Wednesday, 27 September 2017

1,055 THE NATIONAL, This Is The Kit, London Eventim Apollo, Tuesday 26th September 2017

The “landmark” first gig that I set off to directly from my new job, was this midweek trip up “The Smoke”, to catch the band who arguably now occupy REM’s former position at the vanguard of US indie/ alternative rock, Ohio’s The National. Their last go-around, 4 years ago, saw them cement their status as the “go-to” band for all earnest black-shirted muso types, by selling out 2 nights at the cavernous Ally Pally (my gig 897), so it was inevitable that tickets for their announced 4 dates at the more intimate (but still bloody huge) former Hammersmith Odeon, in support of their current “Sleep Well Beast” album (which sees them augment their usual deliciously dark, morose late night alt-rock with subtle smatterings of electronica beats, without going full-on “Empires And Dance” on our collective asses), would be as rare as rocking horse shit. Luckily, I got in on the advance-CD purchase pre-sale, hitting “refresh” until one of my 4 open windows furnished me with a ticket. Tuesday (day 2) I got, so Tuesday it is!

Facebook friend David Line, formerly vocalist of Seafood (the only UK band worth half a damn, during the late 90’s/ early 00’s, and still, at 22, my most-seen “live” band – and a brilliantly visceral experience every time, I might add…!) also got Tuesday, so I was on the lookout for him! Headed off at 4 and hit the venue just before doors at 7, after a trouble-free journey and took a place on the wonky barriers, extreme left, watching the National’s congregation respectfully file in. My early arrival unfortunately also meant that I was subject to another support slot from The National’s “pet” support act, This Is The Kit. As before, they were female fronted, polite, accomplished and understated US alt-country – music for walking a rainy Appalachian trail, perhaps – with an occasional pretty intertwining harmony or discordant riff to divert me from their usual material, which was unfortunately quite, quite dull. The biggest cheer was when they brought the National’s Aaron Dessner to sit in on guitar for a couple of their later numbers. Hmmm…

The place actually felt like a sell-out by now and I left my front-row but oddly obscured vantage spot for a loo break, spotting a familiar looking face on the way back, about 1/3 back. True enough, t’was Mr. Line, and greetings, introductions to his lovely family, and catching up comfortably passed the time until the lights dimmed at 9, a “Please Stand By” message appeared on a large overhanging video screen, and video of The National themselves, hanging backstage, was projected, until they emerged to a reverential welcome. Opening with 4 straight new numbers – there’s confidence in your audience and material for you! – they sounded pindrop-perfect, their bleak, introspective and hauntingly gothic new material given incongruous life by some startling blocks of ultraviolet colour on the screen , interspersing the usual band performance shots. “Walk It Back”, stark and bucolic, recalled “Automatic”-era REM and was an early highlight, before a blood-red backdrop heralded the oozing, slow-burn intro of “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, a somewhat understated version, leading ultimately to its’ usual dramatic climax.

“Understated” is probably the operative word for this whole performance, actually… brilliant sound, an expertly chosen set veering between slow, stripped back material and their rockier moments (a perfect example being a brilliant mid-set double of an angular, propulsive “Mistaken For Strangers” and a racy, jet propelled “Graceless”, being followed by the tender “Carin At The Liquor Store”, as if to clear the air), Matt Berninger’s usual befuddled Geography teacher stage presence and vocals veering between half-remembered mumble and startled shriek, and the Dessner twins’ occasional dual guitar shredding, throwing sharp relief onto the reverentially observed quieter moments. All that and more… it again felt, however, that The National were playing within themselves, pacing themselves over the 2 hours, or even 4 nights. Nothing wrong with that, I guess; a few moments of driftwood in the set for me, sure, but when it worked (the afore-mentioned “Mistaken”/ “Graceless” double, a startling, proto-punk “Turtleneck” or the brass blare fanfare of a singalong and totally appropriate “England”) it really was quite breathtaking.

“Day I Die” was ragged and riff-strafingly dramatic, and the taciturn Berninger announced set closer “About Today” as, “the most depressing song ever written… enjoy!” “Terrible Love”, the final of a 3-song encore, finally saw Berninger really cut loose, crowdsurfing, Frank Turner style, as the song took dramatic flight behind him, bringing another slightly uneven but occasionally majestic 2 hours to a close. A fortuitous set-list and farewells to my gig companions – good to catch up with David again! – before a similarly unimpeded journey home. Worthy as ever, The National, and at times stunning; overall, a splendid evening!

