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Dislocation Dance

In Live Reviews, Music on June 5, 2011 at 10:54 pm

This review was originally published by Now Then Magazine on Monday, 30 May 2011

Monday, 23 May 2011

St Clement’s Church, Chorlton, Manchester

I love pop music.  I have always loved pop music, even before I understood what it meant or where it came from.  When I was a teenager, I loved the dominant sound of the day – britpop.  The first album I ever bought was Moseley Shoals by Ocean Colour Scene.  I listened to The Longpigs, to Oasis, to Blur, (take a breath), to The Bluetones, Echobelly, Cast.  When I was a little bit older, I began to listen to their antecedents – Paul Weller, The Jam, The Beatles.  The fucking Beatles.  To make it to the Beatles, I had to battle through, past or around Space, Menswear and fucking Suede.  Well, it was worth it when I got there.

Unlike many people who are interested in pop music, the house in which I grew up was not particularly musical, or at least it was not soaked in the sounds of Western pop.  My parents listened to Bollywood playback singers, moreso in the car than in the house.  My father’s favourites were, and still are, people like Mohammed Rafi, while my mother preferred the female singers, such as Lata Mangeshkar.  So it was only much later on that I heard Ocean Rain by Echo and the Bunnymen, and began to trace historical influences less obvious than the simple Beatles – Smiths – Stone Roses – Oasis trajectory.

It was at that point that I began to get into post-punk, began to listen to the bands that had been emerging around the same time as Factory, either associated with it, influenced by it, or subsequently influencing it.  I was attracted to the darkness, the misery, the exposition of a beaten post-industrial landscape created by Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher.  Of course, this misery was often clothed in upbeat melodies, and many of the songs were love songs.  But they were not flippant, they did not ignore where they came from, they were mired in it.  There was no attempt to escape it, nor to festishise it through explicit reference.  It simply was.  You could hear it in the reverberations of the singing, in the strained guitars, in the muffled, not quite defeated, not quite defiant anger.  Songs like Hand in Glove by the Smiths and of course, Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division, are perfect examples.

I had never heard of Dislocation Dance before reading through the programme for the Chorlton Festival.  It bills them as experimental jazz punk, and describes them as having been initially signed on the same label as Buzzcocks, before signing for Rough Trade at the same time as The Smiths.  A bit of further research has informed me that they were friends with the Factory crowd.  They were once flown back from a tour of the USA by one Anthony H. Wilson, after a mishap with their original tickets left them stranded there.  This has all built up a picture of something really quite exciting.  So I’m excited.

I arrive in the hallway of St Clement’s Church, with the partition doors still closed while the band sets up.  We can hear them sound checking, and they sound a little more conventional than I had imagined, a little more bubblegum.  But that’s OK.  It’s quite possible to be happy and heartfelt, or saccharine and ironic, or for the soundcheck songs not to be representative of the whole set.  There’s any number of explanations, so I don’t think too much about it.  I look around me and see a crowd that makes me quite happy to live in Manchester.  Not a group of hipsters eager to impress, but mostly people over the age of thirty.  I wonder if some of them remember the band from the 80s, or if some of them actually know or knew the band personally.  There are also a couple of children under the age of ten, whose parents I assume are here too.

So the doors open, and we file into the church.  St Clement’s is a beautiful building, dimly lit tonight to create a lovely warmth.  The band is set up in what I think is known as the chancel, in front of the altar.  The evening sun shines through a stained glass window above, showering them in shimmering blues and reds.  We sit in the crossing, surrounded by shadows.

Ian Runacres tells us they will start with softer tunes before getting on to the heavier stuff.  So they kick off, with Phil Lukes singing the first three songs, while also playing ukelele.  He has a deep, rich voice that fills the church and seems to work well in the absence of the bass guitar for these songs.  Jon Board plays trumpet and (I think) French horn to add some texture.  This is enjoyable pop, with a touch of the wistful, and reminds me of Teenage Fanclub.

