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Saturday, 31 December 2011

My 20 best gigs of 2011

I kicked off this modest little music blog a year ago with a post about my top 20 gigs of 2010. A year later, older, wiser, slightly deafer, here’s my top 20 gigs for 2011. Reading these blurbs you’ll wish you’d been there as well. But hey, there are plenty of gigs coming up in 2012, so get down the front and start rocking your head from side to side in a coolly discerning fashion.

Gout - Old Blue Last, Shoreditch, London, 15 January
The most memorable of the grindcore-type bands I saw in 2011, mainly because of the singer’s totally weird throat-voicings. Between songs this matey, Midlands-accented (?) chap would introduce the forthcoming song in a normal voice but then switch on his “special” guttural dalek voice to give you the song’s name (generally something like “Corpses of genocidal war”). The music didn’t deviate far from the genre’s usual rapid drumming-fast guitar runs template, but the tunes were short and somehow quite witty.

Calories - Old Blue Last, Shoreditch, London, 24 February
More witty Midlanders! Drole young brummie types who knock out some pretty powerful math rock-type stuff which, unlike some of this genre, doesn’t veer off into dull prog-rock areas. As I recall, they’ve got several really engaging tunes, with a lot of emotional heft (and all that). The sort of band that are - perhaps for the time being only - going to be near the bottom of the bill but (as is often the case) will actually be a hell of a lot better than the later acts.

The Love Triangle - Firefly, Worcester, 25 February
The most “punky” of the bands here, these are one of those (now almost rare) neo-punk bands that play hard and fast with a kind of hardcore intensity yet still manage to sound tuneful and almost melodic. I think it’s a harder trick to pull off than it looks. The key, I reckon, is the attitude and the energy. Great stuff.  

Talk Normal - Death By Audio, Brooklyn, New York City, 5 March
An intense performance by a drummer/guitarist-vocalist combo. They had angularity, fierce and complex drum patterns, and some kind of dark uncompromising quality. They were playing on a biggish, raised stage, which is normally an atmosphere killer for me, but here they transcended that and played a tough, inventive set.

Way Through - Old Blue Last, Shoreditch, London, 16 June
Quite experimental, with “difficult” song structures and - if I remember correctly - some shouty bits and generally loud discordant passages. They were a band that to me didn’t exactly sound like the “finished article” (whatever that is), but were better than a lot of the more polished outfits simply for trying. I also seem to recall that they did that thing where they said they weren’t sure what to play or - professedly - how to play it. Here it was somehow of a piece with their effort to try new things and not just an affectation.

Let's Wrestle - Hare and Hounds, Birmingham, 23 July
As I said in a post in July, this band (of “Cocky cockneys” according to one reviewer!) seem to be refreshed - and improved - since acquiring a new bass player. Their brand of post-Dinosaur Jr slacker rock is, I reckon, working very nicely at the moment. Unusually for me, I’ve also obtained their recent “Nursing Home” CD (unusual in the sense that I don’t generally consume music this way) and this kind of backs up what I think. That they’re an excellent band.

The Big Naturals - Hare And Hounds, Birmingham, 20 August
Almost didn’t stay for this outfit, who came on late-ish when I was getting fidgety. They perhaps played for too long (as do many bands), but they had some brilliant and way-heavy drumming rhythms and squalls of guitar/vocals. One of those force-of-nature bands. Not for the faint-hearted.

Thee Exciters - Ryan’s Bar, Stoke Newington, London, 28 August
A strange gig. Thee Exciters started as if they were tired meat-and-potatoes Stooges merchants and ending up being … quite exciting Stooges merchants! Their success had a lot to do with a rather irrepressible front-man in a leopard-skin leotard who wasn’t afraid to strike a delightful Iggy/Jagger-esque pose. Flaunt it!

Darren Hayman - Outside World, Shoreditch, London, 3 September
The best of the recent gigs I’ve seen from Hayman, this was in a tiny art gallery (actually a small converted front room) in Shoreditch with excruciatingly little space for the tiny audience. My habit is to be up close to the performers at gigs - here I was too close. Anyway, his wry songs about cosmonauts and animals in space were surprisingly moving. Also, I recall he did a very beautiful, sad song about the Essex witch trials of 1645.

