Thursday 27 December 2012

Laura J Martin and Trwbador at Kings Place - 21 December 2012

Laura J Martin

I’ve not been to Kings Place before. And I’m impressed. This modern two-auditorium venue is akin to the Queen Elizabeth Hall but, as it seems to major on classical, folk and world music, it hasn’t fallen within my ken before.

Things start out fairly unpromisingly with a genial band from Brighton who play a rather plodding and unexciting brand of folky rock. It’s this lack of dynamism that really does for them -  they seem heavy footed.

I’d provide a link so that you could make your own minds up, but their name, which sounds like “Lie-ish” is proving unGoogleable.

Much better are Trwbador, who I last saw coaxing sounds out of a child’s toy piano one lunchtime on the Camden Crawl.

When they are at their best, Angharad Van Rijswijk and Owain Gwilym make music that is so quiet and uncluttered that it barely seems to exist. The pair become almost silent apart from the gentle strum of Owain’s acoustic guitar and Angharad’s high, clear voice.

They have an album out in the New Year, and what we hear from it tonight sounds very promising.

The last two tracks that they play veer into mellow jazz territory and, although these are very well done, it takes Trwbador into the realm of the commonplace rather than the unique music that makes them so

I’ve heard great things about Laura J Martin and am glad to report that these are entirely accurate.

Laura is an engaging and accomplished performer, who is clearly happy to experiment with new directions and technical equipment.

Many of the songs tonight feature extensive and inventive use of sound loops. Martin will play a snatch on her flute, or whoop like an Indian brave, and then utilise these sounds as an accompaniment to her singing and playing. It works very well.

Particularly interesting is her newest material from the Bónus Skór ep, which comprises the fruits of some recent sessions in Iceland. There is a slower, darker hue to this music, with ominous drones added to the mix.

This contrasts with Laura’s cheery demeanour. I’ve never been much of a flute aficionado, but even I can tell that Martin is a class act. She attacks her instrument with the same showy fervour that a guitarist would employ to pose with his axe. This flute is not just played, it’s SEEN to be played.

Laura is warm, chatty and happy to sign autographs in the foyer afterwards. She’s a sunny presence on a winter evening. Good for her.  

Thursday 13 December 2012

Dragonette, A*M*E and Little Nicki at Cargo - 12 December 2012


It’s a freezing night. Better to be at a nice warm gig than to wander the streets.

Fortunately, I’m in here, locked in the tender embrace of the ‘Popjustice Christmas Piss Up”. Popjustice celebrate the jollier end of the musical spectrum and DJ Bright Light Bright Light is playing a solid selection of chart hits. I bop around a bit to Girls Aloud ‘Biology’.

First on is Little Nicki, a veritable SuperBall of energy who bounces around the stage singing, rapping and performing complex dance manoeuvres with a loose-limbed male dancer.  She is clad in a tight top emblazoned with Batman logos. It’s a good look.

Music is provided by a DJ in a booth behind the cavorting Nicki and he occasionally contributes with a “What Up? “ or “Yeah!” as the situation demands. The tunes are catchy, the beats infectious and Nicki talented and easy on the eye. An excellent start to the evening.

A*M*E* is a comparatively subdued performer, but a gutsy one. She stands alone on the stage and belts out half a dozen upbeat pop numbers, including new single ‘Play the Game Boy’. She goes down well with the crowd (and me) but there is a tiny whiff of anger within her and it’s possible that she rather resents the rush to get her set over so that the main act can begin.

It’s more than five years since I last saw Dragonette. For many years they were based in London but they eventually decamped back to their native Canada.

Currently a three piece, Dragonette are a formidable pop machine fronted by the powerful pipes of Martina Sorbara. The band is delighted to be here and this joy radiates from them like a beam of light throughout the rest of the evening.

It’s straight into the hits, a triple whammy of ‘I Get Around’, ‘Riot’ and ‘Live In This City’. It’s gloriously uplifting hands-in-the-air stuff and the crowd is dancing and jumping so hard that they are practically levitating.

The band have made a huge impact around the world in the last few years by providing Martin Solveig with the vocals and sample for the global chart smash ‘Hello’. When Dragonette play this track and segue it into their own tune ‘Let It Go’ the room practically combusts with happiness.

Keeping things seasonal, the band deliver their Christmas track ‘Happy Xmas (Says Your Text Message)’ before asking for audience collusion as they shoot part of the video for forthcoming single ‘Run Run Run’. This involves Martina singing the song backwards (no mean feat) and performing with her back to us. The crowd play their part well and go suitably bonkers behind her.

It’s been a terrific night. Merry Christmas to one and all and remember…there ain’t no justice like Popjustice!

Monday 10 December 2012

Gary Numan and Officers at Kentish Town Forum - 7 December 2012

Gary Numan pic by Karren Bailey

From far and wide we come. We’re here to pay homage at the feet of a legend. He’s not cool or fashionable on anything other than his own terms. He’s Gary Numan.

The Forum is full. If there is anyone here who is not wearing black, I’m not aware of them.  This is not an evening for the uninitiated. Which puts me very much in the minority, as this is the first time I’ve seen the synth-pop pioneer.

First, we are treated to a set by Officers. The sound mix is so muddy that it is quite hard to tell exactly what they are doing, but they appear to be a fairly decent industrial rock band.

They are swathed in black (natch) and the singer is keen to show off his tattooed arms, the sleeves sensibly un-inked at the forearm.

Officers make all the right sounds and, amidst the murk, tunes emerge. They’re perfect for this evening, and indeed have collaborated with Numan on their most recent release.

The stage is dominated by a huge wall of speakers and two banks of equipment. A drummer perches between them. A guitarist and bassist strut in front of the speakers. This just leaves a microphone free for…

…Gary Numan.

There’s no getting around the fact that the first impression I have is one of shock.

Numan has always traded on being ‘other’. He began his career pretending to be post-human and he could carry this act off. He still looks and sounds completely unique.

He’s utterly pale, as though he has never seen sunlight, and his pallor is exaggerated by a thick mop of hair, dyed as black as midnight.  His face is still striking, his features looking as though they originally belonged to someone else. There’s a distinct vibe of Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Gary has long since freed himself from the tyranny of standing behind a keyboard. He allows his band to manage the electronics. This leaves him free to wrap himself around a microphone stand. He occasionally grabs a guitar, but never really plays it, using it mainly as a prop instead, waving the instrument at arms length.

