Tag Archives: gig review

Paul Simon @ Hyde Park, 15/07/18

30 degrees in the shade it may have been, World Cup Final day it may have been, part of a festival sponsored by Barclaycard it may have been, but Paul Simon at Hyde Park was billed as his last ever UK show, so there was never any question about whether I’d be going.

I bring this up every time I write about him, but Paul Simon was my first favourite musician, when I was unbelievably young. Like, five or six. Why jazz harmony and songs about life as a divorced man in New York City should connect so strongly with a five-year-old British child may be a matter best left to a psychologist, but whatever it says about me, Simon is my guy and I’d never previously seen him play live, so this was it. Last-chance saloon.

I rounded up a special posse for the occasion: Mel, of course; my mum, who is responsible for my three-decades-and-counting love of Paul’s music; and late addition Sara, who took the plunge on a ticket the week before.

BST Hyde Park is a series of one-day gigs over two weekends, with three stages, so there was a lot of music going on, but given the heat we decided not to get there too early, pitching up just in time to watch some of Shawn Colvin’s set on the second stage. She was playing solo with just a guitar and had only a smallish crowd of maybe a few hundred. She’s always had an audience here in the UK, but seldom any hits; Sunny Came Home was the only song I knew among the songs I heard. She was in slightly wobbly voice but went down well with the fans. We skipped the last couple of songs to make sure we got to the main stage for Bonnie Raitt.

Bonnie is a force of nature. 68 years old, her voice is still note-perfect and her slide-guitar playing no less fiery than it was in the 1970s. She also benefitted from the most cohesive and forceful sound mix of any act I saw on the day, with every note was clearly audible (we’ll return to this). Her set, which included a couple of unexpected covers (INXS’s Need You Tonight, Talking Heads’ Burning Down the House) as well as more obvious choices (Skip James’s Devil Got My Woman, Mose Alison’s Everybody Crying Mercy), was mostly blues-centric, with only Nick of Time showcasing her impressive ballad singing. While Nick of Time was great (and very moving), it did make me wish she’s brought things down still further by singing I Can’t Make You Love Me or Love Has No Pride. Still, she did give us a playful version of Something to Talk About that sounded perfect in the afternoon sunshine.

James Taylor was up next on the main stage, and it was during his set that the main drawback of the all-day-gig-in-hot-weather set-up became apparent.

Taylor plays quietly, his music requires an attentive audience and too many audience members preferred to talk rather than listen. With the area nearest the stage out of bounds to those who hadn’t forked out for premium tickets, it was hard to hear Taylor’s song introductions and even hard at times the songs themselves. He played well, if a little less sure-footedly than Bonnie Raitt, and his set included everything you’d want to hear if, like me, you’re only really familiar with his earliest records (Something in the Way She Moves, Fire and Rain, Carolina in My Mind, You’ve Got a Friend, Sweet Baby James – all present and correct), but alas, even those songs failed to completely silence those audience members who’d paid £85 to carry out conversations they could have had for free down the pub.

This became a bigger problem (for me, anyway) when Paul Simon came on stage. Maybe it was me, but I feel sure something was technically awry with the sound, rather than it being that it was simply too quiet. “Too quiet” was the symptom, not the problem in itself (although, looking at Twitter, “too quiet” has been a common cry at all Simon’s UK shows). Five or six songs in, a chant of “louder, louder” began in the crowd, but only in the left-hand side of the general-admission area. I feel like there was a problem with the house-right line array, as the horns kept coming through distorted, and then, suddenly, everything seemed to clear up and the overall sound became stronger and more present. Whatever its cause, the low volume of Simon’s set meant we were more affected than we would otherwise have been by the yakkers. And boy, do some people love to yak.

But enough about them. They don’t get to ruin the last-ever UK gig by Paul Simon.

The man himself, 76 years old, sometimes sounded rather frail, with his voice taking a few songs to warm up, but when he’d got into his stride he sounded vocally strong, and all the way through it was thrilling to watch him play his superlative songs.

