Calpurnia, Rough Trade East

IMG_9757London, Friday November 30, 2018

I come straight from work so I arrive a bit late for this evening’s concert/record promotion at Rough Trade East. The band has already played about half of their short set but it’s easy to get a sense of it all immediately. The band is Calpurnia, the four members all teenagers, one of them a world-famous actor, Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things), who is, I assume, the reason why most people here have heard of this band. Wolfhard’s three bandmates and childhood friends are lead guitarist Ayla Tesler-Mabe, bassist Jack Anderson and drummer Malcolm Craig. They’re here to promote their first record – an EP -, Scout.

There’s a lot of screaming and fawning going on. Not your usual Rough Trade East crowd. The band plays well but their musical limitations also show. Nothing wrong with that, but it does leave me thinking they need a set of stronger songs for their next record, the songs are simply not good enough yet. What really strikes me is, not only how young they are but how young they seem. All in their late teens, it does give the impression of a band of pupils playing at their high-school dance, their friends (fans) cheering them on, but seen with outside eyes, it’s a little underwhelming.

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According to an article I read, some of their influences are bands like Weezer and Pixies. Though some of the off-the-beaten-track chord sequences bear some resemblance to said bands, Calpurnia is perhaps a bit too polished and missing the quirkiness that could make their songs stand out. Instead it’s a showcase of songs that are steadily positioned in the middle of the road, well played, but never straying from safe territory, which also makes the whole affair a little musically boring. The record is very much about being a teenager, cutting class, dating, breaking up etc. The lyrics could be stronger but there is a kind of primitive appeal to lines like, ‘My girl’s on a train, she’s going far away’ (Blame), and ‘I don’t know where we’re going, We can never change the way the wind’s blowing’ (Waves).

And me being underwhelmed is not the point. The screaming fans would not agree with me, and why should they? This concert is more for them than it is for me. I’m not the target audience, and in that sense my opinion is irrelevant. What I do see and appreciate is what a wonderful opportunity it is for this band to travel the world and play music. And that in itself is perhaps what I enjoy most about this concert – seeing these people, band members and fans alike, having one of those ‘pinch-myself-to-see-if-it’s-real’ kind of moments, that we all want life to be full of. 

Calpurnia setlist
Not available

Azekel, Rough Trade East

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London, Saturday November 10, 2018

When buying tickets for a concert, you sometimes have to fight for the scraps with other unseen and unknown buyers and you may very well find yourself to be at the losing end after having spent 15 minutes trying to access the website and then spending an additional hour refreshing in the hope that the words on the screen reading, Sold Out’, are not true. You may also be one of the lucky winners of the privilege to get to buy a ticket for +£70 AND booking fees, and post about your good fortune on your choice of social media. 

And then there are those gigs at the other end of the spectrum. The free ones. And the unexpected ones. Like this afternoon just around 1pm when I found myself wandering into my local record store, Rough Trade East. I was looking for a record that they didn’t have. Instead I found a gig. So I took up position near the stage with about a couple of dozen other people who also wanted to see what this afternoon-gig might be like.

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By the looks of things, Azekel is an upcoming singer from east-London, trying to get a break into the music industry. An afternoon gig in front of about 20-30 people may not be a sold out O2 or Wembley Stadium but it’s what you have to do to get your name out there and show people, who just a few minutes earlier, might not be aware you existed. But a look into Azekel online after the concert reveals that he’s not as new and unknown as I thought he was. His debut album was released in 2013 and he has worked with bands like Gorillaz and Massive Attack. On his latest record, Our Father, he presents songs about being a father and the challenging relationship with his own father and being the only father in his group of friends.

It’s R&B in the form we’ve come to know it in the last few decades, smooth and poppy, alternating between romantic and sexy. It’s not R&B the raw old-school way. It’s the new-school kind of R&B and the music itself doesn’t offer much originality, but the lyrics contain observations about fatherhood and relationships that lift the songs to another level than your average song in the R&B genre, with lines like: ‘Young and married, The only family man amongst my friends, Although I’m happy, Sometimes alone would nice by ourselves’ (Don’t Wake the Babies). On Black is Beauty (Daughters), which seems to be a conversation with his young daughters, Azekel sings: ‘Remember what I told you, black is beauty, Always my special girls… For too long, black has been a negative term, Blackmailed, blacklisted, blackballed, black magic, From here on today, we reclaim that, Black is beauty’. It’s a touching song.

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At this afternoon gig, Azekel is accompanied by a drummer and guitar-player. This trio has got its sound down and their frontman performs the songs, not just with his voice but his whole body, writhing his way through most of the songs, which suits the wriggly songs great. 