The Numan voice is unchanged. It’s still a kind of strangled whine which is wildly unorthodox, but which works with these songs.

The crowd are in raptures. They don’t just sing along with the choruses, they belt out the verses too. This is communion as much as concert.

The set spans Numan’s long career, but principally showcases several tracks from ‘ Splinter’, a long term project that has not been released yet.

There’s a slow, sedate, almost melancholic air to the music. Numan sings of the Outsider, of the soul out of kilter with the mainstream. Weirdly, the last time I encountered an artist that so persistently dealt with themes of alienation and not fitting in with what others think or expect, it was Britney Spears. It’s fair to say that the comparison ends there.

The set culminates in a magnificent version of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”.  This version is partly stripped down to a simple piano-led motif before the familiar refrain crashes in with the power and majesty of two planets colliding. It’s an epic song that has almost never been bettered.

Gary Numan is soon to immigrate to Los Angeles (which might help his tan). In the meanwhile, I’m very glad to have caught him in his element on a cold December evening.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

The Raveonettes and Holy Esque at Village Underground - 3 December 2012

Raveonettes pic by Jeff Spirer at The Owl Mag

“Hawoooorgghhh! Awooorrkkkghhh!”

It’s fair to say that Pat Hynes, the singer with Holy Esque has an emotional and unusual delivery.

This music is vast in size - great sweeping paeans of guitar dinning out over the heads of the crowd.  The instruments thrash, the songs build and build and build to an epic chorus and Hynes, unable to hold himself in check any longer lets loose with a “Hawaaaargh!” or “Woooaargh!”

I am of course being facetious. Hynes’ massively over the top style of belting is exactly what these songs need. There are shades of that old Waterboys’ ‘Big Music’, where feelings are turned up to eleven, but in more measured moments, his voice is closer to that of Clap Hands Say Yeah singer Alec Ounsworth (i.e. still pretty distinctive).

Holy Esque are as confident as can be and have the tunes to back themselves. They easily pass the Wyldman test for support bands, which is ‘Does this band feel as if they are headlining in their own right?’ This lot already sound like huge festival favourites.

This is my first trip to Village Underground and I’m really impressed. It appears to be a converted warehouse that was itself created from a courtyard next to some railway tunnels. The stage is extraordinary, managing to be both intimate to the crowd and yet also vast, as the ceiling vaults cathedral-like way above us. It’s a triumph.

There are few niggles with the venue – the toilets are pitifully inadequate and there is a crush to leave at the end of the evening that brings back unwelcome memories of trying to fight your way out of the old London Astoria.

However, that stage space justifies any minor inconvenience.

In an uncertain world, you can always rely on The Raveonettes.

I’m slightly amazed at how long I’ve been going to see them. It’s been just over ten years and in that time Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo have just got better and better. They’re not long in the tooth, but they have certainly matured in sound and ability to the point that where what was initially better in idea than execution is now pretty much perfect.

Sune and Sharin share vocals, their harmonies producing a pure Phil Spector chorus that is wedded to huge slabs of spiky guitar and crackling bass. The sound is huge in scope, but the tunes themselves are never lost in the din.

The band are here to promote their attest album ‘Observator’, a set of songs that are slightly more scaled back and delicate than in the recent past. However, the new songs are still capable of pinning you to the back wall when the occasion demands.

New tracks ‘Young and Cold’ and ‘Observations’ sit comfortably alongside old favourites like ‘Dead Sound’ or ‘Aly, Walk With Me’. Sune and Sharin change guitars so often that their roadie almost becomes a fourth member of the group, always presenting or carting an instrument away.

It’s a pleasure to watch a band in supreme control of its powers, doing good work.

This band, this venue, these songs…it’s all just spot on.

Thursday 29 November 2012

Public Service Broadcasting at XOYO - 27 November 2012

Public Service Broadcasting pic by Michael Gallacher

This is my first time back at XOYO since their refurbishment. They’ve done some extensive work.

The venue itself has now been subsumed into a larger bar called The Shoreditch Butchery. There are enough skulls and memento mori about the place to make Marilyn Manson feel right at home.

Heading downstairs, we are just in time to see Professor Penguin beginning their set.

There are seven musicians rather bunched up on the small stage. It’s a veritable pile-up of guitars and keyboards and drums and xylophones and other musical nick nacks.  But however cramped they appear, their music is expansive, ranging from pure voice-led folky singing to shoegazey guitar thrash outs. It all works very well and they appear an affable bunch.

Wild Palms follow and they very quickly divide opinion within my group.

It’s all about singer Lou Hill. His voice is the most piercingly loud vocal since the days of Kirk Brandon and Spear of Destiny. Hill lollops along on the spot, stoop shouldered or else dramatically waves his arms around to declaim his point. One minute he’s Bez from the Happy Mondays and the next he’s Benito Mussolini.

Wild Palms’ sound is absolutely drowned in reverb and distortion. The songs themselves seem pretty good, but the sheer volume and shrillness makes for a physically painful experience.  Definitely an acquired taste.

I had previously caught Public Service Broadcasting in a tent at 1234 Shoreditch. Judging by the numbers here to see them tonight, their star is in the ascendancy.

PSB have a great deal of equipment, ranging from the usual keyboards and drum kit to various walls of television sets and a giant mocked up TV screen that acts as a backdrop. As inevitably happens in such circumstances, there is a great deal of finnicking about before the set actually starts. It is sadly never as simple as just plugging in and pressing ‘Play’.

Although he is accompanied by a live drummer (Wrigglesworth), Public Service Broadcasting is the vehicle for one man, J Willgoose. He remains mute throughout, what rapport there is with the audience provided by a Speak and Spell machine.

Willgoose expertly marshals the video input, the vocal samples and wigs out on electric guitar and an adapted banjo.

PSB’s schtick is impressively performed but it is ultimately rather self limiting. Samples from old movies and TV programmes are synched with modern dance beats. When everything coalesces, it is a fine old racket and the world is a wonderful place. However, if it doesn’t quite gel, the effect can be rather forced and flat. It’s a very narrow line to navigate.

