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July 2011 Gig Reviews

Kasabian - Roundhouse, London - 31 July 2011

 

"Come on and feel this, I'm still alive," sings Kasabian's Tom Meighan, winding up the song Vlad the Impaler with what he probably considers a provocative bit of improvisation. "Amy Winehouse, meet you on the other side." Who knows what he's on about? Possibly nothing: a Winehouse reference might simply be in keeping with this band's inclination toward the dark and gloomy. Their lyrics are a no-man's-land of depressing metaphors, including the love song Fire (their biggest hit, and tonight's encore), which likens sexual attraction to murder.

 

Whatever he meant, the lyrics come a distant second place tonight, anyway. The real meat of this brief iTunes festival set is their guitar-rock attack - and "attack" it is. The music is visceral and pounding, with monster choruses that bulldoze all nuance out of the building. The choruses deserve a review in themselves: they're primal things that make everyone holding a pint glass feel compelled to hurl it across the room, so fountains of beer constantly arc through the air like wet special effects.

 

Uncharacteristically, Meighan is light on swagger tonight. Though he looks like a Liam Gallagher who has been stretched out and dyed blond, he emanates efficiency rather than attitude, perhaps because they have been allotted just 70 minutes on stage. "We take no prisoners. We haven't got time," he says, and they plough through a greatest-hits set with a minimum of showboating. Club Foot, Empire and Shoot the Runner are leadenly enjoyable, but they do Fire a terrible disservice by stripping it of its silky malice and adding a gratuitous stomping beat.

 

Joint frontman and guitarist Serge Pizzorno has his widdly-widdly moment with a cover of Dick Dale's Misirlou, and a preview of new album Velociraptor! reveals synth-rock in the offing. Kasabian are no innovators, but the fans leave beer-soaked and happy.

 

Caroline Sullivan

 

 

Julian Cope - Harrogate theatre - 31 July 2011

 

"I'm going to be very professional," begins Julian Cope. "There will be banter, but there is a setlist. I can't see you, so I won't be put off." He is wearing motorcycle boots, a sleeveless tassled leather jacket, a military officer's cap, and his hair hangs below his chin. He looks like a giant cartoon Cope doll. "These shades are virtually opaque," he explains, before describing how his wistful new song Julian in the Underworld was inspired by taking acid to celebrate his 50th birthday, when, "to cut a long story short, I lost my mind".

 

So begins a marathon evening with the arch-drude - a gig that, like his career, is bonkers here, brilliant there and goes on a bit. His forthcoming book, Lives of the Prophets, seems to influence songs such as Cromwell in Ireland, which accuses various religious and historical figures and is backed by the Black Sheep, looking like a band of Hells Angels who rode here specially to provide backing vocals and hit a bass drum on a couple of numbers.

 

Most of the career-revisiting, 36-song sprawl finds Cope with just a Mellotron and glittery guitar. The Teardrop Explodes' The Great Dominions - refreshingly sung straight, without pastiche - sounds wonderful, but the sublime Sunspots is rather spoilt by a mid-song anecdote about the Japanese, and other classic songs lose something, too: Cope really needs a band to flesh out his melodies and rein in his indulgence. Still, the banter never wilts. "Why don't you have a mirror on stage anymore?" someone asks, prompting Cope to explain how he no longer has to check his appearance. "It's hard to fuck this [look] up," he says. "Dressed like this, I could go on until I'm 78."

 

Dave Simpson

 

 

Laura Marling - Inverness Ironworks - 31 July 2011

 

Three weeks ago, folk singer Laura Marling and her band set off on a tour of the Highlands to preview her forthcoming third album, A Creature I Don't Know, released in September. They stopped at places such as Mull and Stornoway and, according to Marling, it was bad weather all the way. Now that the tour is drawing to a close, the rain has cleared and Inverness, their final stop, is bathed in magnificent sunlight and limpid blue skies. Britain's northernmost city feels, however fleetingly, like the Côte d'Azur.

 

The change in the weather could be a sign of things to come. The last time Marling tried out a batch of new material she was promoting her impressive second album, I Speak Because I Can. She was still a teenager when she wrote it and she spent much of the album pondering the mysteries of adulthood. But it's also a reflection on Marling's native England and, as such, it reflects the glories of the English climate. The songs are wreathed in fog, covered in snow or sodden with rain that renders cities too grey to bear.

 

The album's emotional climate is wintry, too, and Marling tends to keep her feelings under wraps. This can make the music feel somewhat chilly and remote, but a vulnerability lies beneath the cold exterior and its suppression accounts for much of the album's power.

 

Marling's live appearances, meanwhile, were warming up. When she took her new material on the road early last year, reviewers marvelled at how she had blossomed on stage. In 2008, circa her debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim, Marling sang with her eyes glued to the floor. Two years on, she was holding the audience's gaze and sharpening her banter.

 

This time round, there are no dramatic new advances to report in that area. Marling isn't hula-hooping around the stage or swinging from the light fittings. She appears quietly with her four bandmates and introduces herself by name, as she did when picking up the best female solo artist prize at last February's Brit awards (her first major gong after two Mercury nominations). Dressed in a simple white top, black trousers and espadrilles, she is the very opposite of showy - the set ends without an encore because the band "aren't rock'n'roll enough yet" - but she seems comfortable now with being low key, knowing she can make up for it in other ways.

 

It helps that her audience tonight, in the fittingly plain Inverness Ironworks, is hushed from the outset, but even so, Marling can be an electrifying performer. Midway through the set, her band exit the stage and she sings "Night After Night", one of the forthcoming album's highlights, with an intensity that leaves the room breathless.

 

The band are excellent, too, without drawing attention to themselves. Pete Roe, who doubles as the warm-up act, alternates between guitar and piano, which he plays with bluesy gusto on "The Muse". Marcus Hamblett juggles four or five instruments at the back of the stage, including a banjo and a tenor horn, and Ruth de Turberville on cello adds backing vocals that harmonise beautifully with Marling's singing.

 

Seven tracks are played from the new album and what's striking about them is how warm and open they feel compared with the older material. The most tender song on Marling's previous album described a landscape covered in snow and was called "Goodbye England". It feels now as if that departure has come to pass; the first suggestion of this is the American accent she adopts on each new song, with the exception of "All My Rage". "Why won't you give it me?" she drawls on the evening's opener.

 

Later on, in "Salinas", a character describes her mother as "six foot of bad behaviour with long blonde curly hair down to her thighs". Salinas is a town in California and you can feel the latent West Coast heat in the refrain: "Oh, and that gun would turn before the sun starts to burn."

