Richmond Fontaine – Railway Inn, Winchester


First night of the UK tour, and where are Richmond Fontaine? Twenty minutes to door opening and Dan Eccles is on all fours screwing valves into his amp while Willy Vlautin is languidly stringing his guitar. It has somehow taken them six and a half hours to do the one-hour journey from London but they are charmingly laid back and blissfully unaware of their media profile and the fact that there is a capacity crowd outside baying to get in. “Gig of the Week in the Independent? Gee, man, that’s awesome!”
And awesome is the performance; it takes more than a minor detour to faze this decade-old Portland, Oregon quartet, which is just beginning to grab the UK public’s attention. Vlautin is in his element, telling tales both in song and word, and exchanging good-natured banter with the audience. Dan is headbanging like a true punk rocker but the tracks from “Winnemucca” and, more particularly, the hugely admired “Post To Wire” are performed with the intensity they deserve. Opener “The Longer You Wait” recalls the best of American Music Club”, while “Allison Johnson” wouled’t be out of place in a Nick Cave set. The sequencing is a tad bitty, but that’s half the fun, as they take the opportunity in this tiny venue to bed in a programme which will later in the tour slay audiences in much bigger halls. The audience, feeling truly privileged, stayed behind en masse way after closing time.

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Mercury Rev – Bierkeller, Bristol

Isn’t life cruel? No sooner have Grand Drive achieved their long-awaited critical breakthrough with “The Lights In This Town Are Too Many to Count”, than their drummer leaves them seriously in the lurch. They have to cancel their high profile showcases in favour of opening for Mercury Rev as an acoustic trio. Still, they are veterans of adversity and more than capable of bouncing back. With their silken Aussie harmonies and impeccable songwriting, Finn Brothers comparisons are unavoidable, but who better to emulate?
If you like glorious melodies and don’t mind admitting to a penchant for prog, Mercury Rev have the music for you, especially if you prefer your bands to be eye-pleasing. The super-elegance of Jonathan Donahue (the widest smile in rock) and the biker chic of Grasshopper see to that. A slightly altered line-up tried out a raft of new songs from their forthcoming album “The Secret Migration”, some of them more acoustic – poppy, even – than we’ve been used to from Mercury Rev. Fans were also treated to the usual sigh-inducing favourites such as “Spiders and Flies” and “Goddess On A Hiway”. Music doesn’t come any more enchanting than this.

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Jesse Malin / Jeff Klein – Borderline, London

It’s really exciting when the Yanks send over their cool young talent to be discovered first by the UK music press, then the UK public, and then re-exported back to them. Following that, of course, we Brits go over the top in our enthusiasm, the floodgates open and quality control collapses. It’s already happened in the world of handsome and noisy NYC garage bands, next it’ll be the post Ryan Adams / Pete Yorn area of equally handsome but less noisy country-rock singer-songwriters. Meanwhile, let’s just be happy that dear old Jesse Malin is the real rock and roll deal and revel in this classic, media-swamped sweatbath of a showcase.
First up, all the way from Austin, Texas (the place where I wish to wake up after I die) is Jeff Klein. Jeff’s motto is: “No matter how bad things are, everything could probably be worse” – and that’s just how his publicity sheet tries to attract us! With a truly terrifying beard, he looks and sounds like he wishes he was in … Trail Of Dead. Jeff can make a lyric like “Everything’s gonna be all right” sound like a threat. His best song was about being caught mid-wank by his dad, but still we liked him.
And so, as the cellar threatened to turn into a home-made volcano and explode upwards through the pavement, Jesse Malin and his band lived up to the hyperbole. Are they all they should be? Yes sir! Tears started flowing from the off, as the band (dressed, as all alt-punk bands should be, in head-to-toe black) took the stage to the strains of the Clash’s “Bank Robber”.
There’s something reassuringly wholesome about what Jesse does. His presence even brings to mind Ray Davies, while the ecstatically-greeted “Wendy” is a full-scale pop classic. And what a charmer, as he winks to the adoring girls in the front row and tells us tales of Barbra Streisand’s furniture. Call it alt-whatever (it’s youthful, punked-up Neil Young, actually), all the music is crisp, timeless rock and roll with its best, least affected face on. “Death Or Glory” was dedicated to Jesse’s friend Joe Strummer, plus a few choice (sadly probably unheeded) words of advice to G.W. Bush. The almost unbearably poignant “Brooklyn” rapidly turned into a full-scale crowd singalong, and the evening ended with some serious moshing to Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding?”. In the Borderline! And I joined in! Well, it would have been rude not to.
Go, Jesse! You truly are a King of the Underworld.
(from LOGO magazine) 

