Monday, 22 May 2017

1,039 MEW, Warhaus, Bristol Trinity, Sunday 21st May 2017

Ah, Mew, Mew… how is this one going to go? The band who swept all before them in the early 2000’s with a work of dazzling beauty and originality in 2003’s “Frengers”, subsequently delivering a string of brilliant, breathtaking “live” performances in support of this and 2006’s subsequent, patchier “…And The Glass Handed Kites”, then imploding in a swathe of muffled, muddied drum-machine dominated murk at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2009, in possibly the most disappointing gig I’ve ever been to. Yup, ever. From no greater heights had a band fallen, in my eyes, 2009’s “No More Stories…” album still being unlistenable for me. However, since then, the Mew ship had righted itself to a certain degree; bassist, rock god and Hugh Jackman clone Johan Wohlert returned to the fold in 2014, with a fine 2015 album “+ - ” being followed in short order with the current “Visuals”. A return to some semblance of form at least, these 2; hardly a patch on “Frengers”, but more consistent than “Kites”, which fell off a cliff after “Zookeeper’s Boy”, and a quantum improvement on “Stories…”. Cause for optimism, then, and Rach and I booked tix separately, both wishing to give our early millennial favourites another chance. However, we still wondered (and ironically so, for a band named after a Pokemon!), which evolution of Mew would be on show tonight? What on earth to expect?

A quick drive down a sun-drenched M4 to Cabot Circus, then an equally swift wander round to Bristol Trinity, avoiding a couple of rough old locals in the process… The evocative old church hall should perhaps be the ideal venue for Mew to weave their ethereal dreamscapes… First, however, support Warhaus, a Belgian 3-piece played an overpoweringly rhythmic sounding set, almost tribal early doors, before settling down to more late night torch music territory, albeit punctuated throughout by some migraine-inducing discordant percussion and irritating mouth organ blare. Their “Against The Rich”, which had a more cinematic, 60’s feel, was easily the best of a mediocre set. More entertaining were the couple who walked in wearing matching dinosaur patterned t-shirt and dress! Not sure whether to be impressed or horrified!

Took a place stage left, then swapped it to a more central spot, next to a chatty Welsh chap and his lady, so Rachel could be on Johan’s side! Led on at 9 by choirboy vocalist Jonas Bjerre, the tinkling synth chimes and pounding drums (proper drums! Yay!) of opener “In A Better Place”, augmented by the psychedelic patterned films projected onto the backstop, built to a crescendo of haunting beauty, promising much for the set. The more conventional “85 Videos” and a taut, funky “Special” followed, Johan’s slap bass to the fore. Then…

“Special” segued into the intended ethereal majesty of “Zookeeper’s Boy”, then, as they say, it all went tits up… synth, monitors and projector all seemed to fail simultaneously and the song was abandoned. As the roadies scurried around, Jonas filled in with a story of his last time in Bristol, being approached by a beautiful girl who then handed him a scientology pamphlet (!), then the band attempted “Satellites”, unfortunately with the same outcome. No other option than for a quick break whilst the tech issues were addressed…

5 minutes later, tech issues by no means resolved, they resumed with another go at “Satellites”; no projector, synth as keyboards only, and with the mix somewhat askew, bass and drums overly to the fore, giving the sound a strident, booming feel for the remainder of the set. Nonetheless, Mew powered through, the show suddenly turning into a proper full-on “rock” gig, some of the finer embellishments and nuances lost – through no fault of the band’s own this time – but the new material emerging relatively unscathed from this relative roughhousing. “Wake Of Your Life” was big, beefy and bouncy, a blood red-lit “Apocalypso” was dark, brooding and menacing, and even “Introducing Palace Players” from that “Stories…” debacle sounded pretty decent given this treatment. Through it all, the band retained their humour, Johan remarking, “we’re having a funny old time up here,” then later commenting, “I wish I had something funny to say,” to which a female punter (not my wife, oddly enough…!) replied, “you’re so beautiful it doesn’t matter!”

