September 2011 Gig Reviews
Zola Jesus - Toynbee Studios, London - 26 September 2011
On record, Zola Jesus sounds vast and ancient, like a deep-seated and nagging ache. In the flesh, though, she cuts the kind of figure that could save a fortune by not paying any VAT on her clothes. This LA-based singer and electronic auteur may be all of 22, but she could easily fit into the garb of a 12-year-old - one with a taste for high-end white ponchos. Christina Aguilera is famously tiny, but in a small-off, Jesus would trounce her by three inches.
She strides onstage tonight, a 4ft 11in flap of bleachedness, tailed by a black-clad trio of men playing keyboards, laptops and live drums. Jesus and her apostles are notionally celebrating the release of her accomplished third album, Conatus, but it's the kind of celebration in which a whispery, rapt audience is squashed into retractable theatre seating, rather than pogoing in the aisles to the tunes with beats.
This intimate community hall is off the live music beaten track, and the stage lighting does not extend to colour, lending an even starker visual edge to an intense performance. The white lights leave Jesus nowhere to hide, except behind her hair. She stalks the stage like a caged cat, occasionally leaning against a speaker stack for support. Despite alluding to her nerves when she does briefly speak, Zola (named after Émile, not Budd) Jesus (named after, well, Jesus) spends a brave amount of time roaming around the room, head down, like a ghost stuck on a vexing cryptic crossword clue.
Jesus, then, is tiny, but her voice is not. Soundbites about the work of this artist-to-watch concur around a gothic Bonnie Tyler, and certainly, she can open her throat and unleash a hero‑seeking gale. There's an octave leap on "Ixode" tonight that pins you back in your seat. Machines supply some backing vocals, but Jesus can replicate the sound of multi-tracking by just opening her mouth.
The sombre hue of her songs, meanwhile, and the industrial bent of her music, make that pesky goth tag hard to duck. Also, she used to be an actual goth (as this picture attests). Born Nika Roza Danilova in rural Wisconsin, she gravitated towards the darker side from an early age. After years of opera training and a degree in French and philosophy, she pinged on to the international quality radar last year with the release of her second full-length, Stridulum II. She went from being one to watch to actually being listened to, joining a clutch of headstrong bleached blondes coming up from the underground - fellow Russian-American Kreayshawn and the ballsy EMA.
Stridulum and its successor, Conatus, though, are far more elegant and emotionally satisfying works than 80s vintage goth fare, or its 90s reanimation - the billowing rock angst of Editors or White Lies. They are classily sorrowful things, full of vaguely enunciated declarations of love, regret and yearning, buffeted by sombre electronics.
Tonight, "Sea Talk", from Stridulum, is still her most heartbroken few minutes, a track that is as beaten as it is beautiful. "No, I can't give you what you need," she sings, resolved. You might, lazily, want to lump Zola Jesus in with witch house, a chilly avant-garde digital current, but her sounds are far more approachable than those of bands such as White Ring.
In fact, there is a massive power ballad struggling to get out of "Night", probably her best-known song from Stridulum. Conatus, too, has its embryonic nearly-hits, with the busy "Ixode" leading a charge towards the dancefloor that separates this album from its predecessor. Obviously, it's named after a disease-carrying tick. "Seekir" even has a bubbling bassline that distantly suggests Giorgio Moroder and huge thwacking live drums to flesh it out.
These, though, are tiny variations in a body of work that, over the course of an hour, can get a little samey. Every Zola Jesus song is fundamentally woebegone, with slight leans towards hope, or the dashing of it. They are all a little bit industrial, and routinely feature wistful synth washes; you can almost assign percentages. "Vessel" is 44% industrial clang, 36% weary hurt and 20% moody chord-play. Jesus ends it by attacking her drummer's cymbal violently and then running off stage.
You leave impressed but craving more than a hair's breadth of difference between each song - one that was all wistful, or all menace, or all ice. Intriguingly, Danilova has a pop side-project called Nika+Rory, in which her mighty voice is put to more conventional backing tracks and even Auto-Tuned. Danilova clearly knows what a weapon she has at her disposal, should she ever choose to abandon her art for commerce.
Peter Doherty - Brixton Academy, London - 25 September 2011
"Amy Winehouse asked me a while ago if I had written any new songs," says the man who now prefers to be known as Peter Doherty. "I played her something, and when I had finished, she looked at me and said, 'Is that it? Is that all you've got?"