For the next few songs, Ian Runacres takes over on vocals, and Lukes replaces his ukelele with a bass.  This creates a real change in the sound, as Runacres voice is higher-pitched and his range a little narrower.  The songs lose that wistful touch and seem to vacillate between self-indulgent and glib.  Some are both.  A song called Shinjuku Junction has the lyrics, ‘Shinjuku Junction/ East meets West/ We see the best of all around us/ The best meets the rest.’  I begin to see where certain aspects of britpop came from.  His voice is not unlike Ian Broudie’s and some of these tunes remind me of The Lightning Seeds.  I hate the Lightning Seeds.

I begin to contemplate what it is that I love in pop.  Whatever it is, this is not it.  When Lukes takes over singing again, I begin to wake up a little.  His voice has a greater resonance that seems to penetrate real feelings, whereas Runacres’ seems to bounce off them.  He introduces one song, ‘Like most of my songs, it’s about my misspent youth.’  Misspent how?  Why?  I don’t feel that this music is attempting to breech the superficiality of the imagined experiences of our youth.  And pop music can do that.  I know it can do that, I have seen it do that.  I came here tonight expecting to hear these guys do that.

Not all pop music analyses, not all pop music describes, not all pop music is about pain, or is qualified by pain.  But it does have to engage.  At least make me dance, make me tap my feet.  Tonight I’m not engaged, I’m floundering.  Runacres seems to be enjoying himself, which I’m heartened by.  But this seems to be a reminiscence of something for him and his band.  It sounds pleasant enough, but it is ultimately unedifying for those of us who do not share a history with him.  It is tame.  While Lukes seems to ‘mean it’ more, his ultimate lack of conviction is belied by his introduction to The Ruins of Manchester, ‘It’s not my fault, it’s just a song.’

This is not angry, nor is it impassioned.  It is certainly not experimental.  It is a kind of plodding pop that carries no meaning for me.  One review I found of their work in the 80s described it as ‘background music for the foreground.’

Pop music can do more than this.


Steve Reich

In Live Reviews, Music on May 23, 2011 at 5:01 pm

This is a slightly edited version of an article first published at Now Then Manchester on Friday, 20 May 2011

Thursday, 12 March 2011

RNCM, Manchester

Ideas. Theories. Labels. There’s a scene in Annie Hall (or is it Manhattan?) in which Diane Keaton describes Ingmar Bergman as ‘too cerebral.’ Woody Allen does not understand how she can use this word to describe why she does not like a piece of art. He does not grasp the argument. Surely, the more cerebral a piece is, the more it challenges the systems and patterns which hold your perceptions of the world together, the better. At the risk of sounding somewhat like a Cameron Crowe movie, this can only work if the piece still speaks to its audience; if it has ‘soul.’

We started the night with Steve Reich up on stage himself, with percussionist Simone Rebello, performing Clapping Music. The word ‘minimalism’ means many things to many people, but no one could possibly argue with labelling this as such. Two people, up on stage, clapping. No instruments other than their hands. It was composed in 1972 and must have been incredibly original at the time. But tonight it reminded me of Stomp. Sure, it challenged one’s sense of rhythm, and sure it must have been difficult to perform; one person claps one phrase repeatedly while the other shifts one note every few bars, to become increasingly out of sync before returning to being back in sync. And while that is technically impressive, I spent much of the piece just wincing at the possibility that one of the clappers might make a mistake (whether or not many of us would have noticed is a moot point). To bring Cameron Crowe back, this piece did not speak to me.

The second piece was Cello Counterpoint. It can be played live by eight people or by one, with the other seven parts pre-recorded. Tonight, we had the latter, played by David McCann. Again, I found myself thinking that the idea of playing live with a recording of oneself would have felt completely alien for many classical musicians when Steve Reich started to experiment with the idea in the 1980s. But hip-hop artists had been doing it for several years by then. And now, the technique is employed in many different genres, and has been added to through the use of pedals and other instruments used to make recordings and loops, so that one can create textures previously not possible as a solo artist. So why then do we return to Steve Reich for this idea? I found myself wondering about the cache of being an accepted part of the classical music canon, and whether this was the reason we still cared about Steve Reich and his innovations. These techniques that are now so widespread within the world of popular music, are they not somewhat gimmicky when transposed back the world of classical music?

