With the senseless, barbaric invasion of Ukraine by Russia dominating our thoughts, one sometimes wonders what the point of writing about pop music is. But I guess that while we are lucky and privileged enough to do so, it remains worth doing. It remains a brightness amid the surrounding gloom.
I’ve been surprisingly busy on what can only be described as work over the past month, and haven’t managed to get around to writing about the concerts I have been to. So this is a bumper edition of four such outings. It started small with Butch Kassidy and Legss at the Old Blue Last in Shoreditch, went retro with Echo and the Bunnymen at the Roundhouse, was triumphant with Wolf Alice at the Hammersmith Apollo, and finished magnificently if slightly perplexingly with Big Thief at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. A fifth concert which I was really looking forward to was Good Sad Happy Bad at Corsica Studios near Elephant Castle, but one of the band members contracted covid, and the rescheduled date clashes with another event. Such is the nature of these things.
I’ll take them in turn.
Butch Kassidy and Legss at the Old Blue Last, 5 February
I wouldn’t normally venture out to Shoreditch on a Saturday evening – it’s the preserve of the youngsters, the party people. But I made an exception to see Butch Kassidy, who were second on a three band bill, upstairs at the Old Blue Last, a pub on Great Eastern Street, on the edge of the City.
Why? I hear you ask. Well, it just so happens that I know a couple of the band, singer/guitarist Fionn and bassist Tom. They are good friends from schooldays of Jon’s son Louis. They were with us at Green Man festival last year, and Tom has been to End of the Road with us too. I saw the band in a previous incarnation at the Hanwell Hootie in 2018, when they were called My First Moustache. They put on an excellent show then and looked like a band who could go places. That applies equally to Butch Kassidy, and they are getting plenty of gigs on the London indie circuit now. I’d not been able to get to any of their recent shows, but was keen to see how they were doing, so dragged myself out of the armchair and headed for Liverpool Street station on a drizzly, rather chilly evening. Ten minutes or so to the Old Blue Last from there.
I was greeted with an ironic smile from the security man at the entrance to the pub, and I soon knew why. The ground floor pub was heaving – full of twenty-somethings, wielding cocktails and dancing to Abba’s Dancing Queen at 8.30 in the evening. For me – once I’d wiped the steam from my glasses – it was a vision of hell. Let me out of here! I looked around and saw a doorway leading upstairs, where the concert was happening. I pushed my way through the dancing, chanting throng and headed up to the music room. Relief! A decent space, good ventilation, a bar. Half full at that point – filled out later. People of similar age to downstairs, but totally different. I joked to my son Kieran later that all the misfits, the punks, the students were upstairs – my sort of people! A forty year age gap, but no matter. I got myself a beer and found a good viewing spot near the back. Louis and his friend Gab arrived soon after; Jon would have been there I’m sure, but was on his way home from France. We chatted a bit to Fionn and Tom before the show started – they watched the first band with us.
I’ve forgotten the first band’s name and they weren’t that good, so let’s move on to Butch Kassidy. I really enjoyed the show – a brisk half hour. They have just the one song on Spotify at the moment, which is called Heath. It’s ten minutes long, goes through various phases, and I said to Fionn at Green Man that I could hear a bit of classic Black Sabbath in there. They didn’t play it! I daresay that some observers would say they are in a similar mould to Black Midi, but I was most reminded of Mogwai. Except, in amongst the washes of doomy guitar there are bursts of punk riffing, which got the moshers going. In that respect they got the best reception of the night. Fingers crossed, it won’t be too long before they get a slot or two opening at the summer festivals. I think they would go down well.
The headliners were Legss. They’re from South London, and were described by Loud and Quiet magazine as an experimental London band in conflict with the capital. I didn’t get the experimental bit of that from the performance tonight, but I did enjoy it. A lot of new indie bands at the moment draw on the sounds of post punk – particularly Gang of Four – as well as XTC. I’d put Legss in that category, and they do have a good angry persona, which inevitably conjures up Clash references for me. Singer Ned Green dresses stylishly and wields his guitar a bit like Wilko Johnson of the Feelgoods. Give him a bigger stage and I’m sure he’d be doing a full Chuck Berry duck walk!
So yes, it was a good evening. Always good to see the next generation of bands – drawing on past sounds, but re-inventing them.
The evening wasn’t quite over. On the way home on the tube, I sat next to a bunch of young folk, being quite lively, who turned out to be French. I sat there, listening to some music and reading The Economist. One of the group, a woman, leaned over and asked, what’s the news? I was reading a leader on President Macron’s chances of re-election at the time. We ended up having a ten minute conversation about French politics before they all got off!
