St Vincent (Leeds Met Uni, 20 August 2014)


This was a great gig – eventually. Originally scheduled for May, when I turned up then there was nobody waiting and no-one at the University knew anything about it. Quickly googling, I found I’d made the trip into Leeds for nothing. I made a calendar note – and a note to check for cancellations before travelling to gigs in future.

So, tonight I was happy to see a queue outside the venue and managed to get in early and at the front. The support band, Arc Iris, arrived and won me over pretty quickly.

Arc Iris

I knew nothing about them beforehand but, looking at their website now, I see that lead woman Jocie Adams was previously in the Low Anthem, another band I like, though the music tonight was very different in nature. Appearing as a duet (with Zach Tenorio-Miller), both players sang (Jocie as lead) and played keyboards, with Jocie occasionally switching to guitar or woodwind (oboe, I think, though I don’t know for certain). The vocal styles reminded me of several other singers, Joni Mitchell and Joanna Newsome among them, and the musical styles ranged from slightly folky through jazz and more dance-y rock. Some of the songs were too twee even for my taste but I liked enough of it to buy the CD to give them a proper listen.

Annie St Vincent

Annie Clark and the band then came on stage and launched into ‘Rattlesnake’ from the latest eponymous CD, complete with the performance act to the song I’ve seen previously on TV but, before the song had even finished, all the amplifiers went silent and we were left with just the drums, as Matt Johnson gamely continued. Annie tried to keep the crowd going with a sing-along of the chorus, and then a bit of a chat, but it became apparent that the problems weren’t going to be resolved quickly and the band retreated backstage, leaving the technical crew to try and fix the power outage. At this point, the gig seemed cursed.

Half an hour later, and with a huge fourway power adaptor running across the back of the stage, the band returned. Not all the songs work in a live setting, but the big powerhouse ones, ‘Help Me’, ‘Your Lips are Red’, ‘Birth in Reverse’ and, particularly, ‘Cheerleader’ were absolutely amazing. Annie and Toko Yasuda, when both playing guitar, displayed how powerful a stage technique moving in unison can be – I can only think of the Shadows and Big Country really using this, though this was a more mannered performance than either.

For the encore, Annie climbed the riser at the back of the stage and, with just guitar, gave a gorgeous solo rendition of ‘Strange Mercy’, then the band returned and we were back in the strange land of the full St Vincent sound.

Annie is a really good guitarist and a strange, imaginative songwriter, with a terrific stage presence (she looks totally calm and unruffled) and the band were impeccable, not letting the technical problems ruin the mood which, by the end, was ecstatic. As Annie writhed around the stage, manic strobing gave the impression of something akin to David Lynch, rather than the more mannered David Byrne-influenced performance of earlier. And a performance is exactly what you get.

A magnificent gig, and St Vincent goes in my list of ‘unmissable gigs’ whenever one is next available.

Advertisements

Nina Conti – “Dolly Mixtures”, Leeds City Varieties, 15 April 2014


Nina Conti

Stage ventriloquism is a curious thing. It’s clearly a skill, and one that entertains, but you are basically watching a one-person play, with the puppets an extension of the performer’s “costume” and a conceit that we treat the puppet as a ‘real’ character. If the ventriloquist is good, we can even forget that they aren‘t real. Nina Conti, who is a very good artist (“Fourth best in the world”, according to her intro) goes a little bit further, and her act could be described as a ‘meta’ one, in which she discusses the nature of ventriloquism itself, and its attractions, both to the audience and the performer.

In one section, Conti chats to various members of the audience at the front, in order to ascertain who might be possible ‘stooges’ later in the act. One of them was a mental health nurse, and Conti couldn’t resist asking what ‘diagnosis’ might be responsible for her act. “Loneliness” was the response, and this was very much in tune with the general direction of the act.

Each doll was meant to represent a different facet of her personality and/or personal history. Some were more immediately funny than others though, when we reflected later on the evening, we found some of the sections we thought relatively weak turned out to have had some of the funniest moments. And there was plenty to think about later.

Funny, but also thought provoking and occasionally moving.

