Towards the end of 2010 I increasingly felt I’d been missing out on a lot of live music in London. To a large extent I think it was a combination of Songkick and a massive indiepop relapse courtesy of Indietracks that year that made me more aware of what was going on (though a third factor is the strength in depth of the indie scene in the UK at the moment – it’s going through a particularly strong patch, and if you’re not acquainted with the many excellent and charming bands knocking around, sort it out before they have kids and split up!).
So I made a sort-of resolution that in 2011 I’d try to miss out on fewer gigs and go to a lot more; it crossed my mind that an average of one a week might be doable. A few months in and I was well on course for that, so I made it a firm goal for the year, and was successful: 54 gigs plus two festivals (Indietracks again and Glastonbury, filling a big gap in my gigography). I know people in bands who will have played more gigs than that and in the music industry who will go to that many every few months, but for someone in neither I thought it was quite respectable. And a bit of an effort, frankly – a few less in 2012 would be fine by me.
This post selects a dozen of the best gigs I went to. I had intended to do an overview post of my entire gig-going career, having just completed the data as far as I can on Songkick (I went over the 300 mark this year… not actually that much in 13 years, you could argue). But as soon as I’d completed my gigography, Songkick took down the handy tools for breaking it down, so I can’t easily extract my most-seen bands, most-visited venues and so on. Hopefully they’ll restore those geeky but handy features in a future redevelopment of the site. I also took my camera along to gigs when I remembered – a bog-standard £100 digital camera can get you some OK gig photos these days, so there’s a collection on Flickr.
A few honourable mentioned before we get into the shows. Shrag remain one of my favourite bands, and I’m maybe being a little harsh not including one of their shows here – I saw them three times this year, the latter two shows in particular being fabulously noisy and exciting (the first of them being a bit lower-key and a run-out for new material). On the evidence of the airings given to the new songs so far, their next album Canines looks set to be a highlight of 2012… so it’s pretty frustrating we have to wait until May for it! Shrag and I did seem cursed at one point though: I left a gig in February early after the first support act, as I suddenly felt really ill (so Songkick says I’ve seen them six times in all; it’s only five); and in January the band had to pull out of a show with the Loves when Helen was poorly.
Ah yes, the Loves. They were only around for the first six weeks or so of the year, retiring after a final show on February 13th, with an all-star indie supporting cast including Pocketbooks and the Lovely Eggs. It was a top-notch show to end on, with the full line-up and dancing girls; a stripped-down line-up had played the aforementioned Winter Sprinter show in January. It annoys me a bit when the band are written off as ‘merely’ 60s pastiche: there’s not much original to be done with guitar bands any more; what matters is doing something well, and the Loves did it with style. I’m looking forward to seeing their equally 60s, though seemingly more soul-influenced, successor band Knickers at the 2012 Winter Sprinter.
Finally before getting into specific shows, 2011 saw the final performances of Dinosaur Planet (for now, anyway – the album is now available and getting an official launch in 2012) and the arrival of Moon Horse, both from MJ Hibbett (and Steve). If anything, Moon Horse worked even better than Dinosaur Planet as a bit of performance: written specifically for Mark and Steve to do with hats, wigs and silly voices, it was a rollicking 57 minutes of comedy and song (see this podcast for the first ‘episode’). Hibbett’s Totally Acoustic shows migrated from The Lamb to The King And Queen mid-year, but unfortunately I missed the final two due to prior gig bookings – doubly gutting given they were the final London performance of Moon Horse and the show featuring Otway (who I saw for the first time at Glastonbury – I’m not going to delve into individual festival sets here, but he was brilliant and I Get It!).
So, let’s dive into the gigs. Only my third one of the year was Laura Cantrell at the Water Rats on January 26th, doing her first UK show for over five years. She returned in the spring for a short UK tour, playing the Union Chapel on May 8th. Somehow there were two free seats right at the front for the latter, so for me it was an up-close and intimate gig in an amazing venue, mostly just Laura plus her guitarist. It was a beautiful set, augmented at the end by some shabby-looking bloke with round glasses and a ponytail coming onstage, subsequently introduced as Tim Burgess of the Charlatans! If she hadn’t told us, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Also on a country tip, Caitlin Rose returned to the Windmill in Brixton on March 10th. She’s really too big for a venue of this size now, and seems to play it out of affection; this time round they had to schedule two shows, one early and one later, to cope with the demand. As ever it was an endearing set, not especially slick and all the better for it, and worth attending simply to hear Caitlin’s fabulous voice live, with the bonus of Jeremy Fetzer’s ever-listenable work on guitar – the same features made for a great set on the sunny Sunday at Glastonbury too. Because I was at the early show, I was able to nip across town for a free show by Thomas Tantrum in Islington the same evening, which was good fun but full of young-looking people – give me the mix of the young and the gnarled at a Caitlin Rose show any day.
