Thursday, April 27, 2006

Christmas Is A State Of Mind

I'm so far behind with this blog that it's getting ridiculous. There's something in the region of 20-25 albums to write about now! Before I get on to them, though, it's worth a quick discussion of some excellent gigs.

Last weekend saw The Flaming Lips bring their show back to the UK, this time to play at the Royal Albert Hall, by some distance the biggest indoor venue they've performed in here. Before the show, I had wondered whether or not they would simply repeat the same old show - projections, fake blood, glove puppets and all of that. Actually, I'd neglected just how long it has been since they last toured here (perhaps the relative youth of the crowd was testament to this - they have grown in popularity markedly since the release of 'Yoshimi...'). The 'wow' factor of the Flaming Lips show has been massively amplified, now incorporating hundreds of giant balloons, streamers, ticker tape, a collection of famous superheroes and, most amusingly, an army of Santa Clauses doing battle with an army of aliens. The latter supposedly represented a conflict between the Christian religion and the Church of Scientology, with 'the Flaming Lips and all of you stuck in the middle'. It doesn't need a genius to infer from all this that the show was tremendous fun.

The Flaming Lips remain unique in being just about the only band with a major label budget to appear on stage during pre-gig soundchecks. So, whilst Steven Drozd, Michael Ivins and a new hoard of roadies and techies set up the intricate details on stage, Wayne Coyne cheered, punched the air, and deployed his wonderful contraptions that ejaculated streamers high into the air. I can't think of another band that manages to exploit the usually tedious wait between support act and main performance with such gusto.

There's always a debate about whether entertainment requires a band to be distant from their audience. Coyne proves magnificently that it's possible to be a showman and be at one with your audience. His first act is to appear on stage inside an inflatable plastic bubble and then to crawl over the audience inside it - a brilliant opening gambit that immediately wins over the crowd before a note has even been played. Once Coyne is safely back on stage, they launch into a warm and energetic 'Race For The Prize' - still a great song despite its familiarity.

There is plenty of idealist chatter throughout about how enthusiasm can save the world and the show places us in the middle of a giant cosmic war, at keeping with the concept behind both 'Yoshimi..' and new album 'At War With The Mystics'. Coyne's inability to resist sentiment reached a zenith when a Flaming Lips fan, who had been due to propose to his girlfriend at a cancelled Lips New Year's Eve show in California, was invited on stage to 'repropose' on stage at the Albert Hall. Mercifully, to save us all embarrassment, she had not changed her mind.

The only problem with all this organised fun was that the band left themselves little time to actually play their songs. In the space of a 90 minute set, they only managed to squeeze in thirteen songs, with only four selections from the new album, and one an amusing but throwaway jam involving a toy keyboard that produced farmyard animal noises. This left some of their best songs unplayed (no 'Fight Test', 'One More Robot', 'Waiting For A Superman', 'What Is The Light', 'When You Smile' or 'Lightning Strikes The Postman'), whilst some of the more ambitious new recordings have yet to be translated to live performance. I'd also like to see them return to some songs from 'Zaireeka' too. What with it being a 4-CD extravaganza and all that, it's not too easy to get to hear those songs, many of them outstanding.

That being said, the songs that were played were consistently excellent. The new songs fared particularly well, with 'The W.A.N.D.' being delivered through an electronic megaphone and new single 'The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song' already provoking a mass singalong. During the more ponderous 'Vein Of Stars', a mirrorball was lowered and the venue was drenched in stars and glittery reflections. They treat us to a consummately controlled rendition of the epic 'Spark That Bled' from 1999's 'The Soft Bulletin' and an obligatory 'She Don't Use Jelly', although the band seem to have lost none of their wide-eyed enthusiasm for this wonderfully quirky pop song. The cheesy piano singalongs which conclude 'Yoshimi...' and '...Jelly' are an absolute delight. The band have one more trick up their sleeves with the encore - a savage blast through Black Sabbath's 'War Pigs' that neatly encapsulates their obvious frustration with George W Bush's America. It sounded triumphant.

As I was getting my bag from the cloakroom at the end of the gig, I overheard a conversation containing some rather lukewarm reactions to the gig. I can perfectly understand the frustration at so few songs being played - but the idea that Wayne Coyne might be 'arrogant' struck me as somewhat strange. Here is a frontman who knows the value of putting on a good show, and making the audience an intrinsic part of that performance. It's the same trick that Bruce Springsteen has consistently pulled off over many years, simply utilising more gimmicky methods. To me, Coyne comes across as warm, humane, genial, perhaps even modest - he's acutely aware of his limitations, but still keen to achieve everything he can. We certainly need more bands like this to crossover to mainstream success.