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Athlete – Shepherds Bush Empire

You know that feeling which overwhelms you occasionally, when whatever it is you’re experiencing is so perfect that you are desperate to preserve it in your memory forever? The words that come into your head are: “Oh, this is beautiful, I’ve got to soak it up”.
So when Athlete display the genius to write a song with exactly that chorus, that’s good enough. When they add it to an irrestibly anthemic tune which forces the audience to bellow it en masse, the subject of the song somehow ends up describing itself. It is beautiful and we are soaking it up.
And who can pretend they haven’t identified with the chorus of One Million: “It was just one of those days I needed to deal with”? First, we had to deal with interminable performances by two of the worst support bands ever to sully Shepherds Bush. Good thing nobody knew who they were, I might have had to be cruel about them. Athlete, though, warming up for the V Festival and taking a brief break from recording their second album, were just perfect. Not just “part of the rock scene” (Westside), they tower above all the competition right now, a model of unpretentiousness and letting the music and songs speak for themselves. To follow the Mercury-nominated “Vehicles and Animals” might seem a well-nigh impossible task, but new songs such as “Tourist” bode well. You almost felt like joining in on first hearing, but you were already too hoarse from yelling about the doubtful merits of El Salvador and Dungeness. Not that I would do anything like that, you understand.
A truly knockout set of killer tunes and genius lyrics. You can’t ask for much more.

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The Datsuns, The Polyphonic Spree, Interpol, The Thrills – Portsmouth Pyramids

 
This years’ NME tour is an entertaining set of contrasts but, with one notable exception, as derivative as hell. It was 2003’s equivalent of a package starring Smokie, Joy Division, The St Winifred’s School Choir and AC / DC. And oooh, how they’ll hate me for saying that.
The Thrills are sadly-misnamed. Battling a disgraceful sound quality on this occasion, they’re a sort of cross between Wilco and Mercury Rev without the charisma or bite of either. Still, it was an undemanding start to the show. “When are they going to play ‘Hotel California’?” asked my neighbour.
Looking like Kraftwerk fronted by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, Interpol were certainly a bit more stimulating, both visually and musically. There’s a disciplined sparsity about their sound which almost makes you forget that Joy Division were doing this stuff two decades ago. But who can blame today’s students for wanting a slice of such action? Style, content, perameters: 10 / 10. Originality? Hmm … They’re not much use if you like any soul in your music, and if that ugly bassist keeps on smoking like that, he won’t live long enough to appreciate his success.
Four things that I like are: friendly people, The Eels Orchestra, Texas (the state, not the band) and the Flaming Lips. As the Polyphonic Spree are all four, I was in heaven as they comprehensively slayed this “cool” audience and elicited mass adulation, despite being a huge gang of berobed hippies. Mind you, they had a cheek expecting us to pay money for all that pretentious droning on their album. Luckily, live, they stick to the tunes. Even the soundman woke up for a while. You can’t help but wonder what kind of salary the members are on. Still, at least there’s no problem if someone leaves – they probably wouldn’t even notice.
And so to the Datsuns. If you like third-rate cock-thrusting seventies heavy metal, this is your band. If not, it isn’t. We need punk, NOW.
From AMPLIFIER magazine

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Jon Amor – Borderline, London

