Erland Cooper, Rough Trade East

IMG_3341Friday May 17, 2019

For this evening’s free promotional gig at Rough Trade East, Erland Cooper plays songs from his new album, Sule Skerry. I last saw Erland Cooper play live almost a year ago, when he toured his first solo album, Solan Goose, on which the songs were themed around birds from his homeland, the Orkney Island off the coast of Scotland. Sule Skerry very much seems like a continuation of that – not as much about birds, as about the sea and the land. 

Cooper has set up shop in the middle of the floor, rather than on the stage, with a string quartet and all his old-school equipment, including cassette-player and open reel. 

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‘We released a record today, Sule Skerry… Everything we do we try to do it slightly different. Instead of being up on the stage we’ve come down here. I took the piano myself… We just want to try and create a wee safe haven, a wee nest.’

For some songs, soprano Lottie Greenhow sings with her beautiful, wagnerian voice, and violist Jacob Downs takes over the piano, allowing Cooper to mess around with his tapes and loops and take a little wander around among the other musicians.

For the final song, Cooper stands up with his microphone and sings, ‘First of the Tide’. His fragile, thin voice may not be the most accomplished, but it adds a fine sense of someone that’s full of wonder and awe of his surroundings; the tide, the seagulls and the rising sun on the horizon of the sea. And listening to Cooper singing over the loops and strings, I know all I need to do is close my eyes, and I will be in the same place too.

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Erland Cooper setlist
1. Flattie (P1)
2. Haar
3. Solan Goose
4. Sillocks
5. Cattie-Face
6. Bonnie
7. Maalie
8. Shalder
9. Spoot Ebb
Encore
10. Flattie (P2)
11. First of the Tide

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

Villagers, Rough Trade

IMG_7967London, Tuesday, September 25, 2018

East London record store, Rough Trade, is where it’s at for tonight’s in-store mini-gig + signing by Conor O’Brien AKA Villagers, who is here with his band to promote his latest album, The Art of Pretending to Swim. 

The band begin with the song Sweet Saviour and first single from the album, A Trick of the Light – both songs hammering home what seems to be the keyword that’s explored on this record, ‘faith’.

Conor introduces the third song, Again, as a ‘song about the word ‘God’, before he says, ‘Let’s get started…Party Time.’ The drummer begins the pulsating (party?) beat of the song, but something goes wrong and the band has to start the song again. This time the infectious song plays out well. The beat is hypnotic and the lyrics read like meditative mantras: ‘I’ve found again, a space in my heart again, for God again… I let it flow… Alone again… Home…’ – such a beautiful song. 

About halfway through the set, Conor checks in with the audience, ‘You all bought my record to get here?’ The audience cheers in confirmation, to which Conor responds: ’That warms my cockles. Sincerely. I can’t say that without sounding sarcastic.’ But he’s fooling no one, he is clearly more sincere and appreciative than sarcastic.

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After six songs, the rest of the band leave the stage, and Conor sings the last song solo: Nothing Arrived, a song from his album from 2013, Awayland, with the haunting lines; ‘I waited for something, but something died, so I waited for nothing, and nothing arrived…I guess I was busy (when Nothing arrived)’. Conor delivers a chilling acoustic version where he encourages the audience to harmonize, and the audience obliges.

I’ve seen Villagers’ music described as both ‘neo-folk’ and ‘chamber-pop’. I don’t know what these terms mean, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Conor sings his well-crafted songs with a skill and conviction that transcends whatever creative description he may be appointed.

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These short mini-gigs that artists do to promote their records, are interesting. They are longer than just a playing a song or two on a TV show, and they are shorter than a ‘proper’ gig. But for the artist, I’m guessing it’s a kind of primer, where they can get an indication of whether their record works live or not, before touring it ‘properly’. For the audience, it’s a good way of getting a taster of the record they just bought, and hopefully, as is the case with Villagers tonight, leaving them wanting more.

Villagers setlist
1. Sweet Saviour
2. A Trick of the Light
3. Again
4. Hold Me Down
5. Fool
6. Long Time Waiting
7. Nothing Arrived