Sunday, May 15, 2011

List: 10 Great Gigs

Ten exceptional gigs spanning three full decades from 1981 to 2010. I’ve restricted this list to specific concerts, deliberately omitting DJ gigs/sets and performances that were part of a summer festival weekend or any event featuring a multitude of bands. This was originally posted on:

1 New Order – Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand, 1987

Synthetic Goodness
By 1987 New Order were big news, and the band’s reach had extended well beyond its Manc roots all the way across several oceans to little old New Zealand. Most of that was due to a dancefloor stomper called Blue Monday having already taken its rightful place as the best selling 12-inch single of all-time, but more generally the band’s popularity had been cemented by the release of four exceptional albums over the course of the preceding six years. The band’s February ’87 gig was my first at the Wellington Town Hall, and it coincided with New Order enjoying the coveted status of my “latest fave band”. I arrived sufficiently early to get a prime standing spot centre-left and just two rows of bodies back. As I recall it, the sound was perfect – crisp, clear, and state of the art. More memorably, it was also the night I fell hopelessly in love with keyboardist Gillian Gilbert – albeit a temporary condition. Gillian isn’t a “beauty” in any conventional sense but that night on stage, almost within touching distance (easy there tiger!), she was the queen of gothic cool personified, teasing me with her relative detachment and her nonchalant control of the electronic rig of synthetic goodness that surrounded her. I can also recall being quite impressed with bassist Peter Hook on one of the rare occasions I dared look away from Gillian for more than a few seconds. Nearly a quarter of a century and dozens upon dozens of concerts later, I can’t for the life of me remember a single track the band played that night but I just know all of the classics (to that point) were covered, all of the boxes were ticked, and I left the venue convinced that I’d just witnessed New Order performing at the absolute peak of its powers – which, with the benefit of hindsight, was very much the case.

2 The Specials – Logan Campbell Centre, Auckland, New Zealand, 2009

Extra Special
There are some gigs you go to on a last minute whim, some you go to simply because of the current hype surrounding a particular artist or band, others you attend because friends convince you that it would be a good excuse for night out ... and then there are those you’ve waited your whole life for and you just know that you’ll never get another chance unless you make the commitment nice and early. The Specials gig in Auckland back in 2009 fell into the latter category for yours truly. A once in a lifetime opportunity to see a band that had never before performed in New Zealand, a band I’d admired from a (long) distance for the best part of 30 years, and one that will surely never cross my path ever again. Suffice to say I snapped up three tickets as soon as they went on sale, applied for a “long weekend away” clearance from “she who must be obeyed”, and invited two of my oldest and closest pals to join me on a (1200km return) roadtrip of ‘Fear and Loathing’ proportions. As it turned out, the masterplan was executed to perfection ... for the best part of 48 hours, three 40-something Rude Boys from way back indulged in the sort of wanton debauchery that would have had even Hunter S Thompson reaching for the industrial strength Nurofen. The band didn’t disappoint on the night; from the outset it became a journey into “greatest hits” territory and I’m fairly certain every single track from the acclaimed self-titled debut album got an airing, as well as several others from the More Specials follow-up. The perennially grumpy Terry Hall looked somewhat heavier and worse for wear but his voice remained as distinctive as ever. Co-vocalist Neville Staple was a ball of energy throughout, but the real key to a phenomenal Specials performance was that sublime rhythm section. The only downsides were the venue’s poor acoustics, and the fact that a certain Mr Jerry Dammers missed the tour. But this was the nostalgia circuit after all, and we’d learned a long time ago that we can’t always have everything.

3 BB King – Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland, 1994

BB & Lucille
I remember getting into some trouble for not taking my soon-to-be-wife to this particular gig on account of the fact that I “didn’t think she’d be into it” ... or just plain “didn’t think” (you decide!). If memory serves, this was part of a wider Glasgow International Arts Festival taking place at the time, and I went with a work colleague from the hotel I worked at. I recall being in awe of the venue itself but that was offset by the fact that we were sitting down throughout. Suffice to say I was a little frustrated, but the sound quality was fantastic. BB King (85) toured NZ last month to mixed/poor reviews so I guess I was quite lucky to see the Blues Legend at the relatively young age of 68. I actually hadn’t anticipated this gig being quite so funky (James Brown-esque to the point of King’s on-stage entourage including a dedicated dancer – almost a JB-lookalike – improvising on all of the Godfather’s best shuffles) but such is King’s range and versatility I really shouldn’t have been surprised. It was a special night of classic Blues, Gospel, and pure unadulterated Soul at its very best. And oh man, what a guitarist!

