Wednesday 29 October 2014

The Pop Group and Goodbye Leopold at Islington Assembly Hall - 26 October 2014

The Pop Group - pic Martyn Boston

I’m standing amongst a crowd of similarly mature and dark-clad individuals at Islington Assembly Hall. It takes a lot to get me into London on a Sunday night, but I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.

Starting proceedings, three extravagantly garbed women line up across the stage. They are sheathed in splendiferously vibrant and exquisite leotards, adorned with long tassels that hang from their arms. They look like three rare and exotic butterflies. Somewhere, David Attenborough stirs with excitement.

This is Goodbye Leopold. They sing majestically acapella, a plaintive chorus of interweaving harmonies. The room falls silent.

The sound swells. It is never entirely clear what they are singing about, and a quick bit of research afterwards reveals that the band have a penchant for singing backwards, which may explain it. Nevertheless, Goodbye Leopold lift us up to a higher frame of mind.

Tonight is a benefit for Campaign Against Arms Trade. A banner hangs across the stage, there are guest speakers and stalls in the lobby. It’s like the agit-prop days of the late Seventies.

I’m here to see The Pop Group, a band utterly unique in the annals of British music.

I’ve long been a devotee of frontman Mark Stewart, both in his solo career and his work with The Maffia, but this is the first time I have experienced him with the band with whom he first started out.

Mick Jagger swaggers, Michael Jackson used to moonwalk. Mark Stewart lumbers. A huge mountain of a man, he prowls around the stage continuously, a towel around his neck. He looks more like a bemused heavyweight boxer than a singer.

The Pop Group were/are the most uncompromising and didactic of bands that allied with the Hard Left. Their songs rail against injustice, greed and corporate evil, their concerts were rallies to the cause.

But above all, they were funky. You got a hefty dose of politics, but you danced your ass off.

The band start with ‘We Are Time’, Stewart’s voice a wild electronic scream of rage and distortion. Around him, the rest of the band - Gareth Sager, Bruce Smith, Dan Catsis – lay down an irresistible rhythm that veers between funk, soul and dub.

The power that comes off the stage would light most of Islington. ‘Thief of Fire’ follows, another howl of pain and anger. The crowd are dancing so hard that you can feel the wooden floor heave beneath you like the deck of a ship.

The band are promoting a compilation album called ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, a collection of rarities that are obscure even by the standards of this band. A track called ‘Genius or Lunatic’ is introduced with the statement that it was first performed at Westbury-on Trym Youth Club. I'll bet they never knew what hit them.

‘Amnesty Report III’ is a song based on an report of police brutality against Irish prisoners. The Pop Group were angry then and remain so now.

‘Where There’s a Will’ is probably the single best live moment that I’ve had at a gig this year. This music bypasses your brain and simply jerks your body about.

There’s a certain amusement to be had from a roomful of people chanting along to songs with titles like ‘She Is Beyond Good and Evil’ and ‘We Are All Prostitutes’. The Pop Group are a throwback from the days when music culture and politics were expressly linked. We sang the songs, we went on the marches, we supported the causes. Compare that to the wishy-washy stance of the majority of acts today.

Tonight is a thumping, pumping, propulsive triumph. Mark Stewart and co finish and stand exhausted. We cheer them to the echo.

Then we filter away to man the barricades…

Sunday 26 October 2014

Lady Gaga - artRAVE at 02 Arena - 23 October 2014

Lady Gaga

This is my first time at a Lady Gaga ‘ball’ and I’m not really sure to expect. Two hours later I’m still rather flummoxed.

Things start off much as anticipated. A vast pink curtain is pulled down to reveal a set that looks like a Peruvian adobe village fashioned out of sugar lumps. There are runways and catwalks under which the die-hard standing portion of the audience congregate.

Gaga has a tight but unspectacular five piece band and a solid troupe of dancers who strut their stuff in a succession of pastel costumes that are often adorned with random geometric shapes. They are professional and competent, but they are individually anonymous and do not pull focus from the star.

Lady Gaga herself first appears in a costume that looks to have been at least partly fashioned from a giant furry crab. As might be expected, Gaga is never one to shy away from a costume on the grounds of unsuitability or discomfort. Her most outlandish effort tonight is a Dalmatian-spotted creation that looks like a melted octopus. She teeters around and sings ‘Paparazzi’ and it’s all suitably odd and enjoyable.

