Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A Holy Trinity

Not one, not two - but three fantastic gigs to write about!

First up was the seemingly unstoppable Mose Allison at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho. Now well into his seventies, he still tours relentlessly, and is always careful to come to London for his annual stint at the charmingly intimate Pizza Express Jazz Club. Although Allison plays in the traditional piano trio format and there is plenty of improvisation within the set, those that might usually be put off by jazz should consider approaching Allison as a starting point. He is a songwriter of genius, rhyming with consummate ease and with the sharp wit of a great satirist. His conversational, rhythmic vocal inflections also add attack to crisp renditions of classics from the American songbook - from the likes of Duke Ellington (Trouble In Mind), Willie Dixon (The Seventh Son) and numerous others.

Much the same as last year, Allison played two hour long sets punctuated by a short break, his delicate piano flourises complimented neatly by Roy Babbington's precise and full bass tones, and by Paul Clarvis' fluid drumming (although the latter's bizarre facial expressions and strangely rigid posture meant he frequently resembled a Thunderbirds puppet). Although age has withered Allison's melodic command slightly (his pitch seems to drift when attempting to hold long notes), it has not compromised his phrasing and careful enunciation. Much of the pleasure of these concerts is gained from hearing his fully engaged performances of brilliant lyrics - there is never any sign of him tiring of playing these songs, many of which he must now have aired coutless times. Especially brilliant are 'Your Mind Is On Vacation' ('if talking was criminal - you'd lead a life of crime/Because your mind is on vacation but your mouth is working overtime') and 'Ever Since The World Ended' ('Ever since the world ended, I don't go out as much/People that I once befriended, just don't seem to stay in touch') with their shamelessly clever, deeply funny rhyme schemes, the latter wryly concluding 'we're better off without it anyway'. 'Everybody's Crying Mercy' is as good a state of the nation as I've heard in recent years ('everybody's crying justice, just as long as there's business first'), whilst 'Certified Senior Citizen' maintains his peculiar brand of optimism by poking fun at his increasing age.

The playing was full of subtle flourishes, although hardly innovative. That, however, was never really the point - Allison was never likely to latch on to any avant-garde bandwagon. As much a part of the tradition of popular song as the conventions of trio jazz, his playing his concise and very much in touch with its blues heritage. Much of it seemed endearingly spontaneous, particularly the conventional but fun four bar alternating solos at the end of the opening set. A highly enjoyable evening, and there does not yet seem to be any indication that Allison plans to retire, so I look forward to next year.

Mose Allison's brand of humour is full of irony and dry comment, but those who persist in arguing that music and comedy don't mix should definitely have attended this week's Unpeeled night at The Windmill in Brixton, which delivered a peerlessly entertaining line-up. Opening the night was the wonderful MJ Hibbett (see my earlier comments on the gig Unit played with MJ Hibbett and The Validators in Cambridge). Tonight, it was a solo set, focussing entirely on classic songs (which would have been huge hits in my parallel universe), and one which seemed to impress many members of the audience not familiar with the material. Hibbett's optimism remains infectious, and provocative outlook on social relations ('F**king Hippy') and politics ('Things'll Be Different When I'm In Charge' dares to offer some solutions) render him quite unique among singer-songwriters. Add this to a series of hummable melodies that seem to owe debts to skiffle and possibly even nursery rhyme and there is a winning combination. His voice has grown from a once timid, shaky foundation to a more confident projection, and seemed on especially good form this time. It all ended with a hilarious cover of 'Boom! Shake The Room', during which I embarassed myself spectacularly with some audience participation, sadly without anyone else joining in!

Up next were The Clashettes, a girl dance group who performed a brief choreographed routine to the soundtrack of 'Should I Stay Or Should I Go'. The performance was a little rough around the edges, but the enthusiasm and gusto were far more important to the overall effect than any mastery of technique. I enjoyed it simply because it's so rare to see anything like this performed in a pub venue. The Windmill promoters continue to impress with their open-minded yet thoughtful line-ups.

