Tuesday, 19 November 2013

897 THE NATIONAL, This Is the Kit, London Alexandra Palace, Thursday 14 November 2013

The final gig of 4 in 8 days is the biggest one; The National, the band who've become de facto leaders and elder statesmen of the US alternative rock scene following REM's retirement, playing a huge double-header at Ally Pally! After pausing awhile to see if they'd announce nearer/ smaller dates (they didn't) I finally acquiesced and booked a ticket for this one, the 2nd of their 2 dates, for my first London gig in almost exactly a year! It's a long ways to go these days...

I rearranged my work day as well, setting off at 4 then hitting bad traffic in Ealing, and complete fucking idiots around Crouch End, nevertheless parking up in the leafy and well-attended venue car park at the bottom of the hill at my expected 7pm arrival time. I'd really forgotten how huge this place was until I entered the ornate and opulent entrance hall; the large walk-through to the main hall, bar-lined and smelling of burgers, is bigger than most venues I normally go to - hell, the toilets are bigger than most venues I normally go to! The merch stand was as big as a festival one, with spicy prices to match (£25 per t-shirt? Ouch!), and a drummer played in the middle of the walk-through hall. Popped into the vast auditorium to catch support This Is The kit. They featured a female vocalist with similar vocal inflections to Madder Rose's Mary Lorson, but nowhere near as good material, pitching up somewhere between windswept alt-folk and low key late night bar-room music. When good - which wasn't often - they recalled a poor man's Cowboy Junkies.

Had a Mike Mills moment as National guitarist Aaron Dessner wandered to the stage-side from backstage, so I popped over and got my ticket signed. Aaron remarked the previous night’s show was, “nice, sounded good,” despite the cavernous venue. This was later borne out during the show; I kept my place stage-left as the blue static projected onto the backdrop coalesced into the band name, the lights dimmed and a Kurt Vile track heralded the band’s entrance at 8.45, easing into the sonorous monotone rhythm of “Don’t Swallow The Cap”, the sound already great, pindrop perfect.

Great though it sounded, it was a little incongruous to see a band as sombre and introspective as The National in such a vast arena, cheered on by a 7,500 strong audience. Vocalist Matt Berninger seemed a little awed initially, wandering listlessly around the stage looking slightly befuddled and increasingly paranoid, like Walter White from “Breaking Bad”, whilst delivering his often incomprehensible and slightly daft lyrics in his low, melancholy baritone. It took a superb “Bloodbuzz Ohio” to kick things off for me, the Joy Division “Disorder”-esque pounding drumbeat leading to a noisefest crescendo. Thereafter the band settled, always fine, dark and moody and occasionally grasping at the hem of greatness. “Sea Of Love” saw Matt cut loose for the first time with some primal screaming; a moving “I Need My Girl” was introduced by the taciturn frontman with, “it’s my wife’s birthday; she’s somewhere in America so this is for her – someone tell her I said that, she’s pissed [at me]!” and an almost punk rock “Abel” was startlingly rocking with another screamed hook. The subsequent double of “Slow Show” and “Sorrow” for me stole the show; the former haunting and eerie, with Aaron’s piano riff complimenting the heart-breaking refrain, “I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you” perfectly, the latter a superbly Scott Walker-esque deep, wallowing ballad.

At times the strident riffery, no doubt intended to flesh out the songs in this cavernous space, seemed gauche and unnecessary (viz. a noisy “Humiliation”), other times it worked, with a superb, galloping “Graceless” ending with Matt in the photographer’s pit. However he capped that during thrillingly noisy encores “Mr November” and “Terrible Love”, surfing the front rows and delivering his by now hoarse, ragged vocals with vim and venom from within the mosh (yup, a National mosh!). A final “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” was dedicated with, “thanks to the guys who protected my testicles [in the mosh] the last 15 minutes!”, bringing a low-key end to an uneven but oft-times stunning 2 hour set.

