Gig awards 2011

December 31, 2011

I don’t do end of year lists. Except I do. Here’s a list of great gigs we’ve been to this year contrived into an awards theme.

Most Relentless Performance – Mec Yek (Bruges Cultural Centre, September)

Autoloze Sontag – a day in which cities in West Flanders (Bruges, Gent and Brussells, at least) close to cars – saw a host of free shows, activities and performance art happening in the streets of Bruges. Highlights included tango dancing in one of the squares and a remarkable little acoustic performance by boy/girl duo in a marquee outside a coffee shop.

It wasn’t until near the end of the day that we picked up a programme for the event and tried to make some sense out of what was going on. Appearing at the cultural centre was a band called Les Mecs du Nord, who were helpfully pictured sporting violins, accordions and ukuleles; we also gathered they’d played at Bruges’s annual accordion festival, Airbag (I KNOW), so we figured they’d be right up our street.

Unfortunately, Les Mecs du Nord didn’t make it. I don’t know why. My Dutch didn’t stretch too far to understand what the man sat next to us was saying, but we established that Mec Yek would be filling in for them, and they were utterly spellbinding. For an hour and a half, we couldn’t sit still – I’ve hardly ever seen a performance that was so energetic, so driving and so bloody incessant! Remarkable.

Funkiest Shit Award – Dizraeli and the Small Gods supported by Gurdan Thomas (Birmigham MAC, April)

A word first for our awesome friends Gurdan Thomas who opened this gig. We don’t get to see them half as much as we’d like now, since they’re stationed in Germany. So when we heard they’d be back briefly to play an opening set, we really didn’t care about the headline act. Eccentric, mindboggingly good fun and tight as hell, GT get better every time we see them! I’ve managed to find a video from their set that night; the song is ‘Demons’ and it’s particular favourite. Enjoy!

We didn’t really know what to expect from Dizraeli and the Small Gods but they were frickin incredible, accomplished musicians and commanding magnetism fusing folk and hip-hop. Honestly, it was a JOY.

Most Unbelievable Actually Real Line-up Gig – Flaming Lips, Dinosaur Jnr and Deerhoof (Alexandra Palace, London, July)

Seriously. This happened! And I’ve already talked about it here. Found this video from the show:

Ear Bleeding Award – The Walkmen supported by The Head and The Heart (Glee Club, Birmingham, January)

There are very few gigs where I’m just as excited by the support act as I am by the main (although there are three in this ‘unlist’). But having discovered The Head and The Heart late in 2010 and being accompanied by their debut album on snowy walks that Christmas, I thought I’d hit a jackpot when I discovered they were to support the Walkmen. They filled the stage bodily and the room with gorgeous harmonies and fine instrumentation. I honestly thought the Walkmen would have to go some to follow that performance.

But if I’d only had a passing interest in the Walkmen before, their performance made me a massive fan and Lisbon, their most recent album and You and Me, their best, have been at the top of my year’s playlist. It’s weird, really – they didn’t banter, they didn’t strut; they just played. And they utterly blew me away! Here’s a video of one of my favourite of theirs, ‘Canadian Girl’, that has some miraculous brass!

And Finally… Award – Mountain Goats (Manchester Academy 3, May)

‘And Finally…’ for two reasons; 1) we FINALLY got to see one of our favourite bands; 2) GIG OF THE YEAR!

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been. The support act was pretty forgettable and John Darnielle was poorly. He confessed to being unable to play many ‘stompers’ that Goats fans might have come to expect at gigs now, but the softer stuff he played (the set was quite Get Lonely heavy) lent the gig a fantastic intimacy. Everyone sang along, everyone felt the love and JD had the biggest grin on his face! There are some fab videos from this gig; here’s one of ’em:

Gigs that should have been…

Leisure Society

Jeff Mangum

2012 should be great!

Happy New Year, y’all. Feel free to add your own.



You think of the past…

July 11, 2011

‘I don’t want them to go overboard with the lasers, the big hands and the hamsterball; I remember the simpler times when it was just a video screen… and a theremin… oh and a gong, fake blood, a glove puppet and a yellow jacket.’ I was only half joking.

