Sunday, 29 September 2013

889 XSLF, Charred Hearts, Swindon Basement 73, Saturday 28 September 2013

Squeezed in an unexpected gig tonight as it was local, and a variation on my usual “Mad March to Bristol !” I normally pop down the M4 each March to catch original punk combo Stiff Little Fingers on their annual Academy tour, however former original guitarist Henry Cluney, widely credited as the man who introduced punk rock to an Ulster covers band called Highway Star, thus prompting their metamorphosis into SLF, has formed a breakaway version of the band trading under the XSLF banner and also featuring early line-up drummer Jim Reilly. And they’re playing a gig in my old 80’s/90’s weekend haunt Level 3, sorry Basement 73 as it’s now billed. This should be an interesting one, to contrast this lot with “the real thing” with whom I’m so familiar thanks to their annual go-around, and also to see how SLF numbers stack up without the gravelly rasp of vocalist Jake Burns. Here goes…

Drove into town after the kids went to bed, meeting up with The Big Man and Ady outside the Rolleston and catching up awhile. Chatted upstairs through the opening act downstairs, but t’was then getting a little chilly so I went down to this familiar old venue (although oddly enough for the first time under its’ new incarnation!) to catch main support, 80’s reformed punk act Charred Hearts. Local boys, this lot, with vocalist Dermot Fuller also having had a hand in organising this gig, a memorial event for a friend, they understandably played with bucketfuls of passion and commitment, sweeping their ramalama terrace chant street punk along with undiluted intensity and conviction. Fuller was fulsome in his praise for the impressive turnout of old punk rockers (“I’m so proud of all you fuckers”), also remarking, tongue in cheek, after one energetic number, “the adrenaline’s starting to kick in – I tell you, when you’re pushing 40 like us lot…!” I also appreciated him wandering offstage during a middle eight, simply to walk through the venue and shake hands with a few punters and friends. Style, sir. Noisy and ramshackle, but sincere and impressive stuff from a band who clearly wear their (charred) hearts on their sleeves.

By now Ady and The Big Man had joined us at the bar, where we awaited XSLF’s entrance at 10.30. Dermot Fuller announced the 3-piece onstage, with Cluney, a short black-clad bloke who’d clearly been sharing the same diet as his similarly expanding former bandmate Burns, kicking off with “At The Edge”. However, whereas SLF’s rendition is normally exciting and adrenaline-fuelled, this seemed slow, sluggish and haphazardly played, with Cluney, a quieter, more understated, nuanced and heavily Irish accented vocalist, suffering in comparison to Burns’ considerably more strident tones. A couple of less familiar early numbers later, I was formulating the view that this was not a patch on the real thing, a disappointing, almost pub-circuit standard imitation. Then…

“Tin Soldiers” changed all that. “If they get this one wrong, we might as well all go home…” I remarked to The Big Man. Thankfully, they didn’t, kicking up the conviction level a few hundred notches with an impressive rendition of SLF’s best number. “Gotta Getaway” followed, one rarely trotted out by Burns’ mob, so I got up for a pogo and an arms aloft, fists punching the air punk rock singalong. The usual SLF faves shone after that, with Cluney ultimately playing with a sense of ownership and entitlement; an anthemic “Fly The Flag”, a shambolic “Alternative Ulster” which nevertheless got the dancefloor filled with a rampaging mosh, a swayalong “Barbed Wire Love”, and final encore “Roots Radicals, Rockers and Reggae”, to end on a real high.

Sure, there were bum notes and ragged edges aplenty, particularly from the short-notice replacement bassman, and musically they didn’t compare favourably to the “real” SLF. But after a dreadful start, this was better than I’d initially feared, with Cluney another old punk growing old disgracefully, revisiting his roots and rediscovering his mojo in the process. And they were playing in a small sweaty club in Swindon on a Saturday night, for a good cause. So fair play to ‘em. A damn fine evening’s punk rock!

