Monday, 26 November 2012

865 SHEARWATER, Will Samson, Bristol Fleece, Sunday 25 November 2012

An auspicious landmark reached with this gig, namely the 50th time I’ve been to my most-visited venue The Fleece! And a new band for me this year; Shearwater, one of Tim’s recommendations, but one I would likely have picked up on anyway, mainly due to their close association with last year’s US alt-rock finds Okkervil River (indeed, Shearwater mainman Jonathan Meiburg was a former Okkervil River member, and initially formed Shearwater together with OR main guy Will Sheff. Incestuous stuff, no?). Their current album “Animal Joy” is a varied and eclectic blend of US alt-rock styles, intelligent song structures and widescreen anthemic melodies, more uptempo overall than previous offerings whilst still retaining some stark, quiet moments. This gig therefore promised to be a potential revelation in the same vein as Okkervil River’s Trinity gig last Autumn. Let’s see…

A late afternoon family gathering at a carvery pub to celebrate my father-in-law’s birthday nearly turned things pear shaped for the gig, though, as our dessert took over half an hour to arrive after ordering it! Rach dropped us off at Tim’s on the way by, half an hour later than planned, and we hit the road for a nevertheless unimpeded blast down a murky M4, parking easily and hitting the quiet venue at 8.15. So we were unfortunately well in time to catch support act Will Samson, who made me wish I’d stayed later at the carvery for coffee and liqueur! And I don’t drink either… He was clearly trying to be Jeff Buckley with a high-pitched voice and weird guitar effects, but failing drastically, his moribund, morose little tunes so stripped back as to be virtually naked, and the lengthy guitar reverb to close out a dreadfully dull set was just self-indulgence of the highest order.

It seemed I wasn’t the only one with this view, as upon his departure at 9, the place filled up considerably! By no means a sell-out, there was nevertheless a respectable crowd to welcome Jonathan and his 5-piece Shearwater onstage at 9.30, the guys opening with a menacing, discordant opener, the tall Jonathan already coaxing feedback out of his guitar with evident conviction before an impressive double-drum climax. “Animal Life”, followed, the thrilling high point of their current album, Jonathan’s lilting, octave-straddling and almost operatic voice allowing the song to build, then really take flight in a thankfully elongated and exhilaratingly soaring climax. Great stuff!

“I think [the previous place we played in Bristol] wanted Texan singer-songwriters; I didn’t have a hat or three names!” commented Jonathan before promising to get “real loud” for the galloping keyboard intro to “You As You Were”. I’d heard that he and Sheff originally formed Shearwater to play quieter material than the Okkervil River oeuvre would allow; if so, he’s changed tack notably of late, as the whole set was powerful, strident and occasionally thrillingly noisy, adding dynamism to their baroque slices of haunting drama. The excellent “Immaculate” was a “Murmur” era REM-like jangle rush, and the deliciously off-kilter “Pushing The River”, next up, recalled “Photo Album” era Death Cab For Cutie (in fact, a lot of the material on show tonight, mainly drawn from their current album, featured unusual, off-beat time signatures, but everything held together impressively thanks to excellent drummer Danny Reisch). An interesting story from Jonathan of finding a sperm whale’s tooth while out cliff-walking in the Falklands (!) preceded an almost funky tribal chant-propelled “Breaking The Yearlings” and underlined Jonathan’s well-travelled approach to life, evident in his lyrics which evoke his love of nature.

After a splendid hour set, Jonathan returned alone, swigging a “dangerous amount of whisky” before embarking on a solo “Dread Sovereign”, then a slightly unnecessary 7 song (!) encore concluded with a final raucous “Rooks” before Jonathan, visibly surprised and moved at the turnout tonight, took in the deserved applause. A set which for me didn’t really need such a lengthy punctuation mark, this was nevertheless damn fine stuff from another impressive and intelligent US alt-rock band. Shame about the lack of a set-list to grab, particularly as so few numbers were actually introduced, but hey, I’m splitting hairs here. Lovely stuff, fully deserving of this landmark 50th!

