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
With the strength of interest in guitar rock at the moment, its 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 UKs best live act hits the Borderlines 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 Zeppelins “Black Dog” has such a rifftastic creation opened a show in the cellars of London.
Amor fans, horrified at the bands stated intention of dropping the show-stopping “Hit So Hard” from their set, were threatening physical protests, but the result is a happy one. Theyve 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 theyve 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, its clear that Jon Amor is a troubled soul. In “Sweep The Room”, he sings about the “words left unspoken of the bones that Ive broken and the pain that Ive caused”. Theres nary a hint of a twelve bar, but this is still the blues in the truest sense of the word.
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.
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 shes 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. Its nine oclock and the mood is teetering on the edge of ugliness, as the crowd has been here since seven and theres 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 Falls 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 bands 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, its going to be a very long, hot summer, but the start could hardly have been better.
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.
This evenings audience consisted mainly of extremely mature students who probably had finished their studies at least twenty years ago. I fear that todays freshers have musical tastes which dont include Spiritualized. But how happy all these gentlepersons were to discover beer at £1.60 a pint. “Ill 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, theres 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 bands meisterwerk. “I think Im 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 Tims luxurious keyboards and Toms vibes, a hypnotically tuneful proposition, spiritual both by name and nature. And theres something about those intermittent triple-pronged guitar whiteouts that other bands which attempt similar things just cant match. As for Jason, well, he cant really sing, he sits around boringly and hes probably a bit of a grumpy sod, but you just cant help but love him.
All great bands defy explanation, and Spiritualized is a great band.
Isn’t it horrible when a band you view as your own personal property starts getting popular and you have to go and see them in barn-like conference centres? But the Flaming Lips, bless them, have been at it so bloody long and are just so plain loveable that you can forgive them and magnanimously allow other people to benefit from the rays of pure sunshine they emit.
The Flaming Lips are one of the few bands one can dare to call “unique”, which is probably why the audience ranged from 16 to 60, all curious to put a finger on that mysterious x-factor which makes them so special. Is it the understated but staggering virtuosity of Steven Drodz? Is it the incongruousness of Michael Ivans, who manages to convey the air of a university professor despite being dressed as a snow leopard? Or is it the fact that Wayne Coyne is the man you would most like to go to the pub with? It certainly isn’t all those furry animals, although they are part of the fun. Oh heck, all right then, it’s the glorious music.
No band has ever created a bigger knockout punch of a set opener than “Race For The Prize”. It ensures that the audience experiences an almighty adrenaline rush from the first instant, which is then miraculously sustained for the next one and a half hours. Me, I had other worries, because this was my first ever experience of a photographers’ pit, and being covered in confetti, splashed with fake blood and smashed in the face with huge rubber balls was quite a challenging initiation. The feeling? The purest, purest joy.
With the shoulders of his crumpled suit resembling a cricketer’s crotch after the new ball has been taken (they obviously don’t take a dry cleaner on tour), Wayne introduced the BIC audience to the art of community singing in a venue which presumably normally only sings along to “Things Can Only Get Better”. The song was “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots”, but soon it was “Happy Birthday” and, oh joy, “She Don’t Use Jelly”, during which Coyne’s latest madness entails blowing a gigantic balloon until it bursts, showering the audience with yet more debris. As the giant mirror balls spin into action for the finale of “Do You Realise?”, we find ourselves involved in a singalong chorus of “everyone some day will die” (honest). And on that theme, it is a measure of Coyne’s communication skill that, amongst all the mayhem, he still commanded an emotion-filled silence for a charmingly cogent anti-war speech and a moving dedication of “Waiting For Superman” to Elliott Smith.
This is one band that you can’t ever imagine letting you down. Why, they even still set up their own gear. “Thanks, everybody!”.
The Columbiahalle is in the old American sector of Berlin, just opposite the diplomatic and military buildings from where the Berlin airlift was launched. That’s why the Underground station next to it is called “Platz der Luftbrücke”. As we emerged from said station, anticipating a select and low-key evening with John Parish and his band, we were startled to find ourselves surrounded by thousands of rowdy, grungy, beer bottle-throwing youngsters. Blimey, John has a bigger following in the German capital than we anticipated.
And then it became clear: The Columbiahalle has a little brother called the “Columbiafritz” lurking in its shadows. Here was the venue for the John Parish show, while the stoners were out in force for the Queens Of The Stone Age next door. We treacherously toyed for a moment with the idea of pretending that our guest passes were for the main hall, but, having travelled half way across Europe, settled for the more discerning, better behaved, more intimate gathering in the “Fritz”. Two credibility-boosting things that John’s band has which the Queens don’t, however, are: 1. Their tour bus is bigger and more densely populated. 2. They got busted on their way through France and the Queens didn’t.
Well, you know that thing that only happens on rare and magical occasions? I’m talking about when the encore have been done, the house lights have been switched on and taped music is blasting out over the P.A. It’s obvious the band isn’t going to come back on, yet still the audience refuses to go home. Short of cracking open the tear gas, there’s no option for John and co but to re-appear one more time. “That’s it”, he gasps, “you’re all invited backstage for a drink. Every last one of you”. “Westward Airways” is reprised and the evening has been a winner.