So overall well worthwhile, as The National always are, and thanks to setlist.fm I set off during the final number, getting some good advice from the car park attendants for a clear run out onto the North Circular, home for 12.30. Great to see The National so popular now, they’re a quality band and certainly deserve it, but I’d much rather have seen this set in a smaller venue…

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

896 EDITORS, British Sea Power, Bristol O2 Academy, Monday 11 November 2013

To think I nearly didn’t bother with this one… Editors, one of my favourite UK bands of recent times, a consistently excellent act with an impressive body of work firmly rooted sonically in the 80’s dark, pseudo gothic (rather than Goth), brooding rockist style of my youth, but unafraid to push the envelope a bit on said sound, playing in Bristol! However, having a busy time of it in mid-November, gigwise (Frightened Rabbit in Southampton the day before, The National in London this Thursday) plus having seen an inconsistent but fine overall set from them at Reading Festival in support of their slightly more muted new album, “The Weight Of Your Love”, I was prepared to give this one a miss. That is, until they added similarly enduring live faves British Sea Power as support! Two great 80’s-influenced indie rock bands for the price of one? Oh, go on then…

Determined therefore not to miss a minute of this, I hit the road early and parked up at quarter past seven, hitting the rapidly filling and eerily purple UV-bathed venue and heading straight for the front. The usual plethora of foliage and branches covering the onstage frontline set-up greeted me, with interspersed twinkling lights giving a festive feel. British Sea Power took the stage to an eerie instrumental (no Gregorian chanting this time!), powering into the breathless tumbling drumbeat and intricate guitar line of opener “Remember Me”, building increment by increment to the descending choral hook. “Waving Flags” was up next, the female violinist’s soaring harmony lines adding to the anthemic feel, and Yan now a more confident if still idiosyncratic vocalist. They were great, with riffery and dramatic driving drumbeats evoking windswept open beaches and thunder-cracked skies. Oh, and then there was the bear…! Before the sweeping groove of “Spirit Of St. Louis” a bloke in a giant polar bear suit appeared in front of us in the photographer’s pit! Said bear then proceeded to wander into the crowd to dance, while the band, nonplussed, played on, Yan interjecting bits of “Louie Louie” and “The Clapping Song” into this elongated version. Closing track, “Carrion” was another lengthy epic, sealing a splendid set which swooped and soared like a swallow’s flight path, changing rhythm and mood effortlessly in mid-air. Forget the old Bunny comparison, they’ve moved beyond that; nowadays they just sound like British Sea Power.

A great start; hopefully the main act could maintain this quality! I kept my front, stage left spot, as Editors entered at 9 onto a dry-ice choked stage backlit by small icy blue circular lights, to a symphonic version of “The Weight” from their new album, all drama and gravitas. The libidinous bassline of haunting newie “Sugar” opened matters, with vocalist Tom Smith, already all angles, dark dramatic silhouettes and kinetic energy, grabbing the mic and singing, nay, proclaiming, in his imperious dark baritone. “Thanks for choosing to spend your Monday evening with us,” he politely announced before the unexpectedly early but brilliantly soaring wall of noise “Smokers Outside The Hospital Doors”.

Editors tonight were a band in a hurry, ripping through the set with pace and power. Editors tonight were also bloody magnificent, the new 5-piece line-up working perfectly and giving both the new numbers, often a little thin-sounding on the new record, and the more established material extra layers and dimensions. The lights burned red for “Eat Raw Meat = Blood Drool”, with even this slightly throwaway number gaining extra impetus with their performance tonight. “Would you mind if we played a song from our first album?” Smith enquired to introduce a stomping “All Sparks”, before the massively shuddering Middle-Eastern “Cutter”-like intro heralded a soaring, magnificent “A Ton Of Love”, a brilliant set highlight with a strident, powerful chorus.

“Bullets” was brilliant, darkly dramatic, and the stately and hypnotic Gothic synth pulse of “In This Light And On This Evening” built to a visceral and thrilling crescendo of cascading noise. The boys were on fire tonight, and they knew it; “Are you still with us? We’ve only just got started!” Smith announced before the staccato riff of “Munich”, the energetic Smith climbing atop his piano to deliver an impassioned vocal. The lower-key but still yearning closer “Honesty” rounded off a startlingly magnificent set, before the band returned to deliver a smoothly chugging, synth-driven “Bricks And Mortar”.  The intense robotic dance of “Papillon”, which again, as per at Reading Festival, led to a lengthy and riveting crescendo, finished off a quite brilliant 1 ½ hour performance, easily the best I’ve seen this band deliver.

