Tuesday, 31 May 2011

817 THE MEN THEY COULDN’T HANG, Billy In The Lowground, The Shudders, Swindon 12 Bar, Friday 27 May 2011

So, politically-motivated yet supremely entertaining folk punk pioneers The Men They Couldn’t Hang, one of my 80’s “live” favourites, return for a 3rd time at the 12 Bar in as many years. This is getting as regular as Stiff Little Fingers at Bristol Academy in March – and as welcome! This one was also due to kick off a run of 5 hugely anticipated retro gigs in 4 weeks; this lot, then Adam Ant (!), The Wild Swans (!!), Cheap Trick and finally Simple Minds (!!!). I’m truly partying like it’s the 80’s all over again…

So I hit the deserted 12 Bar at 8ish to hang out with Tim, Liam, Danny and Ellen, and meet Tim’s new girlfriend Tracey! After hearing Tim’s broken hand sob story (Tim being reduced to tambourine duties tonight!), the Shudders trio then went off to soundcheck, leaving me in charge of the girls (hah!), before we joined them in the still-deserted back room for their anticipated 8.30 start. However, a delayed and problematic soundcheck, caused by a late soundman replacement, bumped the set start to 8.45, and the sound problems persisted into their set, with appalling feedback initially through Danny’s mic, and then constantly through The Men’s bass drum set-up, plaguing them throughout. A shame, as this was another nice little stripped-back acoustic set, an approach which, for me, increasingly suits their odd little folky whimsy and hushed, understated harmonies. A couple of duskier, countrified slow burners also continue to hint at a new facet to a band I took time to warm to, but am increasingly enjoying seeing “live”. This of course despite having to kiss Liam before he went onstage so he didn’t feel left out!

The boys showed up at the end of the Shudders set, so we hung out in the back bar in favour of the main support Billy In The Lowground, a gathering of hoary old pub rock choresmen playing nondescript and meandering fiddly diddly stuff, with their mum seemingly on fiddle duties. Chilled and reminisced about the TTP days while BITL played on… and on! Eventually they cleared off so we headed back into the by-now amply attended venue for the Men’s entrance, late on at 10.15. The poor sound was still in evidence, with the Men’s opening few numbers beset with shimmering drum feedback, although the band did their best to plough through and ignite an initially reticent crowd. “Cable Street” got myself and Phil singing along and jigging down the front, although the first half overall seemed somewhat flat in comparison to their recent sets (the usual chilling “Shirt of Blue”, accompanied by some welcome anti-Cameron ranting from Cush, notwithstanding), and it wasn’t until Swill’s rousing acapella sea shanty “Barrett’s Privateer” (which followed a lovely solo “Parted From You”, introduced by Swill as, “one we’ve never played in Swindon before”) that the crowd really joined in the singalongs. Thereafter, it was much more like it, as The Men, feeding off the renewed enthusiasm, cranked up the commitment levels with a swaggering “Smugglers” and an inclusive, sway-along “Bells”. They ran over time again (damn BITL!), but this time got a wonderfully raucous “Ironmasters” in, before totally ignoring the curfew and playing on until 11.45! A final “Night To Remember” rounded off another ultimately worthwhile – if late - TMTCH set. I hope they don’t fall victim to the law of diminishing returns, as, so far as I’m concerned, they’re welcome to come back to Swindon as often as they like!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

816 GRANT LEE BUFFALO, London Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 18 May 2011

After a disappointing alt-Country excursion to London last time out, I was looking for better from this one, a rare show from one of the progenitors of said genre, Grant Lee Buffalo. A band that’d dazzled me at Reading Festival 1993 with a Sunday opening set of shimmering and very loud acoustic angst, plus another set later that day (!), both based on their raw, stripped-back yet eminently listenable debut CD “Fuzzy”, I’d then accumulated their subsequent 3 CDs with admittedly diminishing interest, and managed to remain oblivious to any live outings since then! However, after very nearly joining Tim a couple of years back to see mainman Grant Lee Phillips do his solo thang at Bush Hall, I happily volunteered to join him and pretty much the entire Moody family, for this “reunion” performance.