This is no ordinary band, oh no. Just look at the state of them. The more “experienced” members (John, Jeremy Hogg and Portishead’s Adrian Utley) mainly keep their heads firmly bowed to concentrate on their enormously complicated foot pedal boards, thus revealing their uniform state of follicle fallibility. Then there are loads of youngsters like Jesse Morningstar (who also doubled as support act) and Ben Shillabeer (who also doubled as T-shirt vendor). Finally, the ensemble is completed by the demure Claire McTaggart (violin) and Tammy Payne (drums and vocals).
Last time John hit the road, he had a diverting backdrop of visuals from the film Rosie, but this time, with no stage antics and no particular visual focal point, it’s solely about the music. And the music is so strong and so atmospheric, (there are nine of them, you know) that there is a tangible feeling of affection and emotion throughout the hall as almost all of the new album “How Animals Move”, plus a good chunk of “Rosie” is performed with precision and spirit.
You might think I was mad to travel all the way to Berlin for a gig. Well, I wasn’t. I was bloody sensible. You should have done it too.
From AMPLIFIER magazine
In a country where Mercury Rev’s “The Dark Is Rising” has recently been adopted as the station ident of one of the leading TV channels, it’s perhaps not surprising that Doves are popular enough for their album “The Last Broadcast” to debut at number 1 in the charts and stay there. We Brits like a good tune, you see.?
There are a couple of results of this. Firstly, it means that the audience doesn’t care that Doves are a charisma-free zone. That’s nicely reassuring in an industry dominated by plastic, manufactured bands, and maybe bodes well for possible acceptance in the less fashion-conscious US. The fact that the US single Top 100 in May contained not a single British record caused front page news, TV investigations and much soul-searching and self-flagellation within the UK music industry.?
Secondly, it means that the audience is as eclectic as it is possible to be, consisting of nice middle-aged couples attracted by the soaring melodies and the fact that they cover King Crimson (I think they sound like Camel, and I’m sticking to it) plus a healthy (or unhealthy) proportion of out and out druggies attracted by the dance elements. The guys round us where so high I thought they were going to take off and float round the room.?
What? The music? Well, there the news is all good. Given that both the new Doves album and the previous one (“Lost Souls”) are masterpieces, the only question was “Can they hack it live?” and the answer is an emphatic yes. The lack of traditional rock poses on stage (bassist and lead vocalist Jimi Goodwin looks like your average garage mechanic, or, to put it another way, a member of Grandaddy) is more that made up for by a stunning light show and a highly imaginative movie backdrop which had me pining for the Cure or even Pink Floyd. Yet these are hip guys from Manchester who claim never to have seen a ship before arriving in Portsmouth.?
Highlights are hard to pinpoint, since there wasn’t a dull musical moment at all, unless I missed it in the queue for the bathroom. A substantial proportion of both albums was played, including a beautiful mood-altering acoustic interlude on “Friday’s Dust” and then, in the encore, they employed a trick familiar to Electric Soft Parade and … And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: Drummer and lead vocalist swapped places for a jaw-droppingly brilliant rendition of “Here It Comes”, introduced by a celluloid John Cooper Clarke. A brief tongue-in-cheek Moby / Sub Sub pastiche and they were gone.?
Doves appeared totally shell-shocked at their unexpected but richly-deserved surge in popularity. And this is only the beginning.?
From Amplifier Magazine
Heres a taste of the uniquely enjoyable madness that is South By Southwest. Every evening, all evening, at the Junction of Sixth and Trinity, a group of Christian evangelists try to convert the many thousands of sinners streaming past. As every building is shaking to the bone-shattering volume of punk bands, rock bands, metal bands, blues bands and Japanese Hardcore Transvestite Glam-Slam bands, the only way they can convey their message is to shout. But they are not alone. Permanently challenging them is a wizened old hippie dressed in nothing but a skimpy leopardskin chemise and a thong. His method of countering Gods word is to shout even louder than them. He roars terrifyingly into their faces for as long as they are there, which is a long time. Its great entertainment, but theres no time to spare, for we have 1200 bands to see.
The madness continues. In an event where eccentricity is almost de rigeur (Robyn Hitchcock comes across as being perfectly normal), London act Paul The Girl, dressed in a silver lamé dress and a trilby, is playing a looped Led Zeppelin song to fifteen people on the 18th floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. She is warming up I kid you not for Jamie Cullum.
At Elysium, the singer of one of the many Japanese all-girl groups present is reading her between-song patter from cue cards. The front row of the audience is having a great time. “Say rock & roll”, they plead.
SxSW is famously impossible to review, because at any one moment, scores of bands are playing concurrently in different places. Teeth-grinding dilemmas are a permanent reality. Franz Ferdinand or Athlete? Razorlight, the Veils or the Gourds? How do you decide? Why, you drink loads of beer and do whatever seems right at the time, which is almost certainly wrong. My best example: Choosing Drive By Truckers rather than the Polyphonic Spree, on the basis that it would be easier to get in. It was, but the Truckers were a load of sub-Lynryd Skynryd bombastic country rock, of a standard lower than hundreds of other bands around this weekend.
