Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"the only thing real is waking and rubbing your eyes": four fall gigs, two weddings and a festival

the festival was all good, it being this year's "rise: london united" at finsbury park (our city's second best annual shindig, behind carnival of course). rise is esp. brilliant for us, because we can leave the premises to go for an afternoon wander via highbury fields and the blackstock road and, without breaking our stride, enjoy a walk in the park which gives us everything from saint etienne thru a flurry of nw6 hard-rhymers thru some premier dhol-bashing thru dodging the rain with kojo in the comedy tent thru a turn from dorothy masuka thru to some startling human beatboxery from sic sense thru to pop princess jamelia on the main stage, whose beam lit up north four even through one of the intermittent storms (and even if her choice of covers paled in relation to the likes o' "superstar" and "thank you"). plus, with the whole rise thing, the message remains much more important than the music. the weddings, one in chelsea and one in carlisle, weren't bad either - and on a positive note, statistically only one of them is going to end in divorce.

anyway. it's closing on 20 years since we first saw the fall. and here we went again, to their brief residency in smoke-free islington this balmy yet rainsodden july, albeit at one of the world's worst venues("the" "carling" "academy").

tuesday

hmmm. let's dig out the old "i-spy at a fall gig" book. smith ambles on tardily (10 points) to join his latest youthful hired-hand band (20 points), plus the wife on keyboards (10 points). he laconically intones "we are the fall" in an absurdist drawl (35 points). that's 75 points in the bag already, and they've only been on a few minutes.

as the evening progresses, we get mark wandering on and off stage intermittently, testing the band's improvisation as they wonder quite where he is (25 points); mark randomly plinking on keyboards (10 points); mark turning up the bass amp (15 points); mark turning down the guitar amp (15 points); the fall not coming on until well after 10 p.m (25 points); a put-upon soundman having to make repeated fleeting visits to stage to replace all the mic stands (20 points). and yet for all these ticked boxes and smile-inducing nods to fall tradition, that soupcon of something extra - that unpredictable element that would elevate proceedings, really flicker them truly into life - never quite emerges. all in all, it's good - but it's not right. still, a promising start: and an ok-ish fall gig is still better than a lot of mercury music prize nominees could ever aspire to.

top 3 select: over! over!, white lightning, what about us. ilwttisott rating: 6 out of 10

wednesday

the fall, of course, never have to resort to plundering their back catalogue
like many other similarly-annuated bands - almost uniquely from the crop of '77 or so they have kept going (as paul morley has noted, perhaps the only others to have meaningfully done so are u2), and have always had songs strong enough to be able to build their live sets, in any era, from the last album (or two). these gigs are proving no exception, with the live performances of the likes of "the door is always open" transcending their somewhat anodyne studio cousins.

having said that, it is still a tremendous treat to see them dredging out "the man whose head expanded" for the first time in a decade or two, even though they fox half the punters by coming on stage "early" (about ten to ten) and playing it first. "sounded good in rehear-SAL", observes mark. suitably inspired, both band and audience are a little more at ease. and, particularly with a respectable phalanx of new songs, we're starting to notice improbably, happily, increasingly strong resemblances between the fall and sportique - probably the way some of the newer fall songs are also postmodern appropriations of punk (the single-chord chugging of "systematic abuse" recalls the knowing retro of "modern museums", while elena's "i've been duped", which seemingly doesn't feature smith at all, is a belter - perhaps their "suture").

oh, and yes we still get everything from the i-spy book too. the fall are
rapidly shifting up thru the gears.

top 3 select: the man whose head expanded, fall sound, reformation! ilwttisott rating: 7 out of 10

thursday

and each night, gradually, is getting a little more lively.

on stage, m.e.s. is in a happy, serene mood (itself as rare and surreal as father jack hackett's lucid episodes), his wanders around the stage including jokes traded with the band, forcing the bass player to centre stage for "duped", and repeatedly picking up a drumstick to frantically thrash at the hi-hat and cymbal. a few well-thumbed lyric sheets are in evidence, while there are more extended forays over to the keyboards, including what appears to be an attempt to actually play them (50 points). later on, a couple of the mics are tossed into the crowd, one of whom performs an entertaining and more than passable freestyle m.e.s. impersonation, spitting out random lyrics from past delights, while the other settles for valiant, drunken yelling. tonight only the embattled stagehand feels the wrath of smith's er, bombast, when he bravely but very ill-advisedly attempts to do the mic stand adjusting while smith is on stage. ooh, and we also have a vague recollection that the lyrics to late-70s peel sesh gem "like to blow" got randomly blurted out at some point.

