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November 2011 Gig Reviews.

 

 

m83  M83 - Heaven, London - 30 November 2011

 

The disparity between the way M83 leader Anthony Gonzalez looks (like he should be modelling Calvin Klein underwear) and the way he sounds (epic) is one of several things that make his electropop band distinctive. A Cannes native now based in Los Angeles, he's currently touring his fourth album, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, which takes the grandiosity of the Smashing Pumpkins' 1995 album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness as a mere launching point.

 

At this one-off UK show, however, the Pumpkins aren't the first comparison that springs to mind. With its emphasis on waves of synths that build to theatrical crescendos, it's more reminiscent of something you might have witnessed by Ultravox circa 1980, a perception heightened by the visuals, which are heavy on columns of chilly blinking lights. A live drummer boosts the bombast a further notch, and Gonzalez, who plays guitar and sings yappily, adds additional layers of sleek noise. It's quite a change from the last time I saw M83, in 2005, when introverted, effects-drenched shoegaze was the order of the day. Tonight, the quartet strive to be monumental.

 

Tunefulness is no longer out of the question, either. What links the eight songs played from Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is choruses that wouldn't sound out of place blaring from a car radio. Midnight City seems to have been written with that in mind: as it reaches its triumphal apex, keyboardist Morgan Kibby switches to saxophone and produces a squawking counter-melody that will get the song a berth on future drivetime compilation LPs. Reunion, which sees Gonzalez ditching his Gallic reserve and clawing the air with delight, is another 80s throwback, though this time the reference point is Simple Minds' stadium period. The show-closing Couleurs is a monster of a raveup from 2008, but it's M83's present and future that are more interesting.

 

 

Deep Purple - Manchester Arena - 30 November 2011

 

In 1969, Deep Purple recorded the loftily titled Concerto for Group and Orchestra, which tends to be regarded as either an innovative fusion of rock and classical music, or an epic, pretentious folly: one of the key inspirations behind Spinal Tap. Thirty-one years later, they have recruited the Frankfurt New Philharmonic to help play their classics, or, as the title of this tour would have it, The Songs That Built Rock.

 

However, this Purple are a very different creature to the more earnest rockers of their youth. With Jon Lord and Ritchie Blackmore having left to pen concertos and become a mandolin-playing wizard respectively, the current lineup are middle-aged men who are not above sending themselves up, and are having a hoot.

 

Frontman Ian Gillan, no longer possessing enough hair to coat a wild animal, knowingly unveils a tiny six-inch gong (a la Spinal Tap) to titters from the 38-piece orchestra. Moments later, he's dancing like a drunken uncle trying to coax a young violinist into a quick one behind the kettle drums, and trying to keep a straight face during the outrageously lewd Knocking at Your Back Door, which rhymes "hit list" with "cunning linguist".

 

The orchestra enjoy the fun, waving their bows in the air during the sillier bits of an extended organ solo from Don Airey, who Gillan informs us "descended from Mount Olympus". And yet, tomfoolery aside, they give the likes of Highway Star and Black Night a new sense of drama. Superbly conducted, the musicians know just when to swoop in, and when to let the evergreen hard rockers have their wicked way. Space Truckin' rocks ferociously, Hush sounds symphonically psychedelic. Best of all is Smoke on the Water, accompanied by footage of what looks like a giant living-flame gas fire. It's such a stupidly enjoyable fusion of rock and classical music you half expect the violinists to set their instruments ablaze.

 

 

Zappa Plays Zappa - Barbican, London - 30 November 2011

 

Frank Zappa was one of the harder of musical tastes to acquire. A determined contrarian, before his death in 1993 he recorded close on 80 albums of music that melded intricate progressive rock, ferocious avant jazz, demented time signatures and pun-heavy surrealist lyrical musings delivered with a supercilious sneer.

 

It must be even harder to love such a man if he has bestowed upon you the name Dweezil, but after early career spells as a heavy metal guitarist, an MTV VJ and a sitcom actor, Zappa's loyal son has dedicated his professional life to preserving his father's musical legacy. Hence this tour, in which his eight-piece band performs choice cuts from Zappa Sr's back catalogue.

 

The evening's centrepiece is a performance in full of Zappa's 1974 album Apostrophe ('), which spawned his sole hit single, Don't Eat the Yellow Snow. Synchronised audio/video technology allows Frank to join in with the jam as a giant screen above the stage plays ancient concert footage of him picking through the whimsical key changes of Cosmik Debris as his son's band noodle beneath him.

 

It's an original format, but one that unfortunately emphasises the personality vacuum on stage. Dweezil on guitar is a benign but unremarkable presence, and over-emoting vocalist Ben Thomas lacks the deadpan charisma Frank ladled over musical essays such as Montana, Stinkfoot and What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?

 

It's a spasmodically engaging evening, but the fact remains that we are effectively watching a tribute band lent added credibility by a familial relationship. Frank Zappa was a one-off, and maybe it would be best to leave things that way.

 

 

Sinead O'Connor - St John at Hackney, London - 28 November 2011

 

When Sinead O'Connor topped charts across the globe with her version of Prince's Nothing Compares 2U in 1990, the music world appeared hers for the taking. Since then, her career has traversed so many wrong turns and dead ends that she enters 2012 residing firmly in the Where Are They Now? file.

