Tag Archives: Live review

British Sea Power – KOKO, London 10/04/14


Photo by Jason Williamson


It ends not so much on an oily stage, but a crowded one. By the time British Sea Power complete their encore in KOKO, they are legion: flanked to the right by a cocksure, 10 foot grizzly bear, to the left by a bashful, tentative polar; embedded in a twist of leaves and foliage; drowning in the whoops of a crowd that wants more. Iconoclasts to the last, trackies-tucked into socks to a man (only violinist Abi Fry is exempt from the garb), they could’ve played all night. Make no mistake, this was some performance – a festival of abandonment off stage and on.

British Sea Power’s career trajectory has always made for fascinating listening and viewing. Last year’s excellent Machineries of Joy was a return to form after the minor mis-step that was Valhalla Dancefloor. The two instrumental soundtrack albums which they’ve recorded and toured live showcased the high level of craftmanship within the band, which often lived in the shadow of their oddball subject matter and stage props. Tonight, the three coalesce magnificently.

The band selects wisely from their back catalogue. A whirring organ-led “Heavenly Waters” segues beautifully into “Fear of Drowning”, both from that most blistering of debut albums The Decline of… (anyone else struggle to believe it’s been 11 years?). The brass-led “Monsters of Sunderland”, a highlight of last year’s record, bombs straight into “It Ended on an Oily Stage”, from Open Season. “We Are Sound” and “Once More Now”, from Valhalla Dancefloor, sound much fresher in such illustrious company than they ever did on record.

It’s a tribal bunch that follows (because some of them surely do) BSP about. The standing area is a sea of booze bedraggled 30-somethings, ebbing and flowing, threatening to sweep everyone around them away. “Remember Me” and “Waving Flags” both inspire attempted crowd surfs, while the gorgeous instrumental “Great Skua”, played to a backdrop of crashing iceshelves and migrating birds, brings a lump to the throat. Frontman Jan attempts a handstand during the encore (“Spirit of St Louis” and “No Lucifer”), and the band depart: bears dancing, crowd frenzied, ceiling quite possibly crumbling.

Joey Barton’s faux-nietzschean patter. The ineptitude of the Metropolitan Police. The chord progression in a Noel Gallagher song. The quality of a British Sea Power gig. It’s nice to know that in 2014, with all our polar vortexes, floods up to *here* and disappearing jetplanes, there are some things in life that can still be relied on.


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Erlend Øye – Islington Assembly Hall, London 03/04/14



The de rigueur hipster beards and black rim specs are present and correct, but there’s a more eclectic bunch than usual gathered in Islington to welcome Norwegian kook-master Erlend Øye: lagered up 20-somethings, doting white-haired couples and, perhaps the highlight, a svelte and be-lycra’d cyclist, helmet under arm, glass of juice in hand. The mix is testament to Øye’s broad-based appeal. Through his work with the Kings of Convenience and the Whitest Boy Alive he has garnered a reputation as a songwriter par excellence and a performer of repute. And while most will have come tonight on the strength of previous records, it’s rare to see such an enthusiastic response for a set composed mainly of new, unheard songs.

Øye has come to perform tracks from his forthcoming record Legao, his first solo outing in more than a decade. He’s joined by the Icelandic Ziggy on guitar and keys, and Victor, a Finn who plays woodwind. The stripped-back accompaniment lends an earthy feel to proceedings. The flute whirls whimsically around in the foreground of Øye’s vocals, riffing and melodious. The sound is light and the songs are simple. In short, it’s not a million miles away from a Kings of Convenience record, which is pleasing for most.

The breezy sound of the early tracks is in danger of being swallowed up by the cavernous, sold-out venue, revellers at the back content to chatter their way through the opening gambits, much to the consternation of those around them (says one loudly, as a flute solo takes off: “I used to play the flute at school.” Response, from a few rows back: “Nobody cares, shut the fuck up!”). But as the show goes on, Øye’s wit wins through. His patter, as with his lyrics, can be dorky and clunky but incredibly disarming. “Who do you report to?” he sings, on the Jens Lekman-esque track of the same name. “It’s warm up here too… thank god I’m standing next to some cool people,” he says, between songs.

The new material is broken up by a couple of reggae tracks sung by Ziggy (it’s fascinating to hear a genre often associated with monosyllabic choruses tackled in the sesquipedalian Icelandic tongue) and a couple of covers – a gorgeous, finger-picked rendition of Big Star’s “Thirteen” and “New For You” by “unknown” California band the Moore Brothers – before Øye takes the mic to hold court with a Q&A. “Ask me about life: I know a lot, I’m 38,” he says before fielding questions on Italian cheese and his advice on a happy life (live in Italy).

