Friday, 29 March 2013

877 STIFF LITTLE FINGERS, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Ed Tudorpole, Bristol O2 Academy, Thursday 28 March 2013

The final part of my End of March Gig Rush is the traditional “Mad March To Bristol” for punk veterans Stiff Little Fingers, only with a slight difference this year; usual fellow Mad Marcher The Big Man cried off at short notice with the flu, so for this, my 8th such gig in 9 years, I’m joined instead by Debbie, Swindon’s Queen of Punk! To be fair, though, she was joining Rich and myself this year anyway, after commenting on Facebook that she’d not seen SLF before. This one was also significant due to the support; 80’s folk/ punk reprobates and recent 12 Bar “live” favourites The Men They Couldn’t Hang! Honestly, I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate SLF support than fellow Clash devotees The Men, so this promised to be a great, all-inclusive double bill.

So I picked Deb up at 6.30 for an entertaining drive down, parking up at 7.20 then losing her as soon as we walked through the door of the venue to some Bristol friends! So I popped down onto the deserted floor on my own for former Sex Pistols hanger-on turned “Crystal Maze” presenter Ed Tudorpole. “I know it’s early, they’ve got me here to warm you cunts up!” he announced during a set of thrashy acoustic tomfoolery, delivered in his distinctive yodelling vocal style. One disastrous singalong attempt for new number “I’m Not A Punk? Fuck Off You Cunt!” saw him berate Bristol, but then concede “you’re not as bad as Hull!” The wild-eyed Tudorpole then finally won the early crowd over with the pantomime punk of “Friggin' In The Riggin’” and “Who Killed Bambi?” (“I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning thinking of that song!”) before the inevitable “Swords Of A Thousand Men” actually prompted a singalong as reward for his efforts.

Wandered down the front, bumping into old friend Steve Aldridge and his wife, for The Men They Couldn’t Hang, who sauntered on casually shortly afterwards. “You can see we haven’t got any set-lists, so shout out what you want to hear,” Swill announced, then in response to mine and Olly’s calls, burst into opener “Ghosts Of Cable Street”. There followed an hugely entertaining, sing-along, sway-along and all inclusive set of their rabble rousing folky punk collision, with their lyrical content as ever depicting class struggles through the ages, fighting for the spirit of the common man. “Rosettes” was an unexpected terrace chant highlight, before the true jewel of their performance, a stark, bitter rendition of “Green Fields Of France”, a glorious, elegiac requiem to war dead, at the conclusion of which I turned to Olly and said, “we might as well go home now, we’re not going to hear anything better than that tonight!” A rambunctious “Going Back To Coventry” followed, then the hearty singalong of “Smugglers” saw me videoing a clip for Logan, who loves that song. “Ironmasters”, fast and frenetic and always one of my favourite numbers to dance to, ended a set which, while thin on sound (the PA set up for SLF’s guitar anthems rather than TMTCH’s mandolins) was never short on passion, and was reciprocated by the crowd. Great stuff – and yes, they did have a set-list, which co-vocalist Stefan Cush handed to me at the end!

Top that, SLF! The boys kept us waiting awhile but eventually took the stage at the conclusion of their “Go For It!” entrance music, the best in rock’n’roll, period. This tour was entitled “Up A Gear”, and initially totally lived up to its’ billing; the opening salvo of “At The Edge”, “Wasted Life” and “Roots” was delivered in a hurry, not a pause for breath, thrilling and tremendous prime slices of vintage punk rock each, with the beefy Jake Burns and rock-star skinny Ali McMordie (who bore an excellent t-shirt saying, “McMordie – putting the Fast in Belfast”) to the fore. Surely they couldn’t keep this pace up! Inevitably, they couldn’t. A clutch of new and less familiar numbers slowed the frantic pace somewhat, although newie “Trail Of Tears”, a comparison of immigration laws in the US with Nazi Germany, featured some Thin Lizzy-like snaking riffery. “Strummerville” threatened to bring the tempo back, but it was actually “Doesn’t Make It Alright” which really lifted the performance into life again, Jake relaying a story of how he was invited to hang out with the Specials just before coming over (“but we’ll bring the Specials to you!”). This was an all-inclusive singalong from the frenzied mosh, the reggae beat suddenly bursting into life for the amphetamine fast punk rock ending.