Set closer “Carry Me To Safety” was a plaintive, low-key finale, as a troubled set faded out. However the encore was anything but; “Nothingness And No Regrets”, the excellent opener to the new album, eased in with an array of layered vocals, ceding to the powerful, militaristic drums, then building to a haunting, angelic hook. Great stuff, but the subsequent “Am I Wry? No” finally saw the projector back, hurtling us through space to the widescreen strafing power and dazzling brilliance of one of the best singles of the century. Yes, I said “century”… “156”, haunting and ethereal, built to a strident, dramatic crescendo, then the wistful melancholy of the opening to “Comforting Sounds”, accompanied by Johan admitting, “it wasn’t the easiest of nights, but thanks for your support,” then saw the song launch into its elongated symphonic, sweeping denouement, accompanied by projections of be-suited rabbits playing violins. A deserved bow at the end from the band, plus handshakes for me from Jonas and Johan as I moved forward to grab a list, running into Devizes gig buddy Alfie in the process, before Rachel and I – for once, these days – enjoyed a quick exit from Bristol, home by 11.30. Hardly restored to their full-on “Frengers” pomp, but certainly a massive quantum step back in the right direction, despite the technical issues which, overall, I felt they handled with stoicism and fortitude. One thing’s for sure with a Mew gig, as ever – expect the unexpected!

Saturday, 20 May 2017

1,038 CHAMELEONSVOX, Soft Kill, Final Hour, Bristol Fleece, Friday 19th May 2017

Being unemployed has its’ advantages – one of the ways I’ve been occupying my time (besides looking for jobs – obviously – swimming and binge-watching “24”) has been to rediscover a couple of bands which I’d overlooked “back in the day”. The Icicle Works being one (and subject of a tasty double-header themselves, this coming Autumn), but the other being this lot, Manchester’s The Chameleons. Early 80’s contemporaries of the likes of Echo And The Bunnymen, New Order et al, for some reason they slipped through my net at the time, but recent purchases of their 3 seminal 80’s albums revealed a band of true depth and substance, falling between a dark, angsty pseudo Gothy sound and the more prevalent, sweepingly heroic post-punk “rockist” template evident in the Bunnymen’s and even The Wild Swans’ works. Right in my wheelhouse, then… Kicking myself for not discovering this lot 35 years ago, my pain was eased with the announcement of a local date by ChameleonsVox, an ersatz line-up comprising sole original member, vocalist/ bassist Mark Burgess (hence the “Vox” suffix, I guess…), along with an all-new backing band, including, intriguingly, drummer Yves Altana, former guitarist of early 90’s mutant indie-spacerock faves Wonky Alice!

Tix duly sorted, I set off for this one down a sunny M4, encountering the ridiculous carnage that is now Bristol city centre and having to drive up Park Street and double back to get to The Fleece! Bristol – you can’t get there from here… So by my arrival at 5 to 8, openers Final Hour were well into their final number, an intriguingly dark and heavily pounding beast which made me curse the traffic even more. Soft Kill were next up in short order, a guitar trio plus drum machine, weaving some dissonant textural proto Goth, overlaid by the vocalist’s heavy growling tones. I enjoyed the morose tuneage and guitar work, but the drum machine beat became an oppressive drone at times, although it lightened as their set took a more chiming, early-Cure-like direction later on. For some respite from the weight of the drum sound, however, I took a wander out mid-set, running into Yves in the process! Showed him the Wonky Alice set-lists on my blog, to his amazement, and enjoyed a brief chat about those Wonky times with this most affable of men. Result!

