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An aural overview of some of my favourite records of 2009 is now available on the Mixtapes page. Go forth safe in the knowledge that it is an Animal Collective/Fever Ray/the xx-free zone…

And in thinking back on another year that fizzed by, yet was again punctuated by many wonderful live music experiences, I couldn’t resist coming up with a list of those that seemed extra special. When I’m standing in a crowd, washed over by waves of sound, I often think that this is as close to religion as I’m ever gonna get. The shared experience with one’s fellow concert-goers (who in that moment don’t seem to to be the greedy, selfish, stupid creatures that many of us are), seeing, hearing, feeling what is arguably humankind’s greatest artistic expression (I’m talking about Music, not David Yow’s bodily fluids), well it makes me feel good to be alive. These are ten instances where that feeling came on particularly strong – if you were there, you know what I mean…

The Jesus Lizard, Dälek, Grails, Magnolia Electric Co, Sonic Youth

l-r: (top) David W Sims of The Jesus Lizard, Dälek (middle) Grails
Magnolia Electric Co (bottom) Sonic Youth

Dälek @ Sonic City festival, De Kreun, Kortrijk, Belgium (04 April 2009)
Over an early-April weekend, Dälek curated their own ATP-like mini festival in the Belgian city of Kortrijk, bringing together friends & heroes like 2nd Gen, Earth, Zu and Charles Hayward – but it was the curators themselves (assisted by buddies Oddateee and Destructo Swarmbots) that stole the show with their industrial-strength beats & dense rhymes smothered in an avalanche of noise.

Grails @ ATP: The Fans Strike Back festival, Butlins Minehead, UK (10 May 2009)
Highlight (one of many) of an ATP that delivered so much. Extra percussionist Dave Abramson allowed Emil Amos to switch between guitar and drums, and Sunn O))) soundman Randall Dunn manned the analogue synths, creating the sample-filled dronescapes that linked the songs into a single thrilling journey through exotic otherlands.

The Jesus Lizard @ ATP: The Fans Strike Back festival, Butlins Minehead, UK (10 May 2009)
The night before, the Lizard’s first show in some ten years, was something special for its sense of occasion and because the band delivered on all expectations. But this show seemed that bit better, like they rocked a little harder, a little tighter, a little shinier. But maybe only because I was able to properly focus on rawk-ing along, instead of standing transfixed like a mouth-breathing happy bunny caught fluff-fluffing in the headlights thinking “oh my god! It’s the Jesus Lizard!!!” …

Magnolia Electric Co. @ Primavera Sound festival, Barcelona, Spain (29 May 2009)
Good times in the sweltering Spanish sunshine. The ever-affable Jason Molina and his Magnolia cohorts ‘classic country rock’-ed their way through much of “Josephine“, and although you’ll never hear Molina revisit Songs: Ohia material, at least they delved into the recent past for nuggets like “Leave The City”, “Hard To Love A Man” & “The Dark Don’t Hide It” – and were demanded back by the baying crowd for an encore of “Hammer Down”.

Sonic Youth @ Primavera Sound festival, Barcelona, Spain (30 May 2009)
Wow! With Pavement bassist Mark Ibold in the line-up, Kim Gordon (one hot [gran]mama in ripped stockings) could switch between adding extra guitar attack-ack-ack or double bass thump to the Yoof’s swirling noiserock. The whole show thundered by as though a blissed-out daydream, the crowd seemingly surfing on an euphoric wave of energy. Songs from “The Eternal”  made up the majority of the set, but it was oldies like “‘Cross The Breeze”, “Tom Violence” and closer “Expressway To Yr Skull” that had my grin at its widest.

Neurosis @ Patronaat, Haarlem, the Netherlands (08 July 2009)
Launching with “At The End Of The Road”, Neurosis quickly constructed a towering wall of sound, but the intricate interplay of the instruments was never lost in the din. The set is “Given To The Rising”-HEAVY (prompting a positive re-evaluation of an album that sorta passed me by), the atmosphere dark and oppressive – not least because the band have it written into their agreement with the venue that all airco is turned off during their set, making for a sweaty & claustrophobic experience.

