Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Darling Buds, The Drains, Disco at 100 Club, 22 September 2010

The Darling Buds

The chain of events leading to me being here tonight are Byzantine and strange.

So I’ll pass over the cinema and the mysterious disappearance of the movie I was due to see and the pub which appears to be operating as a pawn shop, with guitars exchanged for framed football shirts.

I end up at the 100 Club for a gig-come-celebration of the life of John Sicolo.

Sicolo ran the legendary ‘TJ’s’ in Newport, the venue that gave early opportunities to a plethora of bands in the 80’s, from Catatonia to Anhrefn, 60 Ft Dolls to The Senseless Things. TJ’s was described as the ‘only venue in Wales that London journalists had ever heard of’ and bands loved to play there, and they loved Big John Sicolo.

Tonight’s bill has largely come about because several acts reformed for a Sicolo tribute earlier in the year and decided that they would carry on.

First up come feisty five piece Disco, who are fronted by two female singers, Emily and Sam, who display markedly contrasting body language.

One is having a ball, screaming her head off, dancing and bopping and bouncing around. The other is a picture of self consciousness who looks and acts as if she wants the stage to open up and swallow her.

The songs are simple and enthusiastically belted out a la Shampoo or (more recently) Pens or Hotpants Romance.

I think that they are great fun, but even as they finish the awkward lass is only semi-joking when she says “Never again!”

The Drains remember when punk was young. The singer may now look like a bank manager, but he knows how to put a song across. And when that song is called something like “Motherfuckin’ Motherfucker”, that is quite something to see.

He tells tales of Sid Vicious and Nick Kent and even remembers the name of the original bar staff from the 100 Club back in the day.

Watching The Drains, I am struck how this kind of performance has gone out of fashion. This is song as an angry shout, with genuine outrage and venom in the vocals. It hails from a time when bands were pissed off on a personal and a political level. It ain’t subtle, but it’s sure effective.

Headliners are The Darling Buds, playing their first London gig since 1992. It is so long since they have been around that a modern band has taken the name, unaware or unheeding of the fact that somebody else had the same idea over twenty years previously.

The Darling Buds were always slightly the runt of the litter amongst late 80’s power-pop bands. They got played by Peel and they may have had one of those ‘for one week only’ slots on Top Of The Pops, but they never quite took off. As their set progresses, it becomes clear why.

All the elements are present. The guitars chime and chop, the drums snap and singer Andrea Lewis, in her black dress and snazzy red shoes, is all these years later, a strikingly good looking focal point.

Ultimately, it comes down to the strength of their material. With a few notable exceptions, many of the Darling Buds’ songs sort of tool along at the same level – pleasant in isolation, but subject to the law of diminishing returns.

But tonight is a celebration and not a critique. Lewis is showered with home made confetti from the small band of loyal fans, some of whom have dug out surprisingly pristine ‘Buds Burst Out ‘88’ tour T shirts.

It’s a fun evening, more party than gig. The bands and the punters are enjoying themselves and everyone goes home happy.

John Sicolo wouldn’t have wanted anything less.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Yuck, A Grave With No Name, Slowgun - Madam Jo Jo's 14 September 2010

Yuck by Valerio Berdini

Is it a smile? Is it a grimace? It’s hard to tell, but the grin on the face of Valentina, the drummer of openers Slowgun is fascinating.

I think that it is an expression of excitement. Of sheer joie de vivre at being onstage in a band. Let’s hope that the novelty of playing to audiences doesn’t wear off.

Slowgun are four kids who know the value of noise and of pop music and are working towards the best combination of the two. They are still very rough around the edges, but all the elements of a damn fine band are already in place.

Singer/guitarist Toni stands centre stage and guides her troops through their paces (amidst occasional gales of laughter). Slowgun are ones to watch.

I last saw A Grave With No Name a few months ago supporting Dum Dum Girls. On that occasion they did not make much of an impression. Tonight they sound like an altogether different proposition.

Guitarist and singer Alex Shields is so stick thin and sickly looking that you wonder if he could get through the set without a blood transfusion. When he walks behind the microphone stand, he disappears.

His vocals are fed through a barrage of sound effects to produce an otherworldly falsetto whisper that conjures up the wind blowing through telephone wires.

He and the other guys in the band generate a succession of wonderful guitar riffs. They build the sound, get a groove going, set the controls for the centre of the sun and then…stop.

This is band as coitus interruptus. It’s as if they have an internal mechanism that regulates each track to 120 seconds and then the power dies. I’m all for brevity rather than indulgence, but this is ridiculous.

A good, but frustrating performance.

I missed the second day of this year’s Camden Crawl but was subsequently regaled with tales of the all round marvellousness of Yuck, who played a blinder at one o’clock in the morning when everyone was pissed and merry. It’s why I’m here tonight.