Thus buoyed, I took a spot down the front and passed the time comparing gig experiences with a couple of blokes of similar gig vintage to myself (as, unsurprisingly, was the whole crowd tonight…). ChameleonsVox came on prompt at 9.15, the bowl-haired, bohemian scruffbag Burgess taking in the crowd’s adulation as Yves pulled faces behind him on his way to the drum stool, then, as the crowd hushed in reverential anticipation, remarking “you can talk, it’s not a library!” The intricate guitar riffery of “Swamp Thing” eased in, the gorgeously mesmeric interplay between twin guitarists Neil Dwerryhouse and Chris Oliver already a standout feature (and remaining so throughout), giving way to Burgess’ strident, commanding vocals as the song took flight. “A Person Isn’t Safe Anywhere These Days”, dark, dramatic and dynamic, with the prescient lyric, “what kind of times are these?” followed in short order, and we were away.

ChameleonsVox were amazing tonight, making me curse my ignorance of them all this time, but revel in my finally having acquainted myself with them. Burgess, authoritative and masterful, was backed brilliantly by his band – evidently Chameleons fans to a man, they poured their passion for the band into this performance. “Looking Inwardly”’s haunting and chiming opening guitar riff made it evident where The House Of Love nicked the intro to “Shine On” from; “Monkeyland” was flesh-creepingly atmospheric, building to a massive hook; and “Thursdays” was angular and insistent proto-shoegaze (Ride doubtless being another band who were weaned on this lot). “You fucking genius!” shouted a punter to Burgess before “Caution”’s open soundscape saw him throw in lyrical vignettes of The Doors’ “The End” (“all our leaders are insane…” you said it, Mark!) Bowie’s “Be My Wife” and The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”, much as McCulloch does with “Do It Clean”. Likewise, vitriolic closer “Singing Rule Britannia” referenced “White Riot”, “Transmission” and The Fall’s “Rebellious Jukebox”, closing out a deliciously plangent set of expertly delivered guitar rock. Superb stuff!

The soaring “woah-oh’s” of a brilliant, sinuous “Second Skin” and a dramatic, anthemic “Don’t Fall” encore double-whammy preceded my grabbing a list and getting it fully signed by the band (barging backstage to get the final signature from Yves!) before the usual frustrating M32 roadworks-affected drive home. I may have been a little late to the party, maybe, but I’m a full-on Chameleons convert now!

Thursday, 11 May 2017

1,037 THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS, Creatures, London Camden Town Electric Ballroom, Tuesday 9th May 2017

It’s getting increasingly hard to justify crossing ye olde London Town on a school night, and the list of acts which I’d do that for is becoming increasingly smaller. The New Pornographers, however, certainly still feature; barely 2 ½ years after 2014’s “Brill Bruisers”, they’re back with a new album, “Whiteout Conditions”, which continues their journey towards a synthier and more electronic framework upon which to base their splendidly crafted and ingeniously arranged material. Interestingly, this is also the first to be exclusively written by mainman Carl “AC” Newman, rather than with regular contributors Neko Case and Dan Bejar chipping in, possibly explaining both the lack of a solo AC Newman album in the intervening gap, as is this prolific songwriter’s usual modus operandi, and also the relatively quick turnaround between albums!

No matter, I’m happy with a new New Pornographers album whenever and however it arrives, and particularly if it’s accompanied by their usual whistle stop London date. Rach didn’t fancy Camden on a Tuesday night, though, but Beef did, so we headed off early and parked up in Shepherd’s Bush, tubing over to the Electric Ballroom for 8pm. Quiet early doors, this one, and it was still sparsely attended when support Creatures took the stage at 8.30. Not Siouxsie and Budgie’s old side project, unsurprisingly, this was rather a 5-piece of pseudo cowboy musicians bedecked in shoelace ties, waistcoats and Stetsons, playing an approximation of some Quentin Tarantino spaghetti western soundtrack tunes, and led by the bastard son of Benicio Del Toro, all tumbling of hair and thick of sideburns and ‘tache, mincing unfortunately around the stage like Larry Grayson. Probably shooting for a dustier desert version of The Killers but falling way short, and if our friend the vocalist’s voice (particularly the top-end range) were more quavery, it’d be in a yellow packet!

