Better Oblivion Community Center, Shepherds Bush Empire

IMG_3255London, Saturday May 11, 2019

When arriving inside the Shepherds Bush Empire venue for tonight’s concert with Better Oblivion Community Center, the first thing I notice are two small screens on both sides of the stage. At first, a white screen, then a hand starts drawing on a piece of paper and over the next few minutes a face begins to take shape and it becomes obvious that the anonymous hand is drawing Donald Trump. Then a new blank piece of paper fills the screen and the hand starts drawing again. This time it looks like an animal. A wolf? A pig? A dragon? A horse? Considering the long neck I’m guessing a wolf’ish horse. Then, on another blank piece of paper, the hand draws the backs of a couple looking through a doorway, and as more details are drawn it becomes clear that the drawing is the same as one of the posters that can be bought in the merchandise stall – these are the backs of tonight’s main attractions, Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst.

Support act Kristian comes on stage. An affable guy who nearly talks as much as he sings. One of the anecdotes he tells us, is about a woman who’d seen Motorhead in this same venue, back in the day, and they played so loud that she wanted to puke, but she didn’t want to leave until they played their most famous song, Ace of Spades. However, she had to wait through the whole set, as that song was only played at the end. Kristian tells us to tell him if we are feeling sick from him playing too loud, the joke being, that a singer-songwriter on an acoustic guitar is very unlikely to play loud enough to make anyone puke. 

He also asks us if we’d watched the football today. The stereotype that some Americans might have, that all Brits watch ‘the football’. Well, a crowd for Better Oblivion Community Center is, on average, probably less likely to be interested in football than, say, a Liam Gallagher crowd. Not surprisingly, this particular comment falls a bit flat. Otherwise, Kristian’s songs are very listenable and pleasant but they don’t really offer anything new or extraordinary to the singer-songwriter genre.

I sit next to a woman who comments on almost everything Kristian says to her friend sitting next to her. She also shouts ‘Woo’ quite regularly. There’s always someone like this at gigs, and I always get the impression that this kind of concert-goer is more there to be heard than to hear the band.

Then Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst enter the stage with their band, drummer, bass player and support act Kristian on guitar and keyboards.

Their backdrop is a large picture of a waiting area in an airport or train station, with a sign hanging above the empty rows of chairs. The sign reads: ‘It will end in tears’. This backdrop does add a melancholy feeling to songs – no matter what the song is about, or how upbeat or downbeat it may be, we’re all forever in a waiting area; waiting to go somewhere, waiting to meet someone, waiting to find the courage to make that change – always waiting for something, always on the way somewhere, even if that ‘somewhere’ is just around the corner.

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Phoebe Bridgers gets the first word in when she asks the audience, ’S’up’?

In many ways, Conor and Phoebe suit each other well; the younger singer-songwriter who grew up listening to the older singer-songwriter, but both meeting on equal terms, with an obvious mutual respect for one another’s material. They mix their performance up well, singing some songs together, sometimes Conor sings Phoebe’s songs and sometimes Phoebe sings Conor’s songs, each willingly letting the other have their share of the spotlight, which they never seem to be competing for. 

Phoebe’s sugary sweet vocals layered on top of Conor’s rawer and more fragile voice works well, but Bridgers is perhaps a bit too ‘white bread’ for my taste. Her voice is sweet and floury, whereas Oberst adds the salt and grain, thus giving the songs he sings an edge. This is especially evident when they sing one of Conor’s most popular and affecting songs, Lua. The original version feels naked and intimate, whereas Phoebe’s voice, however beautifully she sings, makes the song too… nice, which makes it lose the very edge that made me love the song in the first place. But of course, that’s a matter of opinion and judging by the crowd’s reaction I’m sure there are a lot of people in the audience who would disagree with me.

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A highlight for me is when they do a comic, sweet Exception to the Rule, complete with two colourful deck chairs and beach balloons. Before the song Conor pretends they’re about to do a TedTalk and asks Phoebe what she thinks of Brexit. She doesn’t reply, but large parts of the audience boos, and that’s answer enough. Another highlight is when they do a wondrously joyful cover of All the Umbrellas in London by The Magnetic Fields.

