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LIVE REVIEW: Gruff Rhys, Alice, 24.11.2018

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gruff rhys live at alice in copenhagen resist phony encores

Few pop musicians possess the creative drive of Gruff Rhys. As if his work with the Super Furry Animals weren’t enough on its own, his prolific solo work and collaborations on everything from the concept synthpop of Neon Neon to appearances alongside De La Soul on the Gorillaz’s “Superfast Jellyfish” prove that the the man is tough to pin down but easy to love. In his last two albums Rhys has focused on a psychelia-tinged Americana, but the stylistic choice is in the service of the themes he covers, whether it be the adventures of Welsh explorer John Evans along the Missouri in American Interior, or his more topical American dystopia in his latest album, Babelsberg. 

True to his maximalist vision and energetic practicality, Gruff takes to the stage with a band, a slideshow, and his signature placards (including vintage SFA “GO APESHIT”). The first sign says “Side 1”, which gives you a pretty good idea of where the evening is going. Starting with the lush opener “Frontier Man”, Rhys tells the story of a national consciousness gone senile, and despite being pretty open about it (think of the song “Negative Vibes”) somehow avoids being a massive downer about it. His charm comes through even at his most cynical, and if you were feeling just a tinge melancholy as Side 2 winds to a close, the second half of the evening comes to the rescue.

Things take a more meditative turn with SFA track “Colonise the Moon”, replete with chiming guitars, a digital shruti box, and a roadie lighting incense sticks. The satyrical edge of the song is amplified by the noticeable discomfort in the drummer’s face as more and more sticks are lit, and no amount of hand signalling can divert the man from his task.

Rhys’s Welsh-language songs always seem to be his most joyful, and tonight is no exception, starting with the spaghetti-western-by-route-of-Bangor ‘Iolo’ to the “Hey Mickey”-inspired drums and vocals on “Gwn Mi Wn”. After this we are offered a choice: either some more “mediocre pop songs”, or, alternatively “a 20 minute crime drama”. Needless to say we all shout for “Skylon!”, a three chord riff that lays the foundation for the story of a bomb-disposal expert who saves a plane from a hijacker with a Semtex device disguised as a beer can (said device is carefully placed on the piano by the zealous roadie at the appropriate moment), and lives “unhappily ever after” with a mediocre tv personality he has been sitting next to.

As the night draws to a close, Rhys reminds us of his membership to the “Resist Phoney Encores” movement, leaving us with a wave and the last two cards: “The End” and “Thanks”.

Photos by Amanda Farah

LIVE REVIEW: Colin Stetson + Eli Keszler, Alice, 14.11.2018

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colin stetson live at alice in copenhagen

As an awkward teenager I let myself be convinced into taking up the saxophone. My main memories of it are marked by my constantly bleeding lips, crushed and torn between the mouthpiece and a set of razor-sharp dental braces. If only I had been aware back then of just how brutally terrifying a saxophone could sound, I might have kept it up. But the record that first alerted me to this, Colin Stetson’s New History of Warfare Vol 2: Judges, only appeared in 2011, when my reed-gnawing days were long gone. His work since then has encompassed everything from collaborations, reworkings of classical pieces, and film soundtracks, most recently for Hereditary.

Tonight is a chance to hear two virtuosic and idiosyncratic instrumentalists at work.  Percussionist and sound artist Eli Kezler starts off the night with his signature off-kilter virtuosity on the drums. Embedded as much in electronic music as he is in jazz, Kezler’s drumming is woven into a bed of synthetic and sampled sounds, triggered by midi pads connected to various drum pieces: the bass drum might usher in an ominous pad sound, a small floor tom is locked into a sequence of electric piano samples. His drumming style is based on tight clusters of spidery rolls, relying as much on the sides and rims as the skins themselves.

Before Colin Stetson arrives on stage the more curious people in the first row are carefully inspecting his instruments, a heavily wired-up trio of bass and alto saxophone and bass clarinet. The bass saxophone is monumental in size, its faded patina and the wiring of the contact mics connected to it giving it a martial feel with might account for the title of Stetson’s Warfare series.

