"Oh beloved woman of liberty, come to me, burn away all my impurity," beseeches that preacher of individuality Jaz Coleman on the primal invocation of the awesome new Killing Joke album. No big surprise that he didn't grace Ladyfest Manchester with his presence, busy as he is hailing the Fall of the US Empire, but a lot of women of liberty did. There was no death but at least one resurrection at the show. The organisers, including Heena the librarian, Jo (lynchpin of the Blame the Parents collective) and Lee (of Help Yourself Manchester) did a flawless job of creating an impressive new alternative environment. The only shame was that the carnival could last for just four days, and I only caught the second half.
So you pack your little sandwiches and climb into your little car and put your little foot down hard on the pedal with Houses of the Holy blasting really fuckin' loud. You can't go south from Brighton on that beach with all the little pebbles because you'd drive into the sea so you head north and soon your little heart is pounding and your little sandwiches are all eaten up but at last you've driven "1000 Miles" and the last sound you hear is your little heart exploding with joy because you know at last you are exactly where you need to be. And where I needed to be was on the Dirty Three UK tour because a band that can alternate tears of sorrow and joy and exhilaration so rapidly is a rare thing indeed. Rumours that violinist Warren Ellis was a little fed up of touring meant that I wanted to make the most of this as they might not be back for a long time. In the end I made it to four shows in Brighton, Leicester, Leeds and the second smaller London gig, skipping the big London gig in favour of Calla who I'd never seen before and who were unfussily majestic and almost as intense. I also missed the Glasgow date as I headed into London that day to see the last gig on the Noxagt tour, another idiosyncratic trio who are rather more brutal.
Warren Ellis is a seasoned raconteur with hilarious tales to introduce each intense instrumental beauty. These are loose and shift shape every night around a similar theme. In Leicester heckles diverted some of them off track into even more oddly comedic angles. So Warren might tell a silly story of how their Ocean Songs album was inspired by the smell of urine in a landlocked Chicago heavy metal studio. Then the four of them kick into some deleriously gorgeous yet robust and hard edged rock, shaped in chemical moulds that only years of playing together can bring. Four? Does that make them the Dirty Three Plus One now? Relative newcomer Martin Casey who plays alongside Warren in the Bad Seeds seemed unsurprisingly a little more tentative in Brighton but fit right in with the others, and Warren and the utterly individual and ever more awe inspiring loose limbed drummer Jim White seem to have a particularly telepathic understanding of those ecstatic places they can open up and bleed. Some tunes got pushed into extended foraging forays that upped the intensity ante some, and in Brighton and London when they ran down "Sue's Last Ride" the levels and layers they built and built just seemed like they couldn't get any higher and just kept on reaching for the sun. Warren reckons guitarist Mick Turner regularly walks on water in hotel baths, but he certainly has developed a highly original and utterly distinctive style of playing that seems to reflect the wide open desert shores and burning sun of his former homeland Australia. If Warren's violin is a skyburst of emotive colour and Jim's drumming skitters like pebbles pulled by roaring waves on the beach, then Mick is probably painting in the desert lands and mountain ranges in the heady elemental dirty brew. What was really nice about seeing the band a few times was the way they just seemed to get better every night, although the Leeds show at Brudenell Social Club won out over the last sold out London show at the dark and dingy Barfly due to better atmosphere and sound in a nicer venue. The Brighton and Leeds shows were a contrast being all seated theatres, making Warren's habit of spitting high into the air as he bows his little violin and kicks his leg backwards seem slightly incongruous and transgressive. In Brighton Clogs played a pleasantly engaging set of what you might call chamber rock if you were feeling lazy after an alcohol fueled road trip holiday. But at least I didn't compare them to Rachel's like I did at the gig. In Leicester and Leeds Mr Cardboard Boxman were as much a revelation as two scruffy Australian guitar twangers with an array of looping gadgets and weird junk shop instruments could be, playing part improvised cutout sundown reflections. But it was Dirty Three who had the songs for the ladies with the darkness in their hearts.
The Fat Cat label has always been a haven for interesting idiosyncratic music with an experimental edge, and they've constantly sought to expose new artists, so it wasn't surprising that I'd only heard half the artists on this label showcase in an all-seated theatre venue. One is still a marginal mystery. Appropriately due to drowsiness, we arrived a little late and missed Drowsy who was described by earlier arrivals as a one-man folk-strumming funeral. Crescent are a band who've been around in some shape or form for quite a while and an obvious comparison is Hood, with maybe some Soft Machine influence? No other band in the UK really sounds much like them though. They play fragile ruminations on the beauty of nature, with sax, keyboards and what looks like a home made double bass meandering streams along. The weak spot is the rodent-like singer who is totally flat. Although his lyrics fit the music really well, I'd rather have heard the band play instrumentals.