Better Oblivion Community Center’s debut (and only) album is a good collection of well-crafted songs, but for anyone familiar with Conor’s previous output in his many solo- and group-projects, in comparison these songs seem more polished than what he normally does, which is both appealing but also a bit bland, and dare I say, average, at times. But Conor, Phoebe and their band members play and sing great, and there’s a lovely vibe coming from the stage, giving the impression that this is a group of people who enjoy each other’s company.

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The last line of the last song, Dominos, feels very poignant: ‘And if you don’t feel great, tomorrow will be better’. I keep hearing this line in my head on my way home and it’s only later, when I look the song up online, that I realise the line actually way: ‘And if you’re not feeling ready, there’s always tomorrow’. Not sure why I heard it the way I did, but either way, this idea, that ’tomorrow is another day’, is something we should all remind ourselves as often as needed.

Better Oblivion Community Center setlist
1. My City
2. Big Black Heart
3. Sleepwalkin’
4. Would You Rather (Phoebe Bridgers song)
5. Dylan Thomas
6. Forest Lawn
7. Exception to the Rule
8. Cheapsake
9. Lime Tree (Bright Eyes song)
10. Service Road
11. Little Trouble
12. All the Umbrellas in London (The Magnetic Fields cover)
13. Lua (Bright Eyes song)
14. Funeral (Phoebe Bridgers song)
15. Didn’t Know What I was in For
Encore
16. Scott Street (Phoebe Bridgers song)
17. Easy/Lucky/Free (Bright Eyes song)
18. Dominos

Gods of Rap: De La Soul, Public Enemy (Radio), Wu-Tang Clan, Wembley Arena

IMG_3064London, Friday May 10, 2019

I arrive at Wembley Arena as De La Soul is about to go on stage and I figure I can catch most of their set but there’s a huge and slow moving queue outside the arena and the length of De La Soul’s set is shorter than the length of the queue. This hasn’t been well planned and I’m disappointed to miss out on one of the three acts that I’ve paid a substantial amount of money to see. When I later hear that De La Soul mainly played new music and hardly any of the classics I know and love, because of a dispute with their record label, my disappoint diminishes, but it doesn’t change the fact that this was awful planning… by me, or by Wembley Arena, or perhaps both. Arriving inside, the stale stench of beer and junk food greets me and I hurry up the stairs to get inside the arena and away from the smell. Public Enemy, or rather, Public Enemy Radio as they’re now called, take to the stage shortly afterwards and the excitement is undeniable.

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I’m immediately impressed by Chuck D’s vocals – a voice of determination and conviction. It’s a pleasure to hear him rap his way through classics like Don’t Believe the Hype and Fight the Power. Flavor Flav is absent, for, to me, unknown reasons, but though it would have been great to hear the legendary ‘Yeah, booooy’ shoutout, I don’t mind too much that he isn’t there. Chuck D once said about him, ‘Flavor is the dude who presents disorder…’. There’s nothing disorderly about Public Enemy (Radio) this evening, and considering the way of the world at the moment and how disorderly our current crop of politicians are, it’s a relief to see that at least some people, if not our politicians, can get straight to the point with no fucking around, and articulate well-informed observations of the world in an, dare I say, orderly fashion. Chuck D is the real deal, and with DJ Lord, emcee Jahi and two of the military-clad S1W-dancers (making very understated dance moves), Mr. D makes sure to show us all who’s the Boss of Rap. Considering the name of the tour, I should maybe name him God of Rap, but I think that’s a bit excessive.

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In between the groups DJ Premier keeps the beat going and gets the arena singing along to hits like Ready or Not (Here I Come). His enthusiasm seems real and he feels present.