 

Many of her travails have been down to her tortured relationship with organised religion. It's safe to assume that a gig in a church holds more significance for O'Connor than for most artists. She is, after all, the woman who ripped up a photo of the Pope on American TV, was ordained as a priest by a minor, non-Rome-affiliated Irish Catholic church, and carries a huge tattoo of Christ in a crown of thorns on her chest.

 

Nevertheless, she keeps between-song comments to a minimum at this Mencap-sponsored Little Noise Sessions show, reasoning it best to do so "in case I get Tourettes". Burlier than the elfin waif of 20 years ago, she cuts a striking figure in an all-leather outfit of black trousers, waistcoat and calf-length coat, her head once again clean shaven.

 

She is promoting her first album in five years, What About I Be Me (And You Be You), which is out next February and is her most commercial in a decade. In truth, this is not a large claim - her last record, Theology, peaked at No 157 and its predecessor was an album of reggae covers - but O'Connor sounds on form, focused and fervent again.

 

Unfortunately, a muddy sound mix overpowers many of the new songs here, but it can't obscure Take Off Your Shoes' opening line, aimed at her old bugbear, the Vatican: "I plead the blood of Jesus over you/ And over every fucking thing you do." Equally vivid are 4th & Vine, a twitchy and disingenuous love song, and Reason With Me, sung from the perspective of a junkie.

 

She dedicates I Am Stretched on Your Grave to the late Wales football manager Gary Speed, while Nothing Compares 2U remains a colossal emotional and vocal tour de force. Equally involving is new song What Is a Real VIP?, which imagines Bono arriving at the Pearly Gates to be refused entry for his overweening hubris. O'Connor remains as fascinating, as frustrating, and as thorny as the Christ on her breast.

 

 

Goldfrapp - St John at Hackney, London - 27 November 2011

 

Some artists treat shows in churches as normal gigs, others discover previously unsuspected reservoirs of propriety and decorum. For this Mencap-sponsored gig in the Little Noise Sessions, which have transferred from Islington's Union Chapel to this Hackney church, Goldfrapp have forsaken their usual sexed-up electro-pop for a positively chilled-out serenity.

 

Eschewing her trademark dominatrix gear and peacock tails, kohl-eyed singer Alison Goldfrapp is understated and demure in a floor-length plain black dress and Heidi plaits. The occasion has even prompted a rare on-stage appearance from the other half of the duo, reclusive studio alchemist Will Gregory, who sits at a keyboard flanked by backing singers and a string section.

 

The evening's semi-acoustic format leaves no place for most of the band's electro-stomp singles, and they play nothing at all from their last album, 2010's Head First. Instead, they major on material from 2008's Seventh Tree, playing all but one track from an album that found them channelling a bucolic, luxuriant strain of folk.

 

It's hardly Goldfrapp Unplugged - Gregory's thrumming synth pulse still runs through everything - but it is quietly lovely. The ambient dream-pop of A&E and Clowns is ethereal and unsettling. Goldfrapp is in fine voice, veering from a sultry murmur on the trip-hop-inclined Cologne Cerrone Houdini to a startling soprano on old song Utopia. The sole new track, Melancholy Sky, is a skeletal and pensive John Barry-like reverie that implies their forthcoming album may tend towards the elegantly introspective. It is a tantalising prospect: maybe Goldfrapp should go to church more often.

 

 

Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland - St John-at-Hackney church, London - 25 November 2011

 

During the opening chords of The Scientist, the tinkles from the balcony become too much. Chris Martin stops the song, picks out the woman rattling a tambourine and launches a characteristically good-humoured rant about how "this isn't a tambourine song", how Coldplay have "played it for 10 years without a tambourine on it" and hoping she's not "from the Daily Star and going to fuck me over tomorrow". If this were a Van Morrison gig, someone would be receiving a tambourine suppository by now, but for Martin - though with tongue rammed stoutly in cheek - it's still the mock-meltdown of his career.

 

Not the usual between-song banter at a charity acoustic gig in a church, then - part of Mencap's Little Noises Sessions - but it adds to the wit, warmth and intimacy of an enchanted evening. The casual Coldplay listener will claim they're the beigest band in Britain. Nonsense. Witness their album-based forays into krautrock and electronica, the ribbon-festooned revolutionary outfits of 2008 and some of the most dazzling stadium and festival sets in living memory. If the beige-sayers were right, a bog-standard, polished acoustic trawl through their big ballads tonight would illuminate their inherent blandness like a sea flare. Instead, a clearly underprepared Martin and Buckland conduct an open rehearsal on electric guitar and piano, full of bum chords and knockabout charm.

 

Crucially, the pair don't handle their songs like delicate relics but toss them about like stickle bricks, stopping to remember key changes, perform random beatboxing or get the boisterous crowd to sing backing vocals.

 

Clocks gradually accelerates towards a key-smashing climax. What Yellow loses in bluster it makes up for in mournful import. If Viva la Vida and Violet Hill lack their usual tub-thumping dynamics, instead they're brim full of melodic enchantment and singalong pomp. And both The Scientist and Fix You, stripped bare and full of heart, give the walls goosebumps.

 

"This whole concert's gone to shit," Martin chuckles to Buckland as Every Teardrop is a Waterfall breaks down amid more distraction from their tin-tapping nemesis. More nonsense; it's been like watching the magic happen.

