Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Controlled Explosions: Wilco, Band of Horses and The Besnard Lakes live

Jeff Tweedy claims not to have a very good track record with London audiences, but for Wilco's triumphant London return on May 20th he needn't have worried. What a superb performance this really was, coming complete with all the components you could wish for in a rock band. The current Wilco line-up has terrific chops, immediately marking them out from their less inspired Americana contemporaries. Glenn Kotche's drumming, at turns vigorous and sensitive, both supports and propels the group, whilst Nels Cline is a guitar player of effortless fluidity, also capable of creating real drama from the fretboard. Pat Sansone now seems to play as much guitar as he does organ, and the result is a triple guitar assault arranged and controlled with real dynamic precision. The real revelation though is Tweedy's voice. Once a rather muffled, diminutive instrument content to settle in the hazy distance, he now dominates proceedings with clarity and commanding vision.

As I predicted, the songs from 'Sky Blue Sky' really blossom in live performance, especially the show opener 'Side With The Seeds' and 'Impossible Germany', both of which sound decidedly more adventurous than the more reductive of critics have decreed. They expand on the blueprint of songs from 'A Ghost is Born' and 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', expanding 'Handshake Drugs' into something majestic and coruscating, whilst rendering 'Poor Places' mysterious and cinematic. The encore of 'Spiders' is explosive.

As Tweedy himself claims, though, they save the best for last. At the end of a generous two hour show, a dishevelled looking figure with long grey hair and bushy beard takes to the stage. It turns out to be legendary singer songwriter Bill Fay (about whom I wrote in an edition of John Kell's Unpredictable Same fanzine about three years ago), on a stage for the first time in over thirty years. He seems understandably reticent, and, duetting with Tweedy on a version of his great song 'Be Not So Fearful' he's unfortunately a little overwhelmed. Still, it's a great pleasure to see this most elusive and withdrawn of musicians back in a small amount of limelight - and if this goes any distance in making the rumoured collaboration with Wilco on new Fay material happen, it would be a gratifying result indeed.

At the Scala, Band of Horses don't quite manage the two hour marathon, if only because they're still a little shy of material. Still, in their not-quite-one-hour set they still manage to pack in the best moments from debut album 'Everything All The Time', along with three new songs and a rather brilliant David Allan Coe cover to round things off. Much has already been made (not least in this blog) of the band's uncanny resemblance to My Morning Jacket circa 'At Dawn', and whilst the band do little to dispel such comparisons in their musical execution, their genial good nature and ebullience throughout comes as something of a surprise. They are constantly thanking us all, and seem to be having a rather jolly time of it. This is great to see, and as a result they can get away with playing a previously unheard song and a cover in the encore, as well as opening with a particularly impressive new song.

The Besnard Lakes also have some superficial similarities with My Morning Jacket, although their sound is so diverse it's next to impossible to pin them down to simple comparisons. There are elements of the drone rock beloved of Spacemen 3 and the shoegazers, as well as some seriously unfashionable, slightly proggy 70s influences that come out much more clearly in live performance than they do on record, particularly in the form of some very long twin guitar solos which turn out to be surprisingly engaging. The Water Rats is a small and unassuming London pub venue, but The Besnard Lakes rock so unbelievably hard and loud that they make it seem like Earl's Court. Frankly, it's impressive that the foundations withstand the assault. The songs are mostly long, unpredictable and unashamedly adventurous. There's a great interplay within the band, particularly between the vocalists, and the careful orchestrations are pulled off with an almost casual confidence. They might be a bit earnest, were it not for the breadth of ambition and the quality of the playing, as well as the lyrical preoccupation with spies, which adds mystery and intrigue. It's a special gig, topped off with an hilariously ragged version of Fleetwood Mac's 'You Make Loving Fun' - so uncool it's brilliant. John Kell has it right though when he says that their lead singer looks like Mark Gatiss' tragic Creme Brulee character from the League of Gentlemen.

No comments: