Last week was one of those musical weeks. A concert pile-up. A highly influential grunge pioneer, an Aussie/ Danish purveyor of melodious pop, an alt-punk up-and comer and to cap it all, a 70s prog behemoth. The latter was, it is fair to say, against my better judgement, but it involved a good night out with the lads, so was worth a few moments of ennui and alienation!
The bands and venues were: the Pixies at the Roundhouse; Palace Winter at Oslo, Hackney; Goat Girl at Koko, Camden; and… King Crimson at the Palladium. I’ll take them in turn.
Pixies, Roundhouse, 31 October
The Pixies played five sold out nights at the Roundhouse, with photo ID checks to get in – to battle the touts. They are a very influential band in the indie world, but I assumed that they were essentially a cult band. Wrong, clearly; and the age range proved that. Plenty of old timers who remember their 80s/90s hey day, but a lot of youngsters too, who ensured some pretty extensive moshing when the riffing broke out, as it did for pretty much every song! The concert featured two of their late 80s works, each played right through. The first was “Come on Pilgrim”, a mini-album that I wasn’t that familiar with; the second was the first full album, 1988’s “Surfer Rosa”. A real indie/punk classic. Naturally it gets a mention in “I Was There – A Musical Journey”. Here’s what I wrote:
The best songs were extraordinary: edgy, strung-out, punky and rocking. Black Francis’s voice was slightly disturbing. They were masters of the slow-quick-slow sound. A bass heavy, scratchy build up and then a wall of riffs. The best was “Where is my Mind?”. The title said it all. The verse had a piercing guitar squall, firing over Black Francis’s jittery vocals, and an eerie howl. “Bone Machine” was a stuttering wreck of a song, with a jagged guitar ripping it up. You can hear so much that came later in these songs, be it Nirvana, or early Radiohead, or PJ Harvey, or QOTSA, or even U2, as they evolved their Berlin sound in “Achtung Baby” and “Zooropa”. In fact, it was pretty much de rigeur to cite The Pixies as an influence if you were in an indie band in the 90s and 2000s.
Three of the original band members were still there: frontman Black Francis (real name Charles Thompson), the nattily-dressed lead guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering. The band reformed in 2004, having split in 1993. Bassist Kim Deal left again in 2013, and has been playing with her other great band, the Breeders. On this tour, she was replaced very ably on the bass by Paz Lenchantin. She and Lovering played some really tight, driving rhythms, which gave the music its remorseless dynamism.
The show kicked off with “Caribou” and it set the tone for the whole evening. Those punching beats, Black Francis’ howl and hardcore riffs and Joey playing a few tricks with his guitar. The unfamiliarity of “Come on Pilgrim”, apart from “Caribou” and “Nimrod’s Son”, didn’t stop it being engrossing, especially with the excellent array of screens and obscure, arresting graphics, in classic Pixies style. There are a lot of Latin American references on both the albums amid the general weirdness – product of Francis’ travels in that part of the world. No Latin beats though.
“Surfer Rosa” then took things to greater heights, starting with that awesome opener, “Bone Machine”. “Where is my Mind” was anthemic; and maybe the best chorus singalong was for “Gigantic”. Quite an easy one that! The punk mayhem of songs like “Oh my Golly” and “Something Against You” was quite something too. The Pixies really do have simple but immense power in their live sound. Masters of their craft. Francis didn’t say a lot – in fact he didn’t say anything – but he didn’t need to. The music spoke for itself. The encore was three songs, but not a run through of some of the Pixies’ other great songs like “Monkey Gone to Heaven”. But, to my delight, they did play the majestic Planet of Sound”, maybe my favourite Pixies song of all.
None of my friends who came along – Jon E, Dave and Tony – knew the band that well. But they all loved the show. They recognised the sheer class of the Pixies – still at the top of their game.