The four piece are certainly striking in appearance, looking for all the world like the live-action counterparts of Jamie Hewlett original designs for Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz project.

Centre stage, but apparently disinterested is bassist Mariko, long hair hanging across her face. Behind her sits a hulking drummer with an afro like a nuclear cloud. On either side sway two skinny guys with guitars. It’s quite the image.

They plug in, kick off, and I’m in love. This is a sound that I’ve not heard since Ride’s first twelve inchers, an elaborately structured amalgam of guitar fuzz and feedback utilised in the service of songs that you can actually sing along with.

As if this wasn’t impressive enough, Yuck have the confidence to show a sensitive side. So amidst the bombast we get quieter, more soulful songs like ‘Suicide Policeman’.

The fans lap them up, although they are now so comfy with the band that they feel the need to talk all over the quiet bits.

Silly name aside, Yuck is almost the perfect modern indie band. They look cool, they reference the past and yet they sound as hot and fresh as newly baked bread. They are loud, proud, complicated and you still feel that they wouldn’t run off with your girlfriend. But that she would want them to.

So, not yuck at all. Yum!

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Bookhouse Boys at Camden Barfly -09 September 2010

The Bookhouse Boys by Tim Broddin

Camden seems to have fallen on hard times. It was always scuzzy and a bit lairy, but it used to be culturally vibrant. Now that the more cutting edge elements of the music scene have decamped en masse to Shoreditch, Camden is left tawdry and neglected, a feeling of desolation and desperation about the place.

The Barfly is a case in point. Its walls used to be covered with details of hot and exciting bands that were down to play the venue. Nowadays it’s like an old dog waiting to be put down. This evening everything is plastered with flyers for the new Runaways movie, and a claim is made that there are ‘three girl-fronted bands’ on as a tribute. I know who’s on, and to tie them into this rather strains credulity.

Leading off are Evans The Death, a four piece who are merely the first of the acts tonight who are severely hampered by an atrocious sound mix in which only bass guitar and drums are clearly audible. Under these circumstances it is perhaps politic to just say that the band does their best.

Two-girl-one-boy trio Bleech play a very surreal set in front of a wall of more than half a dozen photographers, who stand happily snapping for the whole of the band’s time on stage. It’s a bloody camera club outing.

With this barrier between them and their audience, and coupled with the bass-heavy sound it feels like they are playing behind a Perspex wall.

Even at the best of times Bleech are a band who are frustratingly close to being really good, but fall somehow short because their songs just don’t stick with you. Tonight, they are on a hiding to nothing.

Headliners The Bookhouse Boys have been off the touring circuit for quite a while, taking time out to prepare a new batch of songs. Tonight we get a first glimpse of the fruits of their labour.

This performance is so dedicated to the new material, that they only play a couple of tracks that I recognise, these being the great ‘I Just Can’t Help Myself’ and ‘Dead’

The unheard songs all sound like potential winners – aching, yearning, Tex-Mex twangers that give plenty of opportunity for Paul van Oestren’s growl and Catherine Turner’s atmospheric, heartfelt wail. The Tijuana trumpets are still well to the fore and cut through the muddy murk from the mixing desk.

In many ways it has been a disappointing evening – none of the bands have been done any favours, all will have better nights.

But, I’m always an optimist and am glad to find that The Bookhouse Boys seem to be going from strength to strength.

As the night draws to a close, I take a last look at the venue and, in keeping with tonight’s er…’theme’, I runaway.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Offset Festival Day Two - 05 September 2010

Monotonix (photo Wyldman)

On day two of the Offset Festival, Wild Palms get things off to a good start with their dark and brooding surf music. It sounds just dandy this Sunday lunchtime.

I am also taken with the gentle beauty of The Rifle Volunteer, who are kindly and beardy and feature the plaintive falsetto of Adam Symonds.

The Rifle Volunteer (photo Wyldman)

Skating past Electricity In Our Homes and Bitches, who were both excellent, we come to Monotonix, who take audience participation to even greater lengths than yesterday’s bands.

These three very hairy, very nearly naked men do not play onstage at all, but set up in the crowd in front of the Main Stage. All that can be seen are sprays of water and beer, the occasional piece of drum kit or guitar accompanied by the anguished cries of punters who have had their drinks snatched from them and stuffed down the Y-fronts of a wild eyed hairy arsed mountain man. It’s mayhem.

At one point I find one of the singers from Athens Polytechnic sailing past me at head height.

Ducking into a nearby tent, I am much entertained by Sauna Youth, who are screaming their heads off, abducting photographers and chasing each other around the tent pole until they collapse exhausted. Another band that I shall see again.

Sauna Youth (photo Wyldman)

I am under instruction to report back on Proxy Music, but would have done so in any event. This is a band of like minded musicians who are devoted to early Roxy and are happy to share the fun with others.