 

Marling's focus appears to have shifted from grey, snowbound England to warmer climes across the Atlantic. The new songs flirt with bluegrass, blues and, on "Sophia", jangly country-rock. As they do, the lyrics become less oblique and emotions ease up, giving the music space to breathe. There's even room this evening for a moment of misty-eyed romance: "Didn't even see the night until I said goodbye," she admits on "I Was Just a Card", and for once the sentiment isn't qualified with a reminder of love's desperate futility.

 

It's not all as temperate and cloudless as that - "Night After Night" has its share of screaming and weeping and raging - but early signs seem to suggest that Laura Marling's world is getting warmer.

 

Killian Fox

 

 

Chase & Status - Roundhouse, London - 29 July 2011

 

When the dubstep scene split in two in around 2007, it was erstwhile drum'n'bass duo Chase & Status who seized the opportunity to ride its commercial side to glory: top 10 singles, collaborations with Rihanna and the kind of rapturous reception they receive from tonight's sold-out crowd - almost all young party-seekers attempting to lose their minds in the corporate hedonism of the iTunes festival. Their strategy is to ramp up the more macho aspects of the genre to almost parodic levels, which is magnified even further live: industrial-strength bass, deliberately confrontational, lurches and leers from the stage. Fittingly for this kind of bro-step, it proves to be the kind of gig where shirtless boys delightedly chuck beer over the audience. That bass is heavy enough to make the ground judder throughout the show - an impressive physicality that is easily the best aspect of the Chase & Status sound.

 

Less enjoyable is the way they do so little with this heaviness: it merely squats there suffocatingly, waves of it vomiting into your face. In small doses, its sheer force can thrill; over a whole gig, Chase & Status's limited bag of tricks becomes too predictable, the beat dropping in almost exactly the same way each time. The full horror becomes clear when the duo's MC, Rage, begins rapping Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine lyrics while exhorting the crowd to mosh: dubstep in this form fits all too well in a lineage that includes the lairy nonsense of frat-boy rock and nu-metal.

 

Chase & Status's sound can normally be leavened by a strong frontperson: their contributions to Rihanna's 2009 album, Rated R, were superb. Live, though, their many big-name vocalists - Tempa T, Plan B - are relegated to a video screen, unwisely playing second fiddle, and it's no coincidence that a parade of lesser-known guests towards the close provides a marked upturn in quality.

 

Alex Macpherson

 

 

Example - Roundhouse, London - 28 July 2011

 

Talk about a transformation: a couple of years ago, Elliot "Example" Gleave was a gawky joke-rapper with a sideline in standup. A much cooler dude these days, the Londoner now plays to capacity crowds comprising teenage girls who love the doomed-romance sentiment of his recent No 1 single, Changed the Way You Kiss Me, and clubbers there for the ravey beats.

 

Example caters for both, fluidly switching between bellicose rapping and surprisingly mellifluous singing. A leather-and-denim-clad beanpole, he has been amply blessed with confidence; when he barks his catchphrase "Bounce!" he does so with the assurance of someone who expects to be obeyed. And so he is: after the Basement Jaxxish dance-pop of Skies Don't Lie and Last Ones Standing, which open the set, arms are in the air and a moshpit is seething into life. Bouncing is the crux of the show. Example's goal is to induce a state of sweaty oblivion, both in himself and the fans, and the most direct route is to boing up and down until the balcony judders alarmingly. It's not pretty, but to judge by the way he perspires during the aptly titled bass-heavy Dirty Face, it's effective.

 

Though these techno-pop tunes sound like pure escapist fare, Example has more than just hedonism on his mind. Stay Awake questions the future prospects of "a messed-up generation", while The Way demands: "When you gonna show us the way?" But while the crowd are mulling over that question, Example turns the last few numbers into a bass-pumping, strobe-lit club. The balcony feels like it's clinging by a single rivet during Changed the Way You Kiss Me, and when the front row scrambles for the towel he tosses away, the sense that he's on the way to bigger things is overwhelming

 

Caroline Sullivan

 

 

Iron Maiden - Sheffield Arena - 25 July 2011

 

The stage set for Iron Maiden's grandiosely titled Final Frontier tour is like a universe, complete with revolving planets and a space station. Are the world-conquering east London band about to take their mission into space, or is their doom-laden heavy metal about to predict astral conflict?

 

"It's the Final Frontier tour because that's just what it is," says vocalist Bruce Dickinson, sounding like Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel. "Despite what journalists at the New Musical Enema might hope, it's not the final tour. We're going on ... and on."

 

It was ever thus, and Maiden haven't survived into their 36th year by offering great revelations or transformations. They do what they always did: play widdly-widdly solos, wear bullet belts and long locks (Dickinson excepted), and write lengthy songs about how war and death are nasty (so nasty, they haven't tired of making the point in 15 albums).

 

They're not going to change what they do now, and with an entire arena's hands in the air - mostly belonging to adult males, plus a few families obeying the instructions to Bring Your Daughter ... to the Slaughter - why should they?

 

Dickinson still yells, "Scream for me ... [insert city being played at the time]", waves a battle-shredded union flag and dons a red military jacket for The Trooper. A giant zombie soldier walks on for The Evil That Men Do. There's no theatrical illustration of The Wicker Man, presumably because it would involve the singer clambering into a hay figure and being set on fire.

 

The paradox of Maiden is that the most earnest-sounding metal band can also be (not always intentionally) the silliest. Dickinson says that the band are touring the world in a plane (Flight 666) piloted by himself, which always goes the same way "so we know we're going in the right direction".

 

Their bludgeoning metal isn't for everybody - and lumbering new prog monsters, such as When the Wild Wind Blows, pale beside early headbangers Running Free and Iron Maiden - but the show never lets up. The band's giant Eddie mascot appears with glowing eyes and on The Number of the Beast they're actually joined by the devil ... "On drums ... Sooty," yells Dickinson. And sure enough, perched on Nicko McBrain's drum kit, there's a tiny bear.

 

Dave Simpson

 

 

Coldplay -Roundhouse, London - 24 July 2011

 

It is telling that Coldplay headlining Glastonbury last month passed by almost entirely without comment. Among coverage dominated by anticipation of Beyoncé's Vegas spectacle and U2's questionable tax arrangements, Coldplay took to the main stage on Saturday night and proved yet again that they are the world's most efficient stadium rock band.

 

Tonight's iTunes festival show seems intimate by comparison, until you learn that it is being streamed live to 23 countries. It's a point Chris Martin acknowledges throughout the evening, delivering earnest thank yous to "those people who have bothered to make the effort to watch us on the internet". He also wryly acknowledges this show is a free gig for competition winners. "Twelve years ago, we played 100 yards from here, and we had to give all the tickets away," he says, gesturing towards the Bull and Gate just down the road. "I guess nothing has changed."