Gaga has a powerful and technically perfect voice. Throughout the show she constantly reiterates that she sings live and plays her own instruments. No-one would suggest otherwise, but it appears to be an accusation that rankles.

Tonight’s extravaganza is to promote her most recent ‘Artpop’ album and the theme is #Artrave. This laudable concept intends to foster the idea that anyone can be an artist, and that if others don’t like it, do it anyway.

The slight problem is that the current album has its moments, but is nowhere near as strong in depth as Gaga’s previous works. Songs like ‘Aurora’, ‘G.U.Y’ and ‘Venus’ are fine in themselves, but they don’t compare to the likes of ‘Poker Face’ or ‘Americano’.  When these older songs are effectively tossed away in medleys it seems a waste.

However, the performing of songs is possibly not the main reason why people are here nor the most important part of the show. Gaga has a connection with her audience, her ‘Little Monsters’ that is somewhere between den mother, agony aunt and best friend.

At all times this evening, if Gaga stops still for a moment she is pelted with notes, messages, items of clothing and general votive offerings. She takes a lot of time to read these out and give advice, put on the jackets etc and to offer counselling.

There is a lengthy, but very touching interlude when Gaga ministers to a fan who is struggling with issues surrounding a bi-polar disorder. Gaga gets her onstage, comforts her and allows her to sit alongside her as she performs a piano ballad version of ‘Born This Way’. While there is no doubt that time has been built into the show for something like this to happen, there is equally no doubt that this is a genuine gesture of affection and solicitude.

The crowd love Gaga and she loves them back. It doesn’t matter that the rhythm of the show is very haphazard or that things seem kind of subdued.

Things are so laid back that once she and the band perform the song ‘Swine’ and disappear, there is a hiatus where everyone just sits before the house lights come up and it becomes clear that if there is going to be an encore we might have to wait a while. Most of the crowd get up and leave at this point, myself included.

It’s been a very interesting evening. I come away feeling slightly short changed by the show, but with a much greater appreciation and respect for Lady Gaga the person.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Goat and Lay Llamas at Roundhouse - 03 October 2014


Things start off pretty well.

We’re at the Roundhouse to see Goat, but first off we have to negotiate the support act.

The Lay Llamas are a band formed around the core of Nicola Giunta and Gioele Valenti. They are strung out across the stage in a line.

Initially, things aren’t too promising. The band are playing a polite type of vaguely psychedelic music that seems pleasant enough but which rather drifts by without leaving much of an impression.

It’s clearly well performed, but the singer has a rather nondescript voice and stage presence. The songs sound as though they are sketches for something that hasn’t been completed yet.

There is however one glorious exception. One song is an absolute corker, a krautrock-y beast based on abrasive guitar riffs. It goes on for about five minutes and is generally fantastic.

Unfortunately, the band go back to being ho-hum again and eventually shuffle offstage.

The venue seems unpleasantly packed this evening. We are crushed like sardines in the middle of the floor and it soon becomes very difficult to move or see. Or even to stand. Meanwhile, the queues to the toilets are long and slow moving and less accessible than in a football ground. The bars too seem unable to cope. I don’t know if the average Goat fan is unusually thirsty, but punters are queuing fifteen deep for weak lager.

It’s an extremely uncomfortable atmosphere, as though you are trapped in a place that could get out of hand.

When Goat take the stage, the room erupts.

Goat are an enigma wrapped in a mystery hidden behind some very natty robes and masks. Band members are deliberately anonymised behind elaborate costumes. Two singers chant and whirl in front of the wash of psychedelic afro beat and wah-wah guitars behind them.

The stage makes space for an artificial tree, its angular branches casting strange Goya-like outlines on the projected backdrop, which is itself a riot of kaleidoscopic colour.

It’s probably fair to say that while the totality of the Goat live experience is wonderful, the individual tracks tend to blur together a bit.

An exception is the fantastic ‘Run to Your Mama’ which tonight forms the centrepiece of the Goat set. A song as vibrant and dynamic as you will hear anywhere, tonight it is the perfect blend of crescendo and chorus.  

However, the overcrowding in the venue is just becoming ridiculous. My colleagues gradually make their excuses and retire to the perimeter. I stay for a while, but after an interminable trip to the loos, spend the rest of the evening trying to meet up with a friendly face. Bizarrely, at the edges of the crowd, people are making no pretence to watch the band, but just natter to each other and get in the way.

It’s awful in here. I can’t move, I can’t drink, I can’t pee. I cut my losses and leave.

Goat were good, though.