Lloyd Cole, Harrogate Theatre 10th July 2012


Lloyd Cole
To the rather lovely (and surprisingly spacious, given its frontage) Harrogate Theatre to see 1980s indie-darling, Lloyd Cole. Sporting a rather unfortunate moustache, greying hair and carrying a little more weight these days, he was supported by his son William, looking more like the young Lloyd than Lloyd himself now does. Cole’s first three albums, as Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, were pretty big on the indie scene but, once Cole relocated to the US and released albums as a solo artist, he pretty much disappeared from UK airplay. He’s understandably a little sensitive about this, as his comment “those of you who’ve followed me since 1985…” shows. His post-Commotions work, with the exception of 2006’s Antidepressant, probably isn’t quite up to the standard he’d set in those first three albums, but each of the remaining albums has moments and all of the albums are at least pretty good – just not quite so memorably catchy overall.

Here tonight, Lloyd (and William) provided acoustic versions of songs from throughout his career, and included a song to be included on his next album due next year. The songs from his Commotions days get a little reworking, so that they work with just two guitars, and William takes the lead guitar role throughout, also joining in on occasional vocals, and they alternate vocals on a cover of the Velvet Underground’s Pale Blue Eyes. The mood of the gig is indulgent and warm (too indulgent in the case of one pisshead who was overly enthusiastic each time he recognised a song, sang along loudly to one song and had to crawl up the steps midway through the first half to get out of the theatre, either to replenish his lager or to empty the previous ones).

There is no warm up act, with Cole taking an interval midway through. This catches out many of the audience who have timed their arrival to see only the second, “main”, half. Consequently, the first half is not performed in front of a very full auditorium, and is disturbed frequently by people finding their seats. This isn’t too much of a problem as Lloyd doesn’t seem phased or insulted by the (fairly low-key) disturbances in the audience. There are frequent changes of guitar, and tunings, between songs but this doesn’t take too long, Lloyd chats to the audience and explains that, with only two guitars providing instrumental support, they have to take more than normal pains to ensure they remain in tune, so the gaps aren’t irritating. Lloyd is not the most chatty of frontmen, but he appeared affable and relaxed and there was a real charm in the evening.

It’s the earlier work, as is to be expected, that usually gets the best response but the fairly heavy representation from 2010’s Broken Record, the last record to have been released, drives me back to play the CD again and it impresses me more on each listen.

Robin Ince’s ‘Happiness through Science’, Northern Ballet Leeds, 18 April 2012


Interesting event this. Not quite a comedy show (though funny), not a lecture (though informative) – more a fairly informal and friendly event. Robin Ince is mainly known to me through his podcasts Infinite Monkey Cage (with Professor Brian Cox) and Utter Shambles (with Josie Long) so I’m not completely unfamiliar with his style, though this is the first of his live shows I’ve seen.

Like the Lee and Herring Shows I’ve seen, this was a comic investigation around a theme – in this case, how science informs and improves our lives. Unlike them, it was not tightly structured, with a tendency to ramble and run down blind alleys, only to be pulled back to the main theme when he’d taken it too far away (a few times getting a bit ranty, a confusion I presume, with his other recent ‘Angry’ show). This should be taken as an observation rather than a criticism as these diversions were generally pretty interesting and funny and the whole event had a relaxed and friendly vibe to it that worked well.

Ince gets accused of being ‘smug’, mostly I presume, because he is a pro-science atheist and being unapologetically so is almost always knee-jerk dismissed as so but he was here reasonable and accommodating – not by pretending to believe, but simply by a recognition that most atheists and theists alike can live and let live perfectly well, and that we are all liable to hold unjustifiable beliefs on occasion. The talk covered some of the skeptical community’s heros – Richard Feynman, Bertrand Russell, with a little gentle mockery of Dawkins and Cox – and some more spirited (and deserved) mockery of its chief villains, Delingpole and Phillips, with telling quotes to illustrate the wider theme. His chief gripe was with the way science is reported in the media, and how the media in general tries to foster controversy in all fields, even when no such dissension genuinely exists, and how this confuses the public and leads to misinformation being given equal weight to solid fact.