Nordenfelt (and numerous other bands) - Chameleon, Nottingham, 10 September
An unusual gig. All acts performed just two songs - all Bowie covers. The best band, I thought, was the somewhat manic Nordenfelt, with a singer who really attacked Fashion (“Beep beep!”) and, if anything, made it sound better than before. So I’m judging Nordenfelt on all of two tunes - but that’s enough for me. Also, I’d like to see more of these gigs that break from the ages-old convention of band-goes-on-stage-plays-eight-songs-to-be-replaced-by-other-band-that-plays-eight-songs … Tiresome.

Poino - Windmill, Brixton, London, 19 September
At times like the Birthday Party, Poino’s excellent noise-rock juggernaut was especially good this time (well, I’d seen them once before). They have a darkly serious and pretty heavy sound. Not easy to describe, but good. This gig also featured the excellent audience heckle “Roast potatoes for everybody”, which made even Poino’s super-intense singer crack a smile.

Diaphram Failure - Windmill, Brixton, London, 13 October
Really inventive and highly entertaining - what more do you want! They go in for warped rhythms - a touch of Beefheart, some groovy blues rock, spicing it up with bugle-type horn squirts, a toy hammer, various shakers, and an Augustus Pablo-style reverb-heavy harmonica. All the while they have their semi-demented singer bloke who keeps lighting sparklers and other things (!?) with matches, while doing a lot of a (probably quite structured) poetic rambling. The lyrics themselves were way better than those of most bands.    

Marco Pasini - Sala Maddalena, Monza, 22 October
This was a piano recital of Franz Liszt music, unbelievably fast and complex. It was, frankly, hard to take in, it was happening with such speed and intensity, but it was still pretty spellbinding. Marco - a man of about 40 - looked quite haggard at the end of the performance. I could understand why.

A Fat White Family - Windmill, Brixton, London, 3 November
A happy discovery, these came over all ragged and half-assed at first but actually cohered into an excellent loping blues-rock outfit. They do good overlapping vocals and use shakers very effectively. They’ve also got some good one-liners - “Wheelchair music for wheelchair cowboys!”  They also seem to have some pretty savvy mates, because their gig videos are actually far better than any I’ve seen from numerous other bands, including the big-name ones.

Heroes Of The Mexican Independence Movement - Chameleon, Nottingham, 6 November
Another good gig at the Chameleon, which, for my money, is probably the best small-gig venue in the Midlands at the moment. HOTMIM had a surfeit of dry humour but also played some lovely twee-rock tunes. Pretending to be amateurish, they were actually nothing of the kind. Maybe the best “twee” band I saw in 2011.

Atomic Suplex - Prince Albert, Brixton, London, 11 November
Kind of postmodern rock jokers - or are they? - once seen Atomic Suplex are always remembered because of the singer’s customised military motorcycle-type helmet which has a special mic attached. Their deliberately chaotic big-beat rock stylings occasionally seem to be getting out of control (a satirising of all things cod-rock is part of their thing), but they still sound good in a blues explosion kind of way. This gig was particularly entertaining because of the way the bass player said things (apparently in all seriousness) like “I’m going to be sick … right now … on stage”, and the way the skinny woman guitarist pushed the chunky little singer clean off the stage in a piece of inspired joke wrestling.

Flame-Proof Moth - Tulse Hill Tavern, London, 12 November
Formerly The Boycott Coca-Cola Experience, F-PM is a delicious John Cooper Clarke acid-ball of sarcasm and cold contempt. His songs include stuff about pornography on the sides of buses and Werner Herzog (“Werner! Your tea’s getting cold”), but they also have a crafty and deep seriousness: “Your decadent sins will reap discipline”. Too right!

Babies - Windmill, Brixton, London, 16 November
One of countless bands from the USA that seem to make tuneful indie rock sound better than most British bands can. Not sure why (or even if that’s true). Youngish and nondescript at first, they quickly made it clear that they could do Pavement-esque melodic rock fairly effortlessly. Here and there the songs sounded genuinely excellent. Would like to hear more from them.

Errol Linton - Windmill, Brixton, London, 30 November
A very groovy harmonica-blues set, with elements of skiffle and even ska and reggae lilts here and there. Errol has a warm blues crooner’s voice and a very engaging manner. The washboard player - who I originally thought was some random drunk heckler bloke - got into a rather difficult-to-comprehend conversation with me before going on stage to bash out some excellent washboard rhythms. Riddim!

Doctor Mirabilis - Windmill, Brixton, London, 14 December
Another funny guy! This Irish singer-guitarist does very drole tunes with a nice loping rhythm to some of them (very reminiscent of Turner Cody I thought). He has a good line in anti-stardom humour - “This is my hit. It was number 74 in the West of Ireland charts for two weeks running”. Humour apart, he’s a really good Dylan/Cody-type writer. Very poetic.