Judging by the rows of empty seats at tonight's show, the late soul siren was not alone in losing patience with his creative inertia. The Doherty soap opera has rolled on this year, with the singer serving a jail sentence for cocaine possession, but clearly he did not take advantage of this enforced idleness to pen any fresh material.
Alone on the huge stage, without even a trilby at a rakish angle, and flanked only by two small amps, Doherty looks like a glorified busker and, as he rifles through his Libertines, Babyshambles and solo back catalogue, he effectively is. Spindly, ramshackle flights of fancy such as All at Sea and What a Waster may be sporadically thrilling, but they are also awfully familiar as well as intensely frustrating as they are packed with artistic promise that has never remotely been fulfilled.
Doherty is in wistfully reflective mode, thanking his decreasing but ferociously loyal followers for their support during "some weird times", dedicating a song to deceased heiress and film-maker Robin Whitehead and strumming through a scratchy but affecting cover of Winehouse's Tears Dry on Their Own. His edgy charisma remains intact and songs such as What Katie Did and Time for Heroes are visceral gems, but when Doherty promises to play no more shows until he has penned new material, you virtually feel the under-populated hall sigh with relief.
Avril Lavigne - Hammersmith Apollo, London - 23 September 2011
"This song is for all the crazy bitches tonight!" Avril Lavigne informs an Apollo filled with schoolgirls and their star-shaped glowsticks. A roar erupts, and she is off into Smile, which clamps together bubblepunk guitar and a few wayward four-letter words. "You don't really give a shit ... you're fucking crazy, rock'n'roll!" she bawls, artlessly defiant as ever. Lavigne may be 26 and divorced, but a large part of her will be forever 16.
Kesha might have usurped her as the go-to girl for tattooed adolescent attitude, but, arguably, Lavigne has more in common with adolescent audiences. She sounds like them, looks like them - flat-ironed hair and shiny black leggings - and her live show has the substance of a trip to the mall. The failed marriage to fellow Canadian Deryck Whibley of Sum 41 seems to have instilled no introspection, unless it's encrypted in one of the five songs from new album Goodbye Lullaby: "You say I'm messing with your head 'cos I was making out with your friend", perhaps?
Still, 75 minutes slip by painlessly. Unlike most pop acts of her 30m-selling stature, she doesn't bother with dancers and expensive widgets; it's just her and a band, with "effects" confined to sitting atop a piano to grind out a couple of ballads. And if her expressionless-but-loud singing isn't lovely, it does get the job done. The set interlaces hits, covers and album tracks so there's always something for her and the crowd to stamp their feet to.
Lavigne doesn't bother to announce song titles, because there is nobody in the room who doesn't know every petulant word of Sk8er Boi, Complicated and Girlfriend. On I'm With You, the fans do the work for her, singing large chunks of it as she meanders across the stage. Things threaten to get rather beautiful on an unadorned version of Coldplay's Fix You; luckily, her band put a stop to it with screeching power-riffs. Overall, a watchable gig that proves adulthood is no bar to being a full-time sk8er girl.
Gary Numan - Rock City, Nottingham - 16 September 2011
It's hard to remember, but there was a time when Gary Numan was seriously uncool. Yes, Cars and Are "Friends" Electric? bestrode the charts, but he was otherwise seen as a pop alternative to serious synthesizer types such as Cabaret Voltaire, while the NME routinely lampooned his Bowie whine and flying misfortunes. Fast-forward 30 years, the Numanoid is still packing venues while many of his so-called cooler peers have long since packed their gear, and his cold, electronic anthems to urban alienation are seen as pioneering.
Tonight's sublime opener, Down in the Park - from 1979's Replicas, when he was still called Tubeway Army - still sounds hypnotic, Kafkaesque and chilling, and could have been recorded yesterday.
But Numan has not stood still, and in recent years his trademark glacial synths have been given an industrial rock chassis. While recent tours have included classic albums such as The Pleasure Principle, he can hardly be accused of resting on his laurels. The set leans heavily on forthcoming album Dead Son Rising. It's a stark, powerful and oddly sensual affair, although with electro-goth itself starting to show its age, perhaps another reinvention (or at least a tweak) cannot be far away.
His effect on the audience, though, is undiminished. Balding blokes travel the country to bellow "Nuuuuu-man!" throughout the set. Meanwhile, with his 18-year-old's body and intriguingly lustrous hair, the black-clad, 53-year-old singer looks better and younger than them all. By the time he wheels out Cars and Are "Friends" Electric? to pandemonium, you start to wonder if this really is the Numan of 30 years ago at all, or whether he's been replaced by one of the replicants he used to sing about.
