Friday, 26 December 2008

Coldplay @ The O2 - 15th December 2008

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

It is often tempting (for some) to dismiss Coldplay out of hand, to bemoan them as somehow cashing in on a wave of middle-of-the-road sound. But it is when seen live that Coldplay really come into their own, and tonight proves that point and then some.

Coldplay are a band who have truly grown into the stadium-filling status that they now hold. Now on their fourth hit-laden album, they have reached a point where established hits such as Yellow no longer need to be left until the encore. Rather, they are able to fill this vast (but acoustically excellent; but I digress) space with light, sound and colour from start to finish. Hit follows hit follows hit, and warmth pours off the stage throughout. Any band who can make a 20,000-seat concrete arena feel like the UCL Student's Union is clearly doing something right.

The new material tonight is already six months old and well-established in the brains of those present, but it is still a wonderful experience to be treated to Strawberry Swing, Violet Hill and (perhaps the highlight) Death and All His Friends, alongside established hits such as Fix You, Politik and The Scientist. Already, it would be impossible for anyone walking in off the street to tell the new material from the previous hits. Still as humble as ever he was, Chris Martin regularly acknowledges the cheering masses with a wave and mumbled thanks. He's had the misfortune (if you can call it that) to become a massive rockstar without developing either a drug addiction or a serious personality disorder, and for this he is often cast aside by the more image-concious sections of the music press. Wrongly.

At one point, the band walk down from the stage and through a rapturously cheering crowd to take up residence half-way up the lower tier of seats. They subsequently perform an acoustic version of Green Eyes, with a guest harmonica solo from Simon Pegg. As the final notes die away, there is a completely euphoric moment, and I realise I am grinning like a moron. So are the band. So is everyone else in the O2. The feeling of camaraderie, that everyone is part of this, is palpable. Long live this kind of thing, if you ask me.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds @ The Troxy - 30th November 2008

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

Up until this year's Dig!! Lazarus, Dig!!! album, I had never really got Nick Cave. One of those artists I would get into one day but had just never quite got round to it. So when a friend played me the aforementioned album I was suddenly struck by a wave of “Oh, I get it!”. The floodgates were opened and I have been literally consuming the dark and twisted work of Mr Cave, and wondering what the hell I was thinking all those years.

So tonight's concert really feels like a personal coming of age. I had seen him earlier this year, playing a six-song in-store gig on Oxford Street, but this was Cave unleashed. He looks like the Antichrist will look. With shirt unbuttoned to the waist and moustache trimmed yet still somehow exuding wild unkemptness, he manages to look like a man with whom you would cheerfully share a joke, even as he playfully kicked a puppy. The smiles between songs make you realise that behind the weird-sex-and-death of the lyrics is a loving family man. Albeit one who would eat your soul.

The location is perfect. The Troxy is a 1930s provincial theatre that somehow got built in East London. There's a diminished glamour and slight repressed seediness about the place that perfectly frames this evening's entertainment.

The sound is literally mind-buggering. The set is played out at such a volume that this writer's ears rang until 2pm the following day. Starting with a quiet rendition of Hold On To Yourself (featuring surely this years best lyric: “She rubs the lamp between her thighs / and hopes the genie comes out singing”), the band then tear into Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!! and on into a set perfectly balancing “Classic Cave” (his words) and new material, with a few surprises.

Highlights include a raucous Red Right Hand and a soulful near-solo version of Into My Arms. At one point, Cave introduces You've Got Me Eating Right Out Of Your Hand as coming from the “much maligned album Nocturama”. There is a ripple of discontent and some muted cheering. “Soon you're going to realise what a fucking masterpiece that was,” he smirks “It just had some shitty songs on it, that's all...” But tonight, even a selection from the band's least loved long-player could not possibly sound shitty.

Two hours of groin thrusting and dramatic stances later, the crowd spills out as the echoes of undisputed classic Stagger Lee drift off across East London. I have seen the light. And it's pretty dark in there...

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Fleet Foxes @ Shepherds Bush Empire - 5th November 2008

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

To listen to Fleet Foxes debut album is to enjoy not only the best folk record of the past five years, but also to experience a master-class in the application of vocal reverb. Initially, one might be driven to wonder why this is. Tonight provides the answer to that question: it is simply the closest that it is possible to get to the band's live sound.

The stage is as simplistic and bare as you might expect for this sort of gig: guitars, drums, strange percussion and two sticks to rub together for warmth and light. But the five men who grace the stage bring with them enough facial hair for ten and - more importantly - complex harmonies that are impossible to describe in words. After five minutes of the concert I have given up trying to sing along and have resorted to merely standing and gazing in awe.

Tonight, the band play almost all of their aforementioned debut long-player, as well as a selection of the tunes from February's Sun Giant EP which preceded it. Highlights include a beautiful solo rendering of Oliver James, a beautiful version of White Water Hymnal and the closing bombast of Blue Ridge Mountain. The band are clearly enjoying themselves, with quips coming thick and fast, not least on the subject of their country's freshly elected leader. During the acapella choral interlude in Mykonos, I become suddenly aware of just how quiet the Empire has become. Two thousand people have resorted to doing the same as me: merely standing and staring.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Travelling Band / Hey Negrita @ Monto Water Rats

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

I have a theory about “Alt Country” music, and it is this: you can't make it British. The best you can do is to imitate it in a British accent. It's still got to be about deserts, whiskey and trains. It would not work if you sang about tea. Tonight though, we are in the midst of a British country and folk music bonanza.