4 Black Uhuru – Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand, 2003

Pocket Dynamo Rose
Okay, so this wasn’t strictly Black Uhuru, but it was as close as it gets – original vocalist Michael Rose, along with the sensational ‘riddim twins’ Sly Dunbar (drums) and Robbie Shakespeare (bass) – and the set-list played like a “best of” Black Uhuru. Rose had been replaced as Black Uhuru’s vocalist by one Junior Reid in the mid-Eighties, but it is Rose’s superior voice that dominates the band’s best material. If you’ve never seen Sly ‘n’ Robbie live, close up and in the flesh, then I’d contend your musical education isn’t complete – this was exhibition stuff by two of the finest musicians ever to grace a stage in New Zealand. As for the pint-sized Michael Rose ... the pocket jack-in-the-box gave what must surely have been one of his best ever vocal performances – covering virtually all of Black Uhuru’s “hits” and a number of other key genre standards. Aside from the seriously sweet smells permeating the Town Hall that night, my abiding memory of this gig is an extended version of the classic Party in Session, which just seemed to go on and on ... and actually summed the night up perfectly.

5 David Bowie – Athletic Park, Wellington, New Zealand, 1983

Fashion & Infamy
David Bowie was a genuine hero for me by the time he came to NZ in late 1983 as part of his ‘Serious Moonlight’ World tour, but I now fully appreciate that I was about ten years too late in terms of seeing him in his prime. By ’83 of course he was at his commercial peak (Let’s Dance was a global smash) but a mere shadow of the artist that bestrode the Seventies like a colossus. This was bottle blonde Bowie in a flash white suit, churning out generic disco for the masses, looking – from a “creative” perspective at least – for all the world like yesterday’s man. He was cashing in, and very much on auto pilot, but I still enjoyed the sense of occasion, the outdoor event, that this gig presented. It was Bowie, and even if he only played Life on Mars (which he did) I was going to be there to witness it. Then again, “enjoy” and “witness” might be stretching it ... this gig also triggered my own personal ‘Christiane F’ moment. What else do you call collapsing in a heap after vomiting all over your 16-year-old punkette girlfriend’s carefully and lovingly prepared barnet just as Bowie kicked off? ... probably not the high point of our already tempestuous relationship. That said, I do recall the two support bands – NZ’s own Dance Exponents and Oz new wavers The Models – were nothing less than brilliant ... in addition to Life on Mars. Perhaps it was Bowie’s horrendous suit that made me do it? Maybe it was the vodka? Regardless, it was kind of fitting, and surely a boy is allowed one little mistake? – apparently so, we continued to fight for the next two years before push met shove. But none of that is important, this gig makes the list simply because it was my first truly big “concert”.

6 U2 – Celtic Park, Glasgow, Scotland, 1993

His Lordship
I’d been living in Glasgow (or Coatbridge) just a matter of weeks by the time the juggernaut that was U2’s Zoo TV tour rolled into town in the summer of 1993. I wasn’t a massive U2 fan by any stretch but for whatever reason I found myself attending both gigs U2 performed at the hallowed football stadium in Glasgow’s east end – on successive days, a Saturday and a Sunday. As such the gigs tend to blend into one, with support acts on either day including PJ Harvey, Utah Saints, and Stereo MCs – though quite who played when remains unclear in my befuddled head nearly two decades on. I’d never before seen anything quite like this – a massive stage with all sorts of structural/visual aids, giant television sets for live video link-ups etc (did Bono really call Sarajevo or somewhere mid-concert?). Again this rates more as an event for me rather than anything specific to the music, or the quality thereof. U2 was clearly at the height of its popularity – quite probably the biggest band on the planet at the time – and to some extent the big stage funk and all of the excitement surrounding it won me over sufficiently for me to start collecting the band’s back catalogue. Not that it gets much of an airing these days.

