Friday, 27 February 2015

941 THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN, The Shimmer Band, Bristol O2 Academy, Thursday 26th February 2015

With The Men They Couldn’t Hang last Saturday and The Mary Chain tonight, I’m currently partying like it’s 1985! However, unlike Saturday’s frequently-seen hosts, this is my 1st “live” Jesus And Mary Chain experience… Having burst onto the scene in 1985 with their screaming, squalling debut, “Psychocandy” – whose 30th anniversary they’re celebrating on this tour with a start-to-finish run through – they impinged themselves on my radar with their punk rock attitude and some detached, insouciant Bunnymen-like cool, but their reputation for surly, slovenly, and often chaotically brief (15 minutes long according to some reports) “live” shows didn’t appeal whatsoever (although I did go to see the equally chaotic – and brief – Birdland. Go figure!). Nonetheless, I enjoyed “Psychocandy”, whose splendid, Velvet Underground-meets-Buddy Holly tuneage was often smothered under swathes of suffocating feedback, and its’ cleaner follow-up, “Darklands”, but there we parted, as The Mary Chain, to these ears, went the way of a more American FM radio rock sound, out of step with my musical tastes and the prevailing grunge/ baggy landscape. However, since the recent advent of their evident spiritual offspring Glasvegas, I’d often returned to those classic 2 albums, so was up for a “live” re-visitation of that noisy debut!
I picked up the boys – an eclectic but good bunch of gigging companions tonight! – for a drive down to Brizzle, parking up in good time for openers the Shimmer Band. I couldn’t recall them from their previous support slot here, with Jimmy Eat World about 18 months ago, but tonight they were awful; boring, plodding, self-indulgent post-baggy sludge being passed off as psych-pop, delivered with unjustified arrogant swagger and swathes of irritating keyboard. A poor man’s Kasabian – their penultimate number had a more apposite shimmering powerpop sheen, recalling early 70’s band The Raspberries, and showed their other poor material into sharp relief.
The place, quiet early doors, filled up quickly and considerably for the Mary Chain’s unannounced entrance, led on through the thick dry ice smoke by vocalist Jim Reid. “To give you an idea of what to expect,” he explained tonight’s proceedings would be a first set of hits, followed by a short break (“we’re going to go off for a cup of tea!” quipped Jim uncharacteristically), then the “Psychocandy” performance. However, it initially seemed as though they’d taken their break during the first set, as their performance was flat, disinterested and perfunctory, classic Mary Chain numbers such as “April Skies” and “Some Candy Talking” sounding leaden and frankly dull. Admittedly, completely losing the PA during second number “Head On” didn’t help, a restless crowd causing Jim to ask, “can you hear us?” to a resounding “NO!” at its’ conclusion, but even after its’ restoration, the set plodded on in a morass of ennui, the band, shorn of the bilious sneer and swagger of legend, sounding old and neutered.
“Upside Down”, their debut single and the final number of the opening set, thankfully changed all that. A palpable wall of noise, it fairly galloped along in a strident burst, powered by excellent drummer and old Posies/ Fountains Of Wayne favourite Brian Young, the squealing feedback augmenting this exciting rendition rather than smothering it, and giving us some hope for the second half. During the subsequent break, though, I pondered with some fellow punters, which version of Mary Chain would emerge for “Psychocandy”?
Thankfully, it veered much more toward the latter. Emerging to a backdrop of the cover of that classic album, opener “Just Like Honey” was a lustful late night balled from the 50’s milkshake bar from Hell, and “The Living End” a pounding hellride with turbos on full blast, capturing its’ fucked-up youthful thrill and carpe diem attitude perfectly. Lots of light and shade in this set too; “Cut Dead” was a slow-burn moody masterpiece, “Never Understand” approached “Upside Down” for its’ jagged, acerbic and vicious bite, and “Sowing Seeds” was a delicious, Lou Reed/ Velvet Underground NYC street cool tour de force. The 14 short, snappy bites of surf-garage rock’n’roll were soon over, the taciturn Jim remarking, “thanks for coming, hope you enjoyed it,” before tonight’s closer “It’s So Hard”, a creepy echoey psych-pop number underpinned by a Bunnymen-like undulating bassline.
Gathered our thoughts (but not a set-list – apparently the band didn’t want them handed out, due to “private notes” on them. I call bullshit, me) and then had a nightmare journey out of Bristol due to the M32 being closed, ending up tooling around St. Georges and Frenchay at a frustrating 20 mph (that is, when we weren’t stopped by every! Single! Fucking! Red light in town, I shit you not) and hitting the ‘don the wrong side of midnight. A definite set of two halves, this, but I suppose we should have expected nothing less from this band of uncompromising mavericks and non-conformists, The Jesus And Mary Chain!