Then they were back “on it”. “Fly The Flag” was as venomous as ever, a rabid “Straw Dogs” an unexpected treat, before a ragged, jagged “Suspect Device” ended the set strongly. Back for the encore, Jake announced they were going to do a number by a band they admired, which turned out to be an excellent, faithful rendition of The Ruts classic “Staring At The Rude Boys”. A manic “Tin Soldiers” rounded off the encore, before they were brought back on for fulsome compliments from Jake for Bristol (“you’ve been a brilliant audience – as ever”, which kind of explains why they – and we –keep coming back) and an inevitable, superb “Alternative Ulster”, to end a set which started like a firecracker, sagged a little in the middle for me, but then roared back at the end with a vengeance.

A quick chat with TMTCH vocalist Swill at the merch stand before we hit the road, Deb converted and wanting to come back next year; SLF will be back, no doubt; so will I, and hopefully so will The Big Man!

876 PALMA VIOLETS, Baby Strange, Oxford O2 Academy 2, Tuesday 26 March 2013

End of March Gig Rush part 3; a jaunt down to the old Zodiac room to see the latest recipients of the NME’s dreaded “hype”; young English band Palma Violets, being touted by the “last music rag standing” as 2013’s “Next Big Thing”, despite (as usual) being a distillation of a lot of stuff that’s gone before. When I listen to Palma Violets, I hear ragged, ramshackle indie rock’n’roll, recalling harder-edged C86 bands such as the excellent Close Lobsters, mixed with a helping of primal bluesy 60’s howl harking back to early Rolling Stones and Velvet Underground, inviting comparisons to The Vaccines and Howler. Enough to make this cynical old boy curious, so, as I usually ask at this point; can they justify the hype? A spritely debut CD in “180”, full of punky, blastalong tunes and spunky youthful vigour, promises much, so let’s see how they do in front of a sold-out O2…

Similarly curious old boy Beef picked me up early, also grabbing his mates Dean and Mike, before we hit the road proper, parking up in the last Tesco car park space and hitting the venue about ¼ to 8. Despite this being a sell-out, they admirably kept the gig in the smaller but better old upstairs Zodiac room, and I think us 4 old boys doubled the aggregate age when we walked in! Support Baby Strange, a power trio from Glasgow and not to be confused with Boston’s Baby Strange, were on at 8, blasting through some spritely yet formulaic, heavily late 70’s influenced, spunky punk/ new wave nonsense, heavy on guitars and recalling punk one-hit wonders The Drones and the Last Words! An almost Radiohead-like, slower and moodier number was thrown in amongst all the thrash, and they were invaded onstage for their final thrashy number by some red-shirted moshing nutter, whom, it turned out, was Palma Violets’ bassist/ vocalist Alex “Chilli” Jesson! A young moshpit accompanied their set throughout, the vocalist announcing at the last number; “this is your last chance to get warmed up before Palma Violets fuck you all!” Prophetic words, perhaps?

The PVs were certainly out to have a go; they rushed on at 9 to the unmistakable pounding drums of The Damned’s “New Rose”, and were straight “on it”, in a riot of noise, colour, belching dry ice and hyperactive movement. By second number, the droney, Velvets-like “Rattlesnake Highway”, they were locked in, playing their ragged rock’n’roll with bags of enthusiasm and energy, and the young and increasingly large moshpit were going mental. An early, Lobsters-like “All The Garden Birds” was a highlight, main vocalist and guitarist Sam Fryer slurring his vocal lines in a similar style to The Vaccines’ Justin Young, and “Tom The Drum” nicked an obvious riff from The Rolling Stones “The Last Time” to power its’ chuntering bluesy romp along.

Like fellow pilferers The Vaccines, the Palma Violets right now sound like they’ve been rummaging through their dad’s record collections; however, where The Vaccines grabbed Buddy Holly, they’ve gone straight for the psych, punk rock and 60’s Stones/ Velvets sections, mixing it up into a ragged and ramshackle howl, with some simple but naggingly effective hooklines thrown in. “Live”, however, they’re straight out of 70’s punk; cacophonous, chaotic, all over the place, rabble-rousing and amphetamine-fuelled plain mental, and an all-inclusive experience for their rabid moshing fans. “Best Of Friends” was a bellow-along terrace chant, precipitating a huge singalong, and virtually the whole of this packed crowd responded to Chilli’s exhortations to lift their waving arms, “higher! Higher! HIGHER!!!” during the lengthy intro to the chiming, C86-like jangle-along “Last Of The Summer Wine”. Set closer, “14”, was by contrast a slower sway-along, and the encores included a crazy blast through an unfamiliar number which might have come from The Ramones’ songbook, simple and dumb, before a final singalong “Brand New Song” saw a stage invasion from the support band and assorted hangers-on to round off a startlingly fast 50 minute performance.

