August 2011 Gig Reviews
Jane's Addiction - Koko, London - 31 August 2011
Like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, another Los Angeles rock/funk outfit of around the same vintage, Jane's Addiction never quite leave the building. Members may come and go, "hedonism" issues may threaten stability, but they plough on, men of a certain age dispensing bleak thoughts through amplifiers turned up to 11. It was an appropriately battered-looking quartet that appeared at Koko, though singer Perry Farrell had extra reason to look hollow-eyed: last weekend he contracted a throat infection that forced the cancellation of headlining slots at Reading and Leeds. The Koko show got the go-ahead, but Farrell made it clear - piteously coughing and telling us he didn't want "to get you sick" - that he was a brave trouper to be there at all.
But you can't keep a veteran show-pony down, and he rose to the occasion. Was there ever any doubt he would? Shirtless guitarist Dave Navarro, his musical other half, prodded him with dirty-sounding blues, funk and metal riffs, and Farrell delivered. He dolefully turned old favourites about a heroin-addicted flatmate (Jane Says) and serial killer Ted Bundy (Ted, Just Admit It) into seedy singalongs, and made a couple of songs from next month's fourth album, The Great Escape Artist, interesting by twiddling with a computer to produce a primitive (but novel for this band) electronic garnish.
There's a discordantly camp side to Jane's Addiction: Farrell's banter between songs was deliberately fluttery - let's not repeat his comment about the doctor who treated his throat - and the two near-naked dancers who occasionally writhed around the stage were comic-book cute rather than sexual. Yet the music was a web of influences, from Latin to calypso to broken-down blues, all meshing to create dark, engrossing songs. The set ended with Stop! and a shower of glitter, and Farrell and company wheezed off stage, croaky but very much unbowed.
Mike Heron and Trembling Bells - Vortex, London - 31 August 2011
This was an intriguing double bill, matching one of the originators of the experimental British psych-folk scene against its most interesting current exponents. Mike Heron was a founder of the Incredible String Band, the 60s heroes who fell from fashion with the ending of the hippy era, while Trembling Bells are the folk-rock band who are helping his rehabilitation. Heron was supposed to be the headliner, but it felt right that he appeared first, both for reasons of chronology and because his eclectic acoustic style provided a perfect prelude to the Bells' sonic attack.
Heron traded unashamedly in nostalgia, starting with Chinese White and Painting Box, two of his tunefully quirky songs from the ISB's 5000 Spirits album back in 1967. His voice is more ragged now, but he seemed deliriously happy to be on stage and backed by a band that included his daughter Georgia. She sported long hair and a long skirt, looking like an early ISB devotee, but proved to be an excellent singer and keyboard player. The old songs sometimes sounded twee, but mixed an entertaining sense of the absurd with influences from Celtic folk to country and gospel. By the end of his set, all four members of Trembling Bells had joined him on stage for a medley that switched from that delightful oddity A Very Cellular Song to the singalong Log Cabin Home in the Sky.
Trembling Bells started in the same engagingly brave style, with an a capella harmony duet on Seven Years a Teardrop, and then brought on the electric guitars. The band are remarkable for their soaring, folk-influenced melodies and for the clear, powerful singing of Lavinia Blackwall, who also plays guitar and keyboards. Though there were fine epic anthems here, from Colour of Night to Goathland, her voice was too often drowned out by the blitz of sound.
Fucked Up/Off! - XOYO, London - 30 August 2011
It's possible the casual observer wouldn't detect much in the way of stylistic differences between the three hardcore punk bands on this bill - all are united by their unstinting commitment to punishing pace and shouted vocals. But with headliners Fucked Up having made the transition from the underground to festivals thanks to a series of increasingly ambitious albums, XOYO is packed early to see three different generations of the same genre.
Openers Cerebral Ballzy fare worst: the sound is underpowered and muddy for the young New Yorkers. By the time Fucked Up emerge, it's so loud that the dynamics that make them an unusual proposition on record are lost, their three guitars bleeding into each other. Nevertheless, it's easy to see why Fucked Up's singer, Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham, has become as close to a superstar as a punk can without joining Green Day. This huge, balding man - "I didn't lose my virginity till I was 20," he laughs at one point - is loved by his audience, and loves them back, wading into the crowd to dispense hugs, removing the barrier at the front to make stage-diving easier.