The Jezabels - XOYO, London - 14 September 2011
Australian rock hasn't produced many emo frontwomen, but the Jezabels' Hayley Mary certainly ticks all the right boxes. She has the requisite agonised intensity, and a self-absorption so complete that she appears to be barely aware of the audience at this sold-out, tour-closing show. The audience, though, are very much aware of her - she commands wary attention in the same way a simmering volcano does. Anyone familiar with PJ Harvey, Siouxsie Sioux or even Paramore's Hayley Williams will recognise Mary's style, but she undeniably has something: when she's going full pelt, the other Jezabels may as well not even be there.
Mary aside, what the deliberately misspelt Sydney quartet offer is standard goth/emo fare. There's a touch of novelty in their lack of a bassist, but it seems more an oversight than an attempt to do emo differently; punk-influenced drummer Nik Kaloper simply fills in the gaps aggressively. Keyboardist Heather Shannon is his counterpoint, thickly spreading chilly layers of synthesiser as if icing a gothic cake. Their confrontational formula drives every song except the encore, Disco Biscuit Love, which switches tack completely. This is the one where the Jezabels figuratively tear off their black clothes to reveal 1980s pop neon beneath, and it comes as a welcome surprise after an hour of wracked drama.
It's often hard to engage with such highly charged, yet unremarkable music. This isn't to dismiss the set's obvious high points - the mini-symphony Hurt Me, Mary's chilling ululations on Try Colour - but they only underscore the lack of originality elsewhere. Mary, though, is a solo star in waiting. When the Jezabels return to the UK to tour next year's debut album, she'll be one to watch.
Kaiser Chiefs - Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds - 12 September 2011
With Kaiser Chiefs promoting a comeback album titled The Future Is Medieval, holding two enormous outdoor gigs at a 12th-century ruined Cistercian monastery in their hometown felt like a conceptual masterstroke. But perhaps there are a few more unlikely parallels between the ancient, crumbling edifice and Leeds's perennial Britpoppers.
Where Kirkstall Abbey faced a serious assault by Henry VIII's troops during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Chiefs' grip on the public's consciousness has slipped since their million-selling 2005 heyday, assailed by processed pop's chart domination, and the fact that indie-type guitar bands are currently about as fashionable as the plague.
Band and venue are still standing, the Abbey aided by some discreet renovation and the Kaisers with a new, darker sound that nods to David Bowie and XTC. It made its appearance three songs in with Little Shocks, a creepy electro groove that surely deserved better than to limp to No 179 in the charts. And yet, few of their rivals could draw 20,000 people over two nights, a remarkable feat considering they once (as their old band, Runston Parva) played to four people in a pub over the road. It took a determined reinvention (and some of the catchiest British pop singles of the noughties) to make their name, and singer Ricky Wilson isn't going to let it go without a fight. He was everywhere: running from side to side, encouraging hands towards the air and even comically addressing the venue: "Abbey, you beautiful girl."
The picturesque but spooky setting suited other new songs such as Man on Mars (which explicitly recognised the Bowie influence with a tiny steal from Space Oddity), and the more contemplative Child of the Jago and Starts With Nothing, which suggest the Chiefs are maturing, whether or not their crowd are willing to move on with them.
Most had come for the hits from the days when Kaiser Chiefs singles were as familiar as football chants, but it's hard to tire of I Predict a Riot, which - like 2006's tabloid-attacking The Angry Mob - has gained a certain prescience in light of recent events. To his credit, Wilson didn't point this out, just concentrated on orchestrating the hand waving, which - during the likes of Ruby, Modern Way and Na Na Na Na Naa - looked as beautiful as the ballet.
By the time the crowd roared along with debut single Oh My God, Leeds United flags flying, it felt like an easy home victory, but a victory, nonetheless.
Brian Wilson - The Sage, Gateshead - 11 September 2011
Since he returned from breakdown-induced wilderness, with rapturously received performances of the Beach Boys's 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds, a mini-industry has sprung up around Brian Wilson. There have been endless tours, poorly received solo albums and now, with Wilson no longer writing songs, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, an album remodeling George Gershwin classics in the style of the Beach Boys.