Echo and the Bunnymen at the Roundhouse, 7 February
A blast from the past, this one. Echo and the Bunnymen’s heyday was the 1980s, particularly the first half. They had a grandiose, almost goth sound, and were inevitably compared with the likes of U2 and Simple Minds. They weren’t quite as successful as those two, but, perhaps for that reason, were afforded more credibility by the music critics. Being from Liverpool didn’t do them any harm, either. For me, they were one of those bands that I thought I ought to like, but never really got into. I bought the key albums, played them a couple of times, and filed them away. Meanwhile I loved U2, and still do. That may be deemed less cool, but it is where I stand.
This was one of those concerts that was originally scheduled for either 2020 or 2021, but got put back because of the pandemic. My friend Dave organised the tickets, but at the last minute had to pull out. Still, Jon G, Tony and Shane were able to make it. Jon G is the biggest fan amongst us – and no fan of U2. We agree to disagree!
One of the highlights of the evening was the return to our favourite pre-Roundhouse restaurant, Sushi Salsa, by Camden Lock. Jon E joined us for that. Two years since the last visit due to lockdowns – that’s still hard to comprehend, looking back – but as good as ever, I’m glad to say, though we missed the old manager, Andy. He was a real ball of energy – and gave us sake on the house from time to time! Hope he’s doing alright wherever he is.
As for the concert, it was ok. Until near the end it felt bereft of familiar songs, though Jon said afterwards that he did know most of them. I’ve probably got a lot of them sitting in my vinyl collection, long-forgotten. I found it all a bit gloomy. The lighting was deliberately low, singer Ian McCulloch prowled around in a dark overcoat, when he wasn’t winding up the London crowd, and most of the songs were pretty dirge-like. All very well played though – and well-received by the capacity crowd. It brightened up for me briefly when they played Seven Seas and then The Cutter at the end of the set. Killing Moon was a suitable anthem with which to end the whole show. They did know how to write a good anthem in their heyday, I have to say. No Back of Love, which was a shame, especially when the vast majority of people there would have come to celebrate the Bunnymen’s moments of glory in the 80s. A cover of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side was a low, especially when McCulloch changed wild side to Merseyside.
In fairness, I should say that my friends all thought it was an excellent show. It was just one that didn’t quite do it for me. I’ll stick to U2 and Simple Minds when I want 80s grandiose!
Wolf Alice at Hammersmith Apollo, 19 February
This concert was postponed from 19 January, because of the band’s concern about continuing covid risks. It was a bit of a bonus when it turned out to be delayed by only a month – I was expecting a summer or even autumn date, given the band’s US commitments. It has been eight months since Wolf Alice’s third album Blue Weekend was released, and this is the first time they have been able to take it on tour, though they did play a few festivals last year, including Latitude.
I first saw Wolf Alice at Latitude in July 2015, soon after the release of their debut album My Love is Cool. They played in the 6 Music Tent, as it was then called. I was impressed. This is what I wrote in my review of Latitude that year:
They’ve got a bit of everything that makes a great indie band: screeching riffs, pounding beats, catchy melodies and choruses, rocking rhythms for the mosh – and a striking singer. Ellie Rowsell. It’s pop music. You can’t deny the importance of an iconic singer. Ellie Rowsell has that something. My notes say Siouxsie Sue meets Debbie Harry. And the sound: Horrors meet Blondie. Melodies and big riffs, which come across especially well live. This is a seriously good band.
The Guardian dismissed them as bubblegrunge at the time. Witty, but wrong, as the band have shown since then. Parts of that first album took a little while to grow on me – tracks like You’re a Germ and Bros were immediate – but then the riffs and the melodies really hooked me, and I still love it. 2017’s Vision of a Life veered towards 70s rock, but still had catchy tunes like Don’t Delete the Kisses and a scathing rocker in Yuk Foo. And then came Blue Weekend, a polished pop production, with big choruses and less of the riffing, though Smile and Play the Greatest Hits carried the flag for rock’n’roll.
And so to Hammersmith Apollo on a Saturday evening, with Jon G and Louis and Gab. Standing, but this turned out well – I’ve had some frustrating experiences at the Apollo in the past when standing, but it felt like maybe they don’t pack people in to quite the same extent these days. We had an excellent view, to the left about ten rows back. Shame I forgot my digital camera!
I make this my seventh Wolf Alice concert. Three Latitudes – 2015, 2018 and 2021. Kentish Town Forum in 2016, Ally Pally in 2017 and the Roundhouse 2018 (part of the Q awards). They’ve been consistently excellent – Latitude 2018 on the main stage perhaps the best before tonight. Because tonight, despite the high bar set by its predecessors, has to have been the best. There was a real sense of triumph tonight, of homecoming, and the realisation that Wolf Alice are now a seriously big rock band. Or should that be pop band? One of the things that became clear to me tonight was that so many songs from Blue Weekend, while still relatively new, have become real anthems for their fans. And there is probably now a younger cohort of fans than the indie crowd of 2015. The Last Man on Earth is the most obvious anthem – destined to be played on TV programmes for years to come. But songs like Lipstick on the Glass, Safe from Heartbreak and How Can I Make it OK? run it close. These, combined with a great selection of favourites from the first two albums, including You’re a Germ and Bros, and the evergreen Moaning Lisa Smile from early days, made it a set that pleased everybody.