The Animal Collective are two possessed nerds from France who sit next to each other strumming very odd and original unchord shapes from their guitars whilst yapping immature over-excitement about pregnancy and other things that make them happy. They were pretty funny. Most everyone was agreed that they'd never heard anything quite like them, and if you like Half Japanese you'd probably also like them. The venue was perfect for Semiconductor's upbeat laptop visions, and the huge video game visuals projected at the screen that had descended over the stage were just the right journey for my drunken head to take at that point. I probably enjoyed them the most and was left energised and eager to hear more. David Grubbs came on alone and played a typically sparse instrumental on a grand piano and then some songs on acoustic guitar. I enjoyed him a lot more when he played with a band, and I can never help thinking that it seems quite unlikely that he'll ever make another record as great as those last couple of Gastr Del Sol albums. Black Dice headlined and made a similar noise to their recent Beaches and Canyons album although I'm pretty sure none of the material was replicated or if it was they'd drastically deconstructed it. They were at their best when the two effects twiddlers let out a prolonged climactic noiseburst. I'd have much rather seen them in a more intimate venue where they might've stood more chance of overwhelming the senses. Despite perfect sound, I wanted it louder so I could drown in it and they seemed a little static behind their wired tables.
Walking into an East London pub and seeing Wire on stage soundchecking is a good sight for these eyes! Bassist Graham Lewis had informed me that there would be a secret warm up gig for their Flag Burning event at the Barbican two days later. There, the plan was to play the entire iconic Pink Flag album and then after an interval play some of their current material much of which found its way spitting and snarling onto the new album Send. Rhodes had been billed as support to Klang, but didn't show, although Wire in their stead was more than adequate recompense for just about every alien on board. They'd been billed on the venue's website as The Pink Flags so it might've been so obvious. The amusement factor of Wire playing "Three Girl Rhumba" whilst supporting a former Elastica guitarist's new band was not lost on any who could spot the connection. Besides the few who'd sauntered in early and heard them play "Reuters" and "Ex Lion Tamer" for soundcheck, I only knew around twenty people who were aware that they were about to hear the most interesting band of the punk-rock-77 era play the best version of their first album from points A to B (again avoiding C, D and E where you play the blues). However I'm sure there were a few more than that in the know and there was much excited dancing towards the low stagefront and a real party atmosphere in one of the hottest gigs I've been to in a long time. In fact it was so hot that my friend Aneeta and I left before Klang even played, but were later told by Wire fans that we hadn't missed much. Lets face it, when your favourite band play one of the most special gigs you've ever been invited to, not much is going to seem like a worthy follow up. Aside from Bruce Gilbert fluffing the second chord of "Mannequin," no doubt muttering too-many-chord curses, the band were in fine shape and played the album very faithfully. Some songs had more venom and precision, especially "Surgeon's Girl" with the hilarious Lewis nonsense back up shouting at the end. "First Fast" seemed to have bled back into that one. "Pink Flag" was pretty much returned to its original drum rolling shape but with less jovial vocals from Colin Newman than on the album it seemed harder and more compacted. "Reuters" on the other hand had an extended intro and some added updates on the mythical weapons of mass destruction from Lewis. "Champs" had lost the splanging guitar overthrubs. Colin Newman downed guitar on several numbers and seemed to be really getting into singing the odd old songs. They might've even lopped a few seconds off those songs that are short because they aren't long like "Field Day For the Sundays" and "Different To Me." What was very apparent when they played "Lowdown," "Strange" and "12XU" was how much they've improved as a live band since the first retrospective at the Royal Festival Hall back in 2000. I was double glad to have witnessed this unique event as the sound at the Barbican was just not loud enough and the experience was so much more of a rush and roar in an intimate sweaty pub. After by far the best live version of "12XU" I've ever heard them pull off, some monkeying heckler couldn't help but shout, "You Can't Leave Now!" but of course they were gone.