But in the middle of the bill are the hit of the evening. Two of Off! are oldâ€‘school LA punk royalty - 56-year-old singer Keith Morris sang with Black Flag and Circle Jerks, while bassist Steve McDonald was playing bass (and opening for Black Flag) with Redd Kross at the age of 11 - and they could have been making this music 30 years ago. It's brief and choppy and fierce, all downstrokes on the guitar and hyperactive drums, like being repeatedly slapped. It's thrilling, too - their riff-based songs fare much better than Fucked Up - and in McDonald they have the one person tonight who could challenge Abraham for pure charisma, albeit of a more conventional sort.
CSS - XOYO, London - 24 August 2011
"We're CSS from São Paulo!" cries the only frontwoman in pop called Lovefoxxx. "It's been for ever since we don't play here!" She must be flustered for her command of English to desert her: normally, she speaks the language better than many Brits. But her nerves are understandable: not only have CSS not played London recently, their absence has been little noted. The Brazilian fivesome's electropop may have made them festival highlights circa 2007, but their second album a year later was indifferently received, and they slipped from view.
Their task now is to persuade British audiences that there still ain't no party like a CSS party. Tonight, at least, they succeed. You can say this for them: it's hard to think of another band quite so expert at bridging the cultural gap between South America and Europe. Lovefoxxx, who does her thing dressed in denim hotpants and a midriff-baring T-shirt with the legend "Trash", pours Brazilian sensuality into songs with uncompromisingly Anglo-Saxon titles such as Fuck Everything and Hits Me Like a Rock (both from new album La Liberación). She shimmies, she purrs, she warns us that the song Red Alert is "very sexy, I'm just being honest". Perhaps it would be if she didn't try to rap on it. (She says they wanted Snoop Dogg for the rap, but he was unavailable, which is Snoop's loss.)
It's hard not to love Lovefoxxx, and, by extension, CSS. The other four members, happily dishing out chintzy synth-funk, would be worth hearing with or without her - but she makes them special. Who else would follow a quickstep march through their best-known number, Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above, by confiding that she recently did exactly what the song describes for the first time? "Death From Above have a good rhythm," she says dreamily. It's nice to have them back.
George Michael - State Opera House, Prague - 23 August 2011
Prague's lavish neo-rococo State Opera House is a long way from HM Prison Highpoint in Suffolk, where George Michael spent four weeks last September after piloting his Range Rover into the window of his local Snappy Snaps while under the influence of cannabis.
Nearly a year on, and having pronounced his jail sentence to be "karma" and promised to turn his life around, Michael has returned with a lavish new project. The Symphonica tour finds him hooking up with classical orchestras from across Europe to reinterpret a selection of his own material, unexpected cover versions and traditional standards.
He claims the idea was inspired by a recent similar jaunt by an old-school musical hero, Tony Bennett, but on the evidence of the opening night in the Czech capital, Michael is not yet ready to become a lounge crooner. Performing with the Czech National Symphonic Orchestra, he interrupts his set four songs in to inform his audience: "I've got to tell you that I'm shitting myself here."
Clad head to toe in black and looking trim - he claims to have lost a stone since giving up dope - Michael soon hits his stride, transmuting the euphoric house-pop of New Order's True Faith into a melancholic string-driven lament. He turns back the clock for an anti-Sony Music rant before rehabilitating an obscure but poignant Terence Trent D'Arby song, Let Her Down Easy.
The orchestral arrangements of Michael's tastefully muted own numbers such as Kissing A Fool and It Doesn't Really Matter are cleverly understated and his sensitive interpretations lend an ineffable sadness to both Rufus Wainwright's Going To A Town and the Police's Roxanne. By contrast, he morphs Brother Can You Spare A Dime? into a louche big band romp and turns Rihanna's Russian Roulette into melodramatic cinematic pop.
The second half of the evening finds Michael in reflective mood. After a heartfelt tribute to Amy Winehouse ("In my 30 years of making music, I was never in awe of anyone new on the British scene until her"), he performs an appropriately vulnerable, halting version of Love Is A Losing Game in front of images of the late singer. He develops the heart-on-sleeve motif with a moving monologue in which he admits that mutual addiction issues have led to the end of his relationship with his long-term partner, Kenny Goss, before debuting a ballad for Goss, Where I Hope You Are.