Yes, 1st July was all about nostalgia (as Dave Rowlinson has already said) as we headed south-east to see the Flaming Lips perform their 1999 masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin.  As part of the ATP ‘Don’t Look Back’ series, which invites bands to perform their classic albums, I’d been looking forward (or should that be backward?) to this performance through the romantic lens of my 18-year old self for quite some time. I was also intrigued about the opening performances: Deerhoof and Dinosaur Jr playing their albums Milk Man and Bug respectively.

The funny thing about gigs like this and a performance of the headline album in particular, for me anyway, is the weird interplay between past, present and future and whether expectations (or vain half-joked hopes) would be met. We kind of knew each setlist (I say ‘kind of’ because the UK version of the Soft Bulletin doesn’t actually reflect the band’s chosen tracklisting. It differed wildly from the US release and also from the vinyl release, the latter I think being closest to what the band wanted); but we didn’t know quite how faithful the performance would be to the album nor whether it would reflect more recent Lips gigs. Would Wayne talk a lot? Would there be time for an encore of songs from other albums?

It must have been an even weirder feeling for the performers. When most fans go to gigs, they want to hear the old favourites and it can be hard for bands that want to blaze new trails to find that balance. It must be worse when it comes to albums that are so beloved, so important and so defining that they seem not to belong to the band any more. I think Dinosaur Jr hinted at how surreal it was halfway through their set: ‘we’re starting side 2 now’. Deerhoof, who were a REVELATION, admitted that they’d underestimated how many people would turn up at 7pm to see them.

The venue added to the sense of  conjunction. The Alexandra Palace is very Victorian; all symmetry and grandeur. The Great Hall is vast; its glass ceiling gave the gig an outdoor feel, and its two opposing circular stained glass windows and imposing organ told me the evening was going to be beautiful before it had even started. Imagine what it looked like once the Lips tour machine had done its work – balloons hanging on bungee rope, more balloons flying around, the enormous video screen… like some sort of cosmic artefact!

And Wayne, in his cute pre-set health and safety announcement (‘look after each other’) commented on how special but strange the event was. I understood why they didn’t play so many Soft Bulletin songs at their gigs; it’s a dark and intense album. Playing those songs must have started to drive them crazy. It’s no wonder that subsequent albums like At War With The Mystics (especially) seemed so unsubstantial by comparison.

The spectacle of the show was what we’ve come to expect of Lips shows and let’s face it, people would have been disappointed had it been any other way. Wayne did the hamster ball, whipping everyone up in its orbit; we got the lasers, the massive hands, the tickertape, balloons and dancers (this time dressed at Wizard of Oz characters). Was it over the top? Certainly. Did it detract? Absolutely not! I was captivated again!

The performance of those songs so cherished was utterly spellbinding, for the most part, and I’ve only two reservations. The first, Wayne talked far too much. The only ‘seamless’ transition was ‘What Is The Light’ into ‘The Observer’, which if you’ve heard them, is no surprise. No surprise either that the songs were punctuated by overlong chatter and crowd-rousing, but I just feel that if only a couple more songs been performed without break, the gig would have been even more satisfying. The second issue is that ‘Waitin’ For A Superman’ was a colossal disappointment. Now maybe I’m not being fair, but I just can’t be rational about that song and you’ll just have to indulge me. But for me, they turned a heart-rending song into a bit of a karaoke piece – no drums, no bass (no video); just electric piano, which I could have coped with reluctantly were it not for Wayne’s haphazard delivery – elongated notes here and there. Milking it, basically. Though the sight of thousands of people, arms aloft, singing along was incredibly moving; I’m not totally made of stone.

But the rest of the show more than atoned! The crash into ‘Race For The Prize’ is always gratifying, its bewildering energy and the explosion of colour and sound that came with it might have made it better than any other time I’d seen it live. ‘Slow Motion’, not one of my favourites, benefited from being completely stripped down and ‘The Spark That Bled’ was as rousing as ever!