Gold Blade frontman John Robb is a cultural commentator with shows on TV, self-appointed standard bearer of the punk rock torch and a familiar face about town who can always be relied on for a friendly argument. His band have gone through a few line up changes and the added muscle of an extra guitarist and spritely stand up drummer serves them well. Familar old singles "Black Elvis" and "Strictly Hardcore" form the backbone of their set which sees Robb stripping to the waist and charging about like a kid half his age, climbing the PA like he's on a mission to get Joe Strummer Action Man dolls patented. When he makes a daft speech about the only valid subjects for rock songs being sex, death and revolution, I feel like bashing the silly bugger over the head with a crate of WIRE CDs and some heavy Shellac vinyl! Gold Blade might not be the most original band ever to tread the boards and whilst Rocket From The Crypt comparisons are obvious there are also a handful of songs that sound like they were written to celebrate "Shot By Both Sides" being the greatest riff ever. Robb is surely astute enough to realise that 2003 is looking like the biggest year for punk rock since the late seventies, probably in part as an opposing reaction to civil clampdown and war, and Gold Blade's angry anti-corporate stance coupled with their partying mentality might just see them in the right place. Some might say Dead Kennedys have had their day and I was worried I might end up hating a band I'd loved but I was won over pretty damn quickly about halfway through opener "Forward to Death." I shouted along and had fun with the real mixed up crowd of old punks and young 'uns. "Lets Lynch the Landlord" seemed to get the biggest singalong. I had doubts about the singer Brandon Cruz, but he did the songs justice and the band were shit hot. The guitarists in glasses Klaus Flouride and East Bay Ray are like the revenge of the uber-nerds and Cruz was certainly less active than Biafra back in the day, but then he did have his arm in a sling after breaking it the night before. There might be acrimony and rancour between Biafra and the rest of the band, but his fighting spirit was unavoidable in all those caustic critical lyrical barbs. Even if Cruz was a much less exciting performer than Biafra, dreadlocked drummer DH Peligro had enough anger and charisma for about ten bands. "Holiday in Cambodia" seemed an obviously apocalyptic choice for a finale but wasn't acyually the end of it. Klaus suffered bass strap failure but the band pulled the song back into hard shape as if they had a a knife in their backs for a bowl of rice a day. DKs charged back into a second encore featuring the two most exciting numbers of the night, a hyper "Bleed For Me" (with anti-Bush lyrical updates) and the sadly appropriate "Chemical Warfare," the chaotic breakdown with Klaus Flouride shouting being probably my favourite moment of the night. Or was that shouting "Lets Lynch the Landlord" with a bunch of people who could identify with that sentiment? Or was it the adrenaline rush of "Riot" or the pop punk slayer single that never was "Moon Over Marin"? The whole gig was just a rush of great songs and even if I'd have prefered them to have played "Halloween" or "Soup is Good Food" instead of the silly cover songs, they really couldn't have been better under the Biafra bereft circumstances.
Buzzcocks were my favourite band for a while during teenage, somewhere between getting into rockpops bigtime thanks to the Stranglers and the total takeover of WIRE. They might've split up by the time I heard them, but I wore out timeless tapes of Singles Going Steady and Another Music in a Different Kitchen which I replaced with vinyl which in turn wore out. When I finally saw them during an early reformation afternoon festival slot they were so fucking disappointing I mistakenly dismissed them as over the hill. They played a set of lacklustre new songs that seemed to have lost the spark. When The Fall played a free gig in Castlefield Arena, Manchester I sauntered on down to watch Mark E Smith blather on for the quidillionth time and was quite surprised that when Buzzcocks came on after them, they clean blew them back to rockabilly rebel scatter fields with a set of greatest hit adrenaline rush gems. I was even more surprised to find myself leaping about like a kid down the front to "Harmony In My Head" and "I Believe." A lot of folk were probably equally enthused and the Manchester show on their current UK tour sold out. They had everyone in their orgasm addicted palms from the get go charging out with anti-rock anthems "Boredom" and "Fast Cars." The band played a similar set to Castlefield but with a few extra Kitchen classics including "Love Battery" and "Get On Our Own," and a clutch of new songs that suggested that their new eponymous album might not be quite the tedious through the motions affair that the last three were. Some tired old lags have been bitching about this tour being too loud but these guitars should always be set to stun. The interplay between Diggle and Shelley has given us some the finest minutes in pop music and the current rhythm section from old Crass label group Lack of Knowledge can actually pull off a sprint in the Garvey / Maher shoes with energy left to burn. Steve Diggle detractors can suck my dick and die. Diggle looks like he's having the time of his life up there trying to do Who windmills whilst Pete Shelley looks like a pudgey teddy bear with a mess of blond wig and a quick quip every now and then. They're never likely to pull off a record as fun as the first album or as adventurous as the third, but live they're still a whole lot of fun. Maybe the blast was nostalgic, and perhaps it wasn't for an age yet to come, but Buzzcocks have written some of the smartest pop songs ever and they're still best heard live and loud with a bellyfull o'beer. I think I'll go see 'em again at the Empire the day after WIRE let the devil dogs out for Flag Burning.
Zoviet-France were a low key opening with random rumble and drone rising from abstracted ambience to half realised attempts to scale walls of noise. They were more varied and engaging when I saw them with Ryoji Ikeda a few years back. Here they just seemed to be coasting along blindly and we might as well just have stayed outside with the car engine running and our heads on the bonnet. The Fall were back on form hearing nosey telephone thingamebobs listening in and losing tempers with friends. They had an able new bassist and the young goth wife of Mark E. Smith diddling about on keyboards. The most vivid imaged etched from day one is of the Dickensian spectre of Smith looming through the chain mesh at the stage side. I got into blind drunk can't-find-my-way-round Smith mode so was totally trashed by Public Enemy. I do however recall that they played a stormin' Rebel Without A Pause, they were a lot of fun and like most anyone with even half a functioning sense of reason, Chuck D dislikes world-leader-pretend George Bush intensely.
