Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Live Review | Boredoms, All Tomorrow's Parties, Minehead, UK, 11.03.12

Boredoms ATP Eye

Photography: Michele Wade

Boredoms, as David Yow pronounced from the stage after seeing them that day at All Tomorrow’s Parties, are "the best fucking thing I have ever seen!"
I’m tempted to leave it at that.
Seriously, the best thing I have ever seen.


Oh, OK. So when I last saw Boredoms play a very long time ago they were this wiry electric ball of jazz-skronk, a bewildering, exhilarating, ridiculous tangle onstage and off, all of the members of the band bouncing off the walls and trailing noise wherever they went. They were a blast.

Boredoms have evolved. While still orchestrated by Eye and featuring drummer/singer Yoshimi P-We, Boredoms 2012 are as far from a chaotic Zorn-esque kerfuffle as a puma from a kitten.

Yoshimi starts by remembering (in Japanese; someone translates) the first year anniversary of the tsunami. She asks for a minute of silence and the whole place is quiet except for the rustles at the edges. Out of this loaded stillness, the performance starts with little whispered drifts of sound from each musician, a barely-perceptible breeze blowing through strings, the sound of an ensemble not tuning up so much as breathing. It takes a while to realise that this is a beginning rather than random clatter but when the noises coalesce into an almighty epic of a piece, it is clear that this is not anything like the skittery Boredoms of old: this is an oddly shaped but formidable orchestra.

In this particular incarnation there are 14 (fourteen!) guitarists on stage, ranged around a tight ring of five full drum kits in the midst of which storm Eye is conductor extraordinaire. But Eye is so much more than a conductor, even conductor in the sense of channeller of electricity rather than the more prosaic ‘leader’; he is a conjuror, a lightning rod, node, shepherd, magician. Today he is Prospero on his island choreographing orchestral spirits in a hooded robe and straw fisherman’s hat. He looks like he’s catching tunes. He coaxes sound from the players with gestures and dances his instructions as if he were a shaman engaged in spellcasting rather than mere entertainment.

This doesn’t sound like rock music. It seems to have more DNA in common with the sea or the weather than a rock band; his musicians respond to him with flurries of beats, the drummers in unison or sequence, or firing off a ripple of riffs in a Mexican wave of drumkits as if they were a taiko ensemble whose moves are as integral to the performance as their beat and whose performances are as beautiful to watch as they are to listen to. It’s enthralling, the ballet they make.

Boredoms ATP Yoshimi

Eye raises and lowers his hands, playing Yoshimi’s wordless voice as if she were a theremin, pitch and tone and volume tweaked mid-air. This is no mess. It might be as maximalist as fuck but every note is perfectly controlled, every cymbal hit from every drummer precisely in unison. The amount of skill and sheer hard slog in the practice room must be phenomenal.

Then there are the guitars, the glorious massed guitars, which in chorus make a unique noise. It’s not just about volume, it’s the tone and the size and the immensity of it. Eye wants to play the biggest guitar in the world and he already has two custom-made monsters with several sets of strings bolted onto a frame at the back of the stage; now he has a circular series guitar made from14 men and women to play on, with 14 sets of six strings all sounding one gigantic chord, strings upon struck strings, chiming like no other instrument. It’s a physical presence, that chord, juddering through the audience like fear or bliss or some such other primal reaction. The sound of all those guitars playing together makes other instruments redundant; you can hear them there anyway. Who’d have thought you could conjure oboes, horns, string sections, choirs, thunder, lightning, shadows and light out of massed reverberating strings?
Boredoms ATP

This is awesome in its most literal meaning. Music as power. I am rooted to the spot, pins and needles in my feet, as static and entranced by sound as I have ever been. People are open-mouthed. Shuddering. Gasping. The man in front of me has put his head down and wrapped his arms around himself to filter some of it out but it’s not discordant or painful, this noise, it’s delightful, mighty, ringing with harmonics and beauty. There’s a girl crying further down the row. Indeed, I can feel tears pricking behind my eyelids. Where did that come from, what internal button has been jabbed to elicit that response? What a strange species we are.