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Then it’s time for Wu-Tang Clan who we already know is without perhaps their most prominent member, Method Man. Why, no one seems to be sure of – something to do with money? It’s a shame, but for someone who’s never seen them before there’s no previous performance to compare with, so it doesn’t bother me too much. Anyway, there are nine of them for God’s sake, who can keep track of all of them anyway? Well, I’m going to try…

GZA, RZA, U-God, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna, Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck. The son of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard – conveniently named, Young Dirty Bastard – is part of the line-up and he sounds uncannily like his old man and is also the most animated member of the group, jumping into the crowd for Shimmy Shimmy Ya.

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Though Wu-Tang Clan (most of them) are definitely in the house, they don’t feel as present as DJ Premier or Chuck D. At times, they just saunter around the stage waiting for their turn to dominate the mic. Maybe that’s just the way it is when you’re that many members of a group, all waiting for their turn to shine, but at times it is a bit underwhelming, and sometimes it looks like chaos in slow motion, almost comical. They sound best when not too many shout into their mics at the same time, again, a numbers thing. I guess it’s harder to co-ordinate quality control between nine people, than four or five people. 

Still, they sound great in spurts, and when they sound great, they sound really great, despite Wembley Arena’s less-than-great sound system. The excellence of their musical catalogue can hardly be disputed, with songs like Protect Ya Neck, C.R.E.A.M., and Clan in Da Front. They also get the crowd singing along, flashing the lights on their mobile phones and waving their hands in the air, shouting the obligatory ‘Shit yeah’, ‘Hell yeah’, ‘Fuck yeah’ – standard band-crowd interaction, but a standard interaction that works.

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It would have been best to see tonight’s bands in a smaller venue, but when that many people want to see you, what can you do? It would have been preferable if De La Soul could have played all their songs; if the queues outside the venue had been better managed; if Flavor Flav had been there; Method Man, ditto. Also, I could have done without Wu-Tang Clan’s rendition of Come Together by The Beatles – it didn’t really work. But it was a great evening, and though seeing these legendary, sell-proclaimed ‘Gods’ of Rap so late in their careers might not be ideal, it only showed that if anyone can get away with calling themselves the Gods of Rap, these three groups might very well be the strongest contenders for the title.

De La Soul setlist
Not available

Public Enemy setlist
1. My Uzi Weighs a Ton
2. Louder Than a Bomb
3. I Shall Not Be Moved
4. Can’t Truss It
5. Don’t Believe the Hype
6. Rebel Without a Pause
7. Timebomb
8. Anti-Nigger Machine
9. He Got Game
10. Fight the Power
11. Welcome to the Terrordome
12. Bring the Noise
13. Shut ‘Em Down
14. Black Steel
15. Public Enemy No. 1
16. Harder Than You Think 

Wu-Tang Clan setlist
1. Bring Da Ruckus
2. Shame on a Nigga
3. Killa Bees on the Swarm
4. Clan in Da Front
5. Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber
6. Winter Wars (Ghostface Killah song)
7. Can It Be All So Simple
8. Da Mystery of Chessboxin’
9. Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing ta F’ Wit
10. C.R.E.A.M.
11. Tearz
12. Protect Ya Neck
13. Come Together (The Beatles cover)
14. Reunited
15. Duel of the Iron Mic
16. Mary Jane (Rick James cover)
17. Ice Cream (Raekwon song)
18. 4th Chamber (GZA/Genius song)
19. Severe Punishment
20. Glaciers of Ice (Raekwon song)
21. Black Jesus (Ghostface Killah song)
22. ’97 Mentality (Cappadonna song)
23. Love Rap
24. Mathematics Set
25. Mighty Healthy (Ghostface Killah song)
26. The Mexican (GZA/Genius song)
27. ODB Tribute
28. Shimmy Shimmy Ya (Ol’ Dirty Bastard song)
29. Got Your Money (Ol’ Dirty Bastard song)
30. Duel to the Death
31. Triumph
32. Gravel Pit
33. Method Man

Rufus Wainwright, Royal Albert Hall

IMG_2620London, Sunday April 21, 2019

What’s left to say about Rufus Wainwright? The American-Canadian musical wunderkind who was more or less destined to have a career as a troubadour, ‘always travelling, but not in love’, singing about heartbreaks and headaches, forever bemoaning he never became a proper superstar, yet firmly remaining a critics’ darling, and selling out some of the most prestigious concert halls in the world, working with musical legends and getting to make the musical projects he wants to make. Could Rufus Wainwright be the most privileged person on the planet? He’s definitely a contender. But he’s also really good.

