Tate Modern; London, England
When The Mix was released in 1991, it created an irreversible divide between fans who were willing to accept new material, regardless of the form it took, and those who were disgusted by the very thought of a pseudo best-of. Throughout a sweeping gape of the 1970s, Kraftwerk had positioned themselves at the forefront of electronic music in using synthesizers and drum machines to create compositions that set a benchmark for the hordes of aspiring electronic acts that were to follow. The Mix was seen as a turning point because it saw the group demonstrating a desire to revisit past material and identify with their music through a new context. Although this may appear to have been industrious at the time, by that period, their back-catalog had achieved cult-classic status, which meant they were altering their history in ways most fans were not ready for. The Mix was widely shunned by dedicated followers and critics alike, not only because it saw the band looking backward, but because Kraftwerk’s ‘greatest hits’ were being tampered with.
Announcing the leap from analogue to digital recording on the album also symbolized a desire to drive forward technologically — ambition derived from intent to reshape the dimensions of those classics in a way that should have improved sound quality and allowed for fans to experience Kraftwerk in a contemporary light. That never really happened though. Despite the fact that a number of tracks were subject to a dance floor-oriented shift, the mastering of the record left plenty to be desired. It sounded flat, half-baked. The group’s signature tracks had been sacrificed on the alter of remix without yielding particularly pleasing results, and that was enough to push the hardcore over the edge. The Mix consequentially went down as an unjustifiable failure — a step in the wrong direction. So why would anyone in their right mind chose to see that troubled regress performed in its entirety over any of the master works?
For a generation of listeners born after the heyday of Trans-Europe Express, and who grew up in a world coming to terms with the scope of electronic music and its capabilities, The Mix was a solid introduction to the efforts of the very outfit that had kicked things off way back when. The album worked as an embodiment of manhandled success that shed light on previous material in a way that demonstrated Ralph Hütter and Florian Schneider’s willingness to experiment — all this at a time when the remix was a standard format on cassette and CD singles. Indeed, this was my initial experience with the band, and one of the central reasons I chose The Mix as the album to see performed live at Kraftwerk’s recent Tate Residency.
The London shows took place 10 years after the group’s most recent release, Tour De France, and showcased every other studio effort from 1974’s Autobahn hence — eight albums, eight nights. Each performance promised two hours of music, including every track from the album of the day plus a selection of hits with improvisational fragments and state-of-the-art 3D visual effects. The concept sounded amazing when it was announced, and despite the fact that Kraftwerk had already conducted similar performances in New York and Berlin, when the London tickets were released, the Tate website crashed at the hands of rampant admirers desperate to spectate.
The Turbine Hall is a cold and hollow space that works tremendously well as a makeshift stage. As we approached, the chimney protruding from the main building seemed so fitting amid the grey clouds that shuffled overhead it might easily have played a forgotten factory wherein a collection of neglected showroom dummies had been left to decay, only to come alive at night and perform electronic music for a starstruck selection. I had read a number of reviews about the concerts leading up to Night Seven and had a good idea of what to expect: 3D glasses, a black cushion, and a sold-out show that gradually shapeshifts through the album’s tracklist before spinning out into a panoply of hits. However, nothing can quite prepare for a 120-minute spectacle fronted by four men wearing illuminated lycra bodysuits, standing in front of their keyboards and pummeling their audience with cyberling techno classics.
The lights went down and a stern robotic voice projected over the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen” (something in German… something in English), “K R A F T W E R K” — the black drape covering the stage fell to the ground and “The Robots” burst across the venue. It might have been a pumped-up version of the original, but it sounded impeccable with the surround sound set up. The 3D spectacle displayed vintage cuts of mannequins moving their limbs slowly to the thumping drawl of the 1970s classic in an overwhelming surge of nostalgia as Ralph Hütter gingerly manipulated his keys alongside new recruits through the track’s iconic refrain.
After a beautiful rendition of “Computer Love” the momentum of “Autobahn” started up. It’s a track I have been told was revolutionary when it first hit the shelves on vinyl, for if you placed your speakers in the right place when listening to it, the fact that you could hear the cars zooming from one side of the room to the other was considered a mesmerizing party trick — all you had to do was shut your eyes and pretend you were on some sort of mad electro highway. I hadn’t imagined that shutting my eyes would be in the cards this evening, as the 3D visuals were supposed to be a component to behold. However, the MS paint VW that trundled along a cartoon road looked like it had come out of a kid’s TV show — it was a big disappointment that was only half-rescued by a shot of a dashboard and a gloved hand, which slowly turned up the volume to produce a series of music notes that poured out onto the audience to brilliant effect.
