The Sound Of Music
Getting older is a funny thing. You can’t drink as much as you used to. You have to take your health a lot more seriously. You accept you will never be able to dance without embarrassing yourself. You realise there’s an awful lot of things to do and scant time to do them in. This leads to impatience and a frustration with barriers and delays you would previously have borne with a shrug. In short, you start to turn into Victor Meldrew.
For these reasons I gave up on festivals long ago. I decided that there’s no band worth being treated like livestock for, especially where it entails shelling out the best part of Eur100 for a chance ‘subject to licence’ to stand in a field in the rain six months hence. Also, it tends to rain a lot in this country. Gigs, being indoors, manage to get around the rain thing. I recently decided to try going to one again after a long hiatus.
The Like are three girls from Los Angeles. They’re young and very pretty. They play guitars, their sound is reminiscent of The Go-Gos and they’re signed to Geffen Records. They were over in the UK playing the Reading Festival and they added a date in Dublin. They got a big mention in the local press (everybody loves a picture of a pretty girl especially lifestyle editors) and were lined up to play the Crawdaddy…on a Monday night…while most of it was shut for rebuilding. It rained. The Crawdaddy accommodates 300 people. That’s not a lot, and there wasn’t anything like 300 people there. They were stuffed in a minibus and driven here from London to do this, despite Ryanair’s offering to provide the same transport on a regular basis for about twenty quid (although the hand luggage allowance may have been a problem for the drummer). I’m guessing Dublin may not have been the highlight of The Like’s European tour.
I didn’t care all that much – I actually went there to see The Butterfly Explosion who were supporting them. For reasons too complicated to go into here (but basically because the band are really nice people), I was actually on the guest list. Never having been on a guest list before, I absolutely had to go and savour the experience. You can decide for yourself if it affects my objectivity. I don’t care, it’s my website and I can say what I like.
The upside of an intimate venue of this nature is that it limits the scope to treat people as a seething mass. There’s a spacious bar with comfy seats and plenty of scope to people watch. I’m pleased to report that the fashionable young ladies are tending to dress up this season while the blokes still regrettably look as if they’ve just escaped from a nearby correctional institution. The Pete Doherty look continues to be inexplicably popular.
Anyways once a suitable throng had assembled and a nice conversational buzz had gotten going, the doors to an inner sanctum were opened and people ambled in. Note: ambled – not rushed, pushed or squeezed. It’s all very informal and relaxed – the sort of thing I like.
The inner sanctum is much like the outer sanctum except the drink prices are higher. But at least there are drinks available. The woman behind the counter was friendly & helpful and there was no delay being served. People continued to chat to friends and it was all very civilised. I decided I could get to like this sort of thing.
No music though. Sound Desk – Yes. Stage – Yes. Bands – Not so much. Then just when I was wondering had I wandered into a performance art piece by mistake, it happened. A couple of folk at the front looked at their watches and, stubbing out their metaphorical cigarettes, hauled themselves onstage. The band had been here all the time chatting to their pals, rather than off somewhere backstage making ridiculous rider demands and ingesting large quantities of cocaine off the exposed bellies of pliant groupies. Guitars were produced seemingly out of thin air and we were in business.
First on the bill was a band called Queen Kong. Their sound is the sort of quasi-gothic quasi-industrial electronic music which was very popular in the 1980s when Depeche Mode decided to get out of pop music and into heroin. The band is fronted by Amy from Cork, who reminded me of a young Paula Yates. To continue the fashion theme, I can report that Amy’s shock of blonde hair nicely set off the clingy black & white horizontally-striped two piece she was wearing. She looked like an escapee from a Dadaist prison. If you’re standing up front, you’ve gotta make an impression and she did, but not just with the outfit. Amy can wail and she proceeded to do so, sounding remarkably like Tracy Tracy from The Primitives in her softer moments. In her louder moments, well – I’m guessing she has a lot of Souxsie & The Banshees records in her bedroom. After their performance, I noticed that Amy changed out of her prison duds and into the sort of 50s dress that Lily Allen trys so hard to look cute in. Amy succeeded wonderfully, but it did nothing to dispel youthful memories of watching Paula Yates on The Tube all those years ago.
Notions of the 80s were also not dispelled by drummer James playing a pair of those synth drums whose cool has been so tarnished by association with the theme tune to EastEnders. James was on a mission to rehabilitate their reputation and gave them quite a hammering. He wore a bandana over his face throughout. This may be an ironic stylistic nod to the New Romantic dress ethos, or the BBC drama department may be looking for him to get their drums back, or it may be a fear of contracting avian flu in Dublin clubs – we simply don’t know.
Stage right stood David, the guitarist. Complete rock god image – tall, thin, clad in black with a hint of stubble with a pretty decent ability to windmill. There was a little cluster of female fans gathered in front of his side of the stage.
Next in the line-up was bassist/keyboardist Ruby. Ruby is one of the founding members of the band and apparently is not prone to ego problems as she was content to work from behind one of the speaker stacks all night. You could see that she was working though – it’s not as if she was stood there so she could slack off for a quick smoke when the others were distracted.
Last band member was to my mind the most intriguing – Sharing the centre stage with vocalist Amy was recent recruit Ewa. Ewa is from Poland and plays the saxophone, which is not an instrument I readily associate with gothic-industrial electro bands. Ewa did not appear to feel out of place however – she had Art Deco hair, a big happy smile on her face and was getting as stuck in to the proceedings as the rest of the band.