They are terrific. Their ‘Bryan Ferry’ is a marvel, debonair and louche in tight leopard skin pants and leather jacket. He has the voice and he has the moves. The rest of the band are more generically glammed up and bash their way through standards like ‘Editions of You’ and ‘Do the Strand’.

It’s rough and vital and probably a lot like the real Roxy sounded like when they were just starting out. I doubt that the real Brian Eno was screaming “Fucking keyboards!” quite as often.

Proxy Music (photo Wyldman)

I also enjoy Oral Oral, who are dressed like Visage, sound like the Flying Lizards and end with a deafening deconstruction of The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ which sees the band members gradually sneak out of the tent one by one and hide, leaving their machines to fight each other.

Oral Oral (photo Wyldman)

Chrome Hoof also bring the glam, as only an eleven piece outfit dressed in spangly robes and fronted by a Notting Hill Carnival queen can do. They still sound like a hardcore screamo band colliding with a jazz orchestra, but today the penny drops for me and I love them to bits.

Chrome Hoof (photo Wyldman)

I then happen across an excellent show from Parisian noise pop merchants Team Ghost, who delight a small gathering with their ability to marry decent tunes with bursts of guitar abuse.

Having watched them fail to beat technical difficulties at 1234 Shoreditch I am glad to finally catch up with These New Puritans, who are ploughing a wilful furrow with their current heavy percussion meets bassoon line-up. Rather like their recent album it is easier to admire their ambition than to warm to the music itself.

I regret missing all but the last three songs from The Rayographs, but a man has got to eat sometime. This band have evolved into something rather special, as closing track ‘Yellow Hair’ proves. I’ll see them again.

Walking around the site, I see Flats tearing up the stage in front of a packed crowd and then move round to catch one of the ‘buzz’ bands at the festival.

Esben and The Witch are a fascinating combination of strong female vocals and wild interludes of manic guitar and frenzied percussion. At one stage the whole band circle a drum and leather the hell out of it. Their guitarist has enough FX pedals for a small army, triggering a phenomenon known as ‘pedal envy’ in one of my colleagues. Even at an event such as this, Esben and the Witch stand out as ones to watch in the future.

The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster are having a riot on the Main Stage, with their ferocious speed rock and obligatory stage diving cheering up a big crowd. They are oldies, but goodies.

It is now mid evening and it is clear that there is going to be a problem finishing the event on time. The Main Stage is running at least half an hour late and Caribou experience a protracted loss of power as they are setting up.

When the Canadians eventually start, there are horrible problems with the vocals which sound like a local taxi firm has infiltrated the mix. However, once things are sorted, Caribou are easy and likeable company, their light, dancey electronics spreading a soothing vibe. For me, it’s a lovely way to finish.

Caribou (photo Wyldman)

Time constraints mean that I have to miss headliners Atari Teenage Riot, but I am well satisfied with this weekend. This is my third Offset and it is the best one yet. Big thanks to the organisers and all the bands.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Offset Festival Day One - 04 September 2010

Teeth!!! (photo Wyldman)

This is not going to be a definitive report on the 2010 Offset Festival. For starters, over the two days I saw over fifty acts that I LIKED to varying degrees. And I couldn’t be everywhere, despite trying my best.

Things get off to a rollicking start on Saturday with Hull’s The Neat on the Main Stage. Much angular guitar and the first instance of one of the Themes of The Weekend (TotW). The front man who leaps from the stage and chases his audience across a field.

Into a tent next for the blindingly wonderful Athens Polytechnic, who are a Roadrunner cartoon come to life. Twin vocalists scream their lungs out, wrestle with each other, improvise dance routines and chase the audience around the tent. Amidst the carnage is a thrash version of Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’. Second TotW – the inspired and non-obvious cover version. They are also the only band today with a chorus that goes “We want you for the Cameron youth!”

Athens Polytechnic are bloody marvellous and put a smile on my face for the rest of the day.

Next up, and also ace, are Oh! Gunquit, who are a bit rockabilly, a lot twangy and powered by saxophone and a phenomenal pair of black lederhosen.

Oh! Gunquit (photo Wyldman)

Back on Main Stage, Cold In Berlin have evolved into a full on festival monster. They are slick and powerful as a steel panther. They go down a bomb, and rightly so.

Cold In Berlin (photo Wyldman)

TotW the third – If you are an artist who basically just twiddles knobs on a small podule, you need a gimmick. So House of Schtinter hides in a tiny model house and Death In Plains wears a mask. It’s the musical equivalent of telling a joke. Once you’ve seen it, the novelty wears off very quickly. Neither act detains me.

The Bo Ningen mothership decends on Main, and their space rock is well suited to the festival atmosphere. They manage to top last year’s antics by finishing the set with a member scaling the stage until he is perched right above us and about fifty feet from certain death. Larks!

