Monday 19 September 2011

Miracle Fortress at Madame JoJo's - 13 September 2011

Miracle Fortress by Cindy Lopez

There are strange things happening in the venue.

One of the in-house security guys has got it into his head that on no account must any object, be it a bag or a coat, touch the floor. So for most of the time while the first band are onstage, I am watching this petty martinet harassing punters, only for them to break his cockamamie rule as soon as his back is turned. It’s ludicrous and it is insulting. And of course, once the venue fills up, he is unable to do it.

The three guys who comprise I Ching are rather a sideshow to this kerfuffle. They stand in a line and are a bit synth-y, but are generally so wishy washy that they can’t hold your attention even when you are looking directly at them. The kindest thing to say about them is that they are not offensive and they don’t hang around for long.

Brasstronaut start off very well. This six piece outfit from Vancouver include a trumpet and an electric clarinet, which they put to good use.

On the whole, I would say that they are a jazz band with some indie leanings rather the other way round. They are prone to lengthy semi-improvised excursions that detract from the rather Randy Newman piano/vocal style of Edo Van Breemen.

Their very first song is terrific, a heartfelt piano ballad that gradually builds into something epic, as all the other musicians come in and do their stuff. The problem that they run into is that all their material is very similar and, despite the number of people on stage, they are not particularly dynamic. I’d be interested in their recorded works, however.

Miracle Fortress is essentially a solo project of talented musician Graham Van Pelt, although he is joined here this evening by a live drummer. The album ‘Five Roses’ was big favourite around certain parts and it has been a number of years since there has been a sighting of this iteration – possibly because Van Pelt has been touring with his other outfit Think About Life.

At first, things seem a little off. The sound of the vocal is extremely muddy, and the tunes seem rather naff. I rather cruelly compare him to Coldplay and receive a chastening boot on the shin from a companion.

And then things get very unexpected. Making use of an impressive set of lasers and day-glo lights, much of the rest of the set is devoted to full on 80’s disco-flavoured stompers that are very fine, even if the ghost of Daft Punk’s ‘Discovery’ album looms rather obviously over proceedings.

We boogie about and don’t care where on the floor we put our bags. Everything is rattling along very nicely.

Unfortunately, good things cannot last, and the last number is another solo ‘Coldplay’ tune. Not unpleasant, in fact exactly the opposite. Too damn nice.

An interesting if not wholly successful evening.

And seriously, Madame JoJo’s – sort your staff out.

Sunday 18 September 2011

EMA, Waters at Cargo - 14 September 2011


I’m beginning to wonder if fists in the air college rock is making a comeback. We’ve recently had Butch Walker and the Black Widows’ “Summer of 89” and tonight in Cargo we get Waters.

Of course much of the best blue collar apparently American rock was actually Canadian in origin. And it is the influence of Neil Young and Bryan Adams that is very much apparent.

So this is rousing stuff, with much thrashing of guitar and tossing of hair. There is an urge to drink pissy American beer. An urge not indulged while Cargo thinks that £4.50 is an acceptable price for a small bottle – but I digress.

Van Pierszalowski is a handsome front man, fashionably dishevelled and breathless. He is extremely happy to be here tonight, as he repeatedly tells the rather aloof audience. I enjoy this set – it harks back to a time when bands didn’t care about being cool, but just wanted to have a good time. Waters warm things up nicely.

I have been looking forward to seeing EMA aka Erika M Anderson ever since she was one half of the brilliant but dangerously self-damaging combo Gowns.

Tonight, she is joined by a drummer, violinist and bassist. It turns out to be quite a ride.
Musically, the band are all over the place. In the sense that they head off in all sorts of different directions. What follows is less like a coherent set, but more an audition piece, designed to show range.

Abuse and victimhood are recurring themes, with first track “Marked” featuring the repeated line ‘ I wish that every time he touched me left a mark’. It’s all a bit gothy and witchy and ‘look at me, you don’t understand me’. She later sings her song ‘Butterfly Knife’ which is even more explicit about personal violence.

Songs veer from a whisper to a scream, often accompanied by sheets of distorting guitar and violin drone. It’s great, but a bit wearing.

EMA changes personae throughout. Sometimes brittle and vulnerable, sometimes a Courtney Love style rock chick and sometimes a sassy rap rock. It all reminds me of Pink – safe rebellion for tweenagers. It’s very impressive, but it also feels manipulative and fake.

We get a cover of a Violent Femmes song, and a blistering version of ‘California’, a free association letter of hate to the Sunshine State that throws out lyrical quotes from Bo Diddley and even ‘Camptown Races’.

I’m really glad to have finally caught up with EMA, and I’m a big fan of the album ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’ – it’s just that things don’t quite coalesce for me tonight. I can’t believe in this angst, because I suspect, the artist doesn’t either.

Live on Radio K: EMA - "Marked" from Radio K on Vimeo.

Monday 12 September 2011

Shonen Knife 30th Anniversary Party at Scala - 11 September 2011

Shonen Knife

It’s a Sunday. It’s ten years since the twin towers came down. It’s the 30th Anniversary tour of Shonen Knife. There’s only going to be one winner.