Anyway, from the ridiculous to the sublime; our spot down the front, stage left, got appreciably busier as the witching hour approached, and when The New Pornographers took the stage at 9.30 to some rousing punk backing track, anticipation was palpable. They didn’t disappoint; opener “High Ticket Attractions” was a chugging rocker featuring a sublime triple vocal attack of Newman, keyboardist Kathryn Calder and new tour member, backing vocalist Simi Stone, all line astern at the front of the stage (with the guitarist, somewhat prophetically given the prominence of the keyboards in the more recent material, secreted away next to the hard-hitting drummer); “The Laws Have Changed” kept the pace fast and frantic, and an excellent, unexpected “Twin Cinema” completed an breathless opening triple salvo. Great start!

This was a tremendous and startlingly hard-rocking performance from The New Pornographers, with one powerful, strident blast of superbly hand-crafted alt/ powerpop following another, with little respite until the plaintive, slow-burn acoustic opening of “Adventures In Solitude”, 9 numbers in! Led by the initially taciturn Newman (no Dan Bejar at all tonight, so none of his songs such as “War On The East Coast” in the set), they charged through the set at a ferocious pace, giving the impression of a prize-fighter trying to put his opponent away early! Certainly the songs were all knockout punches; “Dancehall Domine” was a colourful, funky strut, “Whiteout Conditions” a metronomic and cascading wordy build-up to a soaring choral hook, easily the best of the new numbers on display, and “World Of The Theater” featured some splendidly lilting vocals from Calder. Newman eventually loosened up, complimenting London’s tourist attractions before “Backstairs”, and, following the brilliant, beetle-crushing boot stomp of set highlight “Sing Me Spanish Techno”, responded to the crowd’s ovation with, “just [give us] a nod of approval – that’s all we want!”

Simi Stone took an impressive lead vocal for the blaring synth of “Play Money”, prompting a high five from Newman and a subsequent boast from the frontman about beating his 5 year old at “high five, down low, too slow”, because, “his brain’s not fully formed yet!” The subsequent “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” was lovely, a joyous fairgroundesque reel, calling for, “specific handclaps!” from Simi, and a galloping “Mass Romantic” closed out the set. The best, however, was saved for last; a 4-song encore (featuring another go at “High Ticket Attractions” as, “we screwed it up,” according to Newman) was topped with their masterpiece, “The Bleeding Heart Show”, again sneaking in like a ghost in the night, inveigling its’ way into one’s consciousness before building to a huge and euphoric crescendo. Just the perfect way to close out a quite superb performance. Set-list, merch, food at the Bush and a red-eyed, late arrival home (1.20 am), but totally worth the effort!

Sunday, 7 May 2017

1,036 “ALL ROADS LEAD TO FROME”, Frome Cheese And Grain, Saturday 6th May 2017

Logan is becoming quite the Gaz Brookfield aficionado at the moment – performing a duet with him a couple of weeks ago on Record Store Day not hurting this at all, of course! – so I’m currently up for any opportunity to take him along to see his current musical hero. This one was therefore a real tempter when I found out about it; an all day Saturday festival at Frome’s excellent old market hall venue, featuring a slew of up and coming local and regional acts, topped with Gaz in full band mode… and all for a measly tenner in advance! The date fell on Kasey’s 8th birthday, which might have thrown a spanner in the works but for the fact that Rach was taking her to Bristol that evening, for a performance of “Joseph” at the Hippodrome. So, a bit of car logistical organisation later, Logan and I were good to go!

