Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Wonder Stuff

This is odd, for so many reasons. It's odd that 'The Eight Legged Groove Machine' is 20 years old. It's odd that The Wonder Stuff are using this as the premise for a tour. It's odd that they play the album all the way through, in order. Not only did they never do that when it was released, it's not an album which easily lends itself to such a runthrough. It means we get three of the biggest numbers - 'Red Berry Joy Town', 'No For The 13th Time' and 'It's Yer Money I'm After, Baby' - straight off, but then the pace slows and quickens with near reckless abandon. 'A Wish Away' stands alone in a sea of middle ranking album tracks and it is only at the end, when the band crash into 'Unbearable' and 'Poison' that the old fire and aggression reappear.

Some things have obviously changed during the preceding two decades. Miles Hunt is far from the arrogant idiot he was back in those days - indeed, he frequently makes knowing-but-self-deprecating remarks about his past behaviour. Malc Treece still dances like your dad, but he now looks like him, too. But the biggest difference is, of course, that two of the original band are no longer with us. It is a tribute to the musicianship of Andres Karu and Mark McCarthy that they are able to replicate so faithfully the sound of Martin Gilks and Bob 'Bass Thing' Jones. Gilks may have been voted 'Best drummer of all time' (or something similarly trite) by 6Music listeners just after his death, but it is no empty award, the man could really play. At the same time, it is only on occasions like this, when most of his work is being showcased, that you realise what a fine, technical bass player Jones was.

The second half of the set consists of a few more numbers from 1988 - mostly b-sides such as 'Goodbye Fatman' and 'Astley in the Noose', but including 'Who Wants to be the Disco King' - and a selection of choice cuts from the band's later career. If anything, this emphasises how firmly this set was directed at the true fan, as the band eschew popular favourites such as 'Welcome to the Cheap Seats' and go instead for classic album tracks such as 'Cartoon Boyfriend' and 'Caught In My Shadow'. Indeed, Hunt shows some of his old contrariness in deriding the person at an earlier show who asked him not to play 'On the Ropes' - an odd request anyway, as it is one of their finest and most mature numbers.

For the lucky few, there's also a four track aftershow, featuring the three tracks from the band's 'A Wonderful Day' debut, plus the inevitable 'Size of a Cow'. In all, the air is one of celebration, but it is far from a typical Wonder Stuff show.

Jesus Jones

Sometimes it is easy to forget just how much music owes to individual bands. Mike Edwards was pretty insufferable during the early 1990s, but without Jesus Jones so much of what has followed may not have happened. Tonight, it is as hard to listen to 'Idiot Stare' and not think of how much the likes of Lostprophets or Hope of the States (R.I.P) owed to it as it was to listen to it in the first place. And if the likes of Pennie ex-Automatic thought they had the copyright on the role of mad keyboard player, they need to look at Iain Baker and think again.

Yes, time has not been kind to Jesus Jones. Edwards looks anorexic, Jerry De Borg looks like a miniature Gene Wilder and Baker has a frame now ill-suited to the bands mandatory white t-shirt. But the music - for all that Edwards apologises for his past excesses - has aged well. 'Who? Where? Why?' is a superb opening number, 'International Bright Young Thing' and 'Right Here, Right Now' could've been recorded at any time in the last five years and even later numbers such as 'Zeroes and Ones' have the crowd singing along. The climactic 'Info Freako' has, of course, been a staple for next to two decades, but is attacked like it is being played for the first time and the reaction is rapturous. I never thought I would say this, but Jesus Jones might just be one of the best live shows around.

British Sea Power

There's something quite fitting about seeing British Sea Power in a setting such as the Roundhouse. Certainly the most inventive use that a disused railway shed has been put to, it seems a natural home for a band who recorded their last album in a disused water tower.

The set starts with a taped rendition of 'All In It', drifts into a live version of 'Men Together Today' backed by the London Bulgarian Choir and then really bursts into life with 'Apologies to Insect Life', 'Atom', 'Remember Me' and a subline rendition of 'Oh Larsen B'.

After that, the set loses it's way slightly. 'Waving Flags' is functional and there's an extended section where Hamilton takes lead vocals which is marred by the strange fact that he can't seem to hit any of the low notes. Indeed, for all of the rave reviews that 'Do You Like Rock Music?' received, it is the older songs which really set the place alight tonight. 'Carrion' and 'Fear of Drowning' receive the most rapturous receptions of the night.

As always with BSP, it is the encore which finds them at their very best. Hamilton finally finds form with a thunderous 'No Lucifer' before an even more extended than usual 'Lately' morphs into 'Rock in A', complete with a rampaging Ursine Ultra, Noble stagediving in a flying helmet and Hamilton parading a distinctly unamused Abi Fry around on his shoulders. There might still be soft spots in their set, but there's no denying the power of BSP.

Big Star

How do you review a band which plays, on average, one live show every five years or so. Do you do so on the basis of past glories? Do you make allowances for the fact that practically an entire generation has grown up since Alex Chilton last did a proper tour? Hell, no, you write about what a remarkably good time you had. Because, despite the handicaps which they give themselves, Big Star are well worth the entrance fee.

The most surprising thing is just how democratic the band is. Chilton might be the star name, Jody Stephens might be the only original member left, but vocal duties are pretty evenly spread around and Jon Auer certainly takes most of the solos. 'September Gurls' and 'Back of a Car' are, of course, highlights, but the few numbers from 2005 album 'In Space' more than hold there own. Moreover, there's some classic rock and roll and even an attempt at classical music. A man of Ken Stringfellow's age and height probably shouldn't be wearing black nail varnish, but if that's the biggest fault it still adds up to one heck of a gig

Robyn Hitchcock

If you had said, some thirty or so years ago, that one day Robyn Hitchcock would be doing a solo set at the Shepherds Bush Empire, accompanied only by his own guitar and harmonica, and a girl playing the saw, most people would've scoffed. But call it psychedelic punk, call it new wave, call it whatever you will, Hitchcock, the court jester of it all, is still going strong. His songs are as offbeat as ever, his voice still teetering between sublime and awful, but he has more charisma than a truckload of Dohertys and there's not one person who wants him to leave.