Monday, May 19, 2008

Gig Diary

Much of the past couple of weeks has been passed in various sweaty gig venues, indulging in a real plethora of quality live performances. Time constraints inevitably prevent me from writing in huge levels of detail about all of these events, but a few cursory words should give an impression of just what an excellent spring season it is turning out to be for live music in London.

First up were Oriole at The Vortex, with guitarist and bandleader Jonny Phillips on a flying visit from his new home in Spain. Jonny must now be familiar with oppressive heat, but little can compare with the grimy, airless environment of The Vortex on a hot day. It’s a wonderful venue run by real music enthusiasts but not the most comfortable of places to play in unexpectedly hot weather. With regular saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock unavailable, Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear maestro Pete Wareham gamely filled in, and it was particularly intriguing to hear him adopting a more melodic role. The gig perhaps lacked that finely attuned and effortless alchemy between Laubrock and Cellist Ben Davis which is a highlight of the group’s recordings, but this was more than compensated for by some expressive soloing and sympathetic rendering of the melodies from Wareham. If not always totally in command of all his cues, he had certainly grasped the fluid, flowing character of Phillips’ compositions.

Phillips is an excellent bandleader and composer, often taking a restrained role in his own group, creating the textures and space necessary to bring out the best in his musicians. Drummer Sebastian Rochford and percussionist Adriano Adewale work brilliantly together throughout, both listening intently and drawing a great textural and dynamic variety from their instruments. The overall music is sensual, emotional and extremely accessible, without losing its spontaneous and improvisatory core. It evokes the heat, dust and spirit of parts of the world much of the audience will never have visited.

Every bit as exuberant and entertaining as their excellent debut album suggests, Vampire Weekend put in a spirited performance at the Electric Ballroom. Given their relative lack of material, it seemed likely that the show would be over before it had really got going, but the inclusion of some intriguing work-in-progress material (which further amplifies the Afrobeat influence on the group) and the odd b-side showed some generosity towards the audience. Whilst the band don’t really veer far from the structure and sound of the recorded versions of their songs, their energy and dynamism is transparent. What really emerges from seeing Vampire Weekend live is just how far they manage to push their skeletal set-up – the interplay between drums and bass is magnificently taut, and Ezra Koenig is a peculiar frontman, a mixture of superior, unfashionable intellect and self-mocking charm. He articulates his unusual, incisive Ivy League lyrics with a rare precision.

Then came two excellent gigs promoted by All Tomorrow’s Parties, an organisation that has now expanded its brief well beyond its annual festivals. It’s particularly exciting to observe the success of this business, proving my repeated-ad-nauseum view that there is always a gap in the market in London (and indeed the rest of the UK), for promoters who know what they’re doing. Rather than attempt to squeeze several acts on to the same bill, curtailing set times and ending up with a line-up that makes little sense, they wisely focus on two or three acts.

Last Wednesday, they gifted us with the intriguing and genuinely left-field combination of Battles, Dirty Projectors and the charmingly-monikered Fuck Buttons. One notable oddity was the choice of recorded music between the acts. What might one expect to hear at such a gig? A selection of asymmetrical post-rock and improvised jazz? Frightening dub reggae? A collection of inspired Afrobeat such as the recent African Scream Contest album? Certainly not what we actually got at any rate, which appeared to be a compilation of the worst of long-forgotten pop-dance idiots Apollo 4-40.

Fuck Buttons were scheduled surprisingly early, and we arrived a few minutes into their set, which basically replicated their enjoyable Street Horsssing album, about which I’ve not yet managed to blog. Some people dislike this group on the basis that they are something of a half-hearted noise project – the noise they make is almost always tempered by an almost saccharine focus on pretty sounds and harmonies beneath the melee. This is not something I object to particularly, as it means the band’s sound is impressively layered and engaging. There’s also an emphasis on rhythm that serves them well, and I enjoyed them most when they experimented with percussion sounds. It’s often hard to see exactly what they’re doing of course, although the obvious showpiece is the use of some sort of Fisher Price toy microphone and amplifier to create nastily distorted vocal sounds. They repeat the same tricks a little too often though, and I felt they stayed onstage long enough to outstay their welcome a little.

I’ve probably written enough about Dirty Projectors now, so it’s enough to state that they were, as ever, volatile and meticulously orchestrated in equal measure. It’s still a notable limitation that sound engineers find it so difficult to keep Dave Longstreth’s voice audible, perhaps due to his frequent and tetchy variation in timbre and volume. At its best though, the combination of his peculiar wail with the dulcet tones of the pretty females who flank him is both technically impressive and charming. They remain one of the most inventive and exciting bands on the planet right now.