off stage, the rowdiness initially builds up as ever due to the epic wait for the fall to appear, combined with the associated crescendo of abuse towards safi, the "video-jock" who habitually precedes them. during the main set, the number of pints of lager being hurled across the venue and at the stage is also increasing, although still nowhere near historic fall gig levels: and by the time we leave, a couple of blokes at the back are trading opening pushes in yet another fight that demonstrates why middle-aged men and alcohol can be a thoroughly unhappy combination. we escape by jumping on a passing bus, on which a teenage passenger promptly sicks lager all over the floor: but that, dear friends, is modern britain in a nutshell.

top 3 select: wolf kidult man, systematic abuse, blindness. ilwttisott rating: 9 out of 10

friday

"we're not the fucking kaiser chiefs, we are the fall"

yes, friday was blazin'. the fact they opened their set with a more than
competent version of "wings", still probably the best song from a veritable bayeaux tapestry of thousands, was a moment immediately putting tonight up there with brighter @ the b&g, morrissey @ brixton, fucking rosehips @ stoke and rovers @ wembley.

and you know it's gonna be a fair old gig when "pacifying joint" then starts up, smith remembers to remind us that they are the fall, and then he just stands up and takes it as the beer rains in, letting plastic pint glasses bounce off him without blinking (indeed, licking his fingers approvingly at the choice of projectile lager).

the venue's population density has continued to multiply during the week. by now, as the five-piece lock in to their relentlessly garagey grooves, the place is jammed, almost enough to take the edge off some commendably fierce air conditioning. professional fall fan stewart lee was in attendance: sadly, celebrity fall fans otherwise seemed to have been conspicuous by their absence during the week (for our purposes, other "celebrity fall fans" = i ludicrous, bobby gillespie (who we chatted with before he tried to blag his way in last time), bobby wratten and two of the gresham flyers, but do let us know if there are more).

so, even with tonight seeing two encores rather than one (and a tremendous take on "systematic abuse" for which the entire vocal was provided from somewhere behind the stage - "i'm in the backstage areAH"), the evening positively flew by. and by now, big chief i-spy was likely to have been cleaned out of feathers entirely.

top 3 select: WINGS, fall sound, systematic abuse. ilwttisott rating: infinite.

y'know, we don't really disagree with much of the critique oft ventured toward the fall - most is probably fair comment, albeit informed by a somewhat rose-tinted view of their past proficiency, or at least their past consistency... but we do truly see them in the context of so much else we love - remembering how it was in our ever-splendrous inspiration "are you scared to be happy ?" that we first saw written down the quote from "how i wrote elastic man" that captions this post...

so even if we'd probably agree that they hit their creative peak between 1980 and 1983 (if in any doubt, check "palace of swords reversed" or "slates, slags etc"), and even if we are among many who felt that their last lp didn't do them justice, none of this is relevant to whether or not they are a band worth watching, even celebrating, in 2007. they've always had a few troughs, but unlike new order or suchlike, who slipped into a creative coma circa 1990, smith's mob have always navigated their way through. beforehand, we had wondered whether four fall gigs in a row might seem a bit much - but in the end the answer, of course, was that it was not nearly enough.

Monday, July 30, 2007

summerness
(roadtested on highbury fields)

now that the interesting stages of the 2007/08 champions league have been nearly exhausted, here's a playlist to get us all through to autumn. everything here deserves more than a maybe, and you can safely regard most as tasters for righteous eps or albums too. we could only separate them using that old trick, the alphabet: the same dodge that makes bristol rovers currently lie 3rd in league one. shout if you have trouble tracking any of them down.

a-bomb and mindzeye featuring rayzabeek "we ain't free"
thoughtful, religiose leicester ukhh from 5-track downloadable promo ep

bad brains "until kingdom comes"
fierce, devout, frankly wondrous roots stuff from "build a nation" lp on megaforce records

badness "badman"
one of many great takes on the dva remix of mega's sublime '07 riddim used on trimbal's "war report part 1", "beef" etc: from bonus cd with trim's "soul food vol. 2" mixtape

beatnik filmstars "popular nazis"
a jagged, uncompromising kinda "curious role model" part 2, from "wild eyed restless & free" cd-ep on the international lo-fi underground

california snow story "begin again"
melodious and impeccably understated quiet-fi from "close to the ocean" cd album on letterbox records

celestial "brighton girls"
smiling, perfectly uncertain, early secret shine hommage from "dream on" cd album on skipping stones records. oh, and fuck nu-gaze

crunch "crunch"
preview of "crunch time vol 1" from trimbal's "soul food" mixtape. crunch is 15.

