Wednesday, 9 January 2013

21st December 2012: The Invisible / Public Service Broadcasting /Hejira- Tooting Tram & Social

There was a reason I said that the Frost*Bites gig was "probably" my last of the year. I'd had this December evening blocked out in my calendar for a couple of weeks but wasn't really sure whether I was going to go or not. Firstly, it was in Tooting, secondly it was nearly Christmas, and thirdly, I'd never heard of two of the bands playing this free gig. Everyone knows no good bands play for free, don't they? Especially not in Tooting.

Luckily, I was talked out of this stupidity by my gig buddy for the evening- Tinyfish frontman and local boy Simon Godfrey, who was as keen to check out Public Service Broadcasting's live multimedia set as me, following this excellent review of their Hull gig by our mutual friend and not-postman Tim.

Either Simon's a little late or I'm a bit early, but either way I find myself killing time for 15 minutes outside Tooting Broadway Tube station, which isn't exactly the easiest task I've ever set myself. After I've taken a couple of pictures of the classic Northern Line architecture and the slightly random statue of Edward VII in front of it, I'm pretty much left with jumping up and down on the spot to keep warm, and accidentally greeting every man with the slightest bit of facial hair I see in the mistaken apprehension that it's Simon.

Still, eventually he arrives and whisks me off to the first location for our evening together- KFC. Never let it be said that I am an expensive date. Here we have a good old catch up, and he tells me how he's getting on with his solo album, as well as some top secret news which makes me pull this face:

Eventually we exhaust the amount of fun that can be had in a fried chicken shop, so we decide to head over to the venue, which is a marvelous place - a converted Victorian tram shed, done out like a swanky gastro pub but with the original huge vaulted ceiling and a raised gallery around the top. That and somewhat random musical artifacts here and there, most notably this classic of 20th Century culture in the gents:

If only, Cliff. If only.

On the way in, Simon catches sight of the poster advertising tonight's gig and goes into full-on teenage girl mode. "The Invisible? THE INVISIBLE are playing here tonight?" Er, yeah, that's what it says on the poster. "But, but The Invisible are bloody brilliant - they're one of my favourite bands! This is amazing!"

I later learn that Simon claims pretty much everyone is one of his favourite bands, but the fact that he rates them so highly does do something to counteract the impression I've formed of all of tonight's acts from the fact that they're playing a free show in a disused hanger in the arse end of South London. In fact, no sooner have we grabbed our drinks than Simon spots the frontman of today's favourite band and heads over for a chat and a bit of a girly gush (um... that sounds a bit wrong, but you know what I mean.)

With no sign of anything happening on stage yet, we decide to go and check out the upstairs balcony, where there are comfy seats and a decent volume of background music over which to have an extremely in depth chat about where our respective lives went wrong, and then so very right again. We're engrossed in chat about hearing loss, or divorce, or Kraftwerk, or something equally fun, when it appears that tonight's first band has started up.

With the music being a little bit loud now for sensible chat, we sit and have a listen, and within a few seconds I see that excitable glint in Simon's eye again, as he says "Wow, it's a Joni Mitchell song..." That makes sense, I say, as the first band are called Hejira (as is one of Joni's albums), so perhaps they do Joni covers. "They're really good", says Simon, in amazement. "Absolutely spot on. I think I'm going to have to go down and watch." So we make our way downstairs in a hurry so as not to miss too much - and we find...

... the band are still very much setting up, and we're listening to Joni Mitchell on a playlist. Still, it is a very good playlist, and it's presumably been chosen by tonight's host, XFM DJ John Kennedy, who curates a regular gig series called 'Remedy' at this venue, introducing the acts, playing quality tunes between and afterwards and generally hanging around and enjoying himself. Anyway, now we're downstairs, I grab another Blue Moon and we find a spot to the right of the stage (which later turns out to be exactly where all the bands want to sell their merch from - how were we to know?), and hang about a bit with our new mate Dave from The Invisible whilst waiting for...


... who, as it happens, don't play Joni Mitchell covers, but something far more interesting. I've written here 'dark, brooding, alternative-ish', which is I suppose true, but after the set's over, I turn to Simon and say 'I have no idea how to describe that...', which perhaps is the biggest compliment you can pay to any music. Hejira don't sound like Radiohead, or Sigur Ros, or Doves, or anyone else who would fit the description I've written above.

Coupled with that, they're pretty (deliberately?) hard to find much about online - I can't even be sure which of the band members is which, without industrial levels of research/stalking. I will refrain from making any incorrect assumptions about which of the guys onstage tonight is Sam Beste, Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne, Alex Reeve and Alexis Nunez - but right from the off, they're an interesting prospect, with dual frontman/woman sharing vocal and guitar duties, and providing some wonderful harmonies thoughout. They also have the only 'standing up drummer' I've ever seen, which is a big plus point in my book.