The pace picks up towards the end: the crowd is nods in unison to The Whitest Boy Alive cuts “Upside Down” and “Golden Cage”, while the chorus of “La Prima Estate” is bellowed back at him. The abiding impression is, though, that the music is just an element of an Erlend Øye gig. With his dad dancing, effervescent smile, self-governing barnet and oddball sense of humour, tonight is as much about the spectacle as anything else.

Photo by Sara Amroussi-Gilissen.

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From the archive: John Grant – Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London 15/05/13



John Grant is an artist that inspires evangelism among his followers. You could see it when Midlake, self-confessed super-fans of Grant’s former band the Czars, coaxed him out of obscurity and into their studio to record his solo debut, Queen of Denmark.

It was apparent in the manner in which said album took off: there was a real, old-fashioned, word-of-mouth feel to its ascendency (living abroad at the time, I received various emails from people in the UK telling me I simply had to get my hands on his record). There’s the sell-out British tour and the fact that every time there’s a moment of silence in tonight’s jam-packed Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a gaggle of infatuated revellers will loudly declare their unconditional love for him. Throughout, I’m half expecting a pair of knickers to land at his feet, as he self-consciously shimmies his way through a stellar performance.

He emerges to the groan of a synthesizer that’s so sonorous, it feels like it’s coming from the bowels of the old Empire itself. The 4/4 backbeat to ‘You Don’t Have To’ ushers him toward the mic, the lights flickering fluorescent. New album Pale Green Ghosts is a departure, for sure, but it’s arguably not until you’ve seen him perform it live that you realise just how different he intended it to be. In a week dominated by the catfight over Daft Punk’s new record, the title track, performed to a mesmerising green light show, reminds us all what a great dance tune should sound like. The searing synth riff of ‘It Doesn’t Matter to Him’, too, bellow around the theatre: louder, dancier and bolder than you could ever have envisioned (although I’d hazard that anyone who’s heard it on this tour will only ever hear it this way again).

Grant’s gallows humour transcends both of his records and it’s to the fore tonight too. From the deadbeat anthem ‘Queen of Denmark’ to the goofy existentialism of ‘Sigourney Weaver’, Grant has a Vonnegut-esque ability to sugarcoat the most barbed and venomous couplets in comedy. Often, too, the melody Grant hangs the lyrics on is at odds with the content: Grant himself draws the comparison between ‘I Hate This Town’ (about depression and alienation) and Abba’s ‘Chiquitita’ (a slightly more trivial number about teenage heartbreak), before regaling us with his confusion over how the band’s Frida would clap as she performed live (of course, he had us all join in).

Between tracks, too, his patter has the power to thaw the most hardened hearts. ‘Ernest Borgnine’, he tells the audience, is about how he felt when he was diagnosed with HIV, before setting the audience off in laughter again with a joke and an anecdote about Borgnine, the hero he once got to meet.

“I hope you can feel this,” he tells the crowd, clasping at his heart as he takes leave of his encore. We can – everybody can. From the moment he introduces his Icelandic band and thanks the support act before singing a note, to the final moments of ‘Caramel’, this has been an extraordinary occasion marked by humility and warmth.

Over the past months, there’s been a hell of a lot lot written about Grant’s illness, his depression and his addictions. Tonight, though, has been about his remarkable ability to channel his many-headed demons into something positive and beautiful.

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From the archive: Philip Glass, Nico Muhly and Timo Andres – Barbican Hall, London 12/05/13



I’m sat in the stalls of the Barbican Hall, at the end of what’s been an evening of beautiful, challenging music. Timo Andres is sat straight up at the piano in a rococo beige suit, his head back and his long arms stretched out before him, playing out the last bars of Philip Glass’s Etudes for Piano.

My mind wanders to an evening spent watching renegade concert pianist Chilly Gonzalez a few weeks back in the Cadogan Hall, during which he tried to dispel the idea that the piano was an unconquerable instrument. There were postcards being sold on the merch desk proclaiming that a monkey playing a note is no different to Tchaikovsky playing the same one, or something to that effect.

As entertaining as Gonzalez is – and his possibly faux reverse snobbery shtick is a joy to behold – he is wrong. Andres has just replaced Nico Muhly at the keys, who himself was preceded by Philip Glass. In some baton-passing way, the sequencing feels symbolic. From the master, to the protégée, to the (outside of classical circles) relatively unknown. All three are playing pieces from the same movement, but each emblazons his own contribution with a personalised stamp.