By the time “Radioactivity” kicked in, even the sight of people lifting their mobiles every few minutes to share the moment on Instagram could not taint my elated state. This was the track I had come to see, and it went down an absolute treat. It was one of those transcendental ‘wow’ moments that got me thinking, “Am I really here?” “Am I really experiencing this?” The croaking, mechanical voice “Stop! Radioactivity” and the humanized vocals that follow it’s in the air for you and me made this enough of a protest song without the inclusion of “Fukushima” to the laundry list of power plants Hütter reels off as names appears on the screen like newfangled superstar brands — “Tschernobyl / Harrisburg / Sellafield / Hiroshima.”
Each of those songs, along with a wonderful version of the “Trans-Europe Express,” “Abzug,” and “Metal On Metal” sequence, all came in the first 40 minutes or so, which left the rest of the show lingering in the balance of untold possibility. Where I disagree with other critics, such as The Guardian’s Michael Hann, is when he suggests the only place Kraftwerk had to go was downhill. How could that possibly be the case when there remained so many directions to take the show in!? As it happened, the second half was every bit exciting as what preceded. The synthetic panache of “The Model,” the cyber dirge of “Spacelab,” and the menacing whir of “Metropolis” were followed by a version of “Man Machine” that was just delightful, the undisputed highlight of the evening embedded deep within a context of glorious techno pop.
The Mix was somewhat disfigured by the songs played between it, but because the album itself lacks any structured narrative, Hütter’s keenness to experiment became easier to observe. The ‘greatest hits’ set-list avoided a strict diet of traditional crowd pleasers, and while the visuals might not have been wholly successful, they complemented certain aspects of the album’s unintentional aesthetic, which was pitted against an ultra-crisp sonic finish courtesy of the Tate audio setup. The evening was a triumph, even if that ropey stretch of “Autobahn” left me baffled, but then again, I could have always closed my eyes.
OM / Sir Richard Bishop
The Larimer Lounge; Denver, CO
Any metal show might have put a nerd like me out of place, but for some reason I thought a bill like this one would have the least opportunity to make me feel awkward. Of course, showing up without a date didn’t help, but something still felt a little off. Maybe it was ME who was making the SHOW feel awkward. Whatever; a tall PBR ordered, I hung around and wrote notes about the side-bartendress being nervous to plug in a string of stage lights that blew the power last time.
She did end up plugging them in, and all was well, so Sir Richard Bishop sat down and made baby faces at the neck of his guitar while his fingers did unimaginable things… Dirty, aggressive things, things that might get you arrested in certain decades in certain countries. Either the Derek Bailey of psych or the John Abercrombie of raga, or both probably, Bishop fought the bar’s murmurous roar, pulling about as much electricity out of his amp as humanly possible. Riding a pedal tone like a camel through the desert was where he was comfiest, but it was the ballad toward the end that really left an impression; must have been out of a fake book, and I might have figured out the tune if the structure wasn’t so bowlegged and his solo so ‘out.’ But that was the way, and the way led to where it led, which was nowhere, and those of us rapt went right along, straight into the beautiful nothing.
OM didn’t waste too much time following, and after hearing what the subs were capable of during the dub-saturated house music at intermission, I decided to keep a little distance. All for not, for whomever ran sound had Al Cisneros’ bass clipping like a motherfucker while Emil Amos whaled on the ride cymbal bell between bizonkers drum fills. The band fought a weird mix, and the synth guy off to the right seemed like he was falling behind in some spots. But they battled through that too, the same way their songs can feel like epic struggles, finishing strong — OM’s final stroke of raw power was preempted with a beautiful solo section of bass that slithered like a 1-ton snake. The coda was big enough to lift a couple horns from the crowd, and most torsos couldn’t help but rock back and forth, as if everyone’s collective forehead was tied to Cisneros’ tuning pegs like a marionette.
A yawn come 11:30 (am I getting old?), with my blood a few degrees warmer than when I got there, mission still accomplished.