Rufus is backed by a brilliant group of musicians, Paul Bryan (Bass), long time collaborator Gerry Leonard (Music Director and Guitar), Jamie Edwards (Keyboards), Matt Johnson (drums) and Rachel Eckroth (Guitar, Piano, Backing Vocals), who’s also tonight’s support act, with a half hour set of lovely songs about a time in her life where a father had died, she’d lost her job and was moving from New York to Los Angeles. The result being a selection of songs that are beautiful and atmospheric – and some of which sound a little bit like Lana Del Rey (not a bad thing in my opinion).

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The rambling, disorganised charm of Wainwright’s younger years has long since been replaced by a more professional demeanour, but he hasn’t lost his ability to tell entertaining anecdotes that add to the enjoyment of the Rufus Wainwright live experience.

Not that he needs to entertain in between the songs; his singing is quite frankly outrageous. Blessed with a pair of pipes that can really belt out a song, but also the awareness to tone it down when needed, really makes Wainwright a compelling singer. His piano playing is great, his guitar strumming is passable, and if he still messes up a song here and there (which he used to) it certainly didn’t happen tonight at Royal Albert Hall, where Wainwright and his band played what sounded like a flawless set of 20 of his songs from his two first records, one from his fifth record, three cover songs and one new song.

Wainwright is his usual chatty self in the first set. One of several anecdotes is about Leonard Cohen (does he ever not tell an anecdote about Cohen?), and how he never knew whether Cohen, though always supportive, actually liked his music or not. The closest Rufus can get to guess if the ‘mysterious’ Leonard appreciated his songwriting is that Cohen apparently loved the song, Sally Ann, so much that he listened to it constantly for two days when the record came out. Though Wainwright can pull off being full of himself by shooting us a self-deprecating comment, you always get the sense that the self-deprecation is mainly a knowing part of the act of pretending to be less bigheaded than we all know he really is. But he can back it up by his talent, and when he sings a beautiful Sally Ann (one of my favourites), one can see why Leonard Cohen might indeed have loved this song.

Another highlight is the wonderful Barcelona (‘Crazy me don’t think there’s pain, in Barcelona…’), with Rufus suavely sitting on a chair wearing a top hat singing it so beautifully.

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Wainwright has always been a shameless namedropper and he makes sure to tell us of his participation in a tribute to Joni Mitchell celebrating her 75th Birthday. Singer Seal played Both Sides Now at that event, but tonight it’s Rufus’ song to claim. it’s a song that suits his voice and he sings it beautifully, bringing the house down.

Rufus and the band end the first set with a new song, The Sword of Damocles, which to me sounds much like his newest batch of unrecorded songs that have been played live in the last couple of years. There’s nothing wrong with the song, it’s just not very memorable – perhaps a little bland.

In the fifteen minute intermission most people in the audience head either for the bar or the toilet. I head for neither when I see the queues and make a devious plan to use the toilet when the second set starts and most people will be in their seats.

The second set is a play-through of Poses from start to finish and Rufus doesn’t speak between the songs, which works really well. It’s tempting to close your eyes and think back to a time of youth and recklessness and broken hearts while listening to these songs of impossible love and lustful longing.

Since Poses might be one of my favourite records it’s very special to get to hear it from start to finish. Even the few songs I don’t care too much for sound great and I must admit I make the most of California (my least favourite) to head for a queue-less toilet, and make it back in time for one of my favourites on the record, The Tower of Learning, a song I’ve especially looked forward to hear live, along with another song, The Consort. Neither disappoint – both sung and played to perfection. 