Glass (in a straightforward navy cardigan, naturally) carries an air of unaffected normality. I’d recently watched a rerun of the stellar Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts – a documentary tracing his journey from avant-garde nihilist of the Lower East Side to toast of Carnegie Hall. All the way through, the man was unflappably normal. The day after Einstein on the Beach opened at the Metropolitan Opera, the , er, broke Glass was driving a taxi around New York City when a passenger leaned forward to tell him that he had the same name as a “very famous composer”. He plays his pieces coldly – scientifically, Gonzalez might say. Etudes is not difficult to enjoy. Perhaps the reason Glass has enjoyed so much crossover success is that you don’t have to look too hard, to listen too deep, to find the crux of the melody, and his style is as minimalistic as the music itself.

Muhly, by contrast, is altogether more involved. He leans – dives – into the music, contorting his body with each lift and fall. His head bobs forwards and back, the sweat glistening on the side of his face. A Scream and an Outrage is his baby and by the end of his performance of Etudes, he is emotional and drained. He snatches the music from its holder and bows, fulsomely. The calibre and breadth of performers he’s gathered for the weekend is testament to his own chameleonic ways. Conor O’Brien of Villagers is nodding in approval a few rows in front of me, and earlier in the evening we’d had our hearts ripped from their cages and served still beating on a plate by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond’s performance of the impeccable death speaks by David Lang.

Twenty-something Andres is a hybrid of his predecessors, at least stylistically. He, too, evokes something scientific – his bowtie and muffin hair suggest that if he were to speak (which he doesn’t), he might ask us to tell him about our childhoods. He’s not as distant as Glass, but nowhere near as intense as Muhly. Glass played from memory, Muhly from manuscript and for Andres, there’s an iPad sat on the rack, emitting a dim, tinny light that’s drowning in the face of the grandness that surrounds it. His long fingers arguably coax more elegance from his pieces than the others and his style is more playful.

As the three align to take their applause, I recall Gonzalez and his ersatz philosophy again. While Glass, I’m sure, would never claim to be a “musical genius” (Gonzalez’s words), there’s something interesting about the way in which each has struck out from the “world of serious music” (Glass’s). But as he homes in on 80, Philip Glass is still producing music which can be interpreted and reinterpreted ad infinitum, which challenges and thrills and which finds new territory and pulls new life from the same set of parameters he was given 60 years ago. That, to me, is something marvellous.

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From the archive: Why? – Islington Assembly Hall, London 09/05/13



The gubernaorial surrounds of Islington Assembly Hall seem slightly at odds with the fluorescent schtick of Doseone – he of Themselves, 13 and God and cLOUDDEAD fame. And for about 10 minutes, an air of bemusement envelopes the early revelers; or perhaps they’re simply hypnotised by his garb (neon-pink t-shirt, big-buckled ‘I Love Haters’-adorned belt and flashy old school hip hop jacket).

The music’s fittingly kaleidoscopic too. His high-pitched squall, laid over disjointed, funk-tinged beats, sits somewhere between Prince and Connan Mockasin. The set is unhinged and fragmented but there’s something mesmeric about watching a man swig from a half-bottle of bourbon on stage. “I rap, too,” he helpfully informs the uninitiated before launching into a series of blistering, propeller-tongued rhymes and leaving to a hearty, if slightly befuddled, round of applause.

The contrast with Anticon stable-mates Why?’s performance could hardly be starker. Yoni Wolf has brought his full quintet on tour and the unit is tight, the set polished and slick. Where Dose was tanking drams of whiskey, Wolf sips from a bottle of mineral water (a tickle in his throat sees him reset the band once or twice). And no matter how many times you spin his records, it’s still always something of a surprise to hear the expletives fall from Wolf’s mouth in the flesh. His slight stature, polite, slightly-reserved stage manner and tame interaction with his audience and band is somewhat incongruous with some of his more potty-mouthed, vitriolic lyrical content.

The songs from Elephant Eyelash and Alopecia were always going to be crowd-pleasers – and so it pans out. ‘Waterfalls’ from the former kicks the set off nicely and Yoni holds the mic aloft triumphantly, as the crowd bellows back the chorus of ‘Good Friday’, not a “disinterested bitch” in the house. The stellar ‘January Twenty Something’ from the sometimes forgotten Eskimo Snow acts as something of a bridge, as Why? launch into a series of cuts from last year’s underrated (at least in some, influential quarters) Mumps, Etc.