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Fittingly, the last song, Wetty Betty, urges the listener to grab life and live it while we still can, ’You better let it play, We’re too young to go into the cemetery, Bang Bang, Yeah’. Leaving the record store, going into the grey London afternoon, the feeling of holding on to youthfulness even when you’re past it, and the urgency of making the most of this life, is what I take with me.

Azekel setlist
Not available

Jon Spencer, Rough Trade East

IMG_9019London, November 2, 2018

You can’t say that Jon Spencer doesn’t take his own songs literally. There’s a lot of Bing! Bang! Boom! at Spencer’s gig at Rough Trade East this evening, where he’s promoting new album, Spencer Sings The Hits. The singer and guitarist may be some kind of solo-artist these days, without his former The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion bandmates. His current bandmates are M. Sord (drums), providing the (heart)beat of the songs, Sam Coomes (synthesiser), layering the songs with fuzz and distortion, and Bob Bert, hammering away, with actual hammers, on two large trashcans, adding a metallic blow to the beat. And with Spencer’s grimy and bluesy guitar riffs and licks, Jon Spencer remains an explosive live experience. 

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Bing, bang, boom
Bing, bing, boom, boom
Bang, bam-a-lama, boom, bang
Kick that can
Do the trash can

Now there’s a prime example of rock and roll lyrics. I don’t have a clue what Bing, Bang, Boom means. But meaning doesn’t matter when you snarl the words like saliva-coated verbal bombs, spitting them out through gritted teeth, while your thick-skinned fingertips beat the guitar so hard, it makes the metallic strings scream and wail from the beating. 

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Jon Spencer has been around for decades. He knows what works and he works it well. For most of of the gig he doesn’t speak much, mainly shouting THANK YOU after most songs. The songs themselves are concise and straight to the point – there’s no fucking around here. 

But towards the end of the gig, Spencer makes sure to show us his empathic side – and in contrast to the lyrics of a lot of the songs, that are often aggressive and angry, Spencer holds the microphone-stand close, embracing it like a true friend, and leans out over the first row of the audience, because he has something to say: “Take care of each other. Some might say that’s not very punk rock. All I have to say to that, is, Fuck Off! We are here together  – turn to the person next to you and say Hello.” 

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This is a rock and roll gig in its truest form; a from-the-gut attack of hard-hitting songs spiked with noisy aggression. But also, a from-the-heart embrace of considerate, reassuring compassion.

Maybe that’s what Bing, Bang, Boom means.

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Jon Spencer setlist
1. Do the Trash Can
2. Just Wanna Die (Pussy Galore song)
3. Fake
4. Time 2 Be Bad
5. Ghost
6. Hornet
7. Tough Times in Plastic Land (Sam Coomes cover)
8. Shirt Jacket (The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion song)
9. I Got the Hits
10. Alien Humidy
11. Wilderness
12. Overload
13. Beetle Boots
14. Cape
15. Love Handle

Ólafur Arnalds, London Palladium

IMG_8959London, October 31, 2018

There’s something to be said for the skill of being a concert goer (yes, that’s a skill). I understand pogoing at a punk or hard rock concert, or moshing at a grime gig. I get singing along drunkenly at a rock show, or screaming at the top of your lungs at a heartthrob pop show. But at a concert like the one this evening by neoclassical composer and pianist, Ólafur Arnalds, where many of the tunes are quiet, any rustling of bags, whispering in the ear of the person sitting next to you, getting up to go to the bar for more drinks, opening and closing doors to go to the toilet, can be heard loudly in the auditorium. Including the people making the noise themselves, which makes you feel like you’re seated among dolts lacking any sense of occasion. Rarely have I seen so many audience members lacking manners and regard for their fellow audience members and indeed the performing musicians. It’s not only their fault; it doesn’t help that the venue has old doors that creak when opened and closed. Perhaps the London Palladium should invest in repairs, or just look into getting new doors that don’t creak. Either that, or just not book artists that have quiet music in their repertoire.

IMG_8967Manu Delago

Creaking doors and (some) moronic audience members aside, it is an outstanding concert – from the moment Arnalds’ silhouette enters the stage, sitting down at the piano, beginning soft and quiet, building up a flow while three other musicians enter one by one in the darkness surrounding the piano. We can just about sense them but we only see them a while later as the lights change and reveal four musicians sitting around Arnalds and his piano, one cellist on a slightly raised platform behind him, two violinists on another raised platform to his left, and a viola player on his own platform in front of the piano. There’s also a drum kit which support act of the evening, drummer and percussionist Manu Delago (who played handpans beautifully earlier), will play on the handful of tunes scattered throughout the set that requires a drum beat – the diverse soundscape of the evening comprises of quiet solo piano, via classical string quartet to ambient refrains with hypnotic beats.

