Sunday, 26 March 2017

Yaaba Ranked

Bit of a starry-eyed entry today.  I thought it was important to record how I acually felt at this gig, but also important to identify what was down to the performers and what was down to the atmosphere and the contrast to my earlier experiences.

Of course, the irony is that on a different night I'm sure the frugging neo-hippies and west Oxford world music yoghurtistas would have driven me to an acid rage.  I am fickle.

No I'm not.

YAABA FUNK, Bossaphonik, Cellar, 3/3/17

Some gigs feel like more than nights out.  Having wrestled our way out of a cashpoint mugging at the hands of a man in black tie – as neat an image of Britain in 2017 as we can imagine – we stumble into The Cellar to find a smiling Bossaphonik crowd.  Old, young, street smart, backpacker scruffy, black, white, male, female, blurring the division between the two, and all dancing happily I(if not necessarily aesthetically).  It’s at times like this we feel that Nightshift’s Oxford is a better version than any you’d find on celluloid or tea towel.

Even for those not having a minor emotional epiphany this gig offers a top flight band to make the night special.  Depressingly, a funk gig  is often just bread and circuses crowd-pleasing, little more than a mass of blues change ballast between overlong solos and silly shirts, whereas great funk is taut, minimal and sometimes disorienting.  One of the most extreme examples is Fela Kuti’s afrobeat, with repeated riffs extending for whole gigs and LP sides like huge landing strips for politically charged sweat soaked sentiments.  Brixton’s Yaaba Funk understand this perfectly, and although they have bouncing, high life influences, their longform pieces stretch into the distance, riveted intermittently by stainless steel horn stabs.  The vocals have the simple immediacy of slogans chanted from a barricade, four square but always no the edge of impassioned abandon.  Conversely the brass section spins off into improvisation (ribbons of Ben Webster sax and Dizzy-ing trumpet spirals) but always returns to tight punching just when the music threatens to get flabby.

And that’s it: repeat until euphoric or revolutionary, whichever comes sooner.  There’s a brief period in the doldrums three quarters of the way in, a call and response section going to seed and growing ugly and untameable over 5 long minutes, but this is the only misstep.  We’ll support any band that uses its double agogo tattoo to call a room of punters together despite their differences, when so many outside the Cellar are trying to drive us apart because of them.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Delaware Soul

MUNCIE GIRLS/ CASSELS/ KANCHO!, Future Perfect, Cellar, 15/2/17

A few years ago any hipster worth their rosemary-infused artisanal salt was in a bass and drums duo.  That time has passed, perhaps because of fashion’s restless vicissitudes, or perhaps because people realised that economy of musical means demands increased precision, or at the very least a little effort put into arranging.  Kancho!’s two man tirade is built from crisp, incisive drums and rough blocks of bass granite, but they know that simply throwing everything in at once wouldn’t cut the triple strength septum-melting mustard for a full half hour, and have addressed their attentions to hooks, dynamics and slightly silly jokes.  Not that they’re preciously twiddly, any self-conscious mathy opening riff is just a disguise for old fashioned amp blasting, quickly discarded (“It is I, Leclerc; let’s rock!”).  This is an excellent set, possibly the best we’ve witnessed by them...just in time for them to split up.

Not since The Cellar Family has any Oxford-connected band brought the aesthetics of disgust to their music like Cassels.  Another skins and strings duo, albeit one with more intricate fluidity to their pummelling, Cassels ricochet between splenetic ire, mordant humour and defeated resignation, wrestling global and personal politics into punk straitjackets.  At their best, such as recent single “Flock Analogy”, a twitchy tattoo bolsters howled poetry and impassioned broadsides that reveal a burgeoning poetic sensibility.  There are lyrical missteps – describing the world as a “Huxleyan nightmare” doesn’t sound any less sophomoric just because it’s now true – and the set is oddly hesitant and apologetic when it should be declamatory, but Cassels are still something special.

Catch a few lyrics and you’ll realise that Exeter’s Muncie Girls are as politically charged as Cassels, but choose a less abrasive method of delivery.  Their perky punk pop has its roots in C86 fizz, and borrows its fat amped attitude from that early 90s lacuna between grunge’s early influence and Britpop’s colourful trade fair.  Their melodic vocals glide whilst the music canters in a way that resembles a less self-conscious Wedding Present or even a souped up version of The Sundays (The Sundays Before Bank Holiday Monday, probably).  It’s all good bouncy fun, and we can’t say a word against their opinions or general charm, but if Muncie Girls play a better set than Cassels, it’s the latter that have hooked our attention, and will drag us back for another visit. 