From small venues now to one of the biggest: the O2 Arena on March 29th, for only my fourth ever arena show. Two of the previous three (Morrissey at the MEN Arena in 2004 and Pet Shop Boys at the O2 on a snowy night in 2009) have been released on DVD, and it rather looked as though this show would follow – but no sign so far. It takes a band I’m particularly keen to see (or a cheap / free ticket) to tempt me to the awful O2, and this time it was Elbow – ten years ago I’d have put them on a Band Least Likely To Play Arenas list… yet here they were. Could they make it work?
Blimey, could they ever: they totally owned the place. The mix of Guy Garvey’s down to earth humour and the scale of more recent Elbow material made for a pitch-perfect combination, with a modest stage show (some nice visuals and a catwalk out into the crowd) that did exactly the right amount to frame the performance. Better still, the band’s more recent material undoubtedly sounds better at full volume than on the overly politely-recorded albums. My only disappointment was the absence of any songs from the first album, but never mind really: the band have come a long way since then. If this does ever get a DVD release I will buy it like a shot.
It’s always a greater challenge to enjoy a live set when you don’t know the artist or their songs. This was the prospect facing me for long-time friend of Elbow Jesca Hoop at the Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen two days after the Elbow show. It’s a mark of a great live act if they can hold your interest even if you’re unfamiliar with them, and Jesca did it superbly. The newer material (I now realise) was perhaps more energetic and fun, and the items that really made the set work, though I did find plenty of the songs I’d enjoyed on her most recent album Hunting My Dress when I tracked it down subsequently. Jesca builds her songs round a distinctive fingerpicking style, often on the lower strings (her ensemble had no bass), and the band built a rich and lively backing in turn around that. Tremendous.
Let’s skip forward now to June, to Art Brut‘s five-night residency at the Lexington. I got a ticket for the fourth or fifth night, June 3rd, with Bearsuit providing the support. Quite how I managed this is beyond me: it sold out quickly, but I happened to re-check for tickets just when a few returns had been released, I’d guess (and only then because I’d previously been booked up that evening and suddenly became free). It was a storming show: probably exactly what you’d expect from Art Brut on top form, but the first time I’d seen them (very slow on the uptake here). It was also the show that finally convinced me I needed to start wearing some earplugs at gigs, after even the audience members shouting by my ear started to sound distorted.
Exactly three months later, Help Stamp Out Loneliness hit the Bull and Gate (a venue that seems to have had some business taken away from it by the more central Lexington?). They’d been one of the great highlights of Indietracks, with a keen crowd, a top album to showcase and hot air balloons drifting over the site during their set. Their Bull and Gate set was a joyous recreation of this with, frankly, a lot of the same people in the crowd (but minus the hot air balloons, obviously), transplanted into a joyfully sweaty room in London. If all gigs were like this, I wouldn’t complain.
A bit more melancholy, but ultimately uplifting, was the Bluetones‘ penultimate London show prior to their split, on September 16th at the Shepherds Bush Empire. I’d bought a ticket for this when they announced it would be their last tour, only for them to add a final extra London date a few weeks later. I was tempted to double-dip but ultimately opted not to, as the standing tickets had sold out and I was upstairs for the earlier set. It was still bloody brilliant though: all the hits plus some less obvious numbers, dipping into all parts of the back catalogue, including After Hours from their singles collection and one of my great favourites, Never Going Nowhere from 2003’s Luxembourg, to close the main set after Slight Return. Mark Morris reflected on their career throughout: Solomon Bites the Work was regarded as a flop after charting at number 8, he recalled; “we’ll show them a flop, we thought…” Slight Return, by contrast, “maybe sold a few too many.” After the split, he urged us, “go and tell your friends they missed a fucking… quite good band.” Indeed they did – I can understand the Bluetones feeling they couldn’t keep trolling round with lower album sales, as the old material would be too much of a millstone; but all the same, it’s sad to see them go.
