Sunday, 18 November 2012

BELLOWHEAD/ FUCKED UP (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)



BELLOWHEAD
Brighton Dome, Thurs 13th Nov

The fame of this bunch precedes them. Wikipedia comments the band “is particularly renowned for its energetic live performances”, while their own website claims them as “the greatest live act in Britain.” I've attempted to see them live twice before.

There's eleven of them in total, all singing, all dancing. (Well, most of them singing.) They sport fancy waistcoats. Though they come out of the folk world, they at times feel more like a big band (with brass aplenty) and at others as Brechtian cabaret. (Albeit that kind of via-Tom-Waits Brecht.) Arrangements can be intricate, tracks crammed with breaks, episodes and joined-up segments. They're like a cross between folk's answer to the Mothers of Invention and folk's answer to Madness.

The curtain pulls back to an elaborate nautically-themed stage set, which the audience applaud like a night at the theatre. At one point, someone shouts “very good”. Which seems to sum the whole thing up. It would be hard indeed to deny they're very good. But they're equally hard to love. They feel like a show with a band attached. Bellows can give vital oomph to something. But this feels not Bellowhead but All Bellows, the oomph without anything particular to be oomphed, lungs without heart.

Inevitably for me, I enjoyed the more Brechtian moments the best. While the sound and fury let loose elsewhere seemed to signify little, these had a slither of darkness to them. Lurching rhythms set to cynical lyrics, acidly disparaging everything with which they came into contact. Life as a leaky boat and then we drown.

But for the rest of it... well, marks for effort.

Not from Brighton, from Dartford earlier this year.



FUCKED UP
The Haunt, Brighton, Fri 16th Nov

"All we need is for something to give,
The dam bursts open, we suddenly live"

The most arresting thing about this Canadian hardcore punk outfit isn't that in-your-face expletive-undeleted monicker, but their unlikely frontman – who trades under the equally unlikely stage name of Pink Eyes. He's not in the first flush of youth, balding and overweight enough that when he tries crowd surfing he just plummets to the floor. When he swings the mike around his head, his expression is less of effortless cool and more a schoolboy with a sum to do. He's like an all-in wrestler crossed with a clown, somehow misbooked a singer slot but eager to make a go of it. He's not a great singer, even by punk's broader definitions of the term. He's not even that good at shouting, he's kind of hoarse. It's hard to work out what he can do.

But whatever it is, he's great at it. There's quite possibly more chaos here than I've seen at a gig since the classic hardcore days of yore. He spends half his time in the audience. Half of whom spend half their time on the stage. (By the end the stage is so crowded the band retreat to the drum riser.) But he ceaselessly welcomes stage invaders without ever surrendering to them. He holds our attention throughout, and never misses a beat.

Better still, perhaps there's something about his cheery clownishness, his sheer apparent wrongness for the stage, something in the music or a blend of all the above. But the set channels all of hardcore's energy and drive, while letting in none of the nihilism. It's a euphoric set to watch. Now I like negativity as much as the next man. But for those of us who finally despaired of hardcore, as it fell further and further into macho posturing and crowd violence, this is a welcome change. It's like the shot of spirits without the hangover.

The band behind him look so different, I wondered if that might be deliberate. Rather than punk attitude, they exude a kind of preppiness. Bass player Mustard Gas in particular seems to be modelling that look from old films, where the Secretary is seconds away from taking off her specs and letting down her hair. The music they're pumping out is impressively tight and surprisingly melodic, with some tuneful backing vocals. Behind that clown mask there's a sharp and focused outfit.

The word which keeps coming to mind is 'faux.' A term we often use to mean 'fake', but in a positive sense. Pink Eyes seems such an everyman it's impossible not to be engaged. His persona, as much as the music, may be the invitation for so many punters to jump on stage. But at the same time they're an invitation, the band are also giving us a watermark to live up to. As John Lydon said himself “Do it yourself. But properly.”

Ultimately, what could be more punk? A wall of muscle, blubber and attitude, veins popping, screaming in our faces - “Let's be together, let's fall in love.”

And we did.

I couldn't find any clips from the Brighton gig, so this is from London earlier this year.


(Also check out this clip for audience-interaction antics in Sydney.)

Given the way I've written about this gig, you'd be forgiven for thinking the band are a live-only affair. Which is often true of hardcore bands – but not in this case! To prove my point, I'm also linking to the video from recent single 'Queen of Hearts'. The track's from a hardcore concept album about a worker in a lightbulb factory in Thatcherite Britain, who discovers love, radical politics and metafiction in more-or-less that order. But the video's in the style of Haneke's 'White Ribbon' and instead of the singer's vocals features a chorus of children. (I am not making this up. In fact I'm impressed anyone could have made that up.)


Coming Soon! The final part of my write-ups from the Ether festival. It's underway, honest! Just knew I wouldn't be finishing it today...

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