Caught our breath before heading off. Believe the hype? The Palma Violets are doing everything they can to live up to it, and right now they’re walking the walk, at least “live”, with breathless and memorable punk rock performances like this. Fair play to ‘em!

Saturday, 23 March 2013

875 BIFFY CLYRO, City And Colour, Cardiff Motorpoint Arena, Friday 22 March 2013

Gig Rush part 2 is a trip to the top of Mount Biffymanjaro… This was how the NME referred to Biffy Clyro’s new double album “Opposites”, the career-defining release that appears to have catapulted this Scots power trio into the ranks of Festival Headliners and “Best UK Band” poll winners, a widescreen and wide-reaching album which draws in bagpipe bursts and Mexican Mariachi marching band refrains, whilst not straying too far from their blend of anthemic, arena friendly hooky power rock, atmospheric mood swings and jagged, abrasive and challenging time signature noise. Making a Foo Fighter/ Seafood collision a mainstream staple; good on ‘em!

So, the supporting tour was a must for Biffyheads Rach and (increasingly) myself. Cardiff was the nearest said tour swept by the ‘don (no Oasis gig this time, lightning doesn’t strike twice that way…), so Rach booked tix straight away, and we ultimately turned it into an overnighter, Rach dropping the kids off for a sleepover at Grandmas before picking me up from work at 5. Slow traffic in South Wales and crappy directions from Google meant we didn't get to the hotel until 7 pm; but hey, at least the snow blanketing Wales didn’t reach as far South as Cardiff! A quick turnaround at the hotel, then a, “where are we? Where are we? Seriously, where the fuck are we? Oh look, there it is...” type of journey to the Motorpoint saw us park in the cavernous St. Davids’ car park opposite, then ask a policemen for directions when said car park elevator pitched us into the middle of a shopping centre! So we got into the former CIA in time to catch the last half-song of City And Colour’s support set, which sounded countrified and pleasant enough.

This place is bloody huge! A lot bigger even than I remembered it from our last trip here (Gig 734, Arcade Fire in October 2007), this is a cavernous aircraft hanger of a venue skirted by executive balconies. Probably 8,000 in tonight for this sell-out; The Biff have joined the Big Leagues, and no mistake...

We took a spot 1/4 way back, stage left and close to a mic set up on a runway jutting out from the main stage. Just after 8.30, the lights went down, the low hum of the opening bars of opener “Different People” opened up, and vocalist Simon Neil, already bare-chested, took to the front of the stage, with the brothers Johnston and their extra tour band members visible through a huge curtain. “Different People” then exploded into life and guitar-fuelled colour, and the curtain drew up to reveal a superb stage set; 2 huge video screens either side of a central 2-way gothic staircase leading to an elaborate twist of tree roots and trunk, resembling the underground lair of a Goblin King! After a jagged “That Golden Rule”, all seething drama and menace, “Sounds Like Balloons” provided the first communal “whoa-oh” singalong of the night, as the stage set morphed into a circulatory system, the trunk becoming a spine and the screens portraying a body’s muscular outline. Fascinating stuff, but never detracting from the real core of the performance; the music. As it should be.

This was indeed a top-notch performance, The Biff now clearly adapting better to the larger stage and arena/stadium dynamics required of them, whilst remaining true to their scuzzy rock’n’roll roots. Oldie “Justboy” underlined this; delivered with as much passion as they could possibly muster, I got the impression that they weren’t playing this for their loyal long-time fans (as most arena-level bands would, when delving into the old back catalogue), but more for themselves! A poppy “Bubbles” was an early highlight, the mountainous chorus resonating around the venue, then another oldie “A Day Of...”, featured a trademark old Biff weird drumbeat, like a backwards tape loop. “Jaggy Snake”, frantic and fast, was a none-more Seafood rampage, the Biff now at ease with the stage dimensions, with Neil and bassist James Johnston scampering along the runways either side of the stage with regularity.