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Vermin Bite

Yesterday I went to a symposium on the dos and don'ts of live music.  The best advice I garnered was "do buy the engineer a drink, don;t not buy the engineer a drink".


Imagine if Rob Newman hadn’t gone away and quietly become an erudite political activist, but had instead followed the “comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll” ethos to its logical conclusion by living off speedballs and sandwiches for the past 20 years, and you’ve imagined Compulsory Primal Response’s drummer.  With a song called “Fuck The Government” and a song called “Dave’s Gone For A Piss”, this scrappy punk trio’s watches permanently read half-past-give-a-shit, and their joyfully inept set could have come from absolutely any year since 1978: History Today.

“We are Wolf, I mean Wolves, I mean Wolfs”, proof that Google-friendly band names can seem less clever when you have to pronounce them onstage (at least Wolfs has got some bloody vowels).  Dubious plurals aside, they’re a fresh, crisp drums/guitar duo, with a strong melodic sense and some lithe sprightly tunes, which nod towards the smiley scuzz of Smudge and early Lemonheads, but they’re at their best with straight-up rockers like the LA slum glam of “Mirror” and dumbass Kiss pastiche “We Came Here To Rock”.  If this promising young band can relax and be a little less studied, they could raise some roof, we mean rooves, we mean roofs.

There’s a marked increase in polish and experience with Woking’s Camcorder, songs suddenly sounding rehearsed, arranged and generally nurtured, their set a tidy parade of crunchy distortion and chunky choruses, as if The Foo Fighters were signed to Fat Wreck Chords.  We’ll confess we get a little bored half way through, but they get a deservedly appreciative reception. 

Nothing like Rats Eat Rats’ reception, though; it’s not often we see a sizable, bouncing crowd chanting a band’s name at their first gig.  It takes more than a claque of beery mates to make a debut, of course, and Rats Eat Rats prove to be pretty great, taking the self-conscious, awkwardly euphoric end of early grunge, and ladling out a brackish stew of Bleach and Gish.  There’s the odd rhythmic sloppiness, and the two guitars can muddy the sound, but there’s a wired attractive insouciance about the band (especially the vocalist, who looks like Julian Rhind-Tutt reliving Thom Yorke’s earliest press shots), and we expect them to be local favourites before 2017’s out.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Welcome Bakkie

Christmas is like sport.  I understand why people like it, but not why they like it THAT MUCH.

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.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Big Cat Sensuality

I'm getting old, my attitudes to sex are changing.  Last birthday party, someone brought in a curvacious woman in a bikini...a flap on her stomach opened up and out poppped a cake.  Best birthday ever.

This gig took place the day of the US election results, in case you can't guess.


Received opinion states that prog and math rock are introspective, self-justifying genres, with no relevance beyond their complex musical conventions.  Maybe so, but on a day in which the US electorate has made a decision with vast international ramifications, the inward gaze is a tempting option.  Kid Kin provides a warm, amniotic space for reflection, with stately keys and meditative fuzzy guitar.  Sometimes it’s feels a bit too pretty, but then he brings in a bass synth that sounds like the Matterhorn clearing its throat, and we are swept up again.  He’s adept at live looping too: make a mistake with that and you have to live with it for a fair while - a bit like voting in a president.

Received opinion states that contemporary prog is a rollercoaster music, that can only retain interest through continually switching direction.  Whilst The Physics House Band’s set might have so many time signatures that it could be some sort of muso version of bingo calling, they are also fantastic at setting the controls for full steam ahead.  They’ve got the intricate synths and the twiddly guitar phrases, but they aren’t afraid of chugging out a chunky groove that could almost be Rainbow.  Despite their nerdy name, it’s great to see that tricksiness can be wonderfully augmented by sweat, passion and Whistle Test hair.  They sell T-shirts after gig; given the comprehensive demo workout we’d just witnessed, they might have done better selling drumkits.

Received opinion states that prog is a backward facing genre, but Three Trapped Tigers show us what can be done when math rock is influenced by the sounds and structures of electronica.  They are a little like prog jesters Focus signed to Warp, and their music is very silly, although in a world containing the phrase President Trump, “silly” may need recalibrating.  Regardless, their maximalist monkey seizure music is firy, fun and surprisingly funky.  Received opinion says that technical performers like this can’t be joyous and exciting, but then again, received opinion had fifty quid on Clinton to win.