Monday, 23 September 2013

888 JIMMY LAFAVE featuring PHIL HURLEY, Tingewick Village Hall, Buckingham, Friday 20 September 2013

This one was less an actual “gig” from my perspective, but more an opportunity to catch up with an old friend. Phil Hurley, former Gigolo Aunts guitarist extraordinaire, friend of 20 years standing and an absolutely lovely bloke whom I’d not seen since he kindly took a day out of his schedule to show two slightly swamped and flailing Brits around his then hometown of LA, on our California honeymoon trip in 2005, announced he was dirtying the shores of the UK for probably the first time since his mid-90’s visits with Tracy Bonham. This time however, having since relocated to Austin , Texas , he was riding shotgun with Texan folk/ country singer Jimmy LaFave on a short UK tour. OK then! However, of the 3 dates, Nottingham was out of reach, and I didn’t fancy Central London on a Thursday night. Thus it was that I faced a journey to what all my research indicated was a tiny wooden scout hut in a village in the middle of Nowheresville, Buckinghamshire!

So I leapt into the Friday night commuter traffic queues after work, sitting frustratingly in traffic north of Oxford but finding Tingewick Village Hall easily – there’s only one road through this quintessential sleepy old English village! Phil was hanging out by the van, chatting to his driver, so I unrolled my window and shouted, “Hurley!” That surprised him! “Hey David! What are you doing here? What am I doing here??!” was the incredulous response. Parked the car, then hung out with Phil and tonight’s promoters, chatting about music and children (mine and his brother’s, Phil not being a dad – yet…), the years falling away.

Got in – on the list. Nice! – then took a seat near the front, catching another chat about Boston Rock with Phil before stage time. Jimmy LaFave then took the stage just after 8.15, leading his 4-piece on to a fine reception from the c.100-strong audience of evident Country/folk aficionados. The set kicked off with some stark, parched and bare country balladry, topped by LaFave’s plaintive, yearning and slightly high-pitched voice, the material also giving ample opportunity for Phil’s stellar guitar licks. This was some detailed and intricate picking, as if born to the genre, from my friend, the virtuoso guitarist.

I’d not done any pre-gig listening research on LaFave’s music itself, which he apparently terms “Red Dirt” music after the colour of the soil around his native Stillwater , Oklahoma . Fittingly, it sounds as rootsy and dusty as the image evoked by that description, and was delivered in an easy, laid back and comfortable style from the seated LaFave, chatting “stream of consciousness” style between songs as if to old friends. Phil happily acted as his foil, particularly for old stories of drunken misdemeanours on previous UK visits (“don’t eat Mexican food in Camden !”). Tales of last night’s visit to London ’s legendary 100 Club were recounted (“punk rock lives on in the bathrooms!” was Phil’s summation) and LaFave challenged Phil’s lack of tuning up between songs with, “because some people don’t give a damn!” A lengthy story about LaFave’s ex-wife preceded, “something really angry,” which was a bilious reading of Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman”, a set highlight. Another cover, a smooth, soulful rendition of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” also shone, Phil once again embellishing the mood perfectly with some stellar chops, ringing and resonant.

A singalong “Have You Ever Seen The Rain”, capped a 1 hour 45 performance, eliciting a raucous shout for an encore, which saw a heart-tugging cover of The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee”, and a second encore of Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” saw Phil indulge in some wig-out raucous riffery (“a bit of MBV!” was his verdict afterwards), adding drama and gravitas to tonight’s best number and the climax of the performance.

Brief chat and compliments with a besieged Phil afterwards, before I headed off into the inky night, thanking LaFave on my way out for bringing my friend over to the UK and mentioning to him that although his music is not my normal thing, my ears are sensible enough to recognise class and excellent musicianship when they hear it. Good stuff indeed, but all the better for catching up with an old friend along the way. Mission accomplished!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

887 JIMMY EAT WORLD, The Shimmer Band, Bristol O2 Academy, Saturday 14 September 2013

Jimmy Eat World, Mesa , AZ ’s finest proponents of heartfelt and irresistibly catchy emotive powerpop and melodic punk rock, are back with a new album and UK tour, and we’re all over this one like a rash. We got tickets in the O2 pre-sale, which was good as this show sold out within days (the only date on the UK tour to do so, oddly…), which was ultimately frustrating, as latterly my son Evan decided he fancied it, but we couldn’t get him sorted with a ticket this time. Darn!