And then I melted.

Finally, the angular phrasing, McCann’s jolting movements and head-nodding, the anxiety-inducing disharmony hit me. Yes, it spoke to me. (Sorry.) And finally, the ideas, the theories mattered. I began to consider why it is that I had initially thought the piece would have been better had all eight parts been played live. What is it that would have been different? Obviously the sound would have been. But the feel would have been too.

Eight people playing one piece is the coming together of those eight people, to try to achieve some kind of harmony. Even if the piece is as disharmonious or filled with angular tension as this, the eight players create that tension together, after starting out as eight separate entities. When one person is playing, he/she starts out as one, and branches out to fill many different possibilities at once – a musical embodiment of the multiverse. The effect was visible on McCann; it felt as though he was not just playing with himself, but also against himself. There was a Sisyphean element of competition to the performance. Heartbreaking because he could never win.

The third piece was Eight Lines, performed by the RNCM Chamber Ensemble. On stage were two pianos, two string quartets, two clarinets, a bass clarinet, a flute and a piccolo. The pianists played separate but repetitive phrases, overlapping at times, while the others played repeating phrases that faded in, out and back into the tune. The overall effect was astounding. While each player or group of players repeated its own phrase or allowed it to grow sequentially, the sounds of the others around it caused it to seem to mutate. Its purpose, place and effect within the whole piece was transformed without it having changed itself. John Adams said of Steve Reich that, ‘he didn’t reinvent the wheel so much as he showed us a new way to ride.’ This was embodied within this one piece, as Reich repeatedly showed us new ways to listen, new ways to hear.

The final piece was Different Trains, performed by the Caecilius Quartet. This was a piece written for the Kronos Quartet, a meditation on Reich’s childhood sitting on trains across the USA in the 1930s and 40s. Had he been born in Europe, those trains could have been taking him to concentration camps.

It starts out as a quite jaunty piece, comical actually, appropriately for a reminiscence of one’s childhood. There are recordings of announcements from railway stations, a clipped ‘from Chicago,’ or the elongated, ‘from Chicago to New York.’ I say comical, because the tones of these announcements were then mimicked by the players on their instruments. It was a kind of mockery and an homage, both of the musicality of the announcers, and also of the call and response musical model.

We seamlessly moved into the second movement, where the recordings being played were no longer these benign sounds. They were air raid sirens and harsh whistles. Again the players responded with similar sounds, but it was no longer amusing mimicry. The sounds were adding up synergistically to create an overarching sense of fear and panic. I shifted repeatedly in my chair, unable to find a comfortable position, a position in which I could sit back and be anaesthetised by the music rather than enervated.

Finally we reached the third movement, returning to the American train announcers, ‘Chicago to New York.’ Somehow the call and response was no longer so amusing. It felt vapid, empty. I felt gutted, drained. But edgy.

And then it stopped.

Steve Reich may have invented minimalism. He may have invented, or at least discovered, the technique we now call phasing. He may have ‘shown us a new way to ride’ and he may have done so more than once. His work is certainly cerebral, but what we saw tonight is that the man has soul.

Dan Haywood

In Interviews, Music on May 20, 2011 at 5:35 pm

I was introduced to the music of Dan Haywood’s New Hawks almost by accident, when I went to see A Hawk and a Hacksaw at Islington Mill in April.  New Hawks were one of the supporting bands, by whom I was really impressed.  Alt-folk, country sounds drawing from pan-British traditions as well as North American.  To borrow a word from Dan, it was superfine.

Afterwards, Dan and I exchanged a few emails, which eventually resulted in a kind of electronic interview.  He was also generous enough to share some of his pictures of his travels, the recording process and the tour.

Enjoy.

 

First things first.  What is a castril?

Castril is just a very old english name for kestrel. I suppose the modern version with a ‘k’ and and two ‘e’s is just a corruption of the original. ‘Five Red Castrils’ is one of the heaviest, most despairing parts of the album, stuck in a stagnant late summer day. Slo-mo.