Promoting it is ostensibly why Wilson is in ... well, he's not entirely sure. "Are we in Thishead?" he asks, "My teleprinter says it's Newcastle." Somehow, the revelation that even Wilson's asides are scripted isn't a surprise. The troubled Beach Boys legend may no longer have the psychiatrist Eugene Landy controlling him, but here we discover that saxophonist Paul Mertens "helped" Wilson reimagine Gershwin's songs. They're not ghastly, but not great. They Can't Take That Away from Me is awkwardly remodeled via California Girls, and Wilson's bark through It Ain't Necessarily So makes it sound as if Moses was found "in a strim". After just 40 minutes, nobody - least of all the artist - seems heartbroken that this segment of the show is over.
By contrast, an hour and a half is given over to Wilson's greatest hits. With band members taking lead vocals and embarrassing scripted banter, much of the time it's like watching a giant tribute band who just happen to have Wilson on stage with them. And yet, as Wilson dips into a fantasy set-list, he reaches towards the keyboard, smiles, and increasingly seems involved. Where his late brother Carl once sang lead on the hallowed God Only Knows, Wilson bravely gives the song a heartbreakingly fragility. Spines visibly tingle as Heroes and Villains, Help Me Rhonda and the rest sound exactly how they should. By the time Wilson delivers a glorious Good Vibrations, "Thishead" is on its feet, honouring the fact that the 69-year-old man who wrote some of the 20th century's greatest songs is still able to sing them.
DJ Shadow - Village Underground, London - 11 September 2011
If the TV series Grumpy Old Men ever were to consider a hip-hop special - and it really should - they would have to start by inviting Public Enemy's Chuck D to contribute. That weary, vociferous flag-bearer for politicised hip-hop would swiftly be joined by 39-year-old DJ Shadow, a man with carefully tended jawline stubble, now playing the first of three sellout nights in a converted London railway arch.
Shadow is the Californian hip-hop auteur made legendary by his 1996 debut, Endtroducing..., an instrumental work constructed entirely from samples. Its sombre lushness still resonates today, despite having spawned entire furniture showrooms of coffee-table imitators. Now, there's even a band called Introducing who play every note of Endtroducing... on live instruments.
Tonight, Shadow is earnest and amiable. He offers a few words about doing the best possible show he can, before being swallowed up by a large spherical DJ pod. He spends much of the gig hidden inside this supersize golf ball, which serves as a 3-D screen for retina-popping projections. You just have to assume this perfectionist workaholic is not just pressing "play" and kicking back in there. At one point, the pod turns into the Death Star. At another, we see Simon Cowell's head explode. This "Shadowsphere" is Josh Davis's equivalent of Deadmau5's mouse helmet (a way of visually jazzing up DJ sets) and it really is rather nifty.
Having created a classic in Endtroducing..., Shadow has since struggled to match it to the satisfaction of fans and critics. A pair of albums and numerous collaborations (with UNKLE, Cut Chemist and others) have come and gone. Album number four - The Less You Know, the Better - drops in a fortnight. Shadow plays relatively little of it tonight, spliced into a dazzling DJ set that is - eventually - revealed as actually happening.
The orb has a tent flap, and every now and again you can see Shadow busily mixing and whacking drum pads while intergalactic warfare is breaking out around him. Early on, his blizzards of scratching resolve into the metal riffola of a new track, "Border Crossing". Later, "I Gotta Rokk" builds to a punishing peak which gleefully references dubstep and electro.
From its title on in, though, The Less You Know, the Better has been borne along on a wave of passive-aggressive prickliness. The album's pre-release campaign has featured cute cartoons of gadgets - smartphones and computers - sneering at single releases and subverting Shadow's website.
On his blog and in interviews, Shadow has grouchily attacked file-sharing and free downloads (it devalues music), as well as trolling (it debases musical discourse). In an age where fealty to the incontrovertible fabness of the internet is pretty much compulsory, this is an iffy course of action. It risks lumping Shadow with Metallica (greed-heads who hate file-sharing) rather than his former collaborator Thom Yorke of Radiohead (zeitgeist-defining honesty boxers).
And yet - like disturbing amounts of the mithering of Grumpy Old Men - Shadow does have a point. The anonymity of the internet does encourage kneejerk sneering. Artists do deserve to be compensated for their creations. You could almost argue that the intricate sonic needlepoint in which Shadow specialises might be priced like the best lace.
Live, though, Shadow really earns his money, and enduring respect. In an hour and a half, great swathes of his catalogue whip past, most often revised or deconstructed. The iconic themes from Endtroducing... - like "Stem/ Long Stem" or "Organ Donor" - send the crowd into spasms of fond recognition, of course. But there are great, joyous passages of old school hip-hop here - scratching, samples, raps, ancient breaks - updated as restless but sentient club music with mighty drum'n'bass shakedowns. It's immersive; crucially, it's fun.