Sunday, 22 February 2015

940 THE MEN THEY COULDN’T HANG, Charred Hearts, Swindon Level 3, Saturday 21st February 2015

Given that I was contemplating grabbing a ticket to The Men They Couldn’t Hang’s upcoming gig at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, this one was an utter no-brainer for me, a chance to see these enduring folk/ punk “live” favourites for the 11th time overall, my first time for a couple of years since a rambunctious and totally appropriate Stiff Little Fingers support slot a couple of years ago, and the first time in Swindon for 4 years! This time, there was little chance of their falling prey to the law of diminishing returns (3 gigs in 3 years at The 12 Bar sadly saw reduced attendances each time), as this one was organised by Charred Hearts’ maniman Dermot Fuller for his 50th birthday celebration, which surely guaranteed a proliferation of old punk rockers through the door at the rebadged Level 3!

I sorted tickets out for the boys as well (some more eager than others, it’s fair to say), and, after I’d spent the early evening cheering on Rach in her Gala swimming event, we met up in the Rolly for a rare TTP drinkie night! I popped downstairs about 9 pm into the already utterly jam-packed Level 3, where Dermot was already leading Charred Hearts through their usual growling wall-of-noise street punk, and, also as usual, going walkabouts during the set to greet punters and old friends. I did likewise during their set so didn’t pay as much attention as previously, but my ears did prick up for their sincere cover of The Damned’s “New Rose”, set closer “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and Dermot’s final words of fulsome praise after his set; “it’s been a great night but it’s not over yet…”

More chats with old friends and Level 3 faces as the boys arrived, and I joined an enthusiastic Phil on the dancefloor for the unheralded arrival of The Men They Couldn’t Hang at 10. After the usual chuntering, low key opener “Devil On The Wind”, Mr. Fuller was located to do the intended introduction, one song late(!), and we were then into the singalong “Ghosts Of Cable Street”, which got a small dancefloor crowd singing raucously along. A splendid “Bounty Hunter” followed “Wishing Well”, although at this stage it all seemed a little low-key and understated, The Men easing their way into this, their first “live” performance of 2015. We also had a the first of a smattering of new numbers from their recent PledgeMusic-funded album, following a lament from co-vocalist Stefan Cush about the closure of the 12 Bar; “Night Ferry” was a ramshackle acerbic folk-punk powered number, proving the new apples still don’t fall far from The Men’s usual tree.

Things were still a little ragged at this stage, a messy “Going Back To Coventry” inadvertently repeating a verse then being offered up afterwards by co-vocalist Swill as, “an alternative take”, however their self-effacing, all-inclusive attitude, plus Cush’s regular anti-UKIP references, were still winning them through. It’s sad to comment ast this juncture, that, with the current rise of racist idiots such as the UKIP mob, The Men They Couldn’t Hang’s central themes of class struggle, anti-racism/ fascism and equality and inclusion for all are equally as relevant today as they were in Thatcher’s divided Britain of the 80’s, perhaps in some circumstances even more so. A Cush solo version of The Jam’s “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight” also underlined this point, the antagonists in Cush’s version referenced of smelling of “too many UKIP meetings”, and going down a storm with the packed audience of old punk rockers as a consequence.

Things picked up notably, post-Cush solo break, with a tremendous “Smugglers” a barbed diatribe and superb singalong, “Shirt Of Blue” as chilling as ever, and “Colours” a terrace chant manifesto for the common man. However, set closer “Ironmasters” was the jewel in the crown tonight for me, a breathless blast through their strident, manic best number, which got me jumping about crazily despite 2 dodgy knees. We also got an encore run-through of the sprawling, poignant anti-war anthem “Green Fields Of France” following exhortations by Mr. Fuller, and a jigabout “Walkin’, Talkin’” saw a 1 ½ hour set of initially low-key, but ultimately as raucously fun as ever folky punk to a close. The birthday boy was elated, and so were we; and you were right, Mr. Fuller, Sir; it was a great night!

