Thursday, November 18, 2010

Honey Steel's Gold

I wrote this the day after the show and it has been sitting on a hard drive ever since. Some of the wordier bits have been snipped, which gives an idea of how wordy it was in the first place.

Don't Look Back (Honey Steel's Gold)
Enmore Theatre, Sydney – Friday February 8, 2008

It was with a blend of suspicion and anticipation that I approached this inaugural Australian Don't Look Back event. Suspicion, because the inherent conservatism and predictability of the format seems to represent the antithesis of interesting art - hard to trust any initiative that would make marketing departments feel so comfortable.

On the positive, Ed Kuepper was in a strong position to survive this backward look with credibility intact. If revisiting a seventeen-year-old album verbatim is a potentially unedifying business, the fact that a resurgent Kuepper has just delivered his best solo set in years (2007's “Jean Lee and the Yellow Dog”) helped to quell reservations. The consistent quality of Kuepper’s recent live outings added to the expectation that we might be in for something more challenging and substantial than a palsied grab at the glories of yesteryear.

I was particularly interested in seeing how Kuepper's current live aesthetic – overflowing with electric energy, intensely rhythmic yet exhilaratingly loose – would intersect with the mannered, stately arrangements of the Honey Steel's Gold LP.

Opener “King of Vice” is fantastic – the choice of classy jazz pianist Alister Spence to substitute for original contributor Chris Abrahams is an inspired call, and as the elegiac keyboard motif begins to drift out over the Enmore crowd it is met with a cheer of recognition. Kuepper allows himself a wry smile as he begins to send out sheets of ringing, complex chording over the steady rolling rhythm patterns produced by legendary drummer Jeffrey Wegener and nearly-as-legendary bassist Peter Oxley.

There is an exciting tension created by the band's intense concentration; they are trying hard to stay on top of unfamiliar material and for the most part succeed with honours. The songs are delivered with an edgy electric charge which in many cases elevates them above their recorded counterparts – this is not a plodding, note-perfect recreation. It is louder, less controlled, straining powerfully against the template of the original work, a full-blooded reinvention.

Some of the hypnotically repetitive, semi-improvised quality of Kuepper's best live work is brought in to play for “Friday's Blue Cheer / Libertines of Oxley”, another long and intricately-constructed track which gives Wegener in particular a chance to shine. His ability to play rhythmically sophisticated material with violently unpredictable feel and fire is an extraordinary gift, and he deserves to be more widely regarded as one of our very greatest musical treasures.

Sort-of-hits “Everything I've Got Belongs To You” and “The Way I Made You Feel” elicit the most enthusiastic crowd response – the former's classical pop construction renders it impervious to even the slightly perfunctory rendition it receives tonight, while the latter's likable groove is augmented by some fine keyboard colouring from Spence.

Fittingly, the set peaks with the album's title track – largely comprised of a pulsing meditation on a single chord (lyrical content: 14 impenetrable words), it's a compelling example of Kuepper at his best. Here he is operating in a realm of his own devising, poised somewhere uniquely interesting between the worlds of primal rock and roll, traditional songcraft and adventurous sonic exploration. His band navigate the landscape with assurance, carefully negotiating the subtle dynamic shifts of this deceptively simple piece. It is quite stunning.

If the set flags a little towards the end, then this is a fault shared by the original record – perhaps it might have been worth rearranging the sequence for this event? Nonetheless, the meditative instrumental “Summerfield” is a beautiful way to finish, Spence providing an exquisite, minimal piano motif which Kuepper overlays with plangent guitar figures. The mood slowly alternates between tension and resolve, with Wegener and Oxley providing gently shaded support. Eventually they drift to a halt, replicating the album's final fade – after a near-perfect display of vital and intelligent ensemble playing, this thoroughly successful recital ends with a whisper. Sublime.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Reformation Era

I've been thinking about a comment on Lorraine Crescent:

Nothing bugs me more than people who think they saw the Buzzcocks because they saw them tour Australia in 1990 or they saw the Laughing Clowns because they saw them in 2008. GET REAL!

Well, yes. I know where he is coming from, when I was at high school we used to fucking loathe old cool bands reforming. We would curl up in agony while (still compulsively) watching The Who slaughter their reputation. Now it is hard to throw a brick without hitting a bunch of old audience cunce reliving a teenage dream they never probably experienced, or a bunch of young audience cunce pretending they are at Monterey or something. I am still deeply bummed about Joe Strummer having died when he did, but there is one good thing about it.

