UTE/ LUCY LEAVE/ SLATE HEARTS, Idiot King, Cellar, 16/12/16
Sometimes, a band and a venue just click together. We’ve seen Slate Hearts a number of times in 2016, but the two most immersive experiences are here at the Cellar, their dense slabs of grunge just seem to fit the low, oppressive room (and the engineer – we can’t see but imagine that Jimmy Evil, the resident Lord Fader, is nodding approvingly throughout). With lackadaisical inter-song mumbling, the band gives the impression of being slapdash stoners, and two-thirds of them dress as if they spend their downtime wrastlin’ swine for nickels, but there’s proper pop nous evident in the songwriting. Slate Hearts are a sonic Richard Serra sculpture: huge, monumental and weighty, but rather less rough-hewn than they at first appear.
Lucy Leave gigs are always exciting. The band builds songs from snatches of vintage pop styles (psychedelia, garage, even reggae) and melodic micro-mantras, leaving plenty of room for improvisation, but without slipping into the clunky slide carousel of solos that the majority of jazz and psych falls back on. It’s as if the band is waiting to see what will lift each song to ecstatic heights – a sudden clattering drum fill, a tickly “Eight Miles High” guitar scribble, an ultra-rubato vocal stretch. This means that some tracks, and occasionally whole gigs, can go by without catching fire, but also means that moments of glory surprise every time. Tonight it’s “40 Years”, kicking us down a Teardrop Explodes mudslide towards a krautrock skinny dip.
Ignoring a little acoustic session, Ute haven’t played a gig in Oxford for five years, and they still sound like Radiohead’s less bombastic songs dusted with hi-life and calypso guitar, whilst the drums stutter out an inventive dessicated funk and a proper fat rock bass knocks on the back door. If the vocals perhaps sound over-squeezed, like they’re the last smear of toothpaste in the tube, Ute knock us sideways like never before. Perhaps it’s the crammed room, the boozy Bakhtinian carnival atmosphere and the hilarious raffle that precedes the set that reduces us to grinning putty, but when the band run offstage during “An Innocent Tailor” and the crowd howls like pissed-up police sirens and a man in a medieval bascinet takes their place with a glitter cannon, we don’t know what’s going on any more, except that it’s good. It’s very good.