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scratchy records head of A&R,
dastardly likes to get out and
see the odd gig or two when
Finsbury, Manor House
like gigs where there’s just one solitary punter dancing down the front.
These lone frontier pioneers effectively sign the gig to the rest of us,
doing our shuffly nodding thing a few feet further
back. Tonight’s one seems to be doing a cross between a repetitive fitness
work out and a Scottish sword dance.
The Stone Roses
It's January 1988. I'm 23 and have just left my full-time job to seek fame and fortune in the music business. I know, I know.. I've also just re-met someone from school who it turns out has started doing music at university. Given our shared predicament we decide one evening that we should go to a gig. Any gig. I leave the exact details to him and soon we are heading up to Camden in his dark blue Toyota Corolla.
We walk down a cobbled ally past empty market stalls and into Dingwalls. The worn wooden floor and red painted wooden columns give the venue the air of a circus and at the far end hanging from the pipes above the stage like a bored monkey is the singer of the band we’ve come to see. He stares blankly out into the small crowd of ten or fifteen people. I imagine he might be looking directly into my soul. To our left a girl dances by herself lost in the music, head to one side, skirt twirling round and momentarily I’m transported to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on a sunny afternoon in 1967 or somewhere else soaked up on the vibe.. man.
I sense my friend is not impressed. He doesn’t care for the paint splattered guitars and Byrdsian psychedelia – he’d rather be listening to The Smiths or anyone else dressed in black. I however am entranced. Unlike the paint stuck hard onto the guitars the band have absorbed the sounds and flavours from the first flowering of rock in the mid to late sixties and spat it back at us with the knowing look of everything that’s happened in between.
My friend can wait no longer so after about 4 or 5 songs we head out. As we leave I go up to the small ticket office window and ask the lady what the band was called. She fumbles for a flyer or something and then says ‘The Stone Roses’.
A year later I’m watching BBC2’s SnubTV show and catch a glimpse of a band onstage at The Hacienda. The crouched gate and rolling head of the singer looks familiar and I realise it’s the band from Dingwalls. Immediately I’m trying to find out where they’re playing and how to get a ticket and soon me and another friend more disposed to the Madchester sound are following them round the country feasting on the electricity and excitement in those songs and watching them light fires in people’s hearts.
He’s tall, stocky and wearing a plaid shirt. The sunglasses hanging round his neck are vaguely 90’s surfer style. He’s got his back to the stage and his hobby appears to be downing a beer from a cardboard cup then before it’s finished hurling it over his shoulder into the crowd stood here waiting for The Stone Roses to appear in Finsbury Park. Nearby another punter buckles and succumbs to an afternoon of drinking in the sun.
I’ve failed to meet up with my friend so maybe being alone in this huge crowd is heightening my awareness but there’s no denying the tension as well as beer flying around in the air and I begin to wonder if I’m in the middle of a medieval battlefield as scuffles break out randomly amidst the lurching vomit.
Occasionally I’m distracted from the scenes around me by four blokes from Manchester channelling rock’s finest moments in the distance. Perhaps the best thing about the Stone Roses is they’ve never been afraid to take influence from wherever. Nothing is off limits as John Squire plays tribute to both Jimmys - Page and Hendrix, Reni funks it with the lightness of funky drummer Clyde Stubblefield and Mani holds down the beating heart of the band with the dedication of a full back. Out front Ian Brown is tuned perfectly into the crowd if not all the songs and is every inch the understated Soul Man of his generation.
Highlights are a lumpinthroat tastic version of ‘Ten Storey Love Song’ and ‘Fool’s Gold’ which has Squire tying the fretboard up in knots - appreciated more after the gig on youtube complete with someone in the crowd yelling ‘Yessssss!’ as if the guitarist has just found the back of the net. Finally ‘Resurrection’ gets the whole park jumping and your correspondent almost punched out by the person in front I’ve just been thrown into.. oops.
It would have been good to hear more from The Second Coming but for now it’s enough to know that they’re back.
Oh and by the way, during the gig a man with a bright red face worked his way back through the crowd to confront the tall beer thrower. Unfortunately he was a bit too short and his punches couldn’t reach round the beer thrower’s friend who’d stood in front protecting him. Still he tried his best and I like to think maybe he waited and got him later on - at the second attempt.
Sebright Arms, Hackney
Sometimes you think you ‘know’ something already until someone says that thing in such a way that makes you see it as if for the first time..
Laetitia is chatting in between songs and recalls hearing about France losing it’s ‘AAA’ credit rating last year. “We av lost an aya” she says in her amazing accent. It’s funny and we all laugh but the point she’s making is about democracy disappearing. She reminds us that democracy is based on a society being governed by it’s own elected representatives, yet more and more the powers that truly affect the way we live are not our own politicians but faceless un-elected bodies with wide international influence - such as the credit agencies she refers to.