It's a powerful moment but the whole evening is packed with songs of emotional heft and resonance, lovingly interpreted. After violins underscore the elegant angst of A Different Corner, Michael constructs an upbeat climax to the set with a soulful roustabout through Nina Simone's celebratory anthem Feeling Good then encores with Stevie Wonder's You and I and a medley of his own life-affirming dance-pop hits in Amazing, Wham's I'm Your Man and Freedom. His five-minute standing ovation is entirely deserved.
Pentangle - Royal Festival Hall, London - 17 August 2011
"I'm going to see Pentangle tonight," I confide to a friend. "I'm getting a whiff of metal," she offers, not unreasonably. Despite the name, Pentangle are not swords 'n' sorcery types; rather, they are the jazz outriders of the 60s folk revival, reunited once again.
The story goes that they were wryly named to invoke protection against the evil spirits of the music industry; it is the emblem on the shield in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, symbolising faithfulness and the so-called "endless knot". That everyone in the 60s was mildly into the occult didn't hurt, either, especially in America, where this most British band did rather well, in part through relentless touring.
And there were - and still are - five of them: warbling damsel Jacqui McShee, yin and yang guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, and the distinctly non-metallic rhythm section of upright bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox, jazz musicians by calling. They were a supergroup of sorts when they formed back in 1967, drawing from what Rob Young in Electric Eden, his overview of the avant-garde within traditional music, calls the "mulch" of the London folk revival scene.
On stage tonight they assume their time-honoured formation - at the centre, McShee in a cowled teal gown, looking every inch like Morgan Le Fay. Thompson - the most extraordinary bassist - plonks and prangs sepulchrally low notes and ad libs behind her on the left. ("Tonight comes courtesy of Saga," he guffaws at the start.) Cox is behind McShee, too, doing everything, it seems, but keeping time. Cox doesn't play so much as adjust things rhythmically, like a pernickety engineer cosseting a wayward jazz machine. He begins the enthralling "Hunting Song" (version from back in the day here) by playing on a small xylophone. It comes as a shock to learn that, before Pentangle reunited for their 40th anniversary in 2008, Cox was running a restaurant in Spain and hadn't played the drums for years.
Pentangle's 2008 Royal Festival Hall reunion brought them back to the venue of the live half of their Sweet Child double album (1968). By many accounts, that performance was not without its rough edges. But the musicianship on display during tonight's two-set engagement is awe-inspiring, virtuosic and - still - somewhat perverse: an endless knot of strings, disparate influences and textures.
"House Carpenter", for instance, is Pentangle's version of a traditional song sometimes called "The Daemon Lover", which finds a banjo (associated, in the popular imagination, with the American South) trading licks with a sitar. It is a ye olde folk/Deep South/subcontinental fusion that still sounds ear-bogglingly weird. "We're really going back to the 60s," quips McShee as the sitar is brought on, before kicking off with a shivery a capella vocal.
The band's celebrated guitarists, Renbourn and Jansch, are out front, a study in physical and musical contrasts. Portly, with a shock of white hair, the scholarly Renbourn plays the florid parts. He gamely manoeuvres himself on to a flowery cushion on the floor to manhandle the sitar.
Jansch, meanwhile - author of multiple solo albums, latterly special guest tour-mate of Neil Young, and a guitarist so good Jimmy Page allegedly stole his licks - is dark, sinewy and contained. He plays mantric, circular themes, switching to banjo for a handful of deeply satisfying bluesier numbers in the band's second set (from the "Dorking Delta", smiles Renbourn). Jansch's ongoing cancer treatment means that this small handful of Pentangle live dates - Glastonbury, Cambridge folk festival and tonight's outing - are especially poignant.
No one quite remembers exactly why Renbourn and Jansch fell out for 35 years, but a new folk revival - especially among US players as disparate as Joanna Newsom and Fleet Foxes - throughout the past decade laid the path nicely for Pentangle's return. Recently the two men have been writing songs for a putative new Pentangle album.