 

 

The Ting Tings - King's College, London - 23 November 2011

 

By the time the Ting Tings' new album appears in February, it will be nearly four years since their chart-topping debut, We Started Nothing, a gap that has given us all ample time to forget all about them. During those years, the Manchester duo recorded and scrapped an entire record, and now, with a new LP finally ready to go, are testing the water with a small-venue tour. They'll be glad to know that ticket touts still consider them worth a punt; there were three outside King's College, which isn't bad for a band whose last single, Hands, only reached No 29.

 

The tour was launched with a stunt: art students were invited to create clothes or videos for them, with the best displayed at each venue. Disappointingly, there was no such display here; it would have been interesting to see what kind of art was inspired by a group renowned for a particularly yelpy, reductive form of punk-pop. And yelpy they were tonight, thanks to frontwoman Katie White. Shouting, scraping at a guitar and shuddering from blond head to trainered toe, she was complemented by the saturnine Jules De Martino, who banged drums, guitar and keyboards. Together, they were crudely effective, figuratively elbowing you in the chest with the opening torpedo of Great DJ and Fruit Machine.

 

Further into the set, though, the benefit of taking time off became clear. New tracks Hang It Up, Silence and Guggenheim were more sophisticated, with dark layers built from drum and bass loops, and, on Guggenheim, a half-spoken narrative thread reminiscent of Patti Smith's Horses. Older songs, too, were infused with fresh blood. We Walk and That's Not My Name were extended and fruitfully exploited for their previously unexplored funk potential. How about that? These old Tings are capable of interesting new things.

 

 

Gillian Welch - Manchester Apollo - 23 November 2011

 

They have a saying in Tennessee that good things can't be hurried. It certainly applies to the Nashville-based songwriter and country-folk icon Gillian Welch, who spent eight years composing her current album, The Harrow & the Harvest, a set of songs so dark and skeletal they might have tumbled out of an ancient, Appalachian closet. Welch's writing and performing partner, Dave Rawlings, has described the record as "10 different types of sad"; and it follows that the duo's live show offers 10 different forms of downbeat.

 

The songs, performed on acoustic guitar and banjo, are pared down to subsistence level. The sole element of staging is that the pair have brought their own rug. And few performers so doggedly underplay their material. "This next one's kind of a downer," Rawlings mumbles, his features obscured by a large Stetson. "It starts off slow then fizzles out altogether."

 

Such relentless self-depreciation might pall very quickly were it not for the sheer quality of the songcraft. Welch has an uncanny ability to make freshly minted archaisms sound plausible, while the seven sublime minutes of their signature number, Time (the Revelator), seem to suspend time altogether as Rawling's wiry guitar improvisation approaches modal jazz before returning by a back route with mud on its boots. Welch's keening alto is an enchantment itself, while her exuberant display of hamboning (the traditional Appalachian art of thigh-slapping) brings the house down. "It's a real ice-breaker," she smiles. That she chooses to be on stage for more than 90 minutes before breaking the ice is entirely typical. Good things come to those who wait.

 

 

Other Lives - Brighton Audio - 23 November 2011

 

On record, Other Lives have a spectacularly luscious and vivid sound: almost every rave review of their second album, Tamer Animals, reached for the adjective "cinematic" to describe the richness of its arrangements. It's remarkable stuff that you suspect will ultimately reach a far wider audience than the small crowd huddled around Audio's tiny stage tonight, but it's also the kind of album that makes you wonder how on earth the Oklahoma quintet propose to reproduce it live.

 

As they wander unassumingly on stage - they clearly share not only something of Fleet Foxes' vocal harmonies but also their rigorous approach to personal grooming - the answer becomes immediately apparent: by a fairly remarkable display of multi-tasking. The drummer carries a clarinet. The opening number alone requires Josh Onstott to switch between guitar, trumpet and violin. Over at the other side of the stage, Jenny Hsu variously plays keyboards, glockenspiel, cello, what looks like a dulcimer and what appears to be a selection of antlers with bells attached.

 

On the one hand, it occasionally looks like some kind of world-record attempt. On the other, the overall effect is astonishing. It's not so much that they recreate the album's sound live, but that they actually increase its power. Frontman Jesse Tabish's voice sounds stronger than on record, as resonant and careworn as their melodies. The fact that their songs draw on a far wider range of sources than the folky Americana they tend to be lumped in with becomes more apparent, as does their similarity to Tabish's favourites Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

 

Old Statues is rooted equally in Ennio Morricone's spaghetti-western soundtracks and the melodramatic mid-60s pop arrangements of Gene Pitney: tonight, the song suddenly achieves a kind of vertical takeoff midway through: surging and surging upwards. In response, the audience achieve a kind of vertical takeoff, too: previously respectfully enthusiastic, they go nuts, which seems to catch Tabish off guard. He mutters something about the support act being better than them, and how Other Lives need to practise more. With the best will in the world, it really doesn't sound like it.

 

 

Shaun Ryder - Tokyo, Lincoln - 21 November 2011

 

After Happy Mondays and Black Grape "reunions" that lacked most of the personnel, the autobiography, and eating crocodile penis in the Celebrity jungle, you wonder what will constitute Shaun Ryder's next attempt to restore his former glories. First, we have a solo comeback in intimate regional nightclubs. "Did anyone buy my book?" asks Ryder, to near silence. "Fuckin' 'ell. I was gonna be signing some but they haven't turned up." Still, clean and sober, he is in better humour - and voice - than in many of the Mondays years. Opener Kinky Afro offers a reminder of why Tony Wilson compared Ryder's addled street poetry to Yeats, although the famous line "Son, I'm 30, I only went with yer mother cos she's dirty" really needs updating to rhyme "50" with "thrifty" nowadays.

