Crystal Stilts, Wet Paint, The Manhattan Love Suicides – Nottingham Chameleon Arts Café, Wednesday February 25.
It might not be the highest profile of venues (and unless you know exactly where to look, you’ll struggle to find it), but the Chameleon on Angel Row is currently hosting some of the most exciting grassroots gigs in the city. Because of the lack of publicity (you’ll probably need to be on Facebook), there was a sense of having stumbled across a well-kept secret, far away from the shallow hipster pack.
The Manhattan Love Suicides churned out a low-fi, fuzzed-out racket, channelling elements of 1966-era Velvet Underground, 1976-era Ramones and 1986-era Jesus And Mary Chain. The playing was simple, fierce and precise; the effect was mesmerising and energising.
Wet Paint appeared to have recruited Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls on bass and Scooby-Doo’s Thelma on drums. They were the most conventionally indie band of the night, and perhaps this counted slightly against them.
Like half the hottest acts of the past two years, Crystal Stilts hail from Brooklyn. As with their two predecessors on the bill, their drummer is female. On record, they mostly sound like sulky Mary Chain copyists. On stage, they quickened their rhythms, expanded their range, and came to full and glorious life. It was a privilege to experience them at such close quarters.
If so-called “wonky pop” is a genre which we’re going to have to start taking seriously, then at least Esser makes a better fist of it than most of 2009’s crop of eager young hopefuls. (You know the ones: all shiny new record contracts, “directional” hairdos and over-zealous image consultants.) Stylistically, he was all over the place, cheerfully plundering anything that took his fancy from pop’s last three decades. Performance-wise, he didn’t let the crowd’s polite indifference stand in the way of putting on a confident, mostly convincing show.
Following appearances at the Rescue Rooms in June and Trent University in October, Black Kids found themselves in town for a third time, on their biggest stage yet. Although not exactly a natural arena act, their set scaled up better than might have been expected – especially given the rough edges that were on display just a few months ago. A little more variety in tone and pace would have served them well, but it’s still relatively early days for this cheerful and likeable band, whose well-executed indie-pop did a fine job of warming the arena up for the main attraction.
Given the disappointing performance of their third album, and the complete commercial failure of their last single, you might expect the Kaiser Chiefs to be feeling the strain by now. But when it comes to staging a crowd-pleasing show in a major venue, their status as one of this country’s most popular and effective live acts remains unassailable.
Bounding onto the stage in a haze of thick smoke, singer Ricky Wilson began his performance at full tilt, and barely dropped it down a notch for the full ninety minutes. A series of little posing platforms had been placed around the front and the sides of the stage, allowing him to give full expression to his exhibitionist urges. Occasionally, he would scale one of the lighting rigs, in order to dangle precariously above the capacity crowd. Towards the end of the main set, he darted into the wings and re-emerged moments later at the rear of the hall, perched on a slightly larger platform and bellowing his key message: “We are the Kaiser Chiefs!”
For while their detractors might find them smug and shallow, the whole essence of the Kaiser Chiefs is optimistic, celebratory, inclusive – and yes, unashamedly self-glorifying. Their songs might be peppered with clever lyrical twists here and there – but when all’s said and done, they’re not exactly the deepest songs in the world. Indeed, many of their most popular numbers – Ruby, Never Miss A Beat, Oh My God – scarcely seem to be about anything at all, barring a vague cynicism about the hollowness of modern life which sometimes teeters on the brink of outright sneering. As such, they make perfect anthems for 10,000 eager souls to roar along to – stabbing their fists in the air and having the time of their lives, but without ever needing to engage with the music on a deeper emotional level.
Subtle as a flying mallet they may be, but the Kaiser Chiefs – and the excitable Mr. Wilson in particular – are masters of giving their followers exactly what they want: punchy stadium anthems, delivered with precision and panache. Depending on your point of view, last night’s show was either a headache-inducing pantomime of empty gestures, or a belting, barn-storming and brilliant night out.
Every Day I Love You Less And Less
Everything Is Average Nowadays
Heat Dies Down
You Want History
Good Days Bad Days
Na Na Na Na Naa
Love’s Not A Competition (But I’m Winning)
Like It Too Much
Half The Truth
Never Miss A Beat
I Predict A Riot
Take My Temperature
The Angry Mob
Tomato In The Rain
Thank You Very Much
Oh My God
Thanks to the efforts of Nottingham’s excellent Dealmaker Records, the Malt Cross played host to a commendably diverse line-up of artists: a folk/soul singer-songwriter, a beat-boxing turntablist and a Mercury-nominated progressive jazz quartet.