So what is the “real” SxSW? Is it the industry bashes where labels, and, increasingly, national cultural agencies show off their new artists? These ones are good to suss out, because they invariably dole out lashings of free beer. The UK Showcase “pre-party” (may have got the terminology wrong) saw snooty music journalists mingling with Radio 2 DJs and the likes of Tom McRae and Thea Gilmore being terrifyingly cool. Refreshingly uncool and just charming were Aqualung, who played this event acoustically. “Weve never played at a wedding before”, observed Matt Hales.?
Nearer to the “real” SxSW was the brunch party at Marias Taco Express, hosted by Aljandro Escovedo, a respected Austin musician who is currently much in the limelight on account of a serious illness. As breakfast burritos crunched all around, the huge but cuddly Nicolas Tremulis pricked the bubble refreshingly with some swampy Chicago blues. “If theres anyone influential out there”, he cried, with unusual candour, “dont sign us, we suck!”
Even closer to the “real” SxSW (maybe on account of being miles from anywhere, conducted in the Church of the Friendly Ghost, a prefab on a suburban trailer park), was the Ba Da Bing party, featuring those lovely Sons and Daughters, a Glasgow band who are relishing the increasing attention their hugely entertaining mutant punk-folk is receiving. They have the added advantage of being frienfs with Franz Ferdinand, which means that they are going to be heard by lots of people. Seldom has a band deserved it more (and seldom, incidentally, has a band been more drunk).
Ah, Franz Ferdinand. The event in which an act that no one has heard of is booked into a little venue but then turns out to be the hottest ticket in town is definitely part of the “real” SxSW. The mayhem of this show is hard to describe, and there is absolutely no doubt that FF is a great band, but there is a certain arch knowingness about them which takes the edge off. Credit where its due, but once youve got it into your head that Alex Capranos is actually Wilco Johnson and Nick McCarthy is a member of Spandau Ballet, its hard to concentrate. Whatever you do, though, dont try to stare out the bassist hes scary. So allow me to observe that the band immediately before FF, namely Clearlake, stole the show as far as I was concerned. With their pastoral melodies, melancholy lyrics and unstudied, low-key delivery, this is a band whose patience will one day be rewarded.?
If you can get over the feeling of “Oh God, what if theres a fire?”, Stubbs Barbecue on Red River is probably the best place to be. Here, I contrived to see Detroits Von Bondies twice one of the few bands for which the expression “You rock” is truly apt. Las Vegas semi new romantic revivalists The Killers impressed too, as did the showbiz-dedicated Hives, trying out some new songs on us.
One really rewarding thing to do at SxSW is go and see a band that youve liked before and find that they dont let you down. Stellastarr* opted to play a little show at the Red Eyed Fly rather than a schmoozefest showcase, and it worked. This is a band you should take someone to see who wants to understand what rock and roll is all about. They are just incendiary. Bassist Amanda Tannen would stir unworthy thoughts in the most respectable of gentlemen, while Shaun Christensen really should invest in a trouser roadie. Similarly un-disappointing was Jesse Malin at the Cedar Street Courtyard. This New York ex-punk is charming, literate and humorous, plus has a lovely voice and great songs. A new album from Jesse later in the year is indeed something to look forward to.
Mentioned in dispatches: Sarah Sharp, whose “do-it-yourself” ethic has resulted in “Fourth Person”, an astonishingly accomplished album which will kick-start her career; International Noise Conspiracy, deft masters of the art of scissor-kicking, microphone-lassooing and vying with the Hives in the “Scandinavians in daft outfits” stakes; Robyn Hitchcock – so its true hes still big in the States; the Black Keys, whose “turn it up to eleven” distorted blues couldnt have found a more appropriate home than Antones; American Music Club, who gave the lie to the notion that legends shouldnt re-form (as unfortunately demonstrated by Big Star); representing the huge Aussie contingent, a shockingly well-behaved Sleepy Jackson. After two technical breakdowns, even the mildest-mannered band would have smashed their instruments, but the Sleepys mood was positively mellow. Great, though; oh, and a couple of dozen more.
Disappointments: The Veils (it just doesnt work); Graham Parker (hes been at the same thing for too long); Electrelane (amateurism is sometimes good, but not in this case); and Cerys Matthews, who looked and sounded virtually unrecognizable in her perfunctory set. And by the way, if this all seems a bit indie for you, its worth mentioning that other artists appearing included NERD, Kris Kristofferson and yes Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
No two reviews of SxSW will mention the same bands, and certainly none will agree on a highlight. Mine had the unexpected bonus of being a bolt out of the blue. The scruffy, Grandaddy-style unkempt bunch of apparent Austin slackers called Centro-Matic didnt look promising at all, but the explosive performance of their anthemic songs think Radiohead meets Neil Young with a healthy dollop of grunge thrown in caught the soporific audience on the hop, chewed them up and spat them out, exhausted.
It was a low-key afternoon affair at the Red Eyed Fly, so there probably werent any cheque book-waving A & R men shouting “sign ’em”. But there should have been.
From LOGO magazine