This is matched in the physicality, both of the performance and the man himself. His neck muscles stretch the skin to bursting point, cheeks bellowing air through his signature circular breathing technique, his face turning varying shades of red and purple under the effort. The first piece of the evening is “The stars in his head”, from Judges, made up of a series of lightning fast arpeggios on alto saxophone, voiced in all shades from barely audible to metallic distortion. Another singular quality to Stetson’s playing is caught by the contact microphone wrapped around his throat, picking up his haunting screamed vocals directly from his vocal cords.

But the real excitement comes when he picks up the bass saxophone and launches into the eponymous “Judges”: the microphones attached to the instrument pick up the sound of the mechanism itself, the thudding of the pads amplified to an industrial degree that would make Nitzer Ebb sound like Mumford and Songs by comparison. It’s truly shocking the first time you hear it, and transforms the atmosphere of the room from polite enthusiasm to feverish intensity.

In between songs Stetson is affable and down-to-earth, visibly energised by the enthusiastic reception. “Where has the time gone?” he laments as he checks the time before his last song, and indeed despite all his athleticism there is clearly a physical limit to how long Stetson can perform these demanding pieces. The phrase “short and sweet” doesn’t really cut it in this context, but it’s a textbook example of leaving the audience wanting more. And leaving me to look up the price of saxophones on DBA.

 

 

LIVE REVIEW: RP Boo + Jana Rush, Alice, 09.11.2018

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It took a long time for RP Boo’s name to be widely recognised, but his influence on the footwork genre has gradually brought him to legendary status, first in his native Chicago, and finally here in the wider world. Producing since the mid 90s, his first full-length record only appeared in 2013 on Mike Paradinas’s Planet Mu label. Footwork is as much a dance style as it is a music genre, characterised mostly by its intricacy and speed. On this side of the Atlantic its main acts are mainly released on that same label, which is perhaps most known for abstract, even geeky, IDM, but as we discover tonight its real focus is on creating pure joy.

The night opens with local boys Lyra Valenza, whose frenetic blend of techno, ecstatic rave and confrontational breakbeats indirectly seems to point much more clearly towards British and American tradition than most of their local peers. They feel like a real breath of fresh air compared to the dourness that characterises a lot of the rest of the scene.

Jana Rush is part of the same scene as RP Boo, which is clearly evidenced as they photograph and celebrate each other’s sets.  With an incredible ear for detail and a taste for obscene vocal samples, Jana Rush exhibits an incredible control over the flow of the set, gathering momentum at each beat, offsetting peaks with moments of gleeful chaos. Halfway through her set it is hard to believe that the headline act hasn’t even started.

Taking a breather outside, we can hear the bass and kick rumbling through the walls, which helps to isolate the core of the footwork sound. The kick is at its simplest right now, four to the floor, but the bass is played in triplets, creating a juddering effect not entirely unlike experiencing heart palpitations. And I mean that in the most positive sense. Back inside RP Boo is waving at us as the first brass burst of “02-52-03” thunders through the room. Later I discover that the sample is from an old Godzilla movie, which makes perfect sense, especially matched later on with a sample from, of all things, the Rocky theme.

That’s RP Boo in a nutshell, really: the decades of dedication to his craft, all that painstaking layering of rhythms, all of it is still based on the simple desire to create these joyful moments where the intensity of it all means your brain devoting all its energy just to keep up with the body. Without a doubt its the most fun I’ve ever had at Alice.

Photos by Victor Yakimov

LIVE REVIEW: Courtney Barnett, Store Vega, 04.11.2018

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courtney barnett live at store vega copenhagen

It’s incredible that Courtney Barnett hasn’t played in Copenhagen before. With her songs a staple of P6 over the last few years, her set at Store Vega is over due. The room is packed and getting impatient by the time the lights go out in the main space.

