Saturday, 5 December 2015

971 COURTNEY BARNETT, Big Scary, Bristol O2 Academy, Friday 4th December 2015

My Autumn mini-tour of Bristol (11 gigs, 8 different venues!) comes to an end tonight, and it’s in the company of an artist who’s been causing a bit of a buzz of late; Courtney Barnett, an Australian singer whose 2015 debut CD, “Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit”, has invited comparisons to mid-90’s era Lemonheads, with its’ deadpan, conversational delivery, insouciant, chilled atmosphere and post-grunge, slightly countrified slacker melody. Oh, and La Court’s habit of covering the likes of “Into Your Arms” as well…! I’d just missed out on her sell-out Fleece gig earlier this year, but booked myself a ticket in good time for this one.

On the train as well! Wednesday’s traffic carnage around Cabot Circus had made me think, crikey, what’s it going to be like for an early gig on a Chrimbo shopping Friday night? Luckily a planned early curfew and a decently timed final train seemed to fit well together, so I hopped on the 6.30 from Swindon and walked the steady 20 minutes to the venue, gaining entrance through the newly-installed airport style scanning archways and post-Bataclan searches, thereby arriving midway through the support act, fellow Antipodeans and Barratt acolytes Big Scary. However, they really didn’t do it for me “live”; they mainly played variously discordant and oddly samey jazz workouts and insipid 80’s wine bar funk, with the vocalists’ falsetto uncomfortably recalling Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. There’s a comparison I’ve not used it a while…

I wandered out to the lobby during their final number, and ran into the Bristol-domiciled Kieron and Alison, plus friends, for a nice chat and catch up. Wandered back onto the uncomfortably stuffed dancefloor, trying stage left first, then back to my usual stage right spot, eventually finding a pocket of space and a decent view. The diminutive Courtney, black clad with new INXS t-shirt (a local “find” earlier today, apparently), led her 3-piece band on, and straight into “Elevator Operator”, the laconic and witty, stream-of-consciousness current CD opener, her dry, deadpan and heavily accented vocals to the fore. “Avant Gardener”, next up, was a hooky slacker indie treat so redolent of “Shame About Ray” era prime Dando, and “Dead Fox”, my favourite from the current CD, was a laid-back Sheryl Crow Sunset Strip cruise with some strident harmonies to finish.

A good start; I wish I could say that this level was maintained... However, the slow-burn, sprawling “Small Poppies” dragged, and I was distracted by the cartoon backdrop of woodland monsters, before being snapped back by Courtney’s grungy howl at the song’s climax, which suggested there’s actually a snarling riot grrl in there if you scratch the surface… This juxtaposition continued throughout the set – lots of enticing, intriguing material, played well, contrasted with some flimsy, flyaway stuff which drifted along innocuously, and I couldn’t help but wonder that this would have been an excellent 45min-1 hour set at the Thekla or Trinity, but felt overlong and uneven as a 1 ½ hour job at the more cavernous Academy. Don’t get me wrong, lots of good moments here tonight; a delicate “Depreston”, initially recalled the stripped back US alt-rock of, ironically, Real Estate, and climaxed with the quietest singalong I’ve heard at a gig (prompting a, “that was nice,” response from the otherwise taciturn Courtney); “Debbie Downer” was an ironically upbeat and bouncy C86-tinged shamble, and the set finale double of the groovy 60’s influenced harmonies of “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party”, and the harsher, more confrontational “Pedestrian At Best” was the set highlight. Shame it felt like there was a fair bit of padding in between…

Courtney dragged Big Scary on for the first encore, a rambunctious run-through of The Saints’ “Know Your Product”, the support band’s saxophonist playing a starring role here and making this 37 year old swaggering punk rock number sound fresh and vital; then “oldie” “History Eraser” finished a set which overall was good, but not great. I snuck out quickly after snagging Larry Lights’ set-list from the mixing desk, then reflected on this on the swift walk back and train ride home. Maybe a case of popularity outstripping depth of quality material at the moment; maybe, in Courtney’s own words; “put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you…” Either way, I’m sure there’s more to come from this undoubtedly talented young singer, so don’t write her off – or overhype her! – yet…!