For the encore, we get one more song from Wainwright’s debut album, Imaginary Love, with a chorus that in some ways sum up the whole ‘Rufus-is-a-drunken-melodramatic-mess era’, that the two records being played tonight cover (1998-2002 approximately): ‘Every kind of love, or at least my kind of love, must be an imaginary love to start with, guess that can explain, the rain waiting walking game, Schubert bust my brains to start with’.

The next song is one of the few of the evening not from the two first records (Release the Stars from 2007), Going to a Town, which might be one of Wainwright’s most accomplished songs, which is probably why he’s chosen to play it tonight. It’s certainly a crowd-pleaser – a catchy song with the evocative starting line: ‘I’m going to a town that has already been burned down…’. I think it is a reference to Berlin, but it is easy to imagine it could be London too.

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For the last song, two crew-members bring a massive white furry cape on stage, and wrap it around Rufus, so only his head sticks out and it looks like he’s been swallowed by an Easter bunny, or as he puts it himself, ‘an iceberg’. Speaking of icebergs he takes a moment to applaud the many eco-warriors who’ve been demonstrating in London in the last week, and then they play a cover of Across the Universe by The Beatles. For this song about a dozen superfans enter the stage to sing backing vocals. I must admit this doesn’t really add anything of value, and why anyone would pay a fortune to do this, I don’t really understand, but each to their own. John Lennon sang it best, but Rufus does a fine job too, as the Albert Hall sing along to the iconic line, ‘Nothing’s gonna change my world’.

The song finishes and Rufus invites his band members (excluding the superfans) to gather under his mega-cape, and they all take a final bow to deafening applause. 

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Another home run from Rufus Wainwright. An unusually musically gifted artist in the pop-rock music world, who travels the globe, making people laugh with his anecdotes and cry with his music, just like he was meant to do. Nothing’s gonna change his world.

Rufus Wainwright setlist
First set
1. April Fools
2. Barcelona
3. Danny Boy
4. Foolish Love
5. Sally Ann
6. In My Arms
7. Millbrook
8. Beauty Mark
9. Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell cover)
10. The Sword of Damocles
Second set
11. Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk
12. Greek Song
13. Poses
14. Shadows
15. California
16. The Tower of Learning
17. Grey Gardens
18. Rebel Prince
19. The Consort
20. One Man Guy (Loudon Wainwright III cover)
21. Evil Angel
22. In a Graveyard
Encore
23. Imaginary Love
24. Going to a Town
25. Across the Universe (The Beatles cover)

Inhaler, Borderline

IMG_2208London, Sunday March 31, 2019

I admit it straight up. The reason we went to this Sunday evening gig at the Borderline, was not to see the main band, Touts, but the second support band, Inhaler, fronted by the son of U2’s Bono, Elijah Hewson. There, I said it. So this review will not include Touts, because by the time I suspect they took to the stage, we were almost home – we do have to get up early for work tomorrow, you know.

We arrive at the small but legendary venue. One of the few that hasn’t been affected – yet – by gentrification and rising rents in the area, unlike former neighbouring venues like Astoria and Mean Fiddler, now long gone. (SAD UPDATE May 13, 2019: Borderline is going to close down in the summer of 2019).

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The first band of the evening is called The Clockworks. They’re loud and the reason we ask the nice woman behind the bar for earplugs, which she freely supplies us with – good service. I’m no longer a youth and I have seen my share of rock and punk bands and felt the excitement, that perhaps you only really feel when you’re a teenager or in your early twenties, when you see a new, happening band. So The Clockworks don’t really do anything for me, but that doesn’t mean they might not be good. I’m just not their audience.

