Wednesday 28 May 2014

Swans at Electric Brixton - 27 May 2014

Michael Gira finishes another song. (Pic Ben Stas)

The rain beats down and rivers of water wash through Brixton. The slate grey sky shows no sign of a break in the weather anytime soon. I have two options. Go and see Swans or build an ark.

When I enter and shake the moisture from my clothing, the venue is already pretty full. The crowd are steaming gently and listening to the abrasive sounds of Jenny Hval and her two companions.

Hval half declaims, half barks. Her songs are seemingly random snatches of percussion and noise. The result is somewhere between Brecht and the dance floor. She also reminds me of the artier excesses of Mark Perryand Alternative TV circa 'Vibing Up the Senile Man'.  Interesting and challenging stuff then.

There are many myths surrounding headliners Swans. Tales of punishing rehearsals, deafening volumes and sets of epic length.

My own fondest memory of the band was from a gig at ULU in the Eighties on a bill that they shared with Mark Stewart & The Maffia. Swans were so loud on that occasion that you couldn't actually hear them, just feel the air moving against your chest and a terrible discomfort. It was like being underwater.

Tonight I'm packing ear plugs.

The band wander onto a stage cluttered with amps and an array of percussion instruments. They look grizzled and worn. These are guys who are used to hard work.

Everyone, on stage and off, takes instruction from the long haired and rather unnerving Michael Gira. As the band builds to a lengthy climax that had apparently started as a soundcheck, Gira walks round and round in tight circles, psyching himself up while mumbling and flailing a flabby arm above his head.

The band go into a loud and sonorous riff that is identifiable as part of 'Frankie M'. Gira sings, sometimes gibbers, all the while keeping a tight rein on the other band members. He points, urges them to focus or conducts them like an orchestra.

Such are the length of some of these songs that we only get half a dozen or so over the span of the evening.

'A Little God in My Hands' develops organically, builds into something majestic and, like all the material tonight, pounds repetitively for a great amount of time before being suddenly and emphatically stopped by a single high-footed stomp from Gira.

It's loud tonight, but not excruciatingly so. There are even relatively quiet and tender passages during 'Just a Little Boy'.

The band play for well over two hours without a break. Although Gira will occasionally address the crowd, and pleasure can be derived from the aptly named Thor Harris, bare chested and apparently summoned from Olympus to bang gongs and bells, Swans are primarily a band that is turned in upon itself. The performers form a circle and are intent upon the contribution that they make to the group as a whole.

That is perhaps my only criticism. Swans kind of do their thing and we are in the same room while they do it. You feel that nothing would change if there was no audience at all.
Only at the end does Gira relent. He assembles the band across the front of the stage for a well deserved curtain call, individually introducing the band members by nicknames that he is making up on the spur of the moment.

There has been something tumultuous and Old Testament about this evening, from the Biblical weather outside to the epic and unforgiving sounds inside the venue. I head out into the dark and look for a life raft.

Pic Ben Stas

Sunday 25 May 2014

White Lung, Autobahn, Claw Marks at 100 Club - 22 May 2014

White Lung

Such is the plethora of events in London, and such is my lack of coordination, that at one time or another I have had three different tickets in my hand for three different gigs played this evening.

Now the dust has settled I am glad to be in the 100 Club for an evening of raucous fun.

Kicking things off are Claw Marks, a fine, fine band and a photographers dream. Not only do they play the sort of ridiculously fast and brutal punk that makes your blood sing, but they benefit hugely from a singer who can barely contain himself.

Barefoot, the better to obtain purchase on speakers and drum kit, this bearded wonder is a lithe and lewd homunculus, thrusting his groin at the crowd and screaming fit to burst. He flails about, crawls on the floor, attempts to strangle himself with his microphone and generally makes sure that even if a foolish spectator isn’t keen on the band, they won’t be able to take their eyes off them.

The rest of the band are fast, furious and quite prone to leap off the stage themselves. They are more fun than a big helium balloon filled with sparkles.

