Cambridge Corn Exchange (01/07/17)
Cards on the table, I’ve barely scratched the surface in discovering what modern musicians are capable of, but even so, it would take a monstrously detailed and impassioned argument to convince me that there’s a greater living frontman than Samuel T. Herring. And even if such a thesis was presented to me, I’d probably just counter with “yeah, but have you seen Future Islands live?” Because if you haven’t, then you’ll want to amend that as soon as possible. Listen (again) to the swelling, lung-dredging fervour that drives the likes of ‘Spirit’ and ‘Tin Man’. Now imagine the dials turned up even higher; the experience of witnessing such hurricanes of emotional outpouring in person. In the flesh, Herring is much more than a singer: he’s a force of nature, hellbent on reaching out to every single mind and body present in each audience. The man is a dragon.
Future Islands’ show at the Cambridge Corn Exchange (belatedly added to their exhaustive European tour, as the group made the hop from Belgium to Ireland) was surely a treat for all present, but for my sister and myself, it bordered on miraculous. Even given the group’s glowing reputation, we never expected the show to reach such magnificent heights. By the time the ecstatic ‘Ran’ rushed to a close, sweat was trickling from what looked to be every pore of Herring’s face. His forehead was gushing like a spring within the space of three songs, and in the space of two more, his whole shirt was sodden, moisture dripping from his elbows as he threw himself from one corner of the stage to another, his eyes never leaving the rapturous crowd.
Overwhelming perspiration is merely the most apparent symptom of just how much Herring pours into every single performance. Even his now-legendary display on the Late Show in 2014 doesn’t fully capture the extent of his animation onstage. The same fundamentals remained present and correct, but what was more palpable were the deep reserves of compassion and complexity powering those vocals and gestures. Herring pummelled his chest as if attempting to exorcise some great beast from his own lungs. His blazing eyes roved the crowd, locking and holding his gaze for prolonged intervals as he attempted to find a connection with as many individuals as possible. He flung himself onto the stage in belly-flops, leapt into high-kicks with remarkable elasticity, wrapped his mouth around his entire fist. He shrieked and yowled like a man possessed, looming and growling and towering over the audience, turning on a dime from manic to tender and back again, as starry-eyed synth-pop wept alongside him.
It was an incredible spectacle, yet charged with such great nuance and intense personal feeling that there’s no adequate way to do justice to his showmanship. It’s hard to fake such a reckoning of emotion and energy, especially considering that the length of the set stretched to a Herculean 100 minutes. And this isn’t to say that Herring’s bandmates were lacking in panache; William Cashion, Gerrit Welmers, and touring drummer Michael Lowry may have been much more outwardly stoic, but their taut, precise playing kept the show anchored and rich in melody. The sound was crystal-clear; to hear aching gems such as ‘A Dream of You and Me’ and the stunning ‘A Song For Our Grandfathers’ take flight was worth the price of admission. Welmers’ keys oscillated between pillowy and piercing as the urgency of the show dipped and peaked; Lowry hammered his kit with the recklessness of a John Bonham disciple, and Cashion’s melodic bass runs gave the night its backbone: the nucleus around which all else orbited. With over 1,000 shows in their wake, Future Islands are a well-oiled machine, able to leap from a simmer to full boil without breaking a sweat (with the obvious exception of one member).
Considering the sheer energy demanded of Herring for even a single song, it was revelatory that the pace of the evening never once flagged across twenty-four songs, democratically drawn from their whole catalogue. A chorus of hecklers repeatedly demanding ‘Beach Foam’ got their wish late in the game (“this is for all you motherfuckers who will not shut up” Herring growled, with a wink), and the scorchingly intimate ‘Little Dreamer’ capped the night with an atmosphere of hushed reverence. When the group finally left the stage – the frontman mopping his whole head with a towel that was surely well-past saturated – the venue still wouldn’t cool, fans pinballing around the hall, attempting to summon from within themselves guttural rasps to match those of Herring. The thrill held in the air like humidity; stepping out into the night was like returning from a different world, shaking ourselves out of a mesmeric funk.
My advice to everybody for whom it is feasible is to go and see Future Islands whenever the opportunity next arises. As pleasant as their recorded music can be, witnessing Herring’s ferocity – and sharing that experience in an audience of exultant fans – is utterly transporting. Don’t walk. Run.
Grease // Aladdin // Ran // A Dream of You and Me // Beauty of the Road // Time on Her Side // Walking Through That Door // Balance // Before the Bridge // Light House // Doves // North Star // A Song for Our Grandfathers // Through the Roses // Seasons (Waiting On You) // Cave // Inch of Dust // Long Flight // Tin Man // Spirit // Black Rose // Beach Foam // Vireo’s Eye // Little Dreamer
O2 Forum, Kentish Town (30/06/17)
In naming Spoon the Perennial Four-Star Band, I am being in no way disparaging. Across a career that spans almost a quarter-decade, the ever-rotating team of Austin indie-rockers have steadily built themselves a reputation as the safest set of hands in modern guitar music. Every few years, Spoon will drop a record that may not blow (or change) minds, but will undoubtedly pop with terrifically tight songwriting, and sparkle with innovative studio wizardry. Within the standard parameters of guitar-keys-drums-bass, Britt Daniel and co. are able to run the gamut from skeletal riff-rock to pocket psychedelia, occasionally souping up the engine with funk, disco, and bluesy modifications, sounding fresh and coherent all the while. Not only is reliability among the band’s greatest assets, Spoon have also turned it into something positively sexy.
