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The War Against Intelligence

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April 2007

Gruff Rhys

Tramway, Glasgow

A man with a Jeff Lynne hairstyle, amid a stage set that is part giant tv screen and part aircraft, playing trippy, repetitive and lengthy songs may understandably strike a note of caution with anyone old enough to remember the seventies.

Yet, while ‘Candylion’ is an aviation themed concept album, this funny and self-depreciating performance could not be further from the pompous prog rockers of that era.

Indeed, as a solo act, Rhys seems to have been able to harness the wild ambition of his band, Super Furry Animals, into something that is simultaneously warmer, stranger and more intimate.

With Lisa Jen from Welsh folk outfit, 9 Bach, as a visual and vocal foil, a Pete Fowler designed stage set, and a range of toy instruments, it is as far removed from any traditional notions of an acoustic-based performance as it is possible to get, but the songs are mostly simple and beautiful.

‘Candylion’, ‘Cycle of Violence’ and the 15 minute finale, ‘Skylon’ are a splendid mix of oddball Welsh folk, dance beats and eighties’ guitar bands. The outcome is the sound of Rhys’ over-fertile imagination running wild, and, to continue the aviation theme, some melodies that would not have been out of place on a Wings’ album.

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Cansei de Ser Sexy

Barrowland, Glasgow

Having left Sao Paolo a year ago to embark on the first shows outside Brazil with little in the way of expectations, that CSS appear somewhat de-mob happy close to the end of their journey.

Although keen to have us believe that this slightly shambolic but riotously funny show (‘We’re drunk, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care,’ explains Lovefoxx) is the culmination of their work to date, in reality it is only one of many unexpected highlights.

The playing is not substantially better than a year ago, nor have the sound and production values improved in proportion to the size of the venues, but the things that makes CSS great are still present in abudance.

Lovefoxxx – in a Motorhead sweatshirt and lycra jumpsuit – is the focal point for the most energetic performance you are likely to encounter this year, but it is the songs that really endure.

A cover of L7’s ‘Pretend We’re Dead,’ one new song, and the older ‘I Wanna Be Your J-Lo’ are surprises, but most of the show comes from their self-titled album. ‘Off The Hook,’ ‘Let’s Make Love’ and ‘Alcohol’ all sound as much fun as they did a year ago – their genre-defying sense of fun their finest quality.

Cat Power

The Ferry, Glasgow

At a time when the live music experience is becoming increasingly homogenised and routine, there is all the more reason to be thankful for the utterly random, occasionally brilliant and more often, frustrating, approach of Chan Marshall.

As Cat Power, her reputation is for erratic live performances is long standing, but last year, deservedly, saw her emergence as a more sober and even commercial proposition. Lengthy tours, large festival performances and live tv appearances were negotiated with considerable guile, albeit assisted by a useful slew of ageing Memphis soul musicians.

Though they have departed the scene, and this is a near-solo show (she is accompanied on guitar) it flies in the face of conventional wisdom on how to put together a twenty-first century rock show.

Characteristics include a dreadful support act (Tom Brosseau), an interminable wait for the main act to appear, no discernible stage lighting and reverb turned up to the max on Marshall’s vocals. The unlovable venue – where being able to both see and hear is close on impossible – appears as if it has been chosen to be willfully contrary.

The set itself is lengthy and unstructured. Songs are unfinished. The best known material is largely absent, but mostly Marshall sings beautifully and quietly. There are some great cover versions (‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’, ‘Paths of Victory’, ‘Wild is the Wind’) and a truly show-stopping ‘Dark End of the Street.’ An attempt at ‘New York, New York’ ends with a mumbled promise that ‘it’ll be better next time.’

Long time fans know to expect no such thing, and that when it comes to live performance only Mark E. Smith and Bob Dylan remain as unconventional and willing to confront audience expectations. It is good company to keep.

Bob Dylan

SECC, Glasgow

Much of Bob Dylan’s later career has been a struggle between his often problematic present and portentous past. The outcome has often been frustrating, even painful, live performances, but recent years have seen Dylan’s live show solidify and improve alongside his recorded output.

That this is a near-vintage Dylan show – full of unexpected twists and wilful perversity – has much to do with the grace and dexterity of last year’s Modern Times album.

Unusually, the set is heavily loaded in favour of recent material, with six of the album’s tracks featuring. The reflective beauty of Ain’t Talkin’ contrasts with the urgency of the band during Spirit on the Water and encore Thunder on the Mountain, but each is a bona fide highlight.

The surprises are John Brown, a prescient tale of military service from 1963 previously only released officially on the Unplugged album, and the sprightly opener Cat’s in the Well from the largely unloved Under the Red Sky album. All of these, and 2001’s Summer Days, are treated in a manner at least sympathetic to, and largely based on, the recorded versions.

 

When tackling his sixties and seventies material, however, Dylan has spent 30-plus years, along with assorted musicians, messing with structures and time signatures. To a certain extent, this continues and even Like a Rolling Stone and All Along the Watchtower are hardly rendered in singalong format. Yet Dylan’s voice (clearer and more inhabited than ever) and new-found dexterity on the organ mean he seems to be having fun with, rather than cannibalising, his past.

It makes for a convivial atmosphere and proves, most crucially, that Dylan is still in love with music – and, in his 66th year, reconciling his present with his substantial past achievements.

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