IMG_8973Ólafur Arnalds

Ólafur Arnalds is a wonderful melodist who plays his compositions, on this tour mostly from his latest album Re:member, with a marvellous touch that really makes the melodies flow. The other musicians accompanies Arnalds brilliantly. But what really sets the evening apart, is the brilliant use of lighting which  accentuates the musicians and the tunes they are playing. That Arnalds is a compelling storyteller adds humour to the evening, when he between every three-four tunes picks up the microphone and tells anecdotes, that are warm and funny and engaging. In this respect his stage show follows the same template of his sometime-collaborator Nils Frahm, whose tour is shaped from a similar cloth. And it’s a template that works: Show off your musical prowess and your likeable personality in equal measures – shifting between serious artist and silly joker.

“Hello, it’s Halloween. Anyone in costume? I guess no one comes to my concerts in costume. Good to have that confirmed…”. Arnalds asks the audience to sing a note so he can loop it and use it on his next tune, Brot, – a gimmick he’s been using in his live shows for years. But that’s because the gimmick works. ‘If you don’t sound good… then the song won’t sound good,’ he says in his dry heavily-Icelandic-tinted accent. “What does a ghost sound like?” The audience goes “ooohhh” and burst into laughter. Arnalds seems satisfied with the result and proclaims the ‘ooohhh’ to be “beautiful and angelic.”

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In a quiet passage where a lone violin plays, someone opens a screeching door and the screech plays along with the violin, as if adding another layer to the music. From an ‘experimental’ point of view, one could argue the screeching door added depth to the violin, but it came across as a distracting noise rather than a supplemental sound.

Then it’s time for another anecdote about when Arnalds damaged the nerves in his spine in an accident and couldn’t play for several months and wasn’t even sure if he’d ever play properly again. Instead he became a techno DJ for a while, because as he says, “You don’t really have to do anything other than press some buttons and throw your fists in the air.” Obviously, for a talented pianist like Arnalds, pushing buttons and throwing your fists in the air is not a viable solution in the long run, and he soon came across another option: “I was in a hotel and saw a piano that could play Imagine by itself. At first I thought it was stupid, but then I thought, Hey, here’s the answer to my problems. So I bought two.”

Those two self-playing ’Ghost’ pianos are in attendance on stage, playing by themselves, as controlled by Arnalds, thanks to the Stratus technology, which makes notes played by Arnalds on his piano, generate additional notes on the two Stratus pianos, which coats the already symphonic sound of the piano, cello and violins with further colour and texture. 

Towards the end, Arnalds tells the audience: “Because it’s the last night of the tour I will play the first song I wrote, around 2004. I put it on MySpace. And made a lot of friends…” 

For the last song, the other musicians leave the stage and Arnalds tells one final anecdote – the longest of the evening – about his grandmother who passed away, and the relationship he had with her and the influence she had on him. This segues into his touching melody, Lag fyrir Ömmu (Song for Grandma) which he plays at one of the ‘automated’ Stratus pianos with his back to the audience. This time no one is talking, or rushing through creaking doors for the toilet or the bar. It’s as if the noisemakers have left the building (and indeed some did, three-four tunes before the end) and only the ones who really care – thankfully most of us – have stayed behind to share this quiet, intimate and emotional moment with a profoundly gifted and captivating musician and artist.

Ólafur Arnalds setlist
Not available

Marlon Williams & Ryan Downey, EartH (Hackney Arts Centre)

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London, October 30, 2018

EartH (formerly Hackney Arts Centre) feels more like an old warehouse than what it really used to be, an art deco cinema called The Savoy which opened in 1938. The space seems bigger than your usual cinema or theatre because the area behind the stage isn’t hidden behind walls or curtains. Instead it’s just a big empty space, save for a handful of huge white projectors that kind of looks like discarded prototypes of legendary Star Wars-robot R2D2.

It’s a beautiful, though slightly odd room. The walls with peeling paint are at odds with the ceiling with its intricate decorations, and the stage itself is really just a bare platform and nothing else. Though it’s an indoor venue, the audience may just as well have been outside, because on this autumn evening, the room is freezing cold. There seems to be no heating or if there is, it’s a room that refuses to warm to the around 1,000 visitors who have made their way here tonight, to see New Zealand singer-songwriter, Marlon Williams. 