As you’d expect from such a CV, and with many years and miles on the road behind them, Spoon do not disappoint when it comes to live spectacle. The O2 Forum in Kentish Town may seem like a modest venue for such stalwarts, but in truth it’s the perfect home for a group whose music has always lingered on the periphery of the mainstream: always too sharp and self-aware to make a grab for sold-out success, but captivating enough to continue accumulating a devoted following as the albums pile up. As such, the majority of those in attendance seem to be disciples rather than casual fans here for a glimpse. In a setlist comprised entirely of bankable favourites, it’s interesting to chart those which receive the most audible adulation from the crowd. In this instance, it’s the crop of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga cuts towards the set’s close, as well as Kill the Moonlight‘s only look-in, the terse ‘Stay Don’t Go’.
Daniel himself is in magnificently fine voice from the first, his signature yowl rising to rebound from the rafters as ‘Do I Have to Talk You Into It’ and ‘I Ain’t the One’ reach their impassioned refrains. He’s a magnetic presence onstage; clad in a skinny-fit suit jacket, seemingly impervious to the room’s rising swelter, his gangly frame and angular features as engaging to follow as his voice is electrifying to hear. Daniel isn’t one for brazen showboating, but he retools the swagger of rock mythology with his deft range of tones; concealing heated passions behind an untouchable cool. At this stage too, his bandmates feel sturdier than ever as a unit. Fairly recent inductee Alex Fischel is now an integral contributor to the Spoon machine, and likewise Rob Pope and Jim Eno prove that it’s the group’s rhythm section as much as Daniel’s presence that keep the show oozing charm and dexterity.
With nine albums’ worth of material to cherry-pick from, every song launches like a firework, and aside from a rather baffling keyboard wig-out following the starry-eyed ‘Do You’, in which all members leave the stage save for Fischel, the set rattles along at a furiously brisk pace, songs snapping into position like Lego bricks the size of boulders. The transition from ‘The Underdog”s jaunty swing to the simmering urgency of ‘Rainy Taxi’, or the breakneck sprint through ‘Rent I Pay’, ‘Can I Sit Next to You’ and ‘Stay Don’t Go’ demonstrate a team of artists operating in near-telepathic synergy, and when they seriously nail a groove such as that of Hot Thoughts‘ title track, the experience is electrifying.
Although such a huge catalogue of work does mean that any set that Spoon curate will inevitably feel lacking in one or two diamonds, after decades in the game, these guys know how to work a room with supreme confidence. Readily surrender your ears, but be warned: they might just take your soul too.
Do I Have to Talk You Into It // Inside Out // I Turn My Camera On // Rent I Pay // Can I Sit Next to You // Stay Don’t Go // Don’t You Evah // Do You // Via Kannela // I Ain’t the One // Anything You Want // My Mathematical Mind // Don’t Make Me a Target // The Underdog // Rainy Taxi // Black Like Me // I Summon You // Hot Thoughts // Got Nuffin
Scala, London (29/10/15)
To access Scala on the night of Lower Dens’ show, fans had to pass beneath the huge webs of scaffolding surrounding the main entrance, and once inside the converted picturehouse itself, the atmosphere was one of amicable warmth shrouded in dry ice and shadows. This odd blend of a welcoming ambience within a rather cavernous setting was perfectly suitable for the Baltimore quartet, whose music has blossomed into backwards-glancing, forward-thinking dream-pop without losing its inky layers of intrigue. The show itself was something of an embrace into Lower Dens’ universe, where insightful reflections on heartache and identity are packaged in well-woven guitar-band structures.
On this particular night, guitarist Walker Teret was absent, instead operating as the “ghost in the machine” (Jana Hunter’s phrasing, delivered with a smile following a triumphant rendition of the band’s new go-to anthem, ‘To Die in L.A.‘). His pre-recorded parts were broadcast in tight syncopation with the tightly-wired remaining players, with Nate Nelson’s unshowy but imposingly precise motorik rhythms meshing seamlessly with Geoff Graham’s fluid bass playing. The latter had a miniature fan club heckling from the small but enamoured crowd, and the levity in performers and audience alike was refreshing. Applause in the wake of the group’s biggest numbers (‘Electric Current’, ‘Your Heart Still Beating’, ‘Brains’) was drawn out for more beats than expected, and Hunter responded to such a warm reception with short-but-sweet declarations of gratitude. The three clearly enjoyed performing together, and off-record, the electricity between elements was foregrounded: Nelson’s ever-steady drumming only needing to kick off-beat by a fraction to propel a song to its crescendo, Hunter’s dramatic vocal leaps and impassioned choruses delivered in the flesh with real heft.
