Tuesday, 22 November 2011

833 OKKERVIL RIVER, A Classic Education, Bristol Trinity, Monday 21 November 2011

A recent discovery for me, this lot, albeit one which, like US alt-rock/ Americana crossover contemporaries The Decemberists, had been skirting around the periphery of my musical vision awhile before I took the plunge with this year’s release “I Am Very Far”. Finding it an absorbing collection of diverse musical vignettes, by turns stripped back and bare, then overlaid with strident and epic crescendos, and featuring a captivatingly intelligent lyrical perspective similar to both Colin Meloy’s lot and The Hold Steady, I invested in their previous 2 CDs and enjoyed them too! Thus intrigued, I sorted myself a ticket for their brief Autumn tour.

Unable to persuade Tim to join me, I took a drive down the M4 on my own after Grandma arrived to help me put the kids to bed (Rach on Governor training), and, having taken local advice, parked in the cavernous Cabot Circus car park about 5 minutes from the venue. Not the most pleasant of walks, but arrived at this dilapidated old church venue in the murky Autumn dark – very haunting and evocative! After a slight ticket-mare, got into this elegantly run-down large pillar-fringed hall, just as support A Classic Education were taking the stage at 8.15. They played a tough and resonant brand of laconic US surf pop, with some nice hooks and occasional noisy guitar wig-out middle eights, and some 60’s “ooh-aah” melody to flesh out their muscular jangle. They’d sound good on a Summer Saturday drive with the top down...

I took a superb viewing spot stage left, two rows back, and watched a very fiddly stage set-up, particularly on the guitar pedals, before the 6-piece Okkervil River came onstage prompt at 9.15, vocalist and inspiration Will Sheff bounding onstage last, looking like a geography teacher in glasses, beard and tweed, but enthusiastically launching into opener “Wake And Be Fine” a baroque chuntering Tom Waits like procession of a song. And they were off, like a firecracker…

This performance was a real stunner. On record, Okkervil River are a slowly congealing mixture of quiet, backwoods landscapes and swirling, sweeping epics of cinemascopic range; the missing link between “Deserters Songs”-era Mercury Rev and The Arcade Fire, if you will. However, I certainly wasn’t expecting the strident, powerful and dynamic “live” agenda they were setting! Sheff was certainly the main focus, a bundle of nervous energy giving an impassioned yet open and personable performance throughout, but this was also thanks in no small part to guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo. Frail looking in a scruffy pink dress, she nevertheless played her chops like a demon. “Rider” was magnificent, thundering and strident (particularly the “Rock, Rockaway Beach!” line), before a touching and indolent “Piratess” introduced some light and shade.

A brilliant “We Need A Myth”, starting off all Scott Walker-esque lush and sweeping, then building to an epic crescendo, followed some inter-band banter about the lack of personal hygiene on the road (!), then a slew of mid-set technical problems saw Sheff off on a Steely Dan covers band tangent, killing some time prior to the creepy, Violent Femmes wheezing march of “The Valley”. But really, every one was a winner, the “live” performance really adding an unexpected extra dimension to the material, none more so than the penultimate “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe”. For me the high watermark of their canon, this was greeted with rapture by this reverential crowd, and delivered as stridently, passionately and dynamically as possible.

The pedal steel of encore “A Girl In Port” cleared the air before the final, crashing “Unless It’s Kicks” rounded off a, “crikey, never saw THAT coming!” performance. Adding power and passion to their intelligence and craft, this was WAY better than I’d expected or hoped, and ultimately – and unexpectedly – one of the gigs of the year, from a real find. Magnificent!