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Supporting Williams is Australian singer-songwriter, Ryan Downey, who has a captivating deep honey voice singing heartfelt lyrics with a generous dash of deadpan observations like on Running: ‘…It’s getting sunny, I’ll be tanned and I’ll be charmed, I’ll be breathless in your arms, from all that running.’ Unfortunately, the coldness of the big room is a jarring contrast to the warmth of Downey’s voice and I can’t enjoy his set quite as much as I suspect I would have if I hadn’t been freezing to the bone.

IMG_8898Marlon Williams

The wait between support- and main-act is a cold affair and it’s relief when the slender Williams saunters on to the stage dressed in black apart from a light grey jacket. He tells the crowd ‘Happy Halloween, how we going everybody?’ before launching into the first song of the evening, a beautiful cover of folk-classic by Ewan MacColl, The First Time I Saw Your Face. Straight up we get a taste of his exceptional voice and an example of why it has been compared to Roy Orbison’s. The second song, Lonely Side of Her, is slightly slowed down, a bit darker and less ‘chirpy’ than the recorded version on Williams’ debut album, which really suits the song.

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Then Williams’ band, The Yarra Benders, join him on the stage. Adding drums, bass, keyboards and backing vocals to his songs obviously add more flesh to the songs and frees Williams up to fool around a bit more (which he does, swaggering, boogieing around in some of the more uptempo songs), but I think he shines brightest when he sings the slower songs on his own. 

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The set is comprised of songs from his two albums as well as stand alone single, Vampire Again, and a few cover songs in the folky or bluesy vein – and just like he began the concert with a cover, the concert ends with another cover, Screaming Jay Hawkins’ Portrait of a Man, where Williams show off his superb screaming and howling skills. As the final song ends and we make our way out in the cold evening I’m reminded of how frozen I am, something I’d forgotten about halfway through the concert. Maybe it was the heartwarming songs burning through from the inside, keeping us warm for a while.

Ryan Downey setlist
Not available

Marlon Williams setlist
Not available

Black Honey and PINS, Electric Ballroom

IMG_8534 2London, Wednesday October 24, 2018

There are three bands on the bill for tonight’s concert: RUSSO, PINS and Black Honey. Coming straight from work, I arrive at the venue just before the second band is about to go on. 

A later online check shows that PINS, from Manchester, has been around for several years but they’re new to me. Their first song is a catchy-as-hell, sexy-as-fuck, funky-ass TUNE, and the calm but feisty attitude of the band, gives a sense of cool that is very appealing. There’s nothing sonically revolutionary going on here. It’s easy to imagine the band being transported forty years back in time and taking to the tiny stage of the sweaty, smoky, stinking CBGB in downtown Manhattan, back when New York was edgy and dangerous (something that’s difficult to imagine today, when Manhattan is pretty much a theme park for rich posers and shoppers). But this is Electric Ballroom in London in 2018. There’s nothing much edgy about London these days either, but PINS certainly manage to give the illusion for the about 45 minutes they’re on stage, that there’s still an edge to be found, if one looks – and listens – hard enough. 

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Though the songs are a bit samey and blur into one another after the first three-four numbers, PINS sound great and are entertaining to watch. As they leave the stage, I catch myself thinking that the main band of the evening, Black Honey, have something to live up to, if they want to outshine their (second) support act.

For some reason I thought Black Honey was American, but when peroxide singer-guitarist-frontwoman, Izzy B, exclaims, ‘Fucking hell, Electric Ballroom, London – you blow our fucking minds’, it’s evident that she’s English (from Brighton, actually). Another thing that quickly becomes clear, is that most of the audience know the band a lot better than I do, as people sing along to pretty much every song throughout the set.

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Songs like, I Only Hurt the Ones I Love, with its twangy guitar transporting us straight into the American South-west, and Somebody Better, with its steady driving rhythm, both get the audience going. As with PINS, Black Honey’s songs all sound like something I’ve heard before, hammering home the fact, that in Rock ’n’ Roll, all has already been said and done and played and sung. But they do it well, they look the part and the audience is into it. What more can you ask for from a band?

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For closing song, Midnight, which is raw and punk with Izzy B screaming the lyrics at the audience (in contrast to the recorded version of the song, which is sleek and sexy and poppier), the members of RUSSO and PINS charge onto the stage and dance and pogo and jump around, making sure the concert ends on a celebratory high, underlining the point that this is a party to which everyone is invited. Judging by the many who keep dancing around without a care in the world, after the bands have left the stage, to Whigfield’s Saturday Night playing on the soundsystem, there’s no doubt that everyone here tonight enjoyed the party.