An acoustic “God And Satan”, delivered by Neil from the runway close to us, a single spotlight picking him out in the otherwise inky blackness, heralded a slower-paced triad, followed by “The Thaw”, which started all touching and tender, then built to an operatic crescendo; then a bare “Machines”, the, “take the pieces and build them skyward,” hook being whispered reverentially back to Neil by the longer-time fans. “Glitter And Trauma” bought back the rock, before a huge, tremendous “The Joke’s On Us”, probably my highlight (of many) of the night, crushing and thunderous. An imperious “Many Of Horror” again saw a huge communal singalong, the subsequent “Picture A Knife Fight” was an uncharacteristic but fun cheesy 80’s hair band rock stomper recalling Boston’s Waltham, before “The Captain”’s call and response brought this tremendous set to a close.

Encores included a slow-burn “Skylight”, delivered by Neil from a makeshift podium atop the stage set staircase, before a final, huge and passionate “Mountains” brought an absolute top-drawer 2 hours of arena rock to a close. “Cardiff, thank you so so so so so so so so much,” an exhausted and gratified Simon Neil remarked as they took their thoroughly deserved bows. And the feeling was utterly mutual.

A lengthy but persistent wait got me Simon Neil’s set list – result! We then took our time leaving the venue to allow the traffic to thin out, reflecting on The Biff’s performance tonight. Despite a splendid stage set-up, they let the rock do the talking tonight. Damn straight. And boy, did it talk tonight, underlining their elevation to the top echelons of rock’n’roll. Mon The Biff!

874 THE GASLIGHT ANTHEM, Japandroids, Bristol O2 Academy, Thursday 21 March 2013

Now the gig year really gets into full swing! Following a quiet-ish start with 5 smallish gigs so far in 2013, here’s a run of 4 bigger ones in 8 days, starting off with a Thursday trip to Brizzle for The Gaslight Anthem! I tried to get tix for this one a couple of months back, even phoning the venue directly, but all roads led directly to a big ol’ “Sold Out” sign. That was, until last week, when, on the offchance, I checked the Academy website again, to discover a few late-released tickets available, one of which I snapped up immediately. So here’s to potentially another splendid evening in the fine company of New Jersey’s finest purveyors of blue-collar bleeding-raw angst and homespun passion, served drizzled over a fine cutlet of shiny emo-tinged punk rock. Let’s go!

Dire warnings of bad weather saw me set off earlier than planned, but the only hiccup was the normal car park entrance being shut, requiring me to circumnavigate over to the other entrance. Got in at ¼ to 8, in time for support Japandroids. A Vancouver 2-piece, they featured an imposing vocalist/ guitarist with a curly floppy fringe and effort-enhanced bulging neck-veins, which recalled El Nino’s splendid mainman Glenn Hicks. He shared some rabble-rousing call and response vocals with his hardworking drummer, over some guitar-work which often resonated as if it was coming out of a steel tunnel. “The House That Heaven Built”, a groove-along treat with some “whoa-oh” hooks, was the best of a good hard-rocking support set, although I also liked that their final number nicked the riff from the Cramps’ “I Ain’t Nothing But A Gore Hound”!

Tonight was a proper sell-out and the place was utterly old-school heaving, as I found a square inch of floorspace, stage left, in time for The Gaslight Anthem’s entrance at 9 to the strains of Van Halen’s “Jump”! Despite opening up with “High” and a couple of similarly fast numbers, they seemed subdued, feeling their way in gradually on this, the first night of the tour. This was however also reflected by the crowd, crammed in but surprisingly unresponsive. A superb “Handwritten”, 4th number in, threatened to change things, but it was the subsequent “45” which popped the cork out of the bottle with its’ powering beat and strident “whoa-oh” chorus hook, by which time I was in the melee down the front with a similarly frustrated punter, oddly enough finding more space there to move!

Despite “45” igniting the crowd to a degree, this was still a lower-key than expected performance from one of the most exciting current bands I’ve seen of late. Brian Fallon was clearly feeling uncommunicative, a comment about the band having, “a meeting about shoes today,” his first audience interaction, preceding a HHH-style waterspit and a disappointingly lumbering version of “House Of The Rising Sun”. The set proceeded in a “fast one, slow one” fashion, a manic, punky “Howl” followed by the slow-burn, almost delta bluesy “Biloxi Parish” to emphasise this. “Blue Dahlia”, another amphetamine-fast balls-to-the-wall blast, was utterly mental, raw and ragged, but the almost reggae-tinged, Costello-like “Queen Of Lower Chelsea”, next up, diffused the mood again. A raucous “Great Expectations”, sharing the same rollicking mutant rockabilly backbeat as The Woodentops’ seminal 1984 single “Plenty” (amazingly, I’d only just noticed this…), segued into a raw-boned and hard-hearted “Keepsake”, to end a 1 hour set which had great moments, but also a few too many careless, perfunctory ones, and which left me wanting some redemption.