Eye uses whatever he can: a magpie making its nest out of hip hop beats, heavy metal doom chords, tribal polyrhythms. Sometimes a big bossy tune swells into existence, as if soundtracking some portentous scene from a horror film we can’t see. Which has the effect of making the experience actually frightening in parts: what the fuck is he summoning here? Clanging on his seven-headed guitar hybrid with a big wooden stick, the chilling thought occurrs to me that he really could be raising demons, cooking up a witches brew, stirring the substance of the sound with his staff like some ferocious musical Gandalf! I don’t think I’ve ever been scared by music before.

At one point in the second piece of the 90 minute set the chattering of all those guitars is like the metal teeth of an immense xylophonic giant. There are Eastern tonalities and scattered outbreaks of Western freeform drumming in amongst the order. It’s simultaneously pretty and disorientating and mesmeric.

The last piece takes the all-out approach to endings: it is endings taken to an apocalyptic degree. One simple, in fact downright cheesy, tune is amplified out of all proportion, inflated by guitar upon guitar taking it on, aloft on a repetitive tribal rhythm, repeated and repeated until it spirals us into an altered stated of consciousness and does not let go. Over and over, this one tune, until it is beaten into our heads and our blood and the rhythm of our heartbeats. It’s a virus, it’s a curse. It’s a call to arms. It’s a theme tune, a clarion call, it’s hypnosis. Music that has a physical effect on flesh and blood. Eye will not let it go, will not let us go. The tune ends and then starts up again, shaking us with all the tenacity of a crocodile with a bunny in its irresistibly prehistoric locked jaw.

When the beast of a tune does finally release its grip and lets the audience stagger out into the sunshine, they are reeling. People are turning to each other, wide-eyed and inarticulate, gasping like landed fish for something sensible to say.

I think, more than anything, we feel extraordinarily lucky.

People watching Boredoms at ATP

Originally published on Collapse Board

An Overview of All Tomorrow Parties curated by Jeff Mangum, Butlins, Minehead, UK, 09-11.03.12

Boredoms fans at ATP

Photography: Michele Wade

Yeah, I can see why people hate All Tomorrow’s Parties, the alterno-music festival that’s held in a seaside holiday camp. Or hate the idea of it. Running your eye down a typical line-up makes you wonder what decade we’re in. What century even. Now spreading its cardinganny tentacles across the globe with Parties in Japan, Australia and America, it’s easy to cast ATP’s USP as nostalgia-merchandising for aging indie kids, to scoff at it for allowing a certain brand of music fan whose record collection/mind stopped expanding when they turned pipe’n’slippers at 35 to indulge in “Ah, now this is Proper Music! Kids today, eh?” mutterings while closing their weary ears to the marvels that are being dreamt up now. Is ATP essentially any different to the themed weekenders that this very same Butlins holds throughout the winter months, the Disco Infernos (no, not that one) and the Ultimate Eighties parties? Well, no. It isn’t. You could argue that the line-ups are much more consciously and creatively picked by their guest curators, that ATP’s idea of “alternative” is more strictly accurate than Butlins’ own (whose Great British Alternative Festival features The Beat, The Damned, Hazel O’Connor and, uh, Eddie And The Hot Rods), but you couldn’t really make a case for it being a different order of things. It’s still just a group of 30/40-somethings gathering in a holiday camp to get drunk and watch bands whose heyday was decades ago. Bear with me. I fucking loved ATP.

First of all, it’s a festival with beds. Roofs. Kettles. Hot showers and roast dinners. A total dearth of hippies and mud. We roll into Butlins after a long and mostly featureless drive, the last hour in gathering dusk and along the twisty country roads that lead from Taunton to the small beached hummock of a seaside town that is Minehead, to find our misleadingly-named chalet is actually a small third-floor apartment with sofa, table, kitchen, television etc. Oh joy! Cue cooing over the dishwasher and microwave, neither of which we would use over the course of the weekend. Although we do bake cakes and a huge pot of soup from which we replenish ourselves on between-bands chalet trips. (On Saturday I overhead a group of people making enthusiastic plans to cook venison stew and had to stop myself from snorting out loud.)