 

Tonight's freeloading audience, both actual and virtual, bear witness to Coldplay at their most propulsive and sentimental. It's barely fathomable that a band able to unleash glorious torrents of sound such as The Scientist or God Put a Smile Upon Your Face then choose to weigh them down with sub-Adrian Mole doggerel, of which the nadir remains Politik's: "Look at the earth from outer space/ Everyone must find a place." However, nobody here could care less.

 

The band unveil tracks from their imminent fifth album with their traditional self-effacement. "We've never played this song live before and, depending on the next five minutes, may never play it again," deadpans Martin, before Moving to Mars. As it turns out to be a sumptuous epic ballad with choruses that hang in the air like sighs, you suspect this will not prove its sole airing.

 

The secret of Coldplay's world domination is simple: the songs. They encore with the gorgeous Clocks and the Samaritans-of-a-song that is Fix You, then surpass both with the new tune Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall. Those aching for their demise may have a long wait.

 

Ian Gittens

 

 

Rufus Wainwright and Loudon Wainwright III - Royal Opera House, London - 24 July 2011

 

Rufus Wainwright's residency at the Royal Opera House is billed as "five nights of velvet, glamour and guilt". Perhaps the words "post-oedipal melodrama and jokes" wouldn't quite fit on the posters.

 

It is remarkable enough that one Canadian-American songwriter, more acclaimed critically than commercially, should be afforded a week of his own at the Royal Opera House. Wainwright's House Of Rufus extravaganza spans two petite performances of Rufus Does Judy (Wainwright's 2006 cover version of Judy Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall appearance), one night split between Rufus and his sister Martha Wainwright, and a bonsai version of Prima Donna, the opera Wainwright premiered two years ago. You can just about hear the mental calculations of the Opera House's gatekeepers. "He's actually written an opera! This would be a way of popularising our elitist stronghold without dumbing down." Or, as Rufus puts it, twinkling: "You are so well funded! We wouldn't get away with this in the US."

 

More remarkable still is this Rufus and Loudon double bill. It would not have been imaginable a few years ago. With no little grim irony, it has probably taken the illness and death of Rufus's mother, Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle, to orchestrate it. Tonight's show is not a first. Loudon and Rufus have shared stages several times in recent years. But never have they gone head to head, with the prospect of père et fils volleying songs about one another back and forth across two sets. And so it proves, after a fashion.

 

Pow! Loudon Wainwright III serves hard with "Rufus Is a Tit Man" - an enduringly creepy tune about the breastfeeding infant. ("Although," Loudon quips, "he is more of a pecs man these days.")

 

Bash! Rufus returns after the interval with "Dinner at Eight", his own grand slamming of his parents' breakup and his rivalry with Loudon. It still brings a cottony wad to the throat.

 

Wallop! Loudon hits back with "A Father and a Son", a 20-year-old song documenting the strains of his relationship with the teenage Rufus. There's no little drama lurking in the wings, too. With an illustrious 40-year career at his back, Loudon Wainwright III is, tonight, basically a support act for his son.

 

In May, Wainwright III released a box set, collating a lifetime of bitter, funny, honest songs over four CDs and a DVD, and a 40-page book. Just two months on, Rufus put out his own 19-CD box, encased in velvet, with a 90-page hardback book.

 

Loudon's set privileges comedy, or so it seems: his songs have a way of hiding heartache in slapstick. "Heaven", for instance, deals with mortality by imagining the afterlife as an orgy of booze and fags. But one self‑deprecating turn at the piano is the night's keynote offering. "Another Song in C" starts as a quip, but builds into a gooseflesh-raising portrait of Wainwright's successive families failing to stick together.

 

If you were to ungenerously pit the men against each other, Rufus's set of his own material is probably the more artistically evolved. A four-song run of favourites, including "The Art Teacher" and "Going to a Town", at the start of his set finds Rufus's maple-syrup vocals combining sumptuously with his band's arrangements. The only quibble here is that Rufus played at least three of them the other night, when he shared the billing with Martha.

 

Are there still subtle rivalries percolating there? Rufus's sister Martha had a baby, Arcangelo, in 2009 (of which there is a moving account, here). Last February, Wainwright announced the birth of his daughter, Viva, with childhood friend Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard. As Wainwright is in a committed relationship with German videographer Jorn Weisbrodt, the mechanics of this conception remain a matter of speculation in the more prurient corners of the internet. Both Arcangelo and Viva are in the house tonight, with Loudon paying tribute to "the next wave". We can probably all look forward to Viva's own searing dynastic piano indictments, out around 2033. This may be a spectacularly self-obsessed clan of musicians, but their enduring themes of hate-within-love should resonate with anyone who isn't an orphaned hermit. Or, as Loudon puts it, we are in "the Soap Opera House" tonight.

 

Oh, they can laugh about it now - and they do. Rufus and Loudon start a cover of a regretful Kate McGarrigle song, "Come a Long Way", before it grinds to a halt in a disagreement about timing. "I recorded it!" protests Loudon with mock outrage. "I own the publishing!" retorts Rufus, with exaggerated pique. Their voices, though, melt into one magnificently once the song gathers the correct pace.

 

Indeed, despite all the potent oedipal stuff flying around - Loudon's songs about his own father, Rufus's songs about Loudon, Loudon and Martha's hammy accusatory duet, "You Never Phone" - the Wainwright family rancour has been superseded by warmth. Lucy Wainwright Roche appears as well, her clear voice adding another dimension to the delicious four-way harmonies when Loudon and his three eldest children sing together. "One Man Guy" is a wry love song by Loudon to himself; the four sing it together in an act of mutual recognition and, you can only conclude, forgiveness.

 

Kitty Empire

 

 

Liam Finn - XOYO, London - 22 July 2011

 

Liam Finn is burdened with the tiresome expectations that beset all rock-star progeny who follow their parents' line of work. The 27-year-old singer-songwriter is the son of Neil Finn, the frontman of veteran melodic rockers Crowded House, and thus obliged to prove he is neither merely a chip off the old block nor the lazy beneficiary of music industry nepotism.

 

The charge of laziness is easily dismissed. Finn plays every instrument on his recent second album, Fomo, and takes to the stage tonight like a man possessed. For the opening number, I'll Be Lightning, he leaps from guitar to drums to piano, sampling sequences of notes and looping them through his effects pedal to craft a distorted one-man symphony.

 

It's a clever trick, but not one that he repeats through a diverse and fascinating set. Finn is clearly as much of a Beatles buff as his father, but where Finn senior has always channelled the fab four's plangent classicism, his son's trick is to pen meticulous pop gems such as Neurotic World and then subject them to acts of wanton creative vandalism live.