PINS setlist
Not available

Black Honey setlist
1. I Only Hurt the Ones I Love
2. Madonna
3. All My Pride
4. Bad Friends
5. Dig
6. Somebody Better
7. Crowded City
8. Blue Romance
9. Just Calling
10. Into the Nightmare
11. Spinning Wheel
12. What Happened to You
13. Baby
14. Hello Today
15. Corrine
16. Midnight 

Lany, The Forum

IMG_8214London, Monday October 8, 2018

Some time earlier this year, when watching a YouTube video of sunny California, the accompanying song of the video caught my ears, with striking lyrics like, ‘You were, you were, the drug of my choice, my great escape now… You are, you are, the drug of the town, who hasn’t had a taste? Come on, come on, everything’s fine, fine in LA. New York, New York, no more, no more’.

Googling the lyrics, I found out it was a song called BRB by a band called Lany (LA-NY), who it turned out, had already released about 20 emotive electro powerpop-songs about breakups and longing and melancholy. What I didn’t realise but was soon to find out, is that a Lany gig is a proper fangirl experience, complete with screaming girls and throwing of roses on the stage.

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The band consists of main songwriter and frontman, Paul Jason Klein, who holds court all alone on the main stage. His three fellow band members, Jake Goss (drums), Les Priest (Keyboards, guitars) and Giuliano Pizzulo (Guitars, keyboards), stand on a raised platform above the stage. Klein has a piano/keyboard set up on the middle of the stage which he plays from time to time. For some songs he straps on a guitar which seems more like a fashion statement to wear rather than an instrument to play. Whether it’s because the other musicians play the same chords as Klein, whether the songs are arranged in a way it doesn’t matter whether he plays or not, or whether he’s not plugged in, is hard to say, but it doesn’t really seem to make a difference to the songs whether he plays or not. Either way, he’s not here to play his songs, he’s here to sing and perform them. 

With his bleach blond hair and bright yellow football shirt, Klein sticks out on stage even among all those bright colours on the screens behind him. It’s a visually pleasing show, with each song having its own video theme taking up the whole backdrop and impossible to ignore. The visuals suit the songs well, as if each song is showcased like a live music video.

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Lany’s latest album, Malibu Nights, has just been released three days earlier but all the new songs are treated like long lost friends by the audience, who embrace each word and sing the songs back at Klein, who happily stops singing to surrender himself to the sonic hugs of the crowd. Not least of all the album’s title track gets a warm reception, with Klein sitting down at the piano playing a quiet lullaby, bathed in stars projected on the starry night screen behind him, as if he’s playing piano up in the sky among the stars: ‘Way too much whiskey in my blood, I feel my body giving up, Can I hold on for another night, What do I do with all this time’? Klein may not be the best singer around, but his voice lends just the right amount of emotion and conviction to his catchy songs, where the forte is fetching melodies layered with lyrics full of twists and turns, and a considerably more adult delivery than the average pop- or R&B song. 

Though all songs this evening are greeted by screams and cheers, particular favourites seem to be songs like Hericane complemented by dramatic red lighting, highlighting the drama of the song (‘Cause our home is a wreck, look at this mess’), Pink Skies is accompanied by a video backdrop of cars driving on the Pacific Coast Highway parallel with luscious waves licking the sandy beach), and for 13 the stage is bathed in dark blue shades, turning Klein and his bandmates into dark silhouettes.

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And when Klein sings the first lines of the last song, ILYSB, the audience could be forgiven for thinking they were not in London on a chilly Autumn night, but in Malibu, California, being young and in love, without a care in the world, not having to worry about having to get up for work tomorrow: ‘Ain’t never felt this way, Can’t get enough so stay with me, It’s not like we got big plans, Let’s drive around town holding hands’.

The casual romanticism of the songs is the real triumph of the evening. Songs in which summer never ends and you’re forever in a car cruising down the highway with wind in your hair and the car radio on, with the waves crashing in, and your ‘heart hurts so good, because you’re in love so bad, so bad’.

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Lany setlist
1. Thick and Thin
2. Good Girls
3. Bad, Bad, Bad
4. Taking Me Back
5. Valentine’s Day
6. Made in Hollywood
7. Hurts
8. Run
9. 13
10. If You See Her
11. The Breakup
12. Let Me Know
13. 4EVER!
14. I Don’t Wanna Love
15. Hericane
16. Super Far
17. Pink Skies
18. Malibu Nights
19. Thru These Tears
20. ILYSB