The only birds around are kestrels, hovering on the spot. Static. Come to think of it, the other creatures in that song are hardly going anywhere fast either: a mole, a slow-worm and me trudging sweatily up a hillside ‘like a clay toad crossing a sponge’.

You seem surprised to discover this theme, the lack of movement.  Does this mean that this was not necessarily something you intended when writing the song?

It must’ve been intended that way. I’ve just rediscovered the theme is all. I repeatedly forget and remember what all the New Hawks lyrics mean or meant. I was in a very strange state of mind when I wrote all of these songs, you have to realise. But I was at an advantage then, creatively.

Movement seems a recurring theme in the album, musically at least, with many pauses, silences and changes of pace.  Lyrically, perhaps it is less obvious, although there are certainly many ruminations on walking and travelling.  Has this always been a preoccupation of yours?  Did it lead you into life as a performer, or was it the other way round?  Or are the two unrelated?

Well, it’s a movement album, among other things.

So there are all sorts of travelling references and songs about exodus, flight, incarceration, liberation, migration, vagrancy… Should I stay or should I go?! There’s a line in Kopper Kettle which goes ‘maybe I won’t have to drown/ if I don’t swim too fast or swim too slow’! Because there’s a fine line when it comes to surviving.

I’m not a particularly well-travelled man, geographically. But the album relates to a period when I was banished from an arty suburban English town to a tiny village in the wilds of Northern Scotland.

So this is my travelling album.

Moving there led me to think about human migration…. particularly the Highland Clearances, which changed that region forever. And some songs touch on that… imagining displaced Highlanders abroad. I was also obsessed with migrant and vagrant birds… irruptive birds, sedentary birds, pioneers, relict populations, stowaways… Yes, all themes of dynamics.

Were you ‘just’ travelling and birdwatching, or working too? Or performing?  Did you know your travels would result in an album?

No.

It was work that took me there and necessitated the move. Doing fieldwork for environmental impact assessments in some very out of the way places. I was collecting stacks of bird data. Mountainsides, bogs, spruce plantations… Mapping merlins and harriers and scoters and crossbills.

I didn’t write anything till I returned to England. No performing either, which was difficult for such a show-off. Just work and more birding and getting into trouble.

What do birds mean to you? Or the actual act of birdwatching.

I’m not sure I should get onto birds here, Doctor. I’d be ranting for days. Suffice to say that I’ve always dug them. Birdwatching is a state of mind that I slip in and out of. You need to get your eye in, tap into some primal hunting consciousness. Very in-the-moment.

Some days I can’t find any good birds and sometimes I just ‘know’ there’s a scarcity just over the horizon. It’s psychological. A friend uses the phrase ‘Jedi birding!’ It’s musical too, when it gets good.

I’m in a comparable state when the band’s blazing away. Ears and eyes wide open, looking for significant movements.

What did you leave behind when you came back to England, and did you regain any of it through making the album or touring?

Well, aside from the obvious things like beautiful landscapes and good people, I left my teens and twenties behind. The experiences up North blew my mind and allowed me to move on. I grew up somewhat. Became someone else.

I wrote all 32 songs a few weeks either side of my thirtieth birthday. It was exciting to escape some of the traits of my twenties, and the songs reflect that excitement, I think.

To whom or what did you say ‘farewell’ at the end of New Hawks of the Great Interior?

I love singing that word. It feels superfine.

The tune ‘New Hawks of the Great Interior’ is fictionalised diary extracts from a doomed exploration. A bit like Robert Falcon Scott (of the Antarctic) and his men on the Terra Nova expedition… except in some boiling continental interior, looking for species new to science. I maybe should’ve called the album Bob Falcon’s New Lands.

 Maybe.

So ‘farewell’ there is primarily Captain Steller’s last diary entry. Meant for his loved ones whether his notes be found or not.

But when I sing ‘farewell’ it feels great. It’s not just for me or Steller. Try it!


Your voice splits opinion.

Yes, some folks think it’s shit, some say it’s terrible. There’s two camps.

