Confessions Of A Music Addict – January 2012
Ah, January. Now nothing ever happens in music in January, there are no gigs worth going to… right? Wrong…
I was born, so I’m told, just after eight o’clock in the evening of 6th January 1972 – so technically I completed my fourth decade of existence somewhere towards the front of tiny Brighton venue The Haunt, just ahead of the first gig of 2012 for me and indeed for British Sea Power at the launch of their new monthly club night Krankenhaus. Couldn’t have asked for a better birthday present, really: disappointment that Y Niwl (another name on NME’s new bands for 2012 list that was on LTW’s 2011 one) had had to pull out at the last minute was compensated by the debut live performance from SAVAGES. This all female band is fronted by the ultra-cool Camille Berthomier AKA Jehn from ace French lo-fi fuzz duo John And Jehn, and frankly it seems almost unfair that she can have two such excellent bands. Listing their influences as Mary Shelley, JG Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury as opposed to anything musical, their sound is like a sultrier Siouxsie fronting Automatic-era Mary Chain – and they’re brilliant. For a debut gig, even one where at least some members are quite used to playing in front of a crowd, it was nothing short of outstanding. A cracking start to 2012.
British Sea Power themselves played two sets. The opening selection was billed as “acoustic” but soon turned out to be what some friends and I have long termed “Acoustic My Arse”. The phrase was coined during The Chameleons’ reunion era, on the first night of a 2001 “acoustic” tour in which effects pedals and a bass featured; by the end of the tour I had knocked up a home-made T-shirt bearing the words across a picture Mark Burgess’s leather-trousers-clad arse. The phrase has subsequently seen frequent use by alumni of the Chameleons away crew to mean a gig billed as (semi)-acoustic which really isn’t – generally involving someone using an acoustic guitar and maybe a set list based around quieter and/or more melodic songs. In BSP’s case this involved rare outings for “Straight Down The Line” and “No Need To Cry” as well as the live debut of new track “Lights Above Descending” (also available on a limited CD of new material, from the gig or the band’s online shop) whose pealing, fluid guitar actually reminds me a lot of The Chameleons.
The main set largely involved songs from 2008’s “Do You Like Rock Music” – not strictly an album playback show as they were not in order – which I’ll admit is my least favourite of the band’s five albums to date. I think it’s one of those things whereby bands feel pressure either from themselves or from labels to have “one last crack at the mainstream” with the third album – Puressence’s major-label swansong “Planet Helpless”, also my least favourite of theirs, springs immediately to mind – and if it doesn’t work, they start getting creative and interesting again. I’m not even sure it’s always a conscious thing. Still, with the better tracks such as “Waving Flags” and “The Great Skua” plus some stuff from other albums at the end it was still a great gig – and one of the best turnouts I can recall from the extended away crew. I turned 40 with a lot of good friends around me.
As January shifted from post-festive slump into an oddly warm (if rather windy) early spring, live music options started to pick up again: the second week of the month was notable for containing two Thursdays, or so it seemed. The real Thursday – 12th – saw Steve Shy’s Stroke Club return to Gulliver’s with a distinctly shambolic set from The Blimp – but then what do you expect from a band that involves “The General, a spontaneous lyricist with a penchant for military garb, last seen talking to a bus stop.” Those with an unhealthy interest in the whereabouts of ex-Fall members might be interested to know that the band normally features Mike Leigh (Dragnet era) on drums, although he couldn’t make this one. Headliners Greetings meanwhile are the latest in Stroke Club’s long line of eclectic magpie talents (Frazer King, Janice Graham Band, Dirty North) and mix up skanking beats, twiddly guitars and Greek party music. No, really.
We had, however, been at the city centre’s most rock’n’roll pub on the Monday too, with Preston promoter Tuff Life Boogie in charge. (Amusingly, Mark E Smith – the man from whose words he took his promoting name, was in the pub downstairs.) TLB normally promotes at The Continental in Preston, where his specialities are revived indie legends such as The Loft and Monochrome Set and their modern-day heirs. Tonight it’s deep heavy psychedelia night with the gloriously-named Evil Blizzard opening proceedings with a very dark brew made all the deeper by the fact that they have no guitars, just three basses and a drum kit. Oh, and a theremin shaped like a disembodied baby’s head. Like I said, they’re dark. Salford’s own psychedelicists GNOD were next up – mixing up space-rock, krautrock, doom and a psychedelic groove they’re always excellent live.
Then headlining the evening were Purson – the new band fronted by Rosalie Cunningham, who sang backing vocals on Magazine’s reunion tour on which her then band Ipso Facto also supported – this is a quite different prospect, though. The goth-ish feeling to her singing is still present and correct but the backdrop is closer to prog-rock, heavy on the atmosphere and time-signature shifts. Already championed by Marc Riley (yes, here was there too, although nowhere near Smith!) they will be playing at British Sea Power’s 4th Krankenhaus night in Brighton on 6th April, where Riley will also be DJing.