The Travelling Band impress from the start. Not least amongst their achievements is squeezing seven people onto the Water Rats' tiny stage and still managing to play. The set is spell-binding, with harmonies dripping off the excellently crafted songs. For a band whose debut album is yet to be released, this is a confident and involving performance. Encouragingly, they already have new songs that don't appear on their first long-player. One of these, Sundial is a particular highlight of the set. Yellow light streams off the stage and the song fills the room so completely that at one point I began to fear for the structural integrity of the building. Three guitars, endless harmonies, bass, drums, keyboard and violin create a rich sound which, when layered with harmony, grabs you immediately and keeps you listening. If there is any justice in the world, these guys will be huge by this time next year.

Hey Negrita are a deal more advanced down their career path. Now on their third album, the band is a tight unit comprised of two guitars, drums, double bass and harmonica. Tonight is the first leg of a three-week UK tour, with Travel Lodges up and down the country already booked, according to lead singer Felix. Their tunes are ridiculously catchy and deal with the staple country blues diet of love, loss and drinking on your own. Heavy on the harmonica solos and some superb guitar work, the five-piece soon have the Water Rats dancing. Everyone is thoroughly enjoying themselves – the band not least – and the new songs are received with cheers and singalongs from the hardcore fans. Mid-set, Nick from Alabama 3 is introduced to the delighted crowd, and a “harmonic-off” ensues that is quite literally mind-blowing. Overall, the set is a brilliant and accomplished performance from a band whose future will undoubtedly be bright. Catch them if you can, before the rest of the world does.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Why I Fucking Hate The Cribs

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

As I’m sure you all know, the delusions of Cribs frontman Ryan Jarman began last summer, when he - essential
ly - proclaimed himself and his band to be the saviours of indie music. At Glastonbury 2007, he made the unwise choice to cite the current state of indie music (a state which, let us not forget, pays his fucking mortgage) as a bigger problem than global warming. I half expected Jarvis to appear and bear his rump in protest. This comment could perhaps be construed as a mistake - too much fizzy pop getting him a bit hyper - had he not gone on to justify himself in a lengthy interview with NME. “Music is rubbish right now,” he drawled “There aren’t any bands with ethics. [People are just] doing the same and jumping on the bandwagon.” Whether or not this is a fair comment is not my place to say. It should be pointed out however that, with his Glasto rant in mind, his own ethics could do with a little work if he is to wear them on his sleeve.. 

Having alienated just about everyone, and clearly hoping that a Manics-versus-the-prevaling-music-scene sort of spat would erupt, Jarman continued to wedge his halo in place by sulking his way onto MTV2’s Review of the Year 2007. Without cracking a smile and finding not a trace of irony in the rest of the panel’s poking fun at him for being a sour-faced git, our saviour proceeded to pass judgement on a whole range of bands, many of whom showed a much less derivative attitude to the musical canon.

Since this time, Jarman has reinstated the noble tradition of stage-diving, which he probably invented in the same way he did Live 8 (keep up at the back...). Does anyone out there remember JJ72? And more specifically their lead singer Mark Greaney? No? Well, Mark made it his “thing” to trash his guitar at the end of almost every set. I saw them twice or thrice and the result was always the same: matchwood. You may not immediately see the relevance in all this, but the point is this: having a hook stolen from far-more-trend-setting musicians kept alive interest in what was essentially a fairly ordinary band.

So let’s wrap this up. Three mediocre albums that really sound not that much different from the rest of the “rubbish” indie scene. A one-trick performance copied from someone else. An attitude that has typified rock stars since about 1976. A set of “ethics” that boil down to belittling the current state of environmental crisis. A self-absorbed frontman whose sulkiness make Nicolas Anelka look like the perfect dinner guest. Given all the evidence, can anyone answer me the following question: What the fuck is Johnny Marr doing?

Monday, 14 January 2008

The Verve @ The O2 - 13th December 2007

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

2007 has been a year full of reunions, and not all of them have been great. On hearing of the reformation of one of Britpop's leading lights, this author was initially sceptical. It's been a very very long ten years, after all. But initial signs were hopeful. October saw the release of the band's first music in over a decade, the epic Thaw Sessions which sounded like the sonic craziness that launched their career way back in 1993. After a series of smaller gigs in early November, the band tonight return to the place where they truly belong: in front of a crowd of screaming nutters.

Ten years of occasionally brilliant yet often mediocre solo work has done nothing to blunt Richard Ashcroft's attitude, nor his phenomenally powerful voice. Replete with new short-and-bleached haircut and aviator sunglasses that seem welded to the bridge of his nose, he swaggers his way through an 18-song set featuring only one new number (Sit and Wonder – which sounds very promising in case you're sitting and wondering) and heavily laden with all the best material from their two best known studio recordings. Barnstorming versions of This is Music and Rolling People are interspersed with tender interludes, most notably an acoustic version of Sonnet, which climaxes with Ashcroft making matchwood of his acoustic guitar.