Andy had special praise for ‘What Is The Light / The Observer’, which were incredible, but for me, two songs especially stood out. ‘The Gash’ completely floored me; beautiful in a grotesque kind of way with a troubling video and a bridge that’s somehow uplifting (‘will the fight for sanity be the fight of our lives?’). Seriously, anyone who doesn’t punch the air to that is a bloody statue! And I can’t say much about ‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’ other than it was as gorgeous as ‘Waiting For A Superman’ should have been; it had me in tears. Honestly, it’s no wonder they don’t play these songs much nowadays.

Little wonder, too, that the evening didn’t end on the last track on the Soft Bulletin, the ponderous ‘Sleeping On The Roof’, but with a little bit of hope. We needed ‘Do You Realize??’ perhaps like Flaming Lips needed to make Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, the album it’s on. And it was utterly joyous! We needed to be accompanied out of the Alexandra Palace to Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’. And that was serene.

In 2000, I was still affected by my first Flaming Lips gig for a long time after. A few months ago, I partly put that down to my youth. But every time I think about my night at Alexandra Palace, I feel those same things and the gig still stirs me. For a few hours, I felt my age, I felt older, I felt 18 again and younger still. And I can’t believe I was there!

The litter on the breeze

June 19, 2011

In the mid to late 90s, when I was belatedly discovering what the certainty of youth would’ve led me to term ‘proper music’, Suede where anathema. Trapped as I was in the grip of what in retrospect seems quite a conservative avenue of Britrock, Suede seemed weird, dangerous, other. I was into bands that took their influence from the staples of British guitar pop – The Beatles, The Jam, The Small Faces. Suede, with their mixture of Bowie-ish glam and Smiths-like maturity were just too far away from what I considered to be the righteous path to musical enlightenment. Of course, I’m no longer a teenager listening exclusively to music personally approved by Paul Weller, and now that I consider The Smiths to be one of the best ever British bands, have come round to appreciate Bowie’s influence on popular music, and am armed with the knowledge that The Beatles were a much deeper and weirder band than Noel Gallagher’s occasional pinching of chord sequences would have had me to believe, I come to Suede.


A few months back I was watching a documentary on BBC4 about the development of British “indie” music. It took in all the usual stops, including The Smiths, Primal Scream and on into Britpop. Suede were brought up as a kind’ve early trailblazer for the wave of British guitar bands that supposedly took on the world during the 90s and to that end the doc featured an amazing piece of footage – Suede at the Brits in 1993. At that point in time, pre-Jarvis, Noel and Damon, the Brits was seemingly a much more old school industry event. Suede played Animal Nitrate. They stomp, they wiggle, Brett slaps his arse with the microphone; Suede cliches by now I suppose, but the real magic occurs at the very end of the clip. A smattering of semi-polite applause as the camera pans across an audience of the tuxedoed music industry who quite plainly are not amused. A great bit of music tv, right up there with Hendrix causing chaos on the Lulu show. And so begins my current Suede love affair.

Handily this discovery has coincided with the remastering and rerelease of Suede’s catalogue. Every week this month they’ve been putting the albums back out into the world in handsome thick digipacks with two CDs featuring the original records, B-sides and demos plus a DVD of contemporary live footage and music videos. These can be had for a bargain at your friendly internet retailer, so I ordered the first (and apparently best) three sets straight off. And you know what? I’m so very glad I did. Suede is a powerfully confident debut album, featuring massively addictive sleezy glam singles next to slower more graceful material. As first albums go, it’s stunning. Suede where hyped at the time as saviors of British music, only to be subsequently elbowed aside by more laddish, less subtle bands. Listening to this album now makes that seem like a mistake of almost comical proportions. Here surely were the real inheritors of the flame of Morrissey and Marr, instead we chose the Bluetones and Shed 7.


The injustice of Suede’s subsequent relegation to almost cult status is only enhanced by their second record Dog Man Star. The growth from the first album is almost breath taking as the band produced a darker, deeper piece that surely requires a blue plaque marked ‘classic’ to be nailed up somewhere. Driven by the heroic Bernard guitar parts, strings, keyboards and almost jarringly mature Brett vocals, the album is easily my favourite of the three and I can only curse myself for not being into it at the time it was actually released. That the recording of the album was marked with arguments and an eventual massive falling out only makes for a more intense sound. There’s huge pop hooks here (New Generation) but also slow, weird and beautiful stuff like The Wild Ones, surely one of the best singles of the 90s. On headphones it sounds fascinating, through speakers it’s massive – a record to cherish.


