[Live Review]: Curtis Harding – Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, London 11/03/15

curtis harding“It’s just a matter of time, the world has to know / This light of mine, I’m gonna let it show”

Secluded off Bethnal Green’s main road, it seems the Working Men’s Club has a lot to offer for a Wednesday evening. Downstairs are rows of tables bulging with models for the weekly meeting of Hackney Area Tabletop Enthusiasts and a framed pair of knickers signed by Tom Jones sitting behind the bar. But tonight the main attraction is upstairs in a room that has admittedly seen better days, decked out in chintzy plywood and gummed-up carpet, for a sold out night of dirty R&B from Atlantan, Curtis Harding.

First up, West-Londoners Fair Ohs lay into sax-fuelled jams with absolutely filthy bass lines. Guitarist and vocalist Eddy Frankel is in a typically confrontational mood, introducing the band after the first number ‘Fucking shit, we’re the fucking Fair Ohs, fuck you!’, before adding ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean that…unless you’re a racist’. There’s a strange tension between the effusively funky indie-rock with powerhouse drumming and intricate guitar noodling the quartet serve up and the abrasively bizarre onstage banter, but there’s no denying they get the crowd (tentatively) moving. Though not moving quite as much as Frankel and sax player Sam Ayers who pull shapes like Earthworm Jim, knees wiggling and heads shaking throughout the set, which ends on a characteristically idiosyncratic slice of psychedelia and goading announcement from Frankel: “Buy us beers, it’s the least you can do! Don’t buy our t-shirts though, because we don’t have any!”

After a brief interval Harding’s band climb the stage, which is barely big enough to house the five-piece with a tunnel-of-love heart sitting at the back, and vamp on a gospel groove before the man himself takes the stage and leads them through a rollicking ‘Soul Power’. Apart from afro and shades he doesn’t cut the traditional image of a soul man, wearing an orange cardigan over a torn green tee and wielding a red Airline guitar, but this is sticky punk ’n’ soul bred in garages and it suits the rough and ready locale he finds himself in tonight. There’s certainly no denying the soulful quality of Harding’s voice either, which he has learned to control from years of backing Cee Lo Green, knowing when to push for wailing heights and when to cool off to a smooth croon.

It’s a shame then that initial sound system issues mean his voice is hard to hear in the mix, while the keys remain indistinct for much of the show. After ‘Soul Power’ closes Harding requests for the vocals to be turned up and the burning lights to be turned down, which settle to an appropriately dusky red for the film noir soul of Next Time, while the heart in the background twinkles with carnival lights. Driven by a mellifluous bass line and scraping rhythm guitar, Harding’s bruised holler now rings out clear while warm trumpet swells add a touch of class.

As the song finishes a member of the audience shouts “The sound is shit!”, to which Harding retorts “Enjoy the soul!”. He takes off his sunglasses, the only time in the evening he does so, eyeballs her and asks “Are you going to fix the sound? Come fix the sound! Come fix the sound!” The chant is taken up by the audience, before Harding concludes “No? Then you’re not helping!”, accompanied by the lead guitarist comically playing the opening bars of Star Spangled Banner.

They head back into the set with renewed vigour, Harding’s brooding vocals playing against the muscular bluesy guitar of spacey ‘Castaway’. Ramshackle punk barnstormer ‘Surf’ kicks like a mule, rattling along with abandon as Harding wails the non-verbal refrain, while ‘The Drive’s loud, and moody groove oozes cool under shimmering guitar. Eventually Harding trades his guitar for a tambourine on a sultry cover of Bill Withers’s ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, before the band strike up the four-to-the-floor funk rhythm of ‘Heaven’s On The Other Side’. It too carries some of Withers’s magic from his disco days, as the crowd moves under an old mirrorball while Harding sings “I miss you, but the dancefloor’s right here”. He then announces “Here’s what I want you to do: Keep on shining… and don’t complain about shitty sound systems”, and the crowd erupts with jubilant applause for a ramped up twist through the Curtis Mayfield-esque debut single ‘Keep On Shining’.

The band exit into the crowd briefly (backstage being non-existent here) before returning for  some old numbers. Danny-Lee Blackwell, also a cohort in Harding’s side-project Night Sun alongside members of Black Lips,  swaps bass for guitar duties as they lay into a slow-burning jam of California Dreamin’. Harding gives a yearning performance that belies his gospel roots and the band trade sparring solos, with rhodesy keys whirling into syncopated drum flourishes, while Blackwell rips into effusive blues-psych shredding, looking like a member of Crazy Horse in Mayan patterns and under a wide-brimmed hat. The gang rally and fire on all cylinders for a home-run blast through Night Sun’s ‘No Pressure’, with Harding vocally mirroring Blackwell’s guitar solo over the hurtling DEATH-style surf-punk.