Diamond Terrifier/Megafortress Duo / Nonhorse / Jerry Paper / Noah Wall
Public Assembly; Brooklyn
Upon approaching Public Assembly for my first time, the area is exaltedly commercial — even kitsch commercial — and I was afraid leaving the old PRACTICE! space Zebulon may just ruin the weekly experience. ALSO, this was at 8 p.m. and not 7 p.m. (for future attendees); the place looked like a kitchen’s backdoor at 7 p.m. First up to play was Noah Wall (w/ Jonathan Matthews) and I was digging that these two fellahs were feeling the live show, which hooked me in that vibe, but I would’ve been into their sound about six years ago. One fellah was geeking out on some Moog synths and electronic drum pad, and the other played a few chords through an array of pedals. Like Dylan Ettinger meets Pure X. After, Jerry Paper adorned the stage with a ratty purple luau necklace and dripped a few ROLAND tweaked melodies. When he began singing, the keys and vocals combined were the musical embodiment of Lawrence Jacoby’s office, but totally selling it. My dude Seth Graham then turned to me and said, “I think if a musician or group really feels their art, the audience believes it just as much,” – was juuust thinking that, my duude.
Tim and his grandmother came so I said what-up and axed if she liked Jeremy Paper. Her words: “I want to listen to music, not gyrating.” Nodding at her answer, Nonhorse approached the stage and I mentioned to her how I’ve heard he was a unique live experience. And earnestly, Nonhorse drove a moving collage of sheerness in noise. He dumped out a box of tapes, took two, cut ‘em to bits, took another one a little later, and continued cutting reels like a maniac, fused himself with every machine in front of him (which visually looked exactly like that), and sang into a headphone mic the lyrics (I think) I hate this sound. I turned to Tim’s grandma and she said, “Ehhh, my son used to be really into Grateful Dead,” and I smiled. Nonhorse appropriately and abruptly stopped, thanked everyone, and Tim and his grandmother split.
The last set was Diamond Terrifier/Megafortress Duo, which was quickly organized and began on a dime. Well, their preparation blended the line between sound-check and intro, but when they got rolling, it was crystal glass-shattering sounds. Vibrating everyone’s clothes and filling minds with the sound of a thousand echoing voices. The entirety of the set was that of the moment before pure joy; Diamond Terrifier/Megafortress Duo found that sound in music and has revealed it live. Overall, the most important aspect of this venture, and every PRACTICE! adventure, is that it’s exactly that: PRACTICE! And feeling that rawness live gives me that personal experience that’s potentially better than any refined product could provide. Stepping out to the nearly shut-down/closed commercial area breathed a whole new sense of artistic vision to me too. Until PERFORMANCE!
Ty Segall / Night Beats
Waldorf Hotel; Vancouver, Canada
The Waldorf Hotel is one of the most storied buildings in Vancouver. Built in 1947, the Waldorf was designed by Mercer & Mercer Architects in an Art Moderne style. However, one fateful trip to Honolulu in 1953 changed everything. It was then and there that owner Bob Mills purchased eight original black velvet paintings by Edgar Leeteg.
An unusual character, father of American velvet painting and longtime sufferer of elephantiasis and venereal disease, Leeteg famously said, “My paintings belong in a gin mill, not a museum.” Indeed, that’s the kind of place where most of his paintings ended up, particularly his more risque works. Inspired by Polynesian culture, swept up in the exotica movement, Mills committed the Waldorf to Tiki, creating a Tiki lounge with bamboo paneling, thatched walls, fake palm trees, native drum bar stools, a ceiling painted like the night sky, and careful placing of four Leeteg paintings. The basement restaurant was decorated to suit, and the Waldorf quickly became one of the hottest joints in Vancouver.
Unfortunately, the rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon destroyed exotica in the early 60s, and the Waldorf began a slow decline that would last almost 40 years. Then, in 2010, an unlikely collaboration between musician Thomas Anselmi (Slow, Copyright), restaurateur Ernesto Gomez (Nuba), and architect Scott Cohen (Gastropod, Les Faux Bourgeois) secured a lease with the space, and re-envisioned it as hospitality/entertainment complex. After a three-month renovation, their dream came to fruition.
