Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Anna Calvi at Bush Hall - 26 April 2011

Not Anna Calvi (photo Dakotassong)

There’s thin and there’s Anna Calvi thin. Her hair slicked back, her twig-like arms sticking down from the sleeves of her red Spanish styled top. She’s a striking figure but she looks artificial, a flamenco Barbie.

Calvi is joined tonight by two band members. Daniel Maiden-Wood is a sleek haired drummer and Mally Harpaz a wonderful and wild percussionist who plays a range of cymbals, drums and a wooden box of tricks that I what not of. (Ok, it’s a harmonium).

Calvi has an arch take on Latin inflected Fifties rock and roll. If you picture Jane Russell heaving beneath a bodice in a cantina down Mexico way, then Anna Calvi is providing the soundtrack.

Despite flirting with this fiery music, Calvi is not an abandoned performer. She is studied and precise, a figurine. The sound this evening is crystal clear and when she thrums her guitar the resultant note could cut glass.

There is very little direct interaction with the audience. This show is all about the sound, the vision, the effect. It is impressive, but necessarily cold – Calvi is not a cuddly presence.

Her voice is an operatic roar that seems too big for her body. During ‘Suzanne and I’ she is shaking with the passion of her delivery, her mouth open wide as if almost to dispel the demon within her.

The aptly named track ‘The Devil’ is another highlight, Calvi’s guitar clutched tightly to her chest as though she fears that it might flee from her.

The encore is a version of the old standard ‘Jezebel’ and it is only at this point that Calvi’s carefully crafted façade starts to slip just a small fraction. It is a swirling, histrionic epic of a song and as she ends with a flourish you can just spot the singer relaxing and smiling in triumph at bringing it off.

It has been a really impressive performance, if not quite a joyous one. The whole Anna Calvi persona is a projection, a finely wrought simulacrum of passion and fury rather than the real thing. It is fascinating and it will be interesting to see what she does next – I suspect that it could be something very different.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Telescopes and Insect Guide at Zigfrid Von Underbelly - 22 April 2011

The Telescopes

It’s something that they can’t have planned. But it works out just right.

The stage at Zigfrid von Underbelly’s is backed with red curtains. There is a patterned carpet to absorb the noise. There is a huge mirror on the wall at a slight angle to the audience.

Insect Guide have synchronised their performance with a lap top powered series of films to accompany them whilst they are on stage. Their projection is reflected in the mirror. It creates double the impact. This, together with the carpet and drapes place the band firmly in a David Lynch tableau. We are all in the Red Lodge.

Insect Guide are terrific tonight. Singer Su stands to the left, blamming on a snare drum next to her. Guitarist Stan paces front to back of the stage.

There are choice cuts from their album, notably ‘Wasted’ and ‘Dark Days and Nights’, which batter past in an urgent fuzzed up wall of sound. There is a hoarse and husky ferocity in Su’s voice, much deeper than that of most female vocalists. It works.

I first saw this band at the turn of the year and liked their fizzing poppiness. Tonight they are even better – a truly excellent band.

Headliners The Telescopes have been around for years and have a fairly fluid line up. They are one of those wonderful bands that only really exist in the live arena – their recorded work is rather unremarkable. In contrast, their live show is like an alcohol-fuelled apocalypse.

Singer Stephen Lawrie is so pissed up that at best he walks like a sailor. For a lot of the time he is prostrate face down on the floor. In between songs you can hear him groaning. The rest of the band play around and in spite of him.

The Telescopes’ intergalactic space rock is anchored by a bass and drum motorik, which the three guitarists use as a springing off point for a massed assault on their instruments. Feedback, noise and distortion is the order of the day.

There is relatively little actual ‘playing’ going on. Instead, guitars are hit, dangled and thrust up against speakers for maximum ear bleeding effect.

It is perhaps fortunate that The Telescopes are geared for instrumental mayhem. Lawrie flails about on his knees and at one point bashes the monitors offstage, flopping weakly after them on his face, only to be retrieved by the intervention of a solicitous fan.

The other members of the band are by no means static. For a good proportion of the time one of them is stood behind me, wrestling with his guitar and smashing it against the floor.

This should all be by rights an incoherent mess, but it is clear that this behaviour neither unexpected nor in any way detrimental to the show.

During the course of the final song the band leave the stage one by one, although not without each ensuring that their gear is left feedbacking and looping back upon itself. Lawrie lurches off, possibly to throw up.