dubblestandart featuring ari up "island girl (j-star remix)"
sublime viennese reggae (!) from "immigration dub" lp on collision

durrty goodz "boi dem"
nice "police officer" update from brimful-with-confidence "axiom ep" on awkward

ghetto "top 3 selected"
dogged, scorching early highlight from "ghetto gospel" mixtape on j. clarke enterprises

the hi-life companion "times table"
willing and able 60s'-rooted indie-pop from "say yes!" cdr album sampler (stop press: now to appear on autumn cloudberry cd-r!)

horowitz "i need a blanket"
delectable, not-unpavementy slight return from forthcoming download ep on thee sheffield phonographic corporation

jammer "never get parred"
incessant and pleasingly aggressive statement of intent from "are you dumb vol.2" mixtape on neckle / jah mek the world

j2k "switched up"
scratchy, string-backed sino-grime (we know, enough subgenres already) from "heat on the street vol. 1" 12" sampler ep

julian liberator & guy mcaffer "rolling thunder"
clanking cut that wins the usual four-way battle on "minimized" 12" ep on 4x4

the nightingales "eleven fingers"
fabulous artfulness from "what's not to love ?" mini-lp on caroline true records - coming on like a swaggering fusion of the shrubs and the fall, the nightingales benefit from doing all the things that you can't get the youngsters to do any more - archly narrated and marginally surreal mini-plots, off-the-wall song structures and beguilingly random guitars that errantly fight amongst themselves...

shrag "hopelessly wasted"
disconcertingly powerful alt-pop from "talk to the left" / "hopelessly wasted" 7" on where it's at is where you are, limited to 300 or so

skepta "autopsy"
a dark, scabrous instrumental void aching with dusty hints of dubstep from a 12" ep, also featuring jme, on adamantium music

sway featuring chiefer "move back"
grime-influenced north london hymn from "one for the journey ep" on dcypha. he's def more than capable of outlasting mike skinner and co, although at some point it is probably worth him releasing a record that doesn't feature a version of "up your speed"

team shadetek featuring 77klash & jahdan "brooklyn anthem"
exhilarating rapid-fire stuff from "pale fire" lp on sound ink / baked goods - but there is plenty to treasure on this lp

trim featuring wiley "war report pt. 4"
high-energy, high tension dis cut from trimbal "soul food volume 2" mixtape

wiley "reply 2 dizzee"
as even the broadsheets have noticed, the eskiboy has released about eight full length cds in the last year, any of which would frankly be a shoe-in for any mercury music prize list we ever produced: this uncomfortable but most entertaining soul-baring is from the "eskiboy - tunnel vision volume 6" mixtape on boy better know

and looks like there's more to come. music is brilliant.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

"fragile for each other": warming up at meltdown

or, three bands we hadn't seen since sometime last century...




the last time we saw cornershop live, it was - at a guess - about 1994, as part of a wiiija records night, possibly in islington. this was before wiiija landed the blue riband signing of heavenly, but our sketchy memories recall that (a) blood sausage, huggy bear, voodoo queens and jacob's mouse were also on the bill; (b) the late great john peel was in the audience and (c) cornershop made a brilliantly tuneless racket, rather charming in its raucous naivety, which included "change" off their first album. we would certainly not have guessed back then that the next time we saw them they would be a seven-piece with sitar and tamboura playing the queen elizabeth hall on london's south bank, but then we would also not have guessed that cornershop would have a number one hit less than four years later, that white town would already have managed one by then and that the next decade would see bristol rovers going further down the divisions, rather than back up them.

anyway, despite a stuttering start when tjinder's vocal is lost entirely in the mix, cornershop do enough to remind a sceptical population (us) that there is enough about them still, especially when the punjabi influences come to the fore. there is also, quite properly, no talking to the audience between songs nonsense. on the downside they very wrongly do not perform "jason donovan / tessa sanderson" or "england's dreaming" or "change". however, they do perform all three of their top 40 hits - "sleep on the left side", "lessons learned from rocky i to rocky iii" and the one that fatboy slim ruined - as well as reclaiming "norwegian wood" from those scouse chancers. much better than that though - especially as they leave it 'til last - is "6 a.m. jullandar shere", which they build up over precious minutes from a swathe of trebly acoustic guitar through to a towering full-band crescendo. it's a reminder of how powerful "6 a.m." really is: we honestly still believe it's one of the most striking singles of its generation. there's no encore: you couldn't ask for anything better to ring in your ears and usher you back out into the london night, while the stars rain down around the banks of a mellow, becalmed thames.