Somehow I found a hangover cure the next day with my head in Pita's PA as he stood in red jacketed racing stillness at his laptop, coaxing huge swathes of digital distortion from which rose funny little buried three note melodies. Farmersmanual were disappointing compared to recordings I've heard, but still the kind of glitched abstraction that makes a good organic lager drinking backdrop. It was hard to give a damn about them though, and why they needed so many as five laptoppers to do what they did seemed a mystery. Disjecta's processed guitar drones actually worked much better further from the stage as background ambience, and my new frind Eva's main criticism of the event was that there was too much stuff like this. It was no problem for a hardened experimentalist like me but veterans of the Shellac curated event last year were often heard to complain of a lack of guitar bands and associated energy. That's not a criticism that could be leveled at the bouncey hand waving high jinx of rappers El-P and Murs. They got a big cheer for denouncing warmongering stooge Bush, and were so fuckin' on one that you couldn't help but get carried along by the rush. Yasunao Tone looked very happy to confuse the techno heads with some random cut up abstract noise, and Hecker's studious almost non-existant stage presence and post-Gilbertoid bee buzz proved to be the most room clearing performance I witnessed. His set was close enough to sounding like he was playing back his recent Mego CD to beg the question of why he'd actually bothered to turn up - nice work if you can get it! Earth cancelled so appropriately Sunn O))) were moved to burn bright in their position, a slow riff grind of apocalyptic doom that won legions of new fans. Their mind altering armageddon mogadon skullfuck was most certainly the highlight of the first day and afterwards Aphex Twin just seemed like mediocre crowd pleasing mouldy old dough, albeit pleasantly foot tapping mouldy old dough.
The best day by far was Sunday. Lovely humourous rapid cut ups from Jim O'Rourke brought a cartoonish feel to the air. His ability to sense humour in avant soundscapes should not be underestimated. If you ever get the chance to see such exceptionally life affirming artists as Coil or the Magic Band, it would be worth traversing a continent for. A new Coil set was presumably what I would expect to eventually be reformed into Music to Play in the Dark 3, with only The Dreamer Is Still Asleep in a drastically reworked form as finale to nod to old glory. They put on an awesome and powerful performance which to me seemed like a ritual of anti-war magic, with a bearded Balance waggling a long sleeve camply as the green univarse light show altered minds and etched a spinning wormhole in so-called reality. I was quite overcome and tears streamed down my face. These were not tears of sadness or joy, but a body bursting beyond its threshold. On sale after their set was a new CD titled A.N.S. which is the follow up to Time Machines and is equally exquisitely hallucinogenic. Bernard Parmegiani's De Natura Sonorum raised the largest applause noise to crowd size ratio and it was pretty cool to be able to wander around the half empty hall in and out of the rushing elegant peaks and troughs as usually electroacoustic concerts are seated affairs. The Magic Band just owned the place as soon as they walked on, cool mofos to a man. Opening with Rockette Morton's Trout Mask bass solo, they cut a dash through some instrumental renditions that it'd be hard to believe could've been better back in the day. The sound was perfect, courtesy of Shellac bassist Bob Weston. Guitarist Gary 'Mantis' Lucas was obviously named such by the Captain due to the stance he pulled as he worked those difficult shapes into our eager ears. When John French stalked out from behind his kit to take on a Beefheart persona and sing a bellyfull o'psychedelic blues, it was a moment I dreaded just in case it all relapsed into kitsch karaoke clowning, but nothing could be further from the truth. As he told the tale of the farmer who pitched the devil from now to now with The Floppy Boot Stomp, it was obvious he'd lived so much of this seminal music that he'd become a different person, and one who could deliver a more than convincing full on hoodoo hoedown in the Captain's boots. Towards the end of their joyous set there was a false fire alarm and the room had to be cleared. I might've found me a woman to hold my big toe until it was time to go, but nowaday's a woman's gotta hit a man. A few more songs to a drastically diminished crowd had me leaping about like a kid waving apples down the front and after the inevitable fiery finale Big Eyed Beans From Venus the only reasonable response was to stand in front of the Mantis shouting, "We love you!" The Magic Band were so great I tripped out to their show in London the next day, and who should I bump into walking the nice streets of Wimbledon? None other than Malka Spigel, wife of WIRE guitarist Colin Newman. Clearly I was about to witness lightning striking twice!
