Saturday, 19 May 2012

Uncommonly Sociable

May is Party Month down here, despite the appalling weather and relentless news coverage of Europe's graceless slalom into the economical abyss. There's never been a better year to think "bollocks to it all, I'm going out", so that's what I've been doing. To help me on my hedonistic way, we've had the annual Brighton Festival running for the last couple of weeks - of which more later - but most importantly there has been plenty of hot gig action to keep me in a state of cheery denial.
First off, and I'm ashamed to say it was now two weeks ago, was the magnificent return of Canada's much-loved Sadies. If you've never made the acquaintance of perfect gentleman callers Travis and Dallas Good and their almost psychically-attuned band, you could do worse than give them a try. They seem to tour almost continually so are almost certainly coming to a town near you relatively soon, and their blend of full-pelt alt-country-psychedilia contains something yummy for almost everyone. Plus I've never seen a guitarist who can move his hands as fast as Travis Good. I can only assume that as a baby he was handed a guitar as soon as he'd developed a grip reflex, and he just went on from there, babbling away on it the way kids do with words when they're raised to be bilingual. The man is fluent in guitar. So, on a particularly damp and dreary night at Brighton's Hydrant Club, the Sadies raised so much steam from their ecstatic audience that it was raining back down from the ceiling. A wonderful night where everyone came out smiling (which you don't often see down here as it can be so horribly hip.).

This whetted the appetite for still more musical intensity, and the increasingly popular Brighton Great Escape Festival last weekend offered some tasty pickings. I've been going to this most years since it began, and it's my favourite kind of festival, offering a multitude of hugely varying and largely (as yet) relatively unknown acts, all sited in different indoor venues the length and breadth of the town. The advantage of this arrangement as compared to a 'normal' festival is that you get to see loads of bands, indoors (I'm not a fan of outdoor gigs; the sound's always crap), you can peel off to your favourite Korean restaurant when hunger strikes without risking a dose of E.Coli from a lukewarm festival burger, the ordeal of the crap-encrusted festival Portaloo is avoided, and best of all you get to go home to your own bed at the end of the night. We steered clear of the hipsters queueing for Grimes and Alabama Shakes, and so took in a respectable 18 bands over the three days. Only four of them were actively bad  (take a bow Antlered Men, your ham-fisted faux-political posturing gave way immediately the second your singer engaged the sound engineer with the words "Jeremy, any chance of a bit more 'me' through the wedge?"Tossers.).

Far more important than the tossers were the new finds (though previous 'finds' the Twilight Sad turned out another laceratingly intense performance; I can't help worrying about singer James's state of mind. How do you get up on stage and do that every night? No wonder they don't play live very often.). Completely new to these ears were USA's Cloud Nothings; we heard their roaring sound from several hundred yards down the road from the venue, and were drawn to it like zombies on a promise of fresh brains. Somehow I ended up right at the front, where I'm almost sure another nail was added to the coffin of my hearing, but there you go, they were great. Tight howling guitars, wailing Jake Burns-like vocals, and the hardest-working drummer I think I've ever seen, getting more noise from his pared-down kit of snare, bass and high-hat than I've heard from many a major act paradiddler (his poor snare didn't survive the set and had to be taped back together for the last song.). I found out afterwards that Steve Albini is now producing these lads, and he's not one to waste his time.

Honorable mentions also go to Toronto's Odonis Odonis, a tight little threesome who deftly blend surf, garage, thrash and several more of my favourite things to produce an exhilarating blast of sound underpinned by the kind of bass you can feel in the pit of your stomach. Superior stuff. They were on quite early on the Friday evening and took the un-warmed-up crowd by happy surprise - so they'll definitely have won themselves quite a few new fans here. Me for one. I once saw Canadian culture cruelly paraphrased as 'shit music and bears', well I'm here to tell you otherwise.

But my top find of this year's Great Escape, guys and gals, were three Parisian men of highly questionable sanity called Cheveu. In thirty years of going to gigs I can honestly say I've never seen anything quite like them. George Costanza from Seinfeld on guitar, a silently smiling 'type' on synth and a bearded madman on highly disturbing vocals and all-purpose effects. They did a late afternoon set on the Saturday, winding up after a series of broadly pleasant but non-incendiary indie bands, and shocked the audience back into life with an extraordinary performance that had the crowd pleading for more by the end. "A man opens his wings, and shows his disgraceful parts", intoned the 'singer', spraying the front row with spittle on opening track Quatro got more bizarre and ever more compelling from there. I certainly wasn't the only one who went back again four hours later to see their evening performance at another venue, and they delivered another dark and demonic set of a different but equally impressive intensity. This video, for their smash hit single Charlie Sheen, gives you a faint but distinct impression of what their live show is like. You'll either get it or you won't - but if you do, don't let them pass through your town without a viewing. Because they sure as hell won't be appearing on The X Factor any time soon. Back when I've completed my trilogy of Brighton Festival events. Don't judge me.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Great British Bank Holiday