So Jimmy uber-fan Rach and I headed off at 6.30, hitting traffic in Bristol then finding our normal car-park was full, with an immovable queue of cars nevertheless chancing their arm. Bah! So we headed back down the hill, parking up in the Millennium car park by @ Bristol and hitting the venue for 20 to 8, Rach then getting overcharged for her drink by a dim barmaid who didn’t know what a lager shandy was! Cripes! Not the best of starts then, but we were in place, stage left, for openers The Shimmer Band at 8. A long-haired rabble who took ages to actually get going after taking the stage, they played a very Doors-like brand of dangerous, down and dirty proto bluesy rock, driving and heavily bass-dominated (so much so, we figured their song-writing process was, “hey, here’s a good bass riff, let’s build a song!”), which I ended up warming to. A very brief – 20 minutes! – set was concluded with a “Break On Through” pastiche which even appropriated said songs’s chorus!

The brevity of their set however left us facing nearly an hour’s wait for Jimmy Eat World’s scheduled 9.15 start, and by 8.45 the floor was heaving and the sell-out crowd was bubbling with anticipation. Throw us a bone, please, guys, and come on early! Thankfully they did, as just before 9 the lights dimmed and they nonchalantly wandered onstage to a huge ovation.

Jimmy Eat World’s new album, “Damage”, is a more muted affair than, say, the upfront power-riffs of “Bleed American” or “Futures”, whilst retaining the brutal lyrical honesty that is their trademark. An attempt at a “grown-up breakup record”, apparently, it’s a real grower, albeit with the words rather than the rock carrying the power. In keeping with this, opener “I Will Steal You Back”, from the new album, seemed a little subdued, as the band felt their way into the gig, and the packed crowd response was appreciative rather than enthusiastic. A fine, smooth and deliciously harmonic “Lucky Denver Mint” aside, it took until mainman Jim Adkins bolted on a fat acoustic and delivered a bleeding-raw, heart-rending “Hear You Me” to really engage the crowd with a huge emotive and communal sing-along resonating around the venue. The subsequent “Futures” triad of the title track, an immense “Kill” and an equally powerful “Work” (preceded by the unusually taciturn Adkins introducing it as “probably one of the happier songs on our graded curve…”) then saw the band and the crowd really start to build up a head of steam. “It’s always fun playing here, it’s like everyone’s at the party,” remarked Adkins, beckoning to the overhanging balconies.

The gig was bubbling up nicely, now; however the final three numbers in the set were utterly stunning, an object lesson in how to finish a set good and proper. The majestic “A Praise Chorus”, their best number, all sinuous, soaring and swooping, kicked things up several gears; a blistering “Sweetness” saw the “whoa-oh”s echoing around the venue, accompanying the jagged riffery and juddering thump of the drums; and a final “Bleed American”, bristling with power and seething menace and featuring that killer driving middle-8, capped a set which eased it’s way in, taking time to build up momentum, but left the best until last. And better that than the other way round!

A 3 song encore capped with the joyful melodic burst of “The Middle” (“our happiest song – I’m having a glass half full day, noticing all the happy songs,” according to Adkins), ended an ultimately excellent hour and a half, with Adkins and the band, genuinely thankful of the reception, take a lengthy and deserved ovation. An easy set-list, then back to the car, avoiding the gangs of lairy drunken woman (!)staggering around Bristol , reflecting on the gig. My 10th time overall of seeing Jimmy Eat World, 4th time here, and another excellent night from a band who have consistently delivered excellent albums and top drawer gigs for 12 years now. Worth all tonight’s hassle. Oh yes.