Tim, Ellen and I set off at 5 pm for an entertaining drive to Hammersmith, parking up at 7, meeting car 2 then tubing to Embankment, crossing the river and hitting this grand venue just in time to miss the support act, which irked Tim a little. The crew then left me as I’d booked my seat after theirs, so I was Billy No-Mates in my seat! Ran into London friend Lisa – oddly enough, whilst leaving her a message on her phone! – and caught up, before taking my Upper Stalls seat (actually fairly near where Evan and I had sat for They Might Be Giants!) in good time for Grant Lee Buffalo’s unfeasibly early entrance at 8.30.

The band – the original trio for this reunion date – were led onstage by Grant Lee Phillips, kicking into opener “The Shining Hour”, from that old “Fuzzy” CD, much more strident, drum-dominated and squally, almost Velvet Underground-like, than the acoustic-led strumalong CD version. A touching “I Wish You Well” followed, before Phillips announced the band were, “like some strange comet that comes around every 15 years, bringing pestilence and turbulence in its wake!” Hmm, no wonder I hadn’t seen them since Reading 1993… A superb reading of the self-labelled, “politically tinged romantic ballad,” namely “Jupiter And Teardrop” was up next, setting the tone for their set. Evoking a similar version of Americana to Sparklehorse, a landscape of wide skies, deserts, canyons, outcrops and buttes, ramshackle truckstops and telegraph poles stretching into the distance, they nevertheless eschew the Hoss’ deathly hush in favour of charming acoustic-powered brain-hugging earworm hooks and thrilling squally cacophony, often in the same song! Tonight was a gift for the aficionados, Phillips and co. playing songs they themselves loved, the opening bars of each number greeted with applause, and Phillips, clearly psyched to be here and an excellent, intelligent and witty between-song orator throughout, embellishing the very fine material perfectly with his stretched nasal tones, which always puts me in mind of Mike Scott, of 80’s stadium folkies The Waterboys.

A final set-closing double of the strident, tumbling, Dylan-esque protest ballad “America Snoring”, introduced with some ironic observations on its’ relevance today by Phillips, and an octave-straddling “Fuzzy” were my set highlights, and an encore showcasing a deliciously slow-burn “The Hook” capped a splendid 1¾ hour performance, as good as they possibly could be and way better than I was hoping. Another chat with Lisa before hitting the road via a kebab shack in Hammersmith (!), to cap a great – if late – night out!

Monday, 9 May 2011

815 DRIVE BY TRUCKERS, Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards, London Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Thursday 5 May 2011

Here’s another band that I found out about thanks to my “Uncut” subscription, and another one, like the Decemberists, that I was warned about! This warning came after picking up on a couple of tracks by this veteran Southern US Rock band, another name that had skirted around the periphery of my “wants” lists for a couple of years, on a couple of “Uncut” compilation CDs. One, “This Fucking Job”, was noisy, sleazy and chuntering bar-room blues, like a drawling, ‘baccy spitting Hold Steady, and the other, “Used To Be A Cop”, a deliciously macabre Violent Femmes-like dark introspective confessional. Recent 2 CDs and a ticket for tonight’s show sorted, I announced my findings to the world on facebook, whence Russ Hunt (yes even he) issued a health warning about their variable song quality. I should have heeded his words…

Anyway, I drove up to town at 6, finally giving both CDs a proper listen on the way and thinking, “hmmm, maybe Russ has a point…” Nevertheless, I was committed, and parked up at 8 in my usual spot, hitting the venue to catch most of the support slot from Dan Michaelson And The Coastguards. A young beardy chap with a very deep and resonant voice, recalling Leonard Cohen, fronted a similarly hirsute band playing some late night moody country which was plodding and insubstantial. I spent the time looking around the slowly filling venue at the audience, which was turning out to be comprised of virtually all beardy old blokes. Again, I felt very young!