Recreating some notionally pure iteration of folk songs held little interest for any of the participants in their heyday. Forty years on, the song remains the same. Instead, Pentangle knock ancient chestnuts into strange avant-garde shapes, adding their own compositions to all the Trad Arrs.
"Pentangling", their theme tune, captures them at their most alluring, with wordless exchanges between guitars and bass almost trumping the singer's fluency.
McShee, meanwhile, gleefully introduces folk song after folk song about women left high and dry. "Cruel Sister" is "the doomiest and gloomiest song I know", she says. It features envy, murder and the refashioning of a dead girl's body into a musical instrument. And, of course, a sitar.
Morrissey - Palladium, London - 14 August 2011
At the time of writing, neither Dublin, Dundee nor Humberside have been affected by the recent riots. Carlisle remains quiet. But there has been panic on the streets of London - unrest that recalls the previous wave of disturbances in the early 80s that, allegedly, inspired a 1986 single called "Panic" by the Smiths. ("Panic on the streets of London," it goes, "Panic on the streets of Birmingham.") Arguably one of the greatest of British bands, the Smiths remain heroically averse to reuniting.
Any other artist might have capitalised on such cultural congruency. Playing "Panic" would have seized the zeitgeist, and perhaps garnered Morrissey - the fabulously well-maintained 52-year-old singer who co-wrote it - some fond headlines. He could use them. Last month, after a gig in Poland, Morrissey declared that the recent massacre of Norwegian teenagers was nothing compared with the horror that goes on in fast-food restaurants. Even hardened Morrissey fans - and Morrissey does inspire a particular sort of obsessive - were aghast. Twitter had a seizure. He has since clarified his position slightly.
Morrissey is not averse to revisiting Smiths songs, either. Tonight's energetic set opens with "I Want the One I Can't Have", in which Morrissey growls a couple of lines, filling them with a new, bear-like sexual frustration. His band sound like an outfit seized by end-of-tour devil-may-care, bashing and clanging their way through the set.
A heavy-handed and doomy rendition of "Meat is Murder", meanwhile, comes accompanied by distressing videos of animals being slaughtered and the latter-day chorus, "Kill, eat, kill, eat." The drummer beats a huge gong. More thrilling by far is "I Know It's Over", which supplies a truly magical mid-point to the evening. Morrissey's suited and dickie-bowed band stop thrashing and settle into a lush and understated thrum. Mournful and hammy by turns, Morrissey shapes his tie into a noose.
On this final night of his UK tour, Morrissey refers only briefly to current affairs. The previous night's gig took place in Brixton; a good time was had "inside the venue, not outside". His concerns seem to lie elsewhere, reserving his fire in between songs for the royals and their cruelty to animals.
It is a peculiarly solipsistic universe that Morrissey and his fans inhabit. The show in this plush old music hall theatre opens with the words "Welcome to my world". This is either a wry reference to Justin Bieber (who opens his own shows with those words) or to a new blog, morrisseysworld.blogspot.com, written in a highly amusing parody of Morrissey's style. Is it him? Is it super-fan Russell Brand? The latest post refers to the possibility of Morrissey stripping at a future gig. Instead, as is his custom, he removes his shirt with a flourish at the height of the encore, "First of the Gang to Die". You can only conclude that this most un-Lycra-clad of men works out.
With an album recorded and ready to go, Morrissey currently finds himself label-less and without his previous management. "I have come to a new conclusion - I don't want a record contract!" Morrissey declares at one point; elsewhere, he wryly dismisses his career as "persistence". His autobiography, though, is expected in time for Christmas 2012.
Unusually, many of Morrissey's newer songs sound better than the older passages of his solo career. "Throwing My Arms Around Paris" is loud and fun, with Morrissey almost making a joke of his own self-pity. By contrast, "Ouija Board, Ouija Board" and "You're the One for Me, Fatty" sound downright odd.
Before the gig begins, we are treated to a film of a characteristically taciturn Lou Reed press conference dating from the singer's bleached blond 70s heyday. Nonetheless, Morrissey's cover of Reed's "Satellite of Love" comes as a pleasant shock - one rendered all the more strange by Morrissey's straight-laced, RP rendition of Reed's strung-out New York words.