It’s heady stuff and brings the night to an uproarious close, leaving the onstage heart flickering  as the abandoned guitars feedback. Despite sound issues, Harding’s instinctual soul fused with visceral punk cut right through, proving that as a soul man he can kick out the jams too.

Soul Power is available now through Burger / ANTI- Records.

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[Live Review]: Poliça – The Troxy, London 12/02/14

stockimage“Better to sleep through the sunrise / Than to stumble sleeping through the night life”

With its Art Deco interior and a booth-fitted circle overlooking the crammed stalls, The Troxy marks an auspicious final venue for Poliça’s international tour in support of Shulamith. Tonight the former cinema (and bingo hall during the 80s) is sunken in violet light and an arsenal of synths, samplers and two drum kits sits on stage below the bloody backdrop of Shulamith’s album cover. An inconspicuous mirrorball hangs from the lighting rig as more people come in from the cool and damp of the February night.

 Just after eight all conversation is drowned out by cavernous feedback verging on the deafening bottom end of human hearing, signalling that support act Marijuana Deathsquads have taken to the stage. This rumbling continues until all attention is fixed on the figures on stage centred around a mission control desk of synths and samplers, before plummeting into a furore of crashing primeval riffs. Part punk snottiness, part drum and bass cacophony; the Minneapolis noisemakers make for a confrontational opening act, riding a continuous wave of twisted samples backed by the dual drum assault of Ben Ivascu and Drew Christopherson (also of Poliça). Tonight offers a rare live appearance from Ryan Olson, whose dizzying list of brain children (Poliça, Marijuana Deathsquads, Gayng et al) has made him a svengali-like figure of the Minneapolis music scene. Strait-laced and white shirted, he hovers hungrily over a sampler like a velociraptor, barking orders over headsets to the other members while vocalist Isaac Gale wanders the stage wailing in varying degrees of vocal distortion. As the members become lost in a miasma of violet/orange dry-ice focus is placed entirely on the noise, punctuated on two instances by the Troxy’s fire alarms going off (it isn’t clear if this is cause for alarm or just part of the orchestrated chaos). Marijuana Deathsquads provide a brutal counterpart to Poliça’s glacial melodies, emphasised when the skinny, high-heeled and hoodied form of Poliça vocalist Channy Leaneagh enters the stage to lend vocal duties (digitally manipulated by Olson) for the last few numbers. Things get more melodic from there on out, but only just.

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The stage is bathed in crimson light when Poliça take the stage and power into the dampened club beats of ‘Slipping Lines’. With a setlist honed and streamlined from four weeks on the road, Poliça hit every mark. While the focus is definitely on the new material (eleven of the seventeen songs performed are from their recent album), the dreamier crowd favourites on Give You The Ghost sit comfortably alongside the more confrontational songs of Shulamith. ‘Very Cruel’s sinister synth loop and fathom deep breaks of silence feeds seamlessly into GYTG anthem ‘Amongster’, which sees Leaneagh losing herself in the building groove laid down by Ivascu and Christoperson amongst wisps of red smoke. Meanwhile on ‘Smug’, which features Olson back on vocal manipulation duty, flashing blue lights and siren-like synths give the atmosphere of a slow night drive, powered by a cavernous 4/4 beat.

As a live entity the band display a tight chemistry, excelling in creating moments of tension and release and weaving the same magic as they do on record with an intense stage presence. Throughout the show bassist Chris Bierden exhibits ox-like calm dishing out his fluid bass lines while Ivascu and Christopherson seem to operate as a symbiotic percussive unit rather than separate musicians. Their parts either interweave each other or lock in sync perfectly, as is the case in the cascading drum climaxes on ‘Lay Your Cards Out’ and ‘Amongster’ which build into crashing supernovas in a live environment. The deep, grounding force of Bierden’s bass counterpoints Leaneagh’s cooing vocals and fluttering synth loops on ‘Warrior Lord’, before segueing into the hazy beat of ‘Vegas’. Leaneagh’s lost, childlike vocal delivery on the former take on an accusatory tone on the latter’s repeated assertion “You were mean to me” and the whispered demand “Don’t forget”.