Anyone familiar with Laetitia’s former band Stereolab will know that she’s always had a knack for weaving political observations amongst the hypnotic grooves. It’s a neat trick cos it never feels like preaching and she’s obviously still got it.
Aside from delivering lightbulb political moments Laetitia proves that she doesn’t necessarily need a band to captivate her audience. I remember talking to Stereolab’s drummer after a gig in the early 90s and him saying that if required he’ll simply play the same repetitive drum pattern for a whole song. No cymbal crashes or fills. Just the beat. It’s this discipline that Laetitia works into her stripped down guitar playing and, whereas a few months ago at the Rough Trade in-store it felt at times like she was holding the instrument for the first time, tonight the minimalism is spellbinding.
As she plays a thin cord snakes out from the basement stage and skulks down around the shoes of the audience. Ankles are circled, then legs, arms, heads until at the end of the set we are all tied together like exhibits in Duchamp’s stringed room.
Bush Hall, Sheperds Bush
February 19th 2013
Vocals. Piano. Double bass and a drummer with one arm in a sling.
This is the stripped down ensemble Mark Eitzel presents us with tonight in the lush ballroom surroundings of Bush Hall. So perfect is the backing that you wonder if the drummer’s injury was inflicted by Eitzel himself in a bid to refine the sound still further. Whatever the cause ‘Stumpy’ (not his real name) is a solid tent peg at the back as the simple piano chords frame the songs and let Eitzel’s voice billow out and mingle with the chandeliers above us. And what a voice - somewhere in a separate reality Cheryl Cole’s face has frozen and Simon Cowell is weeping openly. I can’t see the Louis one.. it’s possible he’s dissolved. Likewise it helps that the sound in the room is great - you notice this when the double bassman adds the odd simple held note backing vocal and it sounds like a string section coming in.
Eitzel treats us to a greatest hits set. Past classics ‘What holds the world together’, ‘Mission rock resort’ and ‘Patriot’s heart’ are all mesmerising and ‘I love you but you’re dead’ proves he’s still writing them. If I had an app on my phone.. hold on if I even possessed a phone that could have ‘an app’.. that accurately measures the entertainment value of a gig it would register something like ‘Elvis in Vegas’.
There are plenty of funny stories as usual.. sometimes maybe too many as the band get twitchy and then later on Eitzel does pick up a guitar and we get a pindrop version of ‘Blue and grey shirt’ plus a rowdy ‘Bad liquor’ to set us on our way home.
Last year Eitzel had a heart attack. This year he looks thin, healthy and is doing some of the best gigs he’s ever done.
Stars of the Lid
St. John at Hackney, Lower Clapton Rd
December 10th 2012
We stood there motionless, enveloped in an icy swirling squall of glacial proportions.. and that was just the queue to get in ! I mean booking tickets online is incredibly digitally convenient no question but then the poor bloke with the clipboard and seven hundred names at the entrance.. ‘Sorry, how do you spell that ?’
Somehow the freezing foreplay makes it all the more impressive when we do finally get inside. The first thing you notice is there’s no raised stage area - all you can see at the front above the heads are some arched mic stands and and the high back wall bathed in a sinister red light. The church surroundings lend an almost medieval atmosphere and for once no one is holding up their phones. Maybe they’re too scared.. and with good reason as in front of them is a lone figure standing in front of his laptop and mixing desk. His name is Roly Porter and the sound manipulation communion he is offering is scarier than most ‘horror’ films I’ve seen.
Apparently there are sampled classical instruments in there somewhere but any notion of ‘music’ has long since left the wood and metal. Instead Porter delves deep into the DNA of the sound and drags out raw acoustic data - frequencies swoop and coil before plunging headlong down vortices you can almost see hovering in front of you. The sound of an out of town shopping centre being fed into a giant mechanical grinding device echoes round the stone walls. Brief moments of silence jostle with cacophony and all the while the white crackle of digital distortion simmers in the background.
It’s the kind of thing you might expect to hear emanating from one of John Martin’s apolocalyptic paintings and it leaves the congregation spellbound, the whoops and hollers at the end of the set suggesting that this is the sound of someone very much arriving.
It’s difficult to think of anything following that but luckily Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride from Austin, Texas’s ‘Stars of the Lid’ have done the thinking for us. We crouch down at the front by the small string section as Wiltzie revs up his guitar then turns to the amp and processes the vibrating metal into rich blankets of tidal sound that soothe and hypnotise.. until, that is, an Old Testament sized bass frequency gets whipped up into the squall and I’m frantically pushing the ear plugs already in my ears as deep as they’ll go.