Check out the awesome red bobble hat on the frontwoman.
 I bet she's too young to have heard of Benny from Crossroads.

But it's when they hit their stride that I become mesmerised, with some quite hypnotic and melodic tracks which in a few cases build up gradually to urgent, powerful climaxes almost without you noticing. The penultimate song they play rolls along on a beautiful, brooding bed of toms and piano and is the cause of a severe disturbance in the spine department. And they finish up with their one and only piece of available recorded output (that I can find) - current single "Gypsy of The Soul' which luckily I don't even have to try to describe, because you can hear it right here on their Bandcamp page.

In fact, if you're interested in getting a better idea of the live experience, you can check out this wonderful and very arty video of them performing 'Gypsy of The Soul' live in the studio, which tells you way more than any of the words I've slowly dribbled out over the last half an hour whilst listening to 'Gypsy' on repeat. I will definitely be watching with interest for the debut album and future gigs.

After the band finish, Simon and I go back to our chat whilst Hejira unpack all around us. I sort of want to say something to one of them, but pleasingly they look far too cool and hip to approach - something which I find sorely lacking in musicians I see live these days. I can't help but feel that something of the magical "gig experience" I treasured as a teenager is lost when the guys on stage look like people from your office and they hang about in the bar when they're done, making friendly chit chat. Although, that is a good way to make friends, as evidenced by my companion for the evening. 

Anyway, the best thing about Hejira unpacking their gear is that I'm mid sentence talking to Simon when I turn round and clock the stand that "member of Hejira in the shadows, stage left" has been using for his keyboard. Seems Jem from Frost* isn't the only one who thinks playing keyboards is as exciting as doing the ironing.

It takes a while, during which time we retreat back to the palatial surroundings of the balcony, but eventually the stage is set and we are ready for...

Public Service Broadcasting

... or, rather, half of Public Service Broadcasting. Apparently J. Willgoose, Esq. is a local boy too, so he's playing this solo show as a Christmas treat for the Tooting Massive. 

Now, I've just made the mistake of re-reading Tim's excellent review of their Hull gig from a few weeks previously, and he's pretty much said everything I would have wanted to say about the band and their music. So perhaps you should go and read that. And I will now try to say a few words without stealing too many quality phrases from Tim's blog.

Any worries we had that tonight's solo show might be lacking the multimedia aspect of the band's regular gigs are soon put to rest, as an old-fashioned TV set on stage left kicks into life with the BBC Test Card. This is duplicated on the screen at the back of the stage in front of Mr Willgoose, who has been standing fiddling for a good 5 minutes, waiting patiently for what appear to be Work Experience kids on the mixing desk to sort out the sound enough for him to start.

A quick introduction from John Kennedy and we're off, with wartime footage and sound effects triggered by JW's keyboard pads introducing 'If War Should Come' - the first of three tracks from this year's superb 'War Room' EP which, you may be surprised to learn, are all based around war time spoken word samples - the dance-ish, electronic-ish tracks syncing up nicely with the video footage on the screens.

The audio-visual aspect of the gig is probably even more important tonight than other nights, distracting one's attention from the fact that, being a member down, more of the music than usual is necessarily being played/triggered by the laptop in front of him. But that's not to say there's no musicianship on display, far from it - Willgoose demonstrates his guitar and banjo skills admirably, all whilst triggering samples and spoken word nuggets from pads, playing keyboards every so often and seemingly looping various bits of what he's playing to enable him to move onto the next thing. 

One-man bands sure have come a long way since Mary Poppins' time, haven't they?

Dave from The Invisible and various members of Hejira watch JW banging his banjo.

Just when it looks like the Wartime shtick might wear a bit thin, J (can I call you J, J?) welcomes us to his gig in the only way he knows how - by means of ancient-sounding and deliberately mis-matched samples which he triggers from his pads. "It's Lovely to be at... TOOTING TRAM AND SOCIAL" says one. "How are you doing... TOOTING TRAM AND SOCIAL?" Giggles abound as he moves into slightly more cheery territory with the bouncy 'ROYGBIV' which is not a cover of the Boards of Canada track, but is equally good and invites favourable comparisons with Lemon Jelly, as he bangs out random colour names on the sample pads (which may or may not match the somewhat psychedelic projections behind him), and gives us a banjo masterclass along to the jaunty beats. 

Tonight's last track proper is 'Everest', an electronic hymn to the world's highest peak, accompanied by scratchy old footage of mountains and climbers, and it's a fittingly climactic end to the set. However, PSB choose to leave us tonight with an utterly bonkers duet for one on banjo and sample pads, which accompanies footage of snow and Christmas trees, and eventually morphs into Jingle Bells played on the theremin.

If there's an exact, polar opposite of Hejira's inscrutable, brooding sounds, it's fair to say that J. Willgoose, Esq. has found it. Full marks, sir. As if to prove the point, his bow tie falls off as he waves to the crowd, makes his laptop wish us "Happy Christmas... TOOTING TRAM AND SOCIAL", and heads off backstage.