The Less You Know, the Better is enthralling in places, too - on "Tedium" and "Run for Your Life" - if marred by too many guitar incursions. It is not, one suspects, the album likely to return this disgruntled elder statesman of hip-hop to his place at the front of the pack. If only Shadow could make an album as ground-breaking and emotionally intelligent as Endtroducing..., he would prove his argument - that music has value, and that his music in particular has serious worth - and, in the process, get paid in full.
Public Enemy - Forum, London - 9 September 2011
It's a straightforward concept used by everyone from Brian Wilson to the Wu-Tang Clan: get a legendary artist to perform in full one of their legendary albums. Public Enemy have done it before, playing 1988's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back on stage three years ago. They're supposed to be doing it again tonight, with Nation of Millions' equally revered followup Fear of a Black Planet, but they clearly have other ideas.
"I'm not comfortable with the concept," says Chuck D. "So we're going to perform Fear of a Black Planet remixed." This turns out to mean they're not going to play Fear of a Black Planet at all. Instead, you get what you suspect is Public Enemy's standard live show, with the occasional shout of "Fear of a Black Planet REMIX!" thrown in.
It all raises some interesting questions, not least as to whether this constitutes an iconoclastic bucking of an increasingly tired trend, or just ripping fans off. On the one hand, what follows is a great show. Once a menacing, armed expression of black militancy, the Security of the First World, as the band's "dancers" are known, look a little chubbier these days: they're more the Security of the Second Helping. But Public Enemy's music has lost none of its potency: Welcome to the Terrordome thunders forth, Bring the Noise sounds flatly amazing.
You get a lot of talking between tracks: thought-provoking if it's Chuck D raging about the recent riots, and a bit wearying if it's Flavor Flav plugging his career as a reality show stalwart. Now in their 50s, the pair remain kinetic: it might be the umpteenth time they've been required to roll out Fight the Power, but their performance never feels perfunctory.
Still, if you'd paid £25 to see Public Enemy play Fear of a Black Planet and ended up watching them do a track off 2007's How Do You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul instead, you might feel a little aggrieved. Or you might note that it's Public Enemy, hip-hop's complex, thorny, self-styled Prophets of Rage: they never pretended to be a branch of the service industries.
Beirut - Manchester Academy - 7 September 2011
"This is another one of those, er, singalongs," says Beirut's Zach Condon, sounding slightly embarrassed by what's going on around him. Once again, the cavernous Academy erupts into a choir of audience voices, with every second hand in the building raised into the air.
Venue website Writing songs that turn large crowds of adults into excitable, jibbering kids isn't the only secret of the New Mexican singer-songwriter-conceptualist's mercurial rise, which has seen his band go from playing small gigs in Knaresborough to one of Manchester's largest venues inside five years. Beirut are the encapsulation of a musical wanderlust that has taken Condon from Balkan folk to French chansons through to Mexican and Hispanic sounds. The brass section - fronted by Condon on trumpet - is pivotal, with more euphoria spreading around the venue every time the trumpets and trombones kick in. When a tuba arrives, adding a drunken wooziness to the sound, couples actually start waltzing.
Precedents for this music are hard to find. There are echoes of Sufjan Stevens; 25-year-old Condon's beautiful-yet-edgy croon is slightly reminiscent of David Byrne. Songs from their new album The Rip Tide are poppier than before, although the combination of sublime melodies and brass most brings to mind Brian Eno's 1970s vocal songs, if they were being played with the Brighouse and Rastrick band.
The lovely Nantes and Goshen and the particularly gorgeously crooned Cherbourg arrive to yet more rapture: songs that are like hazy, sepia-tinted snapshots of loves and losses along the journey. Instrumentals bring to mind both New Orleans jazz and the brassy funeral music that features in Mafia-related films as someone's head ends up in the pasta sauce. Then Condon raises his trumpet in delight, the house lights shine on the audience, and the arms go up again.
The Drums - Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen, London - 6 September 2011
The Drums went from rock messiahs to pariahs with quite indecent haste. Having been hyped on to music magazine front pages before the release of their eponymous debut album last year, the New York band were then pilloried when that record was deemed dreary and derivative.
Little over a year later, they have returned with a second album, Portamento, which shows the truth lies somewhere between those critical extremes. They have also shed a guitarist and gained two new band members, and the resulting configuration leaves them a taut and tensile live concern.