Low fans at ATP

On the whole it’s a well-dressed and likeable crowd (no hippies, remember; no trustafarian twattishness, no “Uni” students in comedy hats). Everyone I meet from Sheffield is wearing a suit. Everyone from Leeds is absurdly cool. Everyone from Scotland knows everyone else from Scotland and is magnificently drunk. By Sunday afternoon I’ve been introduced to so many youngish/oldish men with beards that I’m smiling at all of them, just in case. There are lots of people here in the same glasses, you know the ones? Everyone over 40 looks like they’re in a seminal indie band. That’s quite an impressive look for oldsters to pull off and, to be fair, most of them probably are in a seminal indie band, given ATP’s remarkable lack of separation between performer and punter. Everyone here’s a geek-level fan. I discover the man in the peculiar hat I’d noticed in audiences throughout the weekend is a key member of Olivia Tremor Control. I see Alison from Young Marble Giants who played on the first day still smiling as she queues to get into the last act on Sunday. Eye from Boredoms down the front for The Raincoats. Mike Scott from The Waterboys (who weren’t playing) agog at Joanna Newsom. Low take a 30-strong crowd jogging along the seafront on Sunday morning. It’s all rather egalitarian and lovely.

Above all, ATP brings you the music its curator loves, the music they want to hear played live even if the band in question split up years ago. It’s all about being head-over-heels in love with music.

Joanna Newsom fans at ATP

Any festival is an interactive adventure game: you make your choices (Turn left? Turn right? This band? That band? Fight troll? Have a lie-down?) at any given point and you plough your own path through its varied offerings, carving out an experience that is unique to you alone. But ATP has always seemed a more collective experience than most. Maybe it’s simply because there are fewer options at any given point in time, fewer bands playing for fewer hours in the day and on only three stages (although that doesn’t take into account the extra-curricular activities available: the swimming, bowling, arcade games, pub grub, pop quizzes, book clubs etc). It’s like when there were only four channels available on TV: you knew that just everyone would’ve watched last night’s episode of Doctor Who and would be talking about it in class the next day. Here everyone’s buzzing with the thrill of Boredoms' performance, chuffed by The Fall delivering the goods, and – gallingly for me, who missed it – enthusing about the intensity and ohmigod specialness of festival curator Jeff Mangum’s solo set. However, even given the communal heterogeneity of the ATP experience (and this one at first glance screams “just gimme indie rock!” for all its little white boy lungs are worth), you can still pick and choose a route to make your festival less dewy-eyed, glory years rerun and more an opportunity to chance upon extraordinary music.
If you wanted to trace a Wire-ish path through the weekend, for example, you could follow the breadcrumb trail of ‘contemporary’ music laid by the avant-genii likes of the Sun Ra Arkestra, Roscoe Mitchell, Group Doueh, Matana Roberts/Seb Roachford, Blanck Mass, Earth, Demlike Stare, even a performance of Gavin Bryars’ ‘Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and it would be blindingly clear that my indie-boy slur on Mangum’s sensibility has been skewed by the headliners. You could equally well stick to current women-centred excellence by seeking out the eerie aceness of Canadians Yamatanka//Sonic Titan, all Noh-theatre make-up, fluttering fans and drama; the elemental lyricism of Joanna Newsom; Versus’ proto-Mathy magic; Feathers’ psychedelic dream pop [presumably NOT the psychedelic dream pop of all-female Brisbane band Feathers, though? - Ed]; you could worship at the feet of rock goddesses Mimi from Low, Eleni of The Fall, Boredoms’ Yoshimi P-We and, er ... OK, so the womanly side of ATP isn’t that much in evidence after all: let’s have a female curator next time, eh?

