JEFFREY LEWIS + THE JUNKYARD
The Haunt, Brighton, Thurs 6th Sept
Lewis starts things off the way he intends to go on before he's even begun his first number. Which was all to the good, for that first number was made to wait awhile. Treating us to his theory that anticipation is better than realisation, he reasons that to eke out this supreme moment of anticipation would give us the best of all possible words. So he spins off into elaborating his theory with endless anecdotes, several of which seemed to feature Donovan's father, all seemingly off the cuff.
...which really is the ideal way to start the show. If I told you Lewis was good at making stuff up, you might comment that was a common feature among songwriters. But Lewis looks like he's making stuff up, he foregrounds it, gives everything a freewheeling discursive quality. His patented performed comic strips and 'low budget music videos' often end with the line “...that's all I've found out so far.” One guy standing nearby seems to be writing down what he says. That's nerdier than I am!
That troubadour element to folk music, that combination of describing life as it is while lurching off into the frontiers of the imagination, is usually the first thing to go. Folk becomes enlightened individuals treating us to their elevated thoughts and rarified feelings. With Lewis it's the first thing you find. The combination of sharp observation with free association and crazy flights of fantasy is probably something we now associate more with stand-up comedy than songwriting, whose rhymes and meters is supposed to even everything out. But with Lewis the line is thin.
Though I've never seen two subsequent nights of one tour, I'd like to imagine they differ a fair bit. Some bands you can love seeing, but once it's done and over and you don't necessarily need to see them again. Much in the way you don't always need to see a film, read a book or visit a city a second time. Lewis I've seen several times over already, and keep coming back for more.
Lewis has said he's happy with the anti-folk tag he's commonly given, but only because no-one really knows what it means. So here's a stab at it. Lewis' schtick is to collide folk with apparantly irreconcilable elements and then harvest the sparks. The most obvious of which is punk. He made a whole album of Crass covers (with added tunes), and tonight gives us a slideshow lecture (yes, really) on the history of punk in the Lower East Side.
...but it's more general than that. Lewis is sharp and witty in that detached hipster way, but however self-referential his lyrics get there somehow remains something genuine and affecting. This is true, I kid not, even of the song about eating alone in a restaurant, then having to persuade the waitress you're not leaving, it's just that you have to take your backpack with you to the bathroom. Perhaps it's the happy ending. (The waitress offers to look after the backpack.)
There's no Crass covers tonight but us oldies are treated to a rollicking version of the Fall's 'Kurious Orange.' And he even draws comic strips! If he didn't exist, I might have to make him up...
Not from Brighton or even a genuine live gig clip. Just go with it, okay...
PATTI SMITH + HER BAND
Brighton Dome, Wed 12th Sept
Regular readers, should such a thing exist, will know I have been to and enthused over Patti Smith gigs before. Last time I commented “there's nothing you can possibly compare Patti Smith gigs to except each other, so we may as well get started.”
We may as well get started.
I find the events to have such a strong and heady atmosphere about them that it's palpable. She must be met by of the biggest ovations I've seen for simply coming on stage, and she has each time I've seen her. You don't feel anyone is there because they've fancied a nice night out, or they've heard it's a cool thing to do. People wave and sing along with little prompting, but without it feeling like some cliched rockist ritual. She waves back, not regally or like a rock star, but for all the world like she's catching up with some old friends. It might sound somewhat hyperbolic to describe the feeling as love. But on the other hand, I can think of no other word which fits better. With Smith there's no dodgy mid-career filler albums, no celebrity endorsements to contend with. The real deal? I'm not sure they come realer.
This was most similar to the time before last, which was coincidentally in this same venue. But that was more of an all-star affair, a career celebration. Last time she took mock umbrage over being asked about a new album.This time there's a new album, 'Bhanga', to unveil. I'm not sure whether that's the first time that's been the case, but it's certainly the first time it's felt the case. (Alas I'm yet to hear the new album. Tracks from it sounded good in the main, but I'll focus here on older stuff just because it's easier to talk about.)
Perhaps the key word is 'smooth'. Tracks often varied from the recorded versions, including a version of 'Babelogue' which paid tribute to the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. But they didn't feel like they varied much from the rehearsed versions. Not only the extemporised, free-form breakouts were absent but the longer, earlier numbers which originally spawned them, 'Birdland', 'Land' or 'Radio Ethiopia' were unvisited.
In that sense it was almost the antithesis of the home family band I saw last time. This was a unit pumping out classic tracks like they could do it all night. Yet while that previous night had been a little too rough to always be ready, this time you sensed edges which once existed were being smoothed down. The lows were gone, but with them went some of the highs. Some of the instrumental breaks bordered on the slick, such as a guitar into to 'Free Money', absent from the original. (Yet an instrumental section added to the middle of 'Southern Cross' was nothing less than exhilerating.)
But all my comparing and contrasting will ultimately come to naught. I don't think there's a best gig to have gone to, not in the sense of some Platonic ideal reached which meant you could skip the rest. The gigs work more like here albums do, with each having it's own character and appeal, like facets of a larger shape which can only be presented one side at a time. She's now 65, and I don't think those facets are used up yet...
There seems a dearth of decent footage from the European tour for some reason. So instead here's 'Gloria' from Detriot...
THE FLAMING STARS
Green Door Store, Tues 2nd Oct
“My world fell apart, brick by brick,
My guardian angel took the day off sick,
It takes one hand to hold the bottle,
The other to pour,
But I can't seem to get up off the floor”
When fliers for this gig first appeared I'd have to admit to having no idea these Festive Fifty stalwarts were still around! But it was, you know, one of those pleasant surprises. And indeed though dating back to '94 it seems their brand of garage rock, tinged with German Expressionism then laced with sardonic humour, is still around.
It occurs to me that these days they may only play irregularly, for it takes them a little while to get into their stride. But soon, instead of merely starting and finishing, tracks start to surge ahead, filling with outbreaks of swelling organ and thumping drums. The vocals remain restrained throughout, less sung than muttered beneath the frontman's breath, but take on an undercurrent of feeling. Indeed, my thought may have been on the money, for afterwards I read they've not released a record for six years and as of now have no further gigs lined up.
But that slow, ease-in sort of a start... it's also kind of appropriate. The archetypal John Peel band took on a whole host of influences, often as much European as American. But by the time they'd distilled them it always ended up sounding somehow uniquely British, never a paler imitation of anything else.
Of which the Flaming Stars are a classic example. They're simultaneously expressive and reticent. They're not a band that leaps on stage and commands attention. They're more like a mumbling drunk seated sullenly at the end of the bar, fumbling with his glass, not meeting your eye, who only gradually draws you into his orbit – hooking you in with his sharp observation and even sharper wit.
It's tribute night to John Peel (who died this month in '04), and frontman Max Decharne quietly but decisively tells us the band owe everything to him. But it's only afterwards that I read that, doubling as a journalist, he was actually the last person to interview Peel. Not some assignment-meeting hack, not even someone who knew and appreciated what Peel had done, but someone who'd been a direct beneficiary of it all. If Decharne doesn't show up very often, it's not because he doesn't know his timing.
”Well, you look down as things look up
No-one comes to wish us luck
Well, you can close my eyes and shut the door
And I can't seem to get up off the floor”
Not from Brighton, not even a live clip. But worth watching nonetheless...
Coming Soon! Um.... stuff....