With the name Autobahn, I was initially expecting something synthy and po-faced from the next act. Not a bit of it. These guys from Leeds rock like the demon seed of Satan himself.

Singer Craig Johnson is having himself a night. He sings in a throaty roar that rasps the ears of the whole room.  At the end of each burst his eyes go out of focus and he silently mouths imprecations. I had originally thought that he was drunk and angry, but it becomes clear that he is in pain, and that this performance is killing him. It’s appropriate that one of their tracks is called ‘Seizure’.

Johnson’s discomfort adds a frisson to what is already a great show. The songs pummel along at a 100 mile an hour clip, nothing out of place. Autobahn are slick, assured and very impressive indeed. I’ll certainly make efforts to see them again – and I wager it will be in a bigger venue than this.

White Lung hail from Vancouver and are loud, chaotic and a lot of fun. They don’t have many tunes that grab you from the get go, but they make up for this with the sheer momentum that they generate.

Singer Mish Way bawls and tramps around the stage, in good spirits, pausing to bend over and shriek. She’s chatty and pleased to snaffle drinks proffered by the crowd.

At her side, bassist Hether Fortune is dressed in an Eighties power dress and jumps up and down. The noise the pair make is awesome.

Kenneth William stands to one side, his intricate guitar work lending some subtlety to proceedings. He gently prods Way back towards the front of the stage if she gets too distracted.

Drummer Anne-Marie Vassilou has a wonderful longsuffering air about her of being the band member responsible for keeping things moving forward. She has the resigned determination of a librarian asked to catalogue a book about penises.

White Lung are loud, sprawling and hugely entertaining. They don’t do finesse, but sometimes a bloody good racket is all you want to hear.

Tonight I could have gone to three gigs. One was cancelled, one I sold my ticket for, and one I attended. I made the right choice.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Teleman at Islington Assembly Hall - 20 May 2014

Teleman (doing their Man Machine thing)

This is my first time in Islington Assembly Hall. I’m impressed –the décor is like a 1/10 scale Brixton Academy and the Gents toilets have a complicated and abstruse arrangement that keeps you on your mettle and provides amusement for hours.

We start off with Gentlemen, a band that I recall supportingThe Virgins last year.

They are still utterly enthral to the fey English folk/psychedelica of the late 60’s and early 70’s. They are so faithful to the source of their inspiration that there is a strong impression that they spend as much time getting their hair and costumes right as they do rehearsing their music.

They are jolly enough but are a band who teeter on pastiche rather than homage.

The stage goes dark in readiness for the appearance of Teleman. There is a desultory puff of dry ice as the band take their places.

Initially a three piece, they have now been joined by a live drummer. It is abundantly clear that these songs were written with a drum machine or click track, so he doesn’t have much to do other than maintain a single metronomic beat.

The first thing that strikes you about Teleman is main singer Thomas Sanders’ voice. It is a pristine pure thing that pipes at a register only just lower and stronger than that of a choirboy. It’s an acquired sound that seems eerily mechanical.

There is something of the robotic about the whole band. They barely move and there is absolutely no clutter to any of the songs.

The other band members do their bit. The tunes are primarily carried by Jonny Sanders’ keyboard swirls and harmonies with his brother and Pete Cattermoul is as stiffly funky as a fax machine on bass.

Teleman pitch somewhere between folk music and the pastoral English electric of OMD.

The band are plugging their first album and this is both a blessing and a limitation. Their good songs ‘Cristina’, ‘Steam Train Girl’ and the best early Wire tune that never was ‘Not in Control’ are superb, but there is a certain amount of filler, tunes that you feel will be discarded as their repertoire expands.

Teleman provoke a very strong negative reaction in one of my group, who hates them so much that after twenty minutes he can no longer bear to be in the same room. The rest of us enjoy the band very much, liking their still simplicity.

