It took me some time to catch up with Elizabeth Bernholz’s alter ego Gazelle Twin in a live setting, what with her lack of home town performance dates, but she was worth every second of the wait. In a knock-out and characteristically unsettling visual spectacle, Bernholz stalked the stage and scanned the audience like some cretaceous avatar, in keeping with the sentiments of her latest album, Pastoral. The album’s message that Britain is a dangerously deluded, hubristic dinosaur comes across loud and clear, as did the brutal, unnerving live beats that provide the backdrop to Bernholz’s perfectly incongruous, almost angelic, soprano vocals. This was a show with more than just one toe in performance art. The Gazelle Twin image is every bit as important as the Gazelle Twin sound, and its latest incarnation, as faceless court jester meets football fan, meets St. George’s flag, meets a certain, highly corporate, ubiquitous soft drink, is as striking as it is disturbing. This is very much art in the context of its time, chewing and spewing the political landscape that it finds itself in. The end result was thrilling, haunting and yet strangely reassuring.
How fitting that, in Easter week, a charismatic and frequently full-bearded man of the – forgive me (Father!) – ‘Common People’ should rock-up in town, staging his own resurrection. Emerging from the appropriately tomblike depths of the cavernous basement at Patterns and proving that there is, indeed, life after big-band death, this was the other ‘JC’ – Jarvis Cocker – pouring forth pearls of worldly wisdom that seemed to captivate everyone who had come to hear the man preach.
Troubled times give rise to great art. This seems to be the general consensus, a truism even, and artists the world over, since time immemorial, have toiled away, tapping the sap of life’s suffering. So it is for David Byrne, after a protracted solo silence. 14 years is a long time to be gone from any scene. The world changes, sometimes beyond recognition. However, David has kept his hand in, in the interim, ticking over nicely with the collaborative approach we’ve come to associate him with, post-Talking Heads (Brian Eno, Norman Cook, St Vincent, Arcade Fire, De La Soul) and now for the rebirth. Just one month later would have made for an Easter release with real resurrection overtones, but this is still a springtime resurgence and a seasonally appropriate burst of optimism to sweep away winter and, sticking with the religious, bring light to the darkness. David is emphatic that the album’s title, American Utopia, is entirely without irony. There is no cynicism – just sincerity, plain and simple. Byrne’s motives are as unadorned as his voice and he is talking, alongside the singing, in a separate, but accompanying, tour of lectures, entitled ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’. We can only surmise what Ian Dury would make of the appropriation.
Sometimes your suspicions can be aroused by an undone bow tie and a vintage microphone. Have you smelled a rat (pack)? Is this a middle-aged slide into mediocrity – pop’s equivalent of the proverbial pipe and slippers? Is it perhaps a cynical marketing manoeuvre to keep pace with an ageing fanbase? Or is something else going on? Something more estimable and with more substance.
A Daniel Wakeford gig is bottled joy at any time of the year, but the feel-good factor cranks up a notch or four when it takes place in Daniel’s home town a week before Christmas. Many people know Daniel’s face, voice and signature curls from the unfortunately and misleadingly titled television series, ‘The Undateables’ – actually a sweet, endearing and wholly respectful programme – where his capacity to charm and entertain in equal measure shines forth in abundance. In a live show setting, these attributes are magnified manyfold, as Daniel capably owns the stage and connects with his rapturous audiences.
When you’ve been at the game as long as Neil Hannon has (almost 30 years) and when you are as accomplished, adept and adored as he palpably is, you can confidently begin your live set with a pensive, poignant and potentially downbeat, though still oddly uplifting, track like ‘Down In The Street Below’. There’s no risk in foregoing the opening banger, even though there are plenty in the canon (pun unintended!) since the expectant audience will pay attention to, and probably silently mouth, every single word. Except for those who are still piling in from the bar – something that did not go unnoticed or uncommented on by Neil himself when he first spoke to the audience, “Nice of you to be so prompt!” came his greeting, as he grinned. Ah, always with the irony, the pointed understatement and a whiff of sarcasm: the modus operandi of The Divine Comedy right from its inception. idually as they played. Comedy by name and comedy by nature.
We’re all familiar with the story. Real life, though extreme enough to be straight out of a film script. Hailing from another country, in what may as well be another world and time dimension, Pussy Riot plunged into the public consciousness back in 2012. This feminist, avant-garde punk collective gave the patriarchy a defiant middle finger, with their planned anti-Putin protest in a prominent place of worship, publicly perceived as sacrilege at best and hooliganism at worst. The worst prevailed, leaving three of the women in the harshest of prisons on the grounds of religious hatred and hooliganism, where two of them would spend a further two punishing years.