7 Laurie Anderson – Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 1986

Life Lessons with Laurie
If I thought U2 presented a state of the art concert in 1993 (and they did), I don’t quite know how to adequately describe Laurie Anderson’s gig at Wellington’s sedate Michael Fowler Centre in 1986. This was part of the Wellington Festival of the Arts – an annual (?) month long arts extravaganza sorely missed today. It wasn’t so much a music concert as a “life lessons” lecture involving a projector, slides (that’s a bit like MS Powerpoint, kids), electric violins, synthesisers, vocoders (see auto tune), and a whole swag of other electronic wizardry. And it was about as intimate a concert experience as I’ve ever had – Laurie was so open to discussing her life story I half expected “any questions from the floor?” at the conclusion of her set. I felt I got to know her, and it isn’t often you can say that about a so-called popular music artist after just a couple of hours in their company. But there was music aplenty as well, some classical, and some weird excuse for what might loosely be described as “pop”. What a shame most know her as either “that chick that did O Superman” or as “Lou Reed’s missus”. Rock on Laurie!

8 Paul Weller – The Powerstation, Auckland, New Zealand, 2010

Waking Up Auckland
Paul Weller the solo artist, Paul Weller the Legend. Unlike the Specials gig a year earlier, the Weller gig in Auckland was not part of the nostalgia circuit. This wasn’t about an artist coming to NZ for the first time simply to play his oldest and greatest hits. It was all about Paul Weller – living, vibrant, and contemporary – arriving to play his current material and perhaps also to delve deep into the past depending on how the mood took him. That’s the benefit of being active as a recording artist, of being relevant, and of having more than a couple of albums to draw from. However, like the Specials, Weller is another artist I’d waited forever to see live. In the end Weller mixed things up nicely – tracks from his 2010 album Wake Up The Nation dominating the set-list alongside several other key solo career gems, Jam classics like That’s Entertainment and A Town Called Malice, but surprisingly very little from his Style Council period. The Powerstation is probably the best live venue in New Zealand and its comfortable environs – despite being sold out – certainly added to my enjoyment of the night, as did the fact that my beloved and I were finally able to enjoy an overdue night out in the big smoke.

9 Split Enz – Sports Stadium, Palmerston North, New Zealand, 1981

Kiwi Legends
When they write the definitive tome on the history of popular music in New Zealand there will be an entire chapter (if not several) devoted to Split Enz and its wider influence through the Seventies and Eighties. And not just because the band spawned the monster that eventually became Neil Finn’s Crowded House, but because Split Enz was the first Kiwi band (of my lifetime) to produce wholly original material that sold by the truckload (locally). The band’s 1980 album, True Colours, also happened to provide the very fluorescent soundtrack to my final year of high school. When Split Enz came to my (old) home town of “palmy” in 1981 I was barely out of school uniform so this has to rate as my first serious gig. For the uninitiated it is difficult to describe quite what Split Enz sound like – they started out as quirky prog weirdos before morphing into mainstays of NZ’s new wave scene, finally running out of gas by the mid Eighties when the Finn brothers split and started to do their own projects. For me, Split Enz rate as NZ’s number one “pop” act of all-time, and I count myself very lucky to have witnessed the band performing at its peak. But wait, there’s more ... the support band at this gig was a certain Blam Blam Blam, a band whose flame flickered brightly but all too briefly, another with a strong personal connection to yours truly. I hope to rave about the “great lost Kiwi bands” in more detail sometime in the future on CMM, and Blam Blam Blam will just as likely provide the backbone to that piece. Put simply, the Blams were sensational on the night in question, and just quietly, may have even overshadowed the main act.

10 Swervedriver – King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow, Scotland, 1993

Duel Single
I’m now wondering how Swervedriver manage to scrape into my top 10 at the expense of luminaries like Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Massive Attack, Womack & Womack, and um, the Stray Cats, but sometimes a gig is more about the venue and the night itself; the sense of adventure rather than the artist up on stage. And to be fair, we’re talking about the low ebb 1986 version of Bob Dylan in this instance, and all of the others were irretrievably flawed gigs for reasons best not gone into here. So Swervedriver make the cut. When you’re a stranger in a “foreign” city you tend to gravitate to places you feel most comfortable and in terms of my own two years living in Glasgow there are two places that loom large in the memory bank – the aforementioned Celtic Park on match day, and the renowned King Tut’s venue which was practically – and most conveniently – a mere stone’s throw from my inner city dwelling. King Tut’s became a semi regular haunt in the months that followed but I’ll always recall with fondness my first visit there. Swervedriver were shoegaze survivors enjoying a period of relative success thanks to a monumental track called Duel riding high in the indie charts at the time; I wasn’t a huge fan but I absolutely loved Duel and I’ll never forget being part of the sweaty heaving throng on the compressed King Tut’s dancefloor when the opening bars of that track roared into life. It is just a small thing but recall of that moment remains crystal clear, and for a few weeks afterwards the Swervedriver gig was all I talked about. It was a short-lived love affair with that particular band, but King Tut’s had won me over for the duration. So much so, every subsequent visit to Glasgow has seen me buying the latest edition of a publication called ‘The List’ in the hope that I’ll find another excuse to return to King Tut’s.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Classic Album Review: Elastica – Elastica (1995)