Which leaves Coming Up. The acrimonious Dog Man Star sessions resulted in an allegedly highly controlling Bernard Butler leaving the band, yet, recruiting a keyboard player and a 17 year old guitarist, the band somehow carried on. That they did this at all seems a testament to their spirit, that they managed to produce a very listenable, if flawed, album is surely almost miraculous. If Dog Man Star almost defines the term art-rock then Coming Up is it’s polar opposite; Suede’s ‘pop’ moment. Ironically it also pulled them closer to the Britpop sound that had overtaken them in the music press’s affections. A more democratic writing process (both guitarist Richard Oakes and keyboardist Neil Codling collaborated with Brett) led to some classic moments – the monumental Trash, giddy Beautiful Ones and elegiac Chemistry Between Us, but also some car crash mistakes. Film Star for example is easily the worst moment on any of these records, it’s trite lyrics and thrashy arrangement quickly lead to a headache and weaken what could’ve been one of the greatest recoveries in rock.


So, three records, two greats, one poppy mixed bag, but I urge you to check them out if you’ve previously dismissed them and maybe we can send a time machine back and tell my younger to self to open his ears?

I see the ice is slowly melting

June 5, 2011

By 1969 The Beatles were bickering their way to a grizzly divorce. The tensions that had simmered within the group ever since they had abandoned live performance could no longer be set aside and they had lost the desire to even try and hide them. This makes it all the more striking then, that whilst in the throes of such a messy break up, the band pulled together and completed one last album of frankly startling beauty: Abbey Road. It would be more accurate to say however, some of the band pulled together. For Abbey Road is the rare example of Paul McCartney and George Harrison (with stirling help from Ringo) working in relative harmony.


Together in perfect harmony?

John Lennon then, is the pretty large elephant in the room here. Of course John is hardly a no-show on the album. Come Together is one of the finest openers to a Beatles album and Because one of their prettiest harmony vocal pieces. Look closer though and much of the former’s cool vibe comes from the band’s smokey performance whilst the latter merely piles layers of window dressing on a less than engaging song. What’s more John doesn’t even appear on some of the album’s tracks due to being involved in a car accident when holidaying in Scotland with Yoko. Abbey Road then, was left to the uneasy bedfellows of McCartney and Harrison to whip into shape. By this time, the tension between the innovative yet controlling bassist and the more thoughtful yet overly cautious lead guitarist was as much a problem for the band as the warring egos of it’s two principle songwriters. For them to put aside those differences and get down to work is perhaps nothing short of miraculous.


Nowhere is this marvel better exemplified than George’s two tracks, Something and Here Comes The Sun. The Beatles’ (or perhaps more specifically, Paul’s) natural sense of tight pop arrangement lends both of these tracks a brevity that George could’ve done well to note for the following year’s wonderful yet occasionally ponderous All Thing Must Pass album. The gentle swirl of Something benefits immensely from Paul’s inventive bass, adding a counterpoint to the song’s melody, bubbling up between the vocal lines and nudging the song into life where an arrangement in George’s later style (such as the one he utilised on Isn’t It A Pity) might’ve allowed it to drift into the ether. Here Comes The Sun’s buoyant bounce is given an extra kick from tight harmonies, some wonderful drumming and a counter melody played on the recently invented Moog synthesizer. Both represent the best of George as a Beatle: a shame he was so at odds with Paul and the very idea of the band itself that he wasn’t taking notes in preperation for his solo work.


A word here about Ringo. If Abbey Road is a triumph born of two men who didn’t like each other somehow working well as a team, then it it is one that wouldn’t be half as satisfying without The Beatles’ ever reliable drummer. George Martin and his studio engineers had worked hard ever since Revolver on perfecting interesting drum sounds, and this album really makes the drum parts shine, but Ringo’s own skills have always been severely underrated. On the two aforementioned George tracks he provides a masterclass in how to drum for a song. His playing on Here Comes The Sun is a blueprint for great pop/rock drumming, locking in tightly with Paul’s bass on the verses before a flurry of excited fills drive the revelation of the “Sun, sun, sun here it comes” breakdown. Something, by contrast, is a masterpiece of control and subtlety, staying out of the way as the verse/chorus unfolds before a thundering continuous tom/hi-hat roll breaks through the haze to propel the middle eight. Just as on the rest of the album, these are drum parts you can almost sing: how much drumming can you say that about?