The Truckers arrived at the appointed hour of 9, hefty and bearded vocalist Patterson Hood soaking in the ovation awhile, before opening their set with the octave-straddling “I Do Believe”, the fine opener to current moody, murder ballad-heavy CD “Go Go Boots”. Thence followed a couple of numbers of sprawling, menacing, swampy, slightly countrified but charged blues rock, hard rocking and powerful, alternating between Hood’s gulping drawl, and his skinny, raw-boned and rawer-voiced pard’ner Mike Cooley on vocals. At this point they were threatening to live up to their “Uncut” billing as a tremendous live act, said magazine promising that they’d unmoor the Empire off its' foundations! Sure, the song quality was patchy, but some nice Doors-like organ embellishments and the sheer power of their performance was at this point raising them above the variable nature of their material.

“Used To Be A Cop” came early, seething with sleaze and personal despair, and Shonna Tucker took vocal chores to follow with a stark, desolate “Where’s Eddie”, her breathy Southern lilt almost Dolly Parton-like. However, just under an hour in, the set seriously drifted into pedal-steel trad country balladry and beer-soaked sludge, and my attention likewise seriously wandered. Fifteen minutes later they’d lost me totally, and I was at the back thinking about my forthcoming busy weekend, so, tiring and bored, left early.

Overall, a great start, but then a really pronounced drop-off. One great song doesn’t cut it for me any more, so sorry. Drive-By Truckers? Just not my thang, pard’ner.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

814 THE BUZZCOCKS, The Computers, Charred Hearts, Swindon MECA (Music and Entertainment Cultural Arena), Friday 29 April 2011

This one has a real sense of occasion to it; a first gig at the new Swindon Music and Entertainment Cultural Arena! The MECA, AKA the old bingo hall up the top of town that had lain derelict for years, had been gagging for all that time for someone to give it a fresh coat of paint, a new soundproofing layer and sound system, and turn it into a concert venue. Well guess what; someone did, namely Swin City and “Frequency” mastermind Steve Causer. Good on you, Steve!

This being the first actual “rock” gig at the venue, I was well up for it. This of course notwithstanding that on previous evidence 4 years ago or so, tonight’s hosts, original punk band the Buzzcocks, hadn’t aged anything like as well as some of their peers (Killing Joke, SLF, even The Damned). But hey, it’s only up the road, and I really need to get behind this venture, so why not? So, after a day spent eating BBQ food with good friends, I picked up a couple of them, namely Rich and Jase, and drove up, parking the car at 8.15 and popping into the venue as local band Charred Hearts were midway through their set. Of similar vintage to the Buzzcocks and similarly recently reformed, they played a buzzsaw ramalama punk set which was formulaic but exciting and sincere. A couple of namechecks for departed punk legends Poly Styrene (only last week, poor Poly) and Ari Up of The Slits (Buzzcocks’ support band on their last visit to Swindon – The Affair, 34 years ago!) went down well with the old punk audience too. They certainly left a better impression than tour support The Computers, a young bunch of arrogant chumps all in white, who played a tuneless set of thrash dirge and were kinetic but largely ignored. Guys, “intense” doesn’t mean screaming like a tarantula is biting your balls off!

Never mind, The Buzzcocks were up next and came on late but to a raucous reception from the expectant Swindon crowd. They fairly ripped into the set, with surprising opener “Boredom” from their first ever EP, followed with a thrilling “Fast Cars” and a superb “I Don’t Mind”. Despite Pete Shelley’s lilting, slightly effeminate vocals being already submerged in the mix, this was a great opening salvo; surely they couldn’t keep this up!

Actually, no. The set mid-section merged into a mulchy morass of indistinct guitar noise which even guitarist Steve Diggle’s rabble-rousing failed to rescue for me, although the mosh kept going enthusiastically throughout. However, the Buzzcocks finished strongly with a buzzing “Breakdown”, a soaring sing-along set highlight “Love You More”, and “Promises” and “What Do I Get”, which showcased their ear for easy catchy punk rock melody and aching lovelorn lyrical matter. A splendid 3-song encore salvo of the rockier, Diggle-led “Harmony In My Head”, the inevitable and manically-greeted “Ever Fallen In Love”, and a great final “Orgasm Addict”, rounded off a very worthy set overall. Thankfully, this time they’d left enough gas in the tank to do their final numbers justice.

Ran into Steve Causer on the way out who confirmed that the volume of punters through the door tonight had enabled them to break even, so hopefully this will be the first of many rock gig nights at the new MECA!