Sunday, 24 September 2017

1,054 RAZE*REBUILD, The Harlers, Ant Willis, Swindon The Castle, Friday 22nd September 2017

Contact lenses in, shorts on in late September, double kneestrapped up… it must be a Raze*Rebuild gig! Yup, for the 9th time of asking, a gig by Swindon’s finest purveyors of blue-collar, popcore tinged rock’n’roll saw me girdling my loins and preparing for my inevitable rocking out down the front. I dunno, I might be 52 and with dodgy knees that usually scream, “enough!” at the sight of a slightly askew paving stone, but give me a Raze*Rebuild gig and, just like that sweat-drenched guy at the recent Martha gig, I’m bound to totally lose my shit, there’s no pretending otherwise…! This one was an auspicious occasion as well, being a CD Release Party for their new 4-track EP, “The Interlude”, a collection of numbers that sees a pronounced development in vocalist Si’s songwriting skills, a wider, more structured and epic tempo-changing sweep and range to the new material, as well as finally committing long-time “live” favourite “New Leaf” to record. Bound to be a good one, right? Right!

A trip up the hill, then a frustrating trawl around old town to find a working cashpoint, saw me rocking up to The Castle for 8.15. Liam, stellar guest drummer last time out, was hanging out with the R*R boys in the Castle beer garden in advance of his sadly-clashing Vic gig with his usual band Hail, so I joined in with the general piss-taking about his age, and obscure band rock chat. First act on, Ant Willis, took the stage with a big acoustic and a Chilli Peppers-like rap-metalesque number which thankfully proved to be an outlier for his set. Formerly of local rock combo A Way With Words, he subsequently veered into a more morose and bitter yet strident melancholic oeuvre, with “3 AM” my personal favourite of his set. Not sure about the cover of “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, but this was a decent enough start, despite some lyric “malfunctions” along the way.

Next up were The Harlers, which saw Raze*Rebuild drummer Jamie pulling a double shift with this, his other band. Recently expanded to a 3-piece with the addition of a bassist, their modus operandi was hard-hitting, heavy riffing bluesy stoner rock, evoking desert truckstop roadhouses and beer-soaked bar-room brawls. Even their purported slower number, “The Devils Blues”, a more old-school bluesy Lightnin’ Hopkins’ style workout, was awash with snaking riffery and heavy, stomping drum patterns. Now, if I were a fan of the likes of Tame Impala, The White Stripes, Queens Of the Stone Age, early Led Zeppelin or even Hendrix, I would be thinking right now that I’d just found my new favourite band. Unfortunately I am not, of any of the above (“whaaat? Not even Hendrix, you bloody philistine?” I hear you cry, dear reader… Yup, sorry, not even Hendrix…), so they left me impressed, but largely unmoved. However, dear reader, if you are a fan of any of the above, I urge you to check out The Harlers. You will find something in their dark explosive riffery of considerable worth and value.

On, though, to a band who’s so far in my wheelhouse that they might as well be picking out matching curtains and soft furnishings (which I may well have said before… and no apologies for that!). After The Harlers’ gear was finally loaded away and a call to the band’s back rows made by the Hall brothers (Si finally announcing in lieu of an absent Paj, “can anyone play bass guitar? It’s really easy…!”), the full line-up assembled for the set, and I took a rather slippery position, centre stage. The fist-pumping, tub-thumping, anthemic manifesto/ call to arms newie “Burden Of Youth” kicked things off impressively, and by “Face For Radio”, next up, I was rocking out in my usual frantic way, responding to Si’s trademark energetic, scissor-kicking, fiercely committed and vein-bulging performance. After a huge, emotive and raw “Kat I’m Sorry”, a magnificently ragged and frantic set highlight “New Leaf” followed, which, despite Si’s comments about being, “old, sweaty and tired…” (him or me?) saw another performance of ferocious fire and passion, and, as fellow R*R aficionado Paul Carter grabbed hold of me towards its’ conclusion, also briefly saw a 2-man moshpit with a combined age of 104!