 

An affable figure between songs, the bearded Finn is a whirling dervish as soon as the music starts. On Energy Spent, he wreaks Dave Grohl-style damage on his drum kit before strapping on a guitar for a valiant attempt at Hendrix-style shredding. He may be a lone troubadour, but the maelstrom that is Roll of the Eye is more indebted to Sonic Youth than Jeff Buckley.

 

The closing Lead Balloon begins decorously but soon descends into a white-noise freak-out, with Finn mounting his drum kit and then wrestling his microphone stand and losing it like Jack Black in Tenacious D. Liam Finn may be a rock-star scion, but he is certainly a one-off.

 

Ian Gittens

 

 

Gruff Rhys - Harrogate theatre - 19 July 2011

 

"The biggest array of talent since Woodstock, but in one person" is how the Harrogate international festival fringe announcer introduces Gruff Rhys. High praise somewhat at odds with the bearded, jacketed figure who shuffles on looking like a 1970s geography teacher who has misplaced his notes. "I've left the metronome in Cardiff," begins the Super Furry Animal and solo artist, explaining that someone in the audience has lent him one but the settings on it are different. "So if this song is a bit faster ... " Moments later, Rhys looks panicked as the song hurtles along: "It's definitely faster!" The audience erupts.

 

So begins a wonderful 90 minutes with the maverick Welshman, part wistful singer-songwriter, part bone-dry comic. "The stage is tilting," Rhys declares. "I feel like I'm on the edge of a precipice." With sweet melodies hailing from his Candylion and Hotel Shampoo albums and The Terror of Cosmic Loneliness, a "really heavy" album he made with a Brazilian TV repairman, no one else makes music like this. His wry commentary on foreign policy, Colonise the Moon, includes the line: "I vomited through your saxophone solo." He sings in Welsh and English, produces a sign requesting "APPLAUSE!" and is backed by bird song and malfunctioning electronic gadgets: a Welsh Nick Drake meets Mr Bean.

 

"Maybe I should sit down again and do another song," he chuckles as the sampler seizes up, so he plays the beautifully bittersweet Rubble Rubble. Then the organisers hand him a cake for his 41st birthday. Someone in the audience produces a tiny penknife and Rhys hacks into the cake determinedly, and shares it with the crowd.

 

Dave Simpson

 

 

Judas Priest - The Dome, Doncaster - 18 July 2011

 

In the DVD accompanying last year's reissue of Judas Priest's British Steel - the definitive heavy metal opus - the band discuss growing up breathing in fumes from the Black Country's steel industry, concluding: "We're all actually part 'eavy metal."

 

An, er, iron constitution would certainly explain why Birmingham's finest - formed in 1969 - have continued headbanging when contemporaries have long since settled down for cocoa. And yet, this is billed as their last major-scale tour. Guitarist KK Downing - who formed the band's famous twin lead guitar attack with Glen Tipton might have left the band suddenly, in April, but the Metal Gods will not be denied.

 

"Alroight Doncastah!" yells vocalist Rob Halford, now resembling a leather and studded Michael Eavis, before growling: "The Priest are back!"

 

What Halford calls "two and a quarter hours of "'eavy fucking metal" is a ludicrously entertaining romp of silver capes, lasers, flames, three-pronged forks shooting sparks, Harley Davidsons on stage, a Spinal Tap moment when the British Steel visuals fail to appear (leaving Halford spluttering: "Is it coming up or wot?") and the spectacle of 60-year old bassist Ian Hill, a grizzled warrior who may well have arrived on horseback straight from King Arthur's court.

 

And yet, for all their knowing ridiculousness, it's a radical metal band indeed who cover Joan Baez and Fleetwood Mac, flirt with reggae rhythms, and whose gay frontman sings Hell Bent for Leather sporting an outfit seemingly modelled on the biker character from the Village People.

 

"Would you like some more, Doncastah?" asks Halford, and Doncastah roars that it would, and a set of storming metal anthems ends with the classic Living After Midnight, which, of course, finishes by 11pm.

 

Dave Simpson

 

 

Amadou and Mariam - New Century Hall, Manchester - 18 July 2011

 

The biggest-selling act to have emerged from Africa this century first met at a school for the blind in Mali in the early 1970s. Subsequently married, Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia have since received support from the likes of Manu Chao and Damon Albarn, but this show - or rather "sensory experiment" - took place very much on their own terms. Part of the Manchester international festival, it was staged in total darkness, to the point at which it was impossible to see your hand in front of your face, let alone if the couple in the row in front were snogging (instances of which were later reported by the technical team keeping an eye on the action with night-vision goggles).

 

"If you cannot see, your sense of sound becomes richer," Amadou, who lost his sight because of a congenital cataract in childhood, explained in advance. "I want the audience to hear the music just as Mariam and I hear it."

 

Nor was it a straightforward gig; hence the theatrical title, Eclipse. Instead, pre-recorded sounds of street life in Bamako, Mali's capital, started the performance as different scents were pumped into the room, before a narrator began the tale of the pair's epic journey to date. Interspersed with this, the duo - plus seven-piece band - launched into their Afro-pop blues, plunging the (seated) crowd into the kind of experience Amadou had promised.

 

As a theatrical piece, the pacing might be fiddled with slightly, and the suspicion is that most of the crowd felt too inhibited by the dark to let their hair down as they might at a normal show, but it more than succeeded as an experiment. If Eclipse tours worldwide - as seems likely - an even wider range of fans will surely fall for the duo's vivid humanity.

 

Caspar Llewellyn Smith

 

 

Hurts - Somerset House, London - 15 July 2011

 

Manchester electro-duo Hurts are so in thrall to new-romantic stylishness that one review of last year's debut album, Happiness, suggested that even their gigs were probably "in monochrome". If they could have pulled it off, that's exactly what they would have done tonight: their stage show is an early-80s video brought to life, complete with female dancers who are here not to titillate but to add intrigue by drifting through angular catwalk poses.

 

If singer Theo Hutchcraft and synth-player Adam Anderson (who are aided on-stage by extra keyboards, guitar and strings) weren't too young to remember this stuff first-hand, you would suspect that their entire set was a send-up of late-period Ultravox's style-over-content electropop. Actually, that does Hurts a disservice, as it's obvious that thought and craftsmanship have been invested; every element, from lighting that subtly moves through the blue-purple spectrum to the intricate skein of piano that uncoils during Verona, shows skill and ambition. It's just that the areas where Hurts excel, such as their ability to create dramatic swathes of melody that need to be properly heard in an arena, are overshadowed by flourishes that apparently answer the question, "What would Midge Ure do?"