They remain staunch Anglophiles, with their skittering guitars and sweetly disingenuous jangle-pop referencing 1980s British indie-rock totems such as Orange Juice, the Pastels and, overwhelmingly, the Smiths. They could be tiresomely retro, were it not for the fact that hyperventilating tracks such as If He Likes It Let Him Do It and Money have glistening tunes.
Singer Jonathan Pierce cuts an intense, yet distracted and mildly camp figure, closing his eyes as he surfs the pulsing rhythms and sailing dangerously near to tweeness as he strives for that arch Morrissey-style one-liner. "I killed myself, and you broke my bones," he pouts during Days, as the burly, bare-chested blokes in the moshpit hurl themselves into the brutal male-bonding frenzy that fey indie music so inexplicably inspires.
The Drums are a period piece, but a loving and engaging one, and even display a slice of puritanical mid-1980s indie contrariness by declining requests to play their breakthrough single and crowd favourite, Let's Go Surfing. For all of their faux-naivety, this is a band who know exactly what they're doing.
End of the Road - Larmer Tree Gardens, North Dorset - Monday 5 September 2011
So joyfully varied is the lineup at the much-loved End of the Road festival that themes emerge by chance. So it proved this year: where one visitor might have seen it as an event strong on acoustic Americana, another would left convinced it had been focused on goth women and bands who'd paid a lot of attention to the Hawkwind back catalogue.
The Hawkwind tendency came with the Fall, who were implacable, uncompromising and, dare one say, a little dull; and from Wooden Shjips, whose drone rock took a long, straight drive to euphoric emptiness. The goth women were particularly strongly represented. While Zola Jesus's late-night Saturday set was a disappointment ("That is the worst life act I haf effer seen," one jovial German told a steward), Lykke Li's twilight performance on the main stage on Friday was the production of the weekend. She and her band were clad in black and swathed in dry ice, with the lighting staying stark and white for all but one song: it was like the Sisters of Mercy with a much better skincare regime, and melodies, too. In the middle ground between the two were Austra, whose Lose It was as good a song as anyone played all weekend.
Those three acts were just part of the startlingly strong female presence at End of the Road, both as solo artists and within bands: Emmy the Great, Laura Marling and Joanna Newsom made up half the main stage lineup on the closing day. Elsewhere, Merrill Garbus's Tune-Yards was as thrilling as the large crowd expected. But the real joy was stumbling across unexpected pleasures: Lightning Dust, featuring Black Mountain's Amber Webber, were a gentle and autumnal opening to Sunday; Lanterns on the Lake had the combination of dynamism and atmosphere that could propel them to much bigger things, and in Paul Gregory - who teased bewitching effects from his instrument - they had one thing almost every other band at the festival lacked: an authentic guitar hero.
Red Hot Chili Peppers - Koko, London - 5 September 2011
It's hard to remember that when the Red Hot Chili Peppers emerged in the early 1980s, they were prodigiously exciting. Not only were the Californian quartet prone to frequent on-stage nudity, but their attitudinal fusion of funk, metal and hip-hop appeared groundbreaking.
Three decades and 65m record sales later, they have released a distinctly underwhelming 10th studio album, I'm With You, which the even most generous reviews have been forced to call "solid" and "business as usual". Taking a break from their usual arena tour, they launch in this rare club gig for 1,400 competition winners, recorded for broadcast on Radio 1.
There's an inevitable initial frisson at seeing an A-list band, who usually pack out arenas, perform within touching distance, but it is remarkable how quickly this feeling dissipates. As an intimate show, it's an aloof and detached affair, with the group offering little by way of communication as they slickly dispatch the new material.
Singer Anthony Kiedis has had an image revamp, sprouting a hipster moustache beneath his newly jet-black mop of hair, but more pertinent is the man on guitar. Long-time Chilis guitarist John Frusciante has quit the band for the second time, and while replacement Josh Klinghoffer is a solid riff merchant, he lacks Frusciante's quicksilver brilliance.
This puts more weight than ever on Flea's muscular bass guitar, and while he is certainly up to it (he has always played his instrument as a lead), the new songs are not. Meet Me at the Corner is a plodding ballad, while the fractured and staccato Factory of Faith is not so much a song as an unwieldy clump of funk-metal just about held together by Flea's chivvying bass.
The problem is that, while the Chilis have always been predicated on the idea of unpredictability and danger, they now look and sound like a band firmly entrenched in their comfort zone. The night's few thrills arrive only when they reach deep into their history, to the seductive yearning of Californication, the urgent throb of By the Way, and the explosive encore, Give It Away. The thrill has gone, and it is hard to see it returning.