Predictably, the loudest cheers are saved for the songs like Bitter Sweet Symphony and The Drugs Don't Work which close the main set (prompting a few know-nothings to leave in order to warm up the Mondeo and get home for a quick Horlicks before bed) but as a whole this is a remarkable performance, particularly at its end, when the band rip through two of their finest numbers – History and Come On – to leave the ears ringing with feedback. At times I had to pinch myself, wondering if it was true that I was really watching these songs I had never expected I would be lucky enough to see live when the band dissolved ignominiously in 1997. This is the sound of one of the most important bands of the last twenty years still on top of their game. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and many hearts will doubtless start to beat faster when the inevitable rumours of new albums and of headline slots at Glasto 08 begin to surface.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

No. Country Not For Old Men.

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

I have a very particular problem to discuss with you all today. The problem usually occurs at parties (don't they always) when a sufficient amount of alcohol or similar intoxicant have been consumed to render intelligent philosophical discussion impossible. In situations such as this, the human mind defaults to subjects on which everyone can chip in. Football promotes too much argument, so people talk about music. The conversation begins when someone says “So, what sort of music do you listen too?”. I dread this question. Usually I mumble something involving the words “Smiths” and “Beatles” and then I drop the bomb: “...and I really like country music, actually”. There is always a silence. Sometimes a glass smashes in the background for dramatic effect. People look at me quizzically, and I can see them forming a mental picture of me in a cowboy hat twirling a lasso and shouting “yee-ha”. People seem genuinely terrified that I might whip out a concealed banjo and instigate an impromptu ho-down. And therein lies the problem: I then have to explain myself and defend a musical genre that has really done nothing wrong except be usurped by hicks. So I've decided to write this piece; partly to educate, but also so I can hand it round at the aforementioned parties, should I ever be invited to one again.

There is a very definite split in the history of country music, and this split occurs in 1971 when Don Henley formed The Eagles and made country music a monolithic marketing opportunity. Before this there were The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and after that there was... The Eagles. And a lot of money and record producers with dollar signs for eyes. This is where the problem comes from: when hearing the words “country music”, people either think of the twangy Rockabilly of Hank Williams or the awfully overstated drunk-rugby-player-friendly nonsense of people like Kenny Rogers. This is all twee, vacuous rubbish. This is most definitely not what I mean when talking about country music. I also don't mean anything to do with vaguely homo-erotic Marlboro adverts and white cowboy hats. Anyone who wears a white cowboy hat has less brain cells than fingers. Fact. No, what I'm talking about here is a music that is much more to do with story-telling and tales of the prime human drives of love, death and getting thoroughly out of ones skull. What, I ask you, could possibly be finer?

My personal country music hero is Gram Parsons, a man who lived life as fast as any rock star, died young like all the best ones and along the way wrote some brilliant songs on the above subjects, and many more. The guy once spent a month or two living on Keith Richards' sofa after quitting the Byrds in protest over their decision to tour apartheid South Africa. This, my good people, is the sort of lifestyle and principle missing so sorely from the modern music scene. Whilst with Mick and Keith he turned the stones onto country music, and is thus owed more than a nod for albums like Let It Bleed and the last few songs of Beggars Banquet. This, I think we can all agree, is something of a point in favour of country music.

As all good forms of music should, real country also pisses off your parents. Or at least, it damn well should. I sometimes forget that the biggest selling album of last year is by a heroin addict who isn't even that talented. If you wanna argue about that, go find last years album by Sharon Jones. Then come back and tell me I'm right. But I digress. In 2005, a study by the American Public Health Association (yes, they really took time out from studying fat people to do this) revealed that drugs and alcohol were referenced in over one-third (37% if you like numbers) of all country music songs, second only to rap and way more than rock, pop or heavy metal. I'm not saying that doing drugs and drinking lots make you cool but... they do.

More recently, there's been the aural horrors of Sheryl Crow or (shudder) The Dixie Chicks to contend with. It really annoys me that I have to use the phrase “alt-country” to describe artists who are essentially “real-country” while the 2007 Country Music Awards featured Kenny Chesney and a selection of other people who could not have been any more of a bad country cliché had they been twirling lassos. I want my genre back, damn it, I won't use genre labels that sound like they come out of the same marketing box as “space-punk” or “astro-folk”.

I guess really the point of all this really is that I don't know why people are so down on country music. Once you look past the veneer, it's bloody good stuff. Neil Young is a guitarist who can play lead as well as or better than just about anyone. Johnny Cash wrote songs that would make many singer-songwriters (how I loathe that term) turn slightly green with envy. David Crosby seems to be regularly credited with having the best weed ever to hit LA. There's nothing missing that you could desire in a musical genre. Except maybe pounding baselines and, let's be honest here, there have been very few techno remixes of country songs. It's a genre where sadly the shit has floated to the top, but dig a little deeper, and there's plenty to discover. Why not consider investing in some proper country, just to test my theory? Then we can talk at parties. Wanna be mates?