Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Year In Gigs So Far : Part 1


MOGWAI, Academy, Dublin, March 20 – Opening with the ominous swelling guitars of ‘The Precipice’ and the haunting tones of ‘Small Children in the Background’, Mogwai proceed to slay The Academy on the first night of a three-night stand. An excellent set takes in hypnotic The Hawk Is Howling mood-pieces like ‘Scotland’s Shame’ and ‘Thank You Space Expert’ as well as the Glaswegians’ legendary feedback-drenched sonic assaults (‘Like Herod’, ‘Batcat’), with the 20-minute-plus encore of ‘My Father My King’ climaxing in a bout of sustained aural torture - in the best possible sense of course. An intense live experience.

ANIMAL COLLECTIVE, Tripod, March 27 – The Baltimore experimentalists have well and truly gone from being a cult concern to the verge of the mainstream this past year, a state of affairs reflected by a wedged Tripod. Unfortunately, there's a high proportion of idiots among that crowd, with the rave influences evident on Merriweather Post Pavilion seemingly giving certain people the idea that an Animal Collective gig is the perfect place to recreate Creamfields. Oh well. A somehat disorientating, trancey set, with tunes blending and segueing into one another, often barely recognisable compared to their recorded versions, it’s compelling stuff – the MPP holy trinity of ‘My Girls’, ‘Summertime Clothes’ and ‘Brother Sport’ are greeted rapturously, while ‘Leaf House’ and a soaring, extended version of ‘Fireworks’ also stand out as highlights.


PRIMAVERA SOUND FESTIVAL, Parc del Forum, Barcelona, 28 May-30 May

For anyone accustomed to trudging around muddy fields and camping in stormy weather during music festivals, Primavera Sound is a bit of a culture-shock. Situated in the beautiful setting of the Parc Del Forum, the site is mostly concrete, and with the exception of the Auditorium (reserved for a handful of shows) all the stages are outdoor ones. While I can’t help but feel that watching the likes of Bat For Lashes on an outdoor stage under roasting sunlight kind of takes away from the atmosphere a bit, there’s no arguing with the stellar line-up that Primavera provides. It also differs from the Irish festival experience in that the music continues until the small hours of the morning. Which, unfortunately, isn’t so great when you neglect to pace your drinking...

First up on the line-up for us are Canadians Women, who turn out a set distinguished by abrasive guitars and spiky, sharp tunes, even if they’re not quite as compelling in the live setting as they are on record. The Vaselines, playing the picturesque Rock Deluxe Stage (against the backdrop of the Mediterranean, the stage faces a row of Roman-Colisseum-style ascending stone steps), are excellent, with 24-carat Cobain-approved classics like ‘Molly’s Lips’ and ‘Son Of A Gun’ rubbing shoulders with lesser-known, punky numbers like ‘Teenage Superstars’ and ‘Sex Sux (Amen)’, as well as an exuberant, bouncy rendition of ‘You Think You’re a Man’. Amusingly, their onstage banter is almost as filthy as their lyrics.

Yo La Tengo take to the Main Stage with an awesome bout of sustained guitar-shredding that must go on for well over ten minutes, following it with ‘Autumn Sweater’ which sounds positively sublime in this setting – one of the highlights of the weekend, no doubt. Their well-received set is a mix of new material from their forthcoming album and crowd-pleasing classics like ‘Sugarcube’ and ‘Mr. Tough’. Soon after midnight, it’s My Bloody Valentine’s turn, and if there were any doubts over whether their ear-splitting volume levels would be facilitated by the open-air setting, they’re soon obliterated by the bone-shaking first notes of ‘I Only Said’. Unfortunately, despite the overpowering loudness, the sound is very muddy and indistinct, with the crucial melodies submersed in the mix all but lost. Still, when the inevitable White Noise section arrives during ‘You Made Me Realise’, all I can do is look around me with a deeply perverse grin on my face as people wince and shield their ears.

Over at the ATP Stage, The Horrors are battling sound problems, and it’s looking like a losing battle, with the MBV-like ‘Scarlet Fields’ – one of the songs of the year so far – failing to take flight despite their best efforts. Between this and Wavves’ disastrous aborted set and onstage meltdown, I seem to be pushed into a state of drunken disillusionment for the rest of the early hours, and indeed manage to somehow get lost on the way back to the hostel.

Friday is a new day though, and it begins with Crystal Stilts’ solid, tight set on the Pitchfork stage. Resembling a gang of indie nihilists in the style of The Jesus and Mary Chain, tunes like ‘The Dazzled’ and ‘Departure’ ooze a detached coolness, but it does feel a tad one-dimensional after a while, and I’m left wishing they’d play some of their mellower numbers for the sake of variety. Over on the Main Stage, we’re pleasantly surprised to see that one-time member of Ash, Charlotte Hatherley, is now a member of Bat For Lashes’ touring band. As alluded to already, the mystical, atmospheric qualities inherent in Bat For Lashes’ music aren’t best served by the early-evening time-slot, but Natasha Khan makes it work: the Two Suns material sounds terrific live, with ‘I Sleep Alone’ and the superb ‘Siren Song’ in particular standing out, while ‘Two Planets’ sets the stage for a bout of tribalistic percussion that goes down well.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart may have made their name this year with fey, jangly C86 homages, but it’s surprising how much they rock live: they tear through an all-too-brief set with no little vigour, tunes like ‘Come Saturday’ and ‘Young Adult Friction’ sounding much more muscular and less cute than on record. It’s just as well their set isn’t the longest, however, because the queue outside the Auditorium for My Bloody Valentine’s second set of the weekend is insane. By the time we make it inside the building, after what must be at least an hour, the strains of opening song ‘I Only Said’ are already ringing out surprisingly clear as we climb the steps, and we enter the Auditorium itself in time for ‘When You Sleep’: it’s incredible. This is the third time I’ve seen MBV in the last year: the first time the sheer thrill of seeing the group who created the greatest album of all time in the flesh was enough to send me into fits of ecstacy; now, however, the full scale and force of the MBV live experience hits me square in the face. The sound inside the Auditorium is amazing, the volume levels are skull-crushingly loud, and the hallucinatory visuals only add to the disorientating effect. I never thought I’d hear myself saying it, but ‘When You Sleep’ actually sounds even better in this setting than it does on Loveless – in other words, yes, you can improve on perfection apparently. The same goes for the superlative ‘You Never Should’: it’s no exaggeration to say that witnessing this song played live under these kind of sound conditions is like being at the centre of a hurricane, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. At times during the gig it all gets too much and I resort to the foam earplugs handed out on the way in, while the prospect of a second ‘Holocaust’ in two days sees us leave before the infamous White Noise sets in. No matter: this will remain one of the most intense and unforgettable live shows I’ve witnessed. A few months later, an acquaintance who attended Primavera will inform me that the Auditorium’s PA system was destroyed afterwards, which only adds to the awesomeness.