I’m pretty well-versed in skeptical arguments but Ince still managed to find some arguments and slants that were new to me, and which I’ll integrate into my own. I’m not entirely sure that he would have managed to convince any doubters that scientific skepticism makes people happier but, here, he was ‘preaching to the converted’ and it was a thoroughly enjoyable sermon.

The Waterboys (21 March 2012, Leeds Town Hall)


20120323-113129.jpg
This was very nearly one of the very best gigs I’ve ever been to but, through no fault of the band, it fell a little short.

This was an unusual gig format, in that the first half was a medley of earlier songs with then an interval followed by songs from the new album, An appointment with Mr Yeats. Normally you’d expect it to be the other way round, or else old and new songs alternating. Kicking off with Rags established a high tempo and this kept up until midway through the first half, when they slowed it right down with one of my favourites, The Girl in the Swing, picking up again with The Pan Within, and shortly afterwards we got the interval.

The second half kicked off with the album’s opener, The Hosting of the Shee, although, unlike many of this kind of show, they didn’t stick to the album order throughout and it was in the slower numbers that the problems really began.

Firstly, the venue. I’ve praised Leeds Town Hall before, for both the Unthanks with brass band and for the screening of the Silent Clowns but, here, it was wrong. The Waterboys are a folk-rock act and we needed to be standing, not sitting in neat little rows, for those rowdier songs and it meant that the band had to work a little harder to get the atmosphere right.

The set-up also led to the second problem and that was a couple of the other punters. There was a disabled area to the front right, which is perfectly laudable except that it got occupied by a hairy stoner hippie muppet and his girlfriend who wanted to dance, drunkenly reeling around and, as they were directly in front of me, this was rather distracting. This wasn’t too bad in the first half but, after the interval, they were joined by a bunch of drunken arseholes who were more interested in checking the football scores on their mobiles, and loudly discussing them, than listening to the concert. All but one of them fucked off, but this last one carried on chatting with the muppets, infuriating in the quieter songs, until Scott stopped the gig and asked if they wanted the band to play quieter so he wouldn’t be interrupting their chat and then told them to “shut the fuck up”.

From that point, the gig and my mood improved again. For the encore, we got Don’t Bang the Drum and, inevitably, The Whole of the Moon. At this point, quite a few people left, possibly because of travel needs (it was getting a bit late) but possibly because they’d got what they came for. Those of who stayed got a second encore, finishing with a rousing, raucus Fisherman’s Blues to leave the gig having enjoyed, overall, a terrific night.

20120323-113426.jpg

Richard Herring – ‘What is Love?’ (King’s Hall, Ilkley, 11 March 20120)


Coincidentally coming just over a week after seeing Stewart Lee, I got to see the other half of the 90’s double act and saw a very different act. Where Lee’s act is studiously intellectual and rigorously structured, Herring has a more ‘traditional’ stand-up style, with a rat-a-tat delivery and more obvious jokes. There are points of similarity, of course; given that Lee’s book refers to how some of his mannerisms (such as addressing himself as if he were another person) are straight substitutions for Herring’s part in their double-act, it is clear that working together involves some influence, and it’s reasonable to suppose that it would flow both ways.

Some of the subject material and political standpoint is also similar – again not surprising for people who were friends before they were a double act – such as raging against tabloid journalism and right-wing bigotry. But Herring’s act is much more personal and autobiographical, with family and relationship stories forming the peg for this act. There is some philosophical musing and it’s clever; a maths joke about Ferrero Roche chocolates slyly slips in some serious maths and this is key to the act’s appeal for me – it wears its intellectualism lightly. There is a fairly loose structure, allowing Herring to range through anecdotes all around his theme, but always coming back to the central topic. It was certainly more structured and polished than his internet radio show, AIOTM – thankfully, since, while that was interesting, it was very haphazard.

It really is fun to watch Lee and Herring’s separate acts so closely together, as a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise (as well as simply being entertained and amused). Lee creates an exaggerated version of a sour intellectual pedant and carefully crafts a tight routine which undercuts that joke figure whilst maintaining an intellectual rigour; Herring produces the persona of a likeable pervert , more immediately and overtly running himself down, whilst also aiming to intellectually challenge his audience, albeit surreptitiously.

