2011, a Year in Gigs

No, don’t let the header put you off – this isn’t a piece about 12 months in the life of a particularly well-known (and scandal-hit) footballer, more a rumination on a year of live music in London, from the well known to the well hidden and the just plain bizarre. As someone who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time going to endless gigs around The Capital, I’ve seen quite a few standout shows this year, and this is a taste of what’s been going on.

The bedrock of live music is the disparate network of small venues, be they back rooms of pubs or small clubs. This is where the home-grown bands who create a buzz start out, and where you are often first introduced to acts from overseas who may (or may not) go on to bigger and better things. Despite the closure of the much missed Luminaire in Kilburn at the start of the year, these venues still appear to be in rude health. Also vital to the exposure of a lot of these bands are the promoters, and the people behind the likes of White Heat (with their regular Tuesday nights at Madame Jo Jo’s in Soho), Guided Missile at the Buffalo Bar, Club Fandango and God Don’t Like It do a sterling job to bring these acts to our attention.

So, 2011, where to begin? Well, for a couple of bands I’d already seen a few times, things this year appear to have been getting better and better. C86 influenced Veronica Falls have had a pretty eventful 12 months, with a string of shows (a few of which I caught) and support slots with Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls (more on them later), as well as a debut LP that Rough Trade proclaimed as one of their albums of the year. Similarly, Lancaster duo Lovely Eggs released their second album and did some touring around Europe, fitting in radio sessions and recording with Gruff Rhys in between. I saw them a few times this year, most memorably at a spectacularly messy night at the Prince Albert in Brixton.

Nashville songstress Caitlin Rose made a triumphant return to these shores, playing an awesome set at the Windmill in Brixton (with a rendition of Own Side which brought a lump to this hardened cynic’s throat) before returning for an evening at the Scala and another sold-out spot at the Windmill (her favourite London venue, apparently).The ethereal Still Corners provided some mesmerising shows with their back projections, though they did get a little drowned out by the neighbouring stages when they appeared at Field Day in Victoria Park. Saint Saviour (who you may know from collaborating with Groove Armada on their Black Light album and tour), arguably one of the finest vocalists around at the moment, played a couple of cracking shows and an honourable mention should also go to fellow Teessiders Chapman Family, who (despite being labelled as purveyors of “kiddie Goth” by the Guardian) provided some typically intense sets during the year, not least following a screening of the wonderful Sound It Out documentary at Rough Trade East.

2011 was also a year for discovering some new acts as well. Hannah Peel (left) had already made some ripples with an EP of 80’s indie covers arranged for a music box (including a lovely rendition of Sugar Hiccup by Cocteau Twins) and I caught two beguiling sets promoting her album, The Broken Wave, at the Windmill and the Lexington. Equally beguiling was Laura J Martin, with her flute and her loops. Canadian synth-wavers Austra first appeared at the Windmill in January, more than capably supported by haunting folkstrel Daughter and punk legend Viv Albertine (who gave me a lovely autograph!)

Signed to Domino Records, Austra returned in September to a pretty full house at the Scala. Ramshackle indie-poppers Shrag made an impression, as well as the brass-electro ensemble Gyratory System. US band the Blood Arm gave us one of the most fun sets, and underground electro-popsters Dimbleby & Capper provided one of the most theatrical, complete with bewigged dancers and masked musicians. Tooting’s finest, Dignan Porch, had a couple of cracking nights at the Windmill and the Wilmington Arms, and a special mention should go to the Melbourne/Phnom Penh beat combo Cambodian Space Project, whose wonderful 60’s psych-rock styled tunes were a tribute to a generation of Cambodian popular singers who were lost to the Khmer Rouge. From the States, there was the delicate voice of Lia Ices, and I finally got to see Baxter Dury, who played a set ahead of the release of his Happy Soup LP at the Old Blue Last. As well as bearing a strong resemblance to his late father, he also shares his talent for bittersweet observations.

The “oldies” were not to be left out, either.

Former Velvet Underground man John Cale bewildered the audience (though probably for the wrong reasons) at the Field Day festival, whilst The Fall at Koko were, well, The Fall (and yes, I did spot professional Mark E Smith stalker Stewart Lee as well). A Certain Ratio bassman Jez Kerr played an impressive set at the Social to promote his solo material whilst, following a couple of typically ill-advised comments, Morrissey played to a sold-out Brixton Academy. La Moz was as loquacious as you’d expect between songs, with a set that included an unexpected cover of Satellite Of Love. Also, the gig goers narrowly avoided the second bout of rioting in the capital, which that night kicked off in Brixton – panic on the streets of London, indeed.