Pulp - Brixton Academy, London - 4 September 2011
Ever since guitar music exchanged its dependency on new blood for a life support machine, band reunions have come thick and fast. Some have been cynical, bloodless exercises in late onset remuneration, and some have been excellent fun for all that (Pixies, say). Many, though, have served merely as grim reminders of how unforgiving the passage of time can be; how you cannot, ever, replicate the granular ecology in which bands originally thrived, and how your own days of feckless hedonism are now as distant as a fossil record.
Then there are those rare reunions that feel right and proper - good, even - when a kaleidoscope of factors all pull together spectacularly. Can the band still play? Has anyone run to fat? Do the songs still matter? Any reunion is helped by a band's own propensity for nostalgia. Punk, for instance, just doesn't work; you can't rekindle urgent immediacy. The Sex Pistols reunion was a travesty that called into question that band's revolutionary credentials.
Pulp, though, were fondly anachronistic even as they were peaking, never really part of the Britpop phenomenon, although they were caught up in its momentum. They were singing songs about losing their virginity well into their 30s; on songs like the tremendous "Sorted for Es and Wizz" they were hymning a moment - the dying embers of rave culture - through a lens of hindsight, even as it was happening. "Disco 2000" - stunning tonight - anticipates the millennium that had not yet come, and flits back and forth in time, reminiscing.
Tonight, they begin, as ever, with "Do You Remember the First Time", a song about cherry-popping which still resonates hard with this packed house, despite the fact that many here have clearly long exchanged a hormone haze for commitment and babies. "Babies", meanwhile, has always been a sensationally bittersweet look back at pubescent lust, sung as its author was well into his sexual prime. It's absolutely terrific tonight, punctuating a set that veers from best-loved hits to arcane relics. "Lipgloss" is a rare treat bathed in pink light; a space-rocking "O U" is from even deeper in the vaults. "Wickerman", from the twilight of their career, features some backing singers and falls a little flat, one of the very few disconnections of the night.
The band have racked up a few babies of their own, too, and found other commitments. The various Pulps have spent the intervening nine years since their farewell gig at Rotherham's Magna Centre in 2002 pursuing interests in pottery (drummer Nick Banks), counselling (Candida Doyle, still a magnificently two-fingered keyboard player), curating film at the ICA (guitarist Mark Webber) and producing other bands (bassist Steve Mackey and guitarist/violin player Russell Senior).
According to Pulp's publicist: "Russell has been dealing in antique glassware, foraging for fungi, systemising his collection of herbs, writing a geologically themed novel and is currently working on a gay musical set during the miners' strike." Tonight they are augmented by session musician Leo Abrahams and latterday live guitarist Richard Hawley. At one point there are five guitarists playing - not bad going for a notionally weedy indie-pop cabal. They really are much louder nowadays.
Tonight's thoroughly edifying show is Pulp's first outing under a roof since their warmly received tour of Australia and Europe's summer festivals began. The unexpected indoor heat makes Jarvis Cocker disrobe a little, early in the set. Gratifyingly, he remains more electrocuted mantis than man, exaggerated limbs punching holes in the air, pelvis thrusting with the fury of old.
He can't just whip his jacket off, of course. Jarvis has to provide a running commentary on how you are supposed to do it, deflating the pop star's traditional act of striptease. Deflation is one of Cocker's specialities, a kind of arch, northern reflex taken to wry extremes. It drove Cocker onstage at the Brits in 1996 to speak truth to power and puncture the excesses of Michael Jackson; it makes him a bit of a hero, still. He can't help but deflate pomposity, even unintentionally. Tonight Cocker quotes various sages who were either born or died on 31 August - John Bunyan, Charles Baudelaire - an act beautifully scotched when Webber hits some guitar strings and Cocker sets off a volley of expletives at him.
Pulp's lasers are in on the act too. These rave tools spend a good 10 minutes spelling out niceties at the start of the show. They incite us to make noise - the oldest cliche in the book. But because it's written in green and it's Pulp, it feels like we are in on the gag of stagecraft. And then there's the biggest raspberry of all: "Common People", that spectacularly nuanced act of class warfare that closes the main set with joyous pandemonium.
Just as important as all Pulp's precious deflation, though, is inflation. Pulp's obsession with sex still drips off these songs, an obsession which the passage of time might suddenly cast in a different light. The years could have turned Cocker into a dirty old man rather than a whirlwind of badly repressed ardour, but somehow, despite the naked pleading of songs like "Underwear", this 47-year-old manages to keep his overactive groin in inverted commas.