His new songs are certainly arresting, if not quite entirely seductive. "Action is My Middle Name" is a compelling, predatory love song that finds Morrissey singing "I can't waste time any more" while his band turn out a reverberating 60s accompaniment.
Dramatic and booming, "Scandinavia" sounds, after the fact, like another of those weird acts of pop prophecy. Written before events in Norway, it refers to people burning and children crying - but actually concerns Morrissey falling in love with the place.
This otherwise enjoyable night is marred, though, by the heavy-handed way in which the bouncers pick off stage invaders. One young girl is dragged across the stage. During "Meat is Murder" there's an unpleasant scene of a cow hanging from one hoof, writhing. The bouncers manhandle a skinny young fan: he is kicking, helplessly, in exactly the same fashion.
Washed Out - The Haunt, Brighton - 11 August 2011
One major uncertainty hangs over the prospect of seeing Washed Out live. How will Ernest Greene, from the US state of Georgia, translate the music he makes in his bedroom - mysterious, oblique, so swathed in distortion and tape hiss that the manner of its recording becomes part of its appeal - to a live setting? It's an intriguing question and it seems unlikely anyone would have come up with the correct answer: that he would bound on stage in a vest, clapping his hands over his head and loudly exhort the audience to do the same. "Hey guys!" he shouts, a bottomless font of bonhomie and excitement. "You all having a good time? Give it up for Ray on the bass! Come on!"
It goes without saying that this is not how one generally expects a blog-boosted, hipster-favourite musician at the forefront of a genre called chillwave to behave, at least not without a sheen of irony, but you search in vain for the merest hint of an arched eyebrow: it would appear Ernest Greene is appropriately named. Moreover, his party-hearty demeanour fits the live sound of Washed Out perfectly. Fleshed out by a band, Greene strips away the murk of his recordings to reveal the gleaming, propulsive songs beneath.
You occasionally get hints of the original atmospherics in Greene's echo-smeared vocals and, most notably, on the hazy reggae sample and tumbling drums of Beyond, although it's worth noting that the latter's opacity doesn't seem to rub off on the man who wrote it: "I hope you guys like reggae music! This is our reggae track! Sing along!"
But for the most part, the band concentrate on producing lithe, percussion-heavy grooves, finding a funky core in songs such as Echoes and Far Away that's easy to miss on record. It's a gamble, but the audience clearly think it pays off. Whether because the songs are fantastic (you can imagine the live version of Eyes Be Closed taking up residence in the charts) or because of Greene's tireless encouragement, they end up sweaty and dancing.
The Jayhawks - Manchester Academy - 5 August 2011
The Jayhawks have never had great timing. They honed their country-rock sound just as grunge went global. They released their second album, 1992's Blue Earth, on a major label just as the US media attacked the huge sums of money spent by the majors on albums-oriented bands that didn't produce hit singles. Halfway through the Minneapolis band's chequered career, Mark Olson, one of their two principal singer-songwriters, ran off to the desert with a new wife amid such acrimony that the rest of the group didn't speak to him for years.
Which makes their recent revival all the more unlikely. But, sure enough, the now divorced Olson is back, and all is forgiven; the Jayhawks have sold out one of Manchester's bigger venues, and the crowd are going crazy. The fans don't just shout the titles, and cheer and sing every song; they cheer individual bits of songs, such as solos.
There's no showmanship at a Jayhawks gig, just Olson, fellow frontman Gary Louris and co's greying hair under the lights. But you could stare at a brick wall when the music is this good. They have a chiming, tuneful, yearning sound not a million miles from the Byrds, Big Star or Teenage Fanclub. Occasionally it alters - when Louris's vocal adopts a more nasal tone reminiscent of Television's Tom Verlaine, or when Black Eyed Susan's hurtling solo makes things slightly rockier - but not much. There's no need.
A career-spanning set includes much from the forthcoming comeback album, Mockingbird Time, and the wonderful optimism in lines such as, "It's hard to make things better, go ahead and try." Then it's on to much-loved oldies like Miss Williams' Guitar - a song about discovering the thrill of music - and a transcendent Waiting for the Sun. "We're having a rocking time up here," grins Olson as the triumphant band raise their guitars over their heads - and you wonder what could possibly go wrong now.