We live in tumultuous times. Arguably, though, this is always the case, to a greater or lesser degree. Music – especially live music – can provide the perfect, unifying salve, as we come together in communal celebration. Alison Moyet’s performance at the Brighton Dome was the perfect illustration of this. A full house, rammed to the rafters, settled down readily and attentively to the uncharacteristic and unexpected spoken-word opener, ‘April 10th’, from Alison’s summer 2017 album Other. From an empty stage and unseen pulpit – for the band had yet to appear – came Alison’s soothing, spoken voice over a hypnotic soundscape, like a relaxation tape of old. She has come a long way from her 80s, mainstream origins. The familiar electronica is still there – the sparse, icy yin to the yang of her warm vocals – but she has bloomed into a poet proper and her latter-day lyrics evidence this, as does her wonderfully entertaining tour diary blog. Make no mistake – this is a sophisticated writer of great maturity and skill.
So, to the music. Flanked by the impressive duo of John Gardner and Sean McGhee on synths, backing vocals and occasional guitar (former) and bass (latter) Alison seemed surprisingly, and pleasingly, at home, for a self-confessed, stage-frightened limelight-shunner. “I’m here!” she sang repeatedly, in the apt and arresting opening number, ‘I Germinate’, hanging her mighty vocals on the comparatively brittle, but equally bold, electronica scaffolding. Those of us who’ve been knocking around long enough to remember Alison’s early days, pre and post-Yazoo, can only revel in her deserved evolution from awkward-feeling, punk-influenced outsider, to all-commanding diva, via bouts of debilitating agoraphobia and draining record label battles. She is here, alright, and she is in the driving seat and thriving, as evidenced by her gleeful interjections between songs. Barely able to contain her excitement at singing before her adopted home town crowd, she took pains to point out how Brighton is the first place she has ever felt at home, and accepted, and whole (cue big audience cheer!) It is both relevant and poignant that her latest album is called Other.
The setlist was a well-sewn patchwork of old and new, from Alison’s earliest foray into songwriting, aged just 16 (‘Nobody’s Diary’) to the accomplished ‘Ski’, co-written with her husband, about ultimately futile parental concern for a child, via stone cold classic ‘Only You’, arguably one of the greatest love songs of all time. In her own (blog) words, the setlist “Is a tricky balance. Pace. Emotion. Tempo. Challenge and reward”. The Brighton set was a total triumph, tracing a 40 year trajectory, from naivety to nuance.
Seeing Alison Moyet perform live is a wonder. You’re confounded by how she makes so much of so little. Her instrumentation has always been a stripped-back sound of minimalism and understatement, while her voice adds the seemingly contradictory, and yet complementary, drama and magnitude.
The gig highlight was hearing over 1,500 people enthusiastically sing “We all need love” in unison, as Alison belted out her jubilant 1984 top ten hit, ‘Love Resurrection’. The original accompanying video to this song depicts a Middle Eastern encampment, with a veiled Alison wandering through the surrounding, barren desert landscape. So we ended where we began, with a gig book-ended by human unification, echoing Alison’s own words between songs at one point that, “We all belong together.”
Photos by Georgie Gibbon
When radishes are raining down on the audience like bullets, you quickly realise your usual points of reference might not serve you too well. The nightmarish, masked support band, Noiseferatu, shuffled on to the drone of their disorientating, distorted fuzz. ‘All hail the radish’ came their chant, as they feverishly chalked the incantation on the floor, parting the bemused crowd as they did so. An entirely fitting preliminary for a main act whose albums have titles like Does the Cosmic Shepherd Dream of Electric Tapirs? and The Psychedelic Fiction Sauce Book. When the vinyl is on the merch stand, priced at £6.66, under the watchful, silent guard of a cross-dressing, Japanese guitarist in stockings and pink wig, plus a guy who’s a dead-ringer for Gandalf, you get the distinct impression that this will be no ordinary gig. And you would not be wrong.
How eerily apt that Gary Numan and band should breeze into town on the blown-out back end of Storm Ophelia, as the Sussex sky turned a sulphurous yellow and the birds fell silent, like some sort of post-apocalyptic eclipse. As if purposely co-ordinated with the arresting desert-wasteland visuals that accompany Numan’s latest offering, for a fleetingly sublime, parallel-world moment, dusty gusts swirled ominously not only in the images on the big screen behind the Dome stage, but also on the streets outside. Life imitating art. The perfect backdrop. However, let’s not overstretch the metaphor, for while Numan is indisputably king of his dominion on stage, his powers probably fall short of calling the shots with the weather.