After tonight's set at Ireland's Electric Picnic festival, Pulp will go on hiatus once more. No one is saying at this stage whether this is the first of many more times, or the last. Witty and substantial, you could see Pulp as a going, mature concern. But is there a creative future for a band whose sober last album, We Love Life, drew their narrative arc to a close. It is hard to envision a time when repeated plays of "Common People" would grow stale, but Pulp really are too precious to wear out their welcome back.
Dolly Parton - Cardiff Arena - 4 September 2011
As women in pink Stetsons and high heels take their seats, Dolly Parton totters on stage in a tight white dress that exaggerates every curve. There is polite pandemonium. Her face and frame may be triumphs of Botox and collagen, but her voice is as pure as mountain air as she launches into a version of Walking on Sunshine. She does a little hoedown, and her enthusiasm is infectious. She would make an excellent primary school teacher. "We need to feel good," she declares, and you think, "Yes, Miss Parton, we do."
The anecdotes are often longer than the songs. And they are all meticulously rehearsed to sound off-the-cuff, such as the one about the red-haired girl who tried to steal her husband that prefaces Jolene.
There is a bluegrass medley, complete with yee-haws and yodelay-heehoos, that includes Dueling Banjos and numerous references to her being a country girl. Parton reminisces about growing up as one of 12 children in poverty in the Tennessee mountains, and it sounds like an episode of The Waltons, so full is it of folksy charm and homespun homilies. She sits on a quilt to tell a story about a coat made for her from scraps by her "Mama" as images appear on the screen of a sepia shack. As her voice cracks, you don't know whether to laugh or cry. When she picks up a shiny saxophone and asks, "How did I get one of these from such humble beginnings?" you think, "Enough of the protestations of poverty!"
Behind the sentiment and shtick, there are dollops of ersatz country - but this is more of a generic US pop-rock sound than it is the real thing. Nevertheless, Parton is a respected songwriter, and pens most of her own material. When she plays tracks from her new album, Better Day, on an acoustic guitar it reminds you that she was a serious musician and ambassador for Americana before she became a figure of cartoon-country fun.
After a 20-minute interval, Parton reappears in a red sequinned jump-suit ("It costs a lot of money to look this cheap," she jokes), and after dispensing with 2001's Little Sparrow, which is as arrestingly solemn and sparse as a traditional folk tune, she cranks out the hits that people have paid to hear. Here You Come Again gets everyone on their feet, and Islands in the Stream keeps them there.
As the singer makes her final assault with I Will Always Love You, infused with country-gospel fervour, and 9 to 5, sung against a glitzy apocalypse of a Las Vegas backdrop, it occurs to you just how strange this self-styled Backwoods Barbie - equal parts Lady Gaga and Loretta Lynn - really is.
White Denim - Electric Ballroom, London - 2 September 2011
Back in the pre-punk early 1970s, proficiency and precision ruled the Earth. Bands melded fiddly, labyrinthine song structures and eccentric time signatures with a love for blues-fuelled boogie. Their natural habitat was the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test.
Four decades on, Texas four-piece White Denim are one of the last surviving examples of these near-extinct creatures. Their fourth studio album, D, is an amalgam of progressive rock noodling and lithe psychedelia that recalls venerable old experimental jam bands such as the Grateful Dead, but playing live they gain the propulsive throb of a visceral garage band.
Their scruffy focus is bearded, bespectacled singer and guitarist James Petralli, who trades intricate and self-referential riffs and chord shifts with grimacing second guitarist Austin Jenkins and bassist Steve Terebecki. Their rarefied understanding is evident on tracks such as Burnished and Anvil Everything, whose blues chugging and math-rock caveats somehow call to mind the Allman Brothers and Tortoise.
The drawback is that White Denim live are a personality-free zone. Petralli says scarcely a word to the audience as his group segue from one heads-down algorithmic workout to another, and while the virtuoso musicianship is impressive, it can also appear gratuitous. The impression inescapably forms that they would be a fantastic backing band for a charismatic, Iggy Pop-style showboating frontman.
Nevertheless, it's impossible to resist the sprung rhythms and winning grooves of the simultaneously mellow and jagged I Start to Run and Tony Fatti, and by the time they launch into the cosmic meanderings of the new single Drug, it's evident White Denim are a defiant throwback to that other great institution of early 1970s rock: a classic stoners' band.