The Who are an interesting one because when I saw them on their tour here a couple of years ago they were still absolutely terrible. That isn't necessarily interesting in and of itself but many bands have, since the 80s nadir of bloated session musos and backing vox, become extremely adept at serving up a convincing replica of their classic sound (ie Stones) whereas the Who murdered all their songs with Pete on a horrible Eric Clapton Strat. I suppose that shows some sort of integrity, although they advertised the tour with the old Marquee Club poster so they lose several thousand points for that.

(Often my highlights of these shows are the moments that break the inexorable flow of "classic" narrative a bit - ie one of my favourite bits of the Who show was Pete doing nasty 80s post-Moon single Eminence Front.)

It is a thorny one because if you go to far in one direction you encounter that rotten old bore, "authenticity" in rock - and if you go too far in the other then you endorse the sort of pathetic fantasy facsimile of experience that the 21st century seems so good at serving up.

Also, Prince was shit for ages and didn't play any of his old songs. When I saw him he was good and played heaps of his good old songs. Technically, had he reformed? Bowie poses similar dilemmas.

On a small tangent, I reckon that in the future we will have BAND BRANDS that receive their imprimatur from corporate ownership rather than actually containing any original members or anything. Ie there will be a touring version of The Rolling Stones long after Mick and Keith are dead, and then if you're gonna have one why not have a couple to maximise your ability to exploit multiple markets simultaneously? This is a lot like cover bands, sure, but with audiences who will say "I SAW THE STONES LAST NIGHT" and think that it is what they ACTUALLY DID.

ANYWAY. The unfortunate fact is that while these reformation shows are mostly terrible, some are really good.

I have been mulling over my personal Band Reformation Acceptability Index for a while now and while I don't have any answers I believe these are all pertinent questions.

Are enough significant original members present?
Did the band have a sound that was unique to the players involved?
Is there new material?
Does the new material suck?
Are they finding new things to say through the old material? This is a bit mystical but it does happen.
Was the band cruelly ignored back in the day and hence possibly genuinely deserving of a moment in the sun?
Were they inextricably linked to youthful rebellion?
Do they have a point to prove?
Can they pull it off without looking stupid?
What are they wearing?
Are they too fat?
Does anybody care?

There are very possibly other factors that I have forgotten. The answers to many of these can be nuanced, and the way to an Acceptable Reunion can lie in the alchemical combination of a few of these criteria.

The "does anybody care" one is interesting to me, because if they don't it takes away the twitchy suspicions of THE CASH IN (another one of those dumb rock double-standards, as if the whole fucking edifice of 20th century pop/rock wasn't a highly commercial venture). When Tactics played shows to support their discography compilations, there were probably a couple of hundred attendees across all shows - but they were all people for who Tactics would have been really bloody important band, and Studdert etc played in a way (and with an attitude) that honoured that respect. It was like a private celebration and it was intense and awesome because of that. They were really good nights, it would be a drag to have missed them.

Anyway, I got an awful lot out of seeing Laughing Clowns. I heard the people who made that music play it live, and that gave me some priceless insight into the songs and their power. This in turn deepened my already substantial love for the band. At their first Basement show in May last year I reckon they were commanding all the fire and darkness that I've heard on the records and bootlegs and it wasn't in a lazy walkthrough or simple nostalgia exercise.

I draw a very sharp distinction between this experience and having seen them as a skinny-suited working band back in the day, but I still don't think the more recent experience is invalid. Being cautious of reunions is a sound policy I think, but at times the music (and/or our response to it) can transcend all the social constructions we place around it and I'd always want to experience those moments regardless of their "authenticity".

Finally, I often think of the beautiful LP title from the (reformed) New York Dolls - one day it will please us to remember even this.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Cure - Live x 5

Sydney Entertainment Centre 18 Aug 1992
Sydney Entertainment Centre 14 Oct 2000
Sydney Entertainment Centre 15 Oct 2000
Sydney Entertainment Centre 09 Aug 2007
Sydney Entertainment Centre 10 Aug 2007

The Cure = teenage years, of course of course. I'm pretty fond of my teenage self, I reckon he was a pain in the arse but he still knew a thing or two. Driving through hilly suburbia in an eternal late summer, listening to Ride, obsessed with girls, creating angst and misery from perfectly agreeable circumstances. Robert Smith loomed large in those days, larger than even the giant lipstick-wearing potato of today. I never saw a peak-period Cure show, the closest I came was seeing the Wish tour in 1992. This was almost the same line-up as the legendary Prayer Tour shows of 1989 (disappointingly minus keyboardist Roger O'Donnell). They played well but the intensity wasn't there, and even a Prayer Tour show would have sucked in the Sydney Entertainment Centre. Realistically they probably sucked in most of the massive arenas they played on that tour, the clinically beautiful recording of Entreat creating unrealistic expectations for fautless Cure live experiences.