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

939 THE DECEMBERISTS, Serafina Steer, Bristol O2 Academy, Monday 16th February 2015

A hectic 3 gigs in 4 days draws to a close with something completely different again; after some girly ramshackle garage rock in Bristol on Saturday, it’s back down the M4 for some cerebral, occasionally slow-burn alt-indie country/ folk from Oregon tunesmiths The Decemberists. After my first, very enjoyable, encounter with them, at this same venue 4 years back (gig 808) I’d picked up more of their back catalogue, generally liking most of it but finding parts a little self-indulgent and veering towards the “Prog Alert” button, as I’d been previously warned about. Nevertheless, new album “What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World” has on early listens continued the good straightforward path of its’ breakthrough predecessor “The King Is Dead”, so I’m up for some more “live” Decemberists!

So was Tim, so he picked us up for a catch up during a swift drive down and early arrival at the already busy venue – t’was a sell-out tonight! Unfortunately, that meant we were there for solo opener, harpist Serafina Steer, who was awful. Apparently working through certain song themes – instructional, karaoke and ghost songs – it all came across as just inaccessibly weird for weird’s sake, and despite her efforts to engage the crowd, this set was one to just grit your teeth and unwillingly endure. Thankfully, better was to come as, after a short wait in our increasingly crammed usual spot, stage right, a trumpet fanfare heralded the arrival of the Decemberists, dead on 9. Mainman Colin Meloy took the stage solo for opener “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, the band joining him in stages to fill in the sound to a crescendo, before bursting into the sudden, bouncy and brassy “Wake Up Boo!” soundalike that is the upbeat “Cavalry Captain”, possibly the Decemberists’ most pure “pop” moment to date.

“Welcome to the show; together, collectively, we’ll have fun; there may be some low moments – sadness, tragedy, death – but eventually we’ll prevail!” announced the bearded Meloy at its’ conclusion, the first of many lengthy and articulately phrased soliloquys from the man tonight – many of which, oddly, involved apologising to, “the people of Bristol,” for spreading a long-held misapprehension that Depeche Mode originated from there! Clearly a very intelligent man – the use of words such as “obfuscate” and “paradigm” during said speeches underlining this – Meloy occasionally veers towards clever-dickness, but unlike, say, “comedian” David Mitchell, who always comes across as utterly desperate to convey to his audience just how brow-beatingly intelligent he is and thereby shows himself up as a smug twat, Meloy rescues himself with his self-effacing humour and wry, witty attitude. Musically, his band mirror the character of their talisman, who clearly has a voracious and varied appetite for music and funnels it directly through the filter of his intellect. The set thereby veered through REM influenced alt-country (“Down By The River” and the excellent, strumalong “Calamity Song”), almost 50’s doo-wop balladry (newie “Philomena”, introduced as “a dirty song!”), through the lengthy and slightly jarring prog workout of “The Island” and thankfully out the other side to the acerbic slow-burn country character assassination of “Los Angeles I’m Yours” and the tub-thumping, Violent Femmes-esque murder ballad of “The Rake’s Song” (“I don’t know why you’ve cheered – it’s a disgusting song – you’re all complicit!”).

Also, given the few times I’ve actually chanced to listen to the new album, I was surprised how vividly I recalled new tracks played tonight, testament to their increasing hookiness, and thankfully their move away from those “prog” days. “Make You Better” was a late set highlight, it’s subtle, moody verses ceding to an immense chorus and harmonic crescendo. Typically perversely, Meloy announced his intention to close the set with their worst number, strumming a couplet from “Dracula’s Daughter” before a fine “O Valencia” to finish a 1 ½ hour set that seemed half that. We got 2 encores as as well – a 3 song first, highlighting the galloping “Charming Man”-alike of “Sporting Life”, then “The Mariner’s Revenge”, a widescreen sea shanty involving some audience participation primal screaming as we disappeared into the belly of a whale. This amazingly took us to 2 hours, a lengthy wait for a set-list bearing fruit before a swift drive back. Varied, chameleonic, literary, highly articulate and cerebral, yet currently writing damn fine songs with memorable hooks; I’m very much enjoying The Decemberists!