Initially, I didn't quite know what to make of Gary Le Strange. A grown man onstage in uncomfortably tight PVC trousers and a wealth of make-up does generally induce a rush for the nearest exit. I had to stay for a few minutes to work out whether or not he was serious. Actually, his parody of 80s electro-pop and nu-romantic glamour was acutely observed and overpoweringly funny, particularly on what may have been called 'Is My Toaster Sentient?' ('if not, then why did it give Mr. Kettle a kiss'). Seemingly both afraid and entranced by modern technology, Le Strange sang 'in character', delivering a bountiful selection of similarly ridiculous, occasionally entirely nonsensical songs. He performed to backing track, but with absolutely no shame whatsoever, he oversang with zealous enthusiasm and jumped energetically all over the place. Splendid.

Bringing the night to a fun conclusion were Mitch Benn and The Distractions. Benn composes and performs the music for a number of Radio 4 shows, most notably the satirial Now Show. He bears a remarkable resemblance to Bill Bailey, and speaks with a similar rapid-fire tongue, his whole set grafted together by a series of impeccably timed association links. Hardly anyone escapes his remorseless parodying - his guitar effects unit enables a scarily accurate impression of the trademark U2 sound, and there is a brilliant analysis of the shortcomings of both Colplay themselves, and their current legion of imitators ('everyone sounds like Coldplay now'). His girl backing band are tremendously well-rehearsed and they create a pretty impressive sound for a line-up of guitar, bass and electronic drums, although the bassist occasionally switches to keyboards. It is of course pure comedy, and it doesn't leave the same lasting impact of Hibbett's more original approach to music - but judged on the basis of its own intentions, Mitch Benn's set is a masterclass in comic timing and painfully accurate observations.

Then, the following day, John Kell and I made it out and about again - this time to the Transgressive Records night at The Barfly in Chalk Farm. Opening the night was songwriter Jeremy Warmsley, for whom I'm currently playing drums in his side-project Correspondent.
I wrote quite critically about Jeremy's last gig, despite being an admirer of his angular yet immediate brand of songwriting. This gig seemed altogether more confident, and was mercifully free from the sound problems that marred the show at The Marquee. Without being soaked in reverb, Jeremy's voice sounds unusual and full of character, and his singing seemed both more powerful and more controlled than on previous occasions. He seemed to connect a little better with the crowd too - no jokes or anything, but some between song announcements and a less aloof performance seemed to win people over. We'll certainly be hearing a lot more from him - his debut single is out on Exercise 1 in June, and it looks like there will be another release on Transgressive later in the year.

Next up were the utterly brilliant The Pipettes, who clearly know the value of good old fashioned entertainment. They are shamelessly retro - looking back to doo-wop and the classic girl pop groups of the late fifties and early sixties. Yet, in itself, this is such a refreshing concept - especially when most of today's next big things seem incapable of realising that pop music did exist before 1977. The Pipettes themselves are three exceptionally pretty girls, who sing of boys and high school proms whilst throwing shapes and grinning gleefully. They are backed by The Cassettes, who wear matching shirt and tank-top combos. The songs are incredibly compact - but still manage to contain joy and pain in equal amount. Quite simply, with songs like 'Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me', 'Judy' and 'I Like A Man In Uniform', they are great fun. My new favourite band.

How to follow that? Well, Duels at least have a reasonable stab at it. They seem to be harking back to the same combination of disco rhythms and punk energy that has fuelled the likes of Franz Ferdinand but are characterised by intensity and aggression rather than the urge to make people dance. They are certainly energised, and make effective use of some clever vocal harmonies. Their songs also seem intricate and twisting, and whilst they tend to fit a loud-quiet template, they mostly avoid cliches. Ones to watch.

I enjoyed The Young Knives as well, albeit to a lesser extent. I was perhaps a little agnostic about their somewhat relentless assault on the senses. They are a peculiar looking band - in school tie and jacket, the singer closely resembles Angus Young from AC/DC (possibly intentionally), and as the band themselves remark, the bass player and co-vocalist is basically a 'fat Timmy Mallett'. They have some spiky, imposing songs too, although their tendency to bellow them all at full throttle did become a little tiresome towards the end of the set. Many of the songs had bizarre and inconsistent lyrics - occasionally inspired but also frustrating. With a little more subtlety incorporated into their approach, they might well become more distinctive.

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