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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Flaming Lips – BIC, Bournemouth

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!”.

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John Parish – Columbiafritz, Berlin

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

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Doves – Portsmouth Pyramids

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  

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SXSW 2004

Here’s 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 God’s 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. It’s great entertainment, but there’s 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. “We’ve never played at a wedding before”, observed Matt Hales.?
Nearer to the “real” SxSW was the brunch party at Maria’s 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 there’s anyone influential out there”, he cried, with unusual candour, “don’t 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 it’s due, but once you’ve got it into your head that Alex Capranos is actually Wilco Johnson and Nick McCarthy is a member of Spandau Ballet, it’s hard to concentrate. Whatever you do, though, don’t try to stare out the bassist – he’s 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 there’s a fire?”, Stubbs Barbecue on Red River is probably the best place to be. Here, I contrived to see Detroit’s 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 you’ve liked before and find that they don’t 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 it’s true he’s still big in the States; the Black Keys, whose “turn it up to eleven” distorted blues couldn’t have found a more appropriate home than Antones; American Music Club, who gave the lie to the notion that legends shouldn’t 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 doesn’t work); Graham Parker (he’s been at the same thing for too long); Electrelane (amateurism is sometimes good, but not in this case); and Cerys