Sunday, 15 February 2015

938 EX HEX, Princess, Bristol The Louisiana, Saturday 14th February 2015

Some spazzy garage rock in prospect tonight to continue my current ferocious gig pace; Ex Hex, a new band whose debut CD “Rips” I picked up on thanks to a good NME write-up, and thoroughly enjoyed thanks to its’ ramshackle, NYC/ CBGBs 70’s new wave vibe. Led by Washington DC indie rock veteran Mary Timony, a singer-songwriter whom I’d vaguely heard of but whose back catalogue, with the likes of Wild Flag, Mountains etc. I’d not explored, this all-girl 3-piece nevertheless promised some potential punk rock electric guitar fun and frolics, particularly at the sold-out tiny sweatbox that is the Louisiana, so off I go for my 4th female-fronted band in a row to start 2015!

The gig sold out in pretty short order, and definitely before I was able to recruit any gig buddies to join me, so I flew solo down the M4 after the kids went to bed, parking up outside in the final “free” parking spot on the left hand side of the road, and heading into the pub just before the rope was taken down to let everyone upstairs at 8.30. We didn’t have long to wait for openers Princess, a young 5-piece, on at 8.45 to an already-full venue. They played some generic but dramatic and soaring indie-pop which wouldn’t have been out of place on a Big Country or Alarm support slot circa 1984 (Zerra 1, White China, Silent Running; where are you now?). Windswept, widescreen and predominantly bass-led, their 3rd number featured dynamics straight out of the U2 “War” songbook; no surprise they were Dubliners! Their chiming, flag-waving guitar pop needs a fair amount of rehearsal and refinement, but there’s some darkly anthemic promise there.

The place, full from minute one, got uncomfortably crammed thereafter, the Ex Hex girls having to squeeze onstage for a final soundcheck, and off again afterwards past the ubiquitous Jeff, leaning on the speakers! I kept a watching brief stage centre, a few rows back, for their eventual re-emergence at 9.45. Led on by Timony, herself resplendent in black sequinned dress and lurid red tights, a whirl of rock shirts and tight hot pants, they came across visually like a female American Hi-Fi, ready to bring the rock! Timony’s introduction of, “We’re Ex Hex, we’re from Washington DC, thanks for coming out,” underlined this, as did opener “Don’t Wanna Lose”, all chunky powerpop chords and bratty hooks. Good stuff for openers, despite initial poor vocal sound (quickly sorted out), and it set the tone for the performance; primarily short, snappy bursts of fun, upbeat garage rock, simple but very effective. “Waste Your Time”, next up, had a more sexy NYC glam strut, “New Kid” was faster and punkier with the nagging “you’re a warrior, warrior, warrior” hook, and “Hot And Cold” a slower Velvet Underground-like sleazoid stomp, the elongated riff outro also recalling The Knack’s “My Sharona”!

“This song is for all the party animals out there, how many of you are there?”, announced Mary Timony before the thrashy punk of “You Fell Apart”, another duelling riff outro this time dominated by bassist Betsy Wright, pouting, strutting and holding her bass neck aloft as if strafing the ceiling. Final number “Everywhere” again stretched into a duelling riff-fest to conclude a breathless 40 minutes, the girls hugging together at the side of the stage before retaking their positions for a 2-song encore which culminated in their best number, a chugging, hook-tastic “Waterfall”. Cool!

Snuck through the crowd and onto the empty stage afterwards to grab drummer Laura’s set-list, then chatted with a couple of fellow punters, including Jeff and the chap who took my pic with Bob Mould at The Fleece last Autumn! Got the set-list fully signed by the band, hanging out downstairs, and enjoyed a brief chat with Betsy before heading home. For a Washington DC band in 2015, Ex Hex sound awfully like the Max’s Kansas City house band circa 1977 – no bad thing really in my book – but more importantly, they’re taking a basic, well-established and occasionally tired formula and making it sound fresh, vital and now, which is a pretty neat trick. Good work, Mary Timony and Ex Hex!