In 2000 I saw two shows on the Dream Tour, a conscious attempt to recapture the intensity and drama of the band's "dark" classics (Disintegration, Faith, Pornography). (I've always loved this duality in the Cure's music, the comfortable juxtapositon of crushing gloom and giddy pop - real life contains these kind of vertiginous shifts in experience). The shows were quite moving, the setlists laden with choice pearls from the back catalogue. The band were a bit lumpen compared to the wonderfully sparky and flexible Gallup/Thompson/Williams core but Smith's singing, playing and strange presence were still compelling. The tour was sponsored by classic rock radio station MMM, and was notable for its lack of classic rock radio tracks. Seeing Smith maltreat his guitar over the fascistic cheering crowd samples of Pornography while the real (capacity) crowd looked on nonplussed was an unexpectedly great punk rock moment.

Re the setlists: The Cure always had "special" songs that fans felt lucky to have caught live - Faith is arguably the jewel, also The Same Deep Water As You, Forever, a few more. As a young obsessive I would dream of the moment when the drums to Faith would start up and I would realise that I was part of a privileged audience, bestowed with this rare treat. It was unhealthy really! This notion of preserving the power of certain precious songs seems to be a bit of a lost art, perhaps there are bands that still do it but the internet age has made it a lot easier for bands to fashion fan-pleasing setlists should they so desire. It's an interesting idea, similar in essence to Prince "withholding" Purple Rain from an arena show so he could play it at full power at The Basement later that evening. The Dream Tour was notable for the high rotation of highly-"desirable" deep cuts, with Faith featuring pretty regularly (alongside All Cats Are Grey, The Drowning Man, Siamese Twins, The Figurehead etc). It was great to see all those songs live but it was also slightly disappointing, somehow, to have them served up so readily. At the same time, the tour seems to have been concieved as a sort of "gift to the fans" so I'll take it with good grace.

It was certainly a very affecting weekend, kinda built a bridge between the spiky optimism of my teenage years and the slightly tired and jaded figure of my late 20's. It was a time I felt I had lost my way somewhat, and being moved to tears by Plainsong and Like Cockatoos was a fantastic way to get my bearings. A million of these banal little personal stories folded inside big-time rock biographies. My key memory from the show is watching Robert Smith on the second night, standing as close as I probably dared to dream in my "perfect" imaginings. He was playing an impassioned solo in Bloodflowers, it felt like he was desperately trying to inject some fire and passion into a group (and album) that he maybe, somewhere, knew was a bit bloodless and plodding.

When I saw the 2007 tour I was about to become a parent for the first time, so the opportunity to temporarily commune with my teenage self was welcome. The band were excellent, with no keyboards and Porl Thompson back on board. There was a sense that Robert Smith knew his band had gotten a little bit lost and was trying to get some life back into proceedings, to force things outside the comfort zone of glacial keyboards and familiar arrangements. He sang clearly and beautifully and the band seemed like more of a living, breathing entity than either of the previous two tours I had seen. The setlists were fun and varied considerably between the two nights - Push, what a great live song! There was a judderingly intense version of Disintegration (what a fucking weird song! It seems to stand alone in their catalogue, unknowable and monolithic, sui generis), and Shake Dog Shake was a killer. Also enjoyed being as genuinely surprised by a setist inclusion as I've ever been with the performance of How Beautiful You Are from the Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me LP, played for the first time in 20-odd years.

I'd still love to see The Cure at a venue other than the Entertainment Centre. Even at that rotten barn they're one of the very few bands that I'd probably always go and watch just for old times' sake. Robert Smith is a peculiar presence in modern music, he is now in the odd position of being both massively influential and deeply irrelevant, and my heart goes out to him as he tries to find a way to reconnect with the power of his earlier art. Many foolishly intense hours spent listening to his music are a significant part of my life experience, associated with happy memories of teenage infatuation and friendship - on one level I can look at their catalogue as daft and indulgent but it represents a fondly-regarded time and one that is great to revisit every couple of years.