The following day, I attended Calexico and Iron and Wine's only London show at the Forum in Kentish Town. What a wonderful evening this was - strongly reminiscent of one of those revue shows of the 1960s, where a number of artists would be involved, occasionally performing together, with the bare minimum of interruption. The stage was arranged thoughtfully, with a vast range of instruments including keyboards, marimba and other percussion, lap steel guitar and bandoneon. The backdrop was a range of projections, including the distinctive artwork that has come with both Calexico and Iron and Wine's recent releases, set against a white mesh. This made for a strangely intoxicating effect and I have to confess there were a few occasions when I was drawn more to the images at the expense of the music.

Iron and Wine kicked off proceedings with a deceptively calm performance full of subtlety and grace. I wondered if Sam Beam's quasi-whispered vocal tones would translate well to this kind of venue, but it worked pretty well, despite the painfully audible hustle and bustle at the two bars. He remains one of American music's most distinctive lyricists, frequently creating his own syntax to encapsulate his peculiar rustic world. For me, with a little more exposure, he could be part of a grand American literary tradition incorporating Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Sadly, too few people are aware of his extraordinary gifts. Like Dylan, his songs tend to extemporise lyrical ideas through melodic repetition, and a couple of the songs perhaps drifted on a little too long. He kept things interesting through through subtle shifts in dynamics and phrasing - nuances that very few modern singer-songwriters manage to capture. Best of all were the opening 'Sodom, South Georgia' and an unnamed new song, which once past a rare moment of forgetfulness, sounded rich and full.

He then brought out a backing band, including some members of Calexico, to tackle the bluesier side of his output, including some songs from last year's 'Woman King' EP. There was a good feel for the music displayed here, although it was perhaps a little relentless, lacking the careful sensitivity of the more stripped down arrangements. It also seemed a little under-rehearsed, with a couple of gaffes, notably when the guitarist using an E-bow appeared to start one of the songs in completely the wrong key. Oops.

The first half of the show concluded with Iron and Wine and Calexico joining forces for a short set of three tracks from last year's outstanding mini album 'In The Reins'. There was a splendidly groovy 'Red Dust', a lengthy and mysterious 'Burn That Broken Bed' and a rendition of 'Prison on Route 41' every bit as powerful and compelling as the recorded version. The band sounded loose but engaged and the dusty desert sound was captured brilliantly. It certainly left me wanting a lot more.

After a short break, we were treated to a short set from Mexican singer/guitarist Salvador Doran, something both unexpecetd and immensely fulfilling. Doran has a massive, quasi-operatic voice, but uses it to perform something akin to flamenco music, with rapidly strummed guitar patterns and strange vocal popping and clicking noises. It was remarkably spirited and enervating.

Then Calexico performed a mostly captivating headlining set, drawing mainly on new album 'Garden Ruin' (which I still have to review at some point) and 'Feast Of Wire'. John Convertino's delicate and considered drumming provides not just rhythm, but texture and colour as well and whilst much has been made of the straight-ahead rock elements of the new album, the songs that stood out for me were the elegant and sensitive 'Cruel', Yours and Mine' and 'Panic Open String'. Of the older material , 'Not Even Stevie Nicks' remains one of their best songs, and it sounded particularly cinematic in live performance. A faithful rendition of Love's 'Alone Again Or' and a positively rollicking 'Crystal Frontier' bring things to an appropriately rousing conclusion.

The band make full use of their varied instrumentation, with multi-instrumentalists swapping between brass, guitar and percussion. Paul Niehaus' lap steel guitar was played to perfection throughout. Niehaus is a real talent, perhaps his only limitation being a slight (but sufficiently scary) resemblance to Edward from Royston Vasey's Local Shop. John Kell felt that some of the tunes had got buried somewhere in the middle of the set. In that Joey Burns seemed perhaps overly keen to reshape and contort the melodies in some songs, he may have a point, although my attention was held mostly by the commanding performance of a uniquely inventive band that effortlessly crosses genre divisions.

Pleasingly, Iron and Wine returned for the encore, joined once again by Salvador Doran for 'He Lays In the Reins' before delivering a sublime and haunting version of 'All Tomorrow's Parties'. All very well, and by this stage it was getting pretty late for a Sunday evening - but the only two songs left unplayed from 'In The Reins' were 'A History Of Lovers' and 'Dead Man's Will', my two clear favourites. Oh well - with such a rich display of musicianship and poetic craft on display, minor quibbles are hardly important.

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