937 WHITE LILAC, Familiars, Coco Esq, Swindon The Victoria, Friday 13th February 2015

Kicking off a week’s half term leave with the kids by launching into 3 gigs in 4 days, so I’m glad I’m starting locally; got to pace myself at my age! This one is an intriguing prospect for starters; Faye Rogers, daughter of old BT colleague Stella, and a talented vocalist I’d enjoyed on a smattering of solo performances last year, has assembled a band and performed a “musical reinvention”, according to esteemed local musical scribe and oracle Dave Franklin. My curiosity thus piqued, I booked a ticket for this one and ventured up the hill after Rach returned from swimming, for my first local gig of 2015!

Hit the venue for some entertaining muso chat with Mr. Franklin and “Songs Of Praise” partner in crime Ed Dyer, tonight’s promoters, before openers Coco Esq. A young black-clad lot, they employed some naggingly familiar resonant guitar licks which preceded some youthfully enthusiastically played dark and brooding post-punk and pseudo-Goth with some good droney choral hooks, and shimmering Editors-esque guitar licks. Occasionally veering too excessively towards over-shoutiness and a little unrehearsed, maybe, but they were clearly having a ball up there and projecting their enthusiasm to their audience. Plus, they were totally right in my sonic wheelhouse so I saw a fair amount of promise amidst the embryonic layered guitar noise. Keep cleaning that sound up, boys, and you’ll be one to watch…

Better yet was to follow, in main support Familiars. Despite technical keyboard-based issues forcing the restart of the opening number (vocalist/ pianist Steve Skinley – who with more than a dusting of grey up top was clearly of a closer vintage to myself than the first act! – remarking dryly, “you’ll know this one,” when it finally got going), they were superb from the outset. Operating in similar sonic dark post-punk territory to the openers, they had a mellower, bleaker take on said rockist sound, a considerably higher level of musicianship, and a level of insouciant, detached NYC cool (despite hailing from Cirencester!), overall recalling a first album era Interpol, or “Neon Bible” Arcade Fire in mood, with Steve’s slow, mournful bedsit vocals resembling The National’s Matt Berninger, or The Wild Swans’ Paul Simpson. Delicious stuff indeed. The penultimate number “Ballyhoo” for me appropriated the circular piano riff from Nada Surf’s dark, atmospheric “Killian’s Red” but I’ll compliment them on their taste rather than throw around accusations of plagiarism, because this was a bloody fine set, culminating in their soaring, uplifting best number “Bottleneck”. Complimented a humbled Steve afterwards – apparently a vaudeville performer in his spare time. A man of many talents, indeed!

After that, White Lilac faced a challenge, underlined by Ed Dyer’s introduction to the by-now packed Vic for their appearance; “hometown crowd, guys – don’t fuck it up!” No chance of that happening, as White Lilac shone from the outset. An opening number, “Furs”, rocked startlingly in a shimmering post-Shoegaze vein, similar to Lush, then “He’s Not Himself”, one of the highlights of Faye’s solo shows, was given added gravitas by the band embellishment, initially delicate and haunting, then building to a menacing, discordant crescendo. “September” was a cello-led challenging clash of styles, recalling Throwing Muses in intent if not style, and an unexpected cover of “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (“we’re big Morrissey fans and we’ve got tickets to see him next month”, gushed Faye) was equally as off-kilter, the song turning into a rampant sinister rollercoaster ride. All too soon the set neared its’ conclusion, the jewel in the crown of this nascent set being closer “Night Visions”, underlying Faye’s new sonic template by starting off all shimmering and slow-burn, evolving into a mournful sax-led elegiac mid-section, then turning completely on its’ head with a sudden slap of slashing guitar leading to the song’s powerful crescendo. Great stuff, and well received by the packed and supportive audience.

A few words with the Star Of The Show afterwards before heading off. Faye has clearly had a “lightbulb moment” and found her direction, which to these ears is not so much a reinvention, but more a refinement, the band dynamics adding an extra dimension to her material. I’ll be an interesting journey to watch her obvious talent develop from here on in, and one I’m determined to watch closely!