IMG_2156The Clockworks

Then it’s time for Inhaler. It’s impossible not to compare Hewson a little bit to Bono – the young man does dress like like his old man did in his younger years, and the way he stands, kind of lifting his feet up, presumably to make himself appear taller, is definitely also a move lifted or inherited from his dad. Unfortunately, either the sound engineer was having an off-day, or Hewson simply didn’t sing loud enough or project his voice well enough, which is a shame, because he clearly has a good voice. The vocal volume needs to be fixed for future gigs. We need to be able to hear not only the sound of the bass, and the drums and the keyboards and the guitars, but also of the voice. LOUDER, please.

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‘Sunday, Ice Cream Sunday’
Having said that, Inhaler are pretty good, especially the drummer, Ryan McMahon, is impressive. Bass player, Robert Keating, plays well and his backing vocals are actually louder than Hewson’s lead vocals, and his poses certainly rivals those of his lead singer, which sometimes are a bit too much. Josh Jenkinson plays a good lead guitar and his and Hewson’s guitars compliment each other perfectly. Inhaler also has a keyboard player, who to my knowledge is either new or not a permanent member of the band (?), and I’m afraid I don’t know his name, but his synth adds a great atmospheric vibe to the songs.

It is a comical sight to see the several photographers running around in front of the stage, taking pictures throughout the gig. For most concerts of this size there might be one or two photographers taking a few pictures and audience members (like me) taking pictures on their phones. But for tonight’s concert it almost feels like it’s a runway, more than a stage. This is obviously because of the you-know-who connection, and it’s quite funny to watch the photographers almost fall over each other at times, trying to get the best close up.

The six-songs-set is a bunch of songs sounding rather like they’d stepped out of the early eighties – songs that especially stood out were Ice Cream Sunday and Another Like You. The band does pose quite a bit, which seems slightly forced. When I see someone like Eddie Vedder stage dive I don’t know how much he rehearsed it, but I do know it comes across as natural. Inhaler’s poses this evening come across as too cliched – they should probably work on that, and I’m sure they will. With experience, these things will appear more naturally.

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Hewson doesn’t talk much in between songs, but towards the end he says, ‘This is our last song’. Someone in the audience cheers, and he snaps back, ‘Don’t cheer for that’. He seems to know how to interact, and it would suit him – and the band – if he did that more. Then Inhaler plays their debut single, It Won’t Always Be Like This – a catchy song and a fitting way to end the concert.

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So, it was a good gig. Nothing spectacular, but can you really expect spectacular from a new band that’s only just finding their way? Maybe later.

Inhaler setlist
1. The Sound
2. My Honest Face
3. Dublin in Ecstacy
4. Another Like You
5. Ice Cream Sunday
6. It Won’t Always Be Like This

Vampire Weekend, EartH

IMG_1614London, Thursday March 21, 2019

Apparently this is Vampire Weekend’s first gig in London since 2013, and this evening’s ‘welcome back’ committee is comprised of the about 800 lucky people who managed to get a ticket before it sold out. 

Singer Ezra Koenig himself describes tonight’s gathering as a bit of an ‘attended rehearsal’. But Koenig’s socks-and-sandals aside, it certainly feels like a proper gig. EartH is an old cinema and the last time I was here it was so cold that I promised myself never to return to this venue between October and April. So, here I am back in March but luckily today is milder than last time and it doesn’t feel cold this time.

There’s no support band and at 20:30 the weekend-only vampires casually – very casually – stroll on stage to excited applause. First song is Harmony Hall, one of the new songs from their upcoming album, Father of the Bride. Apart from the evocative title, Harmony Hall, is also a very uplifting piece of music in which Koenig assures us all, ‘I don’t want to die’. Well, seeing how he and his bandmates seem to enjoy themselves playing their music, I don’t think anyone would think otherwise.

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Another new song, 2021, is played twice – this is an ‘attended rehearsal’ after all. The first version is short and simple, and the second longer and more experimental. Koenig uses a talk box and though it’s an effect that can enhance a song, I must admit I don’t much see the point of it in this particular case. But it’s probably a lot of fun to play.

Most of the set though, is made up of crowd-favourites; Holiday and Unbelievers are the second and third song respectively, and that’s as good a beginning to a concert as can be expected, and sets the tone for the rest of the evening. 