All ten of Escape From Evil‘s ripe pickings studded the thirteen-strong set, with the reshuffled order giving pleasantly fresh perspectives on the likes of ‘I Am the Earth”s moody pomp and the juddering rush of ‘Company’. In leaning away from their older material, it was perhaps a suggestion that Lower Dens are keen to advance even further from the sharp, occasionally pulpy tinges of their first records and embrace the more open-chested aesthetic of their third album. Even so, the set’s easy highlight – as well as its greatest surprise – was the resurrection of old curio ‘Batman’, the 2011 standalone single which packs a naggingly effervescent spring. Within thirty seconds of its campy, infectious fretwork, it had gleeful grins on the faces of the collective, and crowned a set that drew attention to the band’s pop trajectory, highlighting the chemistry and confidence between the three performers, while reminding listeners that one of the pop albums of the year is well worth discovering anew.
Sucker’s Shangri-La // Quo Vadis // To Die in L.A. // Non Grata // I Get Nervous // Electric Current // I Am the Earth // Batman // Your Heart Still Beating // Company // Société Anonyme // Ondine // Brains
O2 Academy Brixton, London (22/10/15)
Promising a bounteous trove of some of the past decade’s best-loved dance-pop and a seemingly neverending supply of confetti in all the colours of the rainbow, Hot Chip’s double-whammy of London shows concluded their UK tour in characteristically sprightly style. In the wake of the group’s magnificent and rapturously-received headline set at this summer’s Green Man Festival, I was particularly keen for an extra dose of Hot Chip magic, going as far as to bring my dad along for the ride for the first of two consecutive sets at Brixton’s O2 Academy. The cross-generational appeal is symptomatic of Hot Chip’s blossoming universality down the years; no longer do they singularly capture the minds of twentysomething throwback nostalgists; now they’re as close to a household name as any of their contemporaries, able to pack popular venues with fans of all ages.
Support from Lonelady was revelatory to the uninitiated, setting the bar high for the musical feast to follow, and throwing light on Julie Ann Campbell as an artist well worth discovering after the house lights went up. Campbell and her airtight, smartly-dressed live band spent forty minutes working six songs into dynamic, finely-tiered vehicles of funk-flecked alt-pop. Seamlessly flowing from a slinky rendition of ‘To the Cave’ through the nimble-wristed guitarwork of ‘Hinterland’ and ‘Silvering’, the impressive performance concluded with the tastefully ecstatic ‘Groove it Out’, drawn out to an effortless ten minutes. Campbell proved her chops and then some, highlighting herself as an artist clearly snubbed of a crack at this year’s Mercury Prize. (Not that the award is considered all that prestigious these days.)
From cool-as-funk to hot-as-shit, Hot Chip’s own set was something of a victory lap for fifteen years of solid tune-crafting. With a balanced set that drew well from each of the band’s major releases (though much more time could have been given over to In Our Heads‘ material, in this fan’s humble opinion), Alexis Taylor and co. reminded the Academy’s patrons of just how impressively ubiquitous the group have become in the British music scene, as well as how delightfully euphoric and unselfconscious their live sets are renowned to be. With the group’s fashion sense largely reined in (with the exception of Al Doyle and his pristine white ensemble), focus was on movement and spectacle, with the team’s comfort onstage clearly demonstrated through shapes and grins pulled all round. The dense throb of opener ‘Huarache Lights’ exemplified everything Hot Chip do so well in a live capacity, right down to the cracking sight of Doyle and Owen Clarke bopping along in sync.
At the core of the show was Sarah Jones, who barely broke a sweat while anchoring the entire set with a broad display of rhythms and skittering beats, her drumming the bedrock of a show which quickly grew hyperkinetic. ‘Over and Over’ ignited a feverish reaction in the crowds, as dozens shouldered their way forward to wave gangly limbs to Taylor’s “laidback” hook. It marked the most raucous display in a set bookended with banging fan favourites, and although the gig’s midsection largely kept the tempo to a slower average, hearing the band dust down gems such as ‘Shake a Fist’ and the lovely ‘Alley Cats’ helped lighten the sweatiness with sweetness.
A slow-building encore highlighting past greats crescendoed with Hot Chip’s triumphant cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’, now a requisite end-of-show treat, replete with Rob Smoughton’s guitar heroics and a holy blizzard of confetti. After seguing into the first verse of LCD Soundsystem’s ‘All My Friends’, the septet bowed out on a note of bittersweet warmth, teeing up their homecoming with one of modern music’s greatest works of songcraft. Hot Chip have made such a mixture of smarts and sincerity their trademark, and as they continue to broadcast joy with their goofy live antics and warm-blooded records, surely few can deny their hearts.
Huarache Lights // One Life Stand // Night and Day // Love is the Future // Flutes // Over and Over // Alley Cats // Cry for You // Shake a Fist // Need You Now // Ready for the Floor // I Feel Better // Why Make Sense? // We’re Looking for a Lot of Love // And I Was a Boy From School // Hold On // Dancing in the Dark / All My Friends
Village Underground, Shoreditch, London (01/09/15)
Ought first came to my attention at last year’s Green Man festival. After stumbling unassumingly into their afternoon show in the Far Out tent, I was almost immediately hypnotised by the band’s springy, twitchy garage-rock energy and the magnetic countenance of frontman Tim Darcy; the flâneur whose witty, flouncing manner rivals that of Jarvis Cocker, though with the latter’s clipped burr replaced by a highly distinctive Canadian twang. One year on, that original, energetic excitement hasn’t waned, thanks to the frenetic clout of their début record and catching an additional live show in November.
