Saturday, 29 October 2016

Some Dumb Rock Star Truly Loves You

AMANDA PALMER - Liverpool Central Library
After the previous evening's psych extravaganza, our weekend in the Northwest continues and I realise that staying up drinking until 3am might not have been the wisest of moves. I discover that we need to leave our hotel (seemingly staffed entirely by robots) by 10am and there are a few local attractions to take in before heading over to Liverpool for the day's main event.

If you'll allow me a digression from the primary topic of this review, I must say a few words about the iconic Salford Lads' Club. With an hour or two to kill, we decide to take a brief detour with the aim of simply seeing the outside of the building and recreating the classic promo photo from "The Queen Is Dead" - something that has probably been done by every music fan visiting Greater Manchester. I wasn't expecting the building to be open on a Sunday morning, I wasn't expecting to see an impressive array of Smiths memorabilia and above all, I wasn't expecting to be given a tour and detailed history of the club from a gentleman whose knowledge and enthusiasm was startling. If you're in the area then a visit is essential.

Having said goodbye to the rest of our group, we finally reach Liverpool with a bit of time to see robots and William Blake at the Tate before taking in a beautiful sunset over the Mersey. On a whim, we tweet Amanda Palmer to ask if she wants to meet for a drink before the gig, but sadly she doesn't respond. It's been said that I'm rather obsessed with Amanda and I don't suppose there's any point in me denying that. She was one of the first artists I wrote about when I started this blog and my love for her has in no way diminished in the intervening years. But she inspires this passion in all who meet her, fans of Amanda do not do anything in half measures. These great photos from Andrew AB Photography show how Amanda is happy to spend time with each of us after her set, comforting those who need it. The emotion on some of those faces is striking.

When this intimate event, part of the Get It Loud In Libraries scheme, was announced, it sold out immediately and I still can't believe I managed to score two tickets. We arrive shortly before the show begins and find that most of the audience are already seated on the floor so I'm doubtful of finding a spot with a clear view. However, despite the show being in such demand the library seem to have put a limit on numbers so we can all spread out comfortably. We choose the best spot available although it's not that close to the stage. But it turns out we couldn't have chosen better as completely unannounced, Amanda strolls through the room and walks right past us before being helped onto a bookcase right in front of us. She begins to strum her ukulele and opens the show with "In My Mind". If I had to compile a "Top 5 AFP songs that move me to tears" then this would definitely be in there and as I'm already quite emotional from lack of sleep and the day's hectic activities, I wonder if I'll be able to keep it together throughout the set.

Still perched atop the bookcase, Amanda asks an audience member to pick out a children's book. It feels like we're back at school as we sit cross-legged on the floor while she reads us a story about vegetables, although I have a suspicion that the expletives she uses are not in the original text. Once the story is over, she moves to the piano at the front of the room but everyone remains seated on the floor so we still have a perfect view. In a recent email, Amanda asked fans to suggest songs for this tour so she can rehearse them beforehand - "sharpen the songs and have them in the quiver", as she puts it. Once in front of the piano she confesses that she's not had time to add as many songs to the quiver as she would have liked. Nevertheless she is happy to build a set spontaneously and the classroom atmosphere is maintained as we're asked to raise our hands if we have requests. She launches straight into the first request, "Astronaut", without delay although she does seem slightly hesitant about some of the songs that we suggest. She can't remember which key one song should be played in and when a fan offers the answer, she light-heartedly calls them a nerd. We're treated to "Trout Heart Replica", "Delilah", "The Jeep Song" and also more upbeat moments in the form of "Leeds United" and "Coin-Operated Boy".
(Photo - Kaytee)

Amanda is known for her cover versions and is often criticised for not showing due respect to the original artists. Many claimed that her tributes to Bowie and Prince, for example, came too soon after the artists' deaths. But as we're in Liverpool, no one is going to begrudge her a Beatles number. As we're in a library, it seems fitting to choose one with a literary theme. Although everyone who has ever picked up a musical instrument must at some point have played a Beatles tune, "Paperback Writer" is not one that I've often heard covered. It's amazing how the manner in which a song is played can totally alter its meaning. The original, with its distinctive guitar riff, has always struck me as a cheery song with McCartney talking optimistically about his creative aspirations. But with the guitar replaced by piano, it becomes poignant, as if a would-be writer is lamenting their lack of inspiration. It strikes me that this is how I feel in the presence of one such as Amanda, but also that my musician friends must tire of me saying how I envy their skills. I'm constantly told to stop undermining my own abilities, to stop making excuses for not pursuing my writing. This new interpretation of "Paperback Writer" makes me determined to get several articles written this week.