Vampire Weekend sometimes jump straight into that great big net of ‘cultural appropriation’ that you can so easily get entangled in, and that some people are more bothered with than others. Me personally, I don’t mind, but I do know it’s the reason why some people don’t like them. Being inspired by music from cultures ‘different than yours’ is not a crime, and if you can pull it off, then why not? As far as I’m concerned, it’s fine that a non-Italian cooks spaghetti, a Westener eats sushi, a Brazilian plays in a Rolling Stones cover-band, a German tries to play piano like Thelonious Monk, or a Greek person prefers watching The Simpsons over reading Greek mythology. ‘Cultural appropriation’ is really just the art of being open and curious – and why not? Songs like White Sky and Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa are deeply rooted on African soil, far away from these American white-bred East-coast-preppy-boys. But maybe that’s part of the charm of the songs; positioning yourself musically far away from your assigned parking zone and somehow making it part of your comfort zone. 

The last four songs before the band leave the stage for the first time, are a relentless attack on the ecstatic crowd who dance and sing along to Diane Young, Cousins, A-Punk and Oxford Comma.

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Bass player Chris Baio is refreshingly unconcerned with being cool and dances and gyrates around, quite honestly sometimes giving the impression he is so in love with his bass he wants to hump it. And who are we to judge, as long as he keeps the engine of the songs going and enjoys himself.

Like all musicians who can play well, the musicians in Vampire Weekend are prone to slightly longer solos than what might actually suit the songs and some songs do turn into more of a jam session at times, which I’m sure is fun to play but less fun to listen to. Vampire Weekend is at their best when they keep the songs short and to the point. 

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The encore consists of six songs, three of which are requests from the audience, M79 from their debut album (2008), and Finger Back, Everlasting Arms, from their most recent album Modern Vampires of the City (2013). The last two songs of the concert are also from Modern Vampires of the City, the fast, pumping, triumphant Worship You, followed by the slow, melancholic Ya Hey, a song about having, sometimes questioning, and perhaps even losing faith. But agnostics and atheists can also take away from this song a perfect summary of most of our lives in this post-modern world: ‘In the dark of this place, There’s the glow of your face, There’s the dust on the screen, Of this broken machine, And I can’t help but feel, That I’ve made some mistake, But I let it go, Ya Hey’.

And that’s what this concert was a good reminder of, the importance of letting go.

Vampire Weekend setlist
1. Harmony Hall (new song)
2. Holiday
3. Unbelievers
4. Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
5. White Sky
6. Sunflower (new song)
7. Step
8. 2021 (new song, album version)
9. 2021 (new song, piano version)
10. Horchata
11. New Drop. New York (SBTRKT w. Ezra Koenig cover)
12. Hannah Hunt
13. Diane Young
14. Cousins
15. A-Punk
16. Oxford Comma
Encore
17. Big Blue (new song)
18. Finger Back (request from audience)
19. Everlasting Arms (request from audience
20. M79 (request from audience)
21. Worship You
22. Ya Hey

Folkeklubben, Godset

IMG_0885Kolding, Denmark, Friday February 1, 2019

It’s a chilly winter’s evening in Kolding, a provincial town in Denmark. Danish band, Folkeklubben (‘the people’s club’), have started their latest tour, promoting their fourth album, Sort tulipan (‘Black Tulip’), a few days previously and tonight it’s Kolding’s turn. Living up to the band’s name, Folkeklubben has a reputation of being a band of the people. Seemingly constantly touring and not only in the bigger towns and stages of Denmark but also small villages and venues that many other bands might not play. Their latest album might be their proper breakthrough album and is less acoustic than their previous folkier albums. This is also reflected in tonight’s concert where the three members of the band, Kjartan Arngrim (vocals, guitar), Rasmus Dall (guitar, keyboard, backing vocals) and Rasmus Jusjong (drums, percussion, backing vocals) are joined by an additional musician, bass player Ida Davidsen, who adds extra depth and groove to the songs. Arngrim and Dall also switch acoustic guitars for electric guitars on more songs than normal, and drummer Jusjong has got himself a proper drumkit compared to previous tours, where he would use a suitcase as bass drum. This might not quite be ‘when Dylan went electric’, but Folkeklubben has certainly cultivated a fuller sound, sometimes harder and rockier, sometimes dreamily ambient, and the sound is more polished than in the days where their songs had a more, dare I say, amateurish charm attached to them. They definitely no longer sound like ‘amateurs’, but the charm is still present. 

