Thursday, 25 November 2010

Laura Marling, Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms, 22/11/10

Considering the gig sold out well in advance, the Wedge is a surprising scene of calm, quiet, politeness tonight, with the huge capacity crowd completely entranced by a relatively tiny twenty year old and her acoustic guitar. The silence breaks in between songs for deserved applause but still every word of every crowd member can be heard. Shouts of ‘I love you Laura’ are so audible that they really do seem genuine, which leaves the young songstress in a predicament. ‘I never really know what to say when people …say things…just in life’ is the response to one such heckle, but despite confessing to having no ‘social awareness or comic timing’ she handles the banter with a reluctant yet charming sense of discomfort. Though she gets by with the chitchat, it’s obviously her music that stands out. For the majority of the set, she’s accompanied by drums, double-bass, cello, banjo and piano that fill out her sound enough to justify the sold out crowd. Above all the instrumentation however, Marling’s voice always dominates, cutting through the other instruments and powerfully covering a range that you wouldn’t expect if you were just to have a chat with her. The crowd knows most of the words but the sing-a-longs are almost whispered so as not to disturb what is emanating from the speakers. The only tracks that the audience may be unsure of are the three new songs, which still command the same perfect silence from the crowd, even when the band is reduced to just Marling and her guitar. Tracks like Failure and Ghosts stand out as much, if not more than full band numbers such as Devils Spoke.

Despite having had a Mercury nomination for each of her albums, she’s ambitious without any arrogannce. Before the penultimate song, What He Wrote, Laura claims that ‘for those who’d like an encore, this is our last song’. While it may sound tame the eerie calmness in the Wedge provided the perfect environment and neither the crowd, or Laura Marling would have had it any other way. For those who were happy to accept the end of a set without an encore, title track, I Speak Because I Can was the final song and was met by more rapturous applause and even some optimistic shouts of ‘encore’... She stuck to her word.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Local Natives - Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms, 17/11/10

On another gloomy night in Portsmouth, the only thing bigger, darker and thicker than the surrounding clouds is the moustache perched upon the upper lip of Local Natives’ guitarist and vocalist, Taylor Rice. Once you get over the initial resemblance to Mario (or maybe Luigi), the Californian bands’ live show leaves a lot more to think about than slightly ridiculous facial hair.

After releasing a debut as polished as Gorilla Manor, many bands would struggle to replicate such an accomplishment live, but Local Natives take it in their stride. The drums and rhythms come to into the foreground especially on Who Knows, Who Cares, while the basslines remain softly prominent throughout. Sparse percussive breakdowns rumble around the in the middle of songs laying a pathway for euphoric sing-a-long choruses like that of Wide Eyes. The vocal harmonies are consistently flawless making use of the voices of the whole band at times but even when just one voice can be heard, it still has considerable force and resonance in a fairly packed Wedgewood Rooms.

The songs are largely led by drums and guitars until Airplanes, which lets the piano take centre stage, and with the addition of mandolin shows yet another dimension to Local Natives style. At times there are elements vocally and elsewhere that seem like an American version of Wild Beasts, but as one of the front men, Kelcey says, they’re ‘not just crazy Americans’. Where Wild Beasts coax fans in with a similarly entrancing delicacy to their vocals and delivery, they’re never quite capable of delivering the final punch. Local Natives however, finish the job and cap off gentle builds with potent choruses and more aggressive instrumentation. The band has a clear, profound effect on their audience that others just aren’t capable of and it makes for a constantly captivating set that doesn’t take long to attract more focus and significance than the moustache, or the weather.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

We Are Scientists - Portsmouth Pyramids 15/11/10

Morrisey has been known to ask his crowd not to sing along in the past, so as not to spoil it, and it’s somehow ok for him, because underneath all that pompous titting around, he’s a genius. However, very few others could get away with it. Except perhaps, for We Are Scientists.

When bassist, Chris Cain pleads to the crowd not to sing along as ‘this one has quite a sensitive harmony, and if even just one of you fuckers hits a bum not, the whole thing will turn to shit’, he could easily come across as a complete arse, but there isn’t a hint of pomposity about it. Chris and Keith’s tongues stay firmly in their cheeks between songs, with comparisons to Lord Byron and a dedication to Lord Nelson, but as always they keep the music serious. Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt makes an early appearance in the set, as well as a surprising proportion of songs from their debut, With Love and Squalor, which receive the best response. The crowd has to warm up pretty quickly for the headliner though, as the support didn’t quite manage it. First support, Rewards didn’t provide any more than a lesser version of The XX, about eighteen months late to catch the band wagon. Goldheart Assembly showed a lot more potential and the intensity picked up towards the end of their set, but it wasn’t quite enough to prepare the crowd for the energy of the main act.