In fact, in the end, by failing to catch Sebadoh or either of Mangum’s sets, my ATP doesn’t much resemble the early 90s wallow-fest the line-up first suggests. I manage to miss Mangum’s first set in a combination of just-got-here high spirits, long queues and disorientation that the main stage - which is usually situated in the middle of a gigantic turreted pavilion, surrounded by bars, Burger King and covetable band merchandise - has been moved upstairs. ‘Centre Stage’ is yer typical Butlins glitter-ball and glass venue which has surprisingly excellent sound and tiers of seats and tables above the dancefloor for those as want. Which, at some point in the whirl of bands and alcohol and more bands and more alcohol, most people do. It turns out that there will be no bands on in the pavilion all weekend, a fact that enrages at first because it means that there will be no wandering in and out at will during the most popular acts, and which inevitably leads to increased queues and schedule-anxiety. But by the end of the weekend it’s clear that the decision was a good one: the sound is much better and the atmosphere more intimate in the Centre Stage space; it would’ve been a shame to lose utterly blusterless acts like Magnetic Fields, Joanna Newsom or even, presumably, Jeff Mangum, in the unenclosed vastness of the pavilion.

Yamatanka//Sonic Titan

I say presumably because my weekend is bookended by a similar defeat at the feet of the interminable queue to see him close the festival: a queue created by the decision to boot every last punter out of the venue before he plays and which results in a line of weary festival-goers waiting to get back into the room they’d just vacated, a queue trailing from the barriers of Centre Stage, all across the pavilion, along past slot machines and the bowling alley, out of the doors the other side, past the security line-up, and straggling off into the night. I walk past it and carry on walking back to the chalet and bed.

The other immediate annoyance is that Friday night’s line-up is both full-on and full of teeth-grinding schedule-clashes. The Raincoats overlapping with The Fall?! Young Marble Giants directly up against Joanna Newsom? Thurston Moore versus Half Japanese? Minutemen main men at the same time as Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion? It’s like some kind of aging hipster bad dream, a test of loyalty and taste set up by a maniacal Cowell-a-like demon to poke the X Factor haters in their most tender of fanboy places. In the end we just have to make our choices, set our hearts against regret and go for it.

By the way, spot the odd one out in that list. Yes, Joanna Newsom is young, female and current. Everyone else, even the two outfits which are still producing new music, The Fall and Thurston Moore, are trading to some extent on past glories, are bands who maybe we’d really rather be TARDIS-ed back to watching in 1978 or 1988. There are even bands who’ve washed up here outside of their time and without their frontmen (Sun Ra Arkestra and The Magic Band: neither of whom I saw but SRA at least seemed to bring the razzle and send folk bouncing out happy after their set).

The Raincoats at ATP

Not that there aren’t obvious pleasures in seeing bands you missed first time round - I’m glad I’ve seen Young Marble Giants and The Raincoats now - I have context; I have experience– but there is something profoundly peculiar in watching middle-aged musicians play their own music, composed in youth and naïvety and cheerful ineptitude, note-for-note 30-odd years later. That music was played by kids who were radiant with newness, whose youth was firing self-belief and fuck-it-isms at the world, who didn’t care if they couldn’t play 'properly' and were all the more glorious for it; what does it mean when these very same people, with decades of proficiency behind them, are recreating the same songs? And, unlike The Fall, say, aren’t continuing to make new music? Where does the musicianship go? Where is the wisdom and the effect of the passing years? Does it leave no mark? And although it’s undeniably enjoyable to see the songs of your youth played live it tends to be a show, rather than a revelation. It pushes different buttons. It might be unfair to cast Sebadoh, Scratch Acid, The Minutemen, Neutral Milk Hotel, Young Marble Giants or The Raincoats as merely reformed Showaddywaddyesque end-of-pier acts when their shows are so few and so good and so particular to context but it’s also worth remembering that sometimes it’s just fine to have good old-fashioned fun at the seaside.

The Fall at ATP

Young Marble Giants were beautifully low-key, and like The Raincoats, appeared to be enjoying themselves immensely (I’ve written about both of these, The Fall and Joanna Newsom here.) There’s definitely more to be wrung from the experience by those who are here to revisit dearly-loved vinyl than those for whom this is new territory: memories and nostalgia add warm and fuzzy resonance to each chord struck.