Oneida @ Paradiso, Amsterdam, the Netherlands (14 August 2009)
The Little “O” seemed to be having a particularly good time (pleased too that the Big “O” was playing the main hall downstairs at the same time), the positive energy emanating from the stage proving infectious. Oneida sure know how to work a rifftastic groove, and man can that Kid Millions play the drums.

Micah P Hinson @ Toutpartout 15 Years Birthday Night, Botanique, Brussels, Belgium (28 November 2009)
Micah P‘s self-confessional and intimate songs were perfectly suited to the amazing Rotunda room in the Botanique (situated in the botanical gardens of Brussels), surely one of the best live music venues around. He played plenty off covers album “All Dressed Up And Smelling Of Strangers“, paying tribute to his musical heroes & influences, including “coked-up airplane pilot” John Denver with a goosebump-inducing rendition of “This Old Guitar”.

Six Organs Of Admittance @ 10 Years of ATP festival, Butlins Minehead, UK (11 December 2009)
The joke round these parts goes: although I’m an appreciator of the axe-wielding babe-ness of Elisa Ambrogio, I’d much rather shack up with her beau Ben Chasny. Well there was no Elisa this time, but aided by Alex Nielsen’s expressive drumming and the baritone guitar of Andrew Mitchell, Chasny delivered the highlight of the festival – well, at least until Shellac came, saw & conquered two days later.

Shellac @ 10 Years of ATP festival, Butlins Minehead, UK (13 December 2009)
About as perfect as a rock show can be. They’ve got the tunes, they play together as though they’ve discovered the ability to mind-meld, shit there’s even choreography (Albini’s impression of a slowed-down-then-sped-up-tape is spot on). And inbetween the ‘minimalist hard rock’ songs that make you wanna bang your head, they are just fuckin’ funny – Shellac stage-banter is second only to that of Warren Ellis in laugh-out-loud comedy gold.

Todd Trainer: “Do I look like I can fuck??!!”
Albini: “He’s being modest – he’s a genetically-engineered machine designed to only fuck and play drums. He’s the result of a gene-splicing experiment conducted on Gene Krupa and one of those earth-moving machines…”

Neurosis, Micah P Hinson, Oneida, Shellac, Six Organs Of Admittance

l-r: (top) Neurosis (middle) Micah P Hinson, Oneida
(bottom) Shellac, Six Organs Of Admittance

Of course, this list omits many other memorable experiences. Sheeee-it, I saw The Jesus Lizard in three different countries, the always-awesome Shellac the same. There was Sunn O)))’s Atilla Csihar creating an incredible piece of performance art with his cloak of mirrors, lasered-claws and mesmerising mix of hellish growls, throat singing & Gregorian-style chanting. Sleep (temporarily) reunited! Nick Cave playing stripped-down versions of Bad Seeds songs (backed only by Warren Ellis & Martyn P Casey), interspersed with readings from his latest novel. Two fantastic ATPs with a Primavera in balmy Barcelona sandwiched inbetween. Anti-Pop Consortium transposed from Nieuw Haarlem to the Old. And many more great nights out in the various ‘poppodia’ in an around Amsterdam. Huge gratitude to all those that made these happen.


Last Saturday night (7 Feb) saw the kick-off of my 2009 gig ‘season’ with Giant Sand‘s performance in the Paradiso‘s upstairs room. I’m not familiar with Howe Gelb‘s work, knowing more about him from association (the kudos of some of my favourite female performers in Scout Niblett, Kristin Hersh and PJ Harvey, and the Giant Sand offshoots of Calexico and Friends Of Dean Martinez) than from his records – but his intuitive, virtuosic playing (on both guitar and piano) and personable good humour quickly won me over. Gelb’s ‘desert rock’ compositions are now fleshed-out by a trio of Danes (having married a Dane, Gelb splits his time between the Arizona desert and the more temperate climes of Aarhus), but the sound is still pure Americana, evoking not only the scrubby skree of the Sonoran Desert, but also Prohibition-era speakeasies, the red vinyl of diner booths, blood moons and lost highways. He wrenches some amazing sounds from his guitar, sometimes even to the obvious bemusement of his bandmates, and at times spews some squalling, corrosive riffs that Steve Albini would be proud to call his own.