The show seems to fly by and I lose track of exactly long we have been sitting captivated; I would estimate that it's the best part of two hours. The beauty of Amanda's lyrics is that she is open about her own failings and makes it clear she is just like each of us. Each audience member will have their own favourite moments of the night, their personal reasons for relating to specific songs. But we are suddenly drawn together by the bare-bones sorrow of "Bigger On The Inside", delivered with just ukulele and no amplification. After just two lines, I can no longer hold it in and I gently rest my head on my companion's shoulder, letting the tears flow. By now everyone in the room is in the same state, and Amanda herself needs to be handed a tissue at the end.

This is one of her most personal songs, with its reference to friends dying of cancer, so it's clear why she struggles to get through it. On the long journey home I ponder why I've been moved by it more than usual on this occasion. 2016 has not been a good year for personal and collective loss, but being in Liverpool has also reminded me of my own musical upbringing. Many of you will know that my interest in music was triggered by my dad playing me his copy of "Sgt. Pepper", and I'm sure he would have loved to visit here and the Beatles museum in particular. I'm sure he would also have enjoyed Amanda's music, as honest songwriting was very important to his musical tastes. As I finally climb into bed at 2am on Sunday night/Monday morning, I'm grateful for such a diverse weekend. I make a note that we should return to Liverpool soon to take the full Beatles tour, and I also vow to do my dad and Amanda proud by taking my writing more seriously. Let's hope that I can keep at least one, if not both of those promises.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Gathering Of Ancient Tribes

GOAT - Manchester Albert Hall

Psychedelia has seen a huge resurgence of late, to the extent that I've struggled to keep track of all the new bands. I've seen a fair few small gigs in Birmingham but the full extent of the psych revival only becomes clear to me when we decide to spend what will turn out to be a very emotional weekend in the Northwest. I'm here primarily to see Goat and Hookworms, and it's only when we arrive in Manchester and I check the running order that I realise what we're attending is effectively a psych mini-festival, with five acts for the bargain price of £22. You would typically pay more than that for just two bands in a venue of this size.

This is the first time I've visited the Albert Hall and it turns out to be just as grand as its London namesake. The venue is an old Methodist church built in the early 20th century, and its Baroque architecture and stained glass windows remain intact. There are very few people in the main hall when we arrive so we have a bit of time to marvel at the surroundings. Even to the most hardened atheist, the room has an air of spirituality and this gives an indication of how the evening is going to pan out.

(Photo - Kaytee)

Weekend gigs seem to be starting earlier than ever these days and I usually find myself missing the opening act. With so many bands on the bill, a 6.30pm start is justifiable on this occasion and I'm glad we've made the effort to get here in time for Swedish act Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation, who kick off the proceedings in style. I've not come across this artist before and a bit of post-gig research suggests that latest album "Mirage" is quite atmospheric but tonight's show is built around driving guitars that set the tone for what is going to be a very full-on night. Josefin herself has a very commanding stage presence, bringing to mind Patti Smith in both appearance and demeanour. She is my new discovery of the weekend and I make a mental note to add both of her albums to my Christmas list.

Mugstar are up next and I'm surprised I haven't encountered them before as they have apparently been around for the best part of 10 years and have released several LPs and a crazy number of 7"s, including a split with Mudhoney. They're the kind of band who would play our own Supersonic festival but I can find no evidence of them in my diary. They are without doubt the heaviest band of the evening and their obvious Krautrock influences are interspersed with some classic hard rock riffs, at times reminiscent of Black Sabbath. Their visuals are also the most unnerving, particularly the bizarre mutant horse, and the display reaches a climax with explosions that could be either the beginning or end of the universe.

Jane Weaver is the first act tonight that I'm in any way familiar with and my initial thought is that her style will be at odds with the rest of the bill. Her early releases were deeply rooted in folk but I believe she has incorporated more psych influences into her output of late, although I can't say this with any conviction as she is another artist whose work I've failed to keep up with. Her set tonight consists mainly of hypnotic electronica and at times the sound, and her voice in particular, bring to mind Broadcast. It's a nice reminder of home during this weekend away and provides a refreshing breather between the louder acts.