He began with America (“strange times,” he observed, before adding, “Don’t give up”), and then the drummer played the iconic intro lick of 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, prompting large sections of the crowd to sing along with the choruses. He then pulled out The Boy in the Bubble, Graceland‘s opening track, on which his bass player, Bakithi Kumalo, was especially impressive. This was followed by the delicate Dazzling Blue from So Beautiful or So What, which featured lovely harmonies from yMusic flautist Alex Sopp, who was one of the band’s MVPs.

Graceland‘s zydeco-flavoured That Was Your Mother was followed by another track from So Beautiful or So What, Rewrite, which, with its intricate layers of guitar and (I think) a kora part rearranged for prepared piano, showcased a lot of what’s best about the quietly experimental recent Simon records. He then went backwards into his catalogue for a couple of crowd-pleasers: Mother and Child Reunion and Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, which once again had the crowd singing along (they were in quite agile singing voice, hitting the high note in “goodbye to Rosie, the queen of Corona” rather more easily than Simon did).

Simon then showcased the excellent yMusic ensemble, bringing them to the front of the stage for a three-song run that took in Rene & Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War (the title of which he explained was a caption in a photo book owned by Joan Baez), Can’t Run But and Bridge Over Troubled Water, a song he described as having gotten away from him and that he now felt he was “repossessing”. I guess there won’t be one final Simon & Garfunkel gig, then.

Next up was Wristband, from his current album Stranger to Stranger, and for me one of the highlights of the set. Double bass-led, the song feels like something Donald Fagen from Steely Dan might write: a vignette about a musician getting locked out of a venue and trying to convince the doorman that he’s headlining the show: “I said, wristband? I don’t need no wristband. My axe is on the bandstand, and my band is on the floor!” The last verse, though, shifts from a woe-is-me plaint by an ageing star locked out of his own gig to a more general comment on inequality, showing Simon’s not lost the knack of bridging the personal and the political*.

Wristband was followed by two songs from Rhythm of the Saints, Spirit Voice and The Obvious Child. The former, with mixes samba percussion and West African guitar, is one of Simon’s loveliest songs, and the band did brilliantly to play such a subtle, gentle song for such a huge audience and not inflate it.

Questions for the Angels from So Beautiful or So What was similarly intimate. It’s another lovely song, one that wrestles with some profound questions. It’s a song that acknowledges the plight of so many around us, that believes that things can get better and is wise enough to know what we and all of our problems are when measured against the infinite span of time and existence. Heavy stuff for a sunny afternoon, and perhaps Simon knew it, as he switched to more uptempo rhythm-driven songs for the remainder of the set: Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and an ecstatically received You Can Call Me Al. During the latter, the whole crowd bellowed along with the horn riff and sung along with the choruses. As we walked down Park Lane an hour later, a goodly number were still singing that horn riff.

But of course, that was not the end of the gig. Simon played two substantial encores. The first consisted of Late in the Evening, Still Crazy After All these Years and Graceland. All three were great, but Still Crazy was quite a moment for me, as it’s always been one of my favourites, and as he played it I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that not only was I finally getting to see the man himself sing it, but that it was the only time I ever would.

The second encore prompted similar thoughts. Simon came back on stage with his acoustic guitar and sang Homeward Bound. During the song, the video screens that had previously only shown close-ups of Simon and his band showed a montage of images from his career, starting with a picture of Widnes railway station, where Simon began the song more than 50 years ago. As the final image (one from the mid-1980s I think, when Simon was in his mid-40s) faded and the screen showed Simon alone on stage, it was impossible not to reflect on his advancing years. Whether this effect had been intended or not, I don’t know, but it certainly added a layer to a song that was already carrying a lot of significance, what with the whole tour bearing its name.

Simon briefly lightened the mood with the deathless Kodachrome (do the millennials in the audience even know what Kodachrome is, asked Sara on the way back to the station), then returned to the weighty. The Boxer. It says a lot about the depth of Simon’s catalogue that as I did a mental inventory of the songs he’d played to try to work out what would be in the encores, The Boxer never once occurred to me. The Boxer. A song any songwriter would dine out on for the rest of their careers, and I’d forgotten about it.