We got it for the encore; following a late-night harmonica-fuelled ballad, a strident, anthemic “Here Comes Your Man” was excellent, the audience singalong finally eliciting a smile from taciturn (tonight, at least…) vocalist Fallon. A lovely, lovelorn “Mulholland Drive” followed, before the highlight of the night, a forthright, strident manifesto version of “American Slang”, Fallon strong-arming his guitar like a wrestler, then another punky blast through “59 Sound” to end a variable but ultimately totally worthwhile hour and a half’s rock’n’roll. First night nerves, maybe? I bet they’ll be a damn sight better after a couple of nights of this tour… Either way, I’m glad The Gaslight Anthem kicked off my end of March gig rush!

Friday, 1 March 2013

873 CHRISTOPHER OWENS, Bristol Thekla, Thursday 28 February 2013

Below decks on the “Dirty Boat” again; following last week’s trip onto the top deck to see The History Of Apple Pie, this one was a Thursday evening jaunt to see elfin slacker troubadour and former Girls main-man Christopher Owens, striking out on his own following the dissolution of a band that, according to Christopher, “didn’t really exist anyway,” said dissolution occurring barely weeks after Tim, Tracey and I saw them at the Forum last year!

It was the same trio off to this one; Tim picked me up at 7.15 and we headed down, expecting to hear vast swathes from his louche, laid-back debut singer-songwriter solo effort “Lysandre”, and rather hoping we may also get some of the more absorbing, Wheat-like US alt-rock from the Girls back catalogue. You never know… Picked our way through a busy Bristol city centre and circumnavigated a massive tour bus in the Thekla’s car park, before getting downstairs in time to completely miss the support band, who (according to Beef, who we ran into here) apparently only played 20 minutes! A surprise was the very low turnout for this one; rumoured to be sold out, this was barely half full at most, and a crowd of about 100 hardy souls cloistered around the front awaiting Owens’ arrival. It was so quiet, I actually sat on the stage, extreme right, completely unhindered, all evening and throughout Owens’ set!

Christopher led his band on at ¼ to 9; an 8 piece, this, including 2 female backing vocalists, one of which who had no waist whatsoever, and an impressively zoot-suited older flautist/ saxophonist. No wonder they needed such a huge tour bus! They proceeded to play Owens’ “Lysandre” album in order, the blond flick-haired Owens, mainly seated throughout, thereby veering between slow-burn and classic 60’s acoustic singer-songwriter material, all mellow, idiosyncratic and introspective (though never maudlin), and more uptempo, poppier songs which nevertheless still owed a clear debt to the 50’s/ 60s. The upbeat and most Girls-like number, “New York City”, featured some virtuoso sax to swing it along, and the fragile, Big Star-esque ballad “A Broken Heart” was touching, emphasised by Owens’ equally fragile, keening vocals. “Lysandre’s Theme”, a descending, pastoral riff which opened the set on its’ own, was also featured in a number of songs, bringing them together thematically but also giving me the uneasy impression that I was listening to the same song a time after time. This was even the case with the reggae tinged instrumental “Riviera Rock”, during which the girls swayed with an air of detached insouciance.

This was also somewhat of a problem for me tonight; the band were excellent musicians and the songs well crafted and constructed, but it all seemed a little anodyne and passionless, a possible case of image over substance. And after a politely meandering “Everywhere You Know”, they were off – after barely half an hour!

The crowd, clearly more than a little taken aback by the brevity of the performance, eventually cheered for an encore, and Owens and the band returned for a 5 song covers vignette, including Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”, Simon And Garfunkel’s mellow “The Boxer” with its smooth “aye la lie” chorus line, and the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me”, again underlining that Owens is very much in a 60’s headspace right now, as he handed out lilies to the front rows to close out an overall 50 minute performance. No Girls material though; I can understand him wanting a clean break from that band, but in that case a £15 ticket price for the Thelka was a bit steep for half an hour of original material padded out with a few 60’s covers. I liked… no, make that admired, the first half-hour, but thereafter just felt a little short-changed.

And early home too – out of the venue before ¼ to 10 and home at half past!