In support of their – really rather good – new record Sun Coming Down, the group packed themselves into the humid caverns of Shoreditch’s Village Underground, in front of a shuffling crowd whose collective admiration was unshowy, though perceptible. The din ensuing from the stage was ear-shreddingly mighty, yet clear; a post-punk clamour that smartly masks a technical acuity, with drummer Tim Keen and bassist Ben Stidworthy keeping the jackknifing rhythms and tempo changes on course. The sonic mutations since last year’s More Than Any Other Day can be heard in the density of the new material showcased: ‘Men For Miles’, ‘Passionate Turn’ and ‘The Combo’ are all characterised by much thicker, busier guitar work, each song cresting on waves of end-of-tether heaviness as opposed to ducking and diving on the likes of stalwarts such as ‘The Weather Song’.
Yet while the meatiness of Sun Coming Down sounds much more apparent on record, in a live capacity, the seams between old and new are more neatly stitched. Long-time live staple ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’ has finally seen its day in the sun as a single, and thanks to greater familiarity, its themes punched home all the harder. Coming off as the flipside to the magnificent ‘Today, More Than Any Other Day’, its plodding bass motif saw Darcy nudged towards a grinding cycle of mundane mantras, repeated ad finitum. As with Julian Casablancas in The Strokes’ strongest work, one of Darcy’s most effective skills is bringing a friction to the band’s performance through his knowingly somnolent drawl, which frequently erupts into wails during the throes of songs such as ‘Habit’; a six-minute monster led by a stealthy bass riff that reverberated around the Village Underground like a nagging itch.
The whole band deserve plaudits for a thick, intoxicating set, but Darcy performed particularly brilliantly throughout; a magnetic presence even in his more sedate moments. Between tearing the neck off of his apocalyptically loud guitar and drunkenly waving his arms aloft like some wiry prophet, it was impossible to remove one’s eyes from his lean, tense figure. Soaked in sweat by the relentless crush of main set-closer ‘Gemini’, he and his bandmates looked every inch the subversive upstarts whose tunes have struck a nerve with an increasingly large crowd. As a preview for Sun Coming Down and a glimpse into the current mechanics of their fine-tuned operation, Ought’s show was promising on every level.
Pleasant Heart // The Weather Song // The Combo // Beautiful Blue Sky // Today, More Than Any Other Day // Habit // Passionate Turn // Men For Miles // Sun’s Coming Down // Gemini // Around Again // Waiting
TV on the Radio
Camden Roundhouse, London (30/08/15)
The first of their two London sets this summer found TV on the Radio at an odd juncture. Their original scheduled run at the Camden Roundhouse earlier in the year was postponed when touring drummer Jahphet Landis was hospitalised and pronounced unable to travel. Having now returned to the road with Landis back on propulsive form, the Brooklyn outfit seemed to grasp their return with equal parts humility, gratitude, and bombast, keen to prove that the additional months their UK fans spent awaiting their return were worth their patience.
This tour is an insight into the group’s creative ideals as they adjust the dials and push down on the accelerator, leaving behind the sharper edges of their early albums as they clutch for the kind of explosive alt-rock that comes with a Stadium-Ready seal. Perhaps as a consequence of reflection and reassessment following the sad death of bassist Gerard Smith in 2011, with their new material and live attack, the remaining foursome seem to have their hearts set on the big leagues. Camden Roundhouse is hardly a bedfellow of the O2 Arena, but it’s a clear stepping stone for acts making the push for more widespread connection; a signifier that the Academies and Apollos of years past have grown too small to contain their sound and fanbase.
Indeed, the bulk of their first night’s set consisted of cuts from last year’s Seeds; an album on which the group shed their more intricate tendencies in favour of big hooks, big gestures, and big, open-hearted sentiments. The results are a mixed bag, sounding both mightily impressive (the likes of ‘Ride’ and gentle triumph of ‘Seeds’ scraped the Roundhouse’s rafters with an ease that perhaps wouldn’t be expected of their early recordings) and a little ill-fitting when compared to their more fiery back catalogue. Although the heartfelt conviction of the songs themselves shone through regularly, there was little new in their canon to electrify in the same way as ‘Young Liars’ or ‘Repetition’.
The audience reception reflected such a dichotomy between the old and the new. The evening’s polite reception was revealed for its modesty when the group launched into the snarling chug of 2006’s’Wolf Like Me’; still the band’s calling card after close to ten years of circulation. Mirroring the song’s fixation on a bloody transformation, the crowds were instantly braying as Tunde Adebimpe wailed over his flaming heart and mongrel mind. ‘Dancing Choose’ came closest to rivalling such energy, but otherwise the set was unfortunately marred by muddy sound levels; the treble and higher pitches failing to poke through the fuzzier mesh of heavy bass and Dave Sitek’s ever-humming low-end guitar. It’s a shame, because such issues reduced the impact of songs such as the springy ‘Happy Idiot’, whose guitar solo was completely indiscernible amid the rush.