I guess this is because however great The Boxer is, it’s not American Tune. I heard American Tune first (the live version from Greatest Hits Etc.) and it’s always been my push-comes-to-shove favourite Paul Simon song. It was magical, and would have brought tears to my eyes even if the US wasn’t currently being governed by a cabal of the criminal and the unhinged.

Simon finished with The Sound of Silence – an apt choice to end his last UK performance with the song that started his career, but for me it was almost an afterthought after American Tune.

Pop music has given us few more significant figures than Paul Simon, and few whose careers are more worthy of emulation. He never got lazy as an artist, always pushing himself to learn more, expand his musical vocabulary, try new things. His attention to detail and dedication to his craft is evident in every bar of music he’s ever recorded, and was just as evident on stage on Sunday. I feel privileged to have been there, and while there were things that could have been handled better (the sound, the lack of seating/shaded areas), I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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*Here’s that final verse from Wristband:

The riots started slowly
With the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland
Towns that never get a wristband
Kids that can’t afford the cool brand
Whose anger is a shorthand
For you’ll never get a wristband

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

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Lo Moon @ Omeara, 23/05/18

Like everyone else when they first hear Lo Moon, my response was incredulity. How had Talk Talk or Mark Hollis’s lawyer not issued a copyright-infringement suit against the band, or at least against singer Matt Lowell’s vocal cords? As absurd as Lowell’s similarity to Hollis is, though, I found that I liked the music anyway, and Real Love and This Is It became part of my regular listening.

The other day I got round to checking out the whole of the group’s self-titled debut album, so I’d be prepared for their debut London show, which took place at Omeara last night. The album is, I think, a qualified success. It’s worryingly top heavy (ten songs long, and with only Real Love really bolstering the back half), but there’s still five or six excellent tracks on there. The album has been impressively produced by Chris Walla and Francois Tetaz, and mixed by the reliably great Michael Brauer, so it sounds first rate, too.

The mix of prominent drums, icy synths and reverb-drenched guitars is, of course, hugely ’80s-tastic, and in serious debt to Colour of Spring-era Talk Talk and Songs from the Big Chair-era Tears for Fears; there’s not much here you haven’t heard other artists do first. But Lo Moon basically get away with it – partly because the best stuff (Real Love, This is It, Loveless, Thorns and Do the Right Thing) is too good for it to really matter how obviously it apes its influences, but also because there’s something so guileless about Lo Moon’s borrowing that it’s hard to hold it against them. It’s not like they’re jumping on an already established Talk Talk bandwagon here, although possibly they’re unknowingly creating one.

So last night I went with Sara and fellow copy editor Nick to see them at Omeara, the first show of a 2-night stand at at the venue. We arrived just in time for Lo Moon to come on and, while the gig was listed as sold out on the venue website, the room didn’t feel quite full – a few no-shows maybe, but a solid turn-out. Thankfully, the sound mix was clear and lucid, unlike last time I went there, where the sound problems clearly put the band off.

Live, the band are very impressive. Matt Lowell seems a little awkward between songs, but he hits all the high notes cleanly and swaps between guitar and piano adeptly. Guitarist Sam Stewart (son of the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, but we won’t hold his dad’s music against him) works mainly in texture, since his melodic parts are so simple, and he does it very well. He and bassist Crisanta Baker did an excellent job of recreating the recorded arrangements by playing extra synth parts and triggering stuff – few young bands have their stage sound figured out so smartly or split the load between themselves so efficiently. There are no passengers in Lo Moon.

That includes touring drummer Stirling Laws, who was commanding from behind the kit. I don’t know whether he played drums on the album, but he played those (very astutely arranged) drum parts flawlessly: he balanced the kit well, provided an authoritative backbeat and his right foot socked home, whether it was the simple 4/4 of Real Love or the swung, syncopated kick pattern of Loveless. The latter song also features mighty triplet floor-tom rolls in the chrous, and Laws pounded them out with real power and verve.