Every one a winner tonight! I needed the day off after to recover and recharge before the National jaunt, but this one was well worth it. Boy, was it ever… Savages might be the most promising new English band to come along in many a moon, but to deserve the epithet of “The Best English Band”, well, they’ll need to prise that title from Editors’ vice-like grip. And on tonight’s splendid evidence, that’ll take some doing…

895 FRIGHTENED RABBIT, Lanterns On The Lake, Paul Thomas Saunders, Southampton University Student Union, Sunday 10 November 2013

The hectic pace continues – first of a good old fashioned “two-in two” double header was a run-down to Southampton University, scene of a smattering of late 80’s gig trips to see Throwing Muses, Lush, House Of Love and the like whilst visiting Ady and co at the Uni and eating massive amounts of chips from Big George’s chippy. Scottish band Frightened Rabbit were the hosts; a new name on me this year, but one which had been apparently ploughing an idiosyncratic little miserablist furrow for a few years and albums now, only zooming onto my radar with excellent current release “Pedestrian Verse”, a more upbeat and optimistic blend of chunky rock, fuzzy psychedelic touches and yearning, earnest vocals than its’ predecessors, with a decided Celtic touch. I was keen to see this lot, and booked on the pre-sale for this one, the nearest they came to the ‘Don.

Took an early and easy drive down and actually parked up pre-doors opposite the Uni, needing to queue up to get in to the venue, the same old hall from those old 80’s gigs. A reason for getting there early was to meet up with South Coast-domiciled friend Doug Anderson, who arrived midway through Paul Thomas Saunders’ fey and wispy Cocteau Twins shoegaze-like stuff and nonsense. Quite a pleasant musical backdrop for a good and overdue catch-up with an old friend, as it was predominantly tune-free and eminently ignorable! Main support Lanterns On The Lake fared little better with their female-fronted melancholic alt-Country. Again, nice enough but quickly forgotten.

We took a wander to the side, stage left, for the main event. Kicking off with a toughened-up “Holy”, the splendid chugging, “Murmur”-era REM pastiche from the new album, Frightened Rabbit, led by the hefty bearded bear of a mainman Scott Hutchison, were initially strident and powerful, an early overtly anthemic “Nothing Like You” almost Springsteen/ Gaslight Anthem-esque, before a lengthy discussion from the humorously gregarious frontman about the virtues of being miserable and expecting nothing (!) preceded a more melancholy “Dead Now”.

This was a very varied set, ranging from the strumalong nu-folk Celtic reel of “Old Old Fashioned”, through a morose oldie “Music Now” (prior to which Hutchison, tongue in cheek, called out us Johnny-Come-Latelys as “Glory Hunters! Just kidding, I love you all like children; shit children…”), to the beefy, Manchester Orchestra-like rock of “The Wrestle” (“this is about fighting a shark, which I’ve done on numerous occasions… bite its’ cock off, it’ll never come back!”) and the bilious, bitter anthem of “State Hospital”, which built to a powerful, strident crescendo. There was even a solo acoustic interlude from Hutchison, bringing Lanterns vocalist Hazel on to duet on “Fuck This Place” before a bare, Hobotalk-like “Floating In The Forth”, sung back by the faithful in the crowd.

This was all good stuff, however the older material generally suffered in comparison to the higher songwriting quality of the “Pedestrian Verse” stuff, in my view, and it was a massive shame that the 2 best tracks on said album, the joyous “Late March, Death March” and the brilliant, Idlewild-meets-Grandaddy “Backyard Skulls” (2013 singles both) were perversely left out altogether. So we Johnny-Come-Lately’s had to make do with an elegiac, plaintive “Acts Of Man”, closing out the set, and the anthemic route-march and crushing chorus of encore opener “The Woodpile”, before, “the ultimate song about fucking!” “Keep Yourself Warm” got the crowd fast-handclapping along, to cap a good but not great 1 ½ hours set.

Grabbed a set-list and said goodbyes to Doug before hitting the road. Clearly this was a set for the aficionados, the old material being played with conviction and greeted as such. However I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed at what was left out tonight, as I drove home swiftly under starry skies. Maybe next time, Frightened Rabbit; and no worries, there will be a next time!