The band have expanded their repertoire since I last saw them. Tonight’s new material is generally much more dynamic than most of the earlier ‘War Room’ stuff. That said, the best song tonight is a version of ‘Spitfire’ which (after a number of false starts) is a guitar-drenched juggernaut of a tune.

By now the venue is so heaving with people that I’m no longer sure that I’m the only person within this pair of trousers. XOYO is sold out tonight, highlighting an unwelcome quirk in the new design of the place. The stage can only be seen from roughly half the room, with the result that a whole venue’s worth of people are trying to occupy about half the available space. It’s pretty uncomfortable.

On leaving, the upstairs bar is discovered to be full of dry ice, but almost utterly devoid of people. Spooky.

An interesting rather than wholly successful evening. Professor Penguin were pleasant company, Wild Palms were entertaining if deafening and Public Service Broadcasting were brilliant on the rather too few occasions when they really took off.

Not too shabby all in all.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Polica and NZCA/Lines at Heaven - 20 November 2012

Polica pic by Grace Dickinson

I ordered the tickets back in June, so it’s fair to say that I have been looking forward to tonight for a long time.

First the bad news. Support act Phantogram have had to pull out because Josh Carter has broken his hand.

The good news. Everything else.

For starters, we have a very enjoyable and capable stand-in support act in NZCA/Lines.

As is the case with an increasing number of electronic bands, they take inspiration from that lush neon-soaked synth music from the Eighties that was synonymous with American pop videos in which a beautiful woman would stand in a window while the curtains blew around her. They were considered rather naff at the time, but are now enjoyed unironically. Chromatics have a lot to answer for.

Main man Michael Lovett sports a haircut that was produced with the help of his mum’s best pudding bowl and fiddles with a small keyboard. He sings in a high register, accompanied by a drummer and a bassist who adds a healthy dose of funk to proceedings.

I like NZCA/Lines a lot. They have actual songs and don’t just rely on the nostalgic swoosh of their music.The fact that Lovett’s speaking voice is about four octaves lower than the one he uses to sing is also a source of wonder.

There was a period during the first quarter of the year when Poliça suddenly became the coolest band on the planet. They had a good SXSW and the hipster end of the internet burst into flames. Can the band now justify that love?

They can, and in spades. No band ever went wrong through having two drummers and Poliça are no exception. As with NZCA/Lines, much emphasis is put on a thumping bass guitar.

Poliça’s focal point is vocalist Channy Leanagh. The fact that her vocals are Autotuned is a vital element to the band’s sound, adding a slight metallic, artificial sheen to her keening delivery. She stands, her arms outstretched, embracing us all.

The band’s default setting is a precise and well-honed smooth groove that sits comfortably alongside acts such as Portishead and Massive Attack.

However, the real musical spectre at this feast is UK soul queen Sade, who during the early Eighties bestrode the world of popular music like a cool seductive colossus, and who is increasingly becoming a key and influential touchstone. Of course the fact that Sade is both elegant and so reclusive that she makes Kate Bush look like Cheryl Cole doesn’t hurt the mystique either.

(A further digression – Brooklyn-based outfit The Rosebuds have just re-worked Sade’s ‘Love Deluxe’ album in its entirety and released it for free. It sounds absolutely ace and almost exactly like the original).

A good sign for me is when a band sounds too big and accomplished for the venue that they are playing in. Poliça completely dominate this evening and conquer Heaven in a way that Django Django signally failed to do last week.

I raise some eyebrows among my friends by comparing Poliça with Kraftwerk. I’m not alluding to the sound that they make, but the meticulous manner in which they make it. There is barely a note out of place here, or any component that has not been scrupulously considered.

It is testament to Channy Leanagh that a band that might otherwise seem cold and aloof instead seem warm and inclusive. She has a big smile on her face and this crowd beam back at her.

Poliça genuinely deserve their critical adulation. What they now need to do is to expose themselves to the wider world.

They’ll go down a bomb anywhere there are beautiful women, balconies and lots of wind to blow the curtains about.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Django Django at Heaven - 12 November 2012

Django Django

I’m rather unexpectedly out on a Monday night. It’s a slight shock to the system. The ticket touts outside also seem confused – they are trying to buy spares for someone called ’Dingle Dangle.’

I’m here at Heaven because this gig was postponed a few weeks ago to allow the headliners to make what turned out to be a futile tilt at the Mercury Music Prize.

First up are Gulp. There are three of them onstage, but so much of their sound is pre-programmed that they effectively have a fourth member in the guise of a computer chip.

Singer Lindsey Leven is dressed in a long black robe that makes her look like some benign abbess presiding over the stage. On either side of her a guitarist and bassist step lively. The bassist is Guto Pryce, erstwhile Super Furry Animal.

The Gulp set is a bit in and out. They are at their best when Leven sings songs with actual words. There is a particularly fine track which is promised as a forthcoming single. However, the default setting for the group seems to be to create a wash of sound with the singer wailing wordlessly over it. It’s not unpleasant, but if they are competing with great non-verbal singers such as Elizabeth Fraser or possibly Bjork, the comparison is not going to be flattering.

Quite early in their show, Django Django pause and give praise to their set designer. He’s certainly done a good job.

The band is attired in black uniforms with luminous markings. The set behind them is a mass of neon tubing and venetian blinds. It looks very effective yet also somehow reassuringly simple.

Django Django have come a long way in a comparatively short period of time and the growing pains are rather evident this evening.

Their musical approach is what I could glibly describe as ‘folk-tronic’. Vocals are often sung in harmony, accompanied by stabs of acoustic or electric guitar. Half the stage is filled by piles of electronic equipment, which one member of the band busies himself with.  For all their futuristic appearance and gear, the band do not really have a dance sensibility – their digital side seems rather undercooked.

The songs are all jolly raggle taggle affairs and the crowd is happy. However, there is a sense that everyone is waiting for the Big Hit.

When it arrives, ‘Default’ is then rather thrown away as the group decide to use it as the backdrop for a ‘meet the band’ segment.

Very tellingly, Django Django acknowledge that they don’t currently have much material. I suspect that quite a lot of what we hear tonight will not survive the arrival of a second album.

Django Django are never less than enjoyable, and have at least one killer song. But you do get the impression that fortune has catapulted them into the big time somewhat precipitously and that they have been promoted beyond their current capabilities.

Not bad, but not great. At one point the band yell “It feels like a Friday!”