A young band touring their first album necessarily can’t play a long set, which turned out to their advantage. In the longer term, Lo Moon might need to vary their palette a little to keep audiences with them for 90 minutes or more, since so many of their songs are long and mid-tempo. But their current live show is impressive for a band that’s still developing.

Dinosaur Jr @ The Roundhouse, 23/03/18

When Dinosaur Jr spluttered to a halt in the late 1990s after touring the unenthusiastically received Hand it Over, it seemed unlikely that 20 years later the band would be celebrating a decade, and four strong albums, back together in its original form. If they’re not Exhibit A in in defence of the idea of old bands reforming (I’d maybe cite the Go Betweens, who I think made their best album right before Grant McLennan sadly passed away), they’ve certainly proved that a group can get back together and rival their best work.

Having never seen them back then, and always being short of money in the early years of their reformation, I’d never seen Dino play live, although I did catch a J Mascis solo show a couple of years ago, and I thought it was about time I made the effort. The gig was originally scheduled for December last year, but J Mascis had a throat infection and the band had to cancel. So last night, finally, I went to the Roundhouse to be deafened by Mascis’s mighty wall of Marshalls.

In the event, the band weren’t the all-out sonic assault I’d read about in Our Band Could Be Your Life and sundry other places. It was perfectly safe to be without earplugs, though I found that keeping them in attenuated some of the high frequencies from Mascis’s guitar and made Murph’s snare drum more audible. Certainly they never got into My Bloody Valentine territory, which is kind of what I was expecting.

So today, with hearing intact, thinking about the gig, I feel like the band put a shift in, but something didn’t quite take off for me. I think fundamentally, Dinosaur Jr are a small-room band. So much of the pleasure of their music is the physical sensation of the J Mascis guitar sound and Lou Barlow’s distorted bass (which is strummed more than anything), and hearing it in a large room changes your relationship to that sound. It’s very noticeable that the band make their records in Mascis’s home studio and they seem to use small iso rooms to track drums and guitars, which makes their records sound very close and upfront.

Still, while I never felt immersed in the music in the way I’d hoped to, the band played well. They opened with Thumb from Green Mind, which is a very different experience live from the Mellotron-based studio version with the weird drum sound (what was going on there? It sounds like a drum machine. It couldn’t be, could it?), and followed it with three strong songs from new album Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. I was particularly happy that Barlow and Mascis swapped instruments and Lou got to take a lead vocal; if you’ve been on my blog before, you’ll know that Lou’s my guy.

Watch the Corners from the last album was one of the set highlights (Mascis’s solo at the end was great), then they went back to the mid-1990s for Out There and Feel the Pain. Those aren’t, if I’m honest, favourites of mine, but the crowd loved them, especially the latter. In fact, the audience was pretty energetic throughout (first time I’d seen anything that could be described as a mosh pit at a gig I’ve been at in about a decade and a half), and Feel the Pain got them pushing and shoving like it was 1993. One clown kept trying to crowdsurf, even as he kept being dropped to the floor. There’s always one.

Then came a pair of key early tracks: the mighty Sludgefeast and Raisans, from You’re Living All Over Me. They sounded as weird and heavy and claustrophobic as they ever had. With some key exceptions I’ll get to, I respond to early Dino much more than the group’s major-label material, made after Barlow was fired. Mascis isn’t the world’s most expansive melodist, so the twisty-turny structures of the early songs make them more compelling to me. It provides the interest that for me isn’t there on something like Out There.

But there is one mid-1990s Dinosaur Jr song I love. Start Choppin’. And so when Mascis hit that oddly Nile Rodgers-like guitar intro, I was delighted. They did a good version, but this was one of those occasions where I’m so into the studio recording that any live version that doesn’t copy it exactly is going to disappoint me slightly. The tempo seemed a bit too fast, and Mascis’s solo didn’t have the tension and release of his studio effort, which begins as noise and then takes flight when he suddenly breaks into a glorious melodic section that shows off the flashier end of his technique.