“My voice is going… we might have to do tomorrow’s performance via the medium of mime…” deadpanned Si, before a ball-crunchingly heavy yet achingly honest and heartfelt “Sand In The Petrol” led seamlessly into an unexpected and upbeat Husker Du-like “All The Gear”. Again, all too soon, another incendiary performance concluded with breathless compliments from Si, and newie “Poison Air”, all angular tempo changes and stripped back middle 8, powering into its’ final denouement, although the boys were persuaded to hold station for an unplanned encore of “Back To The Fall”, which actually felt slightly understated for them, but still a brilliant way to end the night’s entertainment.

Sweat drenched and breathless, I was actually glad to have avoided doing myself a mischief down the front – the floor was seriously slippery, so I did my best to fool myself into thinking my right foot was concreted to the floor, in order to keep it planted! Compliments to the boys, signed copies of the CD (which Si pointed out to me featured a “thanks” namecheck for yours truly – thank you for that, gents, I’m seriously flattered!) and sweaty farewells – including one to Mark Carter, an old Level 3 stalwart off to seek his fortune “Down Under”. Safe travels dude! Thus endeth another superb Raze*Rebuild Castle night, and here’s to many, many more!

Thursday, 7 September 2017

1,052, 1,053 THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS, Lene Lovich, Birmingham O2 Institute, Bristol O2 Academy, Tuesday 5th and Wednesday 6th September 2017

An impromptu and last-minute double-header for arty 80’s post-punk Bowie referencers turned latter-day US FM Radio favourites and “Bratpack” movie soundtrackers The Psychedelic Furs, this; as soon as a UK tour showcasing their extensive singles output was announced, I’d immediately booked tix for the Bristol show. Happily I also persuaded (this time!) fellow Furs devotees “Mad” Doug and The Big Man to join me for the Bristol show (and later, Beef, who sorted his own ticket), for an evening of prime 80’s “colossal” live rock, thereby also re-enacting a journey to see this same band with those same 2 gentlemen, at The Colston Hall, just round the corner from the O2, over 30 years ago! And I’d have been happy with just that, but a text from Stuart the day before the Birmingham gig, inviting me to take advantage of one of the 2 free tickets that had fallen into his lap thanks to a disorganised colleague (!), suddenly turned this into a 2-night double-header. Free tix? That’s my favourite ticket price, and free tix for The Furs? You bet!

So, Birmingham first, and Stuart picked me up early at 6 for a swift drive into B’rum city centre, but then an utterly farcical parking situation; we tried to park in 2 open-air car parks and not having sufficient coinage between us, tried in vain to use credit card (which didn’t process properly in one, and was unavailable in the other), then the automated phone paying system (said system refusing both car parks’ location numbers!). Exasperated, we eventually dumped Stu’s motor in a poorly-lit, dodgy-looking and rubbish-strewn trading estate road not far from the venue, an ornate old theatre hall which reminded me of a smaller Shepherd’s Bush Empire! The parking delay meant we missed half of support Lene Lovich’s set, which turned out to be no bad thing as she was utterly dire. Black/ red clad and much wider than in her 70’s pomp, she caterwauled like one of Macbeth’s witches over some horribly clich├ęd doomy pantomime pseudo goth; clearly trying to channel her inner Siouxsie, she instead ended up giving the impression of Meg from “Meg And Mog”, and it all felt quite embarrassing for all concerned. Give it up, dear!

Still, from the ridiculous to the sublime, and in no uncertain terms! We squeezed into a spot near the front, stage right, then the lights plunged at 9.15 and the bleak, eerie synth refrain from Bowie’s “Warszawa” washed over the expectant audience. The band took the stage one by one, the velvet great-coated bass monolith Tim Butler cupping his hand to his ear to elicit a cheer; then, as the angular rhythm and backwards backbeat of “Dumb Waiters” kicked off, vocalist Richard Butler took the stage last – blessed touch of theatre! – bowing low with a flourish, before the sleazy nasal tones of his halting, London-Bowie-esque voice heralded the start of his evening’s work.

