Sunday, 18 October 2015

964 THE PARACHUTE MEN, Supp. Two Car Family, Esper Scout, Leeds The Library, Saturday 17th October 2015

The Frank Turner song “Substitute” features a lyric which states; “I’ve had many different girls inside my bed, but only one or two inside my head…” The same can be said for me and bands; I’ve loved many – many – down the years, but if I’m honest, I can count the number that have really gotten under my skin on the fingers of one hand. My formative “home team” Echo And The Bunnymen, the Boston triumvirate of Big Dipper, Gigolo Aunts and The Gravel Pit… and this lot, The Parachute Men, a shimmering and plangent late 80’s indie based clash of chiming brilliance from Leeds, fronted by the inimitable and effervescent Fiona Gregg. Operating in that post-Smiths/ C86, pre Madchester musical landscape, their debut “The Innocents” was the soundtrack to my early 20’s, and even now only has The Bunnymen’s “Heaven Up Here” as serious competition for my most played record ever. Something about their music resonated so closely and personally, and spoke directly to me; I was hooked, and saw them 11 times in just over 2 years, every time a great time, and mostly on the guest list, thanks to Fi’s generosity. Having inevitably losing touch when label wrangles and subsequent lack of momentum brought about the band’s inevitable demise first time around, I happily re-connected with Fi a few years ago thanks to Facebook, and even took the opportunity earlier this year to surprise her on an Evan visit day, popping over the Pennines to catch her “hobby” covers band in Leeds in January (gig 935).

So was I up for a Parachute Men show? Oh Lordy, was I…! Coming about apparently at the inception of Fi’s “beau”, former Three Johns man Philip “Brenny” Brennan, who quite rightly believed that these songs needed to be heard again, this was announced earlier this year, and my dear lady wife gave me the go-ahead for an overnighter Oop North. Thus it was that I set off at 1pm, hitting the outskirts of Leeds at 4.30 after a 2 stop drive, then losing my way around Leeds’ inner ring-road. D’oh! Still, I booked into my nearby guest-house bolt hole, then took a short wander to this large and rambling pub venue in the University heartland. Apparently an essential stop on the student initiation pub crawl, the punters predominantly consisted of groups of drunken studes in fancy dress, ranging from Roman Gladiators to Smurfs, Buzz Lightyear to Nemo, and one brave bloke as a short-skirted Snow White! Ran into Fi in relatively short order, and spent a good hour renewing old friendships with the same outspoken yet personable quintessential Northern lass from those late 80’s Paras days, also being introduced to a succession of Leeds music scenesters funnelling in to greet Fi.

We took a wander upstairs to the ample venue room (which reminded me of a smaller Hammersmith Clarenden – remember that?) for 8.30 to catch openers Esper Scout. A young all-girl group, their third number in was an unexpected cover of obscure Leeds post-punkers Delta 5’s “Anticipation”, the herky-jerky new wave beats and militaristic drumrolls at odds with their usual stock-in-trade, of chunkier upbeat post-grunge powerpop tomfoolery, with shuddering drums well to the fore. Nevertheless, “Anticipation” showed they knew their local history, as did the singer’s Para’s tribute; “seeing “Leeds Station” is going to be fucking brilliant – it’s one of the city’s best songs”. They closed their set out with their best number, “Fires”, a darker and more complex mood-piece building to a noisy crescendo. Nice work overall. 

The crowd – comprising mainly of older, leather jacketed and black jean clad old punkers and musos (I fitted right in!), filed in, hovering at the bar, Fi disappeared, “to put my face on…”, and I chatted with Joanne Shaw, tonight’s keyboard player but a former guest backing vocalist first time around, who I saw back up the acoustic Paras down in Southampton, waaay back in 1989 (gig 124!). The current iteration of The Parachute Men (Fi and Jo, both resplendent in iridescent spangly dresses, plus bass/drums rhythm section of local rock veterans Pete Cahill and Martin Aylward) hovered stage right while Brenny fiddled with the guitar set-up onstage. It had evidently been causing some issues, because when the band got underway, the guitar sound was thin and indistinct on opener “Sometimes In Vain”, thereafter sounding a little jarring and in conflict with the rest of the mix during “No Wonder”, and only really getting sorted for the magnificent “Mad Sadie Can’t Levitate”, easily the best – and best sounding – number in the set.

