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.