A chugging “We Love You” next up saw Butler prowl the stage, haughty and imperious of demeanour, fulsome and expansive of gesture. A tremendous, hard rocking thrill-ride “Mr. Jones” led into the quintessential Furs number (hell, probably the quintessential 80’s rock song!) “Pretty In Pink”, the vocalist by now having divested himself of his own coat to reveal a black spotted pyjama top (!). Great stuff, although there were some bumps in the road; the mix was a little poor, seemingly not accounting for diminutive Kevin Millar-lookalike Mars Williams’ decadent late-night glam-sleaze virtuoso saxophone being the lead instrument for much of the Furs material, and with Rich Goode’s more textural guitar work higher in the mix than necessary, it occasionally sounded cluttered and busy, particularly during a messy “Danger” or the later “Until She Comes”. Nonetheless, the familiarity and quality of their material shone like a beacon through the mix fog; “Run And Run” was great, the brilliant line of “I’ve been waiting all night for someone like you… but you’ll have to do” being delivered by Butler with playful dismissiveness, and “Heartbeat” finally saw Williams’ sax really to the fore, for this pulsating, funky classic.

All too soon, a brilliant soaring “Heaven”, the best sounding song of the night with the mix finally spot-on for its’ soaring chorus and descending hook, closed out a thoroughly entertaining set. Sure, I’d have taken out a couple of the later singles in favour of a “President Gas”, “Forever Now” or “Into You Like A Train”, but this was a Singles tour, right? I knew that when I bought the ticket, so was totally prepared for it…

And for the encore, where drummer Phil Calvert took the stage first, pounding out the unmistakeable drumbeat to the sprawling classic “Sister Europe”, Tim Butler’s bass then adding the brooding menace, before the song stretched moodily and languidly into life. Excellent, but topped with a lengthy, all-action “India”, the energetic yet taciturn Butler blowing kisses to the crowd as he departed after a mix-affected yet stellar performance.

Home for 12.30 after an easy egress from B’rum with Stu, all in the knowledge that I was to do it all again the following evening! So, for Bristol, Beef wandered over and we then collected The Big Man and Doug from their opposite sides of Swindon for an entertaining drive down and an easy park on a quiet Trenchard Level 8 for 8pm. The O2 however was already busy, much more so than the Institute, and this time Lene Lovich had only just started her set, I noted with due dread and concern. The initial part of her set was however an eye-opener in comparison to the previous night; still not great, but some more palatable poppier, herky-jerky new wavey rhythm and toy organ-fuelled stuff being a definite improvement. However, after a messy “Say When” and a bouncy version of The Hit, “Lucky Number” (both of which we missed last night), it was back to the dirge-like panto goth nonsense to end a ropey – and at 45 minutes, overlong – support set.

We wandered down onto a busy dancefloor, Doug (as is his wont) striking up conversations with all and sundry as we went, and found a small space near our usual stage left slot. A late running Lisa, who with admirable dedication had driven from London for this one (!), turned up too, deciding on a watching brief outside of the squeeze. Again “Warszawa” struck up, heralding The Furs’ entrance at 9.15. Same set as before, in the same order; however familiarity certainly didn’t breed contempt for me! “Mr. Jones” was again a potent, powerful early highlight, “Love My Way” a delicious exercise in blissful melancholy, and “Angels Don’t Cry”, never a favourite of mine, was tender and touching, sounding clear as a bell, the mix considerably better in Bristol than Birmingham.

Vocalist Richard Butler was again The Star; same spotted pyjama top, same extravagant gestures, same occasionally slightly laboured but entirely appropriate sleazy nasal hazy vocals. And initially, same taciturn manner, each song once again going unannounced, with the occasional, “thank you!” being the only non-lyrical communication from the vocalist. However, unlike last night, Butler took it upon himself to introduce the band midway through, introducing brother Tim last as, “the guy who got this whole fucking thing started!” before remarking, “and then there’s you lot! Thank you!”

“Heartbeat” was again a thing of tantalising pulsating menace; “House” was widescreen and expansive, a real mid-80’s anthemic flag-waver, but once again “Heaven” stole the show, soaring and resplendent, Tim Butler striding the stage like a colossus while his brother spun, arms outstretched, behind him. Great stuff, and another moody, menacing and magnificent “India” saw the evening to a close.

No set-lists either night, however, despite my exhortations (and Doug bringing his best powers of persuasion to bear on my behalf in Bristol!); the official line was that they were keeping and re-using them! I call double-bullshit, me…! Nonetheless, we caught our breath then walked Lisa back to the car park before bidding our farewells and hitting the road for an equally chatty and swift ride home.

