Saturday, 10 March 2012

25th February 2012: Matt Stevens - The Peel, Kingston-Upon-Thames

Long-term readers (both of them) will have heard me going on about Matt Stevens. His album 'Relic' made my "Best of 2011" round-up, he accompanied us to curry after the Frost* gig in December, and he pops up to hand you a flyer when you least expect it outside gigs, like a real life 'Where's Wally?' only a lot more hairy and slightly less stripey. I even raved about his slot at last year's Mattfest in my guest slot on the excellent 'Dead Nobodies' podcast last month. (That's your monthly plug, Bob.)

This, however, is the first time since starting this blog that I've actually had a chance to see him play live. What if he's gone rubbish, energy and joie de vivre sapped by his new found fatherhood? What if I've remembered wrongly and confused him with Moby or someone (they're physically quite similar, after all) and all my plugging has been a huge mistake?

Well, we can all relax because the man's still got it. 

Please sir, can I have some more... loops?

After a ridiculous week of work, there's a chance I'm not going to make it to the gig at all, and in fact I'm still sitting at my desk as the doors open at The Peel, but a canny decision two years previously to move within walking distance of the venue means that as soon as I down tools (well, mouse), Karin and I are able to hop on a bus and still arrive just as Matt strums the first note of 'Rusty' from last year's 'Relic' album.

And what a note it is, which is just as well, since we hear this note once every 2 seconds for the next 4 minutes. In case I haven't previously explained what is so cool about what Matt does, I think I will steal someone else's description of him as a "One man guitar orchestra" since I will never come up with something as apposite by myself. Building layers upon layers of guitar loops, he gradually starts from one simple riff, such as the almost flamenco-sounding theme which kicks off 'Rusty', loops it with his trusty pedal, and then adds harmonies, counterpoint, even bass lines, all with the use of one acoustic guitar. 

Last time I saw Matt, back in the summer, the venue was a lot less packed, and I was right down at the front where I could see his feet, so it was very obvious what he was doing. This time, however, the venue is rammed (no mean feat for a support slot) and as we've arrived late we're right at the back by the mixing desk and can only see him from the waist up. I can therefore see how one nameless reviewer famously came to the conclusion that he relied on backing tapes rather a lot. 

Maybe, to avoid such confusion in the future, Matt could make it more obvious what he's doing, perhaps using a laptop or a Tenori-on to do his looping, something that the whole audience can see. Of course, that might make it a bit difficult to carry on playing whilst stopping and starting the loops, something that he does with incredible skill all night tonight, rarely taking a break from hammering the strings of his instrument and yet somehow still using his pedal to bring in certain loops and take them out again, or pause everything and play solo (catching out the chatters in the crowd in the process, tsk tsk.)

Clearly my suggestion would require Matt using something other than his feet to trigger the loops, and since his hands are at full capacity, I guess the nose would be the only option. And since he suffers from a bad back, I think I will go ahead and consign this idea to the scrap bin of good intentions. It's probably just as well that I decided not to respond to Matt's call for a manager last week- I'd have him looking like a hunchback clown in no time.

This evening's set of 30 minutes goes by in an absolute flash, largely because the pieces are a lot more varied than anyone could expect from a performance based entirely on acoustic guitar. One minute he's playing furious strummed, percussive notes, the next delicate picking, then he's tapping on the body of his guitar to create what is nearly a drum beat ('Doll's House'), and then he's managed to build layers of sustained notes that almost sound like keyboards and he's playing a thunderous bassline over the top ('Scapegoat'). There's even time for one piece this evening not composed entirely by Matt, 'Part 2', a track from his post-rock band The Fierce and the Dead, which on record is a piece with distorted electric guitars, bass and drums, but is just as effective given the loop pedal treatment.

And it's not just the music that keeps us entertained, which is just as well, since staring at one guy with a guitar for 30 minutes could get a little dull, even if he is standing in front of a giant poster with some kind of centaur emerging from flames on it. Like many of the best musicians I've featured here, Matt is wonderfully self-deprecating and with a sense of humour which wins over the crowd based on likeability alone. He seems genuinely surprised and grateful for the huge applause he gets after every track, says "Cheers" humbly, and gets right back on with it.

What he lacks in stage banter, he makes up for in sheer performance. If I've given you the impression of a man standing on the spot strumming away at an acoustic guitar, I'm doing this all wrong. He announces with his face what he's about to play, hops about on the spot during the more upbeat sections, grooves along to some of the excellent riffs he creates, and grins broadly when his favourite sections come together to create something wonderful sounding.

There are some fantastic loud / soft contrast sections, which eventually lead to almost complete silence in the venue as he quietly plucks away, and also a surprised look on his face and a "wow!" at having finally shut up the chatters in the crowd, provoking loud chuckles all around. 

And then, after what is far too short a time, he announces the last track, which turns out to be 'Big Sky' from the 'Ghost' album, a track which builds up with impossible numbers of harmony lines getting ever higher and higher before breaking down again to the simplest level at the end and then exploding into a wall of backwards loops which he stands back and enjoys as he walks over to take a sip of his pint before laying into his guitar once again with gusto to finish the whole thing off in explosive fashion. A quick "Cheers, thank you", and it's all over. It's taken me three times as long to write about it as the gig itself.

Heading out for some fresh air afterwards, we find that Matt's done the same himself. Leaning against the wall outside he looks like he's been for a particularly intense gym session, and as is the only course of action after such a thing, I buy him a beer and we start chatting about everything from Helloween (okay, that was Karin) to King Crimson to Steve Davis (not such a leap when you're in the know), to why he still needs to have a day job to make ends meet even though he's had offers from several record labels, and some of the very exciting projects he's involved in which are coming up later this year.

Unfortunately he also buys me a beer and the pattern continues for the rest of the night, so the rest of the evening is a bit of a blur, which is why this blog is entitled "Matt Stevens" and not "Pallas supported by Matt Stevens" because, well, Pallas sounded great but I can't for the life of me remember much of anything. Sorry guys.

Matt Stevens Setlist:

- Rusty
- Burning Bandstands
- Doll's House
- Scapegoat
- Part 2 (The Fierce and the Dead)
- Big Sky

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