In my review of your Salford performance, I described your vocal range as ‘squeezed,’ but actually the album revealed a sort of wispy versatility. Parts of New Hawks of the Great Interior reminded me of David Bowie on Hunky Dory. How do you feel about your voice and about the opinions of it offered by reviewers?

I like my voice. It’s weird but it’s a lyric delivery system, and until I find someone who knows the songs as well as me it’ll do.

David Berman’s Silver Jews line ‘all my favourite singers couldn’t sing’ is lovely and it resonated with me and my record collection. It makes a lot of sense to certain people.  Berman’s great.

All these unorthodox vocalists gave me the courage for this non-singer to sing. So it’s their fault.

I played Hunky Dory a lot when I was young. It gave me the confidence to sing in my own accent. I mean, I prefer American rock to British rock, but it wouldn’t do for me to be singing Mid-Atlantic like I did when I was seventeen.

Glad I ditched that.

On Don’t Listen to Your Heart, you say that you don’t listen to your own heart. Do you listen to your own music?

Well, amongst other things ‘Don’t Listen to Your Heart’ is about overcoming hypochondria and busting self-scrutiny. Coulda been called ‘Don’t Live Inside Your Bumhole’.

But when you’re making music you have to listen to the stuff you’re recording whether you like it or not. Over and over. Climb back up yer arse for a bit. Scrutinised our music every day when I was mixing for the album.

With players as good as mine it’s not all bad, though.

 Whose music did you listen to when recording the album?

In the busiest phases of recording and mixing I only used to listen to Grateful Dead live tapes from ’72, ’73, ’74…. Just to space out and relax, really. Forget about New Hawks for a while.

This is clearly an intensely personal album. How did the other band members feel about it when recording? How was the recording process? How do they feel about it now?

I wouldn’t say it’s particularly personal. Just specific. I’d be more comfortable playing on an album like this than one about love and a couple’s break-ups.

Most of the songs had been played in the live domain many times before we came to entomb them in the studio. So all of the players were familiar with, and into the material.

I’m lucky to have so many marvellous friends to perform my stuff. I’ve taken up a lot of their time and I’m very grateful. There are about ten players on the record. They’re social retards, tramps-to-be and varying degrees of mad but they play so vividly and intuitively that you can forget about the hygiene.

Most of them haven’t said much to me about the album. Perhaps it’s because I erased their favourite solos. Or perhaps it’s because the whole thing is still ongoing, and we’re always approaching New Hawks as the next show.

It’s still unfolding, after six years.

When I saw you perform live in Salford, it was clear who was in control. Has this always been the case?

Who was in charge? Me? The Islington Mill show was with a large band, so I was probably in front-man/ conductor mode that night.

The arrangements are loose but a big band needs steering occasionally. Sometimes to get it back on track but more often than not to de-rail the whole thing. Keep things from lapsing into routine.

You’ve been touring for a while now with the album. I imagine you’ve picked up a fair few new fans along the way, such as myself. How do you feel the tour is going?

The tour has gone well. On the UK tour with A Hawk And A Hacksaw we were on good form every night, we thought.

Bristol and Leeds were good ones.

Got some nice gigs in the next couple of weeks too including Cafe OTO in London with Frank Fairfield and one at the Union Chapel. Beautiful building.

What do you have planned next?  Are you still writing at the moment?

More shows. European tour. We’re thinking of putting out  a live album because the shows have always brought out all sorts of new facets to the suite of songs.

I’ve written a few new pieces in recent weeks. Shuffle/boogie stuff, by accident. I’ll just sit on them for awhile.

They’re not up to New Hawks quality, but you can’t have it all.

XD

Deerhoof

In Live Reviews, Music on May 13, 2011 at 4:19 pm

This article was first published at Now Then Manchester on Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Academy 3, Manchester

As I descend into the basement, I feel tired, edgy, and actually a little bit morose. Vague memories of the excesses of the weekend haunt my consciousness.

Deerhoof emerge without much ceremony, and seemingly without much charisma. The drummer takes a seat to the right, unsmiling singer stands to the left, and two guitarists in the centre. And they start playing.

