Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Shonen Knife / Smallgang / Baguette Bardot at Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes 29 June 2009

I’ve never seen Shonen Knife. I appreciate that is akin to someone who goes to the movies saying that they have never seen Star Wars or the Sound of Music. Shonen Knife is part of our history, and it is just to be assumed that I would have come across them at some time or another. But until tonight, I hadn’t.

The band is in London for a few days, playing a string of dates in tiny venues. Unsurprisingly, these swiftly sold out and a last-minute extra show is being performed here in the unique surroundings of the Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes. For the uninitiated, this is a 50’s retro-style ten pin bowling alley in the basement of the Tavistock Hotel. Tonight no-one seems brave enough to bowl, preferring to sit outside in the summer heat.

We have been promised surprises, and they don’t come any more wonderful and surreal than the first act, the quite impressively bizarre Baguette Bardot. The name is an exact description of what happens next – a strikingly tall and beautiful Japanese girl with a blonde Sixties hairdo dances and sings to vintage J-Pop numbers. Oh, and her arms end in baguettes rather than hands. It’s a spectacle that is both erotic and deeply strange and one that I will not forget in a hurry.

The crowd that she gathers in front of her go nuts, and some of the Japanese girls sing along to what are obviously standards. After her performance BB stays in character for quite some time, having her photo taken and enjoying a drink, despite her bready appendages.

The next act couldn’t be more different or more unwelcome. Crumbling Ghost play loud, lumpen sludge rock and kill the party mood stone dead. During their set there are so many people outside that we are rammed like sardines in the tiny garden.

Next up come smallgang, a band in which every member wears glasses, clearly through necessity rather than affectation. I rather like them, although this is not a view shared by all my colleagues. They alternate singers and what start out as deceptively deadpan songs often mutate into noisy but controlled thrashing. “I’m in the cockpit” (?) is a particularly fine tune.

The crowd surge forward for the headliners. Shonen Knife are two sisters, Naoko and Ritsuko and one newly recruited girl drummer (Etsuko) who have been playing joyful pop-punk for more years than it would be polite to mention. Let’s put it this way, their most famous fan was Kurt Cobain.

Shonen Knife are perfect illustrations of the subjective nature of music. Objectively, it could be pointed out that they can only play in a rudimentary fashion, that their songs are ludicrously simple and that they are not doing anything new. Objectivity can fuck right off, because Shonen Knife are brilliant this evening.

The basic Shonen Knife song is a rumbling ram-a-lama bass heavy garage stomp with nursery rhyme lyrics. The crowd jumps about and join the girls in flashing devil’s horns at each other. The girls acknowledge their debt to those other famous purveyors of deceptively stupid two minute rock songs with a track called “Ramones Forever”. It would do da brudders proud.

Possibly the highlight of a riotous set is the ludicrous ‘Barnacle’, which the audience is invited to holler along with, and which we do, with great gusto. It’s a song that goes, almost in its entirety - “Barnacle! (Hey!), Barnacle! (Hey!), This is a song about a barnacle! (Hey!)”. Compared to the dizzy silliness of Shonen Knife, the Ting Tings are as complicated as Stockhausen.

This is the perfect soundtrack to summer and as I leave I kick myself for not having seen them before this point. A fabulous evening. Rock chicks rule!

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Dead Weather and Smoke Fairies at HMV Forum 24 June 2009

Some Dead Weather, yesterday. (Photo Jane Wiggins)

Jack White is a musician who has joined the pantheon of rock gods in a remarkably short period of time. The White Stripes were little known outside of the Detroit music scene until as recently as 2002, when their White Blood Cells album propelled them into the wider public consciousness. In the intervening years Jack has parlayed his phenomenal guitar playing and slightly weird Johnny-Depp-in-a-Tim Burton film appearance into a seat at the top table, feted by the likes of Bob Dylan as an equal, with plenty of others in the industry keen to touch the hem of his garment.

He’s always been a collaborator, playing a variety of instruments in a number of different outfits, just happy to be playing. However, when you are rock royalty, even the slightest of side projects can become amplified into something large and ungainly.