If George and Ringo’s contributions offer useful insight into Abbey Road’s magic, then it is Paul’s that truly define it. Aside from being the driving force behind the second side’s medley of otherwise useless offcuts, his songwriting here is dazzling, giving Abbey Road the golden autumnal glow it is renowned for: Oh! Darling is sweaty and sensual, She Came In Through The Bathroom Window wry and slinky, and love or hate it the twee Maxwell’s Silver Hammer provides a shot of pure pop. His best is saved for the only proper songs in the aforementioned medley, where You Never Give Me Your Money’s musical and philosophical themes reappear in the later Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight, Paul’s gentle melodic touch binding with some of his best lyrics and boosted off into the stratosphere by a classic George Martin horn and string arrangement. It’s his wonderful reaching ambition that makes the album sound better in places than it probably is: Abbey Road is not The Beatles best album, but given the circumstances of it’s creation, both he and George did a better job than might’ve been expected of them.


Paul always seems to produce his best when backed against a wall (such as conjuring Band On The Run out of the direst of times for Wings) and the period of Abbey Road’s sessions was perhaps the tallest wall he’d ever face. George would probably have preferred to be anywhere but in a studio with Paul, his mind already on clearing the large backlog of his own songs. Yet, with the band and their friendship collapsing around their ears, they drove The Beatles to one last little victory: an album that sent the band out on a high note.

Going to Manchester…

May 26, 2011

I know I speak for Andy to when I say I just want to register our helpless excitement that we’ll finally get to see the Mountain Goats tomorrow.

For years we’ve loved the Mountain Goats so much that we can’t even be rational about the ‘band’. I say band in inverted commas, since Mountain Goats is essentially the moniker of prolific songwriter and all-round dude, John Darnielle.

Since the early nineties, JD has amassed a cult following of devoted followers (so you can treat this post as hyperbole if you like, but it’s not, right. It’s honest and pure 😉 ) for his lo-fi approach to making music, his literary but relateable lyrics and his passionate (sometimes vehement) delivery.

More recently, though, JD has embraced more intricate instrumentation and arrangement, and though far from shiny, some of that lo-fi sound has been lost. This, I assume, has divided some fans and usually I’d find myself on the ‘more ramshackle, please’ side of the debate. But, if we have to compromise some rough around the edges for masterpieces like The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee then bring it on! And, you know what, the sound hasn’t been sterilised, it’s just got more depth. On top of that, John Darnielle’s lyrics have got even better, more mature and more laser guided.

Right now, John Darnielle is brining it! I’m loving the new album , All Eternals Deck, in spite of the fact that ‘Never Quite Free’ is just so beautiful, it threatens to derail the rest of the album – a relief that it’s the penultimate song! Other high points are opener ‘Damn These Vampires’ (‘sleep like dead men / wake up like dead men’), ‘Beautiful Gas Mask’ (which remarkably reminds me of of Montreal’s ‘Famine Affair’, minus the disco section!) and the bold ‘High Hawk Season’. But really, it’s a wonderfully consistent album, with no duds and no fillers, that I can’t wait to see live!

And Goats gigs are already legendary to me. I’ve heard a few gigs and live songs online which have just floored me. Take a live version of ‘No Children’ which is sung entirely by the audience or the 2007 Zoop shows, awesome not only for the performances but also for John’s easy banter between songs. In every live performance I’ve heard, I swear I can hear the love swelling in the room, and I’m going to experience for myself!

The Mountain Goats perform ‘Going to Georgia’ at Zoop. Feel the love, y’all! Also try to check out ‘The Sign (with hand gestures)’ on YouTube. It’s fabulous!

So, tomorrow night it happens. If you’re going, you’ll see me. I’ll be the one sobbing.