Saturday, 17 November 2012

864 THE VACCINES, Diiv, Deep Valley, Pale, Cardiff University Great Hall, Friday 16 November 2012

Aah, The Vaccines, The Vaccines…. Winners of my Best New Band of 2011 by default only, after delivering an effervescent if totally unoriginal debut album in “What Did You Expect From…” which frankly sounded like a bunch of teenage boys gleefully rummaging through their parents’ record collection (“look, Justin! “The Ramones”! “C86”! “Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits”! Now, what if we...!”), they’re back this year with a hastily-delivered follow up, “Come Of Age”, which sounds like, well, more of the same really. Hmmm. Nevertheless, Rachel remains a big fan, and this Friday night gig was an opportunity for a sleepover for the kids at Grandma’s, so tickets were duly snapped up before they quickly sold out. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting too much, but after a relative clunker from Ken the previous night, I could really do with a good gig. Could the Vaccines deliver?

Things didn’t bode well after a nightmare journey; Rach picked us up straight from work, but slow M4 traffic throughout Wales turned into a parking-mare in central Cardiff, as we realised with horror that there was a Wales Rugby International on that evening at the Millennium Stadium! I bloody hate rugby at the best of times, and this was just so ill-timed… After an increasingly frustrating drive around, we eventually lucked into a residential space just round the corner from the back of the venue! Crossed the railtracks, then entered this labyrinthine student union to get to the venue… back over the tracks again! Weird! So we wandered into the Great Hall just as duo Pale, first band on (of 4!), were completing their set, channelling the ghosts of Soft Cell with their dour synthpop.

Worse was to follow, though, as 2 girl Deep Vally, on at 8, assaulted our ears with the lowest common denominator type of primitive bluesy grunge sludge, tuneless and horrendous (The White Stripes have a lot to answer for, we agreed), so we abandoned the hall and hung out in the foyer until they stopped. Main support Diiv could only be an improvement after that, and they were; a group of scruffy oiks playing fast-paced, chiming, largely instrumental, freeform and chorus-free powerpop songs with understated shoegazey vocals, which stopped every two minutes or so then seemingly kicked into the same song again! I was actually kindly disposed towards them, but I was happy to concede to Rachel’s point that from our stage right vantage point, on the fringes of the crowd, their floppy fringes and oversized grunge t-shirts made them look like young Hurleys!

Rach and I took bets on whether The Vaccines would keep this large, young and drunkenly enthusiastic crowd waiting; she won, as the lights dimmed only a minute after the scheduled 9.45, and The Vaccines came on to the strains of ELO’s “Living Thing”. Lead rabble-rouser Justin Young bounded on to a, “what’s up? It’s Friday night!” and led the band into a chuntering, swaggering “No Hope”, followed up with a Ramones-like, big, dumb and fast “Wrecking Bar”, that really ignited the crowd into a frenzy of moshing and singing along.

This set the tone for the early part of the set; ragged, ramshackle yet joyously fun spunky rock thrills, the band getting by on theirs and the audience’s collective sweaty exuberance. However, what really made this set for me early doors was when they took their feet off the loud pedal and actually turned it down a notch. So a lovely, mid-paced and swaying “Lack Of Understanding” ventured into soda-bar doo-wop territory, and a subsequent rousing singalong to the strident Buddy Holly-esque ballad “Wetsuit” saw us party like it was 1957, before a jolly “Teenage Icon” turned the spunky punky wick up again, whilst keeping one foot in the 50’s with the Frankie Avalon namecheck. Vocalist Justin Young’s vocals thankfully sounded much better this time, more proper rock vocalist than bellowing drunken karaoke, and the band played fast and frantic to back him up. A late-set double of another rousing singalong to Aftershave Ocean”, and the mutant rockabilly of “Ghost Town” was another highlight, before set closer, the Soup Dragon-like C86 guitar and drum bombast of “If You Wanna” saw even me getting sucked into the slamdancing hordes. A 3 song encore capped with “Norgaard” rounded off a swift hour from a band who really rather raised their game tonight and started to justify their acclaim and reputation. Great gig, way better than expected, thanks – and the last time they’re playing venues this small, I bet...!

