Friday, June 04, 2004

The Union Of Wine

Last Wednesday, Toronto's wonderful Hidden Cameras returned to London to play 'The Union of Wine' show, and I felt very privileged to be part of the audience. London's Bush Hall is an unusual venue, with its ornate design and chandaliers. It also lacks any real security presence. It would not have been too much of a challenge to steal some guitars from the stage. This is refreshing in our paranoid age when most gig venues frisk all customers, search bags, and occasionally even place us all under metal detectors. It also made for an intimate concert performance, with little distance between band and audience. The result was a celebratory and joyful show with a generous set list incorporating most of the band's best songs and plenty of new material. It did indeed feel like a union - with the entire audience basking in the joyous mood. Indeed, there was also wine. And it was good.

The Hidden Cameras are already a very distinctive and special band - at full strenght they are thirteen members strong, and their remarkably catchy pop songs manage to combine a catalogue of sexual deviancy with genuinely moving romantic sentiment. They are a band with a real outsider appeal - that essential quality for an indie cult. They are regularly compared with Belle and Sebastian and The Magnetic Fields - yet these seem fairly lazy comparisons when their self-proclaimed 'gay folk church music' is so individual. They seem forthright and honest where Stephin Merritt is often ironic and detached, and they seem inclusive and committed where Belle and Sebastian can occasionally seem twee and half-hearted. 'Ban Marriage' was by some distance my favourite single of last year (even with some stiff competition from the likes of The Crimea), and 'The Smell of Our Own' was an impressive debut album - heartwarming, hummable, and humane.

This show maintained a consistently high level of energy. The band seemed to be enjoying themselves, bashing out a large selection of new songs to surprisingly rapturous applause. In fact, the sense of audience delight increases throughout the show, reaching a peak only in the exhilirating encore of 'Smells Like Happiness' and 'The Animals of Prey'. Pretty much everything is played tonight ('A Miracle' was perhaps a notable omission from the setlist) from rowdy versions of 'Ban Marriage' and 'Breathe On It' through energetic versions of less familiar anthems such as 'Music Is My Boyfriend' and the charming ode to self-publishing 'Fear of 'Zine Failure'. All this was accompanied throughout by a duo of masked semi-naked go-go dancers, supplying the audience with grapes and wine.

At least half the set was brand new material from the forthcoming 'Missisauga Goddam' album (due out in the UK on Rough Trade on 12th July). The fact that such material could receive such a rapturous reception is testament to the band's energy and warmth. Many of the new songs sounded like an extension of an already established, yet still undeniably winning formula. The arrangements were bigger, the sound bolder, and the performances rollicking. New single 'The Fear Is On' sounded both infectious and intense, whilst 'The Union Of Wine' benefited greatly from a big, hook-laden chorus. There were also notably melancholic moments which provided some significant dynamic contrast in the set. 'Missisauga Goddam' itself eeked a touching melody from a very familiar chord sequence, and the show opener - a song which I had never heard before, stripped down to just Joel Gibb's voice and guitar and a duo of string players was striking in its simplicity and emotional impact. It was a remarkably stirring song to open a rousing, entertaining and thoroughly invigorating set.

The second night of the Pixies residency at London's Brixton Academy arguably felt like too much of a union - with the loudest, most aggressive crowd I have come across in many years. The response to this reformation was so rapturous that the band came back to the stage for three encores, performing a generous set consisting of 29 songs. On the plus side, it was not an obscure set of unusual album tracks and B-sides. It included all of their most familiar material. However, after the camp fun of the Hidden Cameras the previous night, this felt much more like an endurance test, not least because some of those annoyingly manic pushing and jumping fans were impailing me on those completely pointless barriers that are dotted around the Academy's ample standing area. My back still ached on waking up this morning. This discomfort wasn't helped by the band being largely motionless, expresionless and aloof. To be honest, I wasn't expecting anything different - The Pixies are clearly a band who have earned their claim to musical significance; perhaps they need do no more than just play the songs. Frank Black did at least acknowledge the audience towards the end by asking for the house lights to be turned up, but none of the songs were announced, it just felt like a continuous bombardment or admonition. And, call me sacreligious if you want, it was just a little bit dull.

Given the reports in the press that this lenghty show was 'the best they had even played' and the awestruck reactions of other musicians in the audience (Badly Drawn Boy claimed 'they were incredible'), I really did wonder if I had been watching a different show. Other than a blisteringly intense 'Bone Machine', an anthemic version of 'Gigantic' and a colossal 'Caribou', I never really felt like I was watching an important or influential band. When the house lights were turned on the audience at the end - it felt like too little too late. The audience, nevertheless, were rapturous, obsessed with the Pixies legend and possibly blind to the reality. I'm not going to make the case that this was an awful gig but, to my ears, it seemed flat, lacking in contrast and unengaging. The performance of 'Debaser' seemed to be to be a case in point. As my friends threw themselves into the moshpit with wild abandon, I struggled to hear Frank Black's guttaral scream (or indeed any sonic definition) over the general rumble and found this reading of the song to be lacking the visceral intensity of the recorded version. I wouldn't want to make the case that the Hidden Cameras are a better band than the Pixies, nor that they are as significant - but their show was massively more entertaining.

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