Saturday 14 October 2017


Concorde 2, Brighton, Mon 9th Oct

Big Black were one of those back-in-the-day bands I simply loved. But for some arbitrary reason I never caught up with Steve Albini’s successor outfit Shellac. Yet now, some twenty-five years into their existence, they show up for what is bizarrely their first Brighton gig. And as things turn out, if they’re tuned to a different wavelength to their predecessors they’re just as stellar a band. I’d simply been missing out this past quarter century.

In this Quietus interview, Albini states the liberating spirit of punk as the vital thing with those who insist on continually confining themselves to it’s outer style as “stunted”. In the same interview he explained “From the beginning, we decided that we were just going to make records and put them out, and that was it… We were just going to go about our affairs as a band, play shows, make records and let people come across them as they would…. I have a visceral reaction to advertising and promotion.” Which to me means something like “Just build it. Who cares if they come or not?” And indeed they’re still DIY enough to set up their own gear, even packing it away at the end while the bassist continues to thump away at a riff.

However, when Fugazi similarly slipped out of hardcore’s strictures they also (largely) abandoned its love of noise. Whereas Shellac have kept up the same unrelenting abrasive barrage. Though commonly thought of as somewhere between post-hardcore and a noise band, they can employ the heavy riffing of hard rock. But rather than blasting from both barrels their music’s more like one of those maximum ricochet shots marksmen always use in films, unpredictable turns always arriving at their target. Tracks are full of stop-start rhythms and unexpected angles.

Notably every member of the band works it, no-one there just to fill out the sound. Indeed, condensing things down to a trio may have been about eliminating the possibility of on-stage crowd scenes. Drummer Todd Trainer’s placed only marginally further back than the others, with no-one stood in front of him. At one point he even embarks on a (kind of) drum solo, albeit one with the others still chugging away. A rare example of such a thing not causing a rush to the bar.

The band’s own favoured name for their sound is “minimalist rock”. And, as is often with punk music, there’s not just a self-discipline at work but an almost puritan dislike of extraneousness. It’s abrasive enough that Albini attacks his guitar as much as he plays it, with both hands and teeth. But it’s also musical enough that they have a patented method to cover his frequent retreats to retune. At such points bassist Bib Westin ”takes questions” from the audience, the good-humoured humour a strange break from the harshness of the music.

Listening to the blistering force of Big Black was like being run over by a steamroller while it was on fire. Not for no reason was a track called ‘Pavement Saw’. Whereas Shellac are more of a precision instrument. And, though to this day I love Big Black, it’s a welcome change. Big Black were rooted in their Eighties era, holding a truth-telling mirror to Reagan America’s dark underbelly. Whereas Trump’s America wears that dark underbelly on its face, and the last thing it needs is further exposure.

Okay, anyone who’s caught up with Shellac sometime before me, what’s the best album to begin with? The interweb seems to favour ’1000 Hurts’...

The Dome Theatre, Brighton, Wed 11th Oct

In the unlikely event anyone reading this doesn’t already know British folk star Richard Thompson, Stereogum have a reasonable primer here. While I have officially seen him perform solo before, in fact in this very venue, it was sometime in the Nineties, and one or two other things have happened since then. So this feels almost like a first time…

Though I think almost every song must have originally been written with a band in mind, the songs are easily strong enough to stand alone. In fact, with Thompson alone on a bare stage, unhurriedly taking the instrumental sections, it’s a reminder than stripping down gigs doesn’t lighten the tone so much as intensify it. His songs traditionally favour clouds over silver linings. Though proceedings are leavened by the odd humourous number, some laugh-out-loud funny and one leading to a cross between an audience singalong and a game to guess the impending rhyme.

The gig is based around two new releases, ’Acoustic Rarities’ and ’Acoustic Classics 2’. Though the acoustic classics series seems devised to represent the solo show rather than the other way around. With Thompson’s output so vast, I suspect I didn’t know many of the ‘classics’. But I can attest there were more of them than the time before last, when he ran right through his most recent album.

In fact, the only other time I’ve heard him play ’Beeswing’ was after an audience member implored him. And it may be the first time I’ve heard him reach back to the Richard and Linda Thompson era of the Seventies/early Eighties, which he does three times. He proudly introduced ’I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ as his hit, having reached the mighty chart placement of number 39.

He then promised something I hadn’t heard live before – to celebrate their recent fiftieth anniversary, a Fairport Convention number. I admit to secretly hoping for ’Meet On the Ledge’ but, cantankerous soul that he is, he bypassed his own back catalogue for a Sandy Denny track - ’Who Knows Where the Time Goes.’ Still, despite his self-effacing insistence “she sings it better” it was a fine version, evidence to follow. (I was later to discover that ‘Meet on the Ledge’ is considered part of his “average set list” when solo. You don’t win ‘em all.)

And perhaps the choice was fitting, for there does seem something timeless about Thompson. At the age of nineteen he was already writing the songs of someone who’s lived a dozen lifetimes, and at the age of sixty-eight he’s still doing it. Songs often feel set in a timeless era, the human condition recurring again and again. (Though ironically the much-celebrated ‘Beeswing’ is a rare exception, with its giveaway opening line “they called it the Summer of Love”. It is, I’ve always fancied, a song not just set in but about the Sixties.)

All sorts seem to get labelled a living legend these days, which may have more to do with ‘Q’ magazine having to come out every month than anything else. But every now and again, there’s someone for who the overused tag actually sticks.

The promised ’Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, albeit not from Brighton...

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