I’ve been meaning to see Battles for ages, particularly following Tom Armitage’s extraordinary enthusiasm for one of their London shows last year. I’m pleased to report that he was right – this is firm evidence against the notion that the group are part of a genre of cold, robotic instrumentalists. Their performance was so enervating that I could hardly resist the temptation to dance with vigour, and I ended up leaving the Astoria with a dodgy back as a result. My companion at the gig accurately remarked on a side of the group which is slightly twee – the strong emphasis on pitch-shifted vocals and playful whistling, which tempers any claim they have to be genuinely avant-garde. Perhaps it’s best to see Battles as a daring pop group, then – the crowd’s eruption and movement during the ever-brilliant ‘Atlas’ certainly attests to this. It’s hard to see other chiefly instrumental rock groups provoking this kind of collective joy. Even the polyrhythmic intricacies of ‘Race: In’ somehow sound natural and unforced.

It also helps that they are a tremendous visual spectacle. The drummer compensates for only having one crash cymbal by having it positioned so high that he virtually has to stand up in order to use it. That he does this frequently comes as little surprise. Guitarist and keyboardist Tyundai Braxton is perhaps the biggest presence in the band, a riot of frizzy hair and carried by a propulsive, relentless physical energy that leaves his shirt translucent with sweat by the end of the third track.

The other ATP-promoted gig turned out to be a very different affair, featuring as it did one of the most subdued and restrained voices in contemporary songwriting, Sam Beam AKA Iron and Wine. The current hype surrounding the support act, the magnificent Bon Iver, threatened to undermine the impact of Beam’s headline performance and, despite my admiration for this full-band version of Iron and Wine, I left the venue feeling that this might genuinely have transpired.

I had wondered how Justin Vernon would replicate the quite extraordinary intimacy of his much lauded ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ album on stage. Wisely, he doesn’t really try, instead amplifying the album’s moments of great intensity and visceral sadness. His voice is a much bolder instrument than its layered, manipulated counterpart on record, the falsetto savage and cutting, its deeper timbre also having greater presence. Performing with a drummer and another electric guitarist, who deals chiefly in strafes and effects that aid the texture and atmosphere more than the harmony. All three musicians onstage sing in carefully arranged harmony lines. Vernon has assembled a skeletal band somehow capable of great depth and elemental power, without the presence of a bassist or keyboardist. There are unexpected bursts of cluttered noise, moments of plangent, melancholy beauty and the cumulative effect is both rapturous and devastating. Believe what you read about these haunting, poetic songs – Vernon is every bit as convincing a performer as he is writer and arranger.

I’ve seen Sam Beam in various contexts – as a completely solo performer at The Spitz last year, in collaboration with Calexico and in a duo with his sister Sarah. For this tour, he has assembled a gigantic band, eight musicians strong, who somehow sound more restrained than a jazz piano trio. It’s a gig remarkable for its calmness and subtlety. Sometimes the tranquil reveries this group concoct are mesmerising, but there are times when they seem too intricate for this audience – almost oppressive in their musicality. In an all-seated, more intimate theatre venue, this would have worked an absolute treat – but the mostly standing crowd at the Forum understandably become restless in the lengthy periods of dreamy, neo-psychedelic beauty.

Still, for those who pay Beam the respect he so clearly deserves, there is much to enjoy as well as admire. Paul Niehaus’ lap steel guitar is a dependably beautiful, emotive presence, whilst the rhythm section is delicately groovy in a way one might not associate with Beam. There’s a mastery of control at work here – whilst everyone in the band is supremely musical, there’s no trace of indulgent or circuitous virtuosity. Instead, there’s a greater emphasis on space and silence, a sign of Beam’s real musical maturity.

One could never describe Iron and Wine as an attacking or gritty act, but the group’s sound on record is slightly dirtier, and closer to the blues. This version of the group intensifies the African, Jamaican and South American influences that pepper ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’ and many of that album’s snappier songs are rearranged in defiantly swampy, sizzling half-time interpretations. This means that the pace rarely gets above a gentle trot, and this perhaps accounts for the consistent murmuring in the audience. Luckily, the set list is an interesting pick from across Beam’s career so far, opening with a slow but insistent ‘Passing Afternoon’ and incorporating tracks from Beam’s EPs as well as his albums. Sadly, though, there’s nothing from the Calexico collaboration. I would have valued the chance to hear his waltz version of ‘A History of Lovers’ (memorably performed at The Spitz gig) with the finesse of this excellent band.

I maintain that Beam is one of the best songwriters at work at the moment – perhaps yet to produce a truly classic album, but certainly the writer of some truly remarkable songs. If there’s a problem with the band set-up, it’s that his distinctive and richly allusive language tends to become obscured. Still, he saves ‘The Trapeze Swinger’, his greatest achievement as a writer thus far, for the encore, ditching the band and delivering the song as intensely and movingly as if he’d just completed it moments before coming back on stage. I suspect a large portion of the audience would have preferred the whole gig to have been pitched like this, but if Beam continues to challenge his admirers in such unexpected and impressive ways, they may yet chose to follow him.

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