 

It's hard not to snicker at a band who transform Kylie's Confide in Me into sub-operatic hysteria, with Hutchcraft clutching his shirtfront imploringly, and it would take a saint not to laugh during Evelyn as he pounds the stage with the mic stand without dislodging a brilliantined hair.

 

Such heavily stylised earnestness may do for Hurts in the end. On the other hand, it may not, if fans continue to support them as avidly as this cheering crowd. There's something brave about their foolish determination to look back in time, and Hutchcraft's admission that they never thought they would be "playing somewhere so special" rings the right humility bells - so they could be in this for the long term.

 

Caroline Sullivan

 

 

Madeleine Peyroux - Barbican, London - 11 July 2011

 

Something curious happened around 15 minutes into this gig, the only UK performance by New York pop-jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux to promote her new album, Standing on the Rooftop. A couple sitting a few rows from the front got up and left, followed at intervals by several others, none ever to return. At £27.50 a ticket, the show was pricey enough to encourage people to stay to the end, no matter what they thought of the music, but evidently there was only so much silken understatement they were prepared to take.

 

Therein lies Peyroux's one real failing: her quirks and insecurities are funnelled into a presentation so tastefully smooth that 90 minutes of it feels as if you're sitting through the world's longest soft-furnishings ad. While sorrow and trouble inhabit her lyrics to the extent that she introduced the final number, Instead, as "my happy song at the end of the show, because you didn't expect it", her performance was predicated on airy vocalising backed by the unobtrusive plunk of a double bass and swish of brushes on snares. Occasionally, when lightly swinging understatement just wouldn't do, such as on Robert Johnson's Love in Vain, the unearthly skirl of a Hammond organ intruded, and Peyroux slowed to a spooked rasp. Diversions like that - another was La Javanaise, a hopelessly romantic duet in French with Swiss blues singer Sophie Hunger - zinged up the set no end. It would have been lovely if there had been more.

 

She's recently begun writing her own songs, and showcased several, including the whimsical Don't Pick a Fight with a Poet and Ophelia, which covered dark, PJ Harveyish territory. An ultra-breezy cover of Leonard Cohen's Dance Me to the End of Love, more or less her signature song, won the most applause, though, proving that glossiness has its place.

 

Caroline Sullivan

 

 

Candi Staton - Pavilion theatre, Manchester - 11 July 2011

 

Other Manchester international festival acts may push back more boundaries, but for sheer enjoyment it's hard to look further than Candi Staton. After beginning her visit by performing gospel for free in Manchester churches, here the veteran singer invests a secular set with such booty-shaking abandon it's hard to believe she is 71 years old. "You may think I'm silly, to love a man twice my age," she sings in 1969's I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart (Than A Young Man's Fool), and you suspect that if such a man exists he should be immediately given oxygen.

 

With her 1990s-era classic You Got The Love recently revived by Florence and the Machine, Staton's soul and disco has proved remarkably enduring. Nights On Broadway from 1977 is rendered so faithfully it's a wonder the audience don't actually start disco dancing, but otherwise she still seems to be forever reworking and reappraising. Her 1970 version of Tammy Wynette's Stand By Your Man - originally seen as a hymn to female subservience - now gets a post-feminist update. "He's yours, yes, all yours!" she informs the laydeez. But after four marriages, she still believes that "Life is about love", something which the chap filming her hot-panted dancer would concur.

 

Neither divorce nor betrayal nor the years lost to alcohol (which eventually led her to find salvation in the church) have withered her extraordinary voice, a soulful mix of euphoria and pain. You can hear the real life heartbreak in revealing little comments like, "That last [betrayal], that one hurt", but she seems to have found a life force in joie de vivre. Even Suspicious Minds - about mistrust and infidelity - becomes an incredible, communal singsong. With a superb band, including Style Council/Dexys organist Mick Talbot, following her every mood, you suspect she could reinvent Chopin's Death March as a knees-up.

 

"The chap who sang this sent me a note. I wish I still had it. I wouldn't be working, I'd be by the pool!" she confesses, candidly, before another Elvis Presley standard, In The Ghetto, which does sound more mournful.

 

As the clock passes the hour mark, and the band are waving towels in front of each other to cool down, there seems to be a touch more fragility in her voice. But even Manchester's stifling heat can't wilt her. There's a surreal moment as she coaxes pal David Gest up for You Got The Love. But a triumphant run through 1976 disco classic Young Hearts Run Free somehow sums up her indefatigable longevity - it's been reworked to declare "Young hearts ... like Candi."

 

Dave Simpson

 

 

Adele - Roundhouse, London - 10 July 2011

 

Dressed all in pleated black, with eyelashes the girth of caterpillars, the saviour of the music industry looks like a Victorian china doll tonight. Adele arrives onstage a couple of minutes after her disembodied voice. All fluttering hands and wittering humility, she takes her place primly next to the piano player for the remainder of "Hometown Glory", the capital ballad that ended her first album.

 

"You are the wonders of my world," she tells the phone-waving throng. It's hard to tell who swoons the hardest - the assembled Londoners, reeling parochially tonight from the news about the News Of The World, or the high proportion of people here with American accents, who may or may not have something to do with Apple, the organisers of this month of free summer gigs.

 

The Americans are possibly more excited, only because tonight's intimate gig at London's Roundhouse marks Adele's return to work; she was forced to cancel her entire US tour after contracting laryngitis (those dates have been rescheduled). The trans-atlantic superstar doesn't "do" festivals, or arenas, thus limiting the number of people who will actually see the year's biggest-selling artist in the flesh. Delight levels are correspondingly high tonight, with frequent outbursts of applause from the crowd in mid-song. And if there are residual cracks in Adele's pipes, you can't hear them: the word "hometown" easily wraps itself around the venue's lofting ironwork.

 

Seven months into the year, it seems beyond doubt that Adele will finish 2011 as its biggest seller. More heartening, though, is the recent news that overall US album sales are growing again for the first time since 2004, thanks in no small part to the 2.5m copies sold of Adele's second album, 21. It's a small bump - 3.6% up on last year - but a salient one in a world where albums are increasingly viewed as vestigial forms, rent asunder by track-by-track downloading. In the UK, Adele's debut, 19, released two years ago, is now the second highest selling album of 2011. A few months back, Adele complained about her eye-watering tax bill in an interview; that particular intake of breath, you feel, is only going to get sharper next January.

 

Adele has sold albums to people who don't normally buy albums (or at least that's the theory); her music appeals to people who don't normally bother with music. The wide appeal of her vintage heartbreak has been the making of Adele, and, at times, her undoing, as tonight's set swings from brilliance to schmaltz and back again.