It seems Tom Sudall is haunted by the number three in all his endeavours. He was one third of the odd lo-fi indie rock trio B-Fab Uk and since they became dormant he's been promoting gigs in triads themed as The Brown Barrel. Each trio of gigs is prefaced by a tiny free Smuggler fanzine in which all the performers are interviewed with the same set of questions. The last trio of ragged eclectic artnoise explorations occured at Manchester's coolest haunt of recent times, the smart art gallery bar Tmesis. At the opening blast, headliners Kling Klang rocked up a synthesised krautpunk storm and answered all questions with the word 'Frazz.' Macrocosmica came down from Glasgow to riff heavy and murky, with former Telstar Ponies drummer Brendan O'Hare strapping on six strings that drew sludge. The vocals were quite weak and detracted from their onslaught but otherwise it was a greasy monkey of a gig. They like tickling children, or so they say. Local duo Our Beautiful Ridiculous Plan played sensitive meandering instrumental beauty cards that you couldn't put your arms around. They describe themselves as sounding akin to Bonnie Prince Billie without the vocals, but reminded me more of the post-Rodan Louisville continuum. Their prefered reading is The Squatter's Handbook and Alfredo Bonano's Riot to Insurrection.
Two weeks later an early start for electro-probers Robot Arm meant I missed them, but at the risk of Jon Whitney carrying out his threats to send hordes of rabid Coil fans round to smear my back door in blood and semen, I'm just going to have to compare Ampersound to Wire. There were some programmed rhythms they set off that definitely had an inadvertant likeness to one of the most illuminated bands of the eighties. One of them plays traditional Japanese string instruments which give them a fake devotional feel, but at times the other guy's guitar playing got a bit too noodly and brought me crashing down from the nice streets above. Sat behind a keyboard and drum machine, Illuminati headlined unobtrusively in appearance if not in sound, as high pitches had bartender Debbie clutching her ears in protest! Dave Clarkson confesses to a great love of Throbbing Gristle and treacle sponge, and the former shows in his primitivist hard soundscaping. He surprised everyone by whipping out an axe and adding some low key guitar noise to his petri dish of magnetizing microbial ambience.
The third gig a fortnight later opened with a Zoviet France homage from Russet and Brown who were at their best when they amped up a heavy distorted loop. They say this is like looking at a blank wall through a thousand eyes, but for me it was more a pleasant backdrop for boozey chatter. The Owl Project play laptops in wooden logs putting a treetop twist on the glitch-beat interface. They are trying to mimic the sound of electrical campfire at high magnification and use their stark yet slightly cute beats to try to communicate electronically with roosting owls. What the owls think of this is anyone's guess, but it's possible they took on human form and called themselves Black Curtain. The three black masked beings harrangued an arch psychedelic groove with definite Faust overtones. Maybe they'd work just as well as an instrumental combo, but the vocalist's exuberance couldn't be denied. However like Faust, often the drums carried it. One of them also plays guitar and keyboards for Twisted Nerve's Mum and Dad, but Black Curtain are certainly a stranger progbeast beaming in from the outer part, unleashing fragmented fictions from their soon come third album.
For links on all these bands and news on future Brown Barrel happenings, check out the B-Fab UK site.
That Goldblade guitar slinger Jay Taylor has recently taken up residence as promoter at the Night and Day in Manchester and has continued bringin' on nights of themed tribute, where many bands play one cover song from a particular artist or genre. Whilst this might seem to be a far cry from the cutting edge, there is a significant fun factor and when I walked in hours into an all day homage to the late great Joe Strummer, the first band I witnessed effortlessly turned all notions of lazy copies on their head.
Wednesday March 12, 2003, Glasgow, UK
Whilse Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs might be getting heaps more hype for their smart 21st century punktones, Enon are perhaps the sparkiest and most advanced New York band mashing the creaky boards right now. With John Schmersal from the awesome Brainiac as guitar-plunkin' synth-stabbin' pivot, there was always going to be great tunes at the heart of their technological attack. The current trio has solidified into one of the coolest punk party bands on the planet. Drummer Matt Schulz is actually the cousin of Tyler Trent from Brainiac and looks like the bastard stickchild of Tyler and Shellac's Todd Trainer as he beats eleven shades of robotic crappola out of the skins. Toko Yasuda used to play in Blonde Redhead, but now has found her sweet voice as John's beau and foil, singing almost as many songs as him and switching quickly from bass to synth and back again. In Leeds they didn't quite ignite the night but Glasgow the next day was a bouncier exciting ride, even if the "Rubber Car" had left its wheels spinning in the Cockpit. Two new songs bode well for the next album due this Fall, but the set was comprised mostly of songs from their Touch and Go album High Society, bolstered by a couple of cuts from Believo! and that weird ass elusive Sub Pop single. Highlights are the hard rockin' "Old Dominions" with it's drastically precise slowed down coda, and "Biofeedback" where John raps silly and stalks off into the crowd to deliver surreal ring modulated messages to revellers. The big surprise was a real burnin' cover of the Gun Club's "Sex Beat" in Glasgow, with Toko on the mike rushing about like a lady with the fire of love in her pants! But my favourite memory will be of the pleasant surprise of hearing them storm off with a noise rock finale to my favourite song from their first album, "Conjugate the Verbs." Matt was all over the kit in joyful abandon as John did his best to blow his stacks. Don't miss the chance to wave your fingers in the air as the Enon tour continues across Europe. Be sure to take some extra cash for the clutch of quality singles and compilations they bring, which can prove tricky to track down in record shops.