I get into the venue just in time to see Slowgun wrap up their last two songs. I rather like this band, and have seen them previously, always low on someone else’s bill, always deserving of more attention than they actually get.

It’s the same tonight – they sound as though they should be headlining somewhere else.

I’ve seen the next band before as well – the last time that I saw Shonen Knife. I originally thought that Smallgang have some kind of symbiotic relationship with the Japanese combo, rather like mistletoe grows on an oak tree. It’s actually because they share a record label.

The four piece all wear glasses, not as a fashion statement, but because they can’t see very well. They make the most of this, and fans can buy a t-shirt featuring four pairs of glasses upon it. It’s an image, of sorts.

Musically, they are very mixed. Never less than proficient, they mostly rather drift by without noticing in a gentle alt-rock shimmer. That said, they have a big wig-out guitar frenzy that concludes their set and one quite excellent song ‘Cockpit’ (about a crashing airplane) in the middle. This track alone justifies my time with the band.

Cockpit by smallgang

Shonen Knife are celebrating thirty years of existence, even though line up changes in that period have left with them with only one founder member, Naoko Yamano. It’s a bit Trigger’s Broom, but we love them anyway.

The current line sees Naoko joined by the ever-beaming Ritsuko Taneda on bass and Emi Morimoto on drums.

Shonen Knife are as much a fundamental part of the fabric of rock and roll as the Rolling Stones. Nature abhors a vacuum and there must always be a place for heads down, minimalist happy punk bashed out by three perma-smiling Japanese women. It’s what guitars were invented for.

It’s a simple recipe and a successful one, three chord rama-lama fun that has the crowd bouncing like lunatics.

The set draws from their entire career, with the latest album represented by a paean to the Capybara. This ska-inflected song may, unless I’m mistaken, rhyme ‘Capybara’ with ‘Happy-bara’ – which is some kind of genius.

For an encore, Shonen Knife assume their alter ego as Osaka Ramones and rattle through ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker’, ‘The KKK Took My Baby Away’ and ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’. We all go mad, of course, and I realise that many here tonight are too young to have seen the Ramones in any form.

Shonen Knife are a great institution. Here’s to their next anniversary.

Saturday 10 September 2011

Screaming Females, Real Numbers, Human Hair at The Lexington - 9 September 2011

Screaming Females by Carl Fong

I’m enjoying the bands. My face is covered in fluorescent green make-up. The two are not unconnected.

The first act on tonight are Human Hair. Things start off extraordinary and progress from there.
It would be easy to lose sight of how good this lot are, because the rest of the band have to stand in relative anonymity because of the appearance and antics of vocalist Jack Lantern.

The beard is full, but acceptable. The crotch tight khaki shorts and bare feet are less expected. Lantern capers and hops around like a lascivious bare legged homunculus, thrusting his pelvis and using his microphone as a phallus as he roars and bellows.

It’s all very primeval and shamanic, rock front man as Lord of Misrule. He worries me because as he jumps and climbs around the venue, vaulting down amongst the crowd and writhing on the floor, there seems a real danger that he will stomp on something metal and pointy and injure himself. But disaster is averted.

The rest of the band stand on stage and bash out gargantuan riffs. It is wonderful, one of the performances of the year. Even so, it is clear that the band are having misgivings about some of their equipment. During a brief breakdown we are treated to a strange and disturbing poem from Lantern, who seems to be channelling some rural demon.

Human Hair have to be seen to be believed.


Real Numbers hail from Minneapolis and have distilled power pop to its most basic form. This three piece are as rigid in their template as the Ramones were in theirs, although they are far sunnier in disposition than Da Bruddas.

No song lasts longer than two and a half minutes, no song consists of much more than its title sung over and over as a chorus.

They are light, airy and completely insubstantial. Fun while they last, but not really nourishing.

While being entertained by Real Numbers, I am approached by a group of kids and have my face painted. They are fans of headliners Screaming Females. But mainly, they are fans of face paint.

Melissa Paternoster of Screaming Females is an extraordinary character. She is tiny, barely five feet tall and clothed in a long black dress that makes her look like a member of a particularly strict Puritan sect...

...until she hits her guitar and the back of the venue gets blown out.

Screaming Females are not so much a band as a detonation, a monstrously heavy and thundering rock band that are part Hendrix, part Sabbath, part White Stripes and wholly phenomenal.

The audience goes bughouse crazy, heads banging and even some surreptitious air guitar.

Melissa pounds her axe as though she wants to destroy it, occasionally stomping on a battery of FX pedals to shred a squealing solo. Her voice is almost mechanical, precise and clear- except when she screams so loudly that even the guitars are drowned out.

This band are a force of nature and would go down a storm with any audience. It’s like standing in front of a herd of charging elephants, you admire the power even as they mow you down.

When the set finally ends, and silence reigns, I feel bereft.

I wash my face as well as I can and stagger off into the night, glowing greenly.