 

There is no faulting her stagecraft. At first, the set is bare save for Adele's mic stand, her bar stool and the stand that holds her mug of tea. But black drapes soon fall away to reveal a band and two backing singers, playing in a lounge filled with wonky lampshades. The china doll soon transforms into a kind of pub landlady, making homely conversation in the beige upholstery; you half expect her miniature dachshund, Louis Armstrong, to trot onstage and curl up at her feet. She would really love a glass of wine, Adele confides, slurping tea.

 

Every encounter with the Tottenham-born, Brit Schooled singer must make reference to her high-speed chatter; tonight's outpouring seems more nervous than usual. She is frequently on the verge of happy tears. The matey chat is of Adele's infamous exes, of watching Beyoncé's performance at Glastonbury on TV and the pinch of her high heels.

 

As Adele visibly relaxes, she lets slip an expletive on the equivalent of live TV: this series of iTunes festival gigs are all being streamed online. She covers up with more chortling, and a series of covers. If Adele began her career as a pop-soul stylist, she has recently mined an affinity with another genre full of heartbreak: American country-pop. Her version of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" is nicely understated, but "If It Hadn't Been for Love" - originally by bluegrass outfit the Steeldrivers - feels just slightly hokey.

 

Pace really suits her. The encore of "Rolling in the Deep" is exhilarating tonight; the ballads, though, can easily meander into grand anonymity. "Don't You Remember" executes this exasperating manoeuvre particularly acutely, between verse (gripping) and chorus (blowsy).

 

There is no arguing with "Someone Like You", however. Since performing it at the Brits in February, the night's triumphant closer has taken Adele from mere success to total ubiquity (and the kind of stratospheric tax bills the Beatles used to write songs about). Encouraging the audience to sing the chorus is a time-honoured trick. At the end, Adele scurries off, barefoot, before emotion can get the better of her.

 

Kitty Empire

 

 

Eels - Somerset House, London - 8 July 2011

 

Life may have been hard on Mark Everett, but music has always come easy. As founder and vocalist of Eels, the man who styles himself "E" has chronicled a personal life that has included the deaths from cancer of both parents, the suicide of a sister and a painful divorce with emotional honesty and spectacular musical inventiveness.

 

Then touring Everett has unsurprisingly garnered a reputation as a master of the morose, but lately his spirits have apparently taken a turn for the better. On this tour, supposedly to push the Trilogy box set of his last three records, it's notable he plays nothing at all from End Times, his angst-laden 2010 break-up album, but dips heavily into its far more upbeat follow-up, Tomorrow Morning.

 

In fact Everett is in a decidedly chipper mood tonight. Hidden behind an Amish beard, shades and flat cap, like an art-rock Unabomber, and fronting a loyally similarly bearded six-piece band, he is palpably enjoying Eels' wilfully eclectic set. "That was marvellous!" he enthusiastically gushes after My Beloved Monster, a semi-funky paean to dysfunctional relationships.

 

Musically, he veers effortlessly from the ironic big-band swing of That's Not Really Funny, to Prizefighter's Dylan-esque blues, to lithe covers of two Sly Stone songs, Somebody's Watching You and Hot Fun in the Summertime. Amidst this newfound effervescence, Eels' 1996 debut single, Novocaine for the Soul, is an incongruous reminder that when he first emerged, Everett was widely perceived as a rival quirk-out auteur to Beck.

 

It's all rapturously received, although the mammoth 26-song set would test the stamina of all but the most devoted Eels disciple. Luckily for Everett, there are plenty of those in Somerset House tonight.

 

Ian Gittens

 

 

Death Cab for Cutie - Brixton Academy, London - 8 July 2011

 

Seattle's Death Cab for Cutie are the closest the 21st century has got to a pure, no-compromise indie rock success story. Sure, they signed to a major, but only after building their craft, REM-style, over four foggy, grunge-pop albums. Yes, they hit the US No 1 spot, but with songs about amorphous loss, emotional inertia, stalker-ish obsession and crumbling relationships.

 

 

True, singer Ben Gibbard married the indie-flick goddess Zooey Deschanel, but in their plaid shirts and specs they exhibit all the A-list glamour of a lumberjack poetry group.

 

 

"I've got a tinge of melancholy this evening," Gibbard announces before the rapt singalong of a solo I Will Follow You Into the Dark, their crossover song that resembles a delicate acoustic suicide pact. It's a bit like Billy Bragg saying he's feeling a tad let down by the Tories at the moment; Death Cab's brilliance is in conjuring hooks and atmospheres that transcend their intrinsic thematic gloom. They pile-drive through just such an opening salvo - The New Year chimes ferociously, Crooked Teeth bounds along on a trampoline groove and new track Doors Unlocked and Opened seems to freefall into its own chorus like a juggernaut into the Grand Canyon.

 

 

They're prone to letting the occasional number wallow, though: plodding rarities 405 and Title and Registration provide a mid-set slump, while clunkers Underneath the Sycamore and Home is a Fire prove new album Codes and Keys to be something of a water-treader. It can't last: jubilant country jig Stay Young, Go Dancing and a rapturous Sound of Settling resuscitate the gig in time for a euphoric encore of Marching Bands of Manhattan and Transatlanticism that can't even be marred by an incongruous cover of Ride's Twistarella. This is Death Cab firing on all cylinders, even if cruise control is currently engaged.

 

Mark Beaumont

 

 

Lou Reed - Hammersmith Apollo, London - 6 July 2011

 

As Lou Reed takes the stage, a male voice rings out: "I love you Lou!" Reed frowns. He cuts a slightly frail and tremulous figure these days, older than his 69 years, but advancing age certainly hasn't made his countenance any sunnier. "After all this time," he deadpans, "you must know that I love you too." The audience makes a strange noise in response, applause undercut with a kind of dry chuckle. It is a noise that speaks volumes about the lot of the Lou Reed fan: long nights spent listening to 80s albums featuring the sadly unforgettable sound of Reed rapping, gigs where Velvet Underground classics arrived accompanied by demonstrations of tai chi, interviews in which Reed elaborated on his symbiotic devotion to his fans: "It could be a zebra out there for all I care." It is a noise that says: pull the other one, mate.

 

If he does love his fans, he occasionally has a funny way of showing it, not least when he subjects them to his cover of John Lennon's Mother. It appears to grind on longer than the Beatles' career, and features Reed singing falsetto, a sound that will haunt you to the grave. Like Dylan, Reed's latterday vocal style exists in the grey area between rephrasing the lyrics to keep old songs fresh and just missing his cues and forgetting the words. The sensation that the latter is happening during Who Loves the Sun is rather compounded by the fact that Reed sings it while distractedly picking bits of something out of his guitar strap and flicking them on the floor.