Thank goodness, then, for Adebimpe, whose phenomenal charisma, enthusiasm and lung-dredging, tongue-twisting prowess elevated the set beyond the sum of its parts. As he bounded and leapt across the stage, shrieking and spitting phrases both sweeping (“everything is gonna be okay!” goes ‘Trouble’) and bizarre (“foam-injected Axl Rose”, anyone?), it was near-impossible to shake one’s gaze. It’s testament to his power and conviction as a performer that in a live setting, many of Seeds‘ broader summations find a more powerful translation. Whether or not TV on the Radio will ever return to their punkier, more openly political roots is anyone’s guess. They certainly have the ambition to fill arenas should they continue on this trajectory, but it certainly risks rendering them a less engaging, edgy prospect for those who still cherish Dear Science as their crowning achievement. For now, with Adebimpe on fine form as their ace in the hole, it’s enough knowing that they have seeds on ground. Let’s see what grows from here.
Young Liars // Lazerray // Golden Age // Happy Idiot // Could You // Careful You // Winter // Wolf Like Me // Seeds // Trouble // Repetition // DLZ // Ride // Dancing Choose // Staring at the Sun
Field Day Festival
Victoria Park, London (06-07/03/15)
Field Day 2015 could almost have passed for London’s answer to Primavera. Although the English capital lacked some of the more exotic aspects of its Barcelona cousin, both festivals shared a wealth of tentpole names, and an unexpectedly game sun beamed down on the throngs of (largely hirsute, Red Stripe-swilling) festivalgoers with summery generosity. With just under ten stages speckled around Victoria Park across the weekend, there was musical pleasure to savour in all manner of guises. Given that its schedule was almost twice as broad as that of Sunday, Saturday’s party was a more varied (and raucous) affair, but there was a near-constant overlap of several of the giddiest bands-of-the-moment throughout the festival, not to mention the re-emergence of a particular headlining artist, whose appearance unequivocally won the day at the weekend’s close.
In atmosphere, Field Day resembles that quintessentially British booze-up of a Bank Holiday weekend, just with bigger tunes and more cider-addled teenagers. In the space of a few hundred yards, tents were packed out to bruising hip-hop, sun-dappled indie jangles, screeching punk and more besides, with fans filling up the site relatively quickly after the gates opened up. Early-afternoon sets from Stealing Sheep and Allah-Las were modestly attended, though the former still managed to inspire widespread pogoing, with the help of a limb-flailing cameo from Duncan Wallis of Dutch Uncles fame. By the time SOPHIE took over the Resident Advisor tent at 3pm on Saturday, there were wasted attendees left, right and centre.
The popularity of SOPHIE was a particular surprise: the eardrum-cracking beats of the artist’s bubblegum bass had the tent absolutely brimming, with bodies bounding over from the nearby bars with each passing minute. The denouement of ‘Hey QT‘ saw the titular heroine herself appear in a flurry of bright red hair, launching into the helium-high hook after a swig from a can of the reality-blurring DrinkQT. Effortlessly catchy and simultaneously repulsive, ‘Hey QT’ was an early highlight for the Saturday line-up, though the euphoria reached a high with the advent of Todd Terje & The Olsens‘ hour-long jam as the night drew in. Building steadily for roughly twenty minutes, Terje and his group gradually achieved take-off for their second half; cosmic jams swelling into a set of cheer-inducingly great house-pop that culminated in the mighty ‘Inspector Norse’.
It’s a shame that the crowds weren’t nearly so enthusiastic for tUnE-yArDs‘ set in the Crack Magazine tent across the park. The sound rang through clear as a bell, and the flower-sporting Merrill Garbus and co. were on top form, but the bulk of the audience utterly failed to appreciate their talents, sapping the set’s energy with a general nonchalance. As with many other open-air London shows, Field Day has garnered something of a reputation for sound problems, and I’ve noticed countless attendees have vented their complaints on comment threads across the web. Personally, I found that the sound was much less of an issue than the attitudes of some of the crowds in attendance, as numerous sets were diminished only by the reticence of audiences who were too interested in laughing gas or bitching about sub-par halloumi (is there even such a thing?) to pay attention.
Thankfully, no such apathy was present during Run the Jewels‘ Saturday evening slot in the Resident Advisor tent. El-P and Killer Mike had the massed hordes in a frenzy before they’d even started spitting, arriving onstage to Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’ and bounding ferociously around the stage with vitriol and energy. The hot-headed ‘Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)’ and the staccato mantra leading ‘Lie, Cheat, Steal’ had the whole audience champing at the bit. The vitriol died down for Caribou‘s blissful closing set on the Eat Your Own Ears stage, where heavy drawing from Our Love and Swim built the set to its blissful two-punch coda. An extended, weekend-topping rendition of the mammoth ‘Can’t Do Without You’ was soon followed by the slow-burning skyscraping of ‘Sun’, as bombastic strobes lit up the whole field and closed the Saturday sequence on a euphoric high.