The Fall have no time for look-back bores: they plough relentlessly through a set of old and new songs, the gruppe as shiny, fierce and full-on groove monster commanding a mosh pit roiling with sweaty bodies and exhilaration. And I’ve never seen such a high volume of Fall fans in one place: it’s like a lone inheritor of an obscure language suddenly finding themselves amongst a tribe of native speakers, an alterniverse where Mark E Smithisms are the lingua franca. Here, in the voluble intoxicated chatter of the outside smoking area, he is appreciated. Operation mind-fuck, indeed.

Thurston Moore at ATP

Thurston Moore - who from a distance looks exactly the same as a decade ago when I last saw him play, all hair and plaid shirt - seems to be playing material from his solo album of decade ago rather than his acoustic stuff from last year but I like it a lot. Maybe because, unsurprisingly, it makes the same sort of Moebius-twisted shapes as Sonic Youth. Moore is a master of harmonics; he coaxes microtonal dramatics out of top-end heavy blasts of noise, two guitars, a violin (no bass) whipping up a trebly squall. “What’s new?” he says. Yes, well. What is? New isn’t a priority here. Does that matter?

Jon Spencer plays his usual dirty blues – a double dose of old that has end-of-the-evening me thinking of Status Quo, despite or because of his mesmerising shiny leather kecks and the tremendous righteous battering he gives to ancient rock’n’roll tropes. By this point in the day – he comes on at one in the morning – everyone is too fucked to care; we’re down to bloodthumping basics.

Scratch Acid, Saturday’s main stage closer, pass summa cum laude the, er, acid test of whether a band entirely unknown to the listener can engage them; no enhancements, no performance-boosters of nostalgia or familiarity or celebrity or reference points or fondness, just the bare bones of an experience, the playing of the music. I know its illustrious spawn, Jesus Lizard and Rapeman, but I’ve never heard a note of Scratch Acid before and don’t expect much of it. But each successive song has me edging forward, out of my seat and onto the floor until by midset I am mid-mosh where a bare-chested David Yow is being carried aloft on the crowd. Scratch Acid make the kind of furious noisy mess that makes me want to singalong raucously even though I don’t know a single word. It makes me stamp and shout and grin. It makes me rush up to Yow an hour later and gush at him about how brilliant he was (and he seems genuinely touched by my enthusiasm, gives me a hug and wishes me nothing but the best. Agh, starstruck!).

Then, two successive afternoons, out of the Spring sunshine and into the glitterball dancehall, there’s Boredoms. Boredoms turn out to be so transcendentally awesome that their performance alone is justification for the continued existence of ATP and I thank Jeff Mangum from the bottom of my uplifted heart for having the intelligence and savvy to put them on. To put them on twice, even! No one can follow them. Earth suffer particularly in this respect, their trancey drones ample consciousness-altering fodder in the usual course of things, but no match for mass post-Boredoms euphoria. (Review to follow.)

So what’s new? Does it matter that a festival schedules mostly oldies for oldies? I guess not. Music isn’t linear. There’s no “progress” being made, just evolution, revolution, change. What’s the difference in discovering Scratch Acid like a revelatory noise rock thunderbolt from the blue and hearing Pussy Riot for the first time if both make your heart skip a beat? Music is only notes; the listener provides as much context as the era it sprung from. Heart-racing excellence isn’t confined to the new. So party on, ATP. You bring new things to mix, even if they’re decades old. If it were me picking a line-up, I’d ramp up the girl quota and keep the dinosaurs down to no more than a quarter of the acts. But even if you’re reconfirming prejudices and preferences in some of your attendees then I’m going to have to let it go, because in the end you are dealing in love and thrills. And I’m all for that.

Originally published on Collapse Board

Monday, 2 April 2012

Jeff Mangum's All Tomorrow's Parties, Minehead, UK, 9-11th March 2012: Young Marble Giants, The Raincoats, The Fall, Joanna Newsom

(photography by Michele Wade)