Monday, 14 November 2011

832 ADAM ANT AND THE GOOD, THE MAD AND THE LOVELY POSSE, Bristol O2 Academy, Friday 11 November 2011

The undisputed comeback king of 2011, off on another jaunt and playing appreciably closer to us than Birmingham this time; given he’d delivered Gig Of The Year thus far in B’rum at the start of June, how could I resist? This time I was joined by fellow early Ant fans Big Man and Prov, plus I managed to persuade Rachel, who was weaned on the “Prince Charming”-era glam pop Adam, to join us for another nostalgia trip. Mindful of an early “club night” finish at the Academy Fridays, we decided on an early departure to pick the boys up at 6.15, and t’was good that we did too; an horrendous journey involving monsoon-like double-wiper storms on the M4 slowing us to 30 mph, plus a 20 minute traffic jam to clear Cabot Circus on the entrance to Bristol, saw us park on the roof of Trenchard Car Park a full 2 hours after departure, and 5 minutes before Adam’s anticipated arrival onstage! Yikes! We sprinted helter skelter downstairs and into the venue, already packed to the gills with Ant devotees – Bristol , let it not be said you didn’t make an effort for this one! We passed a dandy highwayman in full regalia plus duelling pistols in the lobby (how’d he get those in?), and I then stood by a bloke in full Native American feather headdress at the urinals! Hope I’m not stood behind him on the dancefloor!

Managed to shoe-horn ourselves onto the dry-ice choked floor, stage left as usual, before the lights were killed and the Posse took the stage at 8.30, once again easing into the sleazy, grunge-lite opening riffery of “Plastic Surgery” before Adam, again in full Hussar regalia, took the stage and the mic as the song pace picked up, taking a reverb-heavy lead vocal with the hookline, “take you down to Harley Street…”, already in command, already the centre of attention.

In 2011's cynical cold light of day, we kind of forget just how big a star Adam Ant actually was. In 1980-1983 he was literally ubiquitous, turning up on Royal Variety Performances and prime time Saturday shows, drawing 17 million viewers. You couldn’t move in the charts for bumping into one of his hits; this quite literally over Christmas 1980, as his 2 previous record labels attempted to cash in on his sudden success, flooding the charts with Adam And The Ants records! Lady Gaga times Bono times Hugh Jackman, with an irresistible star quality and sex appeal, allied with an undeniable punk rock street cred, gave him almost universal appeal.

As before, however, I was in it for the early Ants material, once again in happy abundance. I knew what was coming, so after “Dog Eat Dog”’s double drums abated, I handed my jacket to Rach, regressed back to my 15 year old punk rock self, and piled in the increasing mosh for the ringing guitar intro to a thrilling “Beat My Guest”. The same incredible vintage Ants sequence as at Birmingham followed, no less amazing for being anticipated; a strident chanting “Kick”, a languid sinewy “Cartrouble” with a delicious descending verse bassline, and the highlight as ever, “Zerox”, a staccato art-punk classic which built and fleshed out into an all-too short (again!) crescendo and featured a passionate vocal from Adam, clearly on top form throughout.

I took a breather as Adam brought on his dancing girls, including “Sachsgate” girl Georgina “Georgie Girl” Baillie, for the military march of “Deutscher Girls”. Then, an unannounced “Stand And Deliver” heralded a clutch of more “commercial” numbers to placate the masses puzzled with the proliferation of older songs, and also brought a tear of nostalgia to Rachel’s eye! The Burundi drums and Native American chants of Adam’s “Manifesto” number, “Kings Of The Wild Frontier”, dovetailed into this section and brought the most rapturous reception tonight, Adam pausing to take in a lengthy and reverential ovation.

“I’ve been lying awake at night thinking, what will I play? What do people want to hear? Then I think, "fuck it!" I’ll play what I want to!” announced Adam before a suitably perverse “Whip In My Valise”, again sent the set into pre-fame era mode. “Antmusic” was announced with the comment, “never play this in a Chinese restaurant!” as Adam, a yelping, yodelling, chanting, energetic, kinetic and riveting stage presence throughout, belying his 57 years, fooled and teased the audience. I piled back into the mosh for the set denouement; a brilliant “Lady” (“this should have been the ‘A’ side of my first single,” said Adam; too right!) segueing into a punky, amphetamine-fast “Fall In” to round off a brilliant set.