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Frontman and lyricist, Arngrim, has a strong stage presence without even doing very much. I guess it’s just an aura that some people have. His voice confidently carries the words of the songs that he writes so well. For people who don’t understand Danish the songs will obviously not come across in the same way. Much of the songs’ strength lie in the beautiful, innovative, smart, funny, creatively-constructed sentences. Not saying that the music isn’t great too. The band members have clearly studied the masters of songwriting closely and learned the craft of writing appealing melodies and beautiful arrangements. 

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Before they play the title song of their latest album, Sort tulipan (‘Black Tulip’), a song inspired by Danish poet Michael Strunge who killed himself by jumping from his fourth floor balcony in 1986, aged 27, Arngrim makes sure to explain the song isn’t actually meant to endorse suicide: ‘If we had played this song in Russia we would have gone to prison because in Russia it’s illegal to endorse suicide in a song. But I will hasten to add, that we are not telling people to jump in the harbour, no, the song is about the long, drawn-out suicide that occurs when you go on with your long life after having given up on your dreams and forsaken your ideals’. Then they start playing the gentle yet morbid song, where the chorus goes: Jeg vil dø som en sort tulipan (‘I want to die like a black tulip’), og springe ud fra den smukkeste altan (‘and jump from the most beautiful balcony’), i en film og rolle jeg kan bære (‘in a film and a role I can carry’), lev dit smukke liv… eller lad være’ (‘live your beautiful life… or don’t’). 

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The concert is divided into two sets between which there’s a 15-minutes break, like when you watch a play at the theatre. Maybe the break serves the musicians well but the break does slow the flow of the concert down, and when the lights go down again it takes several minutes before the band members stroll back on stage, which arrests the otherwise good vibe a bit. However, the concert gets back in immediate full bloom when the band launch into the first song of the second set, Missionshotellet (‘The Mission Hotel’). I am not sure what the song is really about but I hear it as a story about two friends who leave the city behind and go on an adventure to the outskirts of their country. A song about appreciating your country, all of it, not just the big cities and hip neighbourhoods: Vi drog ud til det land der lå udenfor byen, det forsvinder nok en dag (‘We went out to that country that lies outside of town, it will probably disappear some day’).

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Around 11pm we’ve spent two hours in the dreamscape of the band up there on the stage. Now the concert is over and it’s time to go back outside into the cold night, get in our cars and on our bikes and disappear into the dark landscape and into all our separate lives. The last lines of Sort tulipan (‘Black Tulip’) seem especially poignant after it’s all over: Det er din film og din rolle må du bære (‘It’s your film and your role that you must carry’), Lev dit smukke liv eller lad være (‘Live your beautiful life – or don’t’). After an uplifting and life-affirming concert like this, living ‘one’s beautiful life’ seems very doable.

Folkeklubben setlist
1. Cohiba Zanzibar
2. Alle vil de vide hvorhen
3. Vikaren
4. Flammende hjerter
5. Slå flint
6. Par nr. 7
7. Hvis jeg ku’
8. Sort tulipan
9. Falden gud
10. Åh, at være en høne
(Break)
11. Missionshotellet
12. Idioterne og vennerne
13. Klokkerne ringer
14. For pengene
15. Ske noget mere
16. Tænker tit
17. Fedterøv
18. Hvor smukt kan det regne
19. Ikke endnu en vinter
20. Den sidste superstar
21. Danmarksfilm
(Encore)
22. Late Night Summer Jesus
23. Torben Ulrich

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