One of the most interesting elements of the evening is witnessing the deployment of the band’s newest work. It is arguably Yoni Wolf at his most narcissistic – but as with all of his lyrics, you get the feeling that in the Denton, Texas studio in which it was recorded, there was at least one tongue boring a sizeable hole in a Wolf’s cheek. The band chooses well: the one-two-three of ‘Waterlines’, ‘Strawberries’ and ‘Jonathan’s Hope’ are the record’s strongest and are well-received – but by the time they’re finished, the crowd is baying for old blood.

They get it in the form of ‘These Few Presidents’, ‘Yo Yo Bye Bye’ and ‘The Hollows’. The latter in particular shows Why? and Yoni Wolf at their best: the flicked, bassy riff, the ghostly harmonies, the nasally delivered, borderline slapstick lyrics (“I spent the last six months hiding behind a moustache”) and the big, singalong chorus. The song prompts the first and only real surge from the audience – whose slight reservation is perhaps a reflection of that of the band itself. But musically, the evening’s performance can’t be faulted.

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From the archive: Roddy Woomble – The Jazz Cafe, London 13/03/13



It’s been four years since we’ve had a new Idlewild album, but Roddy Woomble hasn’t been sitting idle. In the year building up to the release of Post-Electric Blues (2009), he upped and left for the Isle of Mull with his wife Ailidh Lennon (of Sons and Daughters) and recorded the stunning Before the Ruin, a collaboration with Kris Drever (of Lau) and John McCusker. Before this, he was the co-curator of the wonderful ‘Ballads of the Book’, a project that paired Scottish authors and musicians.

It’s no surprise that his three solo outings, then, have been steeped in Arcadian themes of community, co-operation, pastoralism and nature. And despite performing in the metropolitan confines of Camden’s Jazz Café, these notions are inescapable tonight.

Woomble, the long, sweeping fringe perhaps the only hangover from his singer-in-a-punk-band days, spends the evening sat on a chair, with his arms hung between his legs. Such is his casual comfort, he could easily be perched in the kitchen of a Hebridean cottage. He smiles encouragingly at his band – Seonaid Aitken on keys and fiddle, Sorren MacLean on guitar and bassist Gavin Fox – as they blast out the best part of his three-pronged solo canon.

When they get it right, it’s wonderful to hear. “Nothing will get lost if we work like we can, until the smell of the earth is worn into our hands,” croons Roddy on ‘Work Like We Can’ – his philosophy captured in one gentle sentence. ‘Waverley Steps’ has the front row murmuring along in what’s the closest the evening gets to a fully blown singalong. ‘The Universe is on our Side’ and the existential ‘Making Myths’, from Woomble’s slightly underwhelming new record Listen to Keep, take on real potency in the flesh and the performance is sparked into life on the occasions Aitken and MacLean take centre stage: transforming the Jazz Café into a Scottish ceilidh hall.

Alas, the overarching theme of the evening is one of “pleasance”. Too little of Woomble’s solo oeuvre excites in the manner which his Idlewild and post-Idlewild collaborative material does. There’s a cigarette paper between many of the core melodies. While his imagery is often stirring, some of the lyrics from the new record jar in comparison (specifically: see ‘The Last One Of My Kind’). He exits the stage to hearty applause: no whoops, few yells – and that sums up what his music has become: nice, gentle, soothing, but nothing to get worked up about.

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From the archive: Villagers – Village Underground, London 20/02/13



Eclectic, psychedelic and stylish, Stealing Sheep’s choice of costume acts as a decent harbinger for their performance at The Village Underground. The all girl three-piece pack more ideas into a single song than many would hazard to fit on a full album. The results are intriguing. Fragments of Talking Heads and Warpaint glisten on the surface, but buried within the art-house jauntiness and tribal groove is a Spector-esque core. On record, Stealing Sheep have been accused of lacking cohesion. Tonight, though, they’re all unpredictability and caprice: a joy to behold.

Villagers are a completely different proposition. Band leader and songwriter Conor O’Brien has etched out two album loads of meticulous gems. He’s cut from same classic songwriting cloth as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. But there’s a dark trimming to his fabric and an insulation that gives him an air of detachment on stage.

Tonight, as ever, his demeanour is impersonal but captivating – he says very little and yet it’s impossible to take your eyes off him. His band is a well-oiled machine, giving note-perfect renditions of the bulk of his near-perfect back catalogue. New album {Awayland} has the same stealthy emotional penetration as its predecessor Becoming A Jackal – played live though, the new songs come across with real pizzazz. ‘Earthly Pleasures’, perhaps O’Brien’s lyrical zenith to date, is – and I don’t use this word lightly – epic.