Young Marble Giants are a curious proposition to someone unfamiliar with their recordings. I can well imagine how much those who’d first fallen for their sweet slow minimal precision decades ago would have sold their firstborn to be here tonight, but coming at this fresh is an entirely different experience. So while I can see the love in the air, can feel the nostalgia and the excitement reverberating in the room as if they were extra harmonics in the stately basslines and two-note keyboard melodies that trip themselves lightly into YMG songs, I'm also at one remove from the thrill. I'm not getting all there is to this experience. Alison Statton’s vocals ring with unaffected/un-effected charm but while I can hear echoes of all that came after them I can also imagine how gloriously, prettily, plain they must’ve sounded in a world of shouty punks or disco divas. This is all new, truly new, not futuristic thirty-plus years old new and, as such, I find myself wondering what this delightfully simple music, these child-like synth-plunked melodies, these tunes that bounce with unadorned naivety would sound/feel like played for the first time by actual youth, rather than (extremely cheerful and clearly delighted) oldsters. This is Youth without youth; intriguing, beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking in its poignancy. While I'm charmed, I find myself regretting my unfamiliarity with Colossal Youth and wanting to go back a couple of decades, gen up and come back soaked in years of loving this stuff.

The Raincoats, YMG’s almost exact contemporaries, are a slightly different matter in that their songs, their style, their sounds are more immediately recognisable; they haven’t the elemental strangeness of YMG. But they too are affected by the particular and slightly disquieting experience of watching songs dreamt up by scrappy young things played out so many years later by the comfortable middle-aged. What does this mean, this age thing? What does it mean, particularly, for songs that are drenched with inexperience and excitability and fantastic, creative ineptitude, to be played again – note for note – by the older versions of their creators?

Well, for a start, the Raincoats are not note-perfect! Hurrah! They re-start songs, only remember to turn on amps three songs into the set, trip up and fluff up… but this is great. They are having fun. The audience is fond and smiling and forgiving. They play the whole of their 1981 album, Odyshape, with gusto. The scrappiness remains; they are bursting with unfettered enthusiasm, as far from proficient cock rock as a skateboard from a Lamborghini. Whether this is quite enough to make them marvellous is debatable: their age-old cover of ‘Lola’ is still stroppily ace - cheerful, dirty, ratcheting the sexual ambiguity up a notch or two from the Kinks’ original - and the sound of Vicky Aspinall’s fiddle is as full of itchy joy as ever, lassoing new wave to its folk allies. But live and in 2012, the Raincoats don’t appear quite as peculiar a thing as the recorded Odyshape does, with its curious, musicologically-savvy demotic harmonies and percussion (Charles Hayward and Robert Wyatt both contributed) and its subsequent cult-status among the indie it-crowd of two decades ago. There’s too much noise, both cultural and aural, and not quite enough poise. But that’s how these things go: reforming and performing (and Raincoats have been playing together again on and off since Kurt Cobain’s championing of them in 1992) without new material does funny things to a band and to its audience.

And so to The Fall, another outfit contemporaneous with YMG and The Raincoats, but with the crucial difference that this one, this rolling rock of ages, this mutating beast, has come snarling and lurching down the years since the late 70s in a state of continual revolution. The Fall is not here to feed nostalgia-bunnies; there’s no pandering to the warm and fuzzies. They may play old material – they have several entire careers’ worth of back catalogue to pick from – but they’re here as a current outfit not to feed the ATP look-back bores.

How does The Fall fit into my woman-centred remit? They could appear as male as they come; the notorious online Fall forum is thick with “I found a Fall track that the missus likes!” comments. To which, well… ugh.  But times change; the last couple of times I’ve seen them the crowd has been noticeably mixed, including here at ATP where the hipster girls in bird-print dresses are shaking their hair to ‘Psychic Dancehall’ as if they knew every note. And it’s right and fitting that they are, because despite the grumpy-old-manness of their long-term fans (and I say this with considerable affection for Fall fans; if someone loves the Fall you know you’re in for an interesting ride) the band itself has never been “boy”. From the very start there have been capable women involved: Una Baines, Marcia Schofield, Kay Carroll, Julia Nagle and several others are among the great roll call of the Fallen, not forgetting - how could you forget?! - MES’s ex-wife Brix Smith with all her sparks a-flying, and his current wife, Elena Poulou, who has been with Smith and the band since 2002. It’s actually quite something for a long-running band to have included so many women in such a low-key and unremarkable way, as if (here we are again) women just belonged in bands.