With the strength of interest in guitar rock at the moment, it’s a mystery why Jon Amor seems to have hit a plateau of popularity beyond which the public stubbornly refuses to move. Yet songs are pouring out of him like a jackpot from a fruit machine, and when the UK’s best live act hits the Borderline’s stage with the merciless kick in the balls that is the as-yet unrecorded “Fool Enough”, the already up-for-it audience is slack-jawed with amazement. Not since Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” has such a rifftastic creation opened a show in the cellars of London.
Amor fans, horrified at the band’s stated intention of dropping the show-stopping “Hit So Hard” from their set, were threatening physical protests, but the result is a happy one. They’ve pared this brilliant song down to its bare essentials and made it even more dramatic. And what other band could overcome a mid-set amp failure without any loss of momentum? Following the running repairs, they simply pick up the bullet train that is “1999” from where they’ve left off and continue the aural assault. By the time the muliti-orgasmic climax of “Hard Hat” is reached, the entire band has entered orbit, Jon playing in a frenzy of dexterity that is almost superhuman.
What with one thing and another, it’s clear that Jon Amor is a troubled soul. In “Sweep The Room”, he sings about the “words left unspoken of the bones that I’ve broken and the pain that I’ve caused”. There’s nary a hint of a twelve bar, but this is still the blues in the truest sense of the word.

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Athlete – Shepherds Bush Empire, London

You know that feeling which overwhelms you occasionally, when whatever it is you’re experiencing is so perfect that you are desperate to preserve it in your memory forever? The words that come into your head are: “Oh, this is beautiful, I’ve got to soak it up”.
So when Athlete display the genius to write a song with exactly that chorus, that’s good enough. When they add it to an irrestibly anthemic tune which forces the audience to bellow it en masse, the subject of the song somehow ends up describing itself. It is beautiful and we are soaking it up.
And who can pretend they haven’t identified with the chorus of One Million: “It was just one of those days I needed to deal with”? First, we had to deal with interminable performances by two of the worst support bands ever to sully Shepherds Bush. Good thing nobody knew who they were, I might have had to be cruel about them. Athlete, though, warming up for the V Festival and taking a brief break from recording their second album, were just perfect. Not just “part of the rock scene” (Westside), they tower above all the competition right now, a model of unpretentiousness and letting the music and songs speak for themselves. To follow the Mercury-nominated “Vehicles and Animals” might seem a well-nigh impossible task, but new songs such as “Tourist” bode well. You almost felt like joining in on first hearing, but you were already too hoarse from yelling about the doubtful merits of El Salvador and Dungeness. Not that I would do anything like that, you understand.
A truly knockout set of killer tunes and genius lyrics. You can’t ask for much more.

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PJ Harvey – Zodiac, Oxford

What would it be like? No one had any idea. Last time around, touring “Stories From The City”, Polly had assembled a pretty motley band which alienated many of her followers. Then, in Summer 2003, she hit the road with a classic 3-piece which really did the business. But now she’s gone and recorded an album all by herself. Could she come on like John Shuttleworth and do a solo show? Not as daft as it sounds, because nothing is beyond PJ Harvey.
There are scores of concerts planned for PJH this summer. Warm-ups are usually conducted in her home town of Bridport, but this time there is a minor dispute with the locals on account of noisy rehearsals, so the faithful with their ears to the ground have congregated on Cowley Road, Oxford for the world debut of this new line-up. It’s nine o’clock and the mood is teetering on the edge of ugliness, as the crowd has been here since seven and there’s no support act and still no sign of any music. Frantic activity takes place around the rebellious keyboard stack in an attempt to coax it into life. “Sod the keyboards”, shouts someone, “Gerronwithit!”
And so they did. The new band turns out to be a quartet, with faithful (and brilliant) Rob Ellis on drums, a new guitarist called Josh Klinghoffer and the Fall’s bassist Dingo. They love their nicknames round these parts. Rob Ellis used to be called Rabid and long-term sound engineer Dick Bullivan rejoices in the soubriquet of Head.
Head is crucial to the success of this show. “Uh Huh Her” is quite a thin-sounding record and the band’s recent appearance on “Later” was almost tinny, but in the confines of this small venue, the huge volume and the outstanding echo effects make for a gigantic, deep sound which more than does justice to a long trawl through the best new songs and classics from the past, such as the evergreen “Dress” and a nicely lugubrious “Down By The Water”. Of the new songs, the single “The Letter” is a stunner, and “Who The Fuck” makes a lot more sense than on record. Polly herself (continuing her habit of singing without a guitar more often than with) is on ace form, and Klinghoffer is the best sideperson she has found since the much-missed Jeremy Hogg, despite the prevalent habit of continually swopping guitars with little noticeable effect on the sound.
For Polly Harvey and her band, it’s going to be a very long, hot summer, but the start could hardly have been better.