 

Neither crack, heroin or crocodile penis has impaired Ryder's ability to pen one-liners. The new, Roots Manuva-ish Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Wit (which he somehow makes sound very rude) rhymes "Winnebago" with "baked potato" and includes the wonderful couplet "Everyone I know is on some kind of pill/ Most of my friends are mentally ill." It would be nice to hear more. Alas, Ryder returns to a greatest hits comfort zone, although there are few more surreal sights than him singing to middle-aged men dancing like Bez.

 

When a young man insults his lessened status by waving a tenner at him the response is unprintable. But the indefatigable, incorrigible singer soon cheers up. Ending a still-sublime Step On by shaking everybody's hand, it seems that whatever he does, someone, somewhere will always want to see it.

 

 

lana_del_rey  Lana Del Rey - Scala, London - 17 November 2011

 

Lana Del Rey may become the most recognised stage name since fellow New Yorker Lady Gaga, but it's just as possible it will end up filed away alongside Little Boots. In a career that has so far produced just one official track, the top 10 single Video Games, it's too early to tell. For the moment, the artist born Elizabeth Grant is the most talked-about newcomer of 2011, and her London debut was carpeted with hipsters, some of them tweeting opinions well before she set foot on stage.

 

Del Rey has been around for several years, but it wasn't until her management changed her name to better fit her retro-noir image that she began to attract the storm of media attention that currently engulfs her. She's already been the subject of think-pieces debating her genuineness, and her lyrics - which portray her, song after song, as poleaxed by heartbreak - have been thoroughly dissected. On stage, though, the woman who inspires such analysis was a blank canvas.

 

Visually, she lived up to expectations: tall and elegant, with old-Hollywood auburn waves, she was quintessentially American, though her America is defined by crepuscular creepiness crossed with nostalgia for the Rat Pack 60s. If Mad Men had been directed by Hitchcock, Del Rey would have had the starring role. The intriguing - or troubling - thing tonight was that she was as passive as a Hitchcock heroine. Consumed by self-consciousness, she barely spoke except to apologise for the brevity of the eight-song set.

 

Perhaps she simply had nothing to say, but it made you wonder how much of the real Lizzy Grant inhabits her tormented songs. Perhaps it doesn't matter, because the show was really something. As she dreamily sang, screens showed grainy footage of some of the pillars of the "Del Rey" persona: Elvis, Vegas, 60s paparazzi. Her four-man group could have been David Lynch's house band; they were all brushed drums and, on Blue Jeans, sinister twanginess. It was powerfully atmospheric. If it occasionally felt like a stylish film set, Del Rey's delivery dispelled the idea that the whole thing was just a pose. Imploring "I could be your china doll" and "It's you, it's you, it's all for you", she sounded not just broken, but numb.

 

Video Games, slow and mournful, was the crowdpleaser, but the country lament Radio and the tense, half-rapped You Can Be the Boss - the latter supporting her claim to be "the gangsta Nancy Sinatra" - were even more affecting. There's something real, and rather special, here.

 

 

The Cure - Royal Albert Hall, London - 16 November 2011

 

Few bands have had such a fan-pleasing middle age as the Cure. With or without a new album to promote, Robert Smith and his crew sporadically go on the road with hit-heavy sets and endless encores. To paraphrase Linda Evangelista, they won't get out of bed for a set shorter than three hours. So while most bands recreate one classic album, it's entirely in character for the Cure to opt for a chronological trilogy.

 

The sequence illustrates the startling speed of their musical evolution. During the best songs from their 1979 debut, Three Imaginary Boys, they are a taut punk trio, but the weaker moments puzzle Smith himself. "Even I don't know where that one came from," he says after Meathook. The album feels like a pencil sketch next to the shifting watercolours of Seventeen Seconds, whose highlights, Play for Today and A Forest, prompt the first big cheers of the night. Faith marks another leap forward: a perversely comforting ode to silence, distance, passivity and defeat, which holds the crowd spellbound.

 

Having built such morbid momentum, it's a shame they let it dissipate during the encores with an overly completist dedication to under-rehearsed B-sides and a misjudged finale of lightweight singles such as The Love Cats. Had they used that final hour to play 1982's infernal masterpiece Pornography instead, the night could have been extraordinary.

 

But Smith admits he's "a stickler for moving through the past slowly". Having invited back original drummer and keyboardist Lol Tolhurst, who left the band in bitter circumstances in 1989, to play these shows, Smith is in a fond and reflective mood, dropping in goofy, self-effacing comments. "It appears I can't play the blues in any way, shape or form," he says after some ropey harmonica on Splintered in Her Head. Perhaps it's unreasonable to demand that the Cure sustain the same fraught intensity of their fruitfully dysfunctional youth. They may restage the past brilliantly, but they cannot be expected to relive it.

 

 

Smashing Pumpkins - Brixton Academy, London - 16 November 2011

 

In the recent rush to laud the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind, it was understandably overlooked that 1991 also saw the release of Smashing Pumpkins' debut, Gish. Yet the Pumpkins were always unlikely grunge bedfellows: the only thing Billy Corgan shared with Kurt Cobain was solipsism.