But for me, the Paras “live” were all about Fi, and tonight was no exception; Fi the voice, as deep, husky and emotive as before, conveying melancholy and impish playfulness in equal measure (and often in the same song): Fi the performer, sparkly and kinetic, synchronising moves with Joanne like a pair of Vegas go-go dancers: Fi the raconteur, captivating, smart and sassy, holding court from centre stage: “we’re going all lounge lizardy now,” she announced as they tried a new, moodier number, “Blood Lust And Barbed Wire”. The band then took a break – “to set up a line of iced gems!” according to Pete – while Fi and Brenny delivered an acoustic cover of Bowie’s venerable oldie “8 Line Poem”. Then, the inevitable “Leeds Station”, a touching strumalong paean to their home town, delivered with as much reverence as Fi could muster. Quite, quite lovely. Another newie brought a variable-sounding yet remarkably swift set to a close, Fi handing me the list as I, sweaty and fair out of puff, realised just how much I’d been jumping around. Just like the old days!

Got my poster (reserved on my way in!) signed by all participants, popping outside to the smoking area to catch Fi and Brenny, in the process meeting Simon, a fellow Para’s aficionado from back in the day who’d ventured over from Blackburn for the show. Eventually took a wander up to check out headliners Two Car Family, a trio of similar vintage to the crowd, who were assaulting the eardrums with some driving and ringing guitars embellishing a Jam-ish bolshy post-punk powerpop style, with good song structures, hooky pseudo-choral breaks and a social conscience (viz. the drummer’s diatribe about a homeless man, who died of hypothermia on the doorsteps of an abandoned house he’d been arrested for breaking into). Thought-provoking, tight and together, this was another impressive set, and probably the best-sounding of the 3 on show tonight.

Another chat with Fi to compare notes about tonight’s show, before fond farewells and a swift walk back to my digs (prior to an equally swift drive home after a cooked brekky the next morning!). Soundwise I honestly found it somewhat variable, if far from the “carcrash” Fi referred to it as; let’s face it, the first time back’s always going to be challenging, and no amount of rehearsals can prepare you for it. Still, this was only part of the story. Simply, hearing these songs again “live”, songs I hold so dear, songs as familiar to me as my own skin, was extraordinary enough in itself, and seeing that time had not dimmed the Star Quality of the singer was an utter treasure. In these increasingly common band “reunion” circumstances, all you really want is for the band – or the new line-up, in this instance – to do justice to their legacy, and tonight The Parachute Men did that plenty.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