the last time we saw the jesus and mary chain live it was at meltdown 1998. they were very much a band in need, having just released an incohesive, fractured yet in parts fairly delectable album called "munki" on their old alma mater creation records. the (unfair) reception of that lp, together with the fact that the fairly fabulous "cracking up" stalled at number 35, had likely taken a toll on their confidence. (and the under-rated singles "i hate rock n' roll" and "i love rock n' roll" round that time had laid the band's feelings and inner contradictions bare). that show had been memorable though: there were plenty of songs from "munki", enlivened by guest spots from sister vanilla, kevin shields and bobby gillespie, and culminating with a bizarre, elongated and very drunken encore from william reid alone, who played an epic version of the de-tuned "commercial", thanked us all in an unfeasibly fey accent for turning up to see them, and, almost in tears, slagged off the nme before telling us all that we were "special". tiredness and emotion writ large, j&mc split soon after.

tonight was very different. for in the nine years that they've been away, some distracting solo outings (the best of which were probably jim's "song for a secret" and william's "tired of fucking") having been largely ignored, the aura and the legend of the mary chain seems to have grown. in 1998 it seemed few wanted to know, but in 2007 they are talismanic again: the royal festival hall sells out smartly, and jim and william step out on stage to a huge ovation. with bass, guitar and drums plucked from bands with less staying power, the new five-piece mary chain confidently knock out a golden greatest hits set, which apart from "cracking up" ignores their last two records, "stoned and dethroned" and "munki" entirely, and focusses on the crowd-pleasing americana of their mid-period ("sidewalking", "blues from a gun", "head on", "snakedriver", "between planets", "catchfire", "reverence"), plus some very special bonuses like "never understand" to open and both "vegetable man" and "you trip me up" as part an unusually inevitable encore.

inamidst these pounding, powering standards there is also a full band version of jim's solo single "dead end kids" - suddenly altogether meatier - and even a new song called "all things must pass" which manages to tick pretty much all the required boxes. true the feedback only really reaches the levels that the music really demands on "you trip me up" and a blistering "teenage lust", but the punters are mad for it and the brothers are looking well. jim derails "snakedriver" and "just like honey" (twice) by haranguing william for some perceived guitar faux-pas, but aside from that there is no hint of their past vulnerabilities.

so yes we really really enjoyed the evening - one of the best. five. bands. ever, never sounding too far from their prime - but (whisper) part of us still felt, especially in contrast to meltdown '98, that there was something indefinable lacking, something strangely uninvolving about what was on the face of it a towering, triumphant set. (does that sound a bit mad, idealistic, too ungrateful ? or are we just getting old ?)

the last time we saw the pastels was probably about ten years ago. they were playing the borderline in charing cross and previewing the soft, slow whimsies of "illumination", their most mature, jazz-tufted work. already, their set had moved on dramatically from earlier-90s shows, drawing impetus and inspiration from the quieter, more reflective passages of "mobile safari" rather than mid-school indie treasures like "classic line-up": while the single "unfair kind of fame" straddled both their exploratory and shambling urges.

it was a real treat then to catch up with them supporting the mary chain, lovingly introduced by another veteran of the peel years, jarvis cocker (who pointed out that the two bands hadn't actually shared a bill since a show in preston in 1985, a gig we have now added to our must-sees for when we get the time machine working). the gloves were still very much on as the pastels treated us to scenic, wistful, whispering music - like "illumination"'s "leaving this island" or the glowing newie (at least to us) "secret music": there were also a couple of instrumentals to cherish as they drew out those mild indie-dub tendencies that seeped through their chrysalis moment, "worlds of possibility". the band hit their stride best, though, with the happy shambling of "basement scam" and "fragile gang" from "mobile safari". oh, and the oldest songs in the set, "nothing to be done", along with "thru yr heart", were obvious treats too - when stephen sang in the former "when i was young / i used to sing..." it was all rather wonderfully moving, to this boy at least.

p.s. while not unexpected, it was a little of shame that the hall was quite so empty for the pastels' set - to us, both they and the mary chain were part of the same wonderful patchwork, and their sharing this bill something we found sentimentally so appealing - in this, it seems we were in something of a minority. *sigh*. but we won't be downcast - for once again meltdown provided us with a chance to catch up with some old themes and revive some treasured times.

oh, and thank you to john g.