Although visibly shaken by the unavailability of her backing band, coupled with a series of unfortunate technical glitches, local artist Natalie Duncan turned out to be a smouldering revelation. An intense, emotive yet controlled performer, her beautiful vocals carried echoes of early 1970s artists such as Minnie Riperton and Linda Lewis.
Squeezed into the far side of the venue’s uniquely challenging mezzanine stage, Red opened and closed his set with some amazing beat-boxing, his deceptively relaxed demeanour making it all look so easy. His turntable skills were no less impressive – particularly on Seen, his best known track.
They might have started out as South Bank buskers, but the Portico Quartet’s moody, cerebral style is more suited to the concert hall than the pavement these days. As such, their music proved an awkward fit for the convivial, chatty crowd at the Malt Cross. For those with the patience to concentrate, there were ample rewards to be reaped – but despite the undeniably exquisite playing, a little more colour and mischief wouldn’t have gone amiss.
These annual NME package tours can be patchy affairs. For every band who leap-frogs to greater success (Coldplay, The Killers, Arctic Monkeys), plenty more are destined to fall by the wayside (hands up, who remembers Campag Velocet, Alfie, Mumm-Ra or JJ72?).
Following below-par showings in 2007 and 2008, this year’s line-up marked a return to form. Florence and the Machine opened the show, with a well-received set that showcased Florence Welch’s powerful vocal capabilities. Florence was at her best on the more intense, dramatic numbers, which carried distinct echoes of Siouxsie and the Banshees. If she can rein in the ditsy bohemian act, and carry herself less like an art student and more like an artist, then her future should be assured.
Although the most orthodox band on the bill – we’ve heard these early New Order/Bunnymen influences many times before – White Lies proved to be the surprise hit of the night, building their comparatively lengthy set up to a satisfying crescendo, and demonstrating an efficient grasp of stagecraft.
They might be the superior band on record, but Friendly Fires struggled to retain the momentum set by White Lies. Their sound mix was sludgy, their playing lacked focus, and there was something faintly irritating about front man Ed Macfarlane’s over-strenuous cavortings. That said, nothing could spoil the impact of minor-league gems such as In The Hospital, Jump In The Pool or the sublime Paris. Perhaps this was just an off night?
Headliners Glasvegas have come a long way since their self-effacing half-hour set at the Bodega last January. They carry themselves differently these days. There’s more assurance, more authority, and even the first glimmers of a rapport with their audience. Rock City suited them perfectly, and James Allan returned our love with a smile and a bow. Despite an overly booming, bass-heavy mix, the night belonged to them.
According to Oscar Wilde, “being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know”. But where countless identikit indie bands strive unconvincingly to maintain their artful “we’re just like you” anti-images, Keane’s uncontrived ordinariness sits at the heart of who they are and what they do. More than most stadium-level acts of their generation, they have succeeded in minimising the gap between band and audience. Sure, singer Tom Chaplin might have busted out a few rockstar moves – but there was nothing aloof or remote about his sweaty antics, and the unselfconscious way he urged us to get on our feet and show our enthusiasm.
For those who like their stars to act like stars, Keane’s basic lack of charisma will always be a turn-off. They have been called bland, boring, the musical equivalent of beige. But for those who love the band’s music, and who find their own emotions reflected back at them by keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley’s yearning, heartfelt lyrics, the critics couldn’t be more wrong.
Chaplin’s vocals are perhaps his band’s greatest asset. Clear, resonant and pitch-perfect, he rode the soaring melodies with a chorister’s precision. Behind him, Rice-Oxley’s pounding keyboards dominated the sound as ever, fleshed out by unofficial fourth member Jesse Quin’s bass guitar. From time to time, Chaplin picked up a guitar or provided additional keyboards – but the simpler, stripped-down arrangements remained the most successful.
With all but two tracks from current album Perfect Symmetry getting an airing, the band worked hard to showcase their new material in the best possible light. But while the anthemic title track played to all their strengths, other more adventurous excursions – the Bowie-esque Better Than This, the skittering electronics of You Haven’t Told Me Anything – gave the impression of a band struggling valiantly to move forward, but in danger of burying the qualities that made them so popular in the first place.
The Lovers Are Losing
Bend And Break
Again And Again
Better Than This
A Bad Dream
This Is The Last Time
You Haven’t Told Me Anything
Leaving So Soon?
You Don’t See Me
Somewhere Only We Know
Playing Along (Tom solo)
Black Burning Heart
Is It Any Wonder?