Then there was the Minny Pops / Rats On Rafts tour. John Robb has reported elsewhere on here on the Manchester gig, which I arranged (at Gulliver’s, 21st) under the LTW banner because that made it feel less like my personal responsibility if it all went belly-up. I needn’t have worried; both Minnypops’ cold industrial electropop-without-the-pop and Rats’ energetic post-punk spikiness went down an absolute storm, as did the local support I’d added to the bill. They being WOMB, an all-female collective of artists and activists who make fascinating and multi-layered experimental music like a 21st century feminised Can or Faust.
Mid to late January is of course prime hunting season for those with an interest in new music. Now I’m not going to get into one of those pointless debates as to what is and isn’t “new music” – some of these bands have been around for a while and some haven’t; some I’d seen before and some I’d not, but they’re all still to some extent a bit under the radar, and worthy of attention…
Projectionists, The Steals and Lucille made for a brilliant two-quid-in bill from one of my favourite promoters Wotgodforgot (Castle, 18th). Projectionists include former members of Alfie, Liam Frost’s Slowdown Family, and the original (ie. good) Pipettes line-up and make quality grown-up pop with nods to Blondie, Morrissey and Phil Spector; The Steals are based around the haunting vocals of Jayn Hanna and loads of effects pedals, the end result being somewhere between folk and shoegaze; whilst Lucille (formerly known as Lucy And The Caterpillar) is tiny of stature but powerful of voice and does jazzy folky acoustic pop that’s sweet without being over-sugared.
TRAILER TRASH TRACYS and WOMAN’S HOUR must be two of the worst band names ever conceived but their gig at Kraak (14th) was excellent even if it wasn’t ezxactly saturday night party music – the former making nice dreamy sounds reminiscent of old-school shoegaze and the Twin Peaks theme, and the latter falling somewhere between The XX and a more subtle, stripped down Warpaint.
Mount Fabric whom I reviewed here back in November played a blinding gig at The Castle; their intense progressive indie is getting better every time I see them. Shame the same couldn’t be said of headliners Binary whose stylised black-clad 80s influences have been photocopied so many times in the past decade (White Lies doing Editors doing Interpol doing Chameleons) there’s not really much substance left.
TRIBAL FIGHTERS played Ruby Lounge with the ever excellent THE NARROWS and local electro-rock stalwarts SHMOO (13th) and reminded me of a calmer Forward Russia or very early Foals: sometimes very mathematical and algorithmic, other times bordering on afropop, but never lacking in bounce and energy.
ADVANCES IN MATHEMATICS are a Manchester-based instrumental band who do indie-flavoured post-rock or maybe post-rock-flavoured indie – lovely chiming melodies and warm effects like a more chilled-out Mogwai. They played Kraak on the last day of January, at the first Manchester event in about three or four years from shoegaze/psychedelia label and club Sonic Cathedral. Which was also the first Manchester appearance in as long for headliners THE EARLY YEARS whose pedal-mauling, ear-blistering Spacemen 3 meets Neu! drone rock actually sounded better than it ever did prior to their little hiatus. Hopefully there’ll be a new record from them soon.
Dirty Projectors’ bassist NAT BALDWIN headlined a really nice low-key afternoon show at Islington Mill on the 29th on his first UK solo tour – one man plus one stand-up double-bass is a rather odd configuration for a singer-songwriter but it worked due to the versatility of both his voice and his playing – there was great local support too; warm sepia-toned indiepop from SONGS FOR WALTER and frenetically complex art-jazz-indie from NEW HIPS, and a decent number of people out – could Sunday afternoon gigging be a new untapped market? It was certainly nice to go out and watch some bands and be home in time for tea.
AIR CAV should need little introduction here – their first gig of 2012 was at Salford King’s Arms where they debuted a couple of new tracks alongside stuff from “Don’t Look Indoors”. On tour in March (2nd-11th in Preston / Bristol / Cardiff / Manchester / Hull / London / Oxford / Newcastle / Leeds – check their website for dates) they’re well worth seeing right now. Support came from THE LIGHTSHINES who used to be a Manchester-based solo artist but since moving back down south he’s acquired a full band and they sound like early Ride.
