Wednesday, July 12, 2006

So Damn Good We Did It Twice

Scritti Politti, King's Cross Scala, 11/7/06

So, what would happen at Green Gartside's first official live performances for 26 years? What would the sound be like? How would he recreate his meticulous studio pop sheen? In the end, it was all rather straightforward, with a full band playing a sumptuous and well-crafted take on mostly new material, with few frills or distractions. Gartside's crippling stagefright has been long-documented, but the only signs of this tonight were some references to the complexities of some of the songs and a decidedly old fashioned orchestral music stand for lyric prompts (amusingly kept in the correct order throughout the gig by keyboardist Dave). In all other respects, he seemed refreshingly down to earth, personable - perhaps even quietly confident.

Of course, he had every reason to feel revitalised. To these ears at least, 'White Bread Black Beer' is a collection of songs every bit as good as anything in the Scritti back catalogue. It also marks a more successful intergration of hip hop and electro influences than the less subtle rap experiments of 'Anomie and Bonhomie'. Although Gartside clearly still strives for pop perfection (those sunny harmonies are a revelation), there is a delightfully skeletal, homespun quality to many of the productions that sees Gartside again make steps in exciting new directions. Gartside may not be the most animated of performers - but in a live setting it becomes clear exactly how deft an instrument his peculiar voice is - pinched and high pitched, it is a great vehicle for what appears to be a new emphasis on complex phrasing and delivery. Songs like 'Dr. Abernathy' and 'The Road To No Regret' are impressively intricate, and veer between breezy, lush introductions and crisp, verbally dense pop. Opening with single and paen to hip hop 'The Boom Boom Bap', it is immediately clear that Green is concentrating very hard over every syllable of his uniquely personal lyrics. This set sounded consistently considered and well-rehearsed.

Of the new songs 'After Six' is as infectious as pop songs come - but also characteristically clever. 'Cooking' and 'Snow In Sun' demonstrate that Gartside has rediscovered an interest in delicate rhythm guitar strum, and he uses the device effectively. Perhaps best of all was 'E Eleventh Nuts' with its driving, Bo Diddley-esque rhythm and endearing lyric ('First I hit a rock, then I hit a roll/Now I'm hitting on you!'). Perhaps the unifying characteristic of these new songs is that they all manage a neat trick of reshaping somewhat conventional influences - McCartney on 'Dr. Abernathy', the Beach Boys on 'Snow In Sun' and 'Mrs Hughes' in new and fascinating contexts.

These new contexts are illuminated further when Gartside announces that one of the effects on a song was in fact inspired by a track called 'Come Clean' by rapper Jeru The Damaja. The band then proceed to launch into a determinedly groovy and spirited cover of said rap gem. It's not the only game attempt at rapping Green tries throughout the evening - there's also an outing for his collaborating with rapper Skillz. Who else could get away with this?

There are only a handful of old songs in a set that is perhaps slightly on the short side. We get a crisp, controlled and enthusiastic rendition of 'The Sweetest Girl' and Gartside goes right back to his earliest material with 'Skank Bloc Bologna', although this rendition inevitably lacks some of the spontaneity and ragged glory of the original recording. He saves 'Wood Beez' for the encore. Although still a great pop song, it's the one moment of nostalgia in an otherwise forward thinking set, and therefore strikes something of an odd note. I found it somewhat depressing that many left bemoaning the lack of other 'Cupid and Psyche '85'-era tracks. A rapturous ovation brings the band back for a second encore, but they have run out of songs and the crowd have to make do with a repeat run through 'E Eleventh Nuts', remarkably delivered with more gusto than its initial outing.

In a sense, it's arguable that this gig took the same form as Morrissey's problematic shows in support of 'Ringleader Of The Tormentors' (and it's worth noting this as I never got round to writing a report on the Moz tour). Both acts chose to play almost all of their respective new releases, with minimal pickings from illustrious back catalogues. Yet while a 'Ringleader'-heavy Moz set sounded generic and one-dimensional, this new line-up of Scritti-Politti had vitality and variety in abundance. The focus on new material paid off handsomely here, whereas at the Moz gigs, it left me feeling that, whilst still a terrific performer, Morrissey's gigs could be much improved by more judicious song selection (or at least some appreciation of the peaks of his solo work).

Let's hope this tour is not just a one-off and that we'll be seeing more of this Scritti line-up in the future - because there is much of merit in this redeployment of a great pop heritage. After one of the peculiar hip hop interludes, Green remarks 'I don't know what I think I'm doing really'. Well, it's good to see that any sense of shame has been consigned to the past. As a wise man once said, ridicule is nothing to be scared of.

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