Back in 1993, before there was Brit-Pop, a number of UK radio DJs were hyping something called the “new wave of new wave”, and Elastica were right at the forefront of that supposed new scene. As someone who thoroughly appreciated the first wave of “new wave”, I recall the sense of excitement generated by a number of “vital” new bands around at that time, many of them adopting something of a back-to-the-future approach to their signature sounds.

When Elastica released ‘Stutter’ as a single that year it received ample airplay but the fact that it was (initially) of limited stock and quite hard to find, meant that hype about the band – and the “scene” – went into overdrive.

That vampish lead singer Justine Frischmann was also reportedly in a relationship with Damon Albarn (of then fledgling band Blur – whose ‘Chemical World’ single of the same year conveniently sat snugly within the confines of the NWONW sub-genre) didn’t harm Elastica in the short-term credibility/publicity stakes.

The romance would turn out to be as fleeting as the scene itself – and I guess in reality the whole NWONW thing was just a figment of some hype merchant’s imagination and just as quickly swamped by Brit-Pop when Oasis and Blur suddenly found themselves bigger than Benhur.

‘Stutter’ was certainly a great choice as a lead-off single, a brilliant two-and-a-bit minute slice of pure velocity – thumping percussion, hard-edged bass, buzzsaw guitar, and angsty lyrics. ‘Stutter’ was followed by the Wire-influenced ‘Line Up’, ‘Connection’, and what would turn out to be – in my opinion – the second best track on this album, ‘Waking Up’ (a ditty dedicated to the delights of unemployment).

If I recall correctly, the self-titled album was somewhat belatedly released, perhaps as a consequence of the band not having much material to work with initially. It could be said it rather missed the zeitgeist of the short-lived scene, rendering it more of a follow-up to Elastica’s initial impact rather than a concurrent supplementary release. I’m fairly certain all four singles (listed above) had run their course by the time the album hit the shops (but I could be wrong about that, it’s all a bit of a … erm, blur).

It is nonetheless a pretty decent album, if a little one dimensional at times, even listening to it some 15 years later. The aforementioned Wire influence is huge (and the source of a few accusations of plagiarism at the time), as is that of Gang of Four and several other prominent early 80s post-punkers. The singles represent the stand-outs but few of the 16 tracks compromise on quality and the only surprise is that this is as good as it got when it comes to Elastica.

The band followed this up with an EP that morphed into an album called The Menace (2000), but for all of the initial hype and promise, somewhere along the way Elastica lost crucial momentum, and the self-titled debut now stands as a document of a band that time forgot. They really could’ve (and should’ve) been a contender.  

Album Review: Franz Ferdinand – Blood (2009)


Six years on from the band’s celebrated debut album, I’m still not convinced about Franz Ferdinand. I enjoyed that album – in parts – and found a lot more to like about its almost immediate follow-up, but 2009’s Tonight left me feeling a tad disappointed and rather nonplussed about the direction Franz were headed. This release, Blood, a remix/Dub version of Tonight, merely reinforces those feelings of indifference, despite it containing the odd gem.

Where Pitchfork were happy to compare Blood to Primal Scream’s Echo Dek (the Dub version of the Scream’s Vanishing Point album – what is it about Scottish bands and Dub remixes?) it has to be said that producer Dan Carey (Blood) is certainly no Adrian Sherwood (Echo Dek).

While Carey does a decent enough job on some tracks, applying large portions of synthetic gloss, his work lacks the authenticity and hard edge of Sherwood, and Blood is clearly more geared toward floor-filling Electronica than genuine blissed-out bass heavy horizontal Dub (see Echo Dek).

In reality this is just another remix album with a few echo effects thrown in. No more, no less.

Recommended for Franz fans with a taste for experimental Electronica, but I can’t see this being particularly appealing to non-converts.

Highlights: ‘The Vaguest of Feeling’ (which is actually quite brilliant), ‘Katherine Hit Me’ (which I think in its original form was ‘No You Girls’ on Tonight?), and ‘Feeling Kind of Anxious’ (was ‘Ulysses’).