Crystal Stilts at Start The Bus, Bristol

Crystal Stilts
Live at Bristol Start The Bus
April 10th 2011

There is a corner of a bar in Bristol that has never knowingly seen the sun’s warm rays. So dark is this space, at one edge of Start The Bus, that only the occasional glimmer of a ringing i-Phone can be seen to flick dimly through the cold, cold dark of the room. A perfect environment to witness a heap of new material from Brooklyn mischievists, Crystal Stilts.

These five upstanding gents are not goths – but the seemingly obvious influence of Jesus and Mary Chain, Sisters of Mercy and especially The Gun Club on them is an easy setting off point for the voyage of discovery that their live shows would seem to encourage. So let’s start with that.

True: interesting record collections are worn like vinyl sleeves by the Stiltsmen. The early ’80s british alternative rock/goth canon is there in spades, as is the Velvet Underground. But then the VU are in EVERY New York band to some degree. Or if not, they should be. Add to this some of the classier components of the late-60s US and UK garage-psych set and you’ve got a pretty accurate, if pretentious, summation of Crystal Stilts’ parts. Get a little less precious about it all, though, and you might hear some Hollies riffery embedded in the holy Sonics sound – some Stranglers mixed up with Doors riffs. Some Ian Brown over the Smiths.

That vocal vs music thing is the most confusing yet edifying dichotomy of all. Brad Hargett as singer is a charismatic prospect, if confusingly soaked with gallons and gallons of stage-controlled reverb. He’s a blur to look at too, thanks to the oppressive darkness of Start The Bus – but when a passing car or Bristol Nightbus catches the door-glass of the venue at the correct angle, a sweeping arc of headlight might pick out his shuffling dance, his half-closed trance eyes or his uncurling finger snaking subconsciously out from the micstand. Lost in music, this lad – which is always good to see.

Bass player Andy Adler and keyboard whizz Kyle Forester are the lively boys in the band, twisting and hammering at their instruments while Keegan Cooke grinds the primal floor-tom beat into the wooden floor. Never, EVER facing the front of the stage is JB Townsend, killer guitarist with an arsenal of extraordinary licks and reels with which to embellish neo-historic pop giants like the ever-popular ‘Shake The Shackles’ and especially ‘Blood Barons’. This latter tune, a colossal highlight of the night, very neatly sucks up the entire Nuggets collection of psychedelic masterpiece boxsets, chews them for a full five minutes, spits them into a grey pile of sick and plants a flag on the top with the legend ‘Is this what you meant?’ written on it. When two-thirds into the song Kyle thumps his keyboard to pieces in lieu of a solo and JB emits all manner of extraordinary squawks while still facing South, you realise the 60s are (finally) being rewritten live, in front of your face. Yes, it’s bloody good.

Bristol agrees with me. The tallest man in the world is at the front, gesticulating manically to all who might see through the gloomy half-light, and God only knows what the kid next to me is doing with his pint of warm ale while all this is going on. I get wet – that’s all I know.

There are brief moments when it all seems a little too simplistic, like the Crystal Stilts formula should be easy to define and divine. ‘Silver Sun’ sounds a little like 1989 Stone Roses, for instance, and ‘Through The Floor’ is just indie pop, isn’t it? But then something will happen to Brad’s voice, or Keegan will come up with something extraordinary – and you realise that the symplicity of the sound is half the brilliance. Only after the full 40 minute set has been absorbed and digested will you understand that while you think you’ve been staring into what seemed like total darkness, you’ve actually been sneakily hit with something quite spectacular. Excellent stuff.

Andy Barding


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