With the two guitarists straddling the string section centre stage it sometimes feels more like a recital than a gig and Wiltzie plays the role of conductor with understated charm, armed with a bottle of something to fend off the cold and stories of previous trips to London including a reprimand for the Upstairs at the Garage venue who once refused to let them use their projections at a gig - a shame as collaborator Luke Savitsky’s towering visuals work well amongst the ancient architecture and add further layers to the music. Likewise the lighting which at one point reveals Wiltzie as a guitar wielding nosferatu silhouetted in a deep blue hue against the ten commandments written out in gold on the altar behind.
A night steeped in gothic horror. And barely a goth in sight.
Village Underground, Shoreditch
October 7th 2011
Plaid. It sounds like one of the drugs Chris Morris was asking a bemused London dealer for back in the 90s. “Got any yellow bentines.. any clarky cat.. got any plaid mate ?”
Tonight Plaid’s two flight controllers Andy Turner and Ed Handley are perched on a raised platform at the far end of the cavernous village underground studiously manipulating a state of the art sound system that turns the air into solid bass force. Behind them a red LED time code ripples on the brickwork while giant visuals tower over the back wall.
Plaid have two types of songs. One sounds like an army of insects marching through some award-winning David Attenborough nature porn on their way to the Temple of Golden Mesmerising Chords. The other sounds like it does when they get there.
Even more surprising is that fact that some punters are still actually able to command body parts and dance while under the influence of this hypnotic spectactle.
Lewis Floyd Henry
Nigel of Bermondsey
The Big Chill, Eastnor Castle
August 7th & 8th 2010
A rainbow has come out behind the crowd in front of the main stage. People turn round to capture the arching prismatic fanfare on cameras and phones. In front of the sound desk a balding 40 something in the crowd is flailing wildly to the Jolly Boys rendition of Iggy’s ‘The Passenger’.. he looks like the happiest man on earth. It’s a festival moment and still the brightest colour that anyone can see is the Jolly Boys’ singers’ pink silk tie.
An hour or two later Patrick Wolf is dancing in front of us in a black and white spotted jump suit. I remember him turning up to do a few songs at the Crow Club in Shoreditch a few years back in shorts and a pair of wellies so clearly this is a man who can wear just about anything. Interestingly, the most memorable performance I saw him give was at the ICA in 2003 and I’ve absolutely no idea what he was wearing then.. hmm
Roots Manuva meanwhile is in jodphurs. He lollops along the stage with a breezy charm and a smile, dedicating ‘highest grade’ to all the students. With a decade defining album like ‘Run come save me’ under your belt you might be expecting to be headlining a bill like this but Rodney and his orchestra of musicians and singers seem just happy to be here and he doesn’t even flinch when the bloke at the side of the stage won’t let him have the encore we’re all shouting for.
No idea what Liars were wearing but somewhere singer Angus Andrew’s arms are still flailing in time with the lazer shards bursting out of the back of the stage.. and if New York’s Crystal Stilts haven’t got a gig tonight then there’s a good chance Jim Morrison’s ghost might well be here checking out the ceremony unfolding before us. A few fields away MIA’s headline slot / extended iplayer ad, you decide, comes to an end as the assorted target demographic, sorry, ‘the kids’ invade the stage.. while out here on the perimeter we’re static, mesmerised, ‘immaculate !’ shouts jim as some musicians prove there’s life yet in some good old shamanistic pyschedelia.
Sunday kicks off with tales of south east London villains and undertakers courtesy of Nigel of Bermondsey on the backstage stage. Nigel’s ‘London Dreamtime’ album is a lush almost mid-70s supertramp or wingsian (wingsian ?) mini masterpiece and songs like ‘Across the way’ and ‘One eye grey’ help to ease the sleepy late risers into the day.
Wandering between fields you might well encounter a man looking a bit like Jimi Hendrix playing electric guitar and drums at the same time. His name is Lewis Floyd Henry and his New Orleans bluesman busker act is far more entertaining than many of the acts on the ‘proper’ stages. Next year no doubt he’ll be on one of them.
Finally, by way of a very tasty lamb kebab stall we’re at the weekend’s final destination as Katy Carr charms the assorted festival stragglers lying on the straw in the Global Local stage with a heady mix of Kate Bush, PJ Harvey and even Edith Piaf. The 1940s loom large over much of Katy’s material in particular ‘Kommander’s Car’, her dramatic recount of a daring escape from Auschwitz by a 21 year-old Polish scout.. in the Camp kommandant’s own car no less. It’s a joyous sound and at one point several small children in the audience begin to dance instinctively. It is, as they say, a festival moment.
