19 December 2008

Left Home Virgins, Came Back Vampires

The Hold Steady

17 December 2008
The Roundhouse

Deeply rooted in America, there is perhaps no other band quite as versed in excess, its glories and failings, religiosity and damnation, as The Hold Steady. Strangely, though, they fitted in well here - a city warmed only by the pub light and the ritualistic actions of getting pissed. People brush up against each other on trains, chest-to-chest and eye-to-eye, but still manage to avoid eye-contact. There's barely a nod or a smile, just a stare at a map or your boots. But, given a pint of lager and a bag of crisps, things change.

It's the same kind of people Craig Finn concerns himself with. The narratives of Holly, Gideon and Charlemagne run through their albums, twisting through whiskey binges, hallucinations at festivals, visions of Mary and telling congregations How A Resurrection Really Feels the morning after. The stories are Kerouac (even the title of 2006's Boys and Girls in America is a nod to the lonesome traveller), transplanted using the kitsch of bar-room bands and squealing solos. They are told in a speak-sing poetic device, Finn spitting out verses like an eloquent drunk, telling you with impeccable recollection, the story of his heyday - but long after it's past. The Hold Steady verbalise my youth.

They draw an old crowd. And its the 'verbalise my youth' part, I think, that contributes to the middle-aged parents I see scattered around the bar-area. I don't really need my youth verbalised, as its still unfolding - but these people, clutching their plastic cups and adjusting their spectacles, they need reminding.

After the decent opening act (who's name I can't remember, but who cares?), the band turn up punctually, and apart from keyboardist Franz Nicolay, they look like nice, normal fellows. And I guess this agrees with the silent, bald-headed guy on my left, he taps his feet in an expression of unbridled excitement.

Hornets! Hornets!, a song about his high-school's deflowered cheerleaders, kicks into higher gear when Finn begins dancing about, like your secretly-gay uncle after a few too many fruity drinks. He's awkward and odd-looking, but completely without pretence or self-conciousness. He's infectious, and pretty soon the entire standing audience is jumping along, arms in the air, singing the easier-to-follow parts.

Most of Stay Positive, this year's critical success (as were their previous two efforts) is perfectly performed, each note in very dense compositions rings out, each syllable of every word is wrenched out. When, during the drawn-out coda of Southtown Girls, Finn recounts the "crazy year" (complete with pancreatitis!)and thanks us for "the biggest headlining gig we've ever done", he genuinely sounds grateful. The crowd applauds politely before the final shouts of "Boys and Girls in America!" are heard.

The band waves as they depart, but no-one (apart from the two blondes sitting to my right, who only cheered the older songs anyway) leaves. This was the last show of 2008, an encore was inevitable. They come back, less than five minutes after departing and reopen with Stuck Between Stations, a personal favourite (name checking both Jack Kerouac and John Berryman? Priceless). After the Biblically-epic Cattle and the Creeping things (in which living in suburbia is paralleled with the plagues), which contains the best lyric I wish I'd known when I was still at Catholic school ("I guess I heard about Original Sin/I heard the dude blamed the chick/I heard the chick blamed the snake/I heard they were naked when they got busted/ I heard things ain't been the same since") and finally Certain Songs, they leave for the last time.

There is no natural showman in the band, but Finn makes up for this with hardwork and enthusiasm (American ideals in action), shimmying around the stage during the solos and letting the crowd drown him out occassionally.
And I'm glad he's having a good time because, truth be told, I wouldn't be listening to The Hold Steady if it wasn't for him. The music is Thin Lizzy and Springsteen meets Billy Joel on piano. Not my cup of tea. But with him, bespectacled and receding hair, at the helm and singing these songs that glorify and commiserate with all that being young entails, I could sit through anything. There's no funk here. There's no pushing of an envelop. There isn't even a drum machine. But there is perhaps the best live show I've ever seen.

Shit. That last part rhymed.

06 December 2008

Things Fall Together

The Roots
The Forum

5 December 2008

Out of the darkness steps a large figure, I assume, in fancy dress. A massive head-piece glints in the ambient light. The crowd is silent for a moment before the intake of breath and rapturous exhalation. The giant glint jumps to the front, a deep rumble ensues. The monster, the swamp creature is... A tuba.

This is The Roots, perhaps the world's best-know rap band. An actual band. Unlike most big hip-hop acts, there are no DJs acting as a glorified iTunes playlist. There is Damon Bryson instead, wearing what looks like the internal plumbing of an entire high-school on his shoulder, dancing as best he can while he fills the theatre with a deep, young shaking bellow. Behind him is F Knuckles, who dances behind a collection of electric-green bongos and drum pads, he wears a red cap with a giant "P" on it. I assume it has something to do with Philadelphia. On a little platform, stage-left, is the keyboardist Kamal Gray. Inbetween Kamal and Mr Knuckles are guitarist Captain Kirk and bassist Owen Biddle (the lone white boy). But its centre-stage, where MC Black Thought (dress, appropriately, in all-black) and drummer ?usetlove roam. Black Thought is built like a boxer, and wears a cap that gives hims a menacing, growling look. Behind him, though, is probably one of the world's most recognisable drummers. His massive, perfectly symmetrical afro and his world weary political musings have made him the celebrity drummer of note. He's like Ringo. But he can really drum, and he's not stupid-looking.

For me, and for the 1000 or so other people filling this hall, this had been a long time coming. The opening act, Master Shorty, was pretty terrible. The house DJ was pretty boring. We had waited outside in the rain and near freezing temperatures. The beer was expensive, and the more time one spends drinking Guinness the more one realises is smells a lot like mushrooms.

They began, I seem to remember, with Here I Come (off Game Theory) and played, basically without a break for the next two hours. It was a marathon, epic, Herculean performance. There was a drum vs percussion solo, bass freak-outs and sax virtuosity. At one stage, all musicians not confined to an immovable instrument, took to line dancing around the stage. Songs that featured guest collaborations, like You Got Me were reworked and revamped - less subtle but now more like a wall of sound and melody. Black Thought was stronger than his sizable biceps, and prowled the stage, demanding more from the audience, making sure every syllable was eeked out, word-perfect.

Do You Want More?!!!??! the cry for an encore, an inevitable build-up explodes (via the modestly simple lighting) and culminates with The Seed 2.0, arguably The Roots' biggest hit. Its actually better live. They are better live. ?uestlove is the coolest drummer in history. The Roots is the most fun, funny and silly hip-hop act I've ever seen.

Ok, they're the only one I've ever seen. But I'm fairly sure (thanks to Youtube) no one else comes close.