We headed off at 2, after Logan’s lunchtime swim session and a bite to eat, parking up in Frome’s main town centre car park where the Cheese and Grain is located, and hit the venue to suss out the arrangements. A 2 stage affair, this; one located in the darkened main market hall, the raised stage (excellently dubbed The “Hey, Didn’t The Foo Fighters Play That Stage?” Main Stage, in honour of a recent Glasto-related secret gig by Grohl’s lot) primarily featuring bands, and a second stage (equally splendidly named The “I Knew Frank Turner Before He Was Famous” Acoustic Stage) at the far end of the back bar, leading into a decked beer garden, for the solo/ acoustic acts. Scheduling was for one act to start on the Main Stage as soon as the preceding Acoustic Stage act had finished, and vice versa, ensuring pretty much constant entertainment throughout, and such proved to be the case. Excellently coordinated throughout, this put some Reading Festivals I’ve attended to shame in that regard! So as we arrived, TURNER were partway through their mainstage set; a 3-piece led by a black clad gothy female vocalist/ keyboardist, they played some promising sounding vaguely doomy material with a brisk indiepop inflection. The girl can sing, no worries there, and had a nice line in patter, asking for some punters in the sparsely populated crowd to, “stand between me and my parents [sat at one of the tables circling the mixing desk] so I can’t see the disappointment in their eyes!”

Grabbed a drink with Logan and chilled (baked?) in the sun-drenched beer deck, with the melancholy acoustic stylings of GEORGE WILDING as amenable background music from the back bar. That done, we ventured back to the main hall for MICK O’TOOLE – not a soloist as I’d surmised, but a gang of 5 ruffians (none called Mick O’Toole!) hailing, “from Cowtown, Wiltshire!” and on a mission to get everybody jigging and drinking cider as copiously as they themselves do. They kicked up a superfast and rambunctious folk/ punk collision with definite Irish overtones, especially from the fast-picking banjoist, recalling Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys. I definitely couldn’t drink a whole one – my (remaining) pancreas would explode! – but they were good fun, finishing with a wilful demolition of Ewan McColl’s old standard “Dirty Old Town”.

Into the already-packed back bar for NICK PARKER, one of Gaz’ backing band The Company Of Thieves, and accompanied by 2 others, violinist Ben Wain and guitarist Chris Webb. Nick was excellent; opener “Double Denim Dad” was a jolly and racy Frank Turner-esque tale of youth, and “Make Yourself At Home” dealt with a time having to “support” John Cooper Clarke by playing in this very foyer! With some excellent tunes to augment his witty, wry and observational lyrical bent (which for me harked back to early new wave wordsmiths such as Dury, Costello, and Difford and Tilbrook), this was a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging set, and by the penultimate “Es Tut Mir Leid” (which featured 4 audience members holding the German chorus phrases aloft) and an almost Lemonheads “Being Around”-alike “Terry And June”, the whole room was singing and clapping along. Great stuff – smashed it, Nick!

SPARK THE SAIL, next up in the main hall, were a young 5-piece with male/ female dual vocals, racing through some galloping and exhuberant punk-pop. Decent stuff and some nice choral harmonies, but it all felt a little earnest after Nick’s set. As this had also bumped us up to nearly 5.30, we headed off for some tea, via a chat with Grant, a fellow punter who’d commented favourably about Logan’s duet with Gaz on Facebook, He’d informed us that Gaz was suffering with his voice today, which was substantiated with a (one-sided!) chat with Gaz and guitarist Chris, on the way back from the chippy with our tea. I joked that Logan’s services might be required, to which Chris replied, “oh, so this is THAT Logan!”

