Travelling to London on a school night these days is a daunting prospect at the best of times. Having to cross the City to Old Street, and doing it on an evening when England are playing at Wembley, is even more horrendous. There’s a select list of about 2 or 3 acts I’d do that for, and Nada Surf’s vocalist Matthew Caws, author of some of the warmest, most heartfelt and meaningful music of the past 10 years or so, music that speaks volumes to me, is right on top of that list. A couple of years had passed since I’d last caught ‘da Surf “live” (gig 840), the band subsequently taking a sabbatical, so I was well up for this one, having failed to secure tix for a previous Matthew solo show in St. Pancras last year.
A rotten journey in prospect required some foresight, so I drove to work, then headed off via the comic shop at 4, stopping for tea at Heston, then, after some nose to tail inching along the A4 around Chiswick, still made it to my favoured parking place at 6.30! Crossed town on the tube and found the venue in an unfamiliar (to me) and obviously recently gentrified part of the City at 7.30, half an hour before doors! Located around a leafy square and next to a Bill’s Bar (!), the venue was a small side-hall inside a more sprawling bar/ diner; I honestly felt like I was back in Boston! The main doors, adorned by a painting of a giant evil clown face (!) opened at 8 and I wandered in, taking a pew stage right then having a quick chat with Matthew, on his way out to phone his son. Nice that he remembered my face after so long!
I stayed put on my barstool for the supports, whilst the place filled up. Openers Kafka Tamura were a 3 piece fronted by an evidently nervous slightly gothy girl, intoning some slightly gothy atonal Sioux-alike vocals over a slightly gothy stripped back synth background, evoking The XX or (for the older readers out there) Young Marble Giants. A surprisingly upbeat closer (which reminded me of Our Daughter’s Wedding!) was an odd juxtaposition to a generally slightly gothy set. Verdict? Slightly gothy! Monument Valley were a different proposition, however; a 2 piece featuring a main-man with a slightly bare, Frank Turner-esque delivery (particularly excellent opener “We Made Plans”), a flippant attitude (“so yeah, we’re Monument Valley and I’m a grumpy guy…”) and a nice line overall in witty, kitchen sink drama vignettes. A touching, erudite and articulate set of introspective, quintessentially English melancholy. Nice, and clearly warranting further investigation, although I bet he sits at home and listens to The Smiths…!
I lost my seat after a loo break, but found a good viewing spot stage right in the by-now uncomfortably full room. Matthew arrived onstage just before 9.45, an engaging and open presence from the outset, genuinely surprised and humbled by the turnout. Armed only with a large 6-string acoustic lead, he proceeded to weave his magic over the audience, the genuine warmth and affection from the crowd reciprocated with the beauty, simplicity and warmth of the material. The set featured a couple of covers revealing his music roots (“what you like when you’re 16 kind of stays with you,” he correctly declared); a rollocking reading of Simple Minds’ “Speed Your Love To Me” was ironically introduced with, “before “Pretty In Pink” (!) this band did some great stuff,” and he totally made Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence” his own with a heartfelt rendition. A sprinkling of songs by Minor Alps, his 2013 side-project with Juliana Hatfield, shone in a more 60’s-influenced, swirling psychedelic way, especially the Byrds-ian “Buried Plans”.
But it was the Nada Surf material which we were really here to hear, which really formed the core of this set. It was great to see how well these songs stood up, shorn of the band dynamics, revealing themselves as the sparkling, warm nuggets of beauty and melody which we, well, pretty much knew they were all along. An early “Whose Authority” featured some beautiful solo harmonies, “Happy Kid” was rambunctious and plaintive in equal measure, and “Waiting For Something”, despite a tricky opening riff, was an inclusive singalong. News that he’d recently been practising with ‘da Surf was met with acclaim (“thank you for not forgetting [about us]; it’s amazing what taking a year off can do!”), before the set highlight, a touching, delicate reading of “See These Bones”, which nonetheless built to a marvellously absorbing crescendo.
An unplanned “Fruit Fly” was a fun audience participation moment, Matthew calling on the crowd to harmonise during the fadeout, and “Inside Of Love” was as good as you’d hear it, this plangent, plaintive number really benefiting from the solo version. Matthew called for the mirrorball to be set in motion for set closer “Always Love”, before dashing off and on again for a curfew-busting encore, featuring an also-unplanned but predictably brilliant highlight “80 Windows”, and a singalong “Blankest Year”, Matt (who’d been open and chatty throughout, despite promising to cut down on the chat to get through his planned set!) encouraging the crowd in the, “fuck it!” hook. A jolly end to a set which veered from melancholy to upbeat, often in the space of one song, and which was never less than superb, a true master of his craft on display.
Matthew kindly gave me the sole set-list when he re-emerged, stopping for a brief chat before I needed to clear off, catching 2 tube trains by the skin of my teeth and getting back to the car at ¼ to 12. Drove home reflecting on this minor triumph; no doubt about it, this was worth every bit of hassle, every mile of the journey and every minute of the very late (1.15 am!) arrival home. Excellent job tonight, Matthew!