Wednesday, 12 October 2016

1,007 AURORA, Xamvolo, Oxford O2 Academy 2, Tuesday 11th October 2016

From the Growling Rock Behemoth of Minneapolis to the Sweetly Chirruping Pipistrelle of Stavanger; let it not be said that my Autumn Dance Card does not at least have some light and shade contrast this year! So tonight it’s off to Oxford for Aurora, a young Norwegian songstress whose debut album “All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend” is an extraordinarily accomplished and fully-formed work for such a young singer (19 on release; 20 now), merging elements of electronica, hushed Irish-tinged balladry and even mainstream pop to produce a unique, sweeping and atmospheric work. Maybe not my usual cup of tea, but for me elements of the widescreen reach of fellow Scandinavians Mew and The Kissaway Trail, and even Iceland’s Sigur Ros are also prevalent, hence my enthusiasm. I’m also not the only fan in the family; my daughter Kasey loves it too and constantly asks for “the butterfly lady record” (a reference to the album cover design) in the car!

At 7, however, Kasey is too young for tonight (plus it’s a school night anyway), so I flew solo again, leaving early as Oxford is mental for parking, particularly Cowley … Luckily I found street parking nearby, and wandered in just after 7 to be directed upstairs; yup, tonight we’re in the smaller but better sight-lined old Zodiac room! Already busy and full of a predominantly young female crowd, I took my spot near the front, stage right, and waited it out. Support Xamvolo and his band arrived prompt at 8; the man himself was a trench-coated and dark John Lennon-sunglassed individual, backed by a band playing seriously old school blue-eyed jazz/soul which wouldn’t have been out of place in Cottonmouth’s “Harlem Paradise” club in the excellent “Luke Cage” Netflix series, while the man himself dialled through the octaves on his old school radio mic. Good singer – although I suspect not as good as he thinks he is – but thin material of a genre which admittedly doesn’t appeal, so I found his set a bit of a chore. “Who’s excited for Aurora tonight?” he intoned in a seductive late night voice, “she’s gonna be si-i-iiiiicck…” Am I the only one who, on hearing that, still thinks she’ll be unwell?

Kept my spot as the place filled up, then Aurora’s band took the stage prompt at 9, Aurora herself on last after a short instrumental intro, all pre-Raphaelite part-braided tumbling hair, Rapunzel princess dress and big black fuck-off hiking boots. “Black Water Lilies” was a lovely piano-embellished opener, Aurora holding a lengthy note perfectly and singing with her hands as much as with her haunting, almost Irish-inflected keening voice, her hand gestures sweeping and swooping a la Kate Bush. “Winter Bird” was a baroque and medieval madrigal enlivened by a tough and imposing chorus, and “In Boxes” a more upbeat, joyous march with Aurora now indulging in some Kristin Hersh-like staccato movements.

“The architecture in Oxford is magical – I felt like Ron Weasley!” Aurora remarked, recalling a walk around the city this afternoon, to cheers and amusement from the audience. Indeed, when she (often) spoke she was an engaging and delightful – and invariably funny – raconteur and host, revelling in a young fan’s first concert tonight, gushing over some fan art and an origami dragon (“is this the bird that brings babies? Oh, its’ a dragon…!”) handed to her, and continuously praising the, “good energy, people of this room!” Often going off on weird fantasy-related tangents and not able to finish a coherent… a coherent… erm, you get the idea, but this all added to her slightly “away with the fairies” charm. However, her actual performance was flawless; “Warrior”  was a tough and strident Kissaway Trail stomp, an acoustic guitar and voice-only “Animal Soul” (“it’s about… you will know, you will feel it in your belly…” erm, OK then…!) was as beautiful as it was bleak and desolate, and “Under The Water” was a dissonant drama, all seething and pounding rhythm. However the best was saved for last; a superb soaring vocal performance drove the widescreen sweep of “Running With The Wolves”, and set closer “Conqueror” was a celebratory tub-thumping stomp which saw Aurora throwing shapes with gay abandon, indulging in some Sioux-alike high kicks in the process, before taking a bow with the band at its’ conclusion.

A slightly incongruous and elegiac encore of “Eyes Of A Child” brought a nonetheless splendid 1 hour 20 performance to a close; another bow, then the roadie handed out set-lists so I got myself sorted. Yay! Then, after a short wait, patience was rewarded as Aurora appeared for a signing stint behind the merch stand, so I strode quickly forward and got the list signed for Kasey! I also informed Aurora that she’d usurped One Direction as my daughter’s favourite singer  (to an arms-aloft, “Yes!” response from herself!), and that I thought tonight was an excellent show, she was delightfully potty onstage, Jonsi’s mad little sister, and I chivalrously kissed her offered hand then departed for a difficult headachey drive home. A wonderfully engaging and enchanting evening from a singular voice and talent, and I’ll certainly be back – next time hopefully with Kasey in tow!