Palace Winter – Oslo, Hackney
Regular readers of this blog will know that I love this band. I’d seen them twice this year, prior to this gig, first at a short promotional show at Rough Trade East, to mark the release of their new album “Nowadays”; then at Latitude, where they got a great reception at the Sunrise Arena. Palace Winter are essentially Australian singer and guitarist Carl Coleman and Danish keyboard player Caspar Hesselager, augmented by another guitarist and a drummer. They specialise in songs with soaring melodies, washes of electronica and driving beats. Their first album “Waiting for the World to Turn”, released in 2016, was a masterpiece. It made my top ten of the year, and is an album I still listen to a lot.
The set tonight erred towards the new album, but there was still room for a few old favourites like “H.W.Running”, “Dune”, “Positron” and, in the encore, the magnificent “Soft Machine”. “Positron”, with its guitar/keyboard wig out, is the perfect song to end a set. Out on a high. From “Nowadays” I particularly like “Empire” and “Take Shelter”, though overall it doesn’t quite match its predecessor (at least not yet – Palace Winter songs have a habit of growing on you). There were a couple of songs near the end of the main set that went on a bit: got, dare I say it, rather too prog for my liking. But this was another really enjoyable show, with Carl his usual bouncy, engaging self, and Caspar quietly providing the swirling sounds that paint Palace Winter’s musical picture.
Goat Girl – Koko, Camden
South London’s Goat Girl released their debut album, “Goat Girl” earlier this year. They can do punk, but it’s rather more than that. The songs are all pretty short. They slur, twang (a hint of rockabilly) go a bit reggae and then break out in some punk riffing. The subject matter is discursive, unsettling, sometimes just plain weird. Not much love but plenty of lust and disgust. The most straightforward rock’n’roll song, “The Man”, is an example of that. The brilliant “Country Sleaze” is another.
They rattled through the album and one or two other songs in about 45 minutes. Singer/guitarist Clottie Cream managed the odd smile – after all, they had just about sold out Koko and the more boisterous members of the crowd were managing to mosh to quite a few unlikely candidates. Highlights included “The Man”, which raised the tempo in mid set, two of those twangers, “Cracker Drool” and “The Man With no Heart or Brain”, and a rousing “Country Sleaze” at the end.
There was clearly no encore planned, as music came back on the PA. However, the lights wavered and then it went dark again. And the band came back on again. One of them said, “We haven’t got any songs left, we’ll have to play something again. What would you like?” There were various shouts, then they settled on a stripped back version of a less well-known song, “Lay Down”. And that was that.
Goat Girl’s music is perhaps an acquired taste, but it is worth acquiring. The new album is a grower and the live show reflects its bite.
King Crimson – Palladium
And so to the old prog rockers. Not as stereotypically so as, say, Yes or ELP, but still purveyors of strung-out, overblown, over complicated songs that rarely manage anything like a tune. Just my view, like. After all there were a few thousand greying, balding blokes (and a few women) nodding their heads approvingly through the nearly three hour show. Yes, three hours! There was even an interval.
King Crimson do have a certain credibility because of guitarist and band leader Robert Fripp, who has a CV that takes in many great bands, including collaborations with David Bowie, Eno and U2. He’s a man to introduce some edgy, left-field guitar to your sound. He’s in his 70s now, and didn’t really act like band leader, sitting to one side of the band with headphones on all the time. No words were exchanged with the audience. Actually no-one really interacted with the audience, or, with the exception of the three drummers, with each other. Having said that, they all looked pretty chuffed at the end, taking photos of the enthusiastic applause. It was a bit like being at a classical concert really: listen intently (with added head-nodding here) and show your appreciation at the end. And definitely no photos.
On the positive side, the musicianship was very accomplished, the drummers were pretty amazing – between them they must have had every piece of drumming kit known to man – and there were some decent jazzy bits which weren’t so different from Miles Davis’ forays into jazz rock. And “21st Century Schizoid Man” was fun at the end. It has a recognisable riff and a chorus!
Perhaps some of my fellow attendees – same as for the Pixies – will offer the alternative take on the show, in which it will be one the most brilliant examples of musical virtuosity they have witnessed for many a year. And who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong? That’s the joy of music.
But give me Goat Girl any day!