And finally there was appointment with one of my regular favourites, hardy perennials HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT at the Robin 2 in Bilston. A great little venue on the circuit that caters largely for older bands and tribute acts (in fact it was on a previous visit here that I saw a poster for what I still consider the best punning tribute act name ever, some guys from Liverpool who played the songs of a well known New Zealand band… Crowded Scouse!) the Robin 2 is perfect for the weeknight away trip – a few easy minutes off the motorway (specifically the M6 near Wolverhampton) and with its own car park. It also has bars paying homage to a couple of West Midlands heroes: Woody’s (as in Roy) and Noddy’s (as in Holder). It wasn’t an all-time great Biscuits gig but they’re never bad; besides, it could never live up to their last appearance there 18 months ago when they were joined onstage by their former subject matter Dean Friedman! And this is part of the joy of going to see bands a load of times. One day they’ll pull something out of the bag that’s truly amazing, and I wouldn’t want to miss it.
Away crews; awaydays – you’ll notice a lot of the same language as found in football support. Most (though not all) high-level live music addicts have a band or two where they’ll go travelling some distance for a gig or string together a few dates of a tour. And most bands who are any good live (and even, probably, some who aren’t) will have a regular following – as a reader of LTW I don’t need to be telling you this, chances are even if you’ve never done it yourself you know people who do, or have done. Awaydayers can spot fellow travellers a mile off: once I was in Brighton on an evening when The Cooper Temple Clause were playing, and I spotted a bunch of their fans playing a semi-organised football match on the beach, CTC hoodies for goalposts and one fan discreetly dishing out booze in paper cups from a large holdall, and recall thinking I know nothing whatsoever of this band but they’ve got a proper away crew.
I still meet people who are into music but who wouldn’t consider going to another town to see a band, but it’s been part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. In my teens we’d go and watch the Manchester bands of the day in nearby cities; as a student I hitch-hiked around the country for Spiritualized’s first major tour; the aforementioned Chameleons reunion rekindled the habit (and now older and gainfully employed, cars and trains and Travelodges have replaced hitching and sleeping in car parks). It wasn’t long after the Chameleons’ final split that I started watching British Sea Power more frequently, and met their nascent away crew – sometimes known as “The Third Batallion” – who also featured alumni of New Order’s “Vikings”, and of the Bowie hardcore. Subsequently, British Sea Power regulars have helped shape the away crews of newer bands including I Like Trains and The Joy Formidable, whilst BSP’s 2010 tour with the Manic Street Preachers brought a little group of their away crew over into ours. This is key – whilst there are undoubtedly people who are dedicated to following one band, many of us are serial offenders. I was always slightly in awe of the Bowie lot, though: the sort of bands I like do a week or two round the UK and/or nearby northern Europe so it’s easy to string them together and tickets are pretty cheap – but with Bowie it’d be arena level country-hopping, and these were not rich people, they just dedicated every spare resource to their lifestyle choice.
As the years pass, you share so many weird and wonderful experiences, lifts, cheap flights and cheaper hotel rooms; situations so surreal and ridiculous they’re laughed about forever afterwards. Couples get together, get married even; kids grow up; the crew becomes like family: there are people you get on with more than others, people you see outside of the gigs and people you don’t, relationships that change over time. As various strands of the BSP away crew arrived in the pre-gig pub on my birthday it must have looked to outsiders like some sort of reunion gathering: there were hugs, “how was your Christmas?”, probably a couple of reminiscences of awaydays past. Just 24 hours later, however, and back in our own distant corners of the country, the family was united in grief with the news that one of our own had died that afternoon, taken by a cancer about which she hadn’t even told most people.
A close friend of LTW writer Andy Barding – whom I remember being there the first time I really spoke to her, at some pre-gig pub near Bristol university – Ali wasn’t much older than me; I’d have put her at the same age except for the fact that her awayday tales went back a little longer. She was one of those Bowie hardcore who caught onto British Sea Power early on, though she also had form with Suede and was well known on the local music scene in her hometown of Newport: BBC Wales DJ Adam Walton paid tribute to her with memories of hanging out at 60ft Dolls gigs back in the day. She was a festival fan, coming into her own in the summer months, be it Glastonbury’s canvas city or the various borderline village fetes that BSP always seem to get involved in; she would be there, usually looking notably serene in the midst of the chaos. When I think of her now she’s always outdoors, and when music and mud meet for the first time this year she’ll be even more sorely missed.
I’m aware there are people who consider the life of a music addict somehow shallow, hedonistic, irrelevant. People happily accept that someone might fly all the way to Spain to lounge by a hotel swimming pool, yet find it odd that I’ll go to Belgium for the weekend because a band I like’s doing a couple of dates. Some find it hard to understand that amongst our best friends are people we know initially from being at the same gigs, although their own friends include people they were randomly stuck next to in a student residence or workplace. They’re wrong. Ali lived more in four decades than most people will in eight. I was thinking vaguely about cutting back this year but we never know how long we’ve got, do we? Why waste a day of it?
In memory of Alison Hale, 1969-2012.