If I’d had some cash on me, I’d have got a signed copy of the ‘Fist of Fun’ DVD to look back at their early act for some more fun research, particularly as one sketch was directly referenced in this show. As it is, I’ll have to head on to gofasterstripe.com and buy online though, at £25 for six episodes (plus bonus material), it might have to wait until I have a bit more cash.

Stewart Lee (St George’s Hall, Bradford 1 March 2012)


Lee chooses the music that plays while the auditorium fills up prior to his coming on, so the use of “Autobahn” by Kraftwork, going into something by Neu, gives a pretty broad hint that there might be some element of repetition, and this is of course picked up later in the show.

I saw Lee’s act a year or two back and this one picked up on familiar themes from that previous gig and from his tv shows – Jeremy Clarkson, right wing abuse, misleading reportage, ‘The Big Society’, the persona he’s created as a right-on-but-oddly-misinformed leftie – but this act was much refreshed, and to good effect. As usual, there was much about the thematic nature of the routine itself, picking up on his TV exposure to mock sections of the audience’s supposed inability to follow it due to only having been brought by friends, who might be so naive as to expect ‘jokes’, and referred to his relationship with the audience as ‘a war of attrition’. A section in which he read out internet abuse he’d found, much of it calling him ‘smug’, was particularly funny, both highlighting his lack of appeal to the mainstream and puncturing the accusation of smugness whilst playing up to it. There are layers upon layers in this act.

The venue itself seemed to have a warmth and character, much more suited to comedy than the starker stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse where I saw him previously and, despite Lee’s mock complaints about how badly the act was going down, the audience seemed more receptive to it, at least from where I was sitting. There were sections which dragged a little, in which a joke seemed to be stretched beyond its usefulness, but Lee does this very deliberately in order to set up bigger laughs later on; nothing is wasted, the act is very lean.

He also has several pops at a variety of big-name comics, though we aren’t expected to take this too seriously, it simply being another riff on his own pretended failings as an elitist act. Even so, this is comedy for people who do like to think while they laugh, who don’t want to switch off when being entertained.

King Creosote and John Hokins (Leeds City Varieties, 9 February 2012)


20120213-081803.jpg

Leeds City Varieties is a lovely venue for gigs like this: large enough to get a good atmosphere, small enough to allow an intimate atmosphere ideal for thoughtful, gentle music.

The warm-up act, Withered Hand, a solo act aka Dan Willson, got us off to a low-key start. His reedy voice, wry and sad lyrics and pretty tunes (apparently, he was described as a “melodic wimp” by Rolling Stone) were helped along by a self-deprecating humour in his inter-song chat. And, unusually for a support act, the CD I bought at the gig was possibly better than the live performance, reminding me (in a good way) of Neil Young at times.

The main act started off by performing the album, Diamond Mine, in its entirety and with Kenny Anderson offering no interruption at all between songs. King Creosote is normally a one-man act, Anderson on vocals and guitar, but for his last album, and here, he is joined by Hopkins on keyboards, harmonium (I think) and occasional recorded sounds and other effects, necessary to reproduce the album but not reproducable live otherwise. I was starting to think Anderson was a bit of a grouch and I might be in for another ‘Fleet Foxes’ event but, once the album was done, Anderson became much more chatty and the effects tapes were ditched for a more basic approach. I’ve heard that King Creosote has a prodigious output and that the quality threshold is variable but the songs here were all good enough for me to invest in one or two more albums, to investigate his back catalogue.

The Wedding Present (Leeds O2, 30 December)


The Wedding Present

Led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Dave Gedge and bursting on to the indie scene in the mid 80’s, the Weddoes delivered kitchen sink dramas in the form of jingly-jangly guitar pop buried in hyperactively thrashed guitars. There were always good songs in there but you had to find them over a few listens.

They disappeared from the indie charts almost as soon as they rose but continued to make records (for a while as Cinerama). The style remained similar though the thrash guitars retreated a little to let the songs out a bit more. And they continue to tour, playing the same mix of old and new stuff without fuss or accolades but with a core of pretty devoted followers.