Queen Kong have a very cold stark sound which is not really to my shoegazing indie taste, but I have to acknowledge the quality of their work. I was around in the 1980s when this genre was invented and I’ve a lot of unpleasant adolescent memories associated with that period. Queen Kong did not help matters by announcing that their first song was entitled ‘Thatcher’. Memories of high unemployment, emigration, urban decay, inflation (and more importantly being 16 and not being able to find a girl who would date me) all came flooding back. Having said that, these people are not a Cure tribute band. Their work is original and they’ve a unique sound which is more accessible than I would have imagined. I’ve found myself regularly listening to the tracks streamed on their MySpace page since the gig, which surprises me. There’s real substance here – they’re not noiseniks out to annoy the neighbours. They have skill, talent, attitude, application and huge energy. Their sound is coherent and accessible. They know what they’re doing and they do it bloody well. I may yet be converted. You may be too.
The purpose (and indeed highlight) of my outing, however was to see The Butterfly Explosion. They have the classic five piece line-up – Gazz Carr (guitar/vocals); John Canavan (guitar); Peter Savage (drums); Sorcha Brennan (keyboards/vocals) and Danny Conway (bass) and their MySpace samples contain the sort of dreamy waft-along electronica that I’m such a sucker for. The problem with music of this sort is that it’s inherently ambient wallpaper and can be very bland indeed – try and offer a Ride CD for free to anybody dressed in black hanging around outside Tower Records of a Saturday and see how many takers you get. There’s a lot of dross of this nature around. All you need is a synth, a laptop and half the summer barricaded into your bedroom not talking to your parents because they’re, like, total losers.
However, there’s also a lot of good musicians operating in this space – God Is An Astronaut and Dry County being my two favourite Irish ones. It’s very difficult to be instrumental, distinctive and memorable. You can get around this by having vocals. When Blue States added regular vocals to their third album, it took the impact of their music to another level in my opinion. The Butterfly Explosion work similar alchemy here.
They are also extremely talented – watching bassist and drummer work as a cohesive unit, I was reminded of the time that Adam & Larry went off to do the Mission Impossible theme by themselves, reminding everybody precisely what it was that they brought to the party. Guitarist John Canavan was similarly impressive. There was no showboating – no duckwalks, no look-at-me solos, just solid uninterrupted graft as he and Sorcha produced live in front of me a huge swathe of sound that I could have sworn would have taken multiple overdubs in the studio to produce. The band may joke about his large collection of effects pedals, but I could swear each one of them was used.
The thing that surprised me though was the noise. I was expecting simple floaty electronica and I was wrong. I should have guessed when Gazz took his place behind the mikestand wearing the sort of stripey jumper previously much favoured by Kurt Cobain. Nirvana are an influence. Pearl Jam are an influence. Mogwai are definitely an influence. My Bloody Valentine are such an influence there must be a little shrine to Kevin Shields in Gazz’s house someplace, no matter how much he protests otherwise. The sound the band produce live is huge. Not noisy or raucous, but big and tuneful and expansive. This was totally unexpected for me. Normally a band’s recorded output will be cleaner than the live equivalent, but the live sound is also sparser as the opportunity for layering and studio trickery is removed.
The Butterfly Explosion’s live sound is larger and more muscular though no less accomplished than their studio output, almost like they’ve been toning down the recorded output for fear of scaring the timid novice listener. This created a problem– the venue was too small for their sound. Like a bird trying to unfold its wings in a cage, you could see what they were trying to do, you could see that they were capable of it, but you could tell that they didn’t have the physical space to achieve it. When they played songs I had streamed and was familiar with, the extra development over the recorded version was enthralling. However you could see that the band had even more to give but couldn’t without the narrow walls creating destructive reverberative noise. This problem was especially acute for Gazz and Sorcha on their vocal parts.
When they reached the climactic end of their set, there was none of the regular showbiz nonsense of walking off and returning ‘by public demand’ for encores. Admittedly this would have been a bit difficult as I had now realised there was no backstage area in this small venue – what you saw was what you got. The band simply stopped playing and broke down their kit. Sorcha had her hand round the back of the Roland and had whipped out her power lead before the last note had faded.
This is an incredibly talented band. They have a beautiful expansive sound and they deserve to be huge. I am genuinely looking forward to getting my hands on their next release – an EP out at the end of September – in a way that this jaded consumer of music hasn’t felt in many years.
Headline act of the evening was The Like. They’re three Los Angeleno girls Elizabeth ‘Z’ Berg (guitar/vocals), Charlotte Froom (Bass/vocals) and Tennessee Thomas (drums) playing guitar-based rock, much like the Donnas. They wear make-up, dress in cute floaty dresses and play punchy tune-laden rock. They only require the presence of Kirsten Dunst to look like a ‘Virgin Suicides’ cast reunion. Even though they’ve been together since 2001, the eldest of them is only 21. However, their experience considerably outweighs their tender years. They all come from music industry families – the father of one was the drummer with Elvis Costello & The Attractions, another father was a producer and the third was an A&R man for Geffen, which must have helped them navigate the travails of the industry. The fact that they’re all very easy on the eye may not be a disadvantage either.
It would be wrong to suggest however that some nepotism-driven packaged pop product though. These girls know their craft. ‘Z’ writes all their songs. Although I had never heard so much as a note of their music before, I was able to really get into it. It was tuneful and accessible. They can play. They can sing. They will go as far as they want to in the industry and they deserve it. After their set, they hung around in the bar chatting to some American friends. I was astounded to witness the transformation from ultra-professional seasoned performers to giggling Valley girls. I spoke briefly to Tennessee Thomas, the drummer, and she was so polite I thought she had mistaken me for a policeman. They called themselves The Like after the verbal placeholder which forms such a prominent place in Californian syntax. If they were Irish, I bet they would probably call themselves ‘The Lovely Girls’ after the Fr. Ted episode – they appear to have a sense of humour, after all.
Photo credits: Butterfly Explosion by Arianne Dalby Speight; Queen Kong by Anna Nowakowska.