Sunday, 1 February 2015

936 ALVVAYS, Moon King, Bristol Thekla, Saturday 31 January 2015

They’re growing on me like a rash, this lot… Having walked in part-way through Alvvays’ Real Estate support slot at the Empire last October (gig 929) and thoroughly enjoyed what on the face of it seemed to be some buoyant, wide-eyed C86 influenced jangle pop, I picked up their eponymous debut CD and found something else. Something inexplicable, intangible and ever so slightly out of reach, but nevertheless a real extra depth to the material, layers of melancholy and emotiveness  that rewarded repeated listens. “Alvvays” made it into my Top 5 albums of last year (behind some serious heavyweights like The Hold Steady, New Pornographers, Merchandise and War On Drugs) and if I were making that list now, who’s to say they wouldn’t be even higher…? Thus I pounced on tickets for their ultimately sold-out trip to “The Dirty Boat”, always a favourite venue.

I wasn’t alone for this one; riding shotgun was recent gig buddy Andy Fenton; we passed an entertaining drive down comparing past gig experiences, parking up in the final spot and going aboard the venue at 7.30. My first visit since the Thekla’s recent renovation, and they’ve spruced up the old vessel nicely, improving the eyeline from the bar, reflooring and repositioning the mixing desk, plus much-needed loo improvements! Already taking the stage as we headed to the bar were openers Moon King, a Toronto 4-piece featuring a madly tousle-haired male vocalist and a striking ginger female guitarist who also took lead vocals on a few tracks. A very promising  spritely,  frantic opener augured well for the set, more so when it was followed by a chugging Pixies-ish rocker, our crazy-haired friend already showing a nice line in strident, nasally atonal vocals, recalling Violent Femme’s Gordon Gano. “Crucified” featured the breathless wide-eyed innocence and wonder of (very!) early U2, and whilst some of their quieter material was a little fey and insubstantial on first listen, their more upbeat number showed some fine Veruca Salt/ Breeders quiet/loud moments and striking vocal interplay. “Roswell” was a careering punkish blast to end a great opening set from a highly promising band for 2015. Their “Secret Life” album, due out in April, already looks an essential buy…

Having had a watching brief near the mixing desk for Moon King, we moved to the front, stage right, for Alvvays, as the place filled up rapidly. Alvvays bounced onstage at dead on 8.30, to the accompaniment of a haunting Celtic fanfare, led by Breton-clad blonde vocalist Molly Rankin. After opener “Your Type”, a Primitives-like punky and spritely blast (prophetic, that…), Molly declared, “we’re on a boat! This is so cool! Hello boat people!” before the irresistibly melodic “Next Of Kin”, played beautifully and sounding utterly superb – evidently the refit included sound system investment too! Molly, still wittering on about the novelty of playing on a boat (“anyone ever played a show on a plane? Is that a safety hazard?”), was an effervescent focal point throughout, her voice accurately conveying the right mood of melancholy for “Your Agency”, love-lorn innocence for “Ones Who Love You”, and world-weary ennui for the marvellous, hooky “Archie, Marry Me”, an soaring early set highlight.

Whilst the mid-set dipped from the stratospherically high standards of the opening salvo (a discordant “Underneath Us” even slightly jarring), they roared back with a “Atop A Cake”, a C86-driven slice of cute bouncy jangle, a hauntingly yearning “Party Police”, and set closer “Adult Diversion”, a chugalong slice of prime indiepop to end a great little set.

Back on for the encore, and an unexpected treat in a cover of The Primitives’ “Out Of Reach”, nailing their influences to the mast somewhat (although for me this lot have much more substance than Tracey Tracey’s fizzy, fun but throwaway pop lot). A gushing “We’d really like to come back here! We’d like to take you all to [next gig] Antwerp with us!” from Molly underlined they’d had as much fun as we had, a new number finishing tonight’s proceedings. 

Grabbed a quick chat at the Merch stand with an ebullient Moon King vocalist, who kindly wrote out a set-list for me, then got my set-list signed by the besieged Alvvays members at said stand before heading off. An early one, this, home by 10.30, but a great night out from two really promising bands. After this performance from Alvvays, it’s no surprise they’re already scheduled to headline the Empire in Autumn. If this is a rash, then I want to keep scratching it!