It’s been a very decent night. We leave, noting the smattering of celebrity musical chums who have come to see the band. They were not disappointed, and nor were we.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

tUnE-yArDs and Sylvan Esso at Village Underground - 12 May 2014


Wayhoo! WAYHOO!! Yip! Yip! Yip!

Merrill Garbus aka Tune-Yards aka tUnE-yArDs has taken the stage. The crowd is ecstatic to the point of delirium. This will lead to problems later on…

About an hour earlier we have been royally entertained by Amelia Randall Meath and Nicholas Sandborn, a duo who operate under the title of Sylvan Esso.

Amelia is a compact figure in black. She tenses her body as though preparing to lift a heavy weight. She is in fact gathering her energies to let rip with a powerful voice.

Beside her, Nicholas is the complete physical opposite. Tall and skinny, he's all hands and elbows a he fiddles with the knobs on an electronic console. He unleashes a succession of thunderous beats, which heave underneath Amelia's vocal.

There's a general Portishead style vibe here, and the rhythms are hard to resist. The crowd nods its collective head along with the bouncing duo and all is well.

When Tune-Yards appear there is an up swell of emotion that starts off hysterical and kind of builds from there. Merrill Garbus is not so much welcomed as worshipped.

Dressed in a green costume and smeared with green and white peace paint, Garbus looks like the commanding officer of an Eighties interstellar space cruiser. And command she does.

There are plenty of songs from new album 'Nikki Nack'. Garbus has a wonderfully expressive face, all rolling eyes and strained gurning as she ranges from sweetly cooing nursery rhyme to Appalachian hog calling - usually within the same song. Time signatures are complex and variable, with some tunes incorporating long silences or ending so abruptly that it is hard to tell if they have finished or not.

It's a breathtaking performance.

Unfortunately, Tune-Yards are not the only sound. Large sections of the crowd, gripped in the throes of devotion, cannot resist the impulse to attempt to sing along with everything.  It is a marvel that Merrill Garbus can produce the noise that she does and a few dozen enthusiastic but (let's face it) drunk and awful amateurs can't match her. Instead, every song is drowned out by random yips and 'wayhoo's and much of the magic is lost in the cacophony.

It's hugely frustrating for the majority who just want to watch and enjoy the band that they have come to see.

Garbus is ably backed by a pair of like-minded backing singers, the three of them enthusing the newer songs with the kind of New York African vibe last heard in this form on Talking Heads' 'Remain in Light'.

I leave the venue mightily annoyed. Tune-Yards were terrific tonight, but much of their work was undone by the uncoordinated participation of those who love them most.

Tuesday 13 May 2014

The Pack AD and Nico Vega Upstairs at the Garage - 07 May 2014

The Pack AD

Yesterday was the O2, today is the altogether more compact surroundings of Upstairs at the Garage. Yesterday was all about twerking and tongues and giant laser dogs, today there is a merch table with some free badges.

It's a more mature audience too. There are very few, if any, people in hot pants.

Nico Vega hail from California and have not toured the UK for around five years. They are very apologetic and keen to make up for lost time.

Singer Aja Volkman is wildly enthusiastic and by the end of the first number has clambered on top of the drum kit and is bashing on a snare.

Aja is sporting an outfit that seems mainly made up of floaty scarves and this Fleetwood Maccery also extends to the guitarist who, unable to decide between sporting a bandana or a hat has plumped for wearing both at the same time.

The music is fast, exciting and the hard core fans down the front are soon bouncing around. I'm tapping a toe myself.

Aja finishes an excellent set with a foray off the stage and into the appreciative throng.

Afterwards the band hang around to chat with fans and come across as genuinely nice folk. A pleasure.

I'm also very pleased to catch up once more with The PackAD, who I have not seen in far too long.

Their set up is simplicity itself. Maya drums and sings, Beck plays a phenomenally rock guitar and also sings. Nothing more than that, just damn fine rock and roll.

It's heads down, no nonsense stuff. Aside from a selection of very nifty songs, it is this lack of artifice that is the main selling point with The Pack A.D. The new album gets a solid airing, and like, the two before it, delivers the goods.