So, these are my 20 best gigs from this god-forsaken year of our lord, two thousand and eleven. It’s actually been another excellent year for live music - but aren’t they all? I once again resolve to see more jazz (which yet again I’ve sadly neglected) and any bands doing something different, but if 2012 is as good as 2011 I won’t be complaining.

Or not too much …

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Stage antics: 10 complaints

People don’t mention it much, but a big part of musicians coming across well when they’re playing live is how they act on stage. Things like how much they talk, etc. Here are my top 10 annoying stage behaviours:

1: Talking too much
I've blogged on this before so will keep this mercifully brief (always a good idea), but quite a few musicians do this, some chronically so. Being on stage is apparently interpreted by some performers as a licence to drone on about whatever’s on their (not very well-stocked) minds. The atmosphere (if there was one) is nearly always destroyed by the stage ramblers. Please! Shut up and play your music. (On the other hand, it’s got to be said that a few people are really funny/interesting between songs and can get away with it. Not many though).

2: Explaining songs before playing them
Slightly different from the above. It can admittedly be OK, even good - making a song more meaningful when you know about its history or something - but quite often this is boring, unnecessary and effectively destroys any artistry with over-explanation.

3: Attacking the audience
Kind of obvious, but more complicated than it looks I reckon. On the one hand the audience-baiting behaviour of punk could definitely be enlivening. I’ve got this nice tape of the Sex Pistols playing in Stoke-on-Trent in 1976, with Johnny Rotten saying “Ooooh, they don’t like us!” Also, one of my most exciting gigs was a Selfish Cunt one about five or six years ago, where the singer kicked beer glasses against the wall (broken glass showered the audience: not nice) and strutted - bare-skinny-chested - into the crowd, spitting at them and barging them out of the way (I got some rather large Mr Cunt gobbets on my suit jacket). SC were particularly good in that period so I kind of made allowances (maybe wrongly). Meanwhile, I’ve been to gigs where the band have complained about the lack of people there (“this is a fucking joke”, said one singer at a low-turnout gig in Leicester on one occasion). Er, is that really something you should complain about on stage?

4: Having no interest in the well-being of the audience
At the risk of contradicting myself (surely not!), it’s offensive when a band is uninterested in whether people are getting hurt by stage-divers and moshing (I’ve blogged about this before). C’mon bands! You’re the ones they’re moshing to, so don’t pretend it’s got nothing to do with you if people are getting trampled on.

5: Over-thanking the audience and other bands
Yeah, too much civility is deadening. Boring. Yes, they may be your best mates/touring buddies, they may have been good/OK/bearable, but do we really need you telling us how “brilliant” they were (or are going to be)? Meanwhile, repeatedly thanking those at the gig for “coming out tonight” or (worse) being “a great audience”, is … dull. Almost 1970s showbiz. Please, treat us with more … er, distance.

6: Banging on about their merchandise
Speaks for itself if you ask me. I've complained more than once on this blog about the bands that keep plugging their merch stalls. I don’t want your crappy t-shirts etc …

7: Re-tuning instruments for lengthy periods
Yeah, you’re such musical perfectionists you’ve got to tune that guitar for five excruciating minutes while we just stand there waiting. Some musicians seem to have forgotten they’re not in a studio, they’re at a small venue in south London playing to 25 people (nothing wrong with that BTW). Get over your over-precise selves. (Over!). They normally don’t sound any better after all that anyway …

8: Acting famous
Bit hard to define, but you see this with musicians who self-indulgently say things like “Here’s one you might know” (usually I don’t), who overdo the lighting and “stage craft”, and, well, sound self-important in general (most especially playing bloated, “dramatic” music). A leather-trousered band in New York from earlier this year were the epitome of this to me. Big stage, dry ice etc. Come back Thin Lizzy/The Mission, all is forgiven.  

9: Telling the audience to be quiet
Bloody cheek! This is quite common at the hush-everybody-we’re-playing-mature-new-folk gigs. I really like a lot of this music, but I hate being told to be quiet. (In general. But especially at gigs). One singer once compounded the offence by saying “Quiet please. You’re not in Italy now”. What the fuck?

10: Playing boring music!
Aha! The worst of all, and I can forgive all or most of the above if they play really interesting stuff.

Ah, the hyper-critical, ungrateful audience: me. What a fickle bastard. Meanwhile, my fellow audience members get on my nerves as well. So badly behaved! I’ll have a rant about that another time …