Crystal Stilts and Shrag
London Scala
2 November 2011
Live review

The Scala: legendary for three reasons. Firstly, one night in July 1972, Mick Rock and his camera snapped the image that would grace the front of Lou Reed’s ”˜Transformer’ album. The same week, the same man and the same camera grabbed the photos for Iggy and the Stooges’ ”˜Raw Power’. That’s two iconic record covers bagged over two consecutive nights. Nice work if you can get it, Mr Rock.

Nowadays La Scala is renowned for something rather less glam ”“ London’s worst live sound, hands down. No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to polish this sonic turd. It sounds bloody terrible in there ”“ and it always has done.

But it’s a special night, so we soldier on. This is one of three 15th birthday parties for Fortuna Pop, Sean Price’s unstoppably sexy indiepop label. The beer is flowing, smiles are wide, ears are forgiving.

Battling braver than most, bright-ideas-merchants Shrag are shrieking their little hearts out in their bid to stand out amid this acoustic trainwreck. Steph’s keyboard strutting, Bob’s upturned eyes and whirling dynamo Helen’s belting voice all point to a band that needs to be listened to and inwardly digested. This is almost achieved through the splendidly call’n’responsey ”˜Tendons In The Night’, and a quite possibly rude song called ”˜Devastating Bones’ (nicknamed ”˜Dirty Bastard’ in Shragland) which splits the molasses-thick air with a thundering drum and keyboard volley. They sound powerful, like they mean business. It’s just bad luck for Shrag that the Scala PA can’t handle it.

But Lady Luck is a strange old bird. By the time our American friends Crystal Stilts are onstage, the analogous reverb pipes in the loft have burst and messy sound is spraying into the venue from all directions, willy-nilly. Brad’s vocals are wholly indeterminable, JB’s guitar is sludged out into a throbbing ache of modulation, and only Keegan’s drums make it to anything approaching crispness. But, Jesus Christ, how it works!

While old-school swirly, psychedelic oil projections light up the walls, the Stilts sound is thickened up into a heart-stopping melee. This tough mix quickly gets to work on multiple minds. ”˜Sycamore Tree’ rips sublimely through the room and the pretty young things are sent wild: girls are dancing their asses off, boys are hammering their feet into the ground. Is it suddenly 1967 in here? Is this actually Syd’s Pink Floyd?

When trumpeter Gary Olson adds his spectacularly heavy horn to ”˜Blood Barons’, I’m praying for a storm to lift the roof off this ghastly place. Let’s go for gold: let’s see a sky full of stars, let’s grow beards. Let’s get high. Let’s time travel. Let’s get extra-sensory, man!

I am sober, but I get that drunken notion that some very special circumstances are aligning to our joint benefit. As the set drives on, gears are switched steadily upwards and, as the band are forced to race against a crippling curfew, so the ante is raised and the human sweat factor is cranked. When the bright white houselights are rudely flicked on (and this occurs just seconds after the final note) the magic is swept out onto the London streets with the crushed beer cans. It’s like being counted out of a Derren Brown trance.

Oh, Scala, enfant terrible of the London live circuit, your unforgivable terribleness has for once contributed to a legendary show. Finally, after nearly 40 years, Mick Rock is no longer the only lucky one.

Andy Barding

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