Finished our chippy tea (compliments to Pang’s Chippy – good nosh!), then headed back into the bar as JAKE MARTIN set up for his 6.20 acoustic set. An introductory song (featuring the lyrics, “I drink too much at shows” and, “I don’t think I’d like you and you’d probably hate me too!”) set the appropriate tone for this, a bolshy and flippant folk/ punk, drinking man’s acoustic set. “Revolution’s Always Late” saw Gaz bring Jake his drink (stepping over Logan, sat front centre, in the process), prompting a lyric change to, “my cider’s always late!”, then, despite claiming that this was, “the BBC version of my set – I’m trying hard not to be myself”, Jake introduced “For Fuck’s Sake Jake” with an, “oh… fuck…”, thereafter encouraging the crowd to lustily join in the, “you’re an asshole!” line in this otherwise slow-burn, plaintive ballad. So Logan did – with gusto! A racy, dismissive “Modern Life” was allegedly, “about the time I drank a whole bottle of Jack Daniels and ate a wheel of Camembert to myself – I had such lovely dreams!” and closer “We Sing The Words All Wrong” was an all-inclusive manifesto for fellow workaday travelling balladeers, which again got the whole crowd singing along. Another great set!

A chat with Grant’s wife, eulogising over Logan, which was nice, then we checked out STAY VOICELESS, pulling a double shift as replacements for the late cancellation of Ghost Of The Avalanche. They kicked up a strident and melodic hard-rocking set of emo-punk with some passionate choral crescendos which occasionally had shades of Biffy Clyro. A promising set of uncompromising noise, if not particularly easy on the ears. B SYDES, current tour-mate of Gaz and Jake Martin, next up in the back bar, was another solo acoustic act, albeit with a more plaintive delivery with shades of early Dashboard Confessional. “This Was My City Once” was my favourite of his set, a broken-hearted and naked paean to his former home town of London, and overall his set was fine if a little lower-key than the likes of Jake and Nick Parker. By now we’d been joined by my friend Matt and his wife Liz, thence decamping briefly and separately into the main hall for the noisy stylings of FREEZE THE ATLANTIC, then, after both coming to the conclusion that their big power riffery and shouty, well-played but somewhat generic Biffy/ Queens Of The Stone Age tinged swampy noise wasn’t really for us at this point, reconvening in the beer garden to chat and catch up! Logan and I also grabbed quick chats and pics with Nick and Jake, both boys encouraging Logan to pick up his guitar again!

This brought us towards our raison d’etre, as it were, so the four of us wandered into the main hall as the Thieves set up and soundchecked on the main stage. Logan and I stayed front and centre as GAZ BROOKFIELD AND THE COMPANY OF THIEVES eventually eased into their set, taking their cue from Gaz, who’d carefully preserved just enough of his larynx for this set. His singing voice sounded gruff and hoarse throughout, but that didn’t stop him delivering this quickfire 45 minute set with his usual high levels of energy, passion and enthusiasm, although the voice and time restrictions did preclude anything other than quick cursory between-song comments. One of those, however, was a dedication, “to my little man Logan!” before a brilliantly full-sounding “The Tale Of Gunner Haines”, which got Logan singing along raucously again! Backed up by his 7-piece band, excellent musicians all, Gaz again nailed it; a superb performance, also demonstrating sensible “game management” by swigging copiously on a big bottle of Evian to help prolong his voice. “Apologies to anyone who’ve tried to talk to me today – and apologies for anyone who tries to talk to me afterwards,” he croaked before a splendid Ben Wain fiddle-led “Land Pirate’s Life”. No need to apologise, Gaz!

The galloping and sneering punk rock of “I Know My Place” preceded a countrified, swayalong “Thin”, not the final number tonight but, as Gaz remarked, “you’re contractually obliged to sing along as if it were!” “Let The East Winds Blow” galloped joyfully by, before quick thanks to all and sundry from Gaz preceded an all-inclusive, singalong finale “West Country Song”, closing out the Set Of The Day perfectly. Great stuff!

And pretty much it for us too, as this took us to 20 to 10, so we bade a departing Matt and Liz farewell, and Logan happily collected signatures from Gaz and band inside and out (inside to the upbeat Irish folk/ rootsy strains of CRAZY ARM in the bar) before we headed off into the inky Wiltshire countryside after an excellent, superbly organised and totally successful event. All roads did indeed lead to Frome today, and worthily so. Great day!