 

Having split in 2000, the Pumpkins reformed six years later. Now, with autocratic singer and guitarist Corgan the sole remaining original member, they are engaged in a typically convoluted project. They are making a 44-track concept album, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, inspired by the Tarot, with each individual track to be released as a free download as soon as it is completed.

 

This new material is scattered throughout tonight's epic set, and merely confirms that the Pumpkins' default musical formula of wildly overblown progressive rock and mildly psychedelic sludge metal remains unaltered. Typical is Oceania, a fearfully portentous sub-Led Zeppelin workout that vanishes up its own tuneless fundament in a welter of self-importance.

 

The band's musicianship is masterful, but Corgan's vocal is a maddening, truculent whine in which he contrives ever more elaborate and baroque ways to convey his preening, non-specific angst. As a tortured artist, the self-satisfied frontman simply never convinces, with his blatantly stratospheric ego rendering ridiculous lines such as Geek USA's "Alone and unhappy, I never liked me anyway".

 

After a gruelling two-hour set, Smashing Pumpkins return with a kinetic, propulsive encore of Zero and Bullet With Butterfly Wings that shows just how thrilling this band can be when they cut the crap. Sadly, that just isn't their way.

 

 

Alison Krauss and Union Station - Royal Festival Hall, London - 14 November 2011

 

Alison Krauss wears her celebrity lightly. A refreshingly unassuming performer, she came on stage clutching her fiddle as if she was appearing at a bluegrass festival back in the midwest, and after just one song stepped back to work as an accompanist, handing over the vocals to guitarist Dan Tyminski. It's an easygoing approach that has helped to bring her, and the excellent Union Station, unprecedented success as they have steadily edged away from those bluegrass roots to create a massively commercial country-pop-folk fusion.

 

Now, at the age of 41, after a 26-year career (she was a teenage protege), Krauss has notched up a remarkable 26 Grammys, including those she received for Raising Sand, recorded with Robert Plant. No surprise, then, that she has completely sold out her four-night run at the Festival Hall. Much of the concert was devoted to songs from Paper Airplane, her first new album with Union Station in seven years, mixed with reminders of her earlier work, and solo spots from the band. The result was a varied set, that veered from pleasant but forgettable to fine, mostly tragic songs that showed off her range - with the effortlessly inventive multi-instrumental work from the band helping transform every song. The classy easy-listening material included her reworking of the 60s hit Baby, Now That I've Found You, while the best songs included Ghost in This House, the new and gently pained Lie Awake, and - finest of all - an exquisite treatment of Richard Thompson's Dimming of the Day. Then there was upbeat fiddle work on Sawing on the Strings and a swinging revival, piano-backed, of Jimmie Rodgers' Any Old Time. Further variety came from the band. Tyminski, who provided the "singing voice" for George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou, added a gutsy Man of Constant Sorrow, along with an enthusiastic treatment of Woody Guthrie's Pastures of Plenty, while Jerry Douglas showed off his virtuoso dobro work on an inspired, free-wheeling improvisation inspired by bluegrass, Paul Simon and Chick Corea.

 

Krauss and Union Station gave their adoring followers exactly what they wanted, but are surely capable of even more challenging and unexpected material. They ended with the most memorable songs of the night, joining together around a single microphone for an intimate encore that included an exquisite harmony treatment of Down to the River to Pray.

 

 

st_vincent  St Vincent - Queen Elizabeth Hall, London - 11 November 2011

 

You wouldn't want to call Annie Clark - the Texas-born singer-guitarist who named herself after the hospital where Dylan Thomas died - pretentious, but she once offered this explanation for her stage name: "It's the place where poetry comes to die. That's me."

 

Her show is speckled with other such moments of off-kilter impenetrability, which seem designed to leave the onlooker not only dazzled but just a tad impatient. She and her band often appear to be at musical loggerheads, yielding a storm of dissonance that's closer to jazz than rock. Heightening the disorientation, the stage is lit from behind, and strobes bombard the air. Employing half a dozen foot pedals, Clark extracts maximum fuzziness from her guitar, her plectrum technique so fierce that a woman sitting near me gasps: "She plays like a man!"

 

Her singing and elliptical lyrics, though, are anything but masculine. Clark's voice is pure and luscious, and you just wish she would cut the noise occasionally so it could be heard properly. Eventually she does; minimally backed by a crackling synth, her vocals prowl freely around the minor chords of the new song Year of the Tiger. "When I was young, Coach called me the tiger ... oh, America, can I owe you one?" she croons, and although that could mean anything, it sends prickles up the spine.

 

Her current (third) album, Strange Mercy, produces some of the set's most tingling moments, with Chloe in the Afternoon adding a queasy physical desire to the mix. But the indubitable main event is a cover of the Pop Group's She Is Beyond Good and Evil, with that band's Mark Stewart as a yowling guest singer. It's tremendous - a firefight of vocoder-distorted vocals and funk-rock rhythms that renders the rest of the night tame by contrast - and that's saying something.

 

 

The Darkness - Picture House, Edinburgh - 10 November 2011

 

The Darkness's boundless enthusiasm for parody extended to them last month visiting Japan for some of their first comeback shows since reforming to play at the Download festival earlier this year. But unlike Spinal Tap, as Lowestoft's gift to hair metal put their differences aside and get back on the road, they're finding a sizable audience much closer to home still eager to entertain their love for big riffs and small trousers.