Primal Scream brought their mind-blowing Screamadelica bandwagon to Brixton Academy, making a lot of thirtysomethings (many of whom were already most likely to be in a, ahem, somewhat euphoric state) very happy. The return of the Primitives (and an ageless Tracy Tracy) continued, complete with a new EP, and sets full of enough tunes for the thirty-to-fortysomething moshpits to get their teeth into. A regal Debbie Harry and Blondie saved an otherwise disappointing (and soggy) third day of the Lovebox festival (and yes, I will overlook Harry’s slightly embarrassing dancing) and Pulp headlined the Wireless festival in Hyde Park. Jarvis and co were impressive (despite some dodgy sound), running through a set-list that was almost exclusively comprised of songs from His’n’Hers and (particularly) Different Class, but it did feel a little dissatisfying. I don’t know, maybe for some of us the magic of Pulp had worn off.

I also caught the Bard of Barking, Billy Bragg, for a timely set at the Forum. A favourite band of Kurt Cobain (yes, really), Shonen Knife celebrated their 30th anniversary with a European tour which kicked off at the Windmill in August with a blistering set of Ramones covers (under the guise of the Osaka Ramones) before ending up at the Scala a month later. Post-punk legends Magazine returned at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, the sardonic Howard Devoto undiminished by the years, and I also caught two appearances by Wire. Their first gig, at the Village Underground (as part of the Shoreditch Stag and Dagger), was marred by atrocious sound, but their second at XOYO was a stormer (though both times they did omit the “Elastica song” and, sadly, Outdoor Miner). Also at XOYO, I saw original Ultravox front-man and electronic pioneer John Foxx – for someone whose music I hadn’t really heard before, despite knowing of his reputation, I was really impressed. One of the highlights of the year, though, was Tom Tom Club at the Jazz Cafe in Camden. Running through a thirty year back catalogue (they’ve released more records than you think) and fitting in an unexpected cover of Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing before the unparalleled awesomeness of Wordy Rappinghood, the set finished with a nod to their “other” band – a cover of Al Green’s Take Me To The River and, most surprisingly, Psycho Killer (Tina Weymouth pulling off a remarkable impersonation of erstwhile band-mate David Byrne).

Other highlights of 2011 included Anika, who I first caught at the Lexington in January. A collaboration between a Berlin based political journalist (yes, really) and Beak, the side project of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, Anika take a disparate series of cover songs and reinterpret them in an Idiot-era Iggy Pop meets King Tubby style – Bob Dylan’s Masters Of War mutates into an oppressive dub reggae behemoth. Ladytron (pictured at the top of the article) returned to play a limited series of UK dates during the summer, and I made it to their show at the Forum. They were simultaneously looking back, following the release of a career retrospective and also looking forward, in anticipation of their fifth album, Gravity The Seducer, with Helen Marnie’s vocals sounding as bewitching as ever. I’d seen Dum Dum Girls a few times over the last couple of years, and their stature and popularity has steadily grown (much like the size of the venues that they’re playing).

Much like other West Coast bands (such as Vivian Girls and Puro Instinct, who I caught at the Windmill in July), Dum Dum Girls marry that classic 60’s Californian dream pop/rock sensibility with a touch of shoegaze. 2011 saw the release of the He Gets Me High EP (featuring a corking cover of the Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out) and the acclaimed Only In Dreams album, and I saw the gigs at a packed Dingwalls and ULU (though the latter was marred by dodgy sound in the venue). Much fun was had at the two Art Brut shows I saw, with the red wine fuelled ramblings of front man Eddie Argos, and it was good to see Newcastle’s finest, Beth Jeans Houghton,(right) again (at the Camden Crawl and then at the Lexington during the tour to promote her fine new single, Liliputt).

For me, though, by far and away the best gig of 2011 was Portishead (pictured below) at Alexandra Palace, headlining the ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror weekend. I’d never got to see them live on their intermittent previous tours, so there was an added frisson for me, and in that great hall and with the huge screens behind them, Portishead were just immense. You can forget their ubiquity in the mid-90’s and the association with episodes of This Life – songs like Sour Times, Machine Gun (from the somewhat unfairly maligned Third album) and, particularly, Glory Box just took on a life of their own. Repeated attempts to play a new song kept misfiring, and Beth Gibbons cracked a joke to the audience. Yes, you read that right – the tortured voice of Portishead, Beth Gibbons, cracked a joke! Actually, the rest of the line-up that day was pretty special too – I’d gone on the Sunday, so also caught my first (and, as it turns out, only) sight of Grinderman (and a particularly barking performance by Nick Cave) as well as a pretty trippy collaboration between graphic novel guru Alan Moore and Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))).

Well, that was a snapshot of live music in 2011 for me. As for what the New Year brings, watch this space…

Richard Pearmain

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