Yes, predictable title, I know

I can always sleep standing up

May 19, 2011

Thoughts on this song two years shy of it being TWENTY (!) years old:

  • Is “Call me when you try to wake her” the weirdest chorus ever found on a hit record? It’s strange, funny, catchy but just the right side of precious. Is this song the Shiny Happy People that it’s actually ok to like?
  • Me and B have been musing lately on how Michael Stipe acts songs rather than sings them, and this track is a great example. The “ooooOOOoooOOooh oooh oooh oOOooooh” parts of the vocal really tug on the heartstrings, and is there a more human moment on any  of R.E.M.’s songs than the little giggle after “Dr Seuss”?
  • The line describing a payphone having “…scratches all around the coin slot/Like a heartbeat, baby trying to wake up” is utterly wonderful.
  • From their debut Murmur onwards, it was clear R.E.M. could play, but this song’s instrumental parts are a prime example of why they became massive in the early 90s: they stay out of the way. Mike Mill’s weaves a gentle organ countermelody around the vocal, Peter Buck resists his trademark jangle to lock in tight with Bill Berry’s snapping drums and the only thing making fancy musical shapes is John Paul Jones delicious string arrangement. This gives masses of room for Stipe to drop the veiled shyness that marked the band’s early output and step fully into the limelight.

For Sale: Creativity

May 18, 2011

Well B’s been posting up a frenzy on this blog lately, so I thought it was time  I got back into the action. Here’s the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of thoughts about The Beatles! Pand xo

The Beatles’ pace of development is already legendary. To have achieved such a dazzling and varied body of work in such a short space of time seems to defy belief when considered against the typical sloth-like pace of a modern band’s life. But what if it’d been even faster? An inkling of how the band’s lightning-like artistic development might have been speedier can be found on an album that most probably consider a mere stepping stone, Beatles For Sale.

The Frazzled Fab Four

Even at this relatively early stage in their career, The Beatles were already unstoppable. Beatle-mania was in full shriek and yet the album’s cover art seems to betray four men already tired of it all. They stare grumpily at the camera: another photo shoot; another album; another tour. The madness of it all shows in their faces. The jet-engine screams of their young fans would eventually lead to them abandoning touring in favour of creative revelation within the confines of Abbey Road. But for the moment at least they were locked into a busy, unremitting schedule, and so after A Hard Day’s Night, an unprecedented album of all-originals, they were onto the next album without a pause.

To the casual ear the lack of rest shows. This is an album with 6 covers and 8 original compositions. Not a great ratio for a band with such a level of writing talent in it’s midst, and pathetic in light of it’s predecessor. It would be easy to take Beatles For Sale’s position in the band’s discography coupled with the miserable cover photo and title and assume a creative burn out, a going through of the motions.

That would be too easy and quite unfair to what is in many ways an album that presages the explosion of innovation that was imminent. There is material here that wouldn’t sound out of place on Rubber Soul, an album usually considered the start of their more expressive studio period. What You’re Doing’s guitar jangle and drum snap; Baby’s In Black’s angular waltz; the jokey confessional of I’m A Loser. All these tracks show signs of a willingness to experiment that The Beatles seem to have been unable to develop over a full album.

Even when they weren’t pushing boundaries the band were refining the mastery of arrangement that would serve them so well in the future. For instance No Reply and Eight Day’s A Week are two of the most tightly arranged ‘pop’ moments they’d yet recorded. Bubbling with energy, yet poised and refined, these tracks use the full-range of their studio experience to deliver a sound that was far beyond the grasp of any of their contemporaries.

It seems a crying shame then that the Beatles weren’t given time to work up a few more songs as this really might’ve been the start of something that, as it was, took a further two albums to flower. We’re left with an album that sounds like an EP of good material padded out with by-the-numbers covers (is there a worse moment on one of their records than the plod through Carl Perkins’ Honey Don’t?). It’s quite sad to note that on their next album, Help! (the tuneful but coasting soundtrack to a colourful but coasting film), the innovation found in patches on Beatles For Sale was almost entirely absent. The schedule had won again, needs must and there was no time to dally. Thankfully, The Beatles wouldn’t accept their work being compromised for much longer.