Friday, 8 November 2013

894 SAVAGES, A Dead Forest Index, Bristol Trinity, Thursday 7 November 2013

No set-list this time (darn!) but this rather excellent sign greeted us at the door... Anyway, onto the gig review...

So, following a none-more-retro October, my November dance card has a more contemporary feel. And encapsulating it is this, my first of 4 gigs in 8 days, in the company of Savages, a scary new all-girl lot, who’ve released a Mercury Prize-nominated debut, “Silence Yourself”, which is full of visceral, confrontational noise, with slashing guitars and atonal vocals, recalling an early Throwing Muses with Siouxsie on vocals. The band I really wanted Florence And The Machine to turn out to be (before it all went popular and terribly pear-shaped creatively), only more… well, savage… More impressively, they seem to be approaching their band as if it were the single most important thing in their lives, as if they were all born to be in this band right at this time. They already therefore seem to be talking the talk, and starting to walk the walk on record at least. Let’s see if they’re still doing so whilst treading the “live” boards, then…

Girl band uber-fan Beef wandered around just as the kids were ready for bed, so we set off and parked up in the cavernous Cabot Circus car park, about a 5 minute walk from this evocative old church hall venue, hitting the already crowded hall just as support A Dead Forest Index were taking the stage at 8.15. An Australian two-piece, they offered some quiet atmospheric slow-burn material with dour, gothic overtones and discordant crescendos. Very like Galaxie 500, the vocalist also veering between a strident style and Dean Wareham-esque warblings. the set became increasingly too pretentious for my liking (silly drumming!) at the expense of the tunes. Guys, it’s possible to be moody and melodic at the same time; even Leonard Cohen wrote tunes!

We wandered down the heaving front, stage right, chatting with a friendly Geordie lad on the way about the incandescent brilliance of early Throwing Muses, before Savages took the blue-hued backlit stage about 20 past 9. Met with a frenzied welcome and a manic moshpit throughout, the black clad band immediately burst into a swathe of gothic guitar noise, heralding opener “I Am Here”, before vocalist Jehnny Beth prowled onto the stage, like a languid black panther stalking her prey. Crew cutted and wild eyed, she cut an imposing, riveting figure as she then hovered at the lip of the stage, leaning over the wild mosh like a praying mantis, delivering her vocals with scary conviction. The throbbing bassline-led “Shut Up” followed, an excellent early highlight, before the dark, dramatic “City’s Full” saw Jehnny show off some silhouetted Ian Curtis-like dance moves, her cropped hair adding to the startling likeness.

Savages’ music sweeps in a whole plethora of influences; intense, twisted post-punk, shimmering slow-burn shoegaze and delicious, dark Goth, coming across like a chiming, resonant Lush one moment, a strident, jagged X-Mal Deutschland the next. Very much a work-in-progess sonically, they however come alive onstage, their all-inclusive “gang” mentality extending out beyond their own confines into their fledgling audience. The slow-burn drama of “Waiting For A Sign” culminated in more swathes of thrilling guitar noise, then Jehnny calmly diffused some tension between 2 front-row punters in the occasionally violent mosh, before a resonant and absorbing cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”. The subsequent “She Will”, with a libidinous, almost sexy bassline contrasting with the crashing cymbal-snap chant chorus was stunning, eliciting a mad response from the mosh which moved Jehnny to comment, “you are awesome! My God!”

The Dead Kennedy-like pounding riff and raucous noise crescendos of “Husbands” again prompted Jehnny to compliment the audience response (“you’re better than London! Bristol rocks!”) before a lengthy soliloquy (the only time Jehnny addressed the crowd at length, despite the band’s apparent bent towards sloganeering and manifestos) about not letting the fuckers grind you down and making sure you’re, “not surrounded by cunts!” preceded a lengthy final noisefest, the end of which saw the band, all smiles, take a lengthy ovation.