Still at the Shepherds Bush Empire, and still in September, Slow Club hit town on on the 26th for a show delayed from May to promote their excellent album Paradise. It was an energetic show, with neither Rebecca nor Charles being excessively slick large-venue front-people for the band… and it was all the better for it. “Could you see my knickers?” Rebecca fretted after a song behind the drumkit wearing a Sheffield Wednesday dress. “Yes!” someone gleefully shouted back – the crowd was an odd mix of the genuinely young (ie younger than me) and men of a certain age (ie older then me) politely lusting after Ms Taylor. More importantly, Rebecca’s tremendous voice is a true focus for the sound live, more so than on record. The band returned to London on December 19th for their now-traditional Union Chapel Christmas show, which was also a brilliant, joyous evening and a fitting final gig of the year for me.
Still back in the autumn, Iron and Wine played two London shows in October: the second was a full band effort, louder and with all manner of trickery; the first, which I was at, was a more stripped-down show at the Hackney Empire with a slightly experimental ensemble. I’d not really been in the mood for heading out that evening, but it was well worth the trek: the whole set showcased the strength in depth of Sam Beam’s back catalogue, with many songs presented in unexpected arrangements but always to great effect. I’m rather glad I got a ticket for this more reflective set than the bells-and-whistles one, though I bet that was great too.
A gig that seems more recent than I now see it was: Misty’s Big Adventure, Upstairs at the Garage on November 17th. They were mysteriously scheduled at 9pm, and played their longest ever set (they claimed) at an hour and three quarters. I’ve taken every chance to see Misty’s this year, after their set at 93 Feet East on May 11th reminded me not to take such a great band for granted. Their live show offers a lot that’s not available in record, not least of course the crazy dancing of Erotic Volvo. During political satire I Want A Biscuit (You Can’t Have One), depicting the relationship between Nick Clegg and David Cameron (sic), he ambles through the crowd offering out a packet of biscuits (I got one at the Garage show – chocolate hobnob, if you’re wondering), before dangling one over the head of Grandmaster Gareth (portraying Clegg), crumbling it to dust before his eyes and cackling manically into the microphone. It’s worth seeing, as is their cover of the Tammys’ Egyptian Shumba, one of the most demented bits of pop music I’ve ever encountered (and only then on a rather costly 60s girl group box set). At both the Garage and Proud Camden shows (June 21st, a gig marred by the stupidest venue layout I’ve ever seen) Gareth kicked off proceedings with a minute’s noise; at 93 Feet East he took a register. He also created the innovative musical experiment of kung-ducting. My favourite Misty’s moment of the year, however, was Erotic Volvo dancing downstairs at the Garage, where apparently a Smiths tribute band were playing. Heaven knows what the Smiths crowd made of him, but he reappeared a few minutes later waving a bunch of gladioli stems. I’m already looking forward to their next London show, whenever that turns out to be.
Otway’s appearance at Totally Acoustic clashed with the first UK show for Wild Flag, on December 8th; what would otherwise have been a tough dilemma was settled by silly old Hibbett leaving it late to confirm the Totally Acoustic date, so I already had a ticket for the Wild Flag show… and it was quite a treat. They essentially did the album, which was fair enough, and reinforced just how good many of those songs are. They also verged into the kind of psychedelic jams that Sleater-Kinney flirted with on The Woods (and, for that matter, that Quasi have become prone to) – but it was a masterful bluff, as when they kicked back into the main riff of the closing number, they were as tight as I’ve ever seen a band finishing a song. Mary Timony in particular added a lot, acting as a compelling joint frontwoman with Carrie Brownstein, and seemingly bringing a more fixed and poppy sensibility. Meanwhile, it was great to see Carrie back on-stage – six years since I last saw her, I’d forgotten what a compelling, dynamic presence she is. I’d already bought a ticket for their February show, and am looking forward to it all the more now.
Finally for this selection, a gig I for some reason felt indifferent about beforehand: I’d seen Gillian Welch in 2004, so what could she add to that in the surely excessively large venue of the Hammersmith Apollo on November 23rd? Rather a lot was the answer: while it was a sparse and, though I hesitate to use the word, pure line-up of her and David Rawlings plus whatever else they could play, the quality and range of their material, her voice and his playing made every moment memorable. I heard on the evening that Patrick Stewart was in the audience, and to my astonishment later discovered David Cameron had been as well. But even that couldn’t sully the experience – what a chump I would have been to have missed it.