Anyone who’s been to a Wedding Present gig pretty much knows what they’re going to get but that’s part of the fun. No requests – ever. Gedge has his playlist for the night and will not deviate from it, no matter how many people shout out for a particular song. No encores – ever. Gedge thinks they’re daft and stopped doing them in 1989.

The old songs are more popular with the crowd; perhaps they’re the strongest but a fair proportion of the crowd are of my age and older and heard the older songs, like me, when they were younger and so were more affected by them. Some of the new songs, to be released on a 2012 album, are excellent, even on first listen.

The band are solid but the focus is, as ever, Gedge himself. Between songs, his banter is minimalist; wry, funny, slightly taciturn – almost curmudgeonly – but, once the song starts, Gedge really inhabits the song, not just playing it but properly performing it. This, Fleet Foxes, is what stagemancraft is all about. Not quite my favourite gig of the year, but only because I’ve seen so many good ones already, and a fantastic way to end 2011.

Fleet Foxes (O2 Academy, Leeds, 1 December 2011)


Fleet Foxes

This was not a bad gig but it certainly wasn’t the best I’ve been to this year. In fact, it was probably the least good gig I’ve been to this year, and probably the most disappointing since a pretty drab Fall affair at the same venue last winter.

The support act, Vetiver, were solid enough, rattling through a variety of folk-pop-bluesey stuff – essentially melodic and pleasant pub rock but nothing wrong with that and it was delivered more than competently. At the end of their set, I was nicely prepared for the main act to come on and blow them away; this is what normally happens. I am pleasantly surprised by the support act and wonder if the main act will live up to their main billing. They invariably do and Fleet Foxes, being noted for musical craft, ought to be able to jump up a grade and make the evening really special. They didn’t.

Their musical craft was certainly up to the job. I’d wondered if their vocal harmonies, particularly, would suffer in a live environment and they didn’t at all. They can definitely perform the music but that was part of the problem. On CD, everything sounds pleasant. There’s Mykanos of course, and White Winter Hymnal, and… er Mykanos… and a lot of stuff that sort of blends into one another and a couple more that I recognise but don’t recall the title of. Sometimes, when this has happened with an album, a live performance is what brings these songs alive but Fleet Foxes didn’t manage this. At first, it seemed that they were going to, as they opened with a couple of thumping tracks that gave a kind of pagan ritual feeling to the songs but then they got bogged down with trying to recreate their sounds so perfectly that between every song, just about every member of the band (bar the drummer, and I swear he changed a cymbal at least once!) was changing an instrument and tuning it before the next song could begin. Even their USP, the great vocal harmonies, started to gall after a while with each of the songs being lost in “woah-woah-woah”-ness and one, that seemed to go on for hours like a prog-rock nightmare with a honking sax solo, was a total mess.

This constant dithering completely killed the mood and encouraged the drunks in the crowd to practice their hooting sound effects – not heckling but not in keeping with the mood of the music. The backdrop didn’t help either. There was a constant projection, ok when showing mountainscapes, starfields or swirling clouds but absurdly annoying when repeating patterns of geometric shapes filled and emptied the screen over and over and over… like the opening credits of a ’70s or ’80s children’s teatime sci-fi. It had the same hypnotically attractive but infuriating pull that a tv in a pub has when it screens rolling sport or news just on the edge of your vision. It distracts you and annoys you but you just can’t stop looking.

After the break, lead singer Robin Pecknold came out and did a couple of solo songs and this reminded me of just how good their songs can be, when not over-elaborated. Then the rest of the band came on and they went back into the bland.

I wondered whether it was just me; was I in a bad mood or otherwise just not in the right frame of mind to appreciate them? Maybe they just weren’t to my taste. As I left, among a few “amazing!” -s, I heard many more “fucking boring” and, outside, one “well musically they were great but they need to learn stagecraft”, to which I couldn’t help but reply “too fucking right!”.

It seems strange after all this to say that I still like them but I do. I just don’t think I’d go to see them live again.