963 EDITORS, The Twilight Sad, Bristol Colston Hall, Monday 12th October 2015

After a traumatic week personally, I was very grateful for the high pace of my Autumn dance card, and glad to get back to gigging ways; so could ask for no better hosts than Editors, likely the UK’s finest exponents of this many splendored thing we call rock. Barely a 2 year gap has elapsed since their last album and subsequent Reading Fest 2013 appearance and triumphant O2 Academy showing later that Autumn, but they’re back, with a new album “In Dream” hitting the racks last week, on cursory first listen harking back to the more experimental dark and claustrophobic electronics of “In This Light And On This Evening”. Possibly a bleak one in prospect, reflecting my overall current mood, but no bad thing…
I was joined for this by Facebook friend and fellow gig-counter Stuart, 10 years my senior but with an equally undimmed passion for rock, and his teen son Rory, who happily appears to have inherited his old man’s thirst for “live” music. The drive down to Bristol therefore fairly whipped by in a whirl of rock chat, and we parked up in Trenchard fairly unhindered, despite a serious blaze having occurred nearby during the day. Took a seat at the front of the stalls (to rest my knee, which had been playing up for a few days, and Stuart’s foot, injured by a box at home – poor old buggers!) for openers, Kilsyth reprobates The Twilight Sad, who operated in similar dark and gloomy sonic territory to tonight’s headliners, albeit with a smoother keyboard sound augmenting their own claustrophobic mood. Third number, “Prossy” was a tantalising rockist wall of sound, whilst other numbers were shoegazy, bleak and funereal, with yearning vocals from the heavily Scottish accented James Graham, who, as part of his passionate performance also abandoned the mic, Craig Finn like, to proclaim directly to the crowd. Messy in parts, absorbing in others, this was an entirely apposite support, impressing me enough to pick their CD up afterwards.
Ran into old Brunel face Stefan Milsom (probably for the first time since the last Editors Colson Hall show!) before I took a wander down the front, pitching up 3 rows back stage right for a superb viewing – and dancing! – spot. Editors took the stage bang on 9 to no intro, the eerie spotlight and moody, sparkling synth embellishing opener “No Harm”, vocalist Tom Smith switching between his usual sonorous, rich and resonant baritone, and an eerie, soaring falsetto. The mid-tempo “Sugar”, next up, continued the elegiac, melancholic mood, with Smith already dramatically enacting every note, whilst the band carefully and deliberately eased themselves into this, only the 3rd set of this tour.
This was a varied set, highlighting the slower, moodier material on the new album whilst breaking the pace up with a sprinkling of older numbers, but at times initially felt as though it was dragging somewhat. So whilst an early double of the jerky, jagged and upbeat “Blood” and the excellent “End Has A Start” got me rocking out, the set then drifted until a brilliant, soaring “Racing Rats” dragged it back from the brink. As if to also illustrate the inconsistency of the set, newie “Salvation” was disappointingly muddied and dirge-like, but the subsequent “A Ton Of Love” was massive, triumphant and celebratory, with Smith’s vocals filling this ornate old theatre, and “Fingers In The Factories” might just have been the best number in the set, the tight staccato rhythm and riffery leading to a strident, fist-pumping chorus, breathless and brilliant.
“That was quite some fire tonight! I was going to play “Smokers” but my dad texted me to play “All Sparks” [instead] as nobody died!” announced Smith, bolting on a fat acoustic and ending up playing both anyway, “Smokers” in particular benefitting from this stripped-back arrangement, soaked with unexpected sadness and melancholy. A radically reworked “Nothing” was flag-waving and anthemic, a quantum improvement from the string arrangement on the last CD, and the Interpol-lite slashing monotone guitar riff of “Munich” ended an occasionally frustratingly inconsistent but ultimately worthwhile set.
The encore highlight of “Papillon” saw Smith, angular and pliable throughout, challenge the hitherto-static Bristol crowd with, “Bristol; are you there?” and throw kinetic shapes to the robotic synth beat, while colleague Russell Leetch (whom I’m convinced caught my eye and gave me an approving nod for throwing my own shapes earlier in the set) indulged in some low-slung New Order/ Hooky bass shenanigans, leading the song to a lengthy and cacophonous conclusion. I then grabbed a list and (eventually) a tatty and used drumstick for Rory, then met up for a similarly swift and chatty drive home, reflecting on the show. As I said, a little frustrating in parts, due to the unfamiliarity and initially dour nature of the new stuff; a lot of new material for such an early set on the tour, and no introductions throughout as well – Editors, you contrary bunch! Nonetheless, this was another overall entertaining and much-needed gig in the company of Editors, the band who, for me, still head the field for UK bands!