Monday, 9 September 2013

886 PETER HOOK AND THE LIGHT, Slaves Of Venus, Bristol Fleece, Sunday 8 September 2013

After seeing Peter Hook do such a stellar job performing the classic material of post-punk legends Joy Division, one of his former bands, what might he do with his other band New Order’s classic first 2 albums, 1981’s “Movement” and 1983’s “Power, Corruption And Lies”? Since gig 849 last June, Hooky, with his young band The Light, has moved on from interpreting Joy Division albums to focussing on the back catalogue of his most recent charges New Order, and given the acrimony with which he split from his former bandmates, I wondered if the same amount of passion, commitment and, well, sheer ownership, would be prevalent for this material. Let’s see… 

So I hit the road after the kids went to bed, surmising that with a 7.30 doors and the 2 support bands published on the ticket, I’d be there well in time. How wrong I was, though, after I parked up in my new spot behind the venue at 8.20 and heard some familiar basslines as I wandered up to the venue; Hooky was already on stage! D’oh! Luckily, this was a self-support slot under the pseudonym of Slaves Of Venus, running through some less well-known Joy Division material in front of a packed house, so it seemed I was the only one who didn’t get the memo. Anyway, “Colony”’s regimental drumbeat and sinister growl, and the dark dramatic stomp of “Means To An End” were the best numbers on display, before a harsh, strident “Dead Souls” saw Hooky wordlessly lead the band off. 

An unexpected treat; however, I was here for the New Order stuff tonight, and loitered down the front, stage left, for their return at 9 to a dramatic swirling regimental music backdrop. “The support band were good, weren’t they? Don’t think they’ll get anywhere with a name like that…” quipped Hooky as he led his young charges through the opening, elegiac “In A Lonely Place”. However the familiar opening riff of “Ceremony”, next up, charged the crowd into movement, and Hooky, bass slung low in his usual Ramones-esque stance, boomed out the lyric in his potent, lionesque growl. Obscure oldie “Homage” (“last time that was played was Blackpool Scamps, 1980!”) preceded a smooth, galloping “Procession”, before the intricate riff and building intro of “Dreams Never End” heralded the “Movement” run-through, in order. Varying from slow, moody and elegiac hymns to fast-paced proto-synth workouts, this album was the embryonic New Order, the point where the haunting paeans of late Joy Division mixed with the band’s future metronomic synth dance. I was surprised how much of it I remembered, and also surprised as to how much (and tonight’s excellent versions) had Hooky’s trademark bass riffery imprinted all over it! 

“Denial” was a highlight, a rampant rollercoaster of tumbling drums and growling bass to close part 1 of the set, at which Hooky and the boys took a deserved 5 minute break before set part 2 – or 3, depending on your view. “This is like running a marathon,” remarked a nonetheless determined Hooky, as a pulsing and pulsating “Everything’s Gone Green” preceded the “Power, Corruption And Lies” performance. Opening up with a brilliant “Age Of Consent”, they swept through an upbeat, synth-led and happily funky “Village”, through a spooky, insistent “586” with an excellent slow-down to the climax, then the final, touching and almost introspective “Leave Me Alone”. Overall, “PCL”, a largely synth-based and dancier album, more representative of the future New Order direction, was better played tonight, cleaner and more coherent, with Hooky’s more strident vocals providing a touch of power and drama absent from Bernard Sumner’s quieter, more introverted vocal work. 

Encores of a magnificent “Temptation”, probably my highlight tonight with its’ brilliant staccato synth riff and huge singalong chorus, and an inevitable and slightly perfunctory “Blue Monday”, brought a mammoth 2¼ hour set to a close. As the man said, a marathon, true, but one which never dragged or sagged on the journey, with Hooky once again belying his 57 years and doing full justice to another of his old band’s classic material. Another splendid evening; I hope he continues this musical odyssey and does New Order’s 3rd and 4th albums “Low Life” and “Brotherhood” next. I’d love to hear The Light’s versions of the likes of “Perfect Kiss”, “1963” and “Love Vigilantes”!