It bloody doesn’t.

Saturday 10 November 2012

La Femme at Barfly - 8 November 2012

La Femme by Hugo Guyader

We’re told that it’s only their second gig. It doesn’t feel like it.

Qtier are minimalist, but tuneful in the same way that the XX or Radiohead are. They pulse, they tick. There’s a thin falsetto vocal. This band exists in the spaces between the notes.

And they are very brief. They do three songs and they’re gone. It’s a pleasant little cameo. I’ll keep an eye on them.

Fantasy Rainbow are deliberately misleading.

Centre stage the handsome guitarist, his quiff tall and proud, stands up to the microphone. He turns out to be a Maguffin. In truth, he barely sings at all.

The main singer and progenitor of the band is Oliver Catt, here acting as second guitarist lurking stage right in tracksuit bottoms and an enveloping black jumper.  He has a drawling delivery that works very well in the context of this music which marries fuzzy thrash with heartfelt angst.

They are a very interesting outfit – the songs are complex and varied, yet form a coherent and dynamic set. There’s some real bite here.  It’s a measure of how much I like them that I am disappointed not to be able to find them afterwards to buy their album.

I last saw La Femme at this year’s 1234 Shoreditch and liked them enough to come back for a second helping here tonight.

And from the moment they start until the end of their set they do not put a foot wrong. They are absolutely terrific.

There are five keyboards strung across the stage, although in practice there are rarely more than three employed at a time. From behind this wall there’s a chic riot going on.

It’s just so JOYOUS. Every song is a surf pop delight, and if you can’t dance to this you are probably dead.

Vocals are traded between Marlon Magnee, nattily attired, his hair sticking out at right angles, and the lovely Clemence, grooving furiously and also dressed to kill. Each song is propulsive, a breakneck helter skelter ride of beats.

Although there is a definite surf rock, Sixties feel, this is also allied to a real modern dance sensibility. Tunes build and build before the inevitable break down that sends everyone into paroxysms.

I’m smiling so much that my face hurts.

I could watch this band all night and when they finish, the venue is just packed with happy, dazed looking people.

A really good night out. La Femme have now become one of my current darlings. Magnifique!

Sunday 4 November 2012

Taffy and Blindness at Wilmington Arms - 3 November 2012


It’s been a number of years since I was last at the Wilmington Arms. They’ve now completely separated the downstairs venue from the rest of the pub. It is small and dark and intimate.

It’s also not too busy initially. Haiku Salut play to the proverbial one man and a dog. And me and my friends constitute the dog.

The girls perform a set in which a wide variety of keyboards, accordions, trumpets, melodicas, kick drums and some iPad-weird-Bjorky thing come into play. The problem that arises is that once you’ve acknowledged the range and diversity of the instrumentation on offer, there’s not really much else here.

It’s all very pleasant, but each song is basically an interlude, rather than something to listen to in its own right. They might as well perform behind a poster of the test card.

The next band represent something that I didn’t think actually existed.

In my mind there have always been pub bands (who are perfectly respectable but relatively mundane and content to ply their trade at a lower level, usually for the love of playing rather than any expectation of greater things) and bands that have some spark of originality about them and who are giving the music business a real shake.
 It’s a reductive way of thinking, but it has generally steered me right.

My initial impression of Blindness turns out to be totally wrong. They’ve clearly been around the block a bit and they are dressed rather like a cheesy night club act. But I am wrong to dismiss them this easily.

After an uncertain start the band settle into a slow and heavy and all-conquering electronic groove which is shot through with lashings of distorted guitar feedback. Right up my alley, in other words.

Singer Beth Rettig arches her back and emotes in a low, urgent voice. I’m reminded of acts like Curve, or even the later iterations of the Jesus and Mary Chain. I like them a lot.

I’m attracted to Japanese bands on tour in the same way that a wasp is drawn to a plate of strawberry jam sandwiches. Tonight I’ve alighted on Taffy.

This band continue the retro theme of the previous act and actually hark even further back into music’s past.
In 1986 I used to go to the Bull and Gate about three times a week to see bands like The Wedding Present, The Mighty Lemon Drops and The Soup Dragons. At this time My Bloody Valentine were a power pop combo.

Taffy would have fitted right in to this scene. We might now call this music star-gaze or the like, but back in the day it was disparagingly called ‘shambling’ and mostly sneered at. But really it was great pop music made with guitars.

Taffy play pure jangly C-86 power pop. It’s impossible not to tap your feet and jiggle about.

Singer Iris is dressed in pink. Guitarist Asano introduces the band by phonetically reading from a notepad and thanks us for coming. The pleasure is all ours. Drummer Ken is a joy- a happy bespectacled and slightly plump figure who beams from ear to ear. It’s impossible not to smile back at him.

The set rattles along at a great pace, with the more bubblegum numbers gradually replaced by longer pieces that fall more squarely in the shoegaze genre of extended guitar noodling. What’s not to like?

It’s been a fine evening’s fun. I’ll try to get back here more quickly next time.

Friday 2 November 2012

Katzenjammer at Islington Academy - 31 October 2012


It’s Halloween. A night of horrible fun and light hearted nastiness.

I’ve already seen an impressive Jason/ Pinhead hybrid on the tube. He’s tall and menacing and carries a sword. He gets to have any train seat that he wants.

As we enter the venue, the first act is already onstage. You’d think that he was in costume. But he’s not.

Ben Caplan hides a very basic act behind a riot of grey facial hair. When Edward Lear wrote of a man with a beard, Caplan took notes. Every meal the man ever ate must be in there somewhere.

Caplan’s act is simplicity itself. There is a certain amount of folksy charm and a whole lot of all-join-in-the-chorus call and response stuff. If there is a rhyme all night that is more subtle than moon-June-spoon I don’t hear it.

Ben Caplan is likeable enough. Indeed, being likeable IS his act. But it is so lowest common denominator undemanding stuff that he could probably do this with his eyes shut.

A confession. Last time I saw Katzenjammer, I couldn’t warm to them. They were clearly good, but I just couldn’t feel it. I’m here to give myself a second chance.

In the spirit of the season, the band come onstage sporting a variety of false moustaches. It looks really weird. But then Katzenjammer are rather a weird beast.