The renovation established new locations for the noted Lebanese restaurant Nuba and the Barbarella hair salon, and restored the Tiki bar to its former glory, complete with vintage JBL Lansing Hartfields speakers and a sizable vinyl collection. The former basement restaurant was converted to a cabaret for live music. Almost overnight, the Waldorf had once again become a cultural hub, attracting scenesters city wide to its obscure location in the no man’s land between the downtrodden downtown East side and the hippy haven of Commercial Drive, a clash of former opulence and present decay that, ironically, is perfect for seeing a sweaty rock ‘n’ roll show.
On the fateful evening of 12/12/12, Seattle’s Night Beats would take the stage first. Although lead guitarist/vocalist Lee Blackwell looked a bit like a younger, thinner John Belushi, he couldn’t sing as well as the Blues Brother by a country mile. Oddly enough, Blackwell played with the long end of his uncut string laying over the first five frets of his guitar, which seemed telling of their aesthetic. Although they had decent energy, hard-selling flashy, incomprehensible blues-garage riffs, they were a generally sloppy bunch. The hi-hat in drummer James Traeger’s kit fell apart during one track, but he kept tapping the pedal anyway for the rest of the song (likely in an effort to keep his timing), but the rhythm section often came off muddy anyway. To their credit, Night Beats tightened up as they went along, and their style was reasonably well-informed. They could use more practice, though, and they might want to consider warming up beforehand, so they can get some of the roughness out of the way before being put to the test.
Suffice to say, Ty Segall was the reason the Waldorf sold out this evening. Having sold out the same venue in May of the same year, his return to the city and venue had been highly publicized.
Segall would quickly prove the hype substantiated, launching into “Thank God for Sinners” (the opening track from his most recent album Twins), which instantly whipped the crowd into a fevered mosh that nearly devolved into ruthlessness. For some reason, one guy thought it was a good idea to mosh with a lit stick of incense. Seemingly drinkable beers were emptied willy-nilly, as a steady flow of people surged over the crowd, narrowly missing the low lighting of the cabaret. One plucky girl tried surfing, and in the course of her adventure, two different guys belly flopped on her head (she would try again in the encore). Three guys tried to crowd surf at once, nearly taking out half of the pit as they collapsed. Fifteen minutes into their set, in the middle of “My Head Explodes” from Goodbye Bread, a would-be stage diver knocked over Segall’s mic.
Following the mic incident, Segall was compelled to ask the crowd to take it easy. He implored, “Everybody be careful, please. Someone is bleeding already. Please, be careful. She’s okay, but think about it.” The rowdiness couldn’t be capped, though, and the band went with it. Guitarist Charles Moothart put on a party hat someone threw onstage, and later Segall fashioned a red shirt which was flung near him around his head like a bandana, saying it smelled “so fucking good” as he did so.
With longtime Segall collaborator Mikal Cronin turned away at the Canadian border again (the same thing had happened in May), Moothart ended up playing bass for most of the show. There were a couple moments when that didn’t work out. Moothart couldn’t quite get the bass line for “Tell Me What’s Inside Your Heart” and “Wave Goodbye” from Slaughterhouse, and had to switch for Segall’s lead guitar. Yet, these moments helped bring Segall’s raw talent into greater relief. Moothart is certainly no slouch on guitar, but when Segall plays, there is something intangible, something extra behind it all. Segall has that spark in his play that so few musicians work hard enough to achieve these days. It’s clear from Segall’s Popeye-thick arms that he works hard at what he does.
Granted, Segall doesn’t have the most beautiful voice, but it suits his style. It’s more about the raw passion and ecstatic execution than creating something traditionally beautiful. This notion was clearly demonstrated by the trio’s encore performance of “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath, done fast and loose as Segall played his guitar behind his head for the last half of the track. Indeed, Ty Segall may be one of the world’s last great rock ‘n’ roll performers.
Electric Brixton; London, England
A lot can be said for onstage charisma, for embracing an ability to charm and dazzle while swigging from frost-coated vodka bottles, leaping about a platform in red bother boots and tearing off one’s clothing before screaming fans. Such reckless and winsome shenanigans were unexpected from George Lewis Jr. at Twin Shadow’s unpredictable gig in Brixton the other night, but that’s what we got, and it was an absolute treat.
Though there exists an interesting middle ground between the new-wave pop dirge of Forget and the metal-tinted hyper-glam of Confess, the detached tendencies of both albums were somehow merged together in the flesh. There was enough energy in the room to make a solo enactment of “The One” a menacing highlight, as the frontman stood center stage and belted out the chorus while thrusting confident fingers across the bridge of his guitar, creating a mood somewhere in the region of a devoted Julee Cruise performance at The Roadhouse.