Out of the twelve songs they play, highlights include ‘I’ve Been Duped’, a splashy/thrashy Elena-led bop, and ‘Bury’, which, with its stupendous percussive backbone, grinding riff and double-dose of synthy sneer, is simply awesome, a recent Fall song that stomps its way to classic with every shouted chorus. And Elena is fantastic. Pretty, petite and chic, she marches onstage in a classy coat and plays her keyboard with a handbag tucked under her arm the entire time, as if being in The Fall were a drinks party which she deigns to grace with her presence, all politesse and sparkle. She is endlessly patient with Smith who is up to his usual knob-fiddling tricks throughout the set, turning guitarists down and adjusting mics, and, during uproarious closer ‘Sparta FC’, banging out duff notes on her keyboard while she is trying to hold down the riff, all pretty horrible until he eventually finds a line to stick to. And through all this, she is smiling sweetly at him, a marked difference from the poker-faces of the long-suffering guitarists. The set ends with Smith cackling and Elena whooping, an arm flung up in triumph. Perfect.

If you don’t like the Fall or recognise none of these songs you’d be forgiven for hearing nothing but Smith’s tuneless drawled yelps and the din of a riff-based rock’n’roll band trying to stay afloat; you’d have good reason to believe that the gnarled old man who prowls the stage bothering the help in dress trousers and shiny shirt - looking every inch the Butlins performer on home turf but sounding anything but - has an increasingly tenuous relationship with functionality within the unit. Fair enough. But afterwards as people tumble out of the venue all hot and happy, the talk is that the band are on top form: they play a decent mixture of old and new songs, the current line-up is stable and tight and they’re not in the least bit murderous towards each other. Above all, they are clearly revealed as a total groove fest, a trancey, motorik monster that has the packed venue in a sweaty moshing roil; they are, in fact, a great big shiny dance band! It must be Butlins. Carry on Falling, Mr and Mrs Smith, carry on.

Friday ends with boys rocking out: Thurston, David Yow, Jon Spencer, Watts and Hurley... It’s all a big dark guitarry whirl and we go to bed tired and full of music!

Saturday is a breeze compared to Friday’s schedule-clash anxiety. The afternoon is full of the miraculous Boredoms and once their mega-kit is cleared off stage (it takes over an hour either side of their performance to do this) I wander back up to Centre Stage to watch Joanna Newsom, all alone with her harp on a big dark stage. It seems wholly appropriate that she plays before a black cloth dotted with stars to a packed and hushed house; it’s all about the beauty and wonder. Newsom is almost unbelievably lovely: she wears her pretty dresses and her Alice in Wonderland hair down and TGA photographer Michele confesses to being mesmerised by her glitzy heels, stamped with elegant precision onto harp pedals. Not that her loveliness (musically or otherwise) is uncomplicated and, OK, so you might have to work at getting over the voice: if you think that this is all contorted affectation then you’re going to struggle to fall in love as you should. But once you do, oh! Newsom catches up the strings of our heart and strums them into submission. Her songs (indeed, her sets) are rolling wonders, streams that sparkle and run, sometimes eddying round a particularly pretty phrase but then hurrying on, never to return to it. Her lyrics are a delight; she spins a silken string of meticulous bons mots for the crowd to hang on; we have skeins of words looping round our heads for days after: And down where I darn with the milk-eyed mender, you and I, and a love so tender, Stretched-on the hoop where I stitch this adage, Bless our house and its heart so savage …”

There’s a uniformity to the texture of her songs that makes both her sets somehow monochromatic despite the tumbling iridescence. Sometimes we recognise tracks, sometimes it’s just the narrative that holds us, but it’s clear that Joanna Newsom, for all her winsome ways, is no simple soul. The textual complexities of her songs both belie the peculiarly childlike quality of her voice and reinforce the sense of a small wide-eyed someone screwing their face up in a huge effort to wring just the exactly the right words out of themselves. It’s a trick that perhaps only Björk amongst Newsom’s contemporaries manages to pull off. Catch her if you can.

A version of this review was originally published by www.thegirlsare.