Theirs is a musical chimera of Scandinavian folk, American country music and Weimar cabaret. It’s rather a queasy mix and some of it works and some of it doesn’t.

That’s actually a lie. There is nothing that Katzenjammer do that is not well executed and completely spot on. I genuinely like them...

...but not here, not tonight.

This is a soulless rectangular box full of people. This band should be enjoyed in a dark, comfortable bar, preferably with me zonked out on expensive brandy.  In the harsh confines of the Islington Academy, I’m too uncomfortable to relax into the band. Everything seems strained and forced. After half an hour I leave.

I've tried twice with Katzenjammer and both times have failed to enjoy it for reasons that I can't really fathom. It really is a case of 'it's not them, it's me.'

As I pass through Angel tube station, a young girl is being attended to by paramedics. A young man is having hysterics and is being physically restrained from throwing himself upon them as they try to revive her. It is one of the most upsettingly horrible things I’ve ever seen.

Happy Halloween.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Mindless Self Indulgence at Forum - 28 October 2012

Mindless Self Indulgence

It’s been a tempestuous day. It’s raining cats and dogs and I’ve just come from the ill-tempered Armageddon that was the Chelsea v Man Utd match. I’m damp and seething.

I find comfort in the dark shroud of a half full Forum. Arriving in time to catch about two minutes of the Dead Betas, it’s hard to form an impression. However, their Bandcamp is here.

Taking Haley are up next and are pretty much the dream support act. Everything they do seems designed to warm up an audience for someone else.

The crowd are encouraged to wave, clap and sing along, which they are happy to do. The band are enthusiastic, glad to be here and come across a bit like a lightweight version of Ash, but without any immediately killer tunes. They know their audience and they do a respectable job.

And then...arriving full pelt and not letting up for so much as a second, Mindless Self Indulgence are among us.

The crowd effectively implodes into a mass of moshing guys and screaming girls. It’s a tsunami of hormones and testosterone which suddenly occupies about the half space as previously as the kids pile forward. There is then a great wash of humanity as lighter and more sensitive souls are expelled from the seething mass.

A band like this is only as good as their front man and James Euringer, aka Jimmy Urine is the best of the bunch. This man never rests for even the merest second, a non-stop blur of flailing limbs, spiky hair and obscene gestures.

He is joined by Steve Righ? sporting a bandana and beard, and clearly enjoying himself by rather camping it up, even though he looks like a grizzled biker. Bassist Lyn-Z is relatively restrained in comparison, only occasionally getting the limelight when Urine passes her the microphone to scream into. Drums are thumped by Kitty, tonight dolled up like a member of Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

But it’s all about Jimmy Urine. He dashes around the stage, teetering on a series of podiums hidden between the other musicians. He keeps up a non-stop monologue of insult, off colour humour and audience-baiting. The ruder he is about them, the more they love it. Which is part of the joke.

Songs pass by in a blur and I must admit that the actual musical content rather passes me by – I’m too busy watching the singer’s antics to care about what he’s actually singing.  

An indication of the highbrow nature of tonight’s proceedings can be appreciated when, after announcing that the band will be playing in Paris the following evening, Urine gets the crowd to chant along “Fuck The French!”. At another point, he balances awkwardly on a podium the better to repeatedly moon us with his skinny white ass.

After an hour or so, the law of diminishing returns starts to set in. The band are as full on and outrageous as previously, but the crowd seem exhausted by it all.

The second encore is rather bizarre. The band leaves the stage apart from Steve, who invites various members of the crowd up on stage to play his guitar. They can’t. Steve starts to sing “Born Free”. There is some confusion and it becomes clear that this is indeed the end, and the others aren’t coming back.

Mindless Self Indulgence live up to their name in a good way. It’s great to let off steam, be a little silly and just make some noise.

And I’m sure that somewhere that Urine and co are getting some French kids to chant “Fuck L’Anglais!”

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Sparks at Barbican - 26 October 2012


The stage is bare save for a keyboard to one side. To a wave of applause, a gaunt and stooped Ron Mael trudges on, his head and shoulders bowed.

He proceeds to play a medley of Sparks hits, running them together in such a manner that it is impossible to pick them all out. I do however catch a snatch of ‘Looks, Looks, Looks’, my favourite track from the early era of the band.

From stage right, Russell Mael makes his entrance. He is attired in the tweed jacket, khaki trousers and gaiters of a 1930’s country gentleman. His dark hair is combed into a floppy black forelock. You could almost say that it is Russell and not Ron Mael who most looks like Hitler.

This is Sparks on their ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’ tour and that is exactly what you get. Everything has been pared away to Russell’s remarkable falsetto vocal and Ron’s accompaniment.

They start with ‘Hospitality On Parade’, Russell skipping in circles around the large stage, Ron necessarily as static as ever. This is the pattern for the rest of the show. ‘Metaphor’ and ‘At Home, At Work, At Play’ follow.

This format neatly illustrates the elaborate word play of their early material. There is a flavour of Broadway about the songs and you wonder about the path not followed and what a Sparks musical might have looked like.

The more recent Sparks songs are almost the complete antithesis of this approach. Songs such as ‘Rhythm Thief’ and ‘Dick Around’ rely on repetition to the extent that they could be sung as rounds by primary school kids (ok, maybe not that last one). ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’ consists of no more than those five words.

Further to my earlier thoughts about the viability of a Sparks stage show, the brothers perform a small excerpt from their long gestating ‘Seduction of Ingmar Bergman’ project, for which Ron dons a beret. It’s interesting rather than arresting.

And that is the slight niggle with a lot of this show. Aside from being bashed out on a single keyboard, there has been no attempt to alter these songs from their usual full band format. This ‘acoustic’ approach doesn’t really make you see the songs in any kind of new light. There are no hidden interpretations that you were not aware of before.  This means that tracks like ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us’ and ‘Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth’ sound underpowered rather than intimate.

It is only during the encores that the new dynamic seems to bring something fresh to the material. ‘No 1 Son in Heaven’ and ‘Beat the Clock’ sound particularly terrific tonight.

During the latter, the brother’s gradually change places. This allows Ron to perform a stately audience invasion, walking through the aisles to applause and handshakes.

The Maels are genuinely and deeply moved by the reception that they receive tonight. It is in the UK and Europe where they are held in the highest esteem – I suspect that Sparks have always been way too clever-clever to be embraced by the American mainstream.