The former venue of Love Muscle, balcony access, excellent lighting, and an uncompromising setlist made for a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Despite being dominated by new material, where “Golden Light,” “You Can Call Me On,” and “Five Seconds” were all played in the first half, the band still managed to find room for a sensational rendition of “At My Heels” and a guitar-heavy version of “Castles In The Snow” before finishing their encore with the debut album’s title track. George Lewis Jr. was in top-form throughout, a fireball of magnetism from start to finish that was wholly complemented by a band that stuck with him, giving tracks like “Run My Heart” that extra kick they so seriously needed for a live audience.
Patrick Higgins + Joshua Modney + Alex Parrelli
Scanning the stage area at Zebulon from left to right: Adam Downey flashing me a peace sign while freshing the DJ booth above Paul Shaffer chilling with an espresso (legit), and Matthew Wertheimer extending the front row presence to the bar area.
Diving right into it, the set started out with a piece entitled “Wind Tunnel,” played on violin by Josh Modney, and manipulated via electronics by Patrick Higgins. The sound was like a heavy breeze of electronic incantation bringing life to a digital sculpture trying to reach impossible physical presentation. Josh was feeling reality and Patrick was morphing it. This transitioned into STEREO, based around Patrick’s visionary new double-cassette. Josh continued on violin, setting a tightly stable backdrop of sound, as Patrick lightly stuttered guitar and Alex Perrelli focused on tap-dancing drums. Through fervorous bursts, Alex pushed boundaries of beats and feelings, developing a world that questions beginning and end. Patrick, on the other hand, excelled in his master craftsmanship on guitar, but further presented his abilities with live electronics and effects using pedals and a laptop. Both fells treating the piece with delicate improvisational, yet distinct emotion.
As the set came to a very careful closure, Alex snared eye-blinking pops, Josh winded his violin with long strokes, and Patrick conducted the searing electronic sound into a faded mute. Thanks for the ride, fellahs!
Dean Blunt's "White Flight"
OHWOW Gallery; Los Angeles, CA
The OHWOW gallery space was quite large, perhaps the length of a basketball court, although maybe a little smaller. The walls and floors were white. I arrived at the very beginning of Dean Blunt’s first American gallery performance, “White Flight,” not long after Blunt (Hype Williams) had finished setting up the space. At least, I believe he set up the space; there is photographic evidence on Twitter suggesting as much. Anyway, why I note that is because, when I arrived, the table, which was immediately to the right upon entering, was piled with alcohol (Cîroc) and fruit juice and those red and white plastic cups. (There were also two potted, fake plants at the foot of the table). At the center of the gallery space was a table, piled on and surrounded by In-N-Out burgers and fries. There must have been a couple hundred dollars worth of fast food on/around the table. No one really touched it until the hour-and-a-half mark, but some people sporadically took fries off the table throughout the night. Unsurprisingly, the alcohol was gone within the first 20 minutes.
Scattered all around the floor were dark red balloons (#99luftballons). Throughout the night, balloons were popped and kicked and thrown around without any apparent reason, but balloon interaction was, overall, pretty infrequent.
Furthermore, three shirtless black men who weren’t allowed to speak spent the night flexing, posing, and photobombing — I kid you not — almost every attempted photo I witnessed.
There was also loud, commercial rap music playing throughout the entire event. Occasionally people danced, but mostly they didn’t.
There was a rather large, semi-thuggish white guy walking around. He was there alone (I talked with him after the show, and he said, “Yeah, I was supposed to come with a friend, but he had to babysit…,” and then evaded every subsequent question that I asked). Throughout the night, he walked around yelling “psyche!” at the black men, throwing money on the ground, and then intimidating the guy who picked up (stole?) the money. (After the show, in a moment of dubious clarity, he asked me if I had seen who “did it.” I had. I had seen everything that happened that night.)
I’m genuinely uncertain as to whether or not this guy was a part of the show. I saw the black men getting paid at the end of the event, but this guy was never paid. I find it curious that the most intimidating person, the one who tried to establish any control over the seemingly aimless happening, was a large and semi-thuggish white guy.