Sunday oozed with chilled vibes from the very beginning, and baseball-capped and baggy-shirted alternative fans were treated to the double-whammy of DIIV and Mac DeMarco for the better part of the afternoon on the main stage. The former let forth an hour of reverb-soaked waves of celestial garage-rock, as Sky Ferreira and DeMarco watched from the wings. Although melodies were difficult to discern amid all the echo effects, and Zachary Cole’s vocals were unintelligible for the most part, DIIV exuded a modest magic, held in place by the band’s bassist, whose face was hidden behind a curtain of thick hair throughout the set, while his nimble bass grooves kept the rolling shebang in check.
Mac DeMarco’s set, meanwhile, was utterly infectious, encompassing sunny singalongs, hundreds of sparked Viceroy cigarettes, baguettes thrown on-stage, a thrashing cover of The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’, and the requisite crowdsurf from DeMarco himself. (I carried his butt for a few seconds. Nice.) Few contemporary artists match the guy for both his slacker-pop poetry and his irresistibly fun persona. No such tranquility during Savages‘ performance, which bristled with aggression as Fay Milton smashed her drumkit to within an inch of its life, and Jehnny Beth baited the crowd into shrieking raptures. “We were in Greece two nights ago,” she growled. “I want you to be louder than them.” The new material from their upcoming second album sounds truly explosive, rubbing shoulders with old favourites such as ‘Shut Up’ and ‘Husbands’ with ease.
The two headline slots for Sunday were those of Ride and Patti Smith, and while the reformed shoegaze outfit put on a commendable show, the crowds were rapidly dwindling to beat the tube traffic out of East London. Instead, it was Smith and her coterie of virtuoso musicians who truly stunned Field Day, delivering the gargantuan Horses in its entirety and concluding with a handful of past favourites, including a heartfelt ‘Because the Night’ and a shambling cover of The Who’s ‘My Generation’. Professing herself as 97-years-old (Smith is 68), the punk poet laureate plunged into the fiery ‘Gloria’ oozing with charisma, her dark glasses and crisp white shirt bridging the gap of the past 40 years since the release of that image. Dedicating the moody ‘Elegie’ to her fellow musical icons who passed away since the New York’s rock heyday, Smith capped the festival with tangible glee, poignancy, and her own strain of self-effacing humour. A breathless sequence, and a real jewel in the crown of a festival built on wide-ranging appeal, joyous performers, and an endless sea of plastic cups.
Belle & Sebastian
Central Hall Westminster, London (11/03/15)
As you’d probably expect from “the whitest band alive“, there was little to appease hard-nosed cynics at Belle & Sebastian’s opening night at Westminster’s Methodist Central Hall. With the aftermath of the Parliamentary General Election still casting a long shadow over this neck of the woods, the prospect of wispy, keening pop music from the troupe who brought us ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ surely lacks mass appeal. Thankfully though, B&S have always been unashamed of their fey mannerisms and chirpy tunes, and those willing to embrace the night’s sock-hoppy vibe found pleasure in abundance. As Stuart Murdoch chuckled halfway during the evening, “there’s no irony on this stage”. At this particular juncture, that suited me – and most of the 2,000-strong crowd – pretty fine.
Head-scratching in theory – but thoroughly impressive in execution – was the booking of Lower Dens as the band’s support act. The Baltimore four-piece have steadily assembled an excellent catalogue of sleek, humming, and stirring drone-pop, and while this year’s Escape From Evil has honed the band’s pop chops, their creations are still a far cry from B&S’ signature jangle. Yet Lower Dens steamed through their performance with a poise and sensuality which swiftly earned appreciation from the audience. All four members maintained mystique through taut control, delivering their new-wave thrums in tight-knit, unshowy fashion. Over nimble bass runs and spare, sparkling guitar melodies, the commanding Jana Hunter bathed the hall in a cool, steamy aura; ‘Ondine’ and ‘To Die in LA’ showcasing her ceiling-scraping vocal power at its most stunning.
The expansive Belle & Sebastian coterie marched onstage following a 30-minute screening of an old-timey documentary about the city of Glasgow, and the huge projector screen was utilised repeatedly throughout the set to provide nifty backdrops to the band’s antics. Kicking into the warm anthem ‘Nobody’s Empire’, the band received rapturous applause from the get-go, though for all the supposed adoration, the crowd never fully gave themselves over to joyous noodling, even during peppy numbers such as ‘The Party Line’ and ‘Sleep the Clock Around’. A Canadian woman just behind me spent much of the former’s rendition shrieking in bewilderment, “why aren’t more of these people dancing?”
Given that the band’s major demographic probably favour lapsang souchong to Beck’s by the bottleful, it wasn’t much of a surprise that much of the crowd remained static, even while Murdoch strutted his stuff smoothly front-and-centre. Nonetheless, the show was a lovely display of good ol’ clean fun, with the show highlights also those which would make the unconverted cringe with schmaltzy nausea. Fittingly for the venue’s nature, Murdoch presided over an on-stage marriage proposal before the mellifluous ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’, and invited a banner-bearing fan up for a pretty adorable jig during ‘Jonathan David’. The requisite invasion-cum-party during ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ crowned the night brilliantly, with a dozen or so goggle-eyed fans careering excitedly around the stage as the main crowd gently bobbed along to the earworms.
