Brighton Dome, Wed 8th May
”Take off your shoes – you're on hallowed ground”
Before setting out for this gig, I read a blog post by Andrew Hickey on Van Dyke Parks. It seemed appropriate, for O'Connor is off on the very opposite tack to Parks' polished erudition. Her confessional lyrics come out as if in a stream-of-consciousness rush. (Take her recent single, 'The Wolf Is Getting Married' an update on her life peppered by conversational qualifiers such as “what I mean is...”)
Whether they are written that way or she spends hours affecting that artlessness, that's beside the point. It's song imitating speech, giving things a feel of freshness, of directness and immediacy. It works very well in a medium such as music which you listen to in real time. It could work well live, I thought to myself...
In a modern music industry so retro-inclined it seems driven in reverse gear, it's good to see a set not only inclined towards recent tracks but where they're often the ones which tend to stand out. Moreover, for a singer renowned for transforming personal and political troubles into material, it's significant how often she draws on her recent “happier now” status - including the afore-mentioned 'Wolf.' It's perhaps harder to fix on the fuller half of the glass without sounding trite or platitudinous, but she seems to pull it off. Though perhaps thankfully they're not the only type of new song, with 'Take Off Your Shoes' and 'VIP' in particular dwelling on darker things. You can only take so much positivity, after all.
In her dog-collar, crucifix and rock-star shades, she makes for a striking if somewhat bizarre figure – more than living up to the tour's monicker 'Crazy Baldhead.' Virtually her first act is to dedicate the gig to Joan of Arc. Her celebrated voice is breathier and huskier, less angelic than it was, but still intact. Though she's fronting a six-piece band, the sound is more stripped-back, more gospel-tinged than the often elaborate arrangements of yore. It's closer to the John Lennon recipe for songwriting: “You say what you mean and put a backbeat to it.”
When the old tracks come up, this means they works better at times than at others. 'Jackie' drew cheers when it started up, but sounded a little flat-footed compared to the wild and elemental original. Notably, she didn't attempt 'Troy', and the less dramatic 'I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got' was the most visited of her earlier albums. (Though I found myself missing the choral hum that once saturated 'Nothing Compares 2U'.)
Perhaps most memorable were the acapella tracks, with O'Connor singing her heart out alone on stage, seemingly oblivious to us and holding us in the palm of her hand. There were striking versions of 'Three Babies' and particularly 'I Am Stretched on Your Grave'. A similar treatment for a personal favourite, 'Black Boys On Mopeds', might have not only worked well but felt appropriate so soon after Thatcher's timely demise. You can't have everything...
Explaining the final track will be built of long and heady stuff, she momentarily breaks off. “Forgive me”, she asks us, “I'm Irish.”
That's why we came, Sinead...
Speaking of 'Stretched On Your Grave'...
The Basement, Brighton, Sun 23rd May
”Well I've no use for riches
And I've no use for power
And I've no use for a broken heart
I'll let this world go by.”
I first saw folk songwriter Chris Wood some five years ago, playing support to the Imagined Village night. With him addressing the sizeable Brighton Dome armed only with an acoustic guitar, and with the main act's multi-media screens, endless guest stars and array of updating devices he seemed very much plain speaking yang to it's whizz-bang yin.
Here the odds have been a little more evened. While the venue this time is smaller, he's expanded to include a double bassist and keyboardist. But, as if to keep alive that distinction in our minds, he starts his set with a number from that night - 'John Barleycorn Must Die.' The key line from the Imagined Village version became “they hired men”; with each iteration, you pictured further hordes pouring over the horizon bearing ever-more worrisome agricultural implements. With Woods' version he recites the lyrics understatedely, in low register, the other players only slowly coming in to join him. The first struck out at you, the second draws you into it's orbit.
It's indicative, for Wood's particular magic is to convince you that you haven't come out to a gig at all. It feels more like he's turned up at your home to try out a few numbers on you, while politely enquiring if there might be such a thing as beer in the fridge. He enthuses that even the night's promoter has an allotment, fondly imagining clay under her fingernails. (“Chalk!” correct the audience as one.)
Remember that risible speech Ian Duncan Smith once made to the Tory conference - “do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man”? Chris Wood is that quiet man which Duncan Smith was pretending to be. He'd disappear in a crowd of two. Particularly if the other guy was Phil Jupitus.