Tonight we are here to see the latest collection of musicians with whom White is amusing himself. Calling themselves The Dead Weather, the selling point here is that White has mostly reverted to playing drums, as he often used to in the pre-White Stripes days, and enlisted Allison Mosshart of The Kills to be the vocal and visual focus. Also along for the ride are Dean Fertita who usually plays with Queens Of The Stone Age and bassist Jack Lawrence who looks like an accountant in a hippie wig and is an old White pal from The Raconteurs.

Before the main event, the warm up. Jack White comes onstage to personally introduce Smoke Fairies, who have risen in the rankings since I last saw them when they were supporting Battlekat and The Fighting Cocks at Nambucca a few years ago. Since then, the core duo of Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire has been augmented by a stick-thin fiddle player and a drummer.

The girls’ glorious Appalachian folk harmonies are the same as ever they were and now we are living in a post-Fleet Foxes world, the band are getting the attention that they deserve. However, although the crowd are initially hushed, the lack of any real stand-out songs causes concentration to wander and the end of the Smoke Fairies’ set is largely drowned out by the hubbub of anticipation for the headliners.

Performing in front of an enormous coat of arms, The Dead Weather are preposterous. This is bombastic, bullying blues rock of elephantine proportions. Your tolerance for this kind of thing is probably determined by your reaction to what I regard as a touchstone record – ‘All Right Now” by Free. If you like that, then The Dead Weather will be right up your street, if you don’t, then you are in for a long evening.

Allison Mosshart is all hair and twitches, shaking and nodding her head at approval of every note, every guitar lick or drum break. She growls and wails. Every gesture is magnified for people at the back of the hall, every stamp of the feet a proclamation that THIS IS REAL ROCK, GODDAMMIT. It’s every cliché in the book.

It’s a brutish set, loud and dumb. The band are enjoying themselves enormously and the crowd do too, even if by dint of being battered into submission. It’s an impressive, unapologetically thick-ear spectacle.

Relief is at hand on the occasions when Jack White does more than thump the drums. Still seated, he sings “You Just Can’t Win”, which I think may be a Van Morrison song. His falsetto vocal is a welcome contrast from Mosshart’s ‘whoah’s’ and ‘yeahs’.

The high point of the evening comes at the end of the main set, when White finally straps on his guitar and shows us what we have been missing. His duet with Mosshart on “Will There Be Enough Water?” is electrifying, the two of them fighting to share the same microphone.

The Dead Weather are not clever, but they sure are big and brash and will do well on this summer’s festival circuit. Jack White’s golden touch remains for now, even though this band feels like an indulgence rather than a long term project.

But hell, even Bob Dylan played with the Travelling Wilburys.

Steven Wells - A Small Tribute

It was with great sadness that I read today of the death of Steven Wells. If John Peel was the soundtrack to my musical education, then Swells was the written equivalent.

What poor style I have today is an anaemic, mewling, cat-weakly-vomming-up-a-hair-ball copy of Swells’ purple prose. He was nearly always right about what he wrote and even when he was wrong, he was funny. Laugh out loud funny.

His long term feuds were legendary, especially his lifelong hatred of Sonic Youth and Belle and Sebastian. Whichever magazine he was writing for, whatever the topic, he would always work in a gratuitous insult for no other reason than to piss any passing fans off.

In his last column for the Philadelphia Weekly, written from his sick bed, he still manages to get in one last pop at The Smiths.

I’ll miss him a lot.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Kap Bambino / Advert at Cargo 16 June 2009

Kap Bambino

It’s a lovely summer’s evening and the venue seems almost entirely deserted. This is because everybody is sat outside and generally chilling. The time slot allocated for the first band passes without sign of interest from anyone except for a large guy pacing in front of the stage. He occasionally looks at his watch and has words with the DJ’s, who are either ignorant of events or the bearers of bad news.

Finally, languidly, the support band drag themselves up on stage. This is Advert and they soon dispel any easy summer vibe with a wall of feedback from three guitars. So apparently unstructured is their sound that it is a good few minutes before I can definitely tell that they have started their set and are not just having difficulty in getting their instruments as they would like them.

It isn’t particularly enthralling. Occasionally one of them will stoop over a microphone and mumble, and there is a sporadic drumbeat mixed in amongst the general sonic scree, but this seems lazy, derivative stuff. They don’t play for long either. It seems a token performance at best. [Reading that back, it sounds like the old Woody Allen joke – First old woman: “The food here is disgusting!” Second old woman: “Yes! And such small portions!”]