I drove six hours through ten inches of snow for this one and it was worth it.
It was an intimate show, probably about 18 people, what with it being below zero and a Monday night in Omaha. I almost didn't recognize Virgil as he's thinner and his hair is shaggier and blonder than I remember from the 2001 Angels of Light tour, which is how I first became aware of the San Francisco singer/songwriter and Dieselhed frontman. He played acoustic guitar miked through a small practice amp and was joined by Marc Capelle on piano, backing vocals and occasional flugelhorn. As expected the 45 minute set was primarily from the new album 'Still Falling' and included all of my favorites: "The Drawing", "Golden Sun", "Wilderness of This World", "Still Falling", "Water Color" and "Volvo" (both from the previous album, 'Quad Cities', Shaw's solo debut), plus two more I was particularly taken with, the Bee Gees' "Country Lanes" and a new one, "Logger's Daughter". His songs fall loosely into the alt-country vein and the quirky physicality of his guitar playing matches the closed-eyed intensity of his unique vocals.
John Doe did a couple songs solo then the rest of the trio joined him, Dave Carpenter on stand-up bass and backing vocals and Nick Luca on piano and occasional guitar. They played nearly all of last year's new album, 'Dim Stars, Bright Sky', which was exactly what I wanted. There were several older songs I didn't really recognize and three classic X songs: "White Girl", "Burning House of Love" and another that I've since forgotten, other than they did a "country" version of it. John joked that if he ever ended up in Branson to "please shoot me". He was very congenial and funny all night, having a conversation with us between every song, which made for the same sort of vibe Mark Eitzel can conjure up on a good night. "Highway 5" became "Highway 80" since they had broken down on it earlier in the day and several people stopped to ask if they needed help. There were two encores and the last song was a request for "Take 52" from Doe's solo debut 'Meet John Doe'. John said "I don't think they're going to like that one" pointing to the three late arriving punk rock kids (everyone else was "normal" looking, most easily in their 30s and up) at the table down front and played it anyways. Their whole set was about one hour and 20 minutes. Don't worry John, you won't end up in Branson anytime soon. But you will end up on the East coast and in the South, with and without Virgil, through the rest of March. Check virgilshaw.com or thejohndoe.com for all the dates.
Go back, go back: its just like punk rock happened, and then happened again and again. Ikara Colt are a bunch of former art student poseurs who act like they spent hours watching '77 punk footage and striking poses in front of the mirror. If they haven't assimilated, regurgitated, and morphed the shtick of The Fall, then I'm a valium kiche kiche. The bassist wears a school unifom a size too small and acts the poxy epileptic whilst the singer is a southern Mark Smith, spitting a-caustic. The guitarist moves like Karren Ablaze's little sister as she keeps her fretfire burnin'. What do you mean, "Who's Karren Ablaze?" The beers kicks in and I'm possessed by the rancid spectre of Mark E Smith. Two people in a room turn into the most hideous replicas: whilst the singer pulls the young vicious Smith moves I can't stop the joke the joke (after five years in my own PC camp): a heckler spray of Smithisms. The band have finely paced their set, ratcheting up the energy with every consecutive anti-hit. In the end the singer dedicates the last and best number, a new one, to the Rowche Rumbler who's been pointing out the obvious. In the bar members of Manchester garage punkers Jackie O and the Strap Ons are milling through the grinder. "It's showtime," shouts the friendly doorman and Yeahs Yeahs Yeahs seize their time, tour sold out before an album even dropped. First up is the almost genius love-envy song "Maps" extended to extrude salivating anticipation. Many lesser bands would've shot their bolt blasting out the total genius guitar noise pop feast "Why Control?" next. An as yet unreleased gem premiered on their Peel session, its the bastard lovechild of "Drunken Butterfly" and "Passing Complexion" but catchier. The lyrics are simple brilliance and simply brilliant. Are they a nod to Burroughs? How novel for a New York group, the detractors sneer, but its their loss. Karen O sings like a punked up Dolly Parton with a vibrator up her and moves like a trash poseur who doesn't have to look in a cracked mirror. None of the three Yeahs are replaceable parts, and guitarist Nick Zinner has such a great chimecrush crescendo onslaught there's no missing the bass. Predictable that the single "Machine" gets the kids bouncing perhaps, but another new number is an instant foot hit. Yeah Yeahs Yeahs are going to be the biggest rock band since Nirvana, easy. I was there then and I know what I'm talking about, kid. Is it their time to be hated? No, Libertines are the fuckin' enemy. Useless diluters can go piss up a rope. They look like shit!