863 KEN STRINGFELLOW, The Hazey Janes, London The Lexington, Thursday 15 November 2012

Bloody Typical, this; no sooner had Tim twisted my arm and persuaded me to join him on this London jaunt to see Posies mainman Ken Stringfellow flying solo, than Ken announces a date at the (much closer) Thekla in Bristol! Bah! Nevertheless, and also despite being slightly disappointed on initial listens with his new solo effort “Danzig In The Moonlight”, I was up for this; I’m always prepared to give a fair amount of rope to a man who’s still capable of the dazzling pop found on the Posies last effort, a couple of years back, plus “live” (although it’s been seven years since I’ve seen him treading the boards) the man can either be utterly sublime, or completely bat-shit crazy (and often deshabille). So let’s see which Ken turns up tonight…

Tim picked us up for this jaunt to a new venue on the Pentonville Road, (myself still coughing loads as we reach day 20 of this fucking horrible cold), enduring horrible traffic on the M4 offset by a surprisingly easy run through London, and parking up behind the old Water Rats venue at 8.30 for a 10 minute walk up the hill to this evocative old upstairs ballroom venue which recalled the old Hammersmith Clarendon! Sat at the raised bar, which afforded a good view of the stage, for support The Hazey Janes, on as we arrived at 8.30. Led by a bearded geography teacher type vocalist, they played some upbeat numbers of chunky and melodic powerpop in a similar vein to Myracle Brah (remember them?), with some soaring choruses and beguiling country licks, but conversely some odd chord and key changes as well. Still, they’d driven down from Dundee today (!) so kudos for that effort at least! Their final number was their best, a swirling and droney noisefest which made me miss El Nino (remember them??).

We had some Doors over the PA which I liked, then Ken took the stage halfway through “LA Woman”, at 9.15 sharp. “I’m going to work on one demisphere; there’s nothing to hemisphere but fear itself,” he cryptically announced before his opening salvo, delivered on an acoustic guitar, and without the aid of a microphone!

Initially, this was fine, but his clear and balming voice sounded a little strained without amplification when he took to the keyboard for “Shit Talkers”, the most melodically Posies-like number from his current record. A discordant, Scott Walker-like “Drop Your Pride” finally saw him using a mic, although the set remained low-key and restrained.

This was an odd, wilful and perverse performance from Ken; in between numbers he pontificated endlessly on myriad subjects such as death (“maybe it’s the giant orgasm!”), himself (“I’m incapable of following a set-list; I’ve got many issues, cognitive and otherwise”), the end of the world (“we’ve all got a front row seat!”) and Mitt Romney (“you don’t want a guy with pent-up sexual frustration on a nuclear arsenal”). This was often diverting, but without someone to rein him in (sorely needed tonight) it inevitably ventured into dull hectoring and preaching, and without the plangent pop of some Posies material to lighten the mood (the set selection was pretty exclusively solo stuff, mainly from his – still disappointing – new album), I quickly lost attention and, well, got bored…

There were some nice moments, actually; a lovely “Find Yourself Alone” was delivered from the dancefloor, as the front rows videoed Ken with their phones; and The Hazey Janes backed him up for the final numbers (“I liked them so much I bought the company!” Ken announced in a Victor Kiam moment) and lent their melodic and upbeat air to the previously dour proceedings. But overall this was a rambling, unfocussed and incredibly variable performance, the shining moments unfortunately outweighed by tedium, and at the thick end of 2 hours, waaaaay too long as well.

Ken ended the night by thanking practically everyone involved in the gig and his album; he should have thanked the audience for their infinite patience as well. I’m sorry Ken, but this was just hard work tonight, exacerbated by a home arrival at 1 am. Yikes!

