Some folks adore going to gigs. I’ve never exactly been one of them, and over the last six or seven years the number I go to has dwindled considerably, but I’ve seen a good few bands play in my time. I still see friends’ bands play regularly – indeed I still play shows myself, backing other people or, very occasionally, on my own – but by and large I don’t see too many club gigs any more, stadium/arena gigs have never appealed, and with my medication regime to maintain and the fear of being isolated too far from proper medical care in case of a cardiac emergency, I’m unlikely ever to go to a real festival again.
But in my peak gig-going years, from around 1998 to 2004, I saw a decent number of shows. Probably eight or ten a year for six or seven years (not counting gigs my friends’ bands played), plus festivals. I soon came to develop a fondness for certain venues. My friends all seemed to like the Brixton Academy and the Astoria on Charing Cross Road. I didn’t dig Brixton at all really (too big, and with a sloping floor, which was fine if you wanted to stand at the back, but pretty hazardous if you were jumping around). I liked more intimate venues. I liked to be able to see the band up close. My favourite small venue for rock shows was the Garage on Holloway Road, just a five-minute walk from my other favourite venue, the Union Chapel (which is just wonderful for sit-and-listen shows). There is, I should point out, nothing particularly special about the Garage as a building. It’s just a smallish room with a lowish ceiling, but a low stage and no big separation between band and crowd, which is how I like it. Large-room shows have always seemed too impersonal to me compared to that.
In, I would guess, early 2000 I went to the Garage one weekday evening to see Cinerama supported by Woodbine (it is, I should point out, possible that I’m conflating two different gigs, but I think I saw those two there on the same bill). The friend I went with was a regular John Peel listener at the time, and kept much more abreast of contemporary indie than I did. He played me Woodbine’s first album (a band signed to Domino and featuring a former member of Cornershop). I found it interesting and it fit with a developing fondness I had for lo-fi music (indie that really spoke of its indieness by being obviously low-budget and rough around the edges). So I was up for going to see them live, supporting a band who at the time I hadn’t heard and knew only a couple of things about: they’d recorded with Steve Albini, and their singer and songwriter David Gedge had been in the Wedding Present, who were some kind of big deal in the eighties. Me and my friend were, I guess, by some measure the youngest there. Woodbine hadn’t really drawn their own crowd, and the Cinerama audience skewed towards Gedge’s own age, which was a good decade older than we were.
So Woodbine had a hell of a job making themselves heard. They remain the quietest band I’ve ever heard on stage. It didn’t help that they were drunk (their drummer was really drunk) and I doubt they’d have been particularly together even if they’d have been sober. Essentially they weren’t a band suited to a club gig. Not particularly skilled or confident as performing musicians, insisting on playing as quietly as possible, then getting hammered before going on – these are not the ingredients of onstage greatness. Frankly, it was a bit of a trainwreck. As a support act at the Union Chapel down the road, it might have worked, just about. But at the Garage, in front of a crowd who were enjoying a pint or two and having a chat before their old indie hero came on, not a hope.
This was a wake-up call of sorts: being lo-fi and pure and real and putting your emphasis on songs rather than fancy arrangements and showmanship and instrumental prowess was all very well. Avoiding rock-show clichés was unarguably a good thing, too. But it was obvious to me even then that Woodbine were making something essentially pretty easy look hard. I saw them upstairs at the Garage later that year, they were much more together and it was a much better show. I talked to Susan Dillane afterwards and she seemed mildly embarrassed about the Cinerama show, so maybe it was a bit of a turning point for them too.
For all their weaknesses live, their first, self-titled, album (I haven’t heard the second and so far only other Woodbine record) remains an appealingly wonky listen. It’s a vibe record – the songs come and go without seeming to leave much of an imprint on you, but together they create a hazy narcoleptic mood which is quite specific to them; I’ve never heard another record that feels like it’s coming from quite the same place as this. The songs’ sleepiness is accentuated by the weird mix, by Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux, which places the (frequently mumbled) vocals about as far back as is workable and then saturates them in reverb. Occasionally, out of the murk, will leap a guitar part (as on Neskwik) or a manually-ridden delay (as on Mound of Venus).
This willingness to be surprising, to be untidy, is integral to the feel of the record. The same arrangements, recorded to hard disk and mixed in a DAW, with all the possibilities they provide for editing, compression, equalisation and automation, and the songs wouldn’t feel the same at all. Woodbine are undoubtedly a minor act, all but forgotten. But if you’re curious about (and I can’t believe I’m going to use this word) slowcore, late-nineties indie or lo-fi music from the analogue era, Woodbine is a record worth hearing. It should really be listened to as a whole, but if you want to just track down a few songs, Mound of Venus, Neskwik, I Hope That You Get What You Want or Tricity Tiara* will do you.
*Readers from outside Britain should note that this is a Tricity Tiara. Anyone who’s ever rented a flat in Britain will be familiar with them.