There was a cozy church sanctuary, a fully stocked merchandise table, three premier experimental artists, and an audience of about 75 people. It was a familial vibe all around, and quite unlike any other show I've ever been to.
William Basinski, sharply dressed in black suit, was introduced (by a guy I'm assuming is the head of Robot Records) and his set began about 8:15. On stage were two folding tables, the center one with six or so components and his Apple laptop on top, and one off to the right with a mixer and a large reel to reel tape machine. The set began with three or so shorter, continuous pieces then settled into one epic piece, probably 40 minutes, obviously one of Basinski's "Disintegration Loops." He occasionally looked at the laptop screen and reel to reel but spent the bulk of the time with the mixer faders, headphones on, very subtly and very patiently layering sources. The tape loop was literally disintegrating, ending up just a small strip by the end of the set. The whole piece sounded like an old orchestral recording. The repetition of the loop was relentless, but elements within the loop were very gradually transformed. I could sense the "percussion" falling out of time and later it seemed smeared, possibly reversed, in the mix. This was very soothing, engaging stuff. The crowd remained perfectly silent until the end and politely clapped. It was a very good start.
After a 10 minute intermission, Andreas Martin, more casual in blue windbreaker and blue jeans, was introduced. Martin is very unassuming and quiet but spoke some in German-inflected English. He told us the first song was written a few days ago while thinking about how nice it was to have the opportunity to come there (from Hamburg) to play for people. He gave us the German title and an English translation as "Lucky Mushroom." I had assumed that he would use the guitar and effects to produce drone-y stuff like the Mirror records I have, but it was nothing at all like that. These songs were very physical and intricate, melodic and rhythmic, with all the notes rapidly finger picked or hammered on by both hands. Harmonics and different tunings were frequently used and some songs included percussive bits where he either slapped the top of the guitar or the side (with his ring) underneath the fretboard. Between songs he would catch his breath and sweep back his curly black hair. One song was a cover of an American composer who died in 1997, the name I didn't quite catch. Martin finished his last song and shyly said "that's all," but we clapped crazily so he did another one, it being the most aggressive of them all.
After another brief intermission, Heemann took the stage, sat in a folding chair behind the center table, and was introduced. Most the of the time was spent looking at CD players and fiddling with knobs on the mixer. There were roughly three parts to his set. It began pretty abrasively, mostly with noise waves and some ambient sound that included a buried (Euro) emergency vehicle. The sound concentrated into a powerful, harsh drone for about half the set, suddenly stopped, and began again with a softer drone. It was this last drone that really, really sucked me in. Heemann made it ebb and flow some but it also maintained a constant frequency for its 20-minute duration. Everything suddenly stopped around 11:00 and Heemann departed stage rather quickly.
Soon after, my friend and I realized that Heemann's set had physiologically altered us (my equilibrium in particular - so much that I was afraid to drive for awhile). It was to remain that way for the rest of the night. Never before had we been so affected by live music. Did Heemann intentionally use frequencies that would have that effect on the audience? Did others feel like we did? Would we ever be the same again?
"I had so much to say."
First time I saw Low they were supporting Come at the London Garage and Kramer was doing their sound. They were enjoyable but I didn't feel motivated to rush out and buy their records. Since then they've just kept getting better and better, growing ever more assured, confident and orgasmic. Last week Low played the best gig I ever saw them do. The sound was perfect, immaculate, accentuating their pin drop precision, and the large crowd was held enraptured in awe. From the opener "Candy Girl" it was clearly the perfect fuck music, tragic make out make up for the last fling before she flies over the ocean. It had all the controlled intensity of their spartan Joy Division "Transmission" cover that had held the Star and Garter so enraptured on earlier trips to Manchester. The way Alan Sparhawk turns and strums at Mimi Parker and the way she taps calm heartbeat assurance is PURE SEX. It's so obvious Mimi is his his candy girl, and this is the sweet molten core of Low's slowburning genius. Alan and Mimi (ahem, and bassist Zack Sally) have fashioned a music that twists and turns with all the ups and downs of an intensely consummated relationship. "Candy Girl" also shows that maybe Steve Albini has had a little more influence on Low than just recording them. Alan throws out subtle jags of guitar skree at oblique angles to the heartbreak beat. The song cuts dead and they launch into the Peel-popular "That's How You Sing Amazing Grace" and the relatively stompin' "Canada" single. How can that Sparhawk dude sing "In the Drugs" without bursting into tears? It surely is one of the saddest songs I ever heard. Then there's the spaghetti western malevolance of "John Prine," a dark ode to revenge so quietly fiercesome it could ignite blue flames of paranoia in anyone who ever crossed a softspoken Duluth musician. Low can even make dear ol' drippy Roger Waters seem profound, with their majestic cover of "Fearless." On the way to the gig I was almost run over by a speeding car escaping gross corporate slavewage superstore. I had been moderately distracted by Come in my headphones, which would've been a fine thing to hear with my dying breath, but it was no time to leave the planet. A glimpse of mortality is always a lever for heightened sensuality. Don't waste your days with mediocre piffle. You might die tomorrow. Hurry up materialise, don't just threaten to. Flirt, take drugs, booze, shoot the shit with the people who are worth the effort. Soundtrack it with a band that fucking matters, and then some! Low are serious as your life.