It is of course a tremendous performance – simultaneously great to listen to and be a part of, and laugh out loud comic.

Good Friday. Great fun.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Homesick Hustlers, Hella Better Dancer at Bull & Gate - 15 April 2011

Homesick Hustlers

The pub is busy tonight. Not, it turns out, with folk who are here for bands that are playing in this venue, but who are off to the Forum next door for DJ Shadow. I’m sure that they will have a good time, but frankly they are missing the boat – the real excitement in Kentish Town tonight is right here.

First up and playing their first ever gig (at least under this name) are A Sinking Ship. For fans of largely instrumental quiet, quiet, LOUD THRASHING guitar post-rock, these guys are pretty good. I have difficulty giving them my full attention because unfortunately they have their mates along to support them and they do this by shouting to each other loudly through all the quiet, quiet bits.

Next on we have The Complete Short Stories. This six piece band are a vehicle for singer Kerry Adamson who does indeed have a terrific voice.

While I would be lying if I said that I didn’t find them perfectly watchable and entertaining, I do find it rather hard to fathom their intended audience. It’s very mainstream sort of Stage Schooly stuff which is well performed but not for one minute likely to really quicken the pulse.

Hella Better Dancer are much more interesting. They may be very stiff and awkward, chatter nervously between songs and occasionally seem to be on the verge of breaking down completely, but they do have the ‘stuff’.

There is definitely something happening here. Singer Tilly sings/speaks through a succession of tunes (and it good to hear a regional accent) and has that rare knack of being sympathetic and likeable without doing the ‘poor little me’ routine of certain other similarly apparently gauche acts. For some reason I keep thinking of The Cure circa ‘Three Imaginary Boys’. A good thing.

The key point here is that the band is very focussed and sure of what they are doing, and just because they are a little rigid does not detract from this. I like them a lot and will keep tabs on their progress.

I have seen the Homesick Hustlers before and since then they have moved on – they are no longer just a highly promising band of young musicians who are feeling their way, but now a fully fledged act that doesn’t need any allowances to be made for them. They are far better than I suspect they are aware.

Not that they aren’t cocky.

Whip thin singer Ben Walker sports a Bieber-esque fringe and the kind of Napoleonic dress coat that has been associated in the past with such rock luminaries as Jimi Hendrix and Adam Ant. And, er… Kasabian. So, this is a statement of intent.

The ‘Hustlers are so youthful that if you stacked them on top of each other they still wouldn’t be old enough to buy a drink. And yet they are the best and possibly only proponents of bouncy castle fizzy pop Mississipi swamp blues around today. When the cast of Glee get around to covering the Birthday Party, they’ll find that a better bunch has got there before them.

And that’s the wonderful thing about this bunch – they growl like tiger cubs who haven’t yet opened their eyes but who know that they will be rulers of the jungle. Particularly if you substitute the words ‘tiger cubs’ with ‘Tom Waits’. Possibly.

What I love about this lot is that they have one foot in the past and two feet in the future. It’s not natural, it shouldn’t work, but it does. Gloriously.

The rapport between Ben and Ewa is the real key here – he’s rasping and gabbling, twirling and whirling, she’s laughing like a drain at his antics and matching him with a throaty vocal of her own. Their enjoyment is infectious.

The Homesick Hustlers have made a very decent album available for free download on their Facebook page and its completion marks the end of their beginning. Now they need to decide on what to do next.

I think that they could do very well indeed.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Thermals and The Coathangers at XOYO- 1 April 2011

The Coathangers pic by Jason Reed

Despite it being early, I find myself haring down the stairs of XOYO to discover that The Coathangers have already started. A rare example of an act hitting the stage before they are actually due to do so.

This band are the principal reason that I’m here and I’m narked at missing even a millisecond. Howwever, there is still plenty left to enjoy.

And if you don’t enjoy The Coathangers, then a vital element of popular music has passed you by.

They are a textbook example of the kind of act that polarises audiences. They are rock and roll reduced to its most basic form of shrieking and banging. The “they don’t know how to play their instruments” brigade had better look away now, because these gals are all about fun and anarchy and attitood (definitely the right spelling for this).

Like with many all girl groups, instruments and vocal chores are shared with abandon. Songs are so loosely constructed that sometimes it is hard to tell if they have started or finished. This is not at all amateurish, it’s simply a celebration of the joy of making music and being on stage.