Budge and Freakscene went over as well as you’d expect them to, and were delivered coolly, with no fuss, then there was a real treat as they finished the set with Forget the Swan, from their debut, Dinosaur. Mascis-penned but Barlow-sung, Forget the Swan is one of their best early songs, but it’s always been better live than on its anaemic studio incarnation. I wasn’t expecting them to play it, and they pretty much nailed it. Barlow’s delivery is of course massively more assured than it was in 1985, and he and Murph were brick-wall solid as Mascis wailed on top for four minutes or so to end the set, leaving his guitar screaming as the band walked off.

The versions of Tarpit and Raisans during the encore were a little perfunctory, as in honesty, they couldn’t top the way they’d ended the regular set.

So while it was maybe a notch or two below what I’d hoped for, a lot of which I’d put down to the venue just not being right for them, I enjoyed finally seeing them play, and I love the fact that Dinosaur Jr are still together with Barlow and Mascis are working side by side when for years there was such animosity (at least on Lou’s part), and that they’re making records that stand proudly with the work they did in their youth. So few other bands can say that.

Spoon @ the Forum, Kentish Town, 30/06/17

On the day I like to call Bobby Goldsboro Day, Spoon returned to London and, in their Spoonian way, crushed it. Again.

20-odd years and nine albums into their career, Spoon are a fuss-free rock ‘n’ roll machine. Their songs are sleek, minimal and always brilliantly arranged, and last night they rattled them off in a fury, with several songs segueing into one another most impressively.

They began with a great version of Do I Have to Talk You Into It, one of the highlights from new album Hot Thoughts, and any worries we had about the sound in the Forum vanished. When opening act Proper Ornaments were playing, the mix was poor, but in retrospect I think that had mainly to do with the band congesting the midrange with strummed, clanging electric guitars, which drowned out the vocals and made the snare drum a wimpy, barely discernable little tapping noise somewhere in the background. Spoon, by comtrast, are pros, and know how to arrange and play their music. They sounded pretty damn big and settled in straight away, instrumentally and vocally.

I always marvel at how good Daniel’s voice sounds live. A bit nasal and congested sounding, more than a little hoarse, his voice would suffer over the course of a long tour, you’d think, with gigs every night for days on end without a break. But no, from the first song he sounded warmed up and ready to go, and his voice remained strong all night, no matter how much he shouted or how often he jumped into his falsetto range.

Sara and I had a plan yesterday. Get in the queue early and get seats in the middle of the front row of the balcony so we could see the whole band unobstructed. Everything went exactly to plan, so we had a glorious whole-stage view all night long. While it was hard for me to not watch Jim Eno, my favourite drummer in the world right now, I tried to take in as much as I could of what bassist Rob Pope and guitarist/keyboardist Alex Fischel were up to, too.

Pope is hugely impressive. He’s always in the pocket, and even better, he knows how much impact he can have by sitting out for a while and slamming back in during a chorus to make it sound even huger. It’s a neat trick, and he did it several times last night, notably on Can I Sit Next to You (another cracker from Hot Thoughts) and They Want My Soul‘s swaggering, Stonesy Rent I Pay.

Daniel was in fiery preacher mode last night. Striking rock-frontman poses and singing I Ain’t the One while lying on his back, he was closer than I’ve seen him get before to winking at the audience, sending up the idea of being the focal point of a big rock ‘n’ roll show. He got away with it, mainly, I think, because Spoon’s music is basically sincere: its occasional forays into pastiche are done with a lot of love, and the band’s enjoyment of playing together and just being Spoon is evident all the time. His excesses seemed enthusiastic, not cynical.