"Now I'm gonna make them pay."
Save for a mis-start on one song, the rest of the set was technically sound. Most of it was from the new album "Arrhythmia": 'Dead In Motion', 'Ping Pong', 'Mega', 'Silver Heat' and 'Ghostlawns' plus 'Sugar Worm' from the Japanese album "Shopping Carts Crashing" and a couple new ones. They balanced it out well: some songs were all laptop with the three of them MCing, others they played everything, or combinations of the two. They're just as much electronic musicians as they are MC trio. One song they all switched gear, but most of the time it was Sayyid on drum machine (he's especially good at playing it live, which is rather daring), Priest on laptop, mixer and the mini keyboard for bass lines, and Beans on an old analog keyboard mostly doing R2-D2 talk. All three take turns on the mic or all together with an impeccable sense of timing. Each is equally capable but with a unique voice: Sayyid is the really smooth, fast, poetic one, very expressive with his eyes, face and hands; Beans is the more physical one, almost shouting the lyrics he's spitting them out so hard, and Priest is the laid back, deepest voice one, standing prone most of the time with towel around his neck. All of them were quite capable of the mile-a-minute stuff and proved it. Beans' performance on 'Silver Heat' was the highlight though. He took center stage and did this amazing upper torso only twisty dance while violently snapping his head all around but still somehow managing to keep the mic to his mouth. They played an hour total and I left even more impressed with APC than I was before I showed up. The tour continues throughout North America through mid-May. -
Then came Atmosphere, and I was looking forward to this set, but it was a dissapointment. The sound levels were off at the beginning, so they never really got started well. If it were'nt for their DJ, Mr. Dibbs, I would have gone to the other stage. He was great, mixing in Ozzy when they started to lose the crowd. I'd say that the highlight of the set was a medley they did of spoofs of other rap artists, i.e. "I'm a slug" and "My name is . . . Tim Daley." But overall, I was not impressed with the band, as they started a fight on stage, and then Mr. Dibbs put some kid who was trying to buy his merchandise in a chokehold for no apparent reason. Maybe they aren't cut out for fame.
Last was Chicks on Speed, and this made the whole night worth it. They had a bad start, as the monitor levels were off , which seemed to be a theme that night, but once they got started, they did an amazing set. They had well-composed songs that were heavy on bass and full of improvisation. Their girl-punk vocals really made the act stand out from everything else that night, and I couldn't get over how captivating they are as performers. They paint themselves and use homemade instruments, like their electronically altered vinyl belts that they play during "We don't play guitars!" They are smart musicians and they really know how to play a crowd. After the false start, they grabbed our attention, spraying us with water and getting off the stage to roam the audience. Chicks on Speed appear to be a retro-novelty act, with neon lame and fishnet hose, until you listen and realize that they are making really good music. I bought the album on my way out, and I haven't been sorry. -
Cheekily, Soft Cell opened with "Memorabilia," and continued with "Mono Culture," and "Heat," before gliding through a healthy mixture of classic hits "Youth," "Bedsitter," and "Torch." New (yet unreleased) songs included "Divided Soul," "Last Chance," "Somebody, Somewhere, Sometime," and the gorgeous "God Shaped Hole" from the latest Some Bizarre compilation. Marc Almond even forgot some lines to this one, but the band played on as he tried the best to catch up with Dave Ball under bursts of laughter about his messing up.
The audience was thrilled and overwhelmed to see these songs performed so passionately even if most failed to sing loud enough when Marc gave them their chance to. The show was accompanied by cool lightning and perfect mixing desk duties. Soft Cell easily managed to keep themselves distanced from dependence on yester-year's glorifications or beloved memories. Of course they played "Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go?" (the ticket even stated this as 'The Tainted Love Tour') but for attendees still not knowing more about Soft Cell, they made it not easy. "The Art Of Falling Apart" and "The Best Way To Kill" (which Almond said "probably reflects best how I really felt during the eighties") were welcomed nearly equally enthuiastic. The first encore ?naturally- had to be the unforgettable "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye," while a second included "Martin" and "Sex Dwarf", thus ending the concert with loads of screaming fans and the promise to return next year...
All the difficulties Dave Ball had in the early days performing live seem to be blown away through his experiences with The Grid and it was a pleasure to see them both performing and enjoying it at least as much as the audience. As both of them waved goodbye with a big smile on their faces they had once more underlined that Soft Cell always stood on their own terms. It was a perfect night out and I wish I could share some of the power and the passion it gave me with you.