 

Still, his band sound spectacular - there's a relentless, crushing power to their playing on Senselessly Cruel, a startling series of surges from delicacy to violence in their version of Ecstasy. They look spectacular, too, if you go for slightly panicked expressions: they keep casting them in the direction of Reed, who's clearly changing songs on the spot, snapping "play!" when he wants a musician to take a solo, shaking his head irritably when they do something he doesn't care for. During a particularly stinging solo on Waves of Fear, he turns to his guitarist, his face contorted into a terrifying grimace. What's his problem? It sounds amazing. It slowly becomes apparent that Lou Reed is actually smiling. The audience rise in an ovation, as people who realise they're witnessing an entirely unique event are wont to do.

 

Alex Petridis

 

 

Roger Daltrey -The Sage, Gateshead - 5 July 2011

 

Like music's answer to Monty Python's Black Knight, Roger Daltrey is battling on regardless despite being parted from his "limbs". Without Keith Moon and John Entwistle (and tinnitus-suffering Pete Townshend, for the time being at least) here he is, a sprightly 67, fronting a marathon performance of the band's 1969 rock opera, Tommy. "This isn't the Who," he begins, mug of tea in hand. "But I just love our music. It's really original and deserves to be heard."

 

It's difficult to argue. Townshend's pioneering opus - the story of the "deaf, dumb and blind" Pinball Wizard - has its flaws, but remains an absorbing rollercoaster of theatre and heavy rock. With his brother Simon replicating his parts (and nose) perfectly, the ambitious production sounds exactly like the record, but louder. Stunning visuals make it a surprisingly psychedelic experience, and of course, Pinball Wizard, I'm Free and the rest threaten to separate the roof from the building.

 

Daltrey may forget the occasional lyric - "Senior moment! I'm allowed" - but, after Tommy, works like a curator, dusting off gems the Who haven't played in 30 years (Pictures of Lily, the sublime Tattoo) or (Going Mobile, Blue, Red and Grey, on ukelele) never played at all.

 

Young Man Blues - about how the old should make way for the young - has an obvious irony, but Daltrey explains that he has to keep performing, "or else my voice will go, and I love singing", and his chops haven't sounded this powerful in years. With the clock approaching the three-hour mark, you fear he will have to be wrestled from the stage. He's certainly a trouper.

 

Dave Simpson

 

 

Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells - Platform, Glasgow - 5 July 2011

 

Dressed in khaki shorts and loose white shirt, streaks of silver in his beard, Aidan Moffat's feeling his age tonight. "I've got a sair back from touring, years of bending down picking up bottles," grumbles Falkirk's vulgar versifier with the dry wit of a wisecracking club singer.

 

The Mercury prize panel should look no further for its outsider pick this year than Everything's Getting Older, the former Arab Strap frontman's collaboration with Bill Wells, a skilful jazz multi-instrumentalist who has made his home amid the Scottish indie community, working with the likes of Isobel Campbell and the Pastels. Setting Moffat's half-spoken, half-sung laments to mournful piano and muted trumpet, their songs are a revelation realised here with a tumbledown grace that not even the double-bass player snapping a string can thwart. "One less fee to pay," quips Moffat.

 

Penned as he approaches 40, the career inebriate's words unfold like short stories reflecting wistfully and humorously on mid-life as a pint glass half-full. Binges, brawls and bonking are familiar subjects for Moffat, but he approaches them with a sharpened tongue - set to a sampled lounge-funk groove, Glasgow Jubilee unflinchingly describes an interlinking stream of sad sexual trysts in which Moffat's "lonely solipsist" is cast aside just like every other character. Life's great immutabilities are newer themes. Set after a funeral, the twinkling The Copper Top could draw a tear from a corpse with its bittersweet observation "birth, love and death: the only reasons to get dressed up", while The Greatest Story Ever Told's gentle invitation to not be overwhelmed by our inherent insignificance in the universe is shrewdly uplifting.

 

If there's a message, it's to embrace life in its totality while you still can: its triumphs, its tragedies, its ribald idiosyncrasies. "This one," says Moffat as he introduces a new song come the encore, "is about dressing up as a vicar and shagging someone at a party."

 

Malcolm Jack

 

 

Gregg Allman - Barbican, London - 5 July 2011

 

Gregg Allman had a liver transplant just over a year ago and faces further surgery this summer, but you would never have guessed it. With his hair in a ponytail and dressed in jeans and denim shirt, he sat behind his Hammond B-3 organ singing with the soulful, easy-going enthusiasm that he first demonstrated with the Allman Brothers Band back in the early 70s. He may be famous for his once-wild lifestyle and six wives, but at 63 Allman is a survivor on a winning streak, celebrating the success of his first solo album in 14 years.

 

Low Country Blues includes no-nonsense versions of songs by his early blues heroes; but here he re-explored his own history. Along with his brilliant guitarist brother Duane, killed in a motorbike accident almost 40 years ago, he shook up the US music scene by mixing blues, country and soul with the new southern rock style.

 

He started and ended the set with Allman Brothers songs, including several of his own compositions, spurred on by an impressive eight-piece band and a wildly enthusiastic crowd. He concentrated on music, not showmanship, and songs from the new album including a Hammond-backed treatment of Amos Milburn's slow and pained Tears, Tears, Tears, and a switch to electric guitar for the upbeat Muddy Waters blues I Can't Be Satisfied. There was a ragged treatment of Jackson Browne's These Days, but he recovered for an extended workout on Dreams, which developed into a blues-rock-jazz improvisation for keyboards and brass, and a gutsy finale of another early Allman Brothers favourite, Blind Willie McTell's Statesboro Blues. And he still sounded like the old Gregg Allman.

 

Robin Denselow

 

 

Foo Fighters - Milton Keynes Bowl - 4 July 2011

 

Astonishingly, 20 years after Nevermind, Nirvana's backroom boy is leader of one of the world's biggest hard rock bands. This weekend, Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters played to 130,000 people at Milton Keynes, but their set was as much a confirmation of their current standing as a celebration of their 17-year history, featuring numerous songs from new album Wasting Light, which went to No 1 across most of the world.

 

It's clear Grohl has been galvanised by the album's success: the energy of his performance is infectious, and during the opening song, Bridge Burning, he is already charging across the stage, grinning from ear to ear. No matter if the metal boogie of Rope is old-fashioned: it connects with the audience, as does Grohl's persona, blue-collar good blokeishness emanating from every pore.