As we make our way back outside resembling victims of shell-shock, the strains of The Mae Shi can be heard coming from the Pitchfork Stage, so off there we head. They’re putting on a highly enjoyable, frenetic show, with crowd participation high on their list of priorities, but the tunes are no slouches either, with the effervescent ‘Run To Your Grave’ and singalong number ‘I Get (Almost) Everything I Want’ going down a storm. Dan Deacon is another artist who puts a high premium on audience participation, but it’s not going quite so well this time around: most of those present don’t seem to have a clue what he’s trying to get them to do, and the rest of us grow increasingly restless as he eats up set-time trying to get a conga going. When he does get down to it, the Bromst material makes for hypnotic, fascinating stuff live, and the opening strains of ‘The Crystal Cat’ are the precursor to one of the most joyous mass-crowd-freak-outs of the weekend.

It’s over to the Main Stage then for Bloc Party. They’ve been on the receiving end of quite the backlash of late, but they’ve enough high-quality material in their arsenal to always be an enticing live prospect, and tonight it’s very much a ‘greatest hits’ set. ‘Banquet’, ‘Positive Tension’ and ‘This Modern Love’ still sound fantastic live, while later-career tracks like storming opener ‘One Month Off’ and the spellbinding ‘Signs’ are worthy enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. It’s clear by now that they’re a well-drilled live unit, and such is the energy and anthemic quality of their set that the clumsiness and over-earnestness that threatens to sink them on record is forgotten about.

By Saturday, things are beginning to take their toll, and the early part of the evening is spent walking around the site in a hungover haze. The drone/shoegaze textures of Jesu and the quirky folk of Herman Dune are sampled, and both impress, but things really start heating up come 9pm, when the rest of the stages pretty much shut down in anticipation of Neil Young’s Main Stage set. Thrillingly, the grizzled veteran rises to the occasion, as if he’s been galvanised by the sight of all the young whippersnappers with their distorted lo-fi tricks and wants to show them who’s still the boss of the searing guitar freak-out. Opening with the Ragged Glory cut ‘Mansion On The Hill’, Young goes on to dazzle Primavera with a majestic set, rolling out the classics: a ferocious ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black); a sprightly ‘Are You Ready For The Country?’; a wonderful electric version of the elegiac ‘Pocahontas’; a blistering ‘Cinnamon Girl’; an epic ‘Down By The River’ that features some thrilling fretwork abuse... they’re all here, but most surprising of all is when the haunting guitar lines of ‘Cortez The Killer’ (if you’re to believe rock mythology, the song was once banned in Spain) ring out over the late-evening air - it’s the glorious highlight of one of the most amazing live performances I’ve witnessed. As Young and his band take their bow, he sports a Barcelona scarf (the Champions League victory over Man United just three days old at this stage) and receives a deafening ovation from the elated masses.

With that, we venture over to the far side of the site and the ATP Stage, where Liars are next up. Dead on our feet after Young’s lengthy set, we opt to watch the show from the high, grassy embankment that overlooks the stage from the right-hand side. ‘We’d like to thank Neil Young for opening for us’, they announce playfully, but judging by the fervent crowd that’s flocked to this area of the festival, Liars are the main attraction of the night for many. The sinister textures and polyrhythmic drumming of tunes like ‘Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack’ and ‘A Visit From Drum’ lend a tribalistic atmosphere to proceedings, but there’s also plenty of sharp, needly post-punk in a varied set. I can’t help feeling slightly detached from it all given my lack of proximity to the action, but hey, fatigue is a killer.

As the festival enters the early hours of Sunday morning, Sonic Youth take to the Main Stage, and one wonders if the curse of Neil Young (long story) has struck them once again, as the sound quality is strangely flat. The set is heavy on material from new album The Eternal, with Ranaldo’s ‘What We Know’ and the Gordon-sung ‘Calming The Snake’ standing out, while it’s disappointingly light on guitar interplay and freeform noise. ‘Pink Steam’ apart, it’s very much a ‘heads down, rock out’ performance, the biggest thrills being the Daydream Nation one-two of ‘The Sprawl’ and ‘’Cross The Breeze’ as well as an encore of the redoubtable ‘Bull In The Heather’. They close with ‘Expressway To Yr Skull’, which may well be a nod to Young, who’s said to have described it in the past as the ‘greatest guitar song ever written’.

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