There's political songs aplenty, but with none of the hectoring stridency some associate with that term. He plays the title track from his new release, 'None The Wiser,' which pretty much does what it says on the lid. He's added his own backing to Blake's 'Jerusalem', after feeling Parry's thundering version played down the poem's questioning quality. And there's humour too, including an observational piece about mid-life crises.
Perhaps some of the more domestic songs were too homespun, and could verge on the twee (such as 'My Darling's Downsized.') But then as he says, “they're all love songs really.”
And the keyboards... they certainly fitted certain tracks, and when required to do no more confined themselves to a supportive wash. But my heart beat more keenly whenever the instrumentation went down to a guitar and double bass. Even quite sparse accompaniment can seem like bells and whistles where Chris Wood's concerned, and less is normally more.
But overall... do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man.
Not from Brighton, but the same tour - his re-scored 'Jerusalem' from a soundcheck in Cambridge. The person in the YouTube comments asking what the words are, are they trying to be ironic or is there really no hope for the human race?
CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN
The Haunt, Brighton, Thur 30th May
”And we are rotting like a fruit
Underneath a rusting roof
We dream our dreams and sing our songs
Of the fecundity
Of life and love”
Pity us poor amateur reviewers. For what made this such a memorable gig is simultaneously what makes it difficult to write about. Though pretty much everything on offer stuck to song structure, the style of those songs varied so widely it wasn't like watching one band at all. A reliable source of gossip states “their eclectic and ever-evolving style mixes elements of pop, ska, punk rock, folk, alternative country, and various types of world music.” I don't think they did anything in the form of early baroque or grindcore, but I suppose I may have missed something. As a rough-and-ready comparison, the nearest I can manage is the Broken Family Band.
And every now and again they'd throw in something in the style I knew them for - the perky powerpop of their early years, such as the single 'Take The Skinheads Bowling.' With it's deadpan absurdist lyrics, purposefully written to sidestep making any kind of sense whatsoever, it seemed so unlike our image of straightfaced America it made them seem almost Anglophile. (Notably they also cover 'Pictures of Matchstick Men.')
Yet perhaps the most prevalent style on the night was the one which seemed to embrace their California home. They'd take on that languid late-in-the-afternoon pace, to the point where you felt were you to drop something it would take longer to leave your hand than before they came on. At times, it all became too laid-back for me. (A song about North California Girls which sounded way too much like you'd expect such a song to.) But other tracks were so steeped in melcancholia you were no longer sure whether they tasted bitter or sweet; dropping the Sunny Delight and biting into the citrus fruits of the musical world.
Such songs sung about the out-of-reach just because it's inaccessible by any other means, dreaming of some escape while acknowledging in the very same breath your only ever relationship to it will lie in your imagining it. They're not written under any pretense they'll change the world along with their chords, but as acts of self-commiseration. As they sing in 'All Her Favourite Fruit': “all the most exotic places, they are cultivated.”
And yet they're not quite as multi-faceted as they look. Even when they indulge in the Americana, something of the deadpan humour stays with them. This is something echoed in the very look of them. Only the goateed fiddle player Jonathan Segel passes for someone in any kind of band, the rest seem to have showed up in their best smart/casual gear for some West Coast management conference. Frontman David Lowery even bravely sports the jacket/tie/jeans combo, the internationally agreed uniform of the clueless middle-aged American. This being the post-ironic era, I was genuinely unsure whether this was a deliberate act or not. YouTube footage confirms he valiantly kept the look up nightly. Whichever way, its fitting.
I later discover their career to include a track-by-track cover of Fleetwood Mac's double album 'Tusk' and a rock opera about a civil war between a Texan religious-right militia and Californian surfer dudes, with added aliens. I mean, you can't go wrong really, can you? Plus they come up with cool artwork, see the tour poster above.
From London the night before, two tracks which should demonstrate the band's eclecticism, the afore-mentioned 'Her Favourite Fruit' followed by 'Long Plastic Hallway'. I may even like this version of the first track better than the recorded version, as it has that necessary hazy, out-of-focus quality...
..while, just to prove they were in Brighton...
Coming soon: The above does not signify, alas, that Mr Slow Coach here has finally caught up with stuff from May...