Fuck.

Art rock, math rock, experimental rock – in its quest not to be cliché, it can become exactly that. It can become frustrating, it can become obvious. But this, this is urgent, it is erratic, and it is beautifully inconsistent. Greg Saunier’s manic drumming is filled with power, but not rage. It is perfectly controlled in its exuberant abandon. It does everything you expect a lead singer to do – ebb, flow, reach out, draw in, pause, return.

The pauses. Again and again we pause and then re-emerge from the pause, slowly, quickly. If a singer was to lead such changes of rhythm, direction and pace, it would be nauseating. Led by Saunier’s drumming, they are exhilarating.

So what is the singer doing? Satomi Matsuzaki’s inexpressive face is accompanied by an inexpressive voice, but high-pitched, dreamy and reminiscent of Japanese pop. With her comically energetic dancing opposite the mesmerisingly energetic drumming, I initially don’t realise the importance of the guitars. The boys in matching T-shirts, John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez, are powerhouses of melody and bass. Their variations of rhythm and pace are less obvious than Saunier’s on drums, but equally affecting – some sudden, some evolving, some graduated. Some subtle, some less so. Their playing is jagged at times, while other riffs seem to draw from influences as broad as Hendrix, Steppenwolf and the sweet sounds of bubblegum pop. And of course, metal. Metal hardened by Saunier’s virtuoso drumming and softened by Matsuzaki’s unreadable voice. Urgent, erratic and wonderfully inconsistent.

Before their final tune, Saunier stands to make a speech thanking the support band, Milk Maid, for playing at short notice, and thanking the audience for coming. The cadence of his speech is stilted, filled with pregnant pauses. He speeds up, slows down, plays with the sounds he is making and the effect they are having on us. His speech mimics how they play, but less expertly. Deerhoof are playful, droll and full of ideas. Their set is a maze of compositional complexity created from the sounds of pop and rock.

Urgent. Erratic. Wonderfully inconsistent.

Old Apparatus

In Live Reviews, Music on April 26, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Saturday, 23 April 2011

ICA, London

Old Apparatus are an audio-visual collective from East London.  Their set was one part of a two day event at the ICA, exploring The Dying Artist as its brief.  Friday was subtitled Illness, while Old Apparatus played on Saturday, subtitled Death.

The set began with deep, enveloping, almost comforting beats.  One was drawn in, cosseted to a digitally meditative state, aurally reminded of analogue reality only by distortion and samples. Meanwhile, our visual input was a sort of soft focus homage to life, grounded in the physicality of medical imaging – angiograms, x-rays, electron microscopy.  These were real physical processes, it was reality, but so far removed from how we usually experience it, that it seemed other-worldly.  Presented with the evidence of life – blood flowing through vessels, food through an oesophagus, cells mitoting – we were somehow distanced from our own.  This was transcendence through corporeality.

Until we were jilted by a change of tone.  Abstract patterns replaced medical images; I was reminded of death through the absence of life.  At this point, the beat also began to explore new rhythms; disturbed, disturbing.  Any sense of an easy life, an easy death, or even an easy trip through the marijuana-soaked soundscapes of post dubstep began to evaporate.

Finally, we witnessed a kind of rebirth, as the images presented changed again.  We were now seeing what looked like swirling worlds, planets.  On closer inspection they were abstract patterns seen through geometric windows, perfect circles of eddying colour surrounded by black.  Disorderedly ordered, and frighteningly so.  One image in particular, of hundreds of equilateral triangles in one big circle seemed almost Satanic.  These images would emerge for a few seconds before fading away again, they appeared like momentary glimpses of what may come after life: unpredictable, uncontrollable, essentially unknowable.  Possibly impossible.

Clearly, I’m allowing myself to get carried away here.  And this was the strength of the music – it allowed and encouraged an internal journey.  There was an almost religious nature to it, evocative but never dreamy, never self-indulgent.  Like the images, the music was grounded in the physical and the real, which made it all the more affecting.