Barnett builds the mood by coming out to a dimly lit stage strung with fairy lights and opens with “Hopefulness.” She powers through her set from there, scarcely pausing to catch her breath. You can’t fault her for energy, the endless tumbling stream of witticisms that she somehow never trips over, the swaying, stumbling way she plays her guitar when she’s not singing.

It seems unfair in that light that Barnett’s music is often branded as slacker rock, but having fleshed out her band to a four-piece again does something to refute that. The addition of Katie Harkin (previously of Sky Larkin and Barnett’s live band with Kurt Vile) on keyboards and second guitar is not just integral to playing the new songs but brings a different perspective to the older ones. Barnett cedes control of “Elevator Operator” to keys for the intro and gives the song a very different flavor.

Barnett is very selective about the songs she plays; older songs like “Avant Gardener” and “Lance Jr.” make the cut whereas single “No One Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” is skipped in lieu of covers. The covers she chooses, however, feel notable as unique pieces of her set rather than just novelties. Opener Laura Jean comes out with her saxophone to help out with the Go-Betweens’ “Streets of Your Town,” and Barnett is solo for Gillian Welch’s “Everything is Free” (which fits lyrically very nicely beside her songs “Are You Looking After Yourself” and the strange sing-along “Depreston”).

“Anyone make a new friend tonight?” she asks towards then end of the evening. “Person next to you? No? Doesn’t always happen.”

If she wanted to spend more time in Northern Europe to learn about the personality quirks that stop people from talking to the person next to them, I’m sure the audience would turn out every time for her experiment.

LIVE REVIEW: Gaye Su Akyol, Alice, 02.11.2018

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After the opening salvo from her masked backing band, Gaye Su Akyol arrives on stage in an iridescent cape and a mission: “We have come from Istanbul to bring you peace, love and rock and roll!” A bold statement, but amply backed up by the mix of surf, garage punk and Turkish psychedelia that they produce. The first track from her latest album, both titled İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir, starts with a 50s horror themed synth riff, before deploying the signature guitar sound: a mix of Dick Dale and traditional Turkish bağlama, punching straight through each song.

Of course Gaye Su Akyol herself commands most of the attention, with the psychedelic theatrics that recall her earlier career as a painter, and of course her gravelly voice, equally sultry and defiant. The venue is packed out and the bilingual stage patter gets whoops of approval as Gaye introduces both her own songs and cover versions of Turkish hits from the 70s.

Beyond the capes, masks and fun, there is also a strong political element to Gaye Su Akyol, who talks about having to pay a visit to a police station because of one of her songs. In recent years classic Turkish psychedelic rock has begun to become more widely known in the world, thanks to its commanding combination of funk and hard rock infused rhythms with woozy synths and vocal melodrama, but tonight Gaye underlines the political and social context of these, drawing evident parallels with the present.

Its especially helpful to learn some of the context of her work, as otherwise the rather bewitching nature of this music can quickly have you imagining some abstract version of Turkey in which Anatolian shepherds have been playing Black Sabbath and Parliament Funkadelic on their saz since the stone age. It’s a fun thought, but it doesn’t do justice to the richness of the musical and cultural traditions from which Gaye Su Akyol draws her material.

Photos by Victor Yakimov

LIVE REVIEW: Neko Case, Bremen Teatre, 30.10.2018

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Neko Case

“My hair looks like shit today,” says Neko Case as she takes the stage at Bremen Teatre, “but I’m still going to play this show anyway.” It’s the sort of blunt determination you’d expect from a person promoting an album called Hell-On. Or someone who is coming up on 25 years in the music industry. Or maybe just someone certain enough in her ability to deliver that she can make demands of the audience to forget the photos and be present for an evening.

Neko Case is a presence, and what immediately stands out about her performance is the density of the sound. Nearly every song features three or four guitars and Case with two or three backing vocalists echoing her. This goes beyond being faithful to her albums and creates a richness that fills the entirety of the theatre. It can sometimes bury how powerful Case’s voice is, but her vocals come through full force when unleashed for “Maybe Sparrow” and after a slow build on “Halls of Sarah.” It’s to greater effect that her vocals are usually measured and she chooses to unleash them at particular moments. 

