Monday, 20 February 2012

22nd January 2012: M83 - Concorde 2, Brighton

A few days before this, my first gig of 2012, a photo appears on the M83 Facebook page. It's a photo that Anthony Gonzalez (who is, to all intents and purposes, M83) has taken of the front row at the Birmingham gig. What a nice gesture for your fans, I think. But other people aren't impressed - a huge row erupts on the photo comments page, with some of the so-called fans moaning about all the "hipsters" in the audience.

Quite what anyone's underwear has to do with the gig or quality thereof, I'm not quite sure, but the whole debacle worries me for two reasons. Firstly, I've never been to anything where my pants are likely to be scrutinised by my fellow gig-goers, and I'm not sure I want to. But secondly, there are an awful lot of very young, trendy looking people in the front few rows of the photo. Even more so than at the Cut Copy gig back in October.

Some hipsters. The only ones I could find without also calling up models in  minute anatomical detail.

So, it's with some trepidation that I venture down to Brighton on a cold Sunday evening, and things don't get any less concerning when I make my way on foot from the town centre (where I've been having a rather nice dinner with Karin and her friend Emina), towards the gig venue. I've rashly assumed that the Concorde will be in the town centre somewhere, but no, my phone's GPS steers me into the darkness of the promenade at the bottom of the cliffs, and as the hustle and bustle (and light) of the town disappear way above me, I start to wonder if I'm going to become one of those urban legends about how a friend of a friend blindly let his TomTom direct him into an active volcano. Plus, I grew up by the seaside, and there were only two reasons anyone went down to "those" places after dark, and neither of them had anything with music. Except maybe the sweet, sweet music of luuuurve.

Eventually I pick out some tiny lights in the distance, and a rather larger tourbus next to them, so conclude that I'm probably heading in the right direction. It's an absolute pleasure to arrive at the venue itself, with its original stained glass windows dating back to the 1800s, when it started out life as a tearoom. Again, having grown up by the sea you're rather used to seeing these places as burned out shells, or, at best, kebab shops.

And what do I find when I get there, but a queue comprised of 4 people (always an excellent result), none of whom seem to be both younger and appreciably trendier than I am. In fact, I pass a rather pleasant hour or so chatting with my fellow queue-ees (yes, it's a word), although I do find that my usual frames of reference in gig queues (old Genesis albums, last year's Roger Waters tour) are replaced by things I know less about, like Crystal Castles, and Depeche Mode gigs.

Just when we're in danger of freezing to death in the rather chilly January seaside breeze, the doors open and I head in to take up my spot right at the front - always my preferred position when there are actual musicians to watch playing real instruments. However, when I spot the rack of 5, yes 5, Macbook laptops at the back of the stage, I do wonder how much of that I'll be doing this evening. 

M83 - Probably not sponsored by Microsoft.

There's a nice selection of music to get us all going while we wait, and then eventually a couple of chaps saunter on and start fiddling with the support band's instruments. They look a bit bemused, and evidently so is the guy running the PA, since the music fades up and down a couple of times before it becomes apparent that, no, this is the support band and they might like to start playing, if it's all the same to us?

Hello, we're the support band. No, really.

Porcelain Raft are perhaps a bit like M83. Or M83 before they got all indie and dancey and were sticking to the more ethereal, shoe-gazey stuff. And they're rather good. The "couple of chaps" in question are Mauro Remiddi, an Italian who now lives in London, who creates massive walls of sound with reverby guitars and echoey vocals, and, um, another guy on drums, whose name I cannot find. He sits on a very tall drum stool looking down on his kit, as well as playing hand held bells, which he even uses to create some interesting noises on his cymbals from time to time. 

"Tall stool dude" does funky things with his bells.

The songs range from the more guitar based, like 'Tip of Your Tongue', to the more trippy, slightly Orb-influenced, to the frankly insanely electronic, when "chap number 2" leaves his drum stool and crosses the stage to use a sequencer to create the deepest and loudest bass notes I have ever heard. It's always a pleasure to feel deep bass rattling your trouser legs at a gig... except on this occasion. My entire body reverberates with the beat as it pounds away - and when it cuts out for a bit I look around and notice that everyone in the crowd is mightily relieved, so apparently I'm not just being a wimp. I wonder, as much as my brain will allow me whilst being pummelled into oblivion, whether they're attempting to create the "brown note" - and it looks like they've succeeded when the guy next to me suddenly dashes for the toilet as soon as their set is over.