 

At mid-tier venues such as this, maintaining his lust for playing guitar behind his head in a slashed-below-the-navel catsuit while wiggling his bum has to represent a challenge for the ego of wiry frontman Justin Hawkins. At the peak of the Darkness's 3.5m-selling success, he used to display such camp theatrics at sold-out arenas. But having survived the ravages of a booze and cocaine habit that at its cruel nadir meant jamming with the guy out of Keane at the Priory and a failed bid to represent the UK at Eurovision, to be back on a stage again at all is surely achievement enough.

 

Smaller venues and diminishing returns always loomed for a band with such a strong whiff of novelty act. Yet their obvious appeal to some remains plain - the likes of Growing on Me and Love Is Only a Feeling are infernally catchy enough to suggest one-time ad jingle-writer Hawkins could pick anything from gabber to chanson as his genre of choice and still craft memorable hooks. Their stage show is on a tight budget now, but austerity in the dress department was never an option for a bloke who used to have several costume changes a night even on the pub circuit. A trademark pink-and-white hooped latex number practically get its own ovation as Hawkins poses atop the drum riser while modest pyrotechnics flash.

 

As fake snow tumbles from the rafters during Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End), arms are slung around mates' shoulders in pre-festive season cheer. I Believe in a Thing Called Love causes a rash of air guitar playing to break out around the room. If there's one aspect of their rock idols' careers that the Darkness will do well to mimic now, it's brute, shameless staying power - something a closer of Love on the Rocks With No Ice, replete with about 17 fake endings and a final Hawkins scissor-kick, suggests they know a thing or two about.

 

 

The Antlers - Brighton Concorde - 9 November 2011

 

It is intended as no reflection on the quality of the Antlers' album Burst Apart to say that the critical acclaim afforded it can seem slightly puzzling. It's been lauded by the kind of blogs not usually given to praising music that sounds like epic stadium balladry: stately tempos, surging choruses, falsetto vocals.

 

You do wonder if the same people would be saying the same things about Burst Apart if it were by Snow Patrol or Coldplay, an idea that isn't beyond the realms of possibility. More opaque and imaginative than either of those bands though the Antlers may be, they sometimes edge closer to the experimentation of Kid A-era Radiohead - as tonight's performance of Parenthesis underlines. Furthermore, the purple prose the album has engendered makes more sense live. On stage, the quartet deliver even their most straightforward songs, such as the radio-ready I Don't Want Love, with a fervour and intensity that clearly has nothing to do with stagecraft - this is a band whose idea of crowd-hyping, between-song chat involves frontman Peter Silberman informing us that his shoelace has come undone - and everything to do with throwing themselves into their music.

 

Everything feels more amplified than on record. The guitars are more dense and frenzied, and are riven with feedback. The passages of Pink Floyd-ish atmospherics feel more spacey, and the contrast between them and a song such as French Exit's grasp of a pop melody feels more pronounced.

 

Their sound is frequently so immense it feels as if it's straining at the confines of the venue, as if in search of somewhere bigger. It probably will end up somewhere bigger in the not-too-distant future: your enjoyment is slightly marred by the feeling that in six months' time, whoever's in charge of TV background music is going to notice them, and the Antlers will end up soundtracking nature documentaries, departures from The X Factor and the grand unveiling of the kitchen knock-through at the end of DIY SOS. What the hip blogs will make of that remains to be seen.

 

 

my_morning_jacket  My Morning Jacket - Roundhouse, London - 8 November 2011

 

Only four songs in and the PA cut out, the sirens blared and the Roundhouse was evacuated. Had Kentucky's My Morning Jacket tripped the inhouse prog alarm, or had the venue overloaded trying to work out what sort of band they are? Elegiac alt-country? Stoner Zep rock? Electro folk? The goth Eagles? An evil Flaming Lips fronted by a yeti dressed as Darth Vader?

 

After 45 minutes in a drizzly car park and an all-clear from the fire services, we filed back inside for the rest of a 120-minute set (a snip; they played four hours at Bonnaroo 2008) that proved them to be all these bands and more.

 

On MMJ's emergence in 1999 the honeyed voice of hirsute frontman Jim James - a Cousin Itt-alike who spent lengthy periods on stage singing through his hair with an LED-festooned Vader box on his chest and a black cape over his head - was a throwback to early Mercury Rev and the blueprint for cuddly fuzz-folkers Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear. But more recent albums Z, Evil Urges and Circuital have toyed with dub, disco and experimental synths, so the modern MMJ are an unpredictable evolution of psychedelic Americana whose wildly winding journey you would be best to blindly follow.

 

The track Off the Record morphed into a Floyd blues wig-out; Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Part 2 resembled an electro remix of the Terminator theme, while The Day Is Coming could only be described as "monk funk". Such eclecticism encourages self-indulgence - every song built to an elemental psych-country crescendo and the doomy acid sprawl of Dondante hit the 20-minute mark even before the sax solo started. But My Morning Jacket boast the melodic ballast to anchor them from a drift too far into pretension, even when the encore found them indulging in fantastic AC/DC rock theatrics with a backing choir of pagan princesses with James doing his corniest Phantom cape-flaps. Some alarms; more surprises.