This density of sound also highlights just how talented her band is. The harmonies don’t blend so much as ricochet off of each other in a hall of mirrors effect. Of the seven people on the stage, only the drummer and bassist play the same instrument throughout the set, and it’s nothing short of impressive that the band is so tight with that many moving parts (related: credit due also to Case’s very hard working guitar tech). Being so well rehearsed, it perhaps isn’t much of a surprise that there is a real sense of camaraderie among band, who trade barbs ranging from joking about who’s getting fired that night to the drummer somehow being bullied into break dancing before beginning the encore.

Case herself is warm and primarily self-deprecating when she talks to the audience. It works, though, because her jokes are just silly enough that they’re always funny instead of uncomfortable. “After that good time,” she says when it’s been revealed that her drummer is quite adept at The Worm, “we’re going to bring you down with this bummer of a song.” That bummer is the title track of the new album. No one in the audience seems like they’ve been let down.

LIVE REVIEW: Grouper + Coby Sey, Alice, 24.10.2018

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Liz Harris, known to most as Grouper, inhabits a ghostly world somewhere between ambient and 4AD-influenced dream pop. With ten albums to her name and collaborations with everyone from Xiu Xiu, Lawrence English and the Bug, it is not so surprising that, for all her music’s understatement, it is able to command enough of a crowd for two back-to-back shows at Alice.

This is also partly due to the fact that the concert is a seated one, where the audience can lean back, eyes closed, letting the reverb wash over them. The evening is opened by Londoner Coby Sey, a shadowy producer in the vein of Dean Blunt, mixing noise, ambient and hiphop. He first came to my attention thanks to his entry in the Whities series, a minimalistic set of tracks full of references to London public transport. “All Change” tonight has a more confrontational air, underlined by the noisy end to his hour long set.

With eyes closed its easy to fall into the hypnotic spell of Grouper, but it is worth from time to time to observe her setup, surrounded as she is by a myriad of effects, samplers, guitar and piano. Her signature sound tends to fade the distinctions between these instruments. What does stand out is her ability to mix together plaintive choral chants from a sampler into her live playing, producing some spine-tingling moments.

In the wash of it all it can be hard to pick out specific tracks, although “Alien Observer” must by now be counted as an incredibly dreamy banger, with an incredibly simple but unforgettable cascading piano line.

LIVE REVIEW: The Coathangers, Stengade, 25.10.2018

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The Coathangers live at Stengade, Copenhagen

A good punk show is always just a little bit shambolic, and what makes Atlanta punk trio the Coathangers great performers is how neatly they work just the right amount of chaos into their set. There’s a damaged high hat and cymbal that gets intentionally knocked over mid song and a guitar strap that just gives out while Julia Kugel sings on with determination.

But the Coathangers have more than a decade under the belts of their coordinating, customized jumpsuits, and it shows. Because even though their set is a non-stop onslaught of garagy crunch, there is a subtle pacing to it all. It’s in the balance between the songs that Kugel sings lead on and what drummer Stephanie Luke sings — that is to say, between Kugel’s pliable yops, squeaks, and whispers, and Luke’s raspy growl.

Holding everything together in her own quiet way is bassist Meredith Franco, who sticks to a quiet corner of the stage, offering occasional backing vocals to her bandmates’ wails, shrieks, and head bangs.

To underscore the pacing of the chaos, the last few songs of the set mix things up with Franco and Kugel taking turns on drums and Luke trying out guitar and just being a vocalist. Things quickly get messy, with everyone falling all over each other, grabbing each other, and Franco getting lifted off her feet and twirled around as the trio collapse to the stage in a fit of laughter.

“Rock and roll is just for fun,” says Luke. “For 45 minutes we can forget about how shitty everything is.”

And we did.

Photo by Morten Aagaard Krogh.