My observation that this damp island has just endured a solid month of almost parodically awful weather will surprise few readers. Those of us born and bred here now have another soggy, pewter-tinged memory to file away under 'Crap Bank Holiday Weekends' with all the others we've endured since childhood. There's something stoical and almost perverse about the British at play on such weekends; on a spin along the country roads you will pass clutches of shivering, kagoul-toting 'Action Families', usually led by a Dad whose secret yearnings to lead a troupe to the North Pole were only thwarted by his wife's greater determination to tame his Scottian spirit, but now they've got kids of their own he's damn well having his moment and forcing them up the muddiest most exposed slope of Mount Caburn in a Force 9 gale. And all over the country communities spend months almost wilfully blind to the oft-repeated climactic lessons, and plan parades and charades and more parades involving the construction of ten-foot paper dragons which melt on contact with the relentless rain, or face paint which the next downpour will coax disturbingly down many a stubbly chin.

So it was in Hastings over the weekend; the annual Jack in the Green jamboree was certainly not going to be halted by a little rain (or even emasculated away into an indoor version.). Despite the glowering rolling clouds heaving their way across the English Channel towards the town. The people of Hastings are made of stern stuff, whatever the Normans would have you believe, and as the visitors (like us) ran back to our cars to grab another layer or pair of socks, the black-faced troupes (nothing to do with minstrels; do NOT ask these folk to sing 'Way Down Upon the Swanee River'; they're smugglers and wreckers (for the day) and general purpose wrong 'uns.) made their increasingly excitable and inebriated way around the steep winding twittens of the (very) Old Town, carousing as though the weather was nothing more than another challenge. You can see a picture of one of them above, on the way to find his troupe. When they all get moving, it's an impressive and highly weird sight.

 I love going to Hastings as it's so determined not to be Brighton; despite its community of artists and its clutch of knowingly-appointed 'vintage' shops (I got a great Fifties blouse)it's not hip or cool or falling over itself to impress you. It's a little isolated, at the end of a long, lonely train line and a grim road across the protected marshlands, and its inaccessibility keeps it trapped within itself, to the evident satisfaction of some but to the economic disadvantage of many more, as its social problems and unemployment continue to demonstrate. We stopped at the new controversial Jerwood Gallery - recently opened to highly vocal opposition from the fishermen whose fleet is moored on the shingle just outside the new, tastefully tiled and sympathetically designed cultural interloper. It's a perfect symbol of the opposing forces tussling over the future of this historical, troubled little town; those who see its survival as dependent on receiving a good shot of the 'St Ives Effect', and those who resent or are suspicious of the enforced gentrification and further social division that may result. Or those who just hate the sort of Shoreditch Ponces that tend to go to galleries. Either way, the Jerwood is really quite a subtle, gentle structure that doesn't seem to trumpet its bourgeois presence and for my money looks a damn sight better than the coach park it replaced. Go along and see for yourself, if you're on the South Coast, and then stuff your face with the best fish and chips from any of the traditional family restaurants across the road. And buy a pint of brown shrimps from the fishmongers - they'll have been caught the same morning. Just watch out for the troupes of shouting blackfaced revellers in the pubs - those lads are tough.

 If time and rain allow, you could also do worse than head from the town centre about a mile West along the coast, to Bulverhythe where if you're very VERY lucky, you can get a look at the wreck of The Amsterdam, which sank into the mud in 1749 while packed with bullion and plague-raddled sailors and has been there ever since. When tides are very low, the poor old ship pokes through like a pleading skeleton, and the form of the vessel is eerily visible until the tide rolls in and claims it once again. It's an amazing, haunting sight and best of all, hardly anyone knows it's there. Bear in mind also, as you squelch across the flat sucking ground on your way out to the dead ship, that the strange rotted-looking substance you keep coming across that looks like masses and masses of soaked and buried wood, is in fact just that. You're standing on a 4,000 year old forest that the sea took back long before there were Normans or Germans or anything else threatening the South Coast, and huge decomposing trunks and logs are trapped down there along with the Amsterdam and its doomed sailors (who apparently met their end at the hands of the ancestors of the face-painted Hastings revellers, always on the lookout for a wreck full of silver and viewing the crew in the same way as the Nostromo gang were classified in 'Alien'.).

On reflection, it really was a rather fine Bank Holiday Weekend.