Friday, 6 September 2013

885 MERCHANDISE, Dallas Don’t, Jeff Wode, Oxford Jericho Tavern, Thursday 5 September 2013

The Autumn gig schedule eases into action with another jaunt to my regular 80’s stamping ground, the Jericho Tavern! This tripette was prompted after Merchandise, my favourite new band of last month’s Reading Festival return, announced a gig in the fabled old upstairs room, so my lovely wife kindly rearranged her plans so I could once again avail myself of this new Tampa band’s challenging brand of 80’s influenced shimmering and effervescent rock. Since seeing da Merch (as probably no-one but myself refers to them), I’d done my due diligence, picking up their last 2 CDs and finding them deliciously languid and libidinous collections of often stretched but never over-indulgent numbers, all metronomic and absorbing, sweeping and swooping from refrain to riff, unconstrained by the usual verse-chorus etc. song structure, and sonically similar to the moody, textured atmospherics of Kitchens Of Distinction combined with chugging repetitive refrains, similar to but more guitar-based than, say, Stereolab. A real intelligence and creativity at work, so I was looking forward to seeing them at close quarters.

I hit the road after the kids went to bed and wandered into the sparsely attended upstairs room as first support Jeff Wode took the stage at 8.30. A young 3-piece, they had one half-decent mid-set number which was subsumed in a morass of thrash punk workouts and 6th form common room idiocy (a song about David Suchet consisting of his name being bellowed over the same riff at various tempos? Really?). Also the iridescently shirted vocalist couldn’t sing for toffee, although the final bellowing “Louie Louie” rather suited his “vocals”, actually… A shame, really, as the guitarist could actually play. He’s wasted there… Thankfully, better was to come with main support Dallas Don’t. A 4-piece whom I originally assumed were fey jangle-poppers, due to the presence of a female guitarist, but instead played some very good muscular proto surf/psych punk. The vocalist also had a strident stream-of-consciousness vocal style similar to 70’s punk bands, suiting their stuff. “We’ve got CDs if you like what we’re doing; if you don’t know hard feelings,” he announced at their final, thrashier number – I did, so I got one from the bassist who confirmed, “we like to play loud.” Good for you!

I had a quick chat with the main Merchandise guys Carson Cox and Dave Vassalotti, ironically at their merch stand (!), prior to their taking the stage at 10. After languid, lugubrious opener “In Nightmare Room”, they kicked it up a notch with a superb “Anxiety’s Door”, the stand-out track on their current “Totale Night” CD. A metronomic groove on record, this was however powerful and venomous “live”, with the impossibly handsome vocalist Cox, looking like the rock star from central casting all in black denim and with Ray-Bans perched precariously atop his blond flick, growling in his resonant baritone, and angular partner Vassalotti throwing shapes like a young Lucky Jackson. Oh yes. I just used a Gravel Pit comparison… And despite the more free-form structure of their songs, this one was nevertheless relentlessly hooky; “you’re the only one now, the only one now…”

“This is for the dancers at the front; not wishing to start a rivalry, but the front of the house is better than the back!” Cox announced before the lengthy, slow-burn “Winter’s Dream”, then “Time” saw me really get rocking down the front to this delicious loose-limbed mutant dance, with Cox’ deep vocals again a feature, more upfront than on CD where they’re occasionally submerged in reverb, like a distant, drowsy, half remembered dream. A couple of older, rockier, more seething and sneering but no less absorbing numbers brought a superb set to a close, although the band were persuaded back for an encore by the rapturous applause from this by-now respectfully full Jericho; “alright, we’ll do one more, but we’re not going to enjoy it!” joked Cox, clearly relishing his work throughout. Excellent stuff overall from a young but very inventive band with real potential.

And nice guys too, as Vassalotti kindly wrote me out a set-list afterwards, and I had a lengthier chat outside with an ebullient Cox and a fellow punter. I left him with handshakes and fist-bumps, plus a copy of my gig blog card and, on request, my work business card. Young Mr. Cox was amused by my being a “Horticulture Merchandiser”, but sorry, Carson , it doesn’t mean I can get you any weed!