Death can invoke all sorts of feelings and thoughts, not all of which are unpleasant.  This was an immersion which drew us in with viscous, almost cloying beats before building us up to an original contemplation of death that was dark, uncomfortable and tense.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw

In Live Reviews, Music on April 15, 2011 at 5:16 pm

(supported by Dan Haywood’s New Hawks and The Family Elan)

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Islington Mill, Salford

One man on an accordion, one man on a trumpet and one woman on a violin.  That’s a recipe for a riot, isn’t it?

On paper it all seems rather twee.  One reads of an accordion and thinks of Yann Tiersen of Amelie fame.  While I rather like that pleasantly caricatured French sound, this was something else altogether, taking its influences more from Eastern European gypsy folk than the dusty villages of Brittany.

This was resolutely not twee, not French, not easy and not soothing, but actually dirty and sensual.  There was dancing in the crowd in the form of bouncing and bopping, but also a writhing of a more sexual nature.  And it was infectious – after the Eastern European man in front of me began to writhe like a belly dancer on speed, it spread all around us.  The film I was reminded of here was not Amelie, but actually Sholay, in particular the scene in which Gabbar Singh watches the gypsies dancing.

After a breathless set, they disappeared and backing music began to play.  For a few disappointed seconds, we thought there would be no encore.  And then they re-emerged in the crowd, playing acoustically.  They had two more tunes to play –  first an upbeat number which got everyone dancing again, before a slower one, almost a ballad.

The crowd was stunned into complete silence, quiet enough to hear the creak of the leather on the accordion.

This was magical.  A Hawk and a Hacksaw were unforgettable.

Dan Haywood’s New Hawks

In Live Reviews, Music on April 15, 2011 at 4:38 pm

(supporting A Hawk and a Hacksaw)

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Islington Mill, Salford

I am rather partial to bands with loads of people on stage.  These guys had a total of nine, so I had a good feeling as soon as they came on.  Dan himself was a slender figure, and initially a touch awkward.  But he ingratiated himself with some good banter with the crowd, greeting us as Manchester before correcting himself.  This is Salford, of course.

And so they kicked off, with an alt-folk, country sound.  What I normally like about having this many people on stage is the anarchic, seemingly uncontrolled sound created.  But this was far from anarchic, all the playing tightly managed by Haywood.  His swivelling, pointing and gesturing kept everything exceedingly neat for the most part.  So if the many members of the band did not create anarchy, what did they create?  A wonderfully three-dimensional texture which drew the crowd in and created an irresistible excitement.

Haywood’s squeezed vocal range reminded me of a more slight Ian Dury, but with a great deal more folky soul.  The flyer quoted a review in Wire, comparing the band to Rolling Thunder era Dylan, and I find this spot-on.  His voice only helped to accentuate the overwhelming rush of sound coming from the other players, many of whom were multi-instrumentalists.  It was good to see that most of them were also from the North West, including Manchester legend, Paddy Steer on lap steel and bass.

Irreverent yet soulful, vast in scope yet tightly controlled, this band was a welcome surprise and, for me (cover your ears) even better than the superb main act.

Efterklang

In Live Reviews, Music on April 13, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Sunday,  7 November

Academy 2, Liverpool

After all the recent anti-hipster press, I was slightly concerned when Efterklang emerged on stage.  While there were six members of the band, the eyes were immediately drawn to the front man and bassist, Caspar Clausen and Rasmus Stolberg, both tall, skinny and handsome, and both immaculately presented in the finest hipster garb.  Skinny slacks, slim-fitting shirts, side partings and moustaches.  Oh, the moustaches.

Thankfully, any latent apprehension that was present evaporated as soon as Clausen opened his mouth.  Clearly genuinely delighted to even be here, and expressing surprise to see so many people out on a Sunday, he immediately had the good will of the crowd.