The encores saw the dancing girls down to their undergarments, much to the boys’ delight, making even the sadly inevitable “Prince Charming” palatable! A hasty run through “Get It On” and “Physical”, given that the gig was bumping right up to 10 pm curfew time (resulting in the omission of “Red Scab”, amongst others, from an intended longer encore – boo!) finished off another stellar performance from a born performer now purged of all his demons and doing what he does best. The man is a star, pure and simple, and it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to see him perform this year. Another set-list and a swift run home put the exclamation point on a wonderful night in the company of good friends and Adam Ant, my Live Act of 2011. In a great 2011 gig year, there’s still no contest!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

831 THROWING MUSES, The Spectrals, Special Benny, London Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Wednesday 2 November 2011

Yup, they’re back too… in one of the considerably more welcome reunions of recent times, Throwing Muses, the barbed Boston lot who rendered me, “as excited as a kid at an airport,” on my first sighting, some 22½ years ago (yipe!), have joined the reunion gravy train. This burst of activity coincides with the 25th Anniversary (double yipe!) of their debut album, a real game-changing and worthily “Classic” record which saw vocalist/ inspiration Kristen Hersh and her band arrive, teenaged yet fully formed, without any recognisable antecedents, sounding other-worldly in their melange of melody and malevolence. It takes a special band to drag me up to London on a wild Autumn Wednesday night, a band exactly like Throwing Muses!

And I wasn’t alone; long-time fellow fans Beef and Ady (Ady taking a very late call on this one, with me booking his ticket this afternoon!) joined me for this one. Picked the boys up smartly at 5.15, then had a nasty traffic, breakdown (not me!) and weather-delayed journey to the Smoke, parking up opposite Bush Hall at ¼ to 8 and wandering in just as first act Special Benny rounded off their set. Chatted at the back bar and bought merch (signed copies of Kristen’s book! Result!) during main support The Spectrals’ inauspicious tom-tom drum dominated 60’s set, and then took a good viewing spot stage right on a rapidly-filling and anticipatory floor for the entrance of the Muses at the witching hour, 9.20.

This Muses trio of Kristin, still tiny and waif-like, libidinous and dextrous bassist Bernard Georges, and long-time drummer David Narcizo, dynamic as ever, wandered casually onstage and eased into opener “Soul Soldier” to devotional applause. A splendid opening salvo included a rollercoaster ride of snarling menace through “Garoux Des Larmes” and the undulating caterpillar crawl bassline of 2003’s “Speed And Sleep”, Kristen challenging a punter’s cheer during the intro with, “you do NOT own that record!” Then “Bright Yellow Gun” saw Kristen, static yet mesmerizingly intense throughout, head bobbing in her usual infinity pattern, roar, lioness-like, through a surprisingly strident and savage version of what I’d previously considered a light, almost throwaway “pop” Muses song. Wrong, boy…

A bit of banter with a punter shouting for “Fish” saw Kristen reply, “If I had a fish I’d give it to you! Someone gave me some homemade sushi though – how do you do that? I can barely make toast!” She then snarled the lyric of a subsequent titanic “Hate My Way” as if thoroughly disgusted by what she was being forced to sing. For me, thereafter, the set lost a little momentum, as the sound wavered and too many mid-paced little monsters seemed to be subsumed in the Empire’s echoing expanse, the sound suffering accordingly. However the set roared back with a vengeance, with a fabulously strident and seething “Vicky’s Box”, by which point I was down the front in a mini moshpit, screaming along for all I was worth. “Bea” completed a stunning recovery for the set, leaving us hungry for more.

And the "Fish” guy got his reward, as Kristen delivered a shimmering acoustic solo “Fish”, before a magnificent “Mania”, preceded by a lengthy and quirky tale of Marie, a blind college contemporary of Kristen’s. “Mania” itself was stunning in its’ beautiful ferocity, and prompted a second encore (“it’s totally not fucking Wednesday anymore!” being Kristen’s response to this!) of “Devil’s Roof”, climaxing another remarkable 2011 resurrection. I got my reward as well, grabbing “official” set-list No. 500 (!) after a brilliant evening in the company of one of the most unique, pioneering talents in rock, now thankfully fully restored. Kristen Hersh, thank you.