The stage is now bare apart from a small table with electronic equipment on it. A reasonable crowd is now milling in front. And then the bombs start going off.

Not literally, but certainly the sonic equivalent. Kap Bambino may only consist of a guy (Bouvier Orion) cranking up the beats and a tiny girl (Martial Caroline) singing and stomping, but my word, what a performance! The noise levels are terrific.

Martial is a constant blur of motion, often literally so as she whips her head from side to side under the strobed lighting until her facial features melt like the hallucinations in ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. She is never still.

The set relies heavily on the band’s ace new album ‘Blacklist’. Individual tracks are hard to distinguish because of the hundred-mile-an- hour pounding of the backing and the swooshing, buzzing ,electric static that will render me stone deaf for the rest of the night and most of the following day.

Those of you familiar with the set up at Cargo will be aware that the two main speakers hang overhead on chains on either side of the stage. Martial rushes from one to the other, hanging from them and swinging them alarmingly over the audience.

She repeatedly dives into the crowd of enthusiastic bodies and is either borne aloft or lost amongst their legs. She never stops shouting and singing for a second. At one stage she dares the crowd to join her on stage and they do, at which point she jumps to the floor and carries on, the roles reversed. Bouncers come onstage and clear everyone off, but they look bemused rather than angry.

At one point Martial emerges from the throng perched on the shoulders of the large guy from earlier in the evening. He supports her for around thirty seconds until his legs give out and he slowly sinks to the floor like a trusty steed whose heart has given out after a long gallop. She dismounts, gives him a hug and climbs back on stage, stopping only to mock head-butt the security guy, which is funny because she only reaches up to his belt buckle.

It’s an exhilarating, exhausting and disorientating show. There is a momentary respite as the band bounce off for water and a rest, but soon Martial is back, cavorting with a towel, which she repeatedly thrashes into the floor.

I stagger off into the night with my ears whistling like a kettle and a cut above my eye.

It’s still a lovely summer evening.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Songkick - A User's report

Let’s have a look at Songkick

This is a new website/application that aims to do for live gigs what IMDB does for films and Last fm does for music. It's been running a beta version, but is now properly up in all its glory.

The premise is simple, if daunting. Users create a shared database of gigs that they have been to in the past and the site collates these to issue alerts of when a user’s favourite band is touring (including the opportunity to buy tickets).

Does it work? It’s early days yet, but the signs are promising. It does help if a user is already operating a Last FM account, as information about preferences can be easily transferred from one to the other. For the rest of us, there is an initial, rather laborious stage of loading information into an account. Actually, it’s only onerous if you want to load in details of past events that you have been to and you live in clubs as much as I do.

The task that Songkick has set itself is to be an index of live performance. This is always going to be tough as, unlike records and singles, gigs are fleeting in nature and once they have occurred they are gone forever. Recollection of past events can be hazy, even for the performers involved, let alone any punters who happened to be in the vicinity.

As an experiment I tried to update my account with details of those gigs that I have attended this year and last. As perhaps was to be expected, given the somewhat specialist nature of these shows and the relative obscurity of a lot of the acts, in most cases the Songkick database had no record of either the concert or the participants.

To rectify this I had to put the gig on their database and then indicate that “I was there”. This rapidly became a bit of a pain.

It was also the case that the coverage of some ‘bigger’ acts was patchy. The Magazine gigs at the Forum earlier in the year were present and correct, Buzzcocks high profile Shepherds Bush Empire show was absent, although other Buzzcocks dates were listed as options. Even stranger was The Fall’s 1st April show at Koko which appeared to be missing, and the computer message that came up saying “You cannot add a date for The Fall.”

I appreciate that the database can only reflect the information that is added to it, and that it will gradually become more populated, but at the moment it is frustratingly arbitrary. It’s a Catch-22, the site will become better the more people use it, but until more people sign up, it is slightly limited at the moment.

There are nice interactive touches. Users can approve a particular concert via a five-star rating, or post their own reviews. There is the inevitable social networking element that will enable fans of a particular band to flock together. I suspect that in time it will more fully integrate with Last FM.

The ‘Tracker’ feature is hugely impressive. As the site scrobbles the contents of your iPod (other music players are available), it matches the acts with its own database of forthcoming gigs and lets you know who is coming to your area. This feature will get ever better as bands and promoters notify Song Kick of their activities as a matter of course.