They may be “the whitest band alive”, but to paraphrase Murdoch himself, sometimes it’s nice to be nice. And in the context of the ugliness displayed in the same area just a few days ago, B&S’ show was a welcome dose of warmth in the heart of the capital.
Nobody’s Empire // La Pastie de la Bourgeoisie // The Party Line // We Rule the School // Wrapped Up in Books // Piggy in the Middle // Perfect Couples // Piazza, New York Catcher // Electronic Renaissance // The Book of You // Jonathan David // I Didn’t See it Coming // A Summer Wasting // The Boy with the Arab Strap // Legal Man // Sleep the Clock Around // There’s Too Much Love // Photo Jenny
Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 01/10/2013
Support: Nick Mulvey
The Birmingham Symphony Hall is a pretty big venue. It doesn’t exactly rival London’s O2 Arena, but it’s certainly sizable to the point that it’s easy to imagine solo performers feeling swallowed up by the space afforded to them; suffocated by the pressure of performing on such a large stage to roughly 2,250 people. On this particular evening, Nick Mulvey even refers to such a fact during his opening set preceding Laura Marling: “Hi guys, I’m Nick Mulvey… and this place is huge.”
It may send laughter rippling throughout the room, but Mulvey’s stance is clear to everyone present. From our vantage point in the upper circle, the acoustic singer-songwriter appears dwarfed, both by the vertiginous dimensions of the building, and also by the stage itself. Standing dead-centre in an orchestra-sized expanse, Mulvey cuts a lonely figure onstage. It’s a big undertaking to cast one’s stall in such a way, and it’s easy to imagine over-jittery nerves tipping such a performance into disaster.
But, thanks to his own creative gifts and easy grace, Mulvey achieves the remarkable: he delivers a set which is not only musically deft, but personable and utterly charming. Even armed only with his guitar and his (highly capable) voice, his presence completely fills the hall, with every sound and syllable circulating like a warm, refreshing breeze. Over the course of roughly forty minutes, Mulvey wins many new fans, running through a stunning assemblage of songs pulled from various EPs, including several from his latest work, Fever to the Form.
Opening with the sombre flamenco of ‘April’, Mulvey is immediately captivating, and across the night, demonstrates his prowess as a true virtuoso of the guitar. ‘Venus’ captivates with its rich imagery (“she plaits her hair in threads of gold”) and subtle transition into a revelatory coda, and the likes of ‘Juramidam’ and a cover of Gillian Welch’s ‘Look at Miss Ohio’ reveal a rather soulful emotional bite. Even his husky vocal range proves capable of taking flight, and by his set’s conclusion, the applause from the crowds is beyond appreciative: it is genuinely enchanted.
When Marling herself arrives, it is only with some surprise that she emerges solo, too. Her fourth album – Once I Was An Eagle – sounds skeletal enough as it is, boiled down to Marling herself alongside two other key players (multi-instrumentalist / producer Ethan Johns, and cellist Ruth de Turbeville). Yet here, Marling has gone one step further: as with Mulvey, she only has her own dexterity on which to rely, channelled by a pair of acoustic guitars (one sleek and sexy, the other a “grumpy old man” to serve as a spare), and her polite between-song charm (which proves to be as endearingly timid as ever).
So yes, it’s a very stark and simple rendition – and it’s in exactly these conditions in which Marling is best suited. As wonderful as it is to envisage her shows at the Secret Cinema venues earlier this year, in truth, her music needs no dressing-up to resonate with such power. And so it proves, as she begins with the four-song medley which opens her latest masterpiece. There are a few vocal wobbles (and a decidedly American inflection) during the quasi-title track as she warms up her pipes, but by the time of a revelatory take of ‘I Speak Because I Can’, she is positively soaring, her words dancing around the heights of the vaulted concert hall.
Aside from the interruptions of one plonkish punter who keeps clapping at inopportune moments, the performance is immaculate. Even when Marling pops a string on her first guitar, she simply screws up her face in twee frustration and maintains momentum as she switches to her backup. The evening proffers a neat spread of songs, cherry-picked from each of her four studio albums, plus two other curios: a newbie (tentatively titled ‘How Can I?’), and a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘For the Sake of the Song’. Elsewhere, her career highlights are all beautifully rendered, with a tangible warmth to match. ‘Blackberry Stone’ is achingly tender to behold, especially as Marling adds an additional falsetto leap to the final refrain. By contrast, ‘Alas, I Cannot Swim’ sounds dappled in sunshine, and ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ is a little more fiery than its recorded version, with a touch more resilience at its core.
By the time Marling completes her set with a stirring, heartwarming jig of ‘Where Can I Go?’, everybody present is perched in the palm of her little love-castin’ hand. She departs the stage with a characteristically coy wave and a smile: as unshowy and unfussy as everything that precludes it. Yet, as ever with Marling, there is no need for spectacle. Carried on the wings of her own talent, hers is music which is built to soar, no matter how it is packaged. How lucky we are to have her.