 

 

Throwing Muses - Club Academy, Manchester - 7 November 2011

 

Rhode Island's Throwing Muses were one of the great US alt-rock bands of the 80s and 90s. Formed around the duelling vocals and angular guitars of Kristin Hersh and step-sister Tanya Donelly, much of their creativity was associated with Hersh's bipolar disorder, which gave her hallucinations and personal demons. Reformed after various splits and celebrating their 25th anniversary without Donelly - who left in 1991 - neither maturity, marriage nor motherhood has dulled Hersh's intensity. She performs in a weird trance, staring at something unseen while spewing out the bile of such songs as Hate My Way.

 

It's an eerie, entertaining show, although more nostalgic than trailblazing nowadays - they perhaps never quite filled the gap where Donelly used to be, and Hersh's voice is coarser now. The setlist leans heavily on 1995's University and there are only glimpses of their earlier classic albums. However, Furious, from 1992's Red Heaven, is stunningly dark. Vicky's Box, their debut's tale of domestic hell, sees Hersh making a cry of "welcome home" as appetising as a cockroach infestation.

 

Amid today's anodyne pop, it is startling to hear a woman exhibit such rage. Demonic under red light, the 45-year-old has lost none of her demure beauty, although between songs is chatty, not scary. Then it's back to whatever horrors inspired her youth. Even at something less than full throttle, they are still a force.

 

 

Roy Harper - Royal Festival Hall, London - 7 November 2011

 

It has taken a lifetime for Roy Harper to win quite this much appreciation. This was a belated celebration for his 70th birthday, and the Festival Hall was packed with an enthusiastic audience who greeted his classic songs from the 70s with far greater respect than many of those who came to hear him in this same hall did back then. During one notorious show of that era he spent so much time chatting that most of the audience walked out. Since then, it has been impossible to predict how he will behave, but here - with help from famous friends, and despite problems with his voice - he did himself justice.

 

He looks today something like a crazed professor with receding long white hair and beard, but his acoustic guitar skills and acrobatic vocals are as keen as ever, as he demonstrated with a sturdy, rhythmic treatment of Highway Blues. Then he brought on an eight-piece string and brass ensemble, backing his playing with arrangements written by the late David Bedford. He nodded to traditional song and Dylan with North Country, and showed why he was so unique in the British folk scene, with his elaborate and epic 1971 song Me and My Woman, with his son Nick Harper, an impressive guitarist, joining in.

 

The second set was more patchy. His introductions were meandering, and his voice at times ragged; he stopped to retake the final verse of Commune and sounded uncertain during the exquisite When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease. But he returned to form when joined by new and old admirers. Joanna Newsom came on to duet on just one song, the gentle Another Day, while for the finale he was joined by Jimmy Page on acoustic guitar for a powerful, extended treatment of The Same Old Rock. Uneven, maybe, but a historic concert.

 

 

Kanye West/Jay-Z - Izod Centre, New Jersey - 6 November 2011

 

It is a testament to the hyperbolic levels of grandeur and self-aggrandisement audiences now expect of Jay-Z and Kanye West that their concert on Saturday night - which was held in the soul-sappingly monolithic Izod Centre in New Jersey, and featured fireballs, giant American flags and suggestions that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were but precursors to the two rappers - felt shockingly low-key and endearingly intimate.

 

This partly came from their wise decision to not invite any of their friends, or even a particular wife, to their party. Despite West's tendency to rope in everyone on his iPod to feature on his albums, including his and Jay-Z's recent collaborative album, Watch the Throne, it was only the two men on stage for the two hours. To watch West gleefully hamming it up as the racist cop in 99 Problems, and Jay-Z acting as support singer on Gold Digger, with both men finding renewed enthusiasm in even their best-known material merely by singing it with the other, made you wonder why they bother working with anyone else.

 

The concert opened with the two standing on plinths on opposite sides of the stadium as they performed the dark and booming track H.A.M., suggesting this was going to be a gladiatorial event, two egos battling it out. But far from being Maximus and Commodus, the two were more like Bert and Ernie, affectionately clowning around together. West, in particular, was too busy grinning at his buddy to make any long speeches about how he's been treated "like Hitler", as he has in the past. True, he did riff a love ballad that featured the Shakespearean couplet, "If I told you I like your shoes tonight/ Don't listen to me because I'm an asshole"; and he did opt for leather leggings, a leather skirt and a giant T-shirt featuring his own face; and, yes, he did try to co-opt a reluctant Jay-Z into a bit of panto-like role-playing. But compared to his previous antics, this was about as mundane as de-icing the freezer.

 

Each was generous with performing their greatest hits - Big Pimpin', Jesus Walks, etc - but looked like they were having the most fun when singing tracks off their joint album.

 

When they performed Niggas in Paris three times in a row by way of an encore - each rendition funnier and more energetic than the last - it was clear that these are two men at the top of their game, having the time of their lives.

 

 

arctic_monkeys  Arctic Monkeys - MEN Arena, Manchester - 6 November 2011

 

Heartbreak does funny things to people. When the news emerged last summer that Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner and TV presenter Alexa Chung had split up, the indie nation mourned the loss of its articulate and photogenic It-couple. That dismay deepened with the news last month that indie rock's most totemic partnership, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, was dissolving after nearly 30 years, 17-odd albums and one child together. Never mind the southern European economies stage-diving into the abyss - all that was really solid has been melting into air.