While We Are Scientists showed that they can put on a good show, regardless of whether they have a permanent drummer (or whether they borrow one from Razorlight), the crowd did struggle to keep up after a while. The first half of the set had both the kids and the obligatory balding middle-aged men of Portsmouth moshing together, to tracks from Barbara, as well as older songs and even History Repeats, a B-side from 2005. However, as the set draws on you can’t help thinking that they could quite easily have got away with playing a few less songs and kept the crowd going. It’s not that the quality of the songs declined, and they still played them with just as much vigour, the problem is that the crowd just can’t keep up with it for such a long set. Saying that, it’d be hard to pick any song to take out of the setlist, and when they leave stage following After Hours, the crowd are still hungry for an encore, and Cash Cow makes for a fittingly lively conclusion.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Foals - Southampton Guildhall, 7/11/10

Set against a hazy backdrop of smoke and soft lighting, Foals look as though they’re playing to the Guildhall from somewhere inside the screensaver of a Macbook, without being anywhere near as pretentious. Proclaimed as ‘Math-Rock’ in their early days, they’ve since matured into something more refined and less nonsensical. The bleeping, chirping lead guitar parts are still there, along with the insanely tight, complex drum rhythms, but now they’re all set to an underlying, atmospheric whirring that floats around, filtering in and out of prominence. This progression was hinted at in the transition from demos to the first album, and has been finalized by Total Life Forever. It’s not to say it’s a better or worse record; in fact it makes for a pleasingly varied set. Recent single, Blue Blood features elements from old and new and leaves some of the crowd in two minds as to what to do with themselves. With the age restriction of fourteen plus, you’re left with a crowd of teenagers half trying to look like they’re ‘going mental’ and half making sure they don’t break they’re glasses as it’s the last pair they get on free prescription.

Those in the crowd who have got the jist of what Foals do, choose to avoid the unnecessary, yet massive attempt at a moshpit, and are happy to stand back and appreciate the quieter bits and let their bodies do what they like in the dancier bits. It seems almost rude to talk during Spanish Sahara, so as not to disturb the eerie, encapsulating effect it has on anyone listening to it. Yannis’ vocals on this and many of the other newer songs embody the change to a softer sound, but the addition of Two Steps Twice as an encore shows that neither the band or Yannis have lost their balls. He explores every corner of the stage, physically as well as sonically, from the front of the crowd to the top of the speaker stacks. They’ve become experts in changes of intensity, to an extent that surprises even long term fans into not quite knowing what to expect. It becomes apparent that their earlier material was clearly not written for a big room with a big crowd; even the colossal Cassius comes across as lacking slightly, but only when compared to the immensity of the likes of Miami and Total Life Forever. Foals are a band that are by no means afraid of outdoing themselves.

Monday, 18 October 2010

NME Radar Tour (The Joy Formidable, Chapel Club, Flats) - Wedgewood Rooms, 13th October

A spot on any of the NME tours is pretty much guaranteed to give any band a massive boost into popularity, whether interesting or not. There’s usually a pretty standard formula for the line-ups when the magazine are picking them, but the openers this year make quite a change. Nutter-punk outfit, Flats start the night off by pissing all over the trend of hushed indie bands that the NME has been whoring out over the last couple of years. It’s only a momentary shock though, as the arrival of Chapel Club brings all the terrified trendy haircuts away from the back wall of the Wedge and up to the front of the stage. The young band, and drummer possess the rare quality of restraint, and resist any urge to speed their songs up live. For a band like Flats, the faster the songs are played the better, but Chapel Club’s impact comes from their steady, simple beats driving along an indecipherable whirl of guitars and synths. With soothing vocals and guitars concealed by a wall effects, the band join the list of new artists pointing towards a change in direction for indie music. The sharp, stabbing guitars of the ‘noughties’ (sorry) are gradually being replaced with a soft, but far from boring, new sound.