It’s been a really enjoyable, if rather brief show, from a pair of true originals. If the two of them have had half as much fun as we have, then they are happy men indeed.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Savages at Electrowerkz - 11 October 2012


Here I am back in the claustrophobic metal tin that is Electrowerkz. I wouldn’t say that we are packed nose to tail, but I saw a couple of sardines outside gasping for air.

The lights are down and Savages are onstage. They are deliberately androgynous and business-like. They let their music do the talking.

As I watch may be the best headlining set that I have come across this year, I’m struck by two things...

...I had noticed that the audience is generally older than I would have expected for what is essentially a new, up and coming band. Ok, Savages are fronted by Jehnny Beth who was previously part of well regarded duo John and Jehn, but that is not it.

What is intriguing is the band’s overall sound. I’ve heard them compared to Siouxsie and the Banshees, but I find that this description is too broad and not helpful. To my ears, Savages are originating from the absolute focal point that is Echo and The Bunnymen’s second album, Heaven Up Here. That’s incredible enough. What’s even more incredible is that Savages take this sound and improve upon it.

Jehnny Beth employs all the vocal tricks of Ian McCulloch while the rest of the band are tight and fast and streamlined. Everything is finely honed and spare, nothing wasted...

...which brings me to my second great Savages epiphany. What makes this band stand out from the herd is their brevity. The very vast majority of Savages songs clock in at three minutes or less. That seems incredibly unusual these days.

The songs aren’t played at breakneck speed. They are perfect, precise and short. In an age when many bands have a tendency to maunder on and rely on band and audience finding a mutually satisfactory groove, Savages’ conciseness and discipline seems all the more impressive.

This set is barely over the half an hour mark, but is concentrated and nourishing. Both sides of their single, ‘Flying To Berlin’ and ‘Husbands’ get an airing. There is a buzz about the band that is growing and is clearly merited. No filler here, all muscle.

Consider me Savaged.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Osaka Ramones (Shonen Knife) at Cargo - 01 October 2012

Shonen Knife as Osaka Ramones

Some things you can predict, some things you can’t…

I wouldn’t have predicted that Wussy, the first band on tonight and who hail from Cincinnati, are normally a five piece ensemble.

Tonight Wussy are stripped down to the vital core of Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker. He, massive and full of beard. She, wiry and bright eyed. Both heavily covered in tattoos across all exposed areas of flesh.

The pair broadly alternate vocal chores between them, and surprisingly, Chuck’s voice is often higher than Lisa’s, a beautiful sound that seems unusual coming from a guy who looks like he leads a Hells Angel Chapter.

Wussy are set square at that junction of Americana where folk and country collide. Individual songs are firmly in one camp or the other. Occasionally you could close your eyes and see the rhinestones.

For the second half of their set the pair are joined by the drummer from one of the other acts, American Werewolf Academy. As my colleague points out, this guy looks pissed in both the British and American senses of the word.  He seems surly and over-tired, but does a fine job backing Wussy, adding a necessary dynamism to propel them to a satisfactory conclusion.

I wouldn’t have predicted that American Werewolf Academy would be so shonky. The three of them crash about artlessly and hoarsely shout at us. There is lots of guitar posing and leg kicking but they just seem like louts bawling about.

I’ve always found that bands from abroad have a certain level of confidence and stage craft – after all, it is a big step to play your music in another country and bands don’t tend to attempt this until they have reached a particular level of tightness and competence. American Werewolf Academy blow that theory out the water. They are possibly alcohol-impaired, but tonight they are galumphing, slipshod and annoying.

After that unpleasant surprise there is nothing more predictably satisfying than Shonen Knife.

This Osaka three piece have played for many years and while they never really vary, they never disappoint. It is an older crowd tonight, many still wearing the same plaid shirts they wore when Kurt Cobain first championed the band to a wider audience.

Tonight Shonen Knife are performing as their alter-egos, Osaka Ramones.

Their set is Ronseal – thirty five minutes of nonstop Ramones classics that barely last two minutes each and which are separated one from the next by a high-pitched scream of “1,2,3,4”.

Starting with ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’, ‘Psychotherapy’ and ‘Rockaway Beach’ da sistas go on to bam-a-lam their way through ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker’, ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’. The stage is drenched in dry ice amongst which we see manes of black hair whipped about, beaming smiles and ‘\m/’ finger salutes.

They pause for breath, and encore with two songs of their own, including ‘Pop Tune’ from their new album of the same name.

Shonen Knife are a pure fun delivery system. A good time guaranteed each and every time.  That’s not even a prediction. That’s a stone cold fact.


Wednesday 26 September 2012

Charlotte Church and A Blossom Fell at Water Rats - 24 September 2012

This is one of those gigs that just had to be done…

We start off with Battle of The Roses, who don’t look well. This is entirely due to the lighting on the tiny Water Rats stage. Everyone is bathed in a harsh greeny-blue glare that cruelly exposes every drop of sweat and makes the band look like corpses that have been fished out of the river. Flattering it ain’t.

There are plenty of people in the band and they are rather enjoyable in a folky raggle taggle kind of way. Theirs is the sort of song that sounds as though they are telling tales of hardship on the sea even if they are not actually singing of things nautical. If you like The Decemberists, Battle Of The Roses could really polish your poop deck.

The band have an excellent violinist and a strong main singer. They add percussion by tapping and banging on the frame of their instruments. It turns out their drummer was recently deported and that they are now on the look out for a replacement. I actually think that tonight’s semi-acoustic approach suits them very well.

There is a lot of support in the room for A Blossom Fell. And as soon as they start up, you can tell why.

This London six piece are fronted by a trio of vocalists (Hannah, Louise and Sarah) who can really belt it out. In terms of volume I reckon that they are approaching six Aguileras on the full-on diva scale.

A Blossom Fell absolutely storm it this evening. It’s a naturally receptive audience, but there is so much sheer energy and obvious enjoyment pouring off the stage that resistance would be futile.

If there is a minor flaw it is that while each song is a perfect showcase for the power and range of the singers –and their harmonies are just terrific- that actual tunes are in short supply.

However, in the euphoria of a performance like this it doesn’t really matter if there is nothing that you can hum afterwards. A Blossom Fell just take the roof off tonight.

