Shellac - live at ATP March 2004

I am an unashamed disciple of the great Steve Albini, so it is was with much excitement and associated thigh-rubbing that I anticipated last Thursday’s Shellac gig at Koko. Shellac is in my humble opinion the best godamn live band there is and just the thought of seeing them perform invokes a Pavlovian response that has me drooling like an Italian greyhound… A Shellac show has it all: velocity / mass / time, comedy, choreography, education, Q&A sessions, guitar skinng, and attempts at unassisted human flight. And they just plain rock, tighter and harder than anything you’re likely to see.

They start off with “Steady As She Goes” which I find the weakest of the ‘new’ songs (with 7 years since “1000 Hurts” ‘new’ is a relative term!), but ‘weak’ only as it applies to Shellac which means it kicks the ass of most other stuff out there – and it just gets better from there. “My Black Ass” and “Squirrel Song” are highlights, as is “The End Of Radio” which has Todd Trainer prowling the stage with a snare in hand, Boris Karloff as the “Little Drummer Boy”, while Steve Albini is the last radio announcer left on earth, invoking the spirit of John Peel.

The great thing about Shellac is just how relaxed and comfortable they are on stage. They’ve got nothing to prove, and they’re really only playing for themselves (it gets them out of the house and away from their jobs), but this in no way makes them disdainful of their audience. They’re funny and engaging, and use the occasional tuning breaks as opportunities to hold Question & Answer sessions with the crowd (Bob Weston’s favourite cheese is Manchego fact fans!). During one such break we’re treated to an hilarious monologue by Todd telling us how much harder he rocks than any of us (he’s been up since 6am rocking out to AC/DC on his iPod). And although the songs are so precisely arranged and impeccably played, this doesn’t mean that the Shellac live experience is about re-creating ‘how the album sounds’ – quite the opposite: Shellac exist in the real world, born to play in the here & now, the albums only serving as attempts to capture the experience of witnessing the band in its native habitat. There is a certain amount of choreography at work (they’re so damn tight that they choreograph a botched intro as a joke) but improvisation too – “Billiard Player Song” & “Wingwalker” in particular allowing for extended vocal adlibbing, the break in “Wingwalker” also the setting for Steve to try really hard to fly.

Shellac - Koko May 2007

Shellac don’t do encores so Steve announces that they’ll play three more songs and they then launch into the only song of the night that is brand new to these ears – I assume it’ll be on “Excellent Italian Greyhound” which means its either “Elephant”, “Boycott”, or “Kittypants”… anyway, it’s the one with Bob singing. “Prayer To God” is the Shellac song that hooked newer fans to the band, its impassioned plea for a bit of biblical justice (“just fucking kill them!”) like a gateway drug into the murky world of Albini fetishism… it pretty much has the whole venue lurching forward in time to it. Although Albini’s guitar sound is unique, to my mind its closest antecedent is that of Gang Of Four’s Andy Gill, and that genealogical link is further reinforced with the closing “Watch Song” which is the rightful heir to Gang Of Four’s ‘punk-funk’ legacy. Who’d have thought a rant against a defective digital watch could have such ‘groove’?! The song dissolves in a cacophony of cymbals – Bob crouched down at the front of the drumkit, Steve reaching around Todd from behind, all three playing extended cymbal rolls… and then its over, and we’re left wondering how many years it’ll be until our next euphoric Shellac fix.

Setlist: Shellac @ Koko, London (17 May 2007)
Steady As She Goes
My Black Ass
This Is A Picture
In A Minute
Squirrel Song
The End Of Radio
Be Prepared
Billiard Player Song
Prayer To God
Watch Song

In honour of Shellac‘s latest visit to these shores, here is “The End Of Radio” in all its John Peel-eulogising, air-ionizing, Martina Navratilova-sponsoring glory (taken from a live Peel Session, recorded & broadcast shortly after John Peel’s death).

Shellac – The End Of Radio (live Peel Session)