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Despite her sleight frame Leaneagh cuts a powerful figure, commanding the stage with her voice and backed by a startling barrage of lights. She goads the crowd on ‘Chain My Name’ and stalks the stage on ‘Tiff’, making up for Justin Vernon’s absence with her arresting delivery among medicated beats and Bierden’s purring harmonies. Bubblegum pop song ‘I Need $’ and the funky ‘Dark Star’, which see Leaneagh kick off her boots to groove to Bierden’s moody bass lines, make an appearance before the main set closes with haunting duets on the ponderous, down tempo ‘So Leave’.

 On their return to the stage, Leaneagh explains that this is her eleventh time in London. “This a good place” she says grinning, although Ben Ivascu probably conveys the sentiment better with a simple “Cheers, m’dears”. Cue a paranoiac take on ‘Matty’ with an extended instrumental break that wouldn’t go amiss on the soundtrack of Aliens, featuring chittering hi-hat and unnerving synth loops that simmer away before crashing back to earth with drums and loping bass for the final verse. Possibly in anticipation of upcoming Valentine’s Day, the night closes with a spaced-out cover of Lesley Gore’s ballad ‘You Don’t Own Me’. The band are in playful spirit, yearning for the stars as Leaneagh in particularly dramatic flair retreats to her knees after giving it her all. If Elvis really was abducted by aliens, this is what he’d be performing now.

 Setlist:
Spilling Lines
Lay Your Cards Out
I See My Mother
So Very Cruel
Amongster
Smug
Tiff
Warrior Lord
Vegas
Chain My Name
Torre
Dark Star
I Need $
Wandering Star
So Leave

Matty
You Don’t Own Me

[Live Review]: STRFKR – Hoxton Sq. Bar, London 13/11/13

STRFKR live“You will know why I love life”

On 13th November it was a cold and quiet Wednesday night in Hoxton Square, with no indication of the frenetic dance party that was about to kick off in Hoxton Square Bar. In fact, even inside the sold-out three-hundred capacity venue there was little indication as to what was in store until STRFKR kicked off their set. The Portland indie-dance four-piece are not an imposing appearing bunch and bandleader Josh Hodges did some onstage tech before the set largely unnoticed by a chatting crowd. However, once the band started they proved to the crowd that they know how to throw a party.

Setting the agenda from the off, STRFKR launched straight into the racing Miracle Mile track ‘Malmö’, which got the crowd moving with an infectious mix of energetic bass, catchy whistling and juddering synths. Backed by fluctuating and colour shifting lights that reflected off the mirrorball in the middle of the packed venue, the lads were in their element and immediately got the good vibes going. From there they moved into spacey, atmospheric tunes from second album ‘Reptilians’ before diving headfirst into the Pixies-esque garage pop of ‘Beach Monster’. The band kept new and old fans alike pleased with a seamless mix of new tunes from their recent album, Miracle Mile, and old favourites from earlier albums. The shoegazey singalong ‘Say To You’ segued perfectly into the crashing drum fill and skewed countermelodies that open early fan favourite ‘Rawnald Gregory Erickson II’which elicited a cheer from the audience. Fortunately, the samples of enlightening monologues from British philosopher Alan Watts, which pepper many early recordings, make a successful transition to the stage and at one point bassist Shawn Glassford engaged in a funny conversation with these samples.

After the jubilant synths and warbly guitar solo of ‘Atlantis’ they throw the crowd a curveball by unleashing their high energy cover of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’Usually a dancefloor killer outside of hen nights, the jaunty bass line and driving guitar lick really pumped the crowd up and got even the most reserved gig-goer moving their feet. Towards the end of the set the band crack out their own feel-good disco tune, ‘While I’m Alive’, which saw audience members break out glow sticks and guitarist Patrick Morris pull some dance moves during the instrument-swapping percussion breakdown. The band exchange grins and exude the air of musicians who have their parts down and who have mastered a good pop melody. They channel Depeche Mode on the moody and atmospheric ‘Leave It All Behind’, with synths so heavy the walls shake, before thanking the audience for joining them on their first headlining date in London and then round off the night by getting the audience jumping on ‘Bury Us Alive’After applause and coaxing from the audience, STRFKR return to the stage and send the crowd off with an encore of the dreamy ‘Isabella of Castile’ and pulsing dancefloor filler ‘Boy Toy’.

Throughout the triumphant set the band themselves seemed shy, only greeting the audience five songs in and exchanging little banter. However, they are clearly confident behind their instruments, dishing out audaciously catchy songs with a little stage swagger and are not afraid to let their euphoric music speak for itself

[Live Review]: Frightened Rabbit, Music Hall, Aberdeen – 27/02/13

frabbits‘Is that you in front of me coming back for even more, exactly the same?’