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

962 MERCURY REV, Holly Macve, Bristol Trinity, Monday 5th October 2015

A distinct change in mood anticipated tonight, following yesterday’s Summery powerpop sesh from Surfer Blood; tonight the return of Mercury Rev! Proof that nothing quite ages you like music, it’s now amazingly been 17 years since the classic “Deserter’s Songs” thrust this hitherto-experimental US alt-rock combo firmly into the limelight, its’ mix of delta blues, widescreen operatic soundscapes and bewildering and bewitching Americana earning them the epithet of “America’s Most Pioneering Band” from the NME (which actually counted for something at the time) and vocalist Jonathan Donahue the title of the Coolest Rockstar On The Planet from me (which still counts!). However their last album, 2008’s “Snowflake Midnight”, an unfortunate (and pretty much unlistenable) foray into electronica, saw them lose a lot of ground and goodwill, and retreat to their Catskill Mountain bolthole, never to be heard of again. Until,,,
News of a new album in the offing – and thankfully, a return to a guitar based sound! – saw me pouncing on one of the few tickets left for this show, Beef grabbing one as well. Thus it was that us two old musos headed down the M4 on a typically murky Autumn evening, skipping through the chill and dank drizzle from Cabot car park to hit this appropriately evocative former church hall venue about 8. Just in time, unfortunately, for support Holly Macve, who was sadly dreadful. A solo folksinger, her voice swooped and keened like a Banshee wail, or worse, like Dolores Cranberry, and was frankly painful to listen to at times, making her backwoods campfire folk set a trial of endurance. I wasn’t the only one holding this view, either, as the general background hubbub increased considerably after about 10 minutes…
We found a good viewing spot stage left near the front, with dry ice swirling around twinkling onstage keyboard lights, and Gregorian chanting intro music, segueing into washes of symphonic dreamscapes, evocatively heralding the arrival of Mercury Rev at 9.05. An unexpectedly powerful opener, newie “Are You Ready”, stridently delivered the psychedelic rock and blue-eyed soul promised by the lyric, and the Rev were already away, hitting the ground running for one of those very special nights.
Mercury Rev were utterly magnificent tonight. Another band (like Wolf Alice) who “live” eschew a number of the nuances and textural sounds of their recorded output, in favour of a bigger, bolder and more powerful sound, the huge, sky-scrapingly anthemic nature of their material really comes to the fore with these more compact, streamlined renditions, the songs taking flight with pace, purpose and often seething and bristling power. And Jonathan Donahue was amazing; a riveting and flamboyant performer, fulsome of gesture and expression, raffish hat and necktie adorning his black waistcoat and shirtsleeves combo and making him the smartest hobo on the planet, a beatific smile and wide eyes constantly gracing his features. An eerie “The Funny Bird” was next up, all drama and crashing drums, with the piano riff crawling around one’s spine like an old Doors number, then oldie “Carwash Hair” opened like a plangent twinkling thing of beauty, far removed from the discordant and moody original, then rocked triumphantly to its’ conclusion, Donahue conducting his band and drummer.
The classics kept coming; “Endlessly” with its’ heavenly choirs and magical flute embellishments, was given a lighter treatment in comparison to other numbers on show, then “Frittering” was awesome; widescreen, creepy, epic and cacophonous, possibly the best number on show in the set (under some pretty fierce competition!). A lot of light and shade on show as well, with newie “The Queen Of Swans” creeping in delicately before a typical plangent and soaring Rev hook, the lyric “sometimes years go by, it seems” entirely apposite for tonight’s triumphant return. “Holes” was epic, shimmering and quite beautiful, and set closer “Opus 40” again saw Donahue conducting his band through a lengthy and mesmeric instrumental jam and huge crescendo.
But the highlight of the night was still waiting for us; after first encore, the moody “Goddess On A Hiway”, an utterly stunning “The Dark Is Rising” ended the performance perfectly, a stratospheric and heavenly rendition, culminating in Donahue slowly raising his arms for dramatic effect, as the band built to a thunderous crescendo behind him. Quite, quite brilliant.
I grabbed a set list, running into recent Bristol gig buddy Alfie down the front in the process, then we hung around awhile to catch our breath, our patience also being rewarded as guitarist Grasshopper and bassist Anthony emerged for congratulations, signed lists and (eventual) photos. I then interrupted Jonathan Donahue, packing up onstage, for congrats and a hasty selfie, also telling him it was an honour to witness tonight’s triumphant return to form for Mercury Rev. Because, well, it was…!
Alfie, Beef and I wandered back to Cabot reflecting on tonight’s performance, then a swift drive home for midnight. Shattered the next day, but totally worth it. Tonight, Mercury Rev totally resurrected themselves, delivering one of the gigs of the year in the process. Awesome stuff!