"What happens if I turn this knob? Oh..."

Anyway, there's enough variety in the set to keep us all entertained and the songs are so good that I consider buying their CD after the gig, but alas, they don't seem to have brought any. Take note, support bands of the future - bring things for people to buy in case they like you! 

Variety is something we all crave after Porcelain Raft leave the stage and we're treated to what must be about 40 minutes of a particularly monotonous minimal house-type tune. Yes, the same one for 40 minutes. I'm all for minimalism sometimes (this is an absolute masterpiece in my book), but whatever this is, it doesn't appear to change throughout its entire duration and the main hook (such as it is) eventually feels like someone's performing a lobotomy on me with a jackhammer. There are actually cheers when it's faded down - only to be faded back up again to groans.

But respite is eventually at hand, and the place goes absolutely wild as the lights fade, and a very 'Close Encounters' style synth intro heralds the arrival of M83. The anticipation is pretty immense, from me at least. Their latest album, 'Hurry Up, We're Dreaming', made number 2 in my albums of 2011 list (in fact, it's probably gone up to number 1 since then, but shhh, nobody tell Cut Copy), and I've also discovered about half of the back catalogue and can't wait to see how it will all work live.

Things start incredibly promisingly when, out of the dry ice mist on stage, and under moody lighting, a figure appears and walks towards the front of the stage. Has Anthony had some kind of horrific cross breeding accident with an elk? No, it's the downright freaky dream monster thing from the front of the album, brought to life in costume. It sounds absolutely ridiculous but it's an amazing theatrical opening - setting the tone for the entire evening, and making the whole gig seem like some slightly odd but incredibly glorious dream, helped by the twinkling star-like lights of the stage backdrop, the lighting which never gets any brighter than a seedy pub at opening time, and the genuinely haunting nature of much of the music we hear tonight.

I'm going to go right ahead and presume that this dreamlike state is their intent, as 'Hurry Up, We're Dreaming' is a kind of concept album about dreams and wistful nostalgia for youth - and if it was, they have it down to a T. I'm totally lost in the gig for the next 90 minutes and get swept along on M83's rollercoaster of emotions - with the chills descending my spine as the cycling synth notes introduce 'Intro', and not letting up until the final triumphant brass chords fade away at the end. Starting with Anthony centre stage, face hidden in his hands, calling out the plaintive "Carry on, carry on" refrain, the track shifts up a gear as keyboard player Morgan Kibby enters stage right to belt out the female answering vocal lines. 

It's immediately followed by the first unfamiliar track of the night, 'Teen Angst' from the 'Before the Dawn Heals Us' album, but it's an instant hit. Anthony seems to have wisely chosen tracks from the back catalogue which fit in with the feel of the new material, and this is no exception. Pulsating synths introduce breathy vocals before the song explodes into a dreamy chorus of barely audible sighs and pounding drum beats. The crowd goes insane and I'm taken right along with them. Hit single and fan favourite 'Kim and Jessie' follows, before my personal highlight from the new album, 'Reunion', which starts out all Simple Minds but has the biggest chorus of the night and is a sure thing to get the crowd jumping up and down.

But for some reason it doesn't - I think partially we're all just getting warmed up and also I, for one, am actually dumbstruck at just how good this band are live. In fact some songs are infinitely better live than they even hinted at on CD, and the finest example of this comes up rightaway with the second track I'm not familiar with. 'Sitting' on CD is a fun little number which would make the perfect soundtrack to a Streetfighter II battle on the Amiga 500, but live it becomes some kind of incredible club anthem which gets the whole place bouncing up and down. Anthony attacks his kit, Morgan dances around her keyboard, and bass / keys player Yann Gonzalez (yes, Anthony's brother) does his shuffly, slidey dance over to the right hand side of the page to whack the hell out of a percussion pad with cowbell sounds on it. (Ok, here they lose a point to Cut Copy for not having real cowbells. Sorry, but them's the rules.)

Yann takes a break from his electronic cowbell.