Last night they tore through 16 songs, plus three more in the encore, and I was lucky enough to get versions of a lot of favourites: I Turn My Camera On, the astonishing Don’t Make Me a Target, I Summon You (played solo by Daniel as the first song of the encore), Anything You Want (Sara’s favourite, but not at its best last night – the jaunty piano hook wasn’t quite loud enough), Black Like Me, which would have been a brilliant final song, and the menacing My Mathematical Mind, which tore the roof off at the 100 Club; while last night couldn’t match the impact of that eardrum-shattering version, it was still plenty cool, Jim Eno’s backbeat as mean as it needed to be while Fischel pulled all sorts of funny sci-fi noises out of his keyboard.

Spoon have been great each time I’ve seen them. At this stage, I can’t think of a band I’d rather see in concert. They’re coming back to the UK in the autumn for more gigs. Get a ticket.

Spoon
Spoon, from the front row of the balcony

Tennis @ Omeara, 02/06/17

And so to Omeara in Borough for the first time.

Omeara was announced with much fanfare last autumn. It’s owned by Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons and consists of a live-music space, a gallery and a couple of bars, halfway between Southwark station and Borough High Street. It’s part of the Flat Iron Square development, which is an attempt to create an insant foodie hub in some formerly under-utilised railway arches on Union Street. Judging by the number of people who were there when we arrived at just after 7pm last night, it’s working pretty well.

It’s easy to be cynical about all this, especially since my beloved Gladstone Arms around the corner was forced to close by an owner who priced the leaseholder out because he wanted to build flats, and then, when the council showed some kind of resistance to the idea, sold the lease to some young and deep-pocketed entrepeneurial types who had the briliant idea to reopen the Gladstone as Pegz N “Frazes” (yes, really*).

The message is clear: yes, we can have live music in London, but not as part of any grassroots community – it has to be imposed from above by a businessman musician like Lovett and come accompanied by bars and “street food” vendors, serving overpriced drinks and food in an attempt to make up for the crippling rents they’re paying to be there in the first place.

Ah, the modern city.

None of this, of course, is Tennis’s fault – they just happened to be playing there, and Omeara happened to be the right kind of size for them right now. I’m cynical enough, or not enough of a puritan, to swallow my distaste and go anyway.

Besides, I’ve been looking forward to Tennis playing in London for three years, as I first heard their single Never Work for Free about one week after their last London show in 2014. From having seen/heard their live sessions on WFUV and KEXP, I knew these guys could play their asses off, and despite the lushness of the material on Ritual in Repeat, I actually prefer the more stripped-down live versions of songs like I’m Callin’ and Needle and a Knife to their studio-recording counterparts.

On the night, though, Tennis’s set was disappointing.

I harp on a lot about live sound mixes, I know, and it is a difficult job. I’ve done it myself. The engineer may have been contending with a load of technical problems none of us know about and could have been doing an amazing job to get things sounding acceptable out front. That said, the vocal was quiet to the point where no words were discernable. The kick drum was twice as loud as the snare so the drums had no punch or presence in the crucial midrange. Patrick Riley’s guitar was too loud and stepped on the vocal as a result, and Alaina Moore’s keyboards were far too quiet – barely audible, in fact.

Worse, I think the band had their own mix problems on stage. The set started with In the Morning I’ll be Better, and after the intro, which featured Moore’s pre-recorded voice in harmony, Moore began singing live on mike, only to find her microphone wasn’t actually on. It took a surprising amount of time for this issue to be fixed. Whether that threw them, who knows, but their performance seemed hampered, a bit tame – as if they were having to concentrate too hard on the technicals to let go and really get into the music – so perhaps the dead microphone was just the most obvious issue among many. Near the end of the set Moore talked about things being pretty crazy up on stage; since there was no visible craziness, I can only assume she was alluding to sound issues.

There were some fine moments, despite that. At the end of Needle and a Knife the band played a short outro jam where things seemed to click for them after a few listless songs at the start of the set. Suddenly they seemed to be playing twice as loud, and it was the first time in the set Riley and Moore looked like they were enjoying themselves. Mean Streets was a touch slower than ideal, but had a sexy swing nonetheless. The crowd loved Marathon (their very early material is a bit twee for my tastes, tbh). My Emotions are Blinding (another from the new record, Yours Conditionally) and Young and Old‘s My Better Self were both great and overcame the limitations of the mix. At the end of the set, the drummer and bass player left the stage and Moore and Riley played Bad Girls on their own, guitar and vocal. It was great, and put the spotlight on Moore’s vocal in a way that hadn’t been possible earlier in the set and hinted at what could have been.