I miss Paper Crows because they are taking an age waiting for them to jack Scart Lead A into Socket B. This is the problem with electronic acts – they have much greater difficulty than bands that just need to plug in their guitars or adjust the height on their drum kit. I later regret not waiting, because subsequent reports are that they were really good and did a fine cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’.

Instead, I am happily entertained by The Receeders, who are a very shouty and punky band that features Kate Nash amongst others. Great fun.

The Receeders (photo Wyldman)

Teeth!!! are a revelation. A three piece electronic dance outfit who send the tent mental. Tiny singer Veronica So is paraded around over the crowd’s heads and I find yet another new band to love.

Kap Bambino are doing something similar on a grander scale on the Main Stage. Singer Caroline works the crowd into a frenzy and spends much of the set being tossed among them like a beach ball.

Most ambitious cover version of the weekend is probably La La Vasquez and their version of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ played as a piece for halting girlie guitar. It works, just.

I enjoy the suave rock of The Bridport Dagger, admiring the clothes and quiffs as much as their elegant music. I’m really impressed with this band too.

The Bridport Dagger (photo Wyldman)

Art Brut and Eddie Argos are in their element on the Main Stage, bantering with the audience and playing essentially a greatest hits set. We get updates on ‘Emily Kane’ and a report on Eddie's Rusty Gun of Milan.

I find a correlation between the uncompromising hard electronic repetitions of Factory Floor and the organic percussion of Liquid Liquid, the venerable New York no wavers who play a polarising set on Main. Both acts require tolerance from their audience, a willingness to go along with what the band are doing.

Saturday ends with an impressive set from O Children, who have all the makings of a very big act indeed, if they could just get the elements right. Tonight they sweep all before them, but the set is oddly structured and they seem to have all their really big tunes and crowd pleasing rarities like ‘Ace Breasts’ in the first half and they send us off into the night with one of the lesser songs from their very fine debut album.

That’s quite enough for Day One. Back with more shortly.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Zola Jesus and The Haxan Cloak - CAMP Basement 01 September 2010

Zola Jesus

I’m back at CAMP Basement for the second time in a week. It’s less busy than for Warpaint, but in a space as cramped as this it does not take many folk at the front of the stage to constitute a throng.

A young man wanders onto the stage and ducks down out of view. Then the droning starts…

…this is Bobby Krilic, aka The Haxan Cloak. For the next twenty five minutes or so he produces a single slab of electronic buzzing, punctuated by some metronomic ticking to provide a bit of beat and variety.

Music like this depends almost entirely on the willingness of the audience to immerse itself in the experience. By concentrating on the subtle modulations in the deafening hum and thrum, an almost meditative state can be reached, and all other stimuli blocked out.

Or alternatively, you could regard it as a lot of old rope and head to the bar.

It’s fair to say that the Haxan Cloak provide plenty of evidence for both reactions. I actually get right into it and rather enjoy nodding out to the monotonous sound. Some colleagues are prodding me in the back and looking meaningfully at their empty beer glasses.

The noise stops, Krilic pops back into view, waves and departs. I head further down the front.

Zola Jesus is gathering a lot of interest at the moment. She is one of the more visible exponents of the current trend towards gloomy, often distorted electronica. I’m loathe to call it chill-wave or dark-wave because these terms have become so tribal that to put an act in one category or another is to invite storms of protest akin to the endless debates as to which heavy rock band is death/hair/thrash/black metal. I’m just here to see what the fuss is about.

Nika Rosa Danilova, to give her family name, is joined tonight by a couple of guys who play keyboards and add backing vocals. But it is Zola Jesus herself who is the focal point.

She is a tiny figure with white hair. She makes herself even smaller by hunching almost double, either rocking back and forth with the rhythm or beetling to and fro across the stage like a little old lady fleeing through a dark forest.

She’s small in stature, but big in voice. Her biography indicates that there may be some opera training in her past, and she can certainly project herself with a deep throaty roar.

However, to my ears there is a fundamental problem. Zola Jesus treads so closely in the footsteps of Siouxsie Sioux and Diamanda Galás that she is always going to draw comparisons with them. And she is going to come up short.

There are few songs here that really stand out. The track ‘Night’ from the new ‘Stridulum II’ album is an exception, but most of the set is samey and lacklustre. Things get a bit more animated towards the end, but generally most of this material is nondescript. I find my thoughts drifting towards Greek duo Mary And The Boy, who operate in a similar field but to much greater effect. (Give ‘Bobby Peru’ a listen).

Zola Jesus is an enthusiastic collaborator with other artists and it could be that via this route she will produce something more original and interesting. Tonight’s show is that of a performer who hasn’t stepped out of the shadow of her influences yet.

She’s got a voice. But has she got a voice of her own?