Saturday, 21 April 2018


The Barbican, London, Sat 14th April

After seeing the Thurston Moore Group in Hove last year, I was most taken by the longer, slower, self-weaving pieces. Not least because they took things the furthest from the Sonic Youth days. (Who were great, of course. But all the more reason not to want their blundering zombie corpse.) But mostly because, as I put it at the time, they were “expanding beyond the usual range of guitar rock.” And in fact, listening to the ’Rock ‘n’ Roll Consciousness’ album, I’ve found it’s the longest track, the extendedopeningof’Exalted’ which is the most memorable.

And this gig in many ways picks up from there, ditching the group format altogether for a line-up of twelve twelve-string guitars. For the first half, titled ’Earth’, they playedacoustically.The accompanying film-show mostly featured abiogenesis (shooting, sprouting, blooming and the like), but the appeal of the music was that it wasn’t linear in the same fashion. With’Exalted’there’s an inevitability that it willbuild up into something, the guitars willget louder, the vocals willkick in.

Here, things could take their own course, with less emphasis on an overall structure and more on each passing moment. With just one instrument, albeit multiplied by twelve, sonic range was limited. And changes happened slowly, often passing across players like fronts in aweather system. (Changes communicated by numbers from a held-up notepad, suggesting a modular system of composition.) Which meant you needed to listen more closely than at a rock gig. But once you got there it was mesmerising.

’Sky’, was for a similar number of electric guitars. But anyone expecting the sight of jack plugs and amps meant a return for more familiar territory would have been confounded. It had one of the most “have they started yet” starts I’ve experienced in some while. I think they started at… you know, the start but suffice to say it took its own time to build up.

For the first half of the piece not a chord was played as strings were plucked by multiple fingers, struck with sticks, scraped and screwdrivered. It produced the most ethereal of sounds, where sight unseen whole sequences would never have seemed the work of guitars.

It then slowly built up into a melodic pattern something like pealing bells, before some of your actual guitar riffing finally emerged. As this grew more and more powerful I assumed this time things would end on a crescendo. But instead, in time-honoured fashion, twelve guitars were turned against twelve amps. Rather than the squalls of feedback, this produced a rather aum-like hum. From there the piece took a palindromic structure, passing through an abbreviated form of the earlier sections before diminishing to nothing.

Which is, I think, significant. Despite what the title might suggest, itwasn’t really about blasting off. It more took life in the weightless expanse of space, getting drawn into a gravitational field but then floating free of it.

Moore’s far-out comments in the programme first seemed a bit hippy-dippy, yet in retrospect they seemed almost earned. While the two pieces hit my senses as something fresh and new, at the same time theyseemed on a trajectory that made sense to me. It’s not the Eighties any more, and we don’t need to stay stuck in them. My musical tastes have widened over the years, and the rock track no longer has primacy. So the people I was listening to in the Eighties, particularly those who were even them pushing against the limits of the rock track, why shouldn’t they be moving forwards in the same way?

Theseclipsmay not stay up for long, knowing the Barbican…

Con Club, Lewes, Thurs 12th April

The Mekons had the short and volatile history you’d expect from a punk band formed in 1977. Their first single was rejected for distribution by Rough Trade, haven of the DIY sound, for sounding too DIY. Until the NME made it Single of the Week, and the decision was soon reversed. They then signed to Virgin records, from where they were unceremoniously dropped after one album. But now, as we’ve come to expect from this sort of thing, they’re back.

Except nothing is so straightforward here. The band actually reformed in ‘84, originally as a means to perform benefits for the striking Miners. But a move to America heralded a new rootsy sound, claimed by some to have invented alternative country. And they’ve been going ever since, with me seeing them in London last year. So the original Mekons have become a second head, hence that ‘77’ suffix.

The difference in the sounds is accentuated by that London gig being an acoustic performance in a Church, and by for this gig band member Jon Langford supporting with the Four Lost Souls – who are in sound the New Mekons in a more stripped-down format. Alas for some perverse reason they played support to the support band, so I missed the start of their set. Still, I did hear the one about the Gospel star staging a comeback despite death.

And the difference was accentuated again by only two members being common to old and new versions, Langford and Tom Greenhalgh. And Langford then abandoned his pole position for the drum stool, for all but one number. Many rivers have been crossed since 1977, and the two lead singers now bear a striking resemblance to Morecambe and Wise. To the point where I wondered if one would do an encore without telling the other.

Which actually became kind of fitting. If they were a political band, with the opening number only semi-jokingly introduced as a Marxist critique of economics, they were also possessed of an absurdist sense of humour. Songs can be about fighting the cuts one minute (still relevant, as they ruefully point out) and Dan Dare in space the next.

Musically things ranged from three-chord jabs to longer, darker, more expressionist pieces. It’s similar to the way old hippie bands such as Gong would alternate between short, sharp numbers and spacey jams, the variation accentuating the unique taste of each. Not au fait with the early Mekons I don’t know if the longer numbers came slightly later, or are even still to come. (Some tracks are recently written, and a Mekons 77 album is “anticipated”.)

Both Leeds-based bands, back in the day the Mekons were fellow travellers with Gang of Four. And if they sound quiet different they have a similar advantage. In retrospect the problem with punk wasn’t so much the often cartoony politics as the way the insurrectionary rhetoric soon became kind of reassuring. (People gonna rise up? I’ll watch out for that.) It was a problem which started with the Clash, and reached it’s risible nadir with the likes of Conflict. Whereas the Mekons were always simply too awkward for that.

As the Four Lost Souls stopped to tune their two guitars, one of the singers commented she preferred music which allowed her to go “left of tune”. Later, the assembled Mekons echoed the sentiment, figuring a left-of-tune sound went with left politics. Amen to that.

Their second single,’Where Were You?’...

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