There’s something slightly iconoclastic about O’Brien’s willingness to slay a song at an unlikely point and take things off-road. On ‘The Bell’ and particularly the spectacular encore rendition of ‘The Waves’, Villagers challenge the ‘folk’, or ‘indie-folk’ labels with which they’re often laden with, descending into a lengthy jam on the former, while exploring more electronic territory on the latter.

His craftsmanship really shines through on some of the tracks from Becoming a Jackal. ‘The Meaning of the Ritual’, with which he opens the show, is spellbinding. The title track, for which he won an Ivor Novello, suggests that despite dishing out gongs to Ed Sheeran and Adele over the past year, the award’s panel still have some idea as to what constitutes talent. But it’s the erstwhile stonking ‘That Day’, reimagined as a jazzy, acoustic number that steals the show.

Fans of Chad Harbach’s life-affirming novel The Art of Fielding from last year might appreciate the resemblance with Henry “the Skrim” Skrimshander – the precocious college pitcher who eats, sleeps and breathes baseball. It’s easy to imagine the boyish O’Brien giving himself up so completely to his art, too. His songs are rich in lyrical twists, his vocals delivered with perfect enunciation – clipped consonants and rolling vowels. And watching him play, you often get the impression that he couldn’t care less whether he was playing for ten or 10,000 people.

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From the archive: Meursault – Islington Assembly Hall, London 06/11/12


Photograph by Sonny Malhotra from The Brixton Windmill, 2011.


Much like the cup with the cracked handle in his denigration of “terrible town planning” ‘Love in the Time of Ecstasy’, the appeal of opening act Withered Hand – aka Dan Willson – is in his imperfections. And so it plays out in front of a slowly swelling, partisan crowd in the gorgeous Islington Assembly Hall tonight. The parts – his beaten up guitar, gently cracking voice and slightly incoherent preambles – all add to a captivating sum in this stripped back acoustic warm-up.

He’s joined initially by Malcolm Benzie (Woodpigeon) on mandolin, with Rob St John adding harmonium to the ranks for the second half. The opening flurry of new tracks is soothingly pleasant: both ‘Love Over Desire’ and ‘Anyone’s Guess’ suggest a more countrified Withered Hand than we’ve yet been witness to. Things really take off when the trio (with Benzie swapping his mandolin for a fiddle) tackle some of the standout tracks from Willson’s debut, Good News.

In contrast, Rob St John, accompanied by a veritable who’s who of Edinburgh’s music scene, couldn’t be starker. Last year’s Weald was measured, fragile and, outside a few circles, criminally overlooked. The deliberation is apparent on stage too, even if the songs take on a whole new vibrancy with the backing of a full band. Every note, distortion and lunge of his baritone Lancastrian voice, seems to be in its right place. A searing guitar solo on the tail-end of the excellent ‘Sargasso Sea’ silences even the most persistent chatterers at the back. St John saves the most poignant moment for last. A rousing, heartfelt version of the ever-emotional ‘Shallow Brown’ dedicated to a recently passed friend steals the show.

Depending at which stage of Meursault’s career you’ve caught them live, you could have been greeted by anywhere between one and 20 members. Tonight’s cast comes in at 11, including all the evening’s previous performers (bar Withered Hand) and the Pumpkin Seeds string section. Given the grandiosity of the occasion, it seems lazy – almost clichéd – to start with the same point that every other review of Meursault has ever started out with. But, y’know, it’s kind of unavoidable.

Even among the maelstrom of strings, guitar, keys, harmonium and Neil Pennycook’s voice rises with towering bellicosity. Meursault are a band known for their punishing touring schedule and it seems astonishing that he can summon the same stupefying volume and emotion from his larynx every time he opens his mouth.

The set lifts predominantly from this year’s stellar Something for the Weakened and as befits the occasion, the band is bang on form. The strings are, naturally, at their most effective during the quieter numbers – and it’s a shame that during the more rollicking numbers (of which there are many), they’re not higher in the mix. It’s a small gripe though. For there’s a real celebratory mood on show tonight, one that’s hard not to get caught up in. ‘Thumb’ is gently rousing. ‘Settling’ – one of the tracks of 2012 – is delivered with startling aplomb. The folky ‘Untitled’ is a welcome change of pace on record, and so it proves in the flesh.

‘Mamie’, a song about Pennycook’s grandmother, has the same impact as ‘Shallow Brown’ had for St John earlier in the evening. A sombre account of someone descending further into old age, it has the frontman hunkered down, mike in hand. He seems exhausted, spent and as Meursault leave the stage, there’s the sense that this song, that this entire show has been the culmination of something special. 2012 has been a fine year for Meursault and tonight, the band and their extended musical family revels in it.

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