Charlotte Church is accompanied this evening by six very proficient guys who can barely fit on the stage. Church herself is resplendent in white and given a ghostly glow by the light from the lap top perched beside her.

She seems very nervous when she starts off, but soon relaxes and strikes up a warm rapport with the crowd.

It’s a mixed set of songs, encompassing the pure catchy pop of “Say It’s True” to the Rupert Murdoch – baiting “Mr The News”, which is genuinely angry and is closer to MBV noise rock than you would have expected.

Charlotte’s voice is a wonder and she does all that she can to protect it, wolfing down huge spoonfuls of honey and lemon every three songs or so.  It is during the several power-ballads that the Church pipes really come into their own. The clarity and emotional power that she generates is breathtaking.

The set meanders a bit and not all of the songs are as strong as their singer. One exception is a track that sees Church setting up a series of sound loops so that eventually her voice becomes its own backing track.

It’s a very winning performance and your heart goes out to her as, even as she unwinds, Church always has to be on her guard. She mentions the hot, dry atmosphere on the stage but admits that she can’t describe it in her preferred terminology because this would involve swearing.  She sticks to water and her honey/lemon mixture throughout.

The evening finishes with a disco-lite number called “James”. Charlotte smiles, waves and is gone, having already told us that she doesn’t do encores because she finds the experience of standing in the wings and wondering if she should return too traumatic.

It’s been an unexpectedly fine evening, with some stand out vocal displays. I can barely manage a grunt while A Blossom Fell and Charlotte Church positively soar.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Patti Smith at Troxy - 13 September 2012

Patti Smith

I was going to blame the venue…

I’m in the Troxy to see the mighty Patti Smith. Patti and her band are the gig equivalent of a home banker. Solid gold every single time.

But not tonight.

When Patti and co come onstage, the immediate impression is that they are very quiet. Not quiet in a reverential sense or because they are playing acoustic instruments (they are not), but quiet in the sense that if I play a Patti Smith record in my living room, it’s louder and more urgent than this.

It’s not an aberration. Smith and the rest sound like they are down the hall in another room.

It doesn’t help that I’m somehow blocked off by people and can’t see – it’s clear from the movement and unrest in the crowd that very few of them can see or hear either.

It is shaping up to be one of the most nondescript gigs ever, until around three quarters of the way through, Patti goes into one of her trademark monologues and dedicates the next track to Pussy Riot.

And then the band play ‘Because The Night’ and the house lights come up and we are all illuminated, a connection is made and it’s wonderful.

From this moment onward, we get a gig. Smith and co change from being something going on in the background to the rabble-rousing hand-clapping air-punching entity that we’ve always loved.

The last fifteen minutes are an extended and euphoric version of ‘Gloria’ intercut with ‘Pissing in a River’. It is wholly magnificent and amongst the finest live musical moments I’ve experienced in the last few years.

So I’m rather stumped as to why the band didn’t make any impression at all until they played a couple of the hits. It wasn’t due to not recognising the material; earlier on they played ‘Free Money’ from ‘Horses’ and I am familiar with the songs from new album ‘Banga’.

I think that it was a combination of a band initially going through the motions and a crowd that stood passively and took it. It needed the sudden spark of an impromptu Patti rant and the lights coming on to kick-start both performers and audience out of a rut.

I’m still not that sold on the Troxy as a venue – I’ve noticed sight and sound difficulties here before. It may be that the thick carpeting on the floor muffles noise and that when bands perform everything goes up into the gallery rather than out to the people standing at ground level.

However despite the myriad problems, tonight’s gig ended as a triumph. We got there in the end.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Deap Vally and The Death Rays of Ardilla at Sebright Arms - 10 September 2012

Deap Vally pic from You Aint No Picasso


It’s an awful word when applied to music. For me, it is never about a slavish dedication to detail, or even about a band ‘paying its dues’ (which is another nebulous concept). For me it’s about belief. Whether I, as a punter, believe in you, the band.

There are two acts playing tonight. One that is less fashionable and relatively unsung and another that is accomplished, image conscious and have already ‘arrived’ (and that is yet another extremely subjective piece of terminology).

First up, on the tiny stage of the Sebright Arms, are The Death Rays of Ardilla. Google research links me back to a novel written by Captain W E Johns, better known as the author of the Biggles books.  As far as taking your name from works of literature, this is not as cool as calling yourself ‘Heaven 17’ or ‘The Doors’. But it does seem appropriate.

TDROA ( as Twitter has them) are a two piece from Sheffield. Nick Tietzsch-Tyler plays drums and his brother Thom, clad in black leather jacket, clutches a guitar and sings gruffly.

Theirs is not a revolutionary sound. They are a very basic and deliberately old-fashioned heavy rock band. They are relatively dour and not much prone to spectacular displays of showy stage craft. Yet I like them rather a lot.

The pair have a genuine ‘take us as you find us’ respectability. They ask us to buy their record so that they can afford to get back to Sheffield. Is this true? Probably not, but it FEELS right.

Towards the end of their short set the brothers play a rattling version of Screaming Lord Sutch’s signature tune ‘Jack The Ripper’. TDROA invest this track with more weight than the late Lord ever did.

I last saw Deap Vally just over a week ago on the main stage at 1234 Shoreditch. Lindsey Troy (guitars and rawk growl) and Julie Edwards (drums and back up vocals) were in their element. Entertaining a crowd, banging out some bluesy rock numbers, encouraging spectators to get naked and generally being everything a good festival act should be.

So why is it that tonight they leave me cold? It’s a very indefinable thing. The music is fine, they engage with the audience, they look the part.

My problem is this concept of ‘authenticity’. I don’t believe in them. They seem superficial and fake. I don’t expect them to overdose on heroin before my eyes or carve ‘4 Real’ on their arms, but I can’t get past a feeling that this is like Janis Joplin sung by the cast of ‘Glee’ – technically correct but somehow ersatz.

It’s the diaphanous difference between an act that has a genuine spark about them and one that will usually never get beyond their local bar. I don’t dislike Deap Vally, they seem like good people. But I can’t suspend disbelief while they are on.

It’s been an interesting evening and it has given me plenty to ponder. My views are diametrically opposite to those of the rest of my party. However, I must admit that if the two bands playing tonight had swapped places on the bill, it would have been more to my taste.