Damn fine stuff from possibly the most promising English band in ages. I bet tonight an 18 year old will look back on this gig as a real musical epiphany, the night she (likely she) discovered the one band that says something to her about her life. Tonight that wasn’t me, but I’ll be watching Savages’ progress with great expectation. Walk the walk now, girls, don’t let me down…

Friday, 1 November 2013

893 SUEDE, Teleman, Birmingham O2 Academy, Thursday 31 October 2013

No better way to spend Halloween than with a gig, methinks, especially if the hosts tend towards the slightly spooky musically as well. So here’s Suede, yet another band finding absence makes the heart grow fonder (or poorer) and reuniting, albeit after not so long a break as my last 2 gig hosts. Having broken up in 2003 after believing themselves out of step with current musical trends, they’re back with a new album, “Bloodsports”, which sounds fresh, vital and unmistakably Suede, full of the delicious glam-tinged seamy and trashy late night guitar pop of their 90‘s pre-Britpop pomp. This one was a no-doubter then, even if Rach and I had to make elaborate plans to meet up in Birmingham due to Rach’s work commitments, their closer Bristol gig having been announced after we’d gotten tickets for this one, but also clashing with our IOW holiday.
So I knocked off work an hour early and hit the road on my own at 4, for a heavy traffic and (when in B’rum) red light-strewn journey, eventually parking up below the Mailbox about 6.30 and meeting Rach there, getting into the venue at 7 pm doors and finding a nice place down the front to stay and chat while the place filled up. Support act Teleman – not Tena Lady, as I’d cruelly dismissed them – kept us waiting until nearly 8, then played a brand of wide-eyed innocent jangle pop with some buoyant bleep-bleep synth throw in for embellishment. They had a very early to mid 80’s feel to their optimistic music, despite their opener nicking the descending verse structure from The Fixers’ “Majesties Ranch”, and another early warm, fuzzy number recalling Welsh psych-pop boyos Big Leaves. Good for starters, but too sickly sweet for me to eat a whole one.
The busy front got even busier – surely this was a sell-out on the night! – as a finicky soundcheck delayed Suede’s arrival until just after 9, by which time the audience were just about ready to pop. Coming on to orchestral music and opening with a slow-burn, dramatic opener “High Rising”, their subsequent acceleration into the superb opening triad from new album “Bloodsports” seemed more sudden as a consequence. “Barriers” saw vocalist and main driving force Brett Anderson in everyones’ face, exhorting the crowd to sing along; a magnificent “Snowblind” featured a strident chorus which pushed even Brett’s impressive dark voice thrillingly beyond its’ comfort zone; and Brett asked, “are you ready to rock – in a gothic kind of way?” before “It Starts And Ends With You’’s soaring chorus shook the rafters, Brett already helicoptering his mic wire and giving himself completely to the music with gleeful abandon. As did we, already wild moshpit-bound.
It got even better. “Trash” was immense, the communal singalong conducted by a flamboyant Brett, strutting and preening onstage like a King Peacock, the epicentre of the show, all fulsome gestures. He abandoned the stage during “Animal Nitrate”, delving into the front rows and eliciting frenzied responses, remaining there for the glam sleaze of “Filmstar”. The man certainly had his mojo working tonight, revelling in the manic crowd response and delivering a consummate frontman performance, his Bowie-esque late night vocals and gestures dovetailing perfectly.
Thankfully there was light and shade in the mix tonight; a well-paced set with some slower numbers to catch one’s breath. “Here’s one from the new album – actually you’ve been really good with the new album [songs], singing along; I like that!” announced Brett before the slower “Sometimes I Feel I’ll Float Away”. “The Drowners” took us right back to 1992, the slashing guitar riff and Bowie “Starman” chorus line resonating around the venue, and a heart cracking “Wild Ones” recalled Bowie’s “Sweet Thing” and acted as an all-inclusive manifesto.
“Metal Mickey” saw Brett diving into the front rows again, before a tremendous “Beautiful Ones” closed the set, the band returning for a brilliant, plangent “New Generation”, preceded by effusive words of praise from our articulate host (“we always have a good time when we get together”), who, sweat-soaked and breathless, had given his all tonight, along with his tight, impressive band. An evergreen performance from an enduring star. “Out of step”? P’fah, Suede have returned and are more fresh, relevant and vital than ever. On tonight’s form, miss them at your peril.