LIVE REVIEW: The Necks, Christians Kirke (Alice), 19.10.18

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Photos by Victor Yakimov

Thirty years of playing together and 16 albums to their name, there are a few things you can comfortably expect from the Necks: each of their records will drastically differ from the previous one, they will elicit both fanatical devotion and uncomprehending boredom, and their live sets will always be magical. The Australian three-piece–consisting of Chris Abrahams (piano), Lloyd Swanton (double bass) and Tony Buck (drums)–on paper sounds like fairly traditional jazz trio, but they are further from this than any newcomer could imagine. Instead of solos, complicated time signatures or key changes, we have slowly developing repetitions that build on each other, closer to ambient or contemporary classical than to Coltrane.

After seeing the Necks play in the intimate Brorsons Kirke last year, Christians Kirke offers a markedly more theatrical setting, with its marble altarpiece, glass chandeliers and wooden galleries trimmed in gold.  The large bass amp sits immediately in front of the altar, but the spectacular quality of the setting belies the slow revelatory patience of the band. As Swanton tunes his bass the other two sit calmly in front of their instruments, eyes closed, waiting to find out who will make the first move tonight.

Once you know to expect it, the beginning and end of the Necks’ sets (they usually do two of around 45 minutes each, with an interval) become incredibly charged moments, and tonight it is Abrahams who stirs first, with some simple, searching piano chords. Swanton picks it up and distills this into a simple two chord repetition, a quiet but insistent hi hat dropping in from Buck.

The hypnotism that emerges from this makes the Necks a hard band to write about, the feeling lingers but the details are hard to pick out. This in fact is a quality that can emerge in the very moment of listening to them, and can in fact produce the opposite, sonic mirages. There are many times when, in the speed and intricacy of the piano arpeggios, I start to hear a single repeated note that sounds at first like the bass, only to see that Swanton is playing something completely different, or find myself hearing completely different instruments, saxophones or violins.

On this night the biggest surprise of that nature is produced by Buck, at the end of their second set. Just as the piano and bass begin to simmer down to a single repeated note, an astounding, monstrous chords emerges out of nothing: a small cymbal being dragged against the skin of the floor tom.

 

LIVE REVIEW: Spain, Loppen, 07.10.2018

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Josh Haden and Petra Handen playing live with Spain at Loppen, Copenhagen

It doesn’t seem to be the usual crowd at Loppen this Sunday night. It’s true that LA band Spain, led by Josh Haden, are hardly a raucous act, and it’s clear that the audience know exactly what they’ve come for; people have dragged chairs into neat rows in the middle of the floor and are comfortably settled in by the time the opening act has ended.

From the first notes of opener “Ten Nights” — well almost; some feedback disrupts Haden mid verse and causes him to chuckle — it’s obvious that getting comfortable is a good idea. With as many downtempo, gentle songs as Spain have, a very calm, relaxed atmosphere descends on the room.

There is also a strong element of the audience wanting to live out a jazz club fantasy. Local jazz musicians have joined in, enriching the songs with brass instruments. And while a song like “Tangerine” teeters on the verge of becoming a jam session (with the audience readily applauding after every solo, no matter how understated), things stay organized and civilized.

Civilized does go out the window when the little conversation Haden has for the audience is about the US Supreme Court pick: “That Kavanaugh sure is an asshole,” he stated. This led to him working through his feelings about not feeling American given current events — which might have only been relatable to the two American at a table near the coat check but was appreciated all the same — and introducing “I’m Still Free,” a song he wrote nine years ago with the same sentiment.

Its impassioned delivery makes it a highlight of the evening, matched only for the encore “Spiritual.” And though repeatedly singing “Jesus, I don’t want to die alone” might be considered a bit of a downer, the brass players have returned to add more weight to the closing songs and Petra  Haden’s wordless vocals bring the actual spiritual heft. Grim lyrics or no, the arrangements have made this evening an especially soothing end to the weekend, regardless of any personal turmoil Haden himself might be feeling.

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