Monday, 5 October 2015

961 SURFER BLOOD, Eternal Summers, Bristol Thekla, Sunday 4th October 2015

A hectic October run of gigs starts with a Bristol double-header; The Rev tomorrow, but tonight the promise of some wide-eyed and optimistic surf/ powerpop in prospect, from sunkissed Floridians Surfer Blood. A band I’ve followed for some time, picking up their splendid powerpop-infused “Astro Coast” debut back in 2010, I’ve nonetheless somehow contrived to miss seeing them “live” up to now, but am glad to address that on their Autumn tour promoting current, 3rd, effort “1,000 Palms”. More of a return to the innocent surf-washed harmonies of their debut, after a darker, more difficult 2nd in “Pythons”, this should be a fun, melodic bop-along. Let’s see…
After an afternoon spent at an inflatable park with the kids I set off at 7, hopefully for some bouncing of my own! A quick drive down with footy talk radio for company (all over the sacking of Brendan Rodgers from Liverpool) saw me pitch up at a virtually deserted “Dirty Boat” at 10 to 8; the Thekla, sometimes an early gig at the weekend, was running later so I had a 40 minute wait for support Eternal Summers (bah!), who thankfully arrived promptly at 8.30 to a sparse crowd but swathes of dry ice. After an uncharacteristically dour opener, this female fronted trio fair galloped along at a whip-crack pace, with some very listenable post-C86 jangle effervescent pop. Not sure if the pace and buoyant mood of the material made up for the lack of memorable hooks and choruses, or submerged what good hooks there were; either way it was diverting but not particularly memorable, with easily their best number (“Leave It All Behind”?) saved for last. At 45 minutes, a little overlong, too…
This meant barely time for a quick loo dash before Surfer Blood took the stage for last-minute sound-checks, before re-emerging at 9.35 in front of a more ample but still probably only half-full Thekla. Nonetheless, they set to it capably, a short instrumental opener segueing into the tumbling bass and cascading vocal attack of “Grand Inquisitor”, the splendid opener to their new album. “It’s nice to be back on this boat after 5 years!” announced boyish vocalist John Paul Pitts, prior to the chunky mid-tempo Teenage Fanclub stomp of oldie “Floating Vibes”, “thanks for spending your Sunday night with us!”
This was in fact a lovely way to spend a Sunday night; Surfer Blood’s intelligently-crafted rock mixes sly strumalong verses leading to invariably big, memorable hooks, awash with melody and some very fine intertwining harmonic patterns from Pitts, fellow guitarist Michael McCleary (a dead-ringer for Mayor Carcetti from “The Wire”, IMHO….!) and bassist Kevin Williams. Right in my TFC/ Gigolo Aunts/ Redd Kross upbeat and buoyant powerpop wheelhouse, this stuff, so I lapped it up, bopping down the front throughout, with a small but enthusiastic Bristol crowd, the enthusiasm being mirrored by gregarious vocalist Pitts; “Bristol is one of our favourite UK towns; I’d love to retire here and live on a boat… in the next 3 years!” The sunwashed melody of “Island” was an early set highlight, before Pitts went walkabout in the front rows during the almost calypso verses of “Take It Easy”, before (having evidently spotted me down the front making an occasional brief note or two) then stopping the song altogether to ask me what I’d been writing! T’was only appropriate then, for me to hand my gig card to him (back onstage now) at the song’s conclusion, to the response of, “thanks Bristol… and thank you David Rose!”
A fine set built to an impressive conclusion, with a breathless “Feast/ Famine” being topped by a titanic, dramatic “Swim”, the high watermark in their canon of work, a huge strident chorus resonating around the old boat. Final number, “I Can’t Explain” almost came close to topping that, though, the slow burn of the bright early verses again leading to a brain-grabbing hook, which then built to a lengthy feedback and reverb-soaked lengthy finale. A 3 song encore ended with a final chunky post-grunge number recalling Chicago’s Number One Cup, which again finished with a cacophonous finale, to end a damn fine set.
Got my set-list signed by the band too, including affable vocalist John Paul Pitts, who promised to check out my blog. I hope you’re reading this, JPP, and I hope you approve of this write-up. I certainly enjoyed bopping along to the eminently harmonious Surfer Blood tonight, and I hope to be back for more!