If you know of a gig that is not on the database, you can add it yourself ( I have just added Suzerain’s forthcoming headline slot at Brixton Fridge on 19 June).

A feature that I would like to see (unless it is already on there and I haven’t worked it out yet) is a ‘newly added’ feature that notifies you of freshly announced gigs from acts that you may be interested in, in addition to the current calendar. In an age where attendance at a gig can depend upon being speedy with an internet booking, this would be very useful. [UPDATE: Such a feature does exist. You can arrange for an email to be sent to you notifying you of changes. I now know that Pere Ubu are playing the ICA in September]

However, as I say above, it’s early days. At the moment, I’m very impressed with this site and would commend it to you. Incidentally, it is international, so it’s not just UK users who may benefit.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Applicants / Wojtek Godzisz / A Genuine Freakshow at 229, 04 June 2009

Going down the steps into 229 is slightly odd, as it sometimes feels like going down into a public convenience. You feel that there ought to be a 20p turnstile at the bottom, but actually there are a couple of personable young people with a cash box and a hand stamp.

Upon entering, we find the first band already on stage. We creep by, as there are more of them than there are of us. Seven of them to be precise. A Genuine Freakshow are one of those multi-instrumental groups of all the talents that make you think that they are less a band and more an evening class that enjoyed jamming together and wanted to share the fun. In addition to the usual guitars and drums, they also find use for a cellist and trumpeter. The former adds depth to their sound, but tonight at least the latter is mostly inaudible.

The focus of the band is Tim Sutcliffe, who plays guitar and sings in a piercingly pure falsetto that is impressive, but hard to warm to. The songs vary between Sigur Ros style orchestral workouts to full on thrashing of the type that dullards like Mogwai and Spiritualised use to generate the illusion of excitement. A Genuine Freakshow seem pretty good at what they do, even though their brand of music is not really for me.

At this juncture I pop into the other venue within 229 to see if there is anything interesting on. Tonight’s entertainment is a fencing class. And that’s with epees rather than creosote. As I’m a bit wary of intruding amongst people who are actually armed, I stick to the room where the bands are playing.

A quick history lesson. Symposium were a much-touted band who operated in the late Nineties and were at one point poised to be a Next Big Thing. However, for some reason they rather stalled on the launch pad and never quite took off. They were Apollo One rather than Apollo Eleven. The band split into various components, the most important of which, Wojtek Godzisz, is here tonight with his current outfit.

Godzisz stands splay-legged centre stage and blasts out a succession of huge sounding sing-a-long power pop anthems. He’s big and ginger and hairy and having a good time. It ain’t subtle, and would be better suited to the main stage at a rock festival, but it certainly makes for an entertaining, if not overly demanding half hour. The songs are still here, the stage presence is fine, and it’s just the venues that have got smaller.

My ears are still feeling battered as the next band set up. I first saw Applicants at the turn of the year and was much taken with their combination of quirky pop songs and over the top stage antics. Tonight I’m just slightly less convinced.

Part of the problem tonight seems to be the sound mix, which renders most of the vocals inaudible. Many of the samples upon which the band relies fail to trigger properly. It’s all rather chaotic, and not in a controlled way. As if sensing that things are falling apart, singer/dancer/cheerleader Jeffrey overcompensates wildly.

Beaming like a Cheshire cat she bounces around the venue like a rubber ball, grabbing audience members and whirling them around. She is singing all the while, but it’s hard to hear her. Back on stage she pouts and crawls around, reathing and writhing and fainting in coils, as Louis Carroll had it. Suave front man Fidel Villeneuve plays his guitar with his teeth and makes occasional sorties off the stage, apparently forgetting that he can’t take his microphone stand with him.

However, even a misfiring Applicants are great fun, and things start to fall into place in the second half of their set. New song ‘When Porn Took Over The world’ sounds great, ‘History Has Been Kind To Spike Milligan’ remains a wonderful song and band and audience combine for a rousing bawl through the traditional set-closer ‘Evelyn Waugh’.

There is a fourth band tonight, but as a) they are called Megadudes, b) look like a bog standard rock act and c) are called Megadudes, sheesh. It seems a good time to bail out.

A varied evening that came good at the end.