I've wanted to see Hookworms for a long time, and I am perhaps more excited about them tonight than I am about the headliners. Of the new breed of psych acts, they are the one whose work I have followed most avidly and their most recent album "The Hum" was one of my favourites of 2014. As it's only 9pm, the venue is just beginning to fill up and we're still standing very near the front. A friend who has seen the band before warns me that it's going to be loud, which doesn't faze me as I've also seen Swans on a recent trip to Manchester so I'm accustomed to volume. But he also implies that even those who know the band's recorded work inside out usually have trouble recognising what's being played live. This turns out to be true for a large proportion of the set and I'm pretty sure there are at least three new numbers in there. Those that I do recognise are from "The Hum", in particular album closer "Retreat". The relentless sonic onslaught reminds me of my first experience of a loud gig, Loop in 1990 - a tale which many of you will have heard before. This time I manage to watch the entire set without retiring to the safety of the bar and my stamina is rewarded. With the addition of overpowering strobes, I can't help but think of that classic period of pre-shoegaze psych drone bands. It's how I imagine Spacemen 3 would have been at their most intense although there are more electronic elements than I had expected and the overall effect calls to mind the kind of Suicide gig that would have ended in a riot. My only criticism is that the Robert Plant-esque vocals, one of the aspects that first drew me to the band, are not as prominent beneath the wall of noise as they are on record. That's a minor quibble however, as I'm left intoxicated by the overall sonic and visual assault. If I'm correct about there being new songs, I can't wait for them to be committed to vinyl.

(Photo - Kaytee)

The night ends, as it began, with another Swedish act - suggesting that Scandinavia is the place to be right now if you want the full psych experience. Although Goat were my main reason for buying a ticket when the gig was first announced, I must admit to feeling a little apprehensive since hearing the new album "Requiem".  I've said many times that it's unreasonable to expect a band to stick to the same style indefinitely and after two albums full of tribal rhythms, it's understandable that Goat wanted to diversify. However, the more folky style and in particular the inclusion of panpipes on the first half of the album has been too much of a change for some fans to take in during the two weeks the record has been available. I'm told that I need to persevere with "Requiem" and I would have appreciated a bit more time to get to grips with it before tonight's gig. However, my concerns prove unwarranted as tonight's performance is compelling from start to finish and even the pipes (restricted to just two songs) fit the atmosphere much better than when listening at home. Goat are the only act of the night who don't use a projected backdrop, and they don't need one as their outlandish costumes speak for themselves. I've previously stated that I would love their back story to be true - that they have been making music for 30 years as part of the traditional rituals of their tiny village in the remotest part of Sweden. The mythology that has sprung up around them is much like that of the Residents and I suspect that, as with the eyeball-headed weirdos, Goat's line-up is somewhat fluid and it's never the same people behind the masks. It seems unlikely that their identities will ever be revealed and everyone in the crowd tonight would prefer them to keep the mystique intact.

It's slightly disconcerting to experience their entrancing grooves in an enclosed space as the vibe is more one of an outdoor festival. In fact at times it's not so much a music festival as the pagan festivities depicted in "The Wicker Man". I start to fear that someone is going to be sacrificed so I hide myself amongst the dancing revellers to reduce the risk of the two masked priestesses singling me out for the climax of the celebrations. The dancing has already reached epic levels, more so than any of the other acts managed to inspire, but set closer "Talk To God" and encore "Goatman" bring on an eruption in the crowd that forces us towards the back of the room. From this position of safety I actually get a better view of the band and now that I can take in the full glory of their outfits I feel that my terror was truly justified. When the encore finally comes to an end, some 30 minutes later, I sense an air of relief in the room. In reality it's simply that we're all exhausted but part of me wants to believe that it's because none of us have been offered up to the gods.

(Photo - Kaytee)

I swear I read somewhere that "Requiem" is intended as their final album but when researching for this article I could find no evidence to back this up so I'm wondering if it came to me in a post-gig dream. Perhaps tonight's hypnotic visuals and voodoo mysticism had conspired to convince my subconscious that after this it would be possible to go no further. In the sober light of day it seems hard to believe that they would want to end it now, but at the same time it seems unlikely that such a gig would have happened at all. Like all good psychedelic music, it's left me questioning what is real. I'm intrigued to see which direction Goat will take in the future, but if it really is the end then I'm grateful to have had what was essentially a religious experience in such an ideal setting.