equipment that the Liverpool five piece use, the spectacle tonight provided by a pair of green lasers that beam across the heads of the crowd.

Ladytron’s set starts off with favourites all the way – ‘Runaway’, ‘High Rise’, ‘Ghost In Me’, ‘International Date Line’, ‘Soft Power’ …it’s all good, but it’s also just a little bit staid and expected.

The bar is raised with an airing of recent single 'Ace of Hz’. I realise that it has the exact beat and tune of Boney M’s ‘Daddy Cool’, if that track were slowed down to half speed. (Check it out – I’m right). I’m not knocking either track.

And so they go on. ‘Seventeen’ has been retooled and uncluttered and sounds almost like a new song. This highlights the (admittedly minor) problem tonight – the new songs are more enjoyable than the old ones. This is nothing to do with quality, but all to do with my thirst for new material.

I always prefer the challenge of the new as opposed to the comfort of the old. Ladytron provide a bit of both tonight and deliver a solid seven or eight out of ten kind of show. That will do me for now.

Ladytron - Little Black Angel by nettwerkmusicgroup