Sunday, 11 December 2011

836 TIN SPIRITS, Swindon Arts Centre, Friday 9 December 2011

A local one to finish the year with, in two ways; not only a quick jaunt up the Old Town, but a return of locals Tin Spirits, who feature in their ranks former XTC guitarist Dave Gregory! Since my last encounter almost a couple of years ago, they’d recorded an album of original material and played with Marillion, underlining their “prog” status on their website header (uh oh...). However, they still promise XTC covers, and that, rather than their occasionally admirable but largely emotion-free prog-based covers or promised original stuff, prompted me to book a ticket and get the hell out of the house while Rach hosted a girly night in!

So, bearing in mind the Roddy Woomble gig timings (and in the total absence of any other info from ticket or venue website), I left just after 8 for a quick drive up the hill, but then suffered a total parking mare. Squeezed into the last, over-parked, space in the 3rd car park I tried (!), then hit the venue at 8.30, only to find the band had started at 8! Heated words with the duty manager (whom I had to wait for to usher me into the back of the auditorium, delaying me further) didn’t help, so I was in a pissy mood when I took a seat as Tin Spirits finished up their “Paranoid Android” cover, and launched into a Led Zep number which I recognised, but didn’t much enjoy. Indeed, the first high spot for me came with a cover of The Doors splendidly creepy, sinuous “Riders On The Storm”, before a couple of XTC numbers concluded part one of the set and cheered me up considerably. Firstly, a pulsing, undulating “Jason And The Argonauts”, introduced by Dave Gregory as a highlight of the last XTC “live” set (way back in 1982!) and with all herky-jerky rhythm, like a film loop played backwards, then the lush and impossibly melodic “Towers Of London”, Gregory’s wonderful guitar work to the fore as the rest of the band, awed, watched him, line astern. Now this was what I was here for!

A couple of nice chats at the intermission, first with Martine, wife of guitarist Dan Steinhardt and a colleague on my creative writing course (over 2 years ago now!), then another with an old punk buddy, who likewise doesn’t like the prog and was there for the XTC numbers, and who remarked, “for the first 25 minutes I thought, what am I doing here?” So it seems my parking-mare didn’t cause me to miss much!

Set part two eased in with a haunting, slow-burn “Dream Brother”, before it was back to the prog with Rush and Zappa stuff, and their own, much better but still occasionally unnecessarily complex, meandering and over-elaborate numbers. I admired the skilled, almost virtuoso guitar interplay of both Gregory and Steinhardt, excellent axemen both, but the material itself, despite being faithfully and authentically reproduced, was often anodyne and sterile, leaving me cold. A chugging “Reeling In The Years” however concluded the set, but they weren’t going to get away that easily, and returned for a final XTC double. A stripped back and plaintive “Dear God” was splendidly delivered, and the evening was capped by a rousing singalong of “Senses Working Overtime”. Dan Steinhardt took lead vocal chores for both, injecting some real emotion and fire into his vocal performance (hooray!), particularly during “Dear God” which was my set highlight.

So, once again the XTC “covers” (does it really count as a “cover” when one of the original band is playing it?), plus a couple of others, made the evening entirely worthwhile for me. I appreciate that in order to progress as a band and take this beyond “hobby” stage, Tin Spirits will need to concentrate increasingly on their own material rather than the XTC stuff, and at that point they’ll probably lose me, so I’d best enjoy them while I can. So overall, thanks again boys, for allowing me to hear at least a taster of XTC “live”!

Sunday, 4 December 2011

835 THE VACCINES, Frankie And The Heartstrings, Bristol O2 Academy, Friday 2 December 2011

In the almost complete absence of any promising new band discoveries this year (Okkervil River and Male Bonding notwithstanding, but OR have been around for donkey’s years, and MB bassist Kevin Hendricks had previous with Seafood, so I’m not sure how “new” they actually count as…), NME press darlings and this week’s “Best Band In The World” (according to said venerable rag) The Vaccines are probably the best “brand new” band I’ve come across in 2011. And yes, I know I’m damning them with faint praise… Nevertheless, their spunky, surf guitar overload take on jangly C86 ramshackle upbeat pop has had Rach tapping her toes, and me warmly reaching for early Soup Dragons/ Razorcuts comparisons. We sorted tix for this one, which sold out in double quick hype-propelled time, and I for one approached it with curious trepidation; do we have a band here, or is this yet another young group suddenly hyped to the eyeballs, and, unable to sustain it, destined to fall from grace almost as quick?