My previous experience of seeing them had been three years ago at the Roadhouse in Manchester, where they had surprised me with the energy they had on stage.  Tonight, they surprised me with that energy again.  While the albums are wonderfully and crisply produced, they are unable to convey either the charisma of the band as performers or the energising power of the choral element in the music.  Of the six band members on stage, only one – Mads Brauer on ‘electronics’ – does not sing.  This creates an irresistible, uplifting force comparable to the music of the Arcade Fire.  This choral element is not used quite as often in the songs from the new album, Magic Chairs, which explores an art-rock side to the band, reminiscent of Talking Heads, which had only been hinted at before.

The band have followed a reverse trajectory to many bands in the sense that their first two albums, Springer and Tripper, featured other-worldly, ambient electronica that recalled Sigur Ros in its expansive soundscape.  This was followed by a tightening of the song structure on following albums, leading to a more pop-oriented sound that realigned them closer in genre to post-rock mixed with alt-folk, as well as one album – Parades – being re-recorded with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, producing an admirable but somewhat overblown production.

So fans of Efterklang’s earlier work would have been wondering what we would get tonight.  And what we got was a masterful interweaving of tracks from every stage of Efterklang’s career, with Clausen’s gracious smile and intense stare building rapport with the crowd before plunging into the more demanding of the songs.  This reached its zenith with the bright white lights back-lighting the band, so that an image of Clausen perched on a speaker in silhouette was seared on our minds as he whispered to a silent, gawping crowd.

There was more whispering to come from both him and Heather Woods Broderick, with Clausen having to pause halfway through one line to express his shock at how attentive we were.  ‘You guys are amazing,’ he told us, in his charming Danish accent.

No Mr Clausen, you guys are.

Thousands

In Live Reviews, Music on April 9, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Tuesday 5 April, 2011

Castle Hotel, Manchester

Acoustic indie-folk? In 2011? Really?

Really.  And actually, rather good too.  Seattle duo, Kristian Garrard and Luke Bergman, seemed shy, slight performers, too dreamy to self-publicise, but with oodles of talent in their fingers and their almost falsetto voices.

Not many people were there to fill the room, so after their first song, there was still a brimming tension in the room, added to by the slightly ugly bass-heavy monitors.  Kristian said we could sit down if we wanted, so we did.  He then tweaked the settings on the monitors.  And from then on, everything felt right for this spirited performance.

The lyrics could be described as somewhat fey, and the dreaminess of Kristian and Luke certainly contributed to this.  However, any comparison to the alt-folk and indie-folk acts that were making big waves a few years ago (Bon Iver, José González, etc) was undermined by the complexity of their guitar-plucking.  There was a beauty and an exactness to this that belied an understanding and a rapport between them to be admired.

However, one wonders if the greater complexity and fineness of their tunes may lead to less popular appeal than the broad emotional sweep of the more immediately felt, simple soundscapes of Bon Iver and José González.  I hope I’m wrong, because these guys are truly talented.

They will be on Mark Riley’s show on BBC6 Music on Monday 11 April at 1900, and then performing in Manchester again in the summer at the Deaf Institute.

John Grant

In Live Reviews, Music on April 9, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Thursday 24 March, 2011

Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

Before arriving, I had been describing John Grant to my girlfriend by comparing him to a 60s folk sound similar to Neil Young, mixed with a more modern operatic pop sound similar to Rufus Wainwright. Seeing him live, I failed to see where I got the Neil Young comparison from. He seemed more akin to the big piano sound of Elton John. (Big piano. Cameron’s inflections have crept into my speech.)

The first half of the set was him singing and playing either piano or synth, while another guy played whichever he wasn’t playing. This was good, but then the other guy left. Despite his incredible voice, I then began to lose interest.

His ideas of tunecraft varied very little, and the impressiveness of his voice could not disguise this. Like Aidan John Moffat a couple of weeks ago, most of his songs were love songs in the sense that they were about love, and most of them were self-consciously downbeat.

But unlike Moffat, his tone and his lyrics exuded a self-pity to which I could not relate. There was something more American about him, more flamboyantly needy, more Blanche Dubois, whereas I preferred Moffat’s unlovely rawness. His Glaswegian drunk to Grant’s Southern Belle.

Big society. Big piano. Big society. Big piano. Big society. Big piano.