Yo La Tengo
The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm
November 8th 2009
Looking round the audience at The Roundhouse tonight there’s plenty of couples out to see Hoboken, New Jersey’s finest. Not that there’s anything surprising in that – other than the fact that Yo La Tengo’s reputation as ‘the quintessential critic’s band’ might mean you’d expect to see more ageing / baldy possessors of the Y-chromosome in the house. Maybe it’s because essentially Yo La Tengo play lover’s rock, whether it’s hypnotic jazz-infused Hendrixian guitar manglings or barely whispered lullabies this is music born out of L O V E.
Long time partners guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley are probably the reason for all this but bass player James McNew is quick to point out that he’s no goosberry and his rendition of the Beatlesesque ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ is an early set highlight. Likewise the appearance for a couple of new songs of a (not quite loud enough) string section suggests that this is a band who are, twenty five years on still trying new things in the bedroom !
Tonight however, it’s the mistakes that really hold the magic. During the first chorus of ‘Tears are in your eyes’ Ira is, like us, lost in the moment and starts to sing the chorus again by accident then slowly retreats from the mic, his eyes ceiling bound as he realises. Later on it’s Georgia’s turn as she forgets the words during a sublime encore version of George Harrison’s ‘Behind that locked door’. Searching her brain she pauses for a second - as she does the audience start to cheer, holding the moment while she remembers the lyrics and then climbs back into the song.
It feels like a family affair tonight. After all, it is sunday.. the perfect day to go and hang out with some relatives.
Teenage Jesus and The Jerks
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
Corsica Studios, Elephant & Castle
April 5th 2009
Ok I admit it. I saw a poster for Teenage Jesus and The Jerks on the old Woolworths in Bermondsey and thought they were a new band. Or newish. Ahem. My friend Mike ‘sweaty eyeballs’ set me right though and gave me a Time Out cutting that got me up to speed on the history of this late ‘70s New York outfit and their iconic lead-singer Lydia Lunch.
Luckily we get to Corsica Studios in time for the support act.. 3 girls are standing in a row on the front of the stage. I think that I’m about to be sacrificed as part of an ancient Mayan festival and before the high priest rips out my heart and eats it in front of me I see these three ladies out the corner of my eye beating out an ominous deathly mantra. Back in Elephant & Castle ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ (sounds like a grammar mistake but no..) have swapped instruments yet again and are about to unleash another rumbling ode. I like them. So does mike - particularly the guitarist, no, drummer er, hold on bass player. You get the idea.
Then it’s Lydia, or the gothmother as she calls herself, with various members of Gallon Drunk as her backing band and coming on like Mae West with some hired gunslingers. She sings songs about ex-lovers stranded in their underwear while she berates them for not coming up with the rent and makes Courtney look like Britney. The Time Out article had said something about her proudly declaring she’d never bothered to learn a single guitar chord. Fair enough. She can however make pretty scary noises with a bottleneck and has obviously spent time honing the art of percussive punk rock. This becomes clear when she stops one of her robert pollard-sized bursts of vitriol in the middle (i.e after about 20 seconds) and asks the drummer to do it again. They re-start, lock in tight and you realise that there’s method behind the mayhem.
After the show she heads back up the stairs at the end of the long saloon. At the top she looks back over her shoulder momentarily and informs the crowd with some carefully selected words that there won’t be any encore. We don’t doubt it.
Buffalo Bar, Cardiff.
February 17th 2009
It’s 3 tracks into London three-piece Wet Dog’s set and the headliner’s keyboard, perched precariously high just behind bass player Billy’s pulsating right leg is doing one of those dances you see when suspension bridges get a nasty draught and start breaking up in mid air.. thankfully drummer Sarah has spotted it and the impending disaster is averted. It does however emphasise the furious automata at work in the engine room of this band - if you walked round the back of the stage you’d probably see a huge key unwinding slowly. Out front singer Becca navigates the electric shocks from the mic and shouts out classics like ‘Train Track’ and ‘Jane Bowles’ but it’s new song ‘Wymmin’s Final’ that explains why Mark Ronson has been championing them back home in New York.
Talking of which, here’s NYC’s own Crystal Stilts. I remember seeing Oliver Stone’s Doors film back in the 90s and being aware for the first time that there’d been some kind of tension or jealousy between the west coast and east coast during the late sixties - not a Biggie Tupac style murderfest but maybe a condescending glance or two through the dope haze. Anyway, Crystal Stilts have good news for us tonight.. Jim Morrison and Lou Reed have made up in a motel somewhere deep in the midwest. Woo hoo ! Terms of the peace treaty as follows - guitar to echo and shimmer at all times; bass must be played with plectrum and locked in Joy Division style with metronomic upright lady drummer; front man Brad to give impression of having been born with microphone stand in his hand. That and the look of a man who might read some Keats before he goes to bed.
The new romantic is back !