As a band, The Pack AD are hard to describe – they simply need to be listened to.

A very enjoyable evening in the company of a lot of happy people. I'll take that for a dollar.


Thursday 8 May 2014

Miley Cyrus at O2 Arena - 06 May 2014

Miley Cyrus in typically restrained mode

Last year I saw an image that got my attention.

And I thought to myself "That Miley Cyrus is alright in my book."

Which is a long winded explanation for why I'm perched in the O2 as Miley brings her Bangerz tour to London.

It starts mad and gets madder. From the opening moment when Cyrus slides down an enormous prosthetic tongue to gyrate with a cast of Technicolor furries in front of a giant screen showing a typically off kilter and disturbing John Kricfalusi cartoon of the same thing, I just start laughing and smiling. I don't stop for the next hour and three quarters.

During the opening number Miley appears to be naked aside for a pair of strategically placed red lips clamped to her boobs and butt. There is twerking. She bounces about to the electro hoedown of '4 x 4' and dances with a pink gingham pantomime horse.

By song three Miley has changed into a tiny leotard made of dollar bills and simulating sex on the roof of a golden Humvee that trundles out amongst the audience whilst firing wads of 'Miley Money' over their heads.

She follows this with the bravura 'FU', a waltz timed belter that sees her work the crowd whilst ignoring the twelve foot tall orange day-glo muppet that is apparently stalking her.

It’s a show that gets your attention.

Cyrus has a huge voice. When she sings a relatively straight forward power ballad she commands the whole arena, acknowledging the lights of a million raised cell phones and deftly fielding the shower of trinkets that the crowd are hurling at her.  She gets the cameras to home in on audience members snogging each other. They all oblige and the Daily Mail shits itself..

She gathers her breath, spits her bottle of water over the lucky/unlucky few nearest the stage and prances off to a giant bed atop which she writhes about with an ever growing phalanx of muscular male dancers.

This is Miley's first gig since being hospitalised for an allergic reaction to an antibiotic and she lets rip with an expletive filled rant about the internet rumourmongers who had thought she was on drugs. This is a theme that she returns to throughout the show, her voice a polite Texan drawl, her words those that would make a docker wince.

The most astonishing visual coup of a seriously bonkers show is that unannounced arrival of a forty foot inflatable of her late lamented dog Floyd. He towers over the stage, malevolently shooting lasers from his eyes. The set changes into a kind of Egyptian ritual, with dancers wildly twirling at the feet of this dark Anubis.

Miley then decamps to a separate, intimate stage at the other end of the arena. She is now dressed in a spangly shirt but has lost her trousers. Here she really lets rip with some top notch cover versions, including Arctic Monkeys ('You Only Call Me When You're High'), Bob Dylan ('You're Gonna Make Me Lonely When You Go'), Lana Del Rey ('Summertime Sadness') and Dolly Parton ('Jolene'). Here you get a glimpse of the artist she will become once she's calmed down a bit.

Then it’s back to the action, with much crunking, bogling and twerking from her dancers and Miley flying round the arena on a giant hot dog.

For all Miley's obsession with tweaking the nose of decency, there's something slightly misjudged about the 'naughty' stuff tonight. Bluntly, Miley is a game little minx, but she's far too showbiz to be properly sexy and no amount of titillation can address this. So her show falls into an uncanny valley of oddness.

After a duet with a giant 3D kitten, Miley eschews the obvious temptation and performs the mighty 'Wrecking Ball' in a relatively straightforward manner.

By the second encore 'Party in the USA' the whole gang are jiving about, dressed as American landmarks such as Mount Rushmore or the Liberty Bell. Miley wears a ten gallon hat and a Union Jack leotard. The evening ends with glitter and fireworks.

Miley Cyrus is currently weird and wonderful, crazy and colourful and probably the best arena sized act out there at the moment. You realise that the reason that those titans of the pop industry looked so pissed off was the realisation that they had just gone the way of the dinosaur.