You decide.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Grimes at Heaven - 5 September 2012


As I make my way into Heaven, my initial impression is that there is someone onstage killing a cat.  Fortunately, I don’t need to alert PETA or the RSPCA – the appalling noise is Majical Cloudz, a project of whizkid Devon Welsh. The music is fine, but the vocals are excruciating.

To be fair, I only catch the last ten minutes or so, so it is perfectly possible there may have been a moment of serenity when a note was hit accurately earlier in their set. However, what I hear is pretty much the sound of a wino wailing under a bridge.

Becoming Real is the alter ego of Toby Ridler, a musician who is left onstage to entertain us with a set of rather nifty electronic dance music. He faces the great DJ dilemma.

This problem occurs when all the music is stored on computer and doesn’t require much more attention than remembering to hit the ‘On’ button. Ridler compensates for this by shuffling and twiddling as though his life depended upon it. Watching him closely, he is rarely doing anything to his equipment at all; he is merely pretending to be as busy as Glenn Gould pounding away at the ‘Rach 3’.

There is no real reason for him to be onstage, as the same effect could be gained from him slipping his CD on and leaving the crowd to their own devices while he enjoys a long cool drink. Instead, we are presented with the knob twiddler’s equivalent of an air guitar solo.

Claire Boucher aka headliner Grimes is all too aware that unadorned electronic music is not much to look at. So she lays on plenty of distractions.

The first, and by far the most impressive, is a lithe and Amazonian pole dancer who contorts and disports during the first two numbers. It’s a genuinely awesome and athletic performance.

Grimes bounces and bobs backs and forth behind her keyboards and flicks her long blonde ponytail about. She’s electro-Barbie.

With the pole dancer off for a rest, Grimes is joined by various musicians who are flamboyantly dressed and who help to keep the crowd engaged. To this end we also get back projections of Japanese anime plus an assortment of balloons and bubbles blown about the venue. It’s not so much a gig as the kind of bright and shiny distraction afforded to toddlers plonked down in front of the television. I’m fine with it, but then I get the giggles if someone jangles their keys at me.

The music is a kind of sparse and atmospheric distorted pop that is kind of like the first Madonna album given a good tweaking by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Vocals are sampled and run backwards and forwards, beats are stretched and distorted.

The percussionists clap, Grimes bounces and we watch the visuals. Everything is amicable and cosy. In ‘Genesis’ Grimes even has something that could be played on the radio as a spectral but straightforward pop song.

There is a minor equipment glitch during the encore, but Grimes shows her showbiz chops by making light of the problem and chatting easily with the crowd until power is restored.

It’s been a good show rather than a great one, but ‘good’ is not to be dismissed. Ooh look – bright lights!

Monday 3 September 2012

1234 Shoreditch - 1 September 2012

La Femme

What better way to shake off the cobwebs of a largely gig-free Olympic summer than a day out at the 1234 Shoreditch. I come here each year and it rarely disappoints.

For me, the day begins with Drop Out Venus doing ‘I Kill Foxes’ on the main stage. It is an exhilarating, uncompromising start. They’re brilliant, as ever.

I then dash across the field to catch the second half of La Femme, a six piece attack of driving synths. They are very French and clad in matching white T-shirts. Vive le no difference!

The Pukes are a vast ukulele orchestra of mature ladies blasting out punk classics. This ought to be twee, but is just joyous. There are at least seventeen of them bouncing and running about. I bawl along with ‘GLC (You’re Full Of Shit)’ and have a great time.

JEFF The Brotherhood are uber-macho American rockers, who produce a fine old racket and are clearly used to playing to large festival crowds. Their swagger contrasts with Los Cripis, who are a rather fiddly and introspective outfit from Argentina. These last are ok, but do get special Wyldman points for including an unexpected cover of Devo’s ‘Blockhead’.

The most divisive band of the day are The Pre New. It’s impossible to tell whether they are an elaborate joke or something brilliantly strange.  A solidly built guy dressed as though he’s come straight from the bar of his local golf club half talks and screams alongside a younger guy in combat fatigues and Pierrot make-up. Behind them a band blasts out crunching dance beats using everything from drumkits to Macbooks. There is much abuse of equipment, with microphones and ice cream thrown at each other. It’s chaos, but good entertainment. Pierrot appears to have a drumkit set up purely so that he can lurch over and punch it occasionally. The audience is split between those who think this is all a hoot and others who grump off to watch something else.

The most hyped band here seem to be Zoetrope, who have drawn much attention to themselves by being young, female and all over the free newspaper that you are given containing today’s stage times.  Unfortunately, they just don’t seem very interesting. They play to a packed tent, but I soon get bored with them and bail out.

Antlered Man are a much better proposition. I could listen to them do ‘Platoono Of Uno’ all day. They’re part prog, part hardcore, all business and go down a storm.

I run my eye over Black Moth (phenomenally heavy, but perhaps not overburdened with tunes) and The Neat (impressive power pop and very jolly).

I try to avoid Deap Vally on the main stage as I am due to see them headline their own gig next week, but from what I catch, these two girls are going to make a big splash with their piled high hair and blues rock clatter.

I then head off to see Public Service Broadcasting after a passer by begs me for details of their set times. And they turn out to be a bit of a revelation. 

It’s a simple premise. Two guys use samples from vintage movies and documentary footage and marry these to Krauty dance rhythms. It might be rather self-limiting, but for half an hour they are mesmerising, with a whole tent nodding along to Blitz-set epics ‘Britain Can Take It’ and ‘Spitfire’. PSB are one of the finds of the day.

I skirt round Buzzcocks on the main stage – they are fun but too familiar – and finish off the day with Mark Stewart, who is playing with the Trio VD. This set turns out to be the most deafening and uncompromisingly harsh noise of the day.

As ever with Stewart, vocals are treated and distorted and the music is an assault on the senses. It’s a greatest hits set, if anything that he does could ever be so categorised. It’s bizarre to hear versions of ‘How Much Longer Will We Tolerate Mass Murder’, ‘Feed The Hungry’, ‘Liberty City’ and ‘Stranger Than Love’ – this last dedicated to Max Bygraves with all sincerity.

They finish with a stonking, howling version of ‘Hysteria’. It’s a rousing end to a really enjoyable day out.

I’m back on the gig scene, baby!