Bad sound at gigs happens, and Tennis are pros and they got through it graciously. But the band wasn’t playing at the level they usually reach, and that was definitely a bummer, especially at a venue that’s only been open eight months and is meant to have a state of the art sound system.


Sanity intervened, and after the new leaseholders’ preferred name was exposed to much public mockery, they announced the Gladstone would reopen under its old name. The spirit of the Glad, meanwhile, has flown and can now be found at the Spit and Sawdust.

Spoon @ the 100 Club, 27/02/17

Over more 20 years and eight studio albums, with another about to drop, Spoon have been a marvel of consistency. There’s not a weak record in their discography, not even the by-their-standards callow debut, Telephono (which leaned heavily on a Pixies influence long since outgrown). Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Gimme Fiction, the group’s mid-career masterpieces, are as good as indie rock has gotten in the band’s lifetime. They’re one of my favourite bands, but I caught on late, and still rue the fact that I never got to see them on their way up, at small venues where I could all but reach out and touch the band.

Oh yeah, until Monday night, when I saw them play at the 100 Club in London.

For the unfamiliar, the 100 Club is a semi-legendary basement venue in an unlikely location on the north side of Oxford Street. Wrong, because it belongs by temperament on the other side of the road, in Soho. To get to it, you have to enter what looks like an office building, dodging the tourists and shoppers as you go. It’s a low room, wider than it is long, with bars at either end of the room, well away from the stage (what a joy not to have your enjoyment of the gig affected by the noise from the bar). The crowd in front of the stage can only be maybe 10 people deep. It’s not the perfect rock venue (the pillar right in front of the stage is not ideal), but it’s a pretty damn good one, and the smallest place Spoon have played in the UK in many a year.

The band were warming up for a tour that begins in the US in a week or two and returns to Europe in the early summer, when I’ll be seeing them from the balcony of the Kentish Town Forum. I like watching bands from the balcony – you can see more, and I love watching drummers from an elevated angle. But if you can’t be up high, the next best thing is to be up close, and at the 100 Club, I was really close.

Spoon were superb, and could as easily have been midway through a tour than warming up for it. It’s sometimes said that the hallmark of someone who’s really good at something is that they make it look really easy. I don’t know if it’s always true but I’d lean towards maybe not on Monday’s evidence.

I watched the band members carefully through the set, looking for the cues they were giving each other; the eye contact and little gestures, sometimes even shouted instructions. What was clear was how hard they all worked, all the way through; there are no passengers. All five men break into a sweat within a few songs, but even given the high work rate of all involved, some contributions stood out. Alex Fischel, who plays guitar, keyboards and percussion, conspicuously worked his arse off all night. Jim Eno – possibly the world’s greatest drummer – hits the drums a lot harder than I perceived from the balcony at Shepherd’s Bush. Finally, Britt Daniel – by most accounts a quiet and focused individual offstage – is a charismatic frontman and a well-practised engager of audiences. He held the audience in the palm of his hand, and his voice, hoarse and congested-sounding though it is, is capable of surprising purity and vulnerability on quieter songs.

The new songs – Hot Thoughts and Can I Sit Next to You plus two others I didn’t know, sounded great, just as good as anything they’ve done before, so I’m pretty excited about the prospect of a new album and another London show in the next few months. God bless Spoon. May they live another 20 years.

spoon

*On penultimate song My Mathematical Mind, the cymbal-crashing finale of the song was rawly, viscerally thrilling. Eno so rarely draws attention to himself in his playing that when he does it’s a proper treat.