Bristol Friday night Christmas shopping, plus an early curfew, necessitated an early departure at 6.20, but the Cabot Circus traffic didn’t delay us as much as feared. So we parked up and hit the venue, already rammed to the gills with teenage indie kids, but also an odd smattering of greying old lags such as myself, at 7.30, as support Frankie And The Heartstrings came on. Led by a charismatic young singer (presumably Frankie), they played some nice innocent strumalong pop with an 80’s ramshackle bent a la early Orange Juice, had one good atmospheric newie recalling British Sea Power, then spoilt a good impression with a clumsy ska number to finish. Hmmm.

Took our usual spot on the stuffed floor, stage left, and enjoyed some good pre-gig music (Neutral Milk Hotel! “Born To Run”! “Teenage Kicks”!) before The Vaccines came on to The Ramones “Rock And Roll Radio” which made me kindly disposed to them from the start, and after an oddly dour opener, they hit the “amphetamine fast surf guitar rush” button with “Wrecking Bar (Ra Ra Ra)”, and the crowd – including Rachel! - went utterly batshit crazy.

Now, if I was a 16 year old indie kid and had never heard of the likes of The Ramones, Buzzcocks, Velvet Underground, Birdland or even Buddy Holly (!), then I’d likely think The Vaccines were the greatest thing I’d ever heard. Luckily for them, that description probably accounts for the vast majority of their demographic, and certainly of the crowd tonight. However I have, so at times their material comes across like 4 kids gleefully rummaging through their parents’ record collection. “Wetsuit” was very 50’s, Buddy Holly-esque, and newie “Teenage Icon” recalled SLF’s “Nobody’s Hero”, at least in subject matter. Overall it’s all simple, almost primitive stuff, and so far, for me they’re not adding much of their own to the mix. Nevertheless, this matters very little to this audience, who greeted every note with frenzied devotion verging on mania, and contributed massively to a thrilling and exciting atmosphere. What The Vaccines do do extremely well is fuel this atmosphere with an equally thrilling, dynamic and exhiliarating performance, led by chief rabble rouser Justin Young, possessor of a voice I’m not sure I like “live”, a cross between a Lou Reed street sneer and a slurring bellow, but who channelled the energy well, lapping up the crowd adulation. A short, snappy 45 minute set plus encores was highlighted by a Ramones-like and rather splendid actually “If You Wanna”, before which Justin challenged us to, “show us how you do it in Bristol,” and the crowd responded in kind.

So, overall a by no means original, but a thrilling and totally enjoyable gig. Long term, the jury’s out for me, but they’re walking the walk right now and bringing simple, classic and fun rock to a new generation. And who should be in the scrum for the car park tickets in Trenchard outside afterwards; none other than England football legend and “old punk rocker” Stuart Pearce! I couldn’t resist patting him on the shoulder and asking, “did you enjoy that then, Sir?” to which I got the instant riposte, “whadda you fink?” Fantastic – who am I to argue with Psycho?

Thursday, 1 December 2011

834 THE LEMONHEADS, Meredith Sheldon, Netherlands, Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms, Wednesday 30 November 2011

It’s been a long 4 ½ years since I’ve last crossed paths with Evan Dando, a man who still remains one of my all-time musical icons. My oldest son, Evan, will attest to that for all his life... However, an indifferent showing in Bristol in October 2006, followed by the awful Cardiff car-crash that was gig 730, last time out in May 2007, persuaded me pretty much not to allow Evan an opportunity to disappoint me once again. However, this tour intrigued me enough to shell out on tix, given that the set’s centrepiece would be a full rendition of “It’s A Shame About Ray”, The Lemonheads’ 1992 career-defining post-grunge/alt-country/slacker collision masterpiece. Evan couldn’t really get that far wrong, particularly when this time, he was also reported to be backed up by old Boston friend Josh Lattanzi on bass, and by American Hi-Fi drummer (and, lest we forget, former Sky Heroes sticksman) Brian Nolan, rather than the less competent back rows of The Pieces, to exponentially increase the level of musicianship on show. Could he?