Reflections on this double header? Well, I was bloody knackered Thursday at work, so I wouldn’t want to do it too often (!) but glad I did it for the Furs. Like The Skids earlier this year, here’s a band of similar vintage still showing the young ‘uns the way, and growing older disgracefully in the process. And long may that continue!

Sunday, 3 September 2017

1,051 NICK PARKER, Swindon “House Show”, Saturday 2nd September 2017

File this one under “It never hurts to ask…!” Splendid Street singer-songwriter and star of Swindon Shuffle Saturday, Nick Parker, announced an early Autumn tour, both solo headline shows and in support of his mate Gaz Brookfield’s solo shenanigans. The nearest Nick/Gaz dates seemed to clash with other things, however, but there was an intriguing “Swindon House Show” on the itinerary. Finding out it was being hosted by my recent gig acquaintance Grant, I put in a tentative request to come along, which was thankfully accepted. As I said, never hurts to ask…!

My initial request was actually threefold, for mate Rich Carter and for Logan as well. Unfortunately Rich’s shift pattern changed and Logan was feeling a little under the weather, so my invite ended up being just for me! I therefore arrived solo at 7.30 to handshakes from Grant and bearhugs from Nick, and enjoyed some convivial historical gig and indie rock chat (James and Carter USM particularly cropping up frequently in conversation!) with Grant’s other guests as they arrived.

We eventually gathered on and around the sofas lining the living room, as Nick took a seat in the window for his first set at 8.30, in front of this small but attentive audience (Nick commenting frequently at how quiet we all were; just paying attention, mate!). First set was a run-through of the highlights from his splendid current album “Besta Venya”, which is rapidly becoming a Rose favourite in the car. The low-key renditions in this intimate setting suited Nick’s material perfectly, as it seemed to shine more emphasis onto his clever and wry wordplay and incisive observational lyrical style. Opener “Departures” was a perfect example, holding up a mirror to the minutiae of humanity at an airport departure lounge, and “Simple Song”, a duet with his German friend Emily, was a sweet and touching ballad. We also were treated to some more extensive between-song chat and trivia regarding the material, with “Make Yourself At Home” being a story of his worst ever gig, and “Down With The Youth” apparently featuring on a forthcoming American TV show! “Es Tut Mir Leid” closed out the opening set, Emily doing a good job of handling all 4 cue cards herself!

Pizza and more rock chat during the interval, including catching up with Nick and passing along Logan’s “entschuldigung” for his non-attendance. We’ll see Nick in February in Southampton, all being well! 10 pm ticked around, and a now more relaxed and “well-refreshed” Nick placed his large glass of red wine on the open window-sill (having opened the window during the first set with a warning comment of, “what about the neighbours?” and receiving the general reply of, “fuck ‘em! There’s more of us than them!”) for the second set, a request-driven selection of his older material, which was largely unfamiliar to me, but generally really easy listening, them apples not falling that far from the tree, after all…! A familiar one to kick off, however, in “Terry And June”, being face-timed by a fellow attendee for his daughter’s birthday, to Nick’s feigning awkwardness and her general embarrassment (particularly the preceding rendition of “Happy Birthday”!). After a Weakerthans cover featuring Emily on lead vocals, it was back to the oldie requests, with a very Dando-esque “The Conjurer”, a folksy, Waterboys-referencing “Never Been To Dublin” and an excellent “Could We At Least Try” (this number being party to my favourite song trivia of the night, the subject being about a guy finding out his girlfriend is a prostitute!) highlights. “Oceanographer” was a lovely, plaintive lament, then “Another Journey Home”, a traditional hum-along set closer, collapsed into a giggle-fest, so “Come On! Jump Over Your Shadow”, which saw those present ring each other for strange echoey sound effects to augment the song, actually rounded off the night.

Chatting, merch and fond farewells before I headed off home, getting lost around unfamiliar territory… D’oh! Nonetheless, this was a fun evening in convivial company, and a performance of 2 halves from Nick Parker; the low-key master craftsman in one, and the red-wine fuelled jovial raconteur and entertainer in the other. Nice work – thanks again to Grant. Glad I asked!