The first time I ever heard Frightened Rabbit, and I mean the first time, was at a gig they played last year at The Tunnels in Aberdeen. It was a no pre-sale, queue-on-the-night affair and I went along simply because a load of my friends were going. The night was freezing and the queue was out the door, round the corner, up the hill, but we were lucky enough to get into the 300 capacity venue. The queue should have tipped me off, but that night I discovered a special band whose back catalogue has made up a considerable proportion of my listening last year. Incidentally, The Cheeky Girls were performing elsewhere in Aberdeen that night. I’m pretty sure I chose the right gig, but then again, I guess I’ll never know the joy of seeing ‘Cheeky Holiday’ live now.

Now with major label support and touring in support of Pedestrian Verse, which entered the UK Album Chart Top 10 in its first week, it makes sense that Frightened Rabbit step up to the Music Hall. However, the question still remains in my mind when queueing (on a much more clement night, mind) whether the FRabbits would be able to create the same atmosphere of intimacy and camaraderie in a venue over four times that of the venue in which I’d first been wowed by them.

First up are Three Blind Wolves, delivering their heavy brand of folk with gusto. The Glaswegian band have progressed from a small EP on Communion Records to having a fine repertoire of accomplished and fleshed out songs. The visceral chemistry between the band is accentuated by the beautiful harmonies the band produce, reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash or, as my friend pointed out, a barbershop quartet. This is especially noticeable on slow-burner ‘Emily Rose’, which escalates into a rollicking barnstormer.

Wintersleep up the ante once Three Blind Wolves have exited the stage. Hailing from Halifax, NS, these lads may not have a large following in the UK, but that’s sure to change in the near future. Dealing in skewed riffs and idiosyncratic grooves, their set fully kicks the crowd into gear. ‘Resuscitate’ and ‘Martyr’ particularly stand out as songs which will garner them considerable airplay in the future. Catchy, yet intriguingly complex. Check out some of their tunes over here.

When Frightened Rabbit finally take the stage, flanked on either side by two stately three-armed crosses, they are greeted with with a wave of cheers from the crowd (well, after that period where the crowd mistakenly cheer the roadies preemptively). The band kick off with the surging ‘Holy’ from the new album, before laying into recent single ‘Backyard Skulls’. While not exactly falling flat, it is only on reaching older standards such as ‘Nothing Like You’ and The Modern Leper’ that the band really start to dig in and fill the room. Scott Hutchison is on stirling vocal form, yelping and crooning in his borders burr. Meanwhile, the band nail every cue and the progressive complexity of their later songs are held together by the band’s tight chemistry. Old favourites such as ‘Old Old Fashioned’ and ‘My Backwards Walk’ sit comfortably amongst recent songs ‘Dead Now’ and ‘State Hospital’, which take flight into the room-filling anthems they always had the potential to be.

Towards the end of the main set, the band leave Scott to perform a gut-wrenching rendition of the blood-letting ‘Poke’. Scott’s tender extended vocal refrains are echoed back at him softly from the crowd, deepening the intimate atmosphere. Guitarist Andy Monaghan joins him on slide for ‘Good Arms vs. Bad Arms’, which sees the rest of the band return during the bridge. The audience are then engaged in a ‘human accordion’ experiment to ring in ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’ before the band tear through PV opener ‘Acts of Man’, which culminates in a raging wall of sound and lights. The band return after a short break for mid-tempo rocker ‘The Woodpile’, kept on track by Grant Hutchison’s muscular, military drum beat. The band then tear through The Winter of Mixed Drinks standards ‘Living in Colour’ and ‘The Loneliness and the Scream’. The grins on the band’s face as they go for the home-run makes it clear that they are loving every minute of it, as the crowd roars the vocals back at them.

Aberdeen crowds are a notoriously fickle breed, but once you’ve won them over they’re yours for life. The deep affection of longtime followers is felt as old tunes are greeted with cheers and sing-a-longs. Early in the gig Scott reminisces about playing to ten people in Snafu (just a quarter of a mile down the road) early in the band’s life, and comments on how playing in the Music Hall felt unattainable. As the band leave the stage, Scott Hutchison lingers as the audience carries on the vocal refrain of ‘The Loneliness and the Scream’ (which carries on for a good few minutes after he has left as well). Grinning from ear to ear and clasping his head, he knows that they have definitely arrived.

Frightened Rabbit embark on a US tour on 8th March. Pedestrian Verse is available now through Atlantic.