With two amazing acts already having played tonight, things are starting to look a bit dodgy for "Simon's favourite band today" who surely can't be as good as he's been making out, and also have two tough (and very different) acts to follow. But it doesn't take more than a couple of minutes of...

The Invisible

 ... before Simon turns to look at me to see what I think and finds me staring at the stage with a ridiculous shit-eating grin that says "This is possibly the best night of live music I've witnessed since the last night of live music I witnessed that I claimed was possibly the best night of live music I'd witnessed..."

It's an odd thing - The Invisible are actually a proper band, with a Wikipedia page, and a Mercury Music Prize nomination and everything. And yet I've somehow managed not to hear a single note until our new BFF Dave Okumo (Vocals, guitar), and his bandmates Tom Herbert (Bass, Synth) and Leo Taylor (drums) take the stage to respectful applause befitting their status.

Tonight's set, as far as I can tell, is comprised largely of songs from this year's 'Rispah' album, and the first song ('Lifeline', perhaps?) begins with Leo Taylor whacking the heck out of some electronic pads in a pattern which has me absolutely spellbound from my position over his left shoulder, before incorporating them seamlessly into his regular acoustic drum set-up in a way I've not seen done before, or at least not at close range like this - hitting each different tiny pad just above the toms with precision as if it were a whole drum in his kit. 

I'm a bit of a sucker for watching drummers play at close range, and especially when they play electronic patterns mixed with traditional rock sounds - so it's fair to say that The Invisible were always going to float my boat, but Dave's dreamy vocals and strummed guitar elevate the introductory drum pattern into something truly magnificent. 

Now, I earlier managed to compliment Hejira by saying they didn't sound like Radiohead, Sigur Ros, or Doves, but here I'm going to have to backpedal a little because I think it's fair to say that The Invisible do, in various parts sound a little like some of these bands, especially Radiohead and especially current Radiohead (circa 'In Rainbows')-  if not in actual sound then most definitely in terms of approach, with a healthy disregard for traditional song structures, a penchant for mixing stuttering electronica and beats with more post-rock type sounds, and a pleasing love of odd time signatures and interesting chords. Almost sounds like prog rock, doesn't it?

And then there are other sounds throughout the set which make me prick my ears up and take notice - the funky bassline and syncopated rhythms of 'London Girl' (the one song whose name I catch for sure) bringing to mind everything from Everything Everything to Level 42, the members of Hejira becoming even more hip as they dance, hip-ly at the front of the stage.

There are also moments in the next track ('Protection', I think) which put me in mind of Pink Floyd (gasp!), or early Porcupine Tree as Dave Okumo strums guitar in a "Run Like Hell" / "Voyage 34" type riff as Leo bangs out a hypnotic beat in 5/4. "Who says there isn't a market for prog?", says Simon, as he points out the front row of young hipster types, dancing their little hipster pants off, lost in the wonderful sounds.

What else? Well, there's also a lovely song where Dave is accompanied only by his own guitar and Tom's dreamy synth (which I suspect was 'What Happened'), then another where Dave ends up in a drum battle with Leo, using some extra drums that seem to have appeared on stage left, and then there's the encore track, which is most intriguing - being the longest thing we hear all night and ending up in a very early-Floyd-ish instrumental freakout.

I'm only sorry not to have got to know the material before, to be able to tell you all what they played and describe it in a more erudite fashion, but I can tell you that both the albums are well worth picking up, and have been played solidly ever since. (Well, once I got home and ripped them onto my iPod, that is. I don't have a CD walkman. I'm not that old.) 

Update- I'm playing 'Rispah' right now and Karin just asked what it was. "Is it also known as the project where Massive Attack and Steven Wilson got together and had a baby?" - I think we can all agree that's praise indeed.

Unfortunately, buying the CDs from the nice lady at the band's Merch stand is quite literally all I have time to do before running off to catch my bus, so I'm not able to tell Dave how much I enjoyed his set. But who knows, now we're so well acquainted, maybe he'll read this. 

In the event, I actually do miss my bus, thereby missing my train, and end up in a 2-hour plus nightmare maze of tubes, buses and nightbuses before finally arriving home at nearly 3:00. And despite all that, it's been one of the best nights out I've had in ages - three very different and equally excellent bands, all curated by an actual genius with obviously excellent taste in music, and what's more it didn't cost me a penny. Well, apart from the KFC. And the Blue Moon. And the nightbuses. And I narrowly avoid spending £50 for a taxi in a fit of desperation. But still.

If future 'Remedy' nights prove to be a good as this, I have a feeling I'm going to become intimately acquainted with... TOOTING TRAM AND SOCIAL.

1 comment:

  1. I don't have a CD walkman. I'm not that old.

    I have & I am.
    Great review as usual