The band played with a confidence and swagger – without arrogance – that comes from knowing they have nailed it. They have just won a Brit for best rock band, beating perennial winners Coldplay. My slight reservations about the shift popwards and the fact that they seemed a bit tame at Latitude last year – admittedly after having had our senses assaulted by Chubby and the Gang! – melted away. I loved seeing the way the crowd sang along to so many of the choruses, and the screeching riffs and pounding beats I wrote about in 2015 were still plentiful. I guess it helped being in the crowd not too far from the front, rather than observing from the seats with beer in hand. That remains my preferred mode these days, but this was a refreshing change.
So yes, a glorious set, with the perfect encore of Last Man on Earth – lighters out time – and a rousing Don’t Delete the Kisses. I hadn’t realised how iconic that song has become for Wolf Alice fans.
This is a seriously good band, I wrote in 2015. Make that seriously brilliant in 2022.
Big Thief at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 2 March
Big Thief are, like Wolf Alice, one of my favourite indie bands of the past few years. Indie in the sense of not being full-on rock, nor pure pop. They are from New York, and have some of the edginess you expect of New York bands, but they are as grounded in Americana and folk as they are in Radiohead. You could say they are New York state as well as New York City. They have an off-kilter quality, which is personified in singer Adrienne Lenker. She has a beautiful, rather fragile voice, and her onstage persona is rather nervy at times. She’s frequently tuning her guitar – the most excessive being the solo show I saw her play back in January 2019 at the Union Chapel in Islington. Didn’t stop it being great concert, but at times you couldn’t help feeling, get on with it!
I was quite late in discovering Big Thief. They were at End of the Road in 2018, and I’d heard good things about them, so checked out their first two albums, Masterpiece (2016) and Capacity (2017). I really liked both, with standout tracks for me being Masterpiece, Real Love and Parallels from the first, Shark Smile, Mythological Beauty and Mary from the second. One of the things I liked was that a song could combine a tender melody with an outburst of guitars – Real Love being the best example. Shark Smile started wild then settled into a mid-tempo rock’n’roll groove – their most danceable song. Parallels rapidly became the song I played most – a slow build to an anthemic chorus, which went on for some time, somehow getting bigger and bigger. Weird lyrics: could be a song about love or the metamorphosis of a butterfly – or indeed both, one a metaphor for the other. Classic Big Thief: nothing is ever quite what it seems.
As it happens, I missed the End of the Road performance because of line-up clashes; but I rectified that with a trip to SWX in Bristol in May 2019. That coincided with the release of a new album, UFOF. Now, this one really did sound like Radiohead in places; but then it also had an enjoyable hoe-down called Cattails, which was already a crowd favourite by the time of the Bristol show. They played Green Man in 2019 and released a second 2019 album, Two Hands, in October. And that was followed by another tour in early 2020. I saw them at Hammersmith Apollo in February. Busy times… and then there was lockdown.
The band remained productive during the hiatus in live shows. Both Adrienne Lenker and guitarist Buck Meek released solo albums – Songs and Two Saviors respectively – and work began on another Big Thief album. That came out early this year – it’s called Dragon New Warm Album I Believe in You, a Big Thief title if there ever was one! It’s long – 20 songs – a double album in old language. The emphasis is on the more pastoral, folky side of their music, and is rather beautiful, with Change and Sparrow my two favourites so far. How lucky then, that Change opened the show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Sparrow was the encore. Spud Infinity is the new Cattails and went down well with the crowd. They played Cattails towards the end, after Adrienne abandoned the previous song Red Moon. That edginess again. Overall the emphasis was on the acoustic side, though the title song of Dragon was rocked up a bit and there was a blistering rendition of Not, which has become a staple of the set. There weren’t many of the older favourites, though Masterpiece got an outing, to great approval. I’m surprised Shark Smile didn’t make it, but I see from Setlist FM that it was played at the second and fourth of the four nights. An impressive run that – shows that they have a strong following these days. The emphasis on the new was such that they played a song that Adrienne had just written on the ferry over from Ireland! Would have preferred Parallels…
So yes, it would have been nice to have a few more of the established songs, but that’s how it is with Big Thief – they like to mix things up. And why not? Makes life interesting. A great show; and I’ll be there for the next tour, wondering what they have in store for us.