So, Tim and Tracey picked me up at 20 to 7, then we had a wild and windy drive down the well trodden (albeit not recently) route to Pompey, unfortunately getting a little lost around Fratton, but eventually squeezing into a tight parking space just behind the venue for 20 past 8. Tix sorted, we scooted into the venue, sold out but quiet early doors, in time for painfully young first support Netherlands. Unfortunately some occasionally chiming guitar and booming bass drum couldn’t lift their material above Coldplay-esque plodding dull mulch.

Saw a familiar face poke out of the backstage entrance; not Josh as expected, but American Hi-Fi bassist Drew Parsons! Popped over and exchanged warm greetings, then spent 10 minutes or so chatting and catching up with the affable Mr. Parsons, apparently a late replacement for Josh, also hearing about the Hi-Fi’s tentative plans to return to the UK next year. Wow! It was a real pleasure to catch up with Drew again, all the more so for being unexpected, and suddenly I was ridiculously excited at the prospect of the show. American Hi-Fi, on their day, are one of the most incendiary “live” bands I’ve seen, so the thought of the Hi-Fi rhythm section backing Evan was mouthwatering, particularly as Drew promised he and Brian were going to, “rock it tonight!”

But first, we had main support Meredith Sheldon. Recommended by Drew, she played a solo set of Juliana Hatfield-lite strumalong alt-college pop angst which was diverting but oddly dated, probably a whole bunch better on record, but drifted a little and was also overlong, bumping us up to 10 to 10, by which time the place was rammed and anticipatory.

In pretty short order thereafter, Evan Dando took the stage alone, picking up a guitar and powering through a messy solo “Being Around”. The Hi-Fi boys then joined him, for the “Shame About Ray” run-through in order, which although being cheered to the rafters, took some time to really soar. An odd crowd, this, enthusiastic yet static, and initially Evan seemed to be dialling it in, seemingly a little fried and droney, admittedly suffering with some poor muffled vocal sound, but also swathing some of the “Ray” material in unnecessary riffery when a delicate touch was better called for. Drew and Brian nevertheless pulled a stalwart shift behind him, their chemistry undeniable, their dynamism and power exemplary, and “Rudderless” was an early and buoyant highlight. At this point Evan was clearly being carried by his band and the strength of this classic material, but “Alison’s Starting To Happen” finally saw some rocking, as I piled down the front, pitching up stage right two rows back. An unexpectedly fine “Kitchen” made way for an inclusive, singalong “Frank Mills”, and suddenly we saw a totally different Evan.

The “Ray” album now dispensed with in short order, Evan then delivered a solo vignette commencing with a gentle “Outdoor Type”, which culminated in almost a jig-along finish, and finally we saw the best of his talent and delicious dark baritone. A touching solo “All My Life” and “Why Do You Do This To Yourself?” preceded a short break, after which Evan and the boys came out all guns blazing with a superb “Down About It”. Indeed, this second set section seemed more relaxed, the set-list reworked on the fly as Evan, again seeming to play for an audience of one, nevertheless put more commitment into his performance. A titanic and incendiary “Stove” was easily the set highlight, fairly bristling with power and dynamism, before ”If I Could Talk I’d Tell You” rounded the set off on an upbeat note. By this time I was hoping to catch Drew’s eye to blag a set-list, but there was no need, as, whilst Evan lengthened the final riff, Drew unmoored his list from the floor and handed it over to me! Result!

We hit the road promptly then, enduring a difficult journey back in nasty conditions and getting home at 1 (yikes!). This was a late, but ultimately worthwhile one; the usual variable performance from Evan, lacking the passion of old but at his best personally during his solo numbers. However overall this was a mighty improvement over the last couple of “Lemonheads” shows, lifted by a superb rhythm section as good and powerful as any Lemonheads line-up. Great to see Drew again. And now I can’t wait for the Hi-Fi to come over next year…!