And as for drummer Loic Maurin, he's onto a winner with me because I'm an absolute sucker for anything electronic or dancey with real drums on it, but he is particularly good at adding inventive fills without losing the beat. 'Sitting' is my highlight of the night, and I start wondering once again why I don't go to see electronica-based acts more often. (And also why my friend Mark hasn't bought a ticket for this gig since I think he would actually explode with excitement during this track.)

As if to demonstrate their versatility, the band follow up this electro tour de force with the jangly guitars of 'Year One, One Ufo', an odd choice for a live track since it's one of the less obvious numbers on the new album, but as it builds to a pounding, rhythmic climax and the crowd punch the air, it becomes clear that they know exactly what they're doing. Track after amazing track follows, with 'We Own the Sky' being so "electrified" that it's almost unrecognisable from the album version (which probably explains why I don't recognise it until the anthemic "It's coming... it's coming on" chant at the end). 

After this, 'Wait' (the only "quiet one" of the night) actually achieves the impressive feat of shutting up the entire place while Anthony captivates the audience with his fragile, echoey vocals barely cutting through the acoustic guitars and gradually rising in power as the rest of the band build to an amazing crescendo, as is their trademark. It's helped by Anthony, who's strapped on a guitar, getting down on the floor by the speakers creating walls of feedback and echo.

How do you follow that? Well, apparently by playing your big hit single, the one that's got you noticed this year around the globe (and apparently become the theme tune to "Made in Chelsea", but we'll gloss over that.) Yes, 'Midnight City', perhaps inevitably, gets the biggest reception of the night, but for all its ubiquity, it's still a cracking tune, marrying the best of the current 80's revival with some amazing squelchy snyth noises. It also manages the impressive feat of being an exceptionally catchy song without actually having a chorus (unless you count the 'doo doo do doo' synth riff, which I suppose is the closest thing there is.)

M83 - Reclaiming sax from Kenny G.

Once again, the live band lift the song to a whole new level, which is surpassed even further when a saxophonist joins the band on stage to play the not-at-all-Miami-Vice-ish sax solo at the end. The band hammer their instruments and Anthony dances around the stage, head in hands, as if tortured by some kind of horrible nightmare, climbing up on a box at the front of the stage and lapping up the cheers from the entirely won-over crowd.

Most bands would be happy to have this as their show ending, but M83 take it one step further, following up their best known song with classic instrumental "A Guitar and a Heart", which starts slow and broody, and looks like a misstep but gradually builds and starts toes tapping, while Anthony twiddles knobs like Jean-Michel-Jarre in the 70s and the others keep the groove going, before the whole thing inevitably explodes into sheer dance perfection and the crowd pogos in unison before roaring with approval when it comes to a close.

A quick break is followed by just the one encore this evening, "Couleurs", a fan favourite and a slow, brooding dancey track with a hypnotic beat, which (it may surprise you to learn) gradually builds up as it goes (I think pretty most of the songs this evening do this but it's such an effective technique so why the heck not?). This time it's too slow for pogoing but there's proper dancing all around, including on the stage (and some fairly improper dancing from me but nobody seems to notice, thank goodness), and at the end of the 10-minute workout, there's one of the biggest cheers I've heard at a gig in years. 

Yann and Morgan let themselves go a bit.

The band seem genuinely thankful for the reception, and as they leave the stage to a message scrolling across the sound desk in red dot matrix which says "Day off tomorrow!", it looks like they've won Brighton over in spectacular style. The crowd bay for an encore but a roadie soon comes out to start unplugging things and shrugs, roadie-style, at us, signifying that we're out of luck. Some wag shouts "put that long track back on!" to a huge laugh, but it's all over and it's time for us to disappear and reflect on what we've just experienced.

The combination of already amazing songs and the incredible musicianship and performance that the band put into them makes them one of the most engaging live bands I've seen, and they make the immediate jump from "band I've been checking out and am interested in" to "band I am properly into in a big way". You know, the universally recognised band categories.

I head off into the cold, get lost on the way back to the car, babble incoherently to Karin all the way home about why it was so amazing (hopefully this review is slightly better), order all the CDs I don't have from Amazon (some at moderate expense as they're out of print) and thank my lucky stars that I have a ticket for the sold out London gig in a few weeks. 

I have to see this band again.

M83 Setlist:

Teen Angst
Kim & Jessie
Year One, One UFO
We Own the Sky
Steve McQueen
This Bright Flash
Claudia Lewis
Midnight City
A Guitar and a Heart

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