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

862 ADAM ANT AND THE GOOD, THE MAD AND THE LOVELY POSSE, Poussez Posse, Oxford O2 Academy, Tuesday 6 November 2012

“See you at the Academies in November!” This was the promise I made to Adam Ant’s estimable bassist Joel on my departure from Adam’s brilliant Wyvern show in July, and, so far as a gig, particularly one of this stature, is concerned, a promise thus made is one that damn well needs to be kept! Thus it was that I secured a ticket to once again see the undisputed Comeback King of this decade (the Tennies? The Onesies?), flying solo this time despite lots of interest from… my kids! Yup, Logan and Kasey have recently been playing “Prince Charming” and “Stand And Deliver” on constant YouTube repeat, yet at 5 and 3 years old respectively, they’re a tad young for a “live” Ant experience. Hopefully we’ll change that before too long…

A touch of the man-flu and a horrible hacking cough briefly threatened to keep me from the show, but I decided on a “kill or cure” approach and went for it anyway! A slightly later than planned departure, followed by a stop for some Halls Soothers (Soothers! How fucking rock’n’roll am I?), meant the Tescos car park was full when I arrived, and I suffered an increasingly frustrating 25 minute wait for someone to give up a parking space. I therefore hit the venue at 8.15, midway through Poussez Posse’s set. Led by the statuesque and strutting Georgie Girl, and all visionary in hot red and black, they stomped and pouted through the rest of their grungy guitar sleaze set, with a punchy and powerful cover of “Don’t Dictate” once again their highlight.

Wandered round the venue and chatted with the affable merchandise man about the disappointingly poor turnout; this one was only ever about ½ full, a far cry from the quickly sold-out Wyvern a couple of months back. What the fuck, Oxford; are you just too cool and studenty cutting-edge for some old school Antmusic? Too snobby to properly appreciate a true rock’n’roll entertainer? Still, the audience was comprised mainly of old punk lags and their lasses, rather than the middle-aged stripey nose housewife “pop” brigade, so this promised to be a small but knowledgeable crowd…

I took a spot stage right near the front as the witching hour approached, noticing a “Blueblack Hussar” backdrop had replaced the usual Sexmusic one. More newies tonight, maybe? The place plunged into darkness and the usual rock’n’roll propaganda message intro set an eerie mood, heralding the band onstage. Immediately the dual drummers pounded the strident intro to an unexpected, savage and venomous “Press Darlings”; then The Star took the stage. Plumed pirate hat in place, and sporting a gold braid Hussar’s waistcoat over a billowing white shirt, Adam looked magnificent, incandescent, a King come to reclaim his throne. And his performance matched his appearance from the outset, this lyric being delivered with righteous fury. “Beat My Guest”, third number in, was breathless and breathtaking, Adam kinetic onstage, moving with an enthusiasm of a man half his age. And by this time I was gleefully rocking out down the front myself! The usual early set sequence followed; a plangent “Cartrouble” featuring Adam on guitar; a slow-burn, eerie “Ants Invasion”, the playful and provocative march of “Deutscher Girls”, then a slightly perfunctory “Stand And Deliver”, Adam deadpanning the lyric to his watershed number.

“This is the song that made things really change,” Adam announced before his manifesto number, the Burundi beat-driven and all-inclusive “Kings Of The Wild Frontier”, which he poured heart and soul into, evidenced by his primal howl introduction. The sleazy “Whip In My Valise” was introduced as, “a love story in keeping with today, “50 Shades Of Grey” and all that…” then Georgie Girl rejoined the stage in a cut-off squaw outfit for the provocative “Strip”, a new addition to the recent live canon. Another newie, a brand new newie this time, new single “Cool Zombie” was a Velvets/ T Rex-like NYC cool groove, and a subsequent “Desperate But Not Serious” once again featured that lovely pregnant pause, this (knowledgeable! Yes!) crowd filling in on the vocal line.

A brilliant “Zerox” was again a personal highlight, strobe backlit, off-kilter and impassioned, before Adam declared his intention to rock Oxford with “Vive Le Rock”. The set finale of “Lady”/ “Fall In” saw Adam embellish the, “true story,” behind the former (“I was in Notting Hill filming “Jubilee”, rifling through my managers pockets for change… then there she was, 6 feet 8 inches tall and naked. What should I do? Who should I call? Not fucking “Ghostbusters”! I thought, “if I survive this, I’ll have to write a song,” so this is it…”), and the rambunctious latter brought the house down on another thrillingly superb set, another step on Adam’s road to redemption.