Take the Night Off // I Was an Eagle // You Know // Breathe // Master Hunter // Ghosts // Alas, I Cannot Swim // Blackberry Stone // Love be Brave // I Speak Because I Can // Rambling Man // What He Wrote // Alpha Shadows // Devil’s Resting Place // How Can I? // Sophia // Don’t Ask Me Why // For the Sake of the Song // Where Can I Go?
O2 Apollo, Manchester, 01/05/13
Ever since the opening pulse of Zero sent vibrations all through my system back in 2009, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been in pole position on my list of “Acts To See Live Before I’m Deaf”. Over four years, I’ve nursed the notion that witnessing Karen O and co. composing explosions onstage would be akin to a religious experience. I pictured being in a grotty, cavernous venue, squeezed among thousands of other worshippers; shrieking, stomping and swooning to the New York trio’s glam-punk sounds.
Well, at the O2 Apollo in Manchester at the beginning of this month, those fantasies were finally realised for myself and my two accompanying friends, Josh and Jess (albeit in a much lovelier, grander venue). As the time ticked forward tantalisingly, our nervous energy was met with the throaty, lo-fi stylings of K-Holes, the night’s opening act.
The five-piece started the evening competently enough, and in many ways, their music was pleasantly surprising. Although they never really got the crowd moving beyond the appreciative toe-tap, the group had just enough swagger to maintain our buzz levels. Somehow, the loudest instruments of the ensemble managed to be the frontwoman’s maracas, while the bassist carried with her the sexiest stage presence I’ve witnessed in a good long while.
Well, that was until Karen O flounced onto the stage to light up the Apollo with the opening powerhouse of Sacrilege. Wearing a bright yellow jacket and with her blonde locks flicking all over her heavily mascaraed eyelids, Karen O instantly had everybody present jumping as the song built to its huge, gospel-hewn finale (sadly without choir accompaniment, but the audience made for a competent substitute).
The woman truly does boast a remarkable stage presence. With her excitable disposition, perpetual wide-eyed grin and dynamite dance moves, she had the entirety of the crowd in the palm of her hand for the duration of the gig. When onstage, she somehow gelled two separate personas into one glorious whole. With her cheeky smile and outlandish costume choices, she outwardly seemed like an innocently cheeky youth, full of beans and mischief. But all the while, there was an electric sensuality fuelling her performance. With her animalistic yelps, her penchant for deep-throating microphones, and – at the climax of Y Control – her stunt whereby she snaked her mic through her flies, she simply oozed pheromones.
“The gig heartily delivered with fifteen high-wire distillations of energy, excitement and real, heartfelt emotion.”
Her bandmates were just as iconic onstage. Nick Zinner, clad in black (as ever), scrubbed out buzzsaw guitar riffs with his awesome hairdo shaking in every direction, and Brian Chase performed with an unhinged look in his eyes through the whole set – most engagingly so during Soft Shock, wherein his crazed jubilance behind the kit became totally infectious to those in the audience.
The set was pleasingly democratic, with each of the group’s four albums getting a fair airing. An early highlight was the glam-grunge thrash of Black Tongue, at the end of which Karen O stamped on a floor switch, showering the crowd with Y-shaped scraps of gleaming confetti. Under The Earth made a menacing transition to the live set, before old-school fans went a little crazy in the wake of Art Star. Karen O then skipped gleefully offstage, as Zinner and Chase began churning out the opening bars of Zero. After a prolonged absence (almost providing an encore in itself), Karen O re-emerged from the wings in her studded-leather jacket, which prompted mass mayhem as the synth-pop masterpiece unfolded in all its visceral, euphoric glory. For four minutes, I was in gig nirvana: few other live spectacles have come close.
The second half of the set was no less frenetic, as the band zipped through classics such as the campfire stomp of Gold Lion and new highlight Despair (to which Josh almost wept in gratitude). Heads Will Roll ended the body of the concert by stirring the crowd into a tangled frenzy of raised arms, sweatily interlocked bodies and raw throats.
And of course, the encore was set. The group’s stripped-back, slowed-down rendition of Maps was truly beautiful: a lighters-aloft moment which found the band at their most emotionally potent. And then, they tossed one final stick of dynamite into the audience for the big finish of Date With The Night, which was treated with the wildest reception of all; a fitting conclusion to a spectacular evening.
Half an hour later, tucked away in a snug corner of a Mancunian pub, Josh, Jess and myself discussed the success of the evening. Sure, the band didn’t play all of the greats: no Cheated Hearts, Hysteric, Tick, nor Dull Life. But in a gig like that, we were grateful for what we did receive: fifteen high-wire distillations of energy, excitement and real, heartfelt emotion. Although I am now able to cross the Yeah Yeah Yeahs off that list, that doesn’t mean I won’t be rushing to see them again as soon as they return to these English shores.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Sacrilege // Black Tongue // Mosquito // Phenomena // Under The Earth // Art Star // Zero // Subway // Soft Shock // Gold Lion // Y Control // Despair // Heads Will Roll. Maps // Date With The Night.