Sunday, 9 October 2016

1,006 BOB MOULD, Thought Forms, Bristol SWX, Saturday 8th October 2016

Minneapolis’ answer to Simon Hall (!) tonight; the legend that is Bob Mould! As punctually prolific as he is prodigiously talented, Bob has kept up his “even number year” album output of late by knocking out another blast of sheet metal popcore, aligned with brain-hugging melody, in 2016’s “Patch The Sky”. Whilst possibly lacking anything as gloriously immediate as “I Don’t Know You Anymore”, the standout track from 2014’s “Beauty And Ruin”, it’s still a worthy addition to a supreme body of work stretching from his formative 80’s Husker Du days, through the definitive 90’s “power trio” Sugar via the magnificently confessional “Workbook” (one of my Top Ten albums of All Time. Yup, All Time…!), into late 90’s and 00’s solo material where guitars ceded to electronica, then to his current rush of releases harking back to that simple collision of guitar overload and soaring melody. And, after having the good fortune to meet the Great Man on his last time out and promising that if he keeps touring, I’ll keep a’coming, tonight was a must!

On my own for the journey – an early one, following an announcement that doors were brought forward to 6.30 – as I drove into a colourful sunset as pink turned to blue (yes, I know that’s not one of Bob’s, but still…!). Parked up in Rupert Street NCP and found this new venue easily for just before 8. The Dreamboys were on in the other room and I was nearly ushered there by a bouncer (!) but made my way into this large-ish new venue, all chrome and disco lighting – very shiny! Ran into Devizes gig buddy Alfie and then met up with my Bristol-domiciled friend Thom, and we chatted down the front before openers Thought Forms, on at 8. I was expecting a shoegazey lot, given they’d appropriated their name from an early Lush song, and the shimmering guitar of their opener, leading into a moody and stompy off kilter drum-propelled Galaxie 500-alike, underlined this. However they then incorporated elements of early 80’s poppy Goth into their work, with growling reverb and textural, haunting effects making me reach for the Ghost Dance and Indians In Moscow comparisons! Ethereal, moody and better when the female guitarist took lead vocals, they were an interesting opener with a particularly accomplished sticksman, albeit heavily mood over substance and tuneage at this point.

A quick bog trip (funny how gig bogs are run down, even in new venues!) before taking our places on the barriers at the front for the prompt arrival of Bob and rhythm section cohorts Jason Narducy (bass) and Jon Wurster (drums). Ambling nonchalantly on, prompt at 8.30, Bob greeted the enthusiastic crowd with, “hey hey, what’s going on?” and an uncharacteristic big grin across his snowy bearded features. This actually set the tone quite appropriately for the set, as right from the off this was a party, a celebration of the awesome, all-encompassing power of rock’n’roll. The opening salvo underlined this, delving into his proto-popcore Husker Du days with “Flip Your Wig”, “Hate Paper Doll” and a blistering “I Apologise” rampaging by in short order, before Sugar’s “A Good Idea” and the magnificent “Changes” followed suit. What. A. START!

Incredibly, this relentless and rampaging pace was maintained, a sprinkling of more recent numbers standing up well to the classics, with “I Don’t Know You Anymore” as thrillingly catchy as anything from Bob’s canon of work, and current CD opener “Voices In My Head” a more considered strumalong, recalling the stripped-back confessional of those “Workbook” days. That aside, the pace was remorseless; raw, ragged and elemental, tonight a growling, prowling Bob and the band delivered as exciting and gut-wrenchingly thrilling a set as ever, keeping hits raining down with the merciless and steely-eyed determination of a prize-fighter with his opponent well and truly on the ropes. “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” was particularly brilliant, the sheer euphoria of the song’s hook shining through, and my set highlight amongst many. No wonder, as Bob introduced the band a couple of numbers later, he remarked, “we’re having fun up here!”

A rarely played and moody “Come Around” from Sugar’s underrated “Beaster”, and the lengthy and epic primal howl of set closer “Black Confetti” were other notables as the set flew by. The 2 encores of the heart-crackingly sombre “Hardly Getting Over It”, juxtaposed with one final soaring singalong to “Makes No Sense At All”, then closed out a brilliantly sweaty and extraordinarily loud 1 hour 20 minutes of prime rock, Bob taking centre stage at the climax for a lengthy ovation. That’s how to do it, sir! We grabbed our breath as a roadie handed me Bob’s list, recovering from the ringing in our ears before going our separate ways for an early home time. Early, but amazing as ever from the enduring, prolific legend that is Bob Mould!