A couple of curveballs for the encore; oldies “Lou” and a scattergun and scatological “Rubber People”, proving Adam’s very much still on his “play what he damn well wants” kick, before the inevitable “Prince Charming” saw everyone (yup, even me) singing along to the outro, wishing this evening would never end, before it inevitably did with a heartfelt collective bow from Adam and his Posse. Magnificent.

Another grabbed setlist, and a quick in-and-out to draw cash then buy a signed print later, I coughed and hacked my way home, nevertheless feeling all the better for the healing powers of prime post-punk Antmusic. And I’ll be back whenever time and finances allow, because right now, a 58 year old with previous mental health issues is showing everyone the way “live”. Adam Ant, I salute you.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

861 2:54, Childhood, Oxford Jericho Tavern, Friday 2 November 2012

This was another of my recent trips down to evocative old 80’s/ 90’s bolt-hole The Jericho Tavern, now thankfully restored to its’ full scuzzy rock’n’roll glory, and this time to see a new band; 2:54, whose self-titled debut CD I’ve been enjoying muchly in my more mellow, introspective moments this year. Pitching up somewhere between post-punk poppy pseudo Goth and low-key shoegaze, this female-fronted band occupy an introspective yet accessible headspace, and certainly have mood and atmosphere down pat, with lots of promise to compensate for a slight lack of immediately hooky and/or brain tugging tunes. Still, nowt wrong with stuff that surreptitiously sneaks up on you, either…

So I hit the road on a clear and appropriately inky black swirly Autumn night, for a solo drive down after the kids went to bed. Had a slight parking-mare, taking 15 minutes to eventually find a spot next to a park, just off Walton Street. Hit the venue at 9 – I initially thought there was a very good turnout, judging by the milling crowd outside as I approached, but it turned out to be for the Phoenix Picture House next door! So it was that I joined two dozen or so curious punters for support Childhood, on at 9. A young band, this, likely a student common-room bunch, and led by an impressively afro-ed tall male vocalist whose understated vocal style was at odds with his stature, they had some nice textural guitar recalling Kitchens Of Distinction, especially during their choruses, embellishing their C86 innocent indie guitar sound. Some 80’s baggy slightly-delic swirling effects as well, which propped up their as yet thin material. A looooong way to go, but they’re showing some early promise, and props to them for putting some effort into their performance, rather than just standing around like lumps!

The disappointing turnout early doors filled up some more, but I was still able to wander down the front and take a stage left spot as the band, having gathered down the front waiting for the appointed hour, decided they wanted to get on with it, and took the stage 5 minutes early! Led onstage by core members, the very striking sisters Colette (vocalist, blush, great hair) and Hannah (guitarist, paler and tousled) Thurlow, they eased into their set with “Circuitry”, immediately setting their moody, slow burn agenda with some deliciously smooth vocals and shimmering guitar. “Scarlet”, metronomic yet also wistful and dreamy, recalled my old 90’s favourites The Julie Dolphin, with Colette having abandoned her occasionally-strummed guitar for this number, instead crouching down and waving her impressive raven tresses. “Revolving”, the CD opener yet mid-set tonight, was a delicious languid mood-piece, and “Easy Undercover” – which was the first number Colette actually introduced! – featured some lovely fretwork from Hannah and was a set highlight.

“We’ve recently covered “Killer” and we’re going to do it now,” Colette announced by way of introducing their rendition of Adamski’s dark funk breakthrough number. Their stripped-back version threw new light onto this number for me, with Hannah’s restrained yet shimmering lead guitar replacing the oppressive big beats and actually adding to the song’s menace. A final “Creeping”, preceded by some complimentary words from Colette for this reverential audience, who’d been virtually silent between numbers, was a lush, absorbing set highlight, ensuring this 45 minute set finished on a high.

A signed set-list and a brief chat with Hannah later, I was on my way, after a dark and deliciously moody set from a charming young band learning their craft quickly and showing great potential. I get the feeling that the next time I see them, it’ll be in a much bigger venue…