Thursday, 3 December 2015

970 ASH, Asylums, Bristol Bierkeller, Wednesday 2nd December 2015

The main reaction I’d been getting, on telling people about this gig, was, “Ash? Blimey, not heard of them in years – are they still going then?” The fact is, it’s now 20 years - count ‘em, 20! – since they barrelled their way onto the musical landscape, as skinny Irish teens with surf-punk pop toons, bristling with youthful energy and spunky attitude. Amassing a canon of bouncy, pop-tastic hooks and earworm-friendly tunes that in any reasonable world should have seen them, rather than the Museplay Killers of this world, catapulted to stadium level success, they somehow never quite made their way out of the cult status ghetto. Thus after a 5 year hiatus, they’re back with a new, crowd-funded 2015 album, “Kablammo” and struggling to sell out the rickety old Bierkeller. No accounting for taste.
Still enduring faves of myself and Rach, though, tonight being my 14th “live” Ash experience, so we’d booked tix promptly; however, my poor missus was overcome with a last-minute flu virus, so the Big Man gleefully stepped in at short notice, and I abandoned my stricken wife, like the heartless cad I am, in favour of the rock. Utterly ridiculous Cabot Circus Chrimbo traffic delayed us by ½ hour (bah!) so we parked up in Rupert Street NCP and hit the venue at 8.15, just missing openers The Amorettes. Got drinks and surveyed the venue – a regular 80’s haunt which looks as if it’s not seen a lick of paint since those days! – before being assaulted by the schizophrenic guitar rock sound of Asylums at 8.30. Encompassing frantic thrash punk, tepid grunge, reasonable driving Annie Christian-like indie rock and one horrible, almost 80’s hair-band number, they actually had some decent stuff (I liked the one introduced by the candyfloss-haired vocalist as, “about the misery of the Argos catalogue”, and the final number, which purported to be about “tennis rackets” (although I might have misheard that) and recalled Midway Still’s mighty cover of MBV’s “You Made Me Realise” for sheer savagery) but at the moment are jacks of all trades but masters of none.
Ash bassist Mark Hamilton had a watching brief close to our stage-right spot; he then disappeared backstage and we ran into old mate Steve Aldridge and wife Caz, before wandering onto the old wooden dancefloor for Ash’s arrival, prompt at 9.30 to the sound of broken glass. Riff-heavy opener “Go! Fight! Win!” was raw and ragged, befitting the first night of the tour, and the opening salvos took a while to dial in (particularly vocalist Tim Wheeler’s voice), a superb chiming second number “A Life Less Ordinary” notwithstanding. “Thanks for selling out tonight – champagne for everyone!” announced Tim after the slow grunge of “Goldfinger” and before a low-key newie, “Free”, then the gig finally burst to life with the bratty surf punk of “Kung Fu”, the call-and response “whoa-oh’s” with the enthusiastic Bristol crowd demonstrating those wide eyed boys from those 90’s Fleece days aren’t too far beneath the surface of the now late-30something Ash (a point later made by Tim, remarking, “[this venue] reminds me of the old Fleece And Firkin days! Does that place still exist??”). Justifiably buoyed by this roof-raising response, they hit their stride with the Ramones-like groove and falsetto chorus of a confidently delivered and surprisingly full-sounding “Cocoon”, segueing perfectly into rampaging oldie “Angel Interceptor”.
This was tonight’s modus operandi – new material from “Kablammo”, which sonically harks back to those expansive, anthemic “Free All Angels”/ “Meltdown” days, interspersed with singles and greatest hits from that period. Tim introduced “Evil Eye” with “We’ll do a song from “Meltdown” ‘cos it’s so fucking hot in here!”, and indeed the fans were on throughout, to little effect in this sweatbox. “Oh Yeah” saw a terrace chant finale, and Tim invited heckling before a tremendous, soaring “Machinery”, the best newie on show tonight. The inevitable “Girl From Mars” was dedicated to the sex doll on sale at the bar (!), and after a lengthy, effects-heavy “White Rabbit” (the only track from their recent “A-Z” collections on show tonight), “Shining Light” ultimately brought a sweaty, ragged but completely fun set to a close. The encore saw a great “Walking Barefoot” before they tackled a cover of “Teenage Kicks”, the boys delivering fellow Northern Ireland band The Undertones’ classic faithfully. An acerbic “Burn Baby Burn” concluded the evening, Tim saluting the crowd with his Flying V guitar and the band taking a collective – and deserved – bow, after a splendid set which I spent rocking out and singing along to. Great stuff – as I mentioned, it baffles me why they never broke it really big, but on tonight’s evidence, there’s still time...

And BTW, I went for a set-list but was unsuccessful this time... typical, really, as I strike out quite a lot with Ash, for some odd reason. Seen 'em 14 times, got 1 set-list!