A snapshot: One Coathanger smashes at a keyboard and ooOOoos a Theremin, all the time screaming through a mane of hair. She leans across the ass of guitarist Coathanger, whose face is a screwed up snarl of spitting vocal, her guitar being thrashed at as if it is an attacking animal that is hanging from her neck. Diminutive bassist Coathanger bounces like a ball, sometimes singing, sometimes flinging herself at the guitarist with kicks and fists. Drummer Coathanger is the most striking of the lot. Tall, an asymmetric haircut and two full sleeves of tattoos, she sings and screams hoarsely and is the most dominant of all. Literally so when she is on guitar duties later on, towering over the bassist and yelling “I’m bigger than you, I’m bigger than you.”

This set is a sheer joy. It’s like a five year old in a sandpit bashing a tin bucket with a spade – primal fun of the type that virtually all other bands shy away from.

Your Coathangers tonight have been Julia, Stephanie, Candice and Meredith and this is the best performance of the year so far.

The headliners are Portland band The Thermals, about whom I sadly know very little. This ignorance puts me very much in the minority, because as soon as this three piece get started the venue erupts into one giant moshpit.

To me they sound like America’s answer to Buzzcocks, playing as they do a stripped down basic pop punk that is much heavier on melody than other more hardcore-leaning bands.

I find them ever so slightly anaemic and overly hectoring, but there is no doubt that they are going down a perfect storm.

One of my mates compares them to Bruce Springsteen. He means to be disparaging, but I don’t think that that is true in The Thermals case. This may be rabble rousing, but there is also an undeniable sense of community and shared excitement.

Judging by the excitement in the crowd, this is pretty much greatest hits all the way and I feel excluded – which is a pity and of course entirely my own fault.

I enjoy The Thermals, but can only do so up to a certain point. In my mind they remain a pint that can never become a quart.

However, this is minor carping. It’s been a great evening, especially for the young, loud and snotty punk of The Coathangers. They rool. And that’s also the correct spelling.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Kills and S.C.U.M. at Heaven - 31 March 2011

Kills pic by Cathrinesylvester
Some bands can really exasperate you. I‘m in Heaven tonight and am delighted to see that the support band are S.C.U.M. I’ve followed this mob for the past few years, but for every kudo I can give them for being a genuinely excellent live band, they lose one for being wilful, deliberately obscure and mysterious. S.C.U.M. have remained true to their early ideals in that they have barely released any material and rarely sully themselves with the business of playing live. So tonight they are in the relatively unfamiliar position of playing to someone else’s audience, in a more or less conventional venue. This means that we don’t get the full on theatrics such as mock crucifixions or bee keeping veils but instead an epic sweeping flourish of a performance that is just right for this crowd. They are, as ever, magnificently kitted out. Not since Spandau Ballet (who are partially being channelled here) has a band paid so much attention to the cloth that they are cut from. Singer Thomas Cohen is resplendent in a loose white suit, tightly fitting waistcoat and black boater. He is as thin and sharp as a whip, draping himself louchely around the stage as though he were the Great Gatsby. This New Romantic glamour is reflected in their music, a heady 80’s amalgam of Bunnymen grandeur, Mary Chain fuzz and Duran Duran fashion pop. All these influences are here, Moulinexed into a dreamy, blurry wash of sound. S.C.U.M. are seriously great tonight. We are lucky this evening to find the headliners at such a small venue. The Kills have already booked the Roundhouse to promote their new album ‘Blood Pressures’ and at the time of writing it is by no means clear whether one night there will be sufficient. Small venue, new album, renewed vigour. Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince are absolutely terrific tonight – as hard as nails, as sharp as a razor and clearly loving every moment of it. The Kills play for well over an hour and barely put a foot wrong. They patrol the stage like a pair of all conquering warriors. Nothing is left to chance, not a jolt of energy is wasted. It is interesting how their songs have become lighter and faster since their first album. As a rule of thumb, the older tracks like ‘Kissy Kissy’ are slower and thuddingly powerful whereas the newer material is wirier and leaner. Both sound great, but the distinction can be drawn. Strangely, the only really false note of the evening is the dreadful leaden skank of new track ‘Satellite’ which sounds like something that Mosshart brought back with her from her stint in Jack White’s rather underwhelming and flat Dead weather. Fortunately, this is a passing aberration. Everything else tonight is exemplary and shows the band to be at the top of their game. They finish with a triumphant ‘Fried My Little Brains’. Not half they haven't.