I guess in a performance like this you can’t control everything that happens. For the most part, people came in, drank, looked at the food, stood around, talked with their friends, and then left. I stood against the wall, watching, the entire time. One person asked me what was going on, while another even asked me if I was Dean Blunt. I didn’t drink or eat, and I spent most of the time watching the schmoozing that happens at these kind of things, judging peoples’ fashion sensibilities (sorry), smiling at people who looked at/photographed me, and texting my girlfriend, in real time, everything I was seeing. But, eventually, something always happens. Toward the end of the night, the thuggish white guy came up and asked me if I wanted to use the balloons as a bed. My girlfriend had just told me to do something weird, so I said, reluctantly, “sure?” I walked over to the corner where he had gathered all the remaining balloons. A couple guys followed us. He told me to lie down, so I lied down in the pool of dark red balloons. Someone took pictures of me lying there, and when I stood up, I instinctively bowed. At that point, the event was basically over.
I wonder: did I enjoy “White Flight?” Was that even the point? The truth is that I stuck around for all of it, so in some respect, yes, I did. It was clear early on that Dean Blunt would not be playing music, and that what I saw was what I was going to get. It was also clear that it was, in some respect, a social experiment, and the conclusions were pretty predictable. I got some self-satisfaction as I was able to determine what would happen, and when. I enjoyed the questions that I asked myself while I was there, alone in the gallery, watching. But something hit me as I was standing outside, after the event had finished and as I was driving home. A few blocks away, and an hour later, James Ferraro and Dean Blunt would be playing actual music together at the Soho House in West Hollywood (which is, for all intents and purposes, a country club for monied, “creative” elites). The title of their Soho piece was “Watch the Throne,” while the title of the OHWOW Gallery performance was “White Flight.” On the one hand, a thousand-dollar show in luxury, and on the other, a free gallery show with shitty hip-hop, fast food, and relatively cheap alcohol. The distinction seemed too obvious. And what had initially felt like a potentially interesting, if somewhat obvious, social experiment/performance piece became a reminder that most of us didn’t have access to the real show, and that we likely never would.
[Photo: Barron Machat]
Ether Festival 2012
The South Bank Centre; London, England
Fear had seemingly gripped the lads sitting behind us as the lights went out. Their in-group chortling a thinly veiled cry for comfort as the suspense grew, Ralph Cumbers and Nick Edwards stood in front of their equipment, and amplifiers began to hum. How loud was this thing going to be? With their visuals a subtle flickering of rainbow tench scales, a thick black lugworm draped across, thumping pulsations were pelted through shambolic noise improv and contorted trombone sequences. With darker hints of breakbeat and dubstep gorged from out of nowhere, EkoClef proved to be the perfect opening act, a not-so-quiet lull before the tech surge set to follow.
Raime opened with a mutating polonium grid that entrapped its audience, earth-shaking bass pulsations carried exquisite visuals as they morphed into some rough of a leather jacket, its bearer quaking in mid seizure while this pulverizing headline set literally ravaged the Purcell Room. The performers remained anonymous, cloaked in darkness that surrounded their gear as silhouettes bobbed ruggedly to throbbing industrial techno, every beat a tectonic juggernaut. I was on the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the screen, ears trying to make sense of what was happening. The experience was utterly thrilling.
The Queen Elizabeth Hall Front Room was just outside, surrounded by a loop of tables, facilities, and bars. Airhead was in the cutting throes of his DJ set and a jostling crowd began to steadily amass in front of him. We danced, partly as a consequence of McAndrew’s tracklist, partly to recover from what Raime had done to our nervous systems. Mount Kimbie were soon to follow; lights cracked and strobes burst as the pair attempted a suspense build-up, which broke out into the ever-popular “Carbonated.” The remainder of their show was solid, but incomparable to that of the Purcell experience, for something extraordinary was witnessed on the South Bank that night.
Thee Oh Sees / Sic Alps
Rickshaw Theatre; Vancouver, Canada
Located at the infamous intersection of Main and Hastings, the Rickshaw is not a place for the faint of heart. The venue was built in 1971 as an Asian movie theater, a flagship piece of the once-great Shaw Brothers cinema empire, but it closed down in the mid-80s as the wave of North American interest in kung-fu movies broke and rolled back. It sat empty for 20 years or so, until someone tore out half of the seats, spray-painted most of it black, and reopened it as a concert hall. It’s an unimaginably dirty venue, chock full of character, with great sight-lines and a decent soundsystem. As such, it bares all the hallmarks of a classic rock ‘n’ roll space.