While Flats may have made Chapel Club appear tamer than usual, The Joy Formidable definitely kicked things up another notch as headliners. At a glance of the stage, you could easily underestimate the band, led by fairly meek looking frontwoman, Ritzy and surrounded by birdcages filled with fairy lights. However, the three-piece’s intentions are made clear not long after as more pounding drums fill the room, this time accompanied by similarly intense guitars and vocals, and any timidity vanishes from Ritzy’s demeanour. While it would be it would be slightly stereotypical to compare them to the only female fronted guitar bands I can think of at this point in time, Blood Red Shoes and The Subways do spring to mind. Even so, there’s something about The Joy Formidable that could see them faring a little better in the mainstream (if that kind of thing floats your boat). They combine interesting rhythms with uncomplicated riffs and hooky vocals in a way that’s easy to listen to too but still keeps you thinking and leaves you guessing. The Radar Tour has seen the likes of Friendly Fires, La Roux and Marina and The Diamonds into large-scale success, and there’s no reason why any of these bands shouldn’t have the same outcome. Except Flats, they might struggle on daytime Radio 1.

Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly - Wedgewood Rooms, 12 October

Since the days of strolling onto stage with an acoustic guitar, a laptop and a mass of hair threatening to engulf his entire head, Sam Duckworth’s stage presence has changed drastically. Instead of a one-man outfit, he now plays front-man of a full band that gives life and power to all of the ideas that used to be chirped out by his computer. The laptop may have been replaced by human equivalents, but the guitar and the continuous threat that his hair poses still remain integral to his live performances.

The quality of the songs on the twenty-four year old’s 2006 debut album come to light early in his set when the majority of the crowd wail the lyrics of ‘I Spy’ back at him before he has a chance to start them himself. When Duckworth and his band do kick in, the compositional intricacies are accentuated by a supremely talented line-up that fills out the sound with extra live percussion and backing-vocals. The full band adds a versatility to snap from full on choruses to quiet breakdowns, with the synthesisers supplying as many eerie sound effects as the laptop ever could have and occasional bursts of trumpet piercing through the soundscape.

After such an energetic opening to the set from an artist with acoustic roots, a few songs worth of bean-bag time were to be expected. However, with the band off stage and Duckworth left alone, the fidgeting from the crowd did become audible after two or three songs; though not enough to dampen his charm or likeability on stage. This quiet mid-section oddly acted as a segway into a political, anti-fascist rant, set to an oddly jazzy accompaniment. Despite any valid message, this could have come across as a Bono-esque display of arseholery if it had come from anyone else and not been delivered quite so articulately. In fact pretty much everything he said made sense. The set ended on a more energetic, cheerful note with a cover of Daft Punk’s ‘Digital Love’, which (unlike most attempts) did the original justice and a flourish of brass utilising ‘Call Me Ishmael’ and the whole group’s full potential.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Mercury Prize 2010

If last year’s Mercury Music Prize taught us anything, it’s that giving the award to an obscure hip-hop act probably wont do that much good. While Speech Debelle’s victory proved that the judges can choose a lesser-known artist to praise, and that they’re not just token additions to the nominations list, it’s hard to see how it’s had much benefit. The album has still only sold about 15,000 copies to date and people only know her as ‘that one who got the Mercury Prize’. Although it’s not all about sales figures, if no-one has bought the album then there can’t be all that many people who have heard it. As a music award that concentrates on the actual music, it’s a shame that this kind of commerciality has to come into it, but when it’s being broadcast on terrestrial television and sponsored by Barclaycard, it really becomes inescapable.

With this in mind, The xx seem like deserving winners this year. The fact that their eponymous debut has already seen huge critical acclaim, and that their mass popularity has come about partly through covering one of the biggest songs of the previous year (You Got The Love), and partly through being the soundtrack to the General Election is almost irrelevant. The trio’s hauntingly mellow sound doesn’t fit into the mainstream, yet they’ve somehow forged a niche for themselves over the past twelve months. Receiving this award is a fitting to conclusion to an outstanding year. It’s confirmation of their talent and of their popularity but it’s also an incentive to keep the ball rolling and push themselves. In previous years, winners have seen varying levels of success following the prize. The Arctic Monkeys won in similar circumstances -after an intense year of popularity- and went on to produce two more brilliant albums and become one of the biggest bands in the country. Dizzee Rascal has also gone on to mega-stardom since emerging from the underground with Boy In Da Corner, and Ms. Dynamite came fourth in Hell’s Kitchen last year.

The real test comes in the year following the victory and with their next album. While I can’t quite picture them writing the next ‘Bonkers’ (or cooking with Gordon Ramsey for that matter), it’d be a shame to see The xx disappear into insignificance. It’s at that point where we see if they’ll follow Dizzee, Dynamite or Debelle or if they carry on as they are by something completely different. Encouragingly, the latter seems most likely, but we’ll give it a year and see.