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Grandaddy – Ancienne Belgique, Brussels

The aroma of joss sticks wafts out from the stage over the largely – um – relaxed audience. The set is adorned with stuffed crows sitting atop TV aerials. The weird pile of wheezing keyboards and effects gadgets which form Jason Lytle’s console sports a blackbird and a cat. The surreal backdrop cranks into action and Modesto’s finest take the stage in all their accustomed sartorial inelegance. “We love your drummer”, shouts a lady and Aaron Burtch smiles with a mixture of shyness and pleasure. He may not be a sex symbol but he is the undisputed chain-smoking champion of the world. This tour has been going well and an air of confidence and general joy at how much they are loved pervades the band. Tim Dryden and Kevin Garcia give absolutely nothing away, but both Jason and guitarist Jim Fairchild are visibly emotional, the latter doubtless because this year he has survived being run over by a truck.
“So many songs, so little time”, sighs Jason in response to the audience’s shouted requests, and it’s true, any band which can afford to omit “Hewlett’s Daughter” through insufficient time has one hell of a catalogue. Spanning gems from “Under The Western Freeway” and items from “The Software Slump” and “Sumday”, the albums on which their rural-techno-prog identity was truly established, the biggest cheers are reserved for “Standby”, “The Crystal Lake” and my personal heart-stopper “The Group Who Couldn’t Say”. The place erupts as Jason’s duck decoy signals “Now It’s On” (introduced as “one of the best songs written on the day this song was written”), while the supremely atmospheric “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s The Pilot”, dedicated to the band’s friend and musical antecedent Elliott Smith, makes a winning coda.
“We’re nobodies from nowhere, thank you for welcoming us to somewhere” is Jason’s self-deprecating comment on the evening. Nobodies? I don’t think so.

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Spiritualized – Southampton University

This evening’s audience consisted mainly of extremely mature students who probably had finished their studies at least twenty years ago. I fear that today’s freshers have musical tastes which don’t include Spiritualized. But how happy all these gentlepersons were to discover beer at £1.60 a pint. “I’ll have a quadruple whisky”, said the guy next to me.
But why do I keep coming back for more Spiritualized? Judging by the size of the crowd, there’s a diminishing returns scenario in progress. And hell, I just know those horrible strobes are gonna give me a three-day headache.
The trouble is that the incomparable opener of “Electricity”, just gets you every time. What follows nowadays is a really pleasing sequence of the “new” Amazing Grace-era Spiritualized, which – whisper it – incorporates elements of folk, country and even blues, interspersed with selections from “Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space”, the album which is destined to remain this band’s meisterwerk. “I think I’m In Love” is a reliable heart-stopper.?
Any band which ploughs its own lonely furrow with such determination deserves support, but the current “clean living” Spiritualized (a contradiction in terms, but apparently true) is, with the help of Tim’s luxurious keyboards and Tom’s vibes, a hypnotically tuneful proposition, spiritual both by name and nature. And there’s something about those intermittent triple-pronged guitar whiteouts that other bands which attempt similar things just can’t match. As for Jason, well, he can’t really sing, he sits around boringly and he’s probably a bit of a grumpy sod, but you just can’t help but love him.
All great bands defy explanation, and Spiritualized is a great band.

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