Kathryn Williams/Astrid Williamson @ Sydenham Arts, 15/04/16

Two artists I’ve seen play before, in the same venue, at different gigs, in 1998 and 2001 – half a lifetime ago.

Astrid Williamson I saw, billed only as Astrid, supporting the Unbelievable Truth at UCL’s Bloomsbury Theatre. I was, I guess, 16. I’m 34 now. I’ve written about my teenage enthusiasm for the Unbelievable Truth’s first album before; it took me up to London in the company of two schoolfriends on a Sunday night to the university I hoped to be attending 18 months later to see my first sit-down concert (as opposed to the stand-up-and-bounce-around sort of show – I’d been to several of those).

In the intervening years, I’d not thought often about Astrid Williamson, whose music struck me as pleasant but unremarkable. Back then, her label seemed to be hoping that a mix of adult-oriented songwriting with gentle beats would appeal to the Beth Orton fans. It was too limited a market, probably; it didn’t happen. Her days of being pitched to a pop audience ended.

Last night she played nothing that could really be construed as a pop song, though the market dictates that she release singles and try to get airplay. She mentioned some success she’s having with 6 Music, and the song she said is going to be her next single, Scattered, was the highlight of the set for me: a soulful piano ballad in 6/8 time with, in its recorded version, an emotionally raw vocal. I can’t see it getting much daytime airplay (frankly it’s much too raw vocally; naked to the point where the listener will turn away if unable to embrace it), but it’s a fine piece of writing, the best thing I’ve heard by her.

Headliner Kathryn Williams was promoting Little Black Numbers – her second album, and the one that brought her to wide attention through a Mercury Music Prize nomination – the last time I saw her play. Not a comfortable performer back then, she talked so much between songs that she ran out of time to get to everything on her set list. These days she’s still apt to chat nervously between songs, but in all other ways is a more accomplished performer. In the last few years she’s regained her early-career form after a few years of drift in the mid-noughties, a period unrepresented in her set on Friday; instead it was heavy on songs from Crown Electric and new album Hypoxia, with a couple of very old songs from Dog Leap Stairs and Little Black Numbers.

Hypoxia, is the result of a commission from New Writing North to write some songs inspired by Sylvia Plath, and on the evidence of those she played live, it’s a strong record, full of tangled and frequently dark emotions. Mirrors, which saw Williams, layering vocals with a loop pedal, is one of the finest songs she’s yet written. Cuckoo, a sort of centrepiece song for the record, written from the point of view of Plath’s mother, was particular affecting, although the shouty thing she did midway through the song was a little distracting (it felt too much like a conscious piece of performance to me).

What’s great from the perspective of this fan, though, is to see her taking risks, expanding her palette emotionally, musically and lyrically. I drifted away from Williams’s music in around 2003, and in retrospect it seems a response to a period in her work where she’d stopped moving forward. As I wrote here, Little Black Numbers saw a lot of the rough edges of Dog Leap Stairs being smoothed away, and this coupled with an over-reliance on stock chord sequences tended to make much of her music sound and feel similar. Over the course of Old Low Light, Relations and Over Fly Over, the lack of variation, risk and challenge in her music became palpable.

Possibly she felt the same, as after Leave to Remain (for me the third in a sequence of rather underwhelming records; fourth, if you count covers album Relations) she found new collaborators and left her long-time band behind. Which was tough on Laura Reid and David Scott (her rather excellent former cellist and guitarist), but Neil MacColl, Ed Harcourt and Adrian Utley seem, in their different ways, to have inspired her to reach beyond the comfortable and easy. Hypoxia is extremely uneasy, and reminds you that it was only familiarity that has made Dog Leap Stairs seem familiar and comfortable to me; when I was 16 or 17, it seemed boldly adult and rather unknowable, full of emotions I had no experience of, or even a name for.

I left the gig feeling like Williams’s last two albums are probably the best work she’s ever done, and that the next one may be even better. It was a lovely, intimate gig in a beautiful venue (St Bartholomew’s Church, Sydenham), and Sydenham Arts did a fantastic job bringing it all together.

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