Sic Alps and Thee Oh Sees made the perfect double bill to see at the Rickshaw Theatre. They’re both California bands with psychedelic and garage leanings, both touring in support of fantastic new albums (an eponymous Sic Alps album [sold at the show for only $5 on tape] and Thee Oh Sees’ Putrifiers II), and both have the ability to lull you into a haze and blow you away with a paisley grenade. Yet, their performances brought something a little different to the table this evening.
While scenes from the 1978 classic kung-fu revenge flick The 36th Chamber of Shaolin played on the dual screens that bookend either side of the dimly lit stage, Sic Alps was the first band to step out of the darkness. Their set wasn’t perfect, as co-founding lead guitarist Mike Donovan’s vocals weren’t particularly strong considering how high in the mix they were placed, and lady luck snapped the strap on his acoustic, forcing him to uncomfortably coddle his guitar for “Love Is Strange” (one of the oldest and goldest songs in their set). Commendably, they built up the energy and intensity as they moved along, incorporating more noise by the last few tracks and bringing the mosh pit up to a simmer with their apt cover of “The Seeker” by The Who. After his set, Donovan was surprised with a couple of candles in a cupcake, and the crowd, learning that they were celebrating his 41st birthday, joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
Thee Oh Sees turned up the heat immediately upon gracing the stage. Beer cans started to fly by their first note, and the mosh pit spanned from one speaker stack to the other, a bustling activity that would retain its vigor for the set’s duration. With a smiling Mike Shoun on a minimal six-piece drum kit, perpetual head-bobbing machine Petey Dammit on guitar, and the underrated Brigid Dawson solidifying the group’s vocals while adding tambourine and Nord Electro keyboard, founding guitarist John Dwyer led his crew through a barrage of brisk, reverb- and delay-laden fuzz jams that were seemingly on the brink of unruliness yet fluidly disciplined. His vocals awash in effects, Dwyer moved from falsetto to absurd growl to carnival barker, ever supported and occasionally carried by Dawson, as he alternately gripped a clear acrylic Electrical Guitar Company DS and a green-and-black Burns Double Six 12-string guitar high on his chest, his dark, cut-off shorts adding a hint of Angus Young to his swagger.
The unforgiving concrete space reverberated the energy of the room as much as it reverberated their art-punk noise, largely benefiting both. By the end of their set, the B.O. of the Rickshaw crowd had reached a stench of Romney tax return proportions. Everyone in the place was either wiping sweat from their brow or reveling in their own filth. It’s freeing to see bands that can take you to that place of transcendence, where individual comfort becomes secondary to the experience of a happening.
Jason Lescalleet and Graham Lambkin / Hild Sofie Tafjord / Rhodri Davies
Cafe Oto; London, England
Candles flickered in the darkness as Graham Lambkin stood assertively over his equipment, a glass of whiskey in his right hand and a blue shirt on his back; there was something about the scene that didn’t quite fit. But then I wasn’t sure what I should be expecting. Jason Lescalleet was sitting opposite eating a satsuma, a crumpled cardboard box over his Casio worked as a dinner plate for collecting peel and pith as Lambkin rested his glass on the table and began flicking switches on his laptop. Faces in the audience were difficult to make out, the mood snug with a cozy twist of herbal tea and stout that lingered in the air while couples shared the last of their coconut cookies, consumed throughout the course of Rhodri Davies’ amplified harp set. Sound began to seep out of the speakers, an electric barracuda caught in barbed wire, rustling, cracking, and snapping as Lescalleet returned to his reel-to-reel gear for spool manipulations.
Lambkin covered a microphone with plastic and dragged it across the edge of the surface supporting his mixing desk, some choral dirge he had been looping faded out and the collaborators continued their fiddling. Prongs, clatters, and high-pitched pulses burst out of the speakers. Folk held their hands to their ears and winced while others lovingly beamed. Lambkin finished his whiskey, draped a microphone over his shoulders, and bobbed at the buzz as it banged against the tape recorder he held with careful hands. Once the penetrating bulges peaked, the volume shrank and lit the way for aquatic sampling. The performers bowed to their audience, clapping ensued, and we vacated the premises.