 

But at the same time, Foo Fighters couldn't be less dangerous, and nor do they have, despite their enormity, any cultural traction. It's telling that Grohl brings onstage, for Dear Rosemary, Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü (one of several guests tonight - Seasick Steve and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones make cameos during the first encore), a band who enjoyed a fraction of Foos' sales, but will always be more significant. As Grohl tells the crowd: "We wouldn't be here right now if it weren't for Bob."

 

He says the same thing a few songs later when he introduces Butch Vig, producer of Nevermind and Wasting Light. Still, Vig's appearance makes a powerful point: Grohl's two career peaks may be two decades apart, and the first of them may have been fronted by a man whose iconic status he can never hope to match, but for sheer grizzled consistency, he outstrips Kurt Cobain. When Grohl roars on Walk, "I never wanna die!", an obvious counterpoint to Nirvana's I Hate Myself and Want to Die, he seems to finally step out from his late bandmate's shadow, and you wonder how many of the younger people here tonight would think, "Kurt who?"

 

Paul Lester

 

 

Sinéad O'Connor - Festival Pavilion, Manchester - 3 July 2011

 

You might say Sinéad O'Connor has an obsession with the Pope. In 1992, she tore his picture in half on Saturday Night Live. Here, she opens a three-night Manchester international festival residency with the harrowing Take Off Your Shoes, her latest assault on the Vatican. Cheekily, she admits that she can't resist dedicating The Last Day of Our Acquaintance to you-know-who: "He deserves it."

 

Otherwise, this is a very different O'Connor from the shaven-headed rebel who has thrice retired from music, and declared herself lesbian, then decided she prefers "hairy blokes". A trouser-suited mother of four with a wavy bob, she is initially so nervous she is shaking, but relaxes after quipping, "This is dedicated to the woman who ditched Wotsisface [Hugh Hefner] from the Playboy house," she shrieks. As for sex with Hef? "I'd rather be a monk!"

 

The house erupts, but moments later is stunned by a glasscutter a capella of 1990's I Am Stretched on Your Grave. The residency also premieres the 44-year-old's forthcoming comeback album, Home. With a great band and a guitar "that will wake the focken dead", VIP catchily blasts pop stars who "get their picture taken with the Pope" - yes, him again. Reason With Me is a stunningly beautiful, empathic song about addiction.

 

The classic Nothing Compares 2 U sounds like she is singing it for the first time, not the 400th. Motherhood and treatment for bipolar disorder hasn't dulled her intensity, but she's having fun, whether joking about her succession of boyfriends and husbands, or revealing that her youngest has nicknamed her "the pot-bellied pig".

 

Dave Simpson

 

 

Björk: Biophilia - Manchester international festival - 3 July 2011

 

In the Victorian era, scientific endeavour often doubled as performance art. New inventions and recently harnessed natural processes were routinely demonstrated to audiences. Even autopsies were public events. Björk is the sort of polymath who might have felt right at home back then.

 

Set in the round inside a former Victorian market hall, the Icelandic singer's latest project - Biophilia - feels less like a traditional gig, and more of a demonstration of whizz-bang musicological ideas. "Thunderbolt" - the first of eight arresting new songs she plays tonight - is punctuated by the crackling trumps of a Tesla coil, its gloriously menacing synth sounds playing off against Björk's otherworldly vocals.

 

Locked in a cage, it looks like the sort of thing that reanimated Frankenstein's monster. Indeed, Björk herself is sporting the kind of kinky afro that suggests she's been licking sockets. Lest we forget, this high-concept artist was laying eggs on red carpets back when Lady Gaga was still at convent school. She is no stranger to innovation. Recently, Björk's contract with One Little Indian (her label since the early 90s) ended, and Björk very nearly signed a deal with National Geographic in order to count sharks and lemurs as labelmates.

 

Just next to the Tesla coil is a "sharpsichord", another specially built, Heath Robinsonesque structure that weds a pin barrel organ to two enormous, flower-like ear trumpets, the kind of thing the Victrola dog used to sit next to. In the far corner, meanwhile, is Biophilia's "gameleste" - a celesta rebuilt with brass to mimic the sounds of the south-east Asian gamelan.

 

The presence of the 21st century can be felt tonight as well, thanks to the iPad that Björk plays on "Dark Matter". Musical director Matt Robertson, meanwhile, orchestrates digitals and unleashes penetrating sub-bass, while eight giant flat-screen TVs play out themed visual accompaniments to each track. In one, hyperreal sea creatures consume the body of a dead seal; in another, we zoom in past platelets and white blood cells to watch the entwining dance of some rather bling chains of DNA. Three years in the making, Biophilia itself will be released in the autumn as a series of apps, each with multiple levels of engagement combining art, science, gaming and - yes - music. The new titles tend to be short and factual: "Hollow", "Virus". Mostly avoiding traditional beats and structures, Björk's latest songs lean more towards the forbidding end of her spectrum, with atonal systems music to the fore on the stark "Moon". If Volta was Björk's version of a mainstream world-dance album, Biophilia provides relatively few opportunities for the casual Gudmundsdottir neophyte. Chief among these is the lovely "Crystalline", a single (of sorts) with a recognisable chorus and melody. Throughout, Björk's voice plays off against the 25-strong Icelandic female vocal choir, dressed in electric blue and gold tonight.

 

If this heady symposium of life sciences, ethnomusicology and Apple-branded geekery all seems rather forbidding, comfort is at hand. The soothing tones of David Attenborough provide a preamble tonight; his disembodied voice periodically pops back to introduce the new tracks, raising a Pavlovian feeling of cosiness every time. Getting Attenborough to intone things such as "Cosmogony... music of the spheres... equilibrium," is a fabulous coup that is never quite equalled as the show goes on.

 

Perhaps unfairly, you are expecting something spectacular near the end that will top caged lightning and the voice of God. But two hours pass in which the weird science gradually takes a back seat to the music. Every so often, as with the jazz'n'bass breakdown at the end of "Crystalline" or a rousing, tribal take on "Where Is the Line", Biophilia's unveiling threatens to tip over into a rave in a lab, but never quite does. There are old songs here - a superb "Isobel", an enchanting "All Is Full of Love" - rearranged for the new instruments. Four giant computer-interfaced pendulums swing and create sounds towards the end, on songs such as the geologically themed "Mutual Core".

 

Biophilia, then, feels like the logical nesting place for a number of bees that have been buzzing around in Björk's headdresses for some time. As long ago as 2001, she and Californian experimentalists Matmos were generating live rhythms sampled from the human body. The interplay of machine-generated sounds and the natural power of the human voice has always been a constant in her work, explored extensively on 2004's Medúlla.

 

Kitty Empire