 

After a plea for privacy, Alex Turner did his hair. He did it in a way that a fashionista girlfriend would never allow. He turned his back on the nicely turned-out 60s mod aesthetic that the Monkeys absorbed from Oasis, and became a rocker. Tonight, three quarters of Arctic Monkeys walk onstage with variants on quiffs. Turbo-drummer Matt Helders has a fierce buzz-cut rising to a peak at the front; likewise guitarist Jamie Cook, whose tight leather jacket channels Kenickie in Grease.

 

Turner's bouffant quiff has been much mocked since its debut in August. But onstage, on the fourth night of the Arctics' arena tour, it makes a great deal more sense. When Turner leaps dramatically off the drum riser, guitar cocked like a semi-automatic for "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor", he nods so hard to Joe Strummer that the quiff itself almost melts into air. The rest of the time, beige lighting renders the band as the hip young combo of an early 60s pop programme, with Turner modelling Hamburg-era John Lennon.

 

Just when you think you can't wring another metaphor from it, Turner's hair evolves yet again - into lovelorn Roy Orbison - as the gentler songs from the Arctics' latest album, Suck It and See, start to flow. Fellow Sheffield crooner Richard Hawley must be wondering who ate all the pomade.

 

In all likelihood, people will never stop carping that the Arctics' more considered latter-day material isn't as sublime as their break-neck early stuff. But the cheer that greets "She's Thunderstorms" - a very pretty love song from Suck It - is lusty. There is none of the shrugging that usually greets a band's youngest material. Even "Evil Twin" - the Arctics' latest song, one whose amusing video features drummer Helders as a babe magnet - goes down very well. "Black Treacle" - another burnished cut from Suck It - manifests some precision guitar from Cook and Turner.

 

Everyone here has clearly been listening, even if they haven't all been buying. Despite deposing Lady Gaga from the pointy bit of the chart on release in mid-June, the critically fawned-over Suck It hasn't exactly sold like gobstoppers when you compare it with Arctic Monkeys' debut. Suck It is approaching platinum - that's 300,000 - against their debut's 1.3m and counting. Even allowing for the notion that guitar music is in the doldrums (a notion that, say, Kasabian's or Muse's stats might disprove), those numbers are a bit lacklustre. Contemporary pop calculations suggest it's no calamity, however. Recorded music sales now often come second to tickets, and there are very few empty seats tonight.

 

The big spaces have often been unfair to the Arctics, a band too cool for cliches. Their performances at festivals have rarely been trumpeted as triumphs. Last summer's Don Valley Bowl shows, in which the Monkeys played to 10,000 fans per night, seem to have proved a turning point however.

 

They are close to sensational tonight, racking up 21 songs without a real lull. The old songs seem even faster and harder than memory serves. A thunderous "Brianstorm" really ought to land Helders in the first aid tent with dislocated elbows; instead he blithely sings "Brick by Brick", and pile-drives his way through "Pretty Visitors", a great cut from their moody third album, Humbug.

 

Breaks between songs are few, unless you count some swift guitar-swaps and Turner combing his locks. There are, instead, delicious false endings, pregnant pauses and psychedelics, with the addition of tech John Ashton on organ.

 

With his new disguise, Turner has made peace with the art of hamming it up. He gabs away like a ringmaster, twirls around at the end of "Teddy Picker", catches Helders's drumstick at the end of "The View from the Afternoon" and whips the crowd into bigger cheers. The word "Manchester" is nearly worn out with overuse. The band? Officially, "mad for it". You even would have forgiven Turner if he'd introduced "Mardy Bum" - a huge singalong - as the Arctic Monkeys' own "Wonderwall" - which, after a fashion, it is. If this is what a quiff can do for a band, let the hair products be unconfined.

 

 

Professor Green - Brighton Dome - 3 November 2011

 

Professor Green bounds on stage looking delighted, as well he might. This week, his latest single, Read All About It, crash-landed at No 1, continuing British rap's dominance of the pop charts. And yet his opening number, At Your Inconvenience, suggests UK hip-hop is not as well as the sales figures suggest. His peers, snaps the Hackney rapper, have been releasing "shit" to "get in the charts". "I'm the antidote," Green suggests.

 

Tonight, however, Green's battle isn't against the pernicious influence of mammon on the British rap community. It's against lousy sound. His vocals are distorted and buried deep within the mix. It doesn't seem to be a problem for the audience, who start screaming when he takes the stage and don't really stop until he leaves. But you suspect it might be a problem for Green himself. He clearly prides himself on his lyrics, which might be the most obvious thing that sets him apart from his chart-topping peers. Yet, while he doesn't go in for the generic four-to-the-floor house beats and rave synthesisers he mocks, his sound is still pretty pop-oriented. That's not to say it's bad: Green's an engaging performer, and there's a brazen appeal to the 80s samples of I Need You Tonight and Just Be Good to Green. But you're never going to get his stuff mixed up with the oeuvre of Cannibal Ox.

 

"For the next three minutes and 33 seconds, I need you to do one thing," he says before Astronaut, a harrowing depiction of the aftermath of a sexual assault set to gospelish backing vocals, "and that's listen." They don't. Their response is to stop screaming and start chatting among themselves. But perhaps it's because they can't: the narrative is as hard to make out as everything else. Maybe they wouldn't have anyway - they don't look like the kind of audience who've come here to have their mellow harshed with a load of grim stuff about a rape victim.

 

Such are the perils of life at the top of the charts, among all that stuff he's the antidote to. Still, Professor Green seems able to cope. "Right," he says as the song ends, "let's fackin' 'ave it, Brighton." And the screaming starts again.