In a tribute to Cramps frontman Lux Interior, who sadly died in the week, Gelb launches into a Duane Eddy-like surf-guitar riff, before reminiscing how Giant Sand opened for the Cramps in France on his first-ever European tour back in 1986. Gelb had smuggled two joints in the band of his Stetson, which were expropriated by Cramps drummer Nick Knox (although then graciously shared with their former owner), and the internationally-freighted weed, playing on European soil for the first time, in front of 3,000 people (up to that point having been used to audiences of around twenty people), and hanging with the Cramps (the Cramps!!) all made for an understandably unforgettable experience. Gelb, with his Richard Gere good looks, is in particularly good nick for his 52 years (he attributes this to the restorative powers of beer), something which is not lost on his female fans: after he educates us about the Galician saying “Os pementos de Padrón, uns pican e outros non” (the peppers of Padrón, some are hot and others not), someone upfront retorts “you’re hot!”, leaving him at a loss for words for the only time that evening. The gig closes with the band joined onstage by fellow desert-dweller Lonna Kelly, who’d played in support. The pregnant Kelly is the subject of some classic Gelb humour – joking about her waters breaking on stage: “it’ll be just like SeaWorld: only the front two rows will get wet”. Kelly has an amazing voice, although unfortunately it suffers from not being distinctive enough – at times a dead ringer for Cat Power/Chan Marshall, at others it’s the Icelandic elven-tones of Björk or Múm‘s Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir.

 dividing line

As this was my first live music experience of 2009 (not counting a visit earlier in the week to Amsterdam’s impressive Concertgebouw for a Wagner/Shostakovich ‘double-bill’), it caused me to reflect on the world-according-to-NarcoAgent best shows of 2008:

The year got off to a great start with an amazing performance by Vic Chesnutt, backed by various members of A Silver Mount Zion and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. Vic’s blackly humorous musings on mortality set the bar high, a height only reached again in late May with the powerhouse Primavera performance of Shellac (although Earth and other Primavera‘sters Six Organs Of Admittance, Om, Fuck Buttons, Kinski and Scout Niblett all came close). Seeing the classic “Locust Abortion Technician”/”Hairway To Steven”-era line-up of Buttholes Surfers was a special treat, despite the presence of “The Paul Green School Of Rock All Stars” threatening to drag the whole enterprise down into a farce unbecoming even of the Buttholes.  There had initially been uncertainty over whether Paul Leary would make the cross-Atlantic journey, but make it he did, and make my night he did, he being one of the best goddamned guitarists I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in action.

Mogwai in the atmospheric forest-enclosed amphitheatre of the Rivierenhof was a magical experience, but lacked a bit of the firepower I’ve come to expect from the Scottish Guitar Army. This was rectified two months later in the Melkweg where the volume was turned high and the jams were kicked out. Songs from “The Hawk Is Howling” made more of an impact this time round, particularly the mesmerising “Scotland’s Shame” and the triple-guitar-assault of  “Batcat” which closed the set in thunderous style. And they played “Christmas Steps”… ’nuff said. Setlist here.

Mogwai @ Melkweg, Amsterdam 30-10-2008

The last couple of months of the year didn’t disappoint – intimate shows by Nadja and Alexander Tucker highlighting the diverse possibilities of the electrified guitar, and Genius/GZA & Killah Priest duelling the iron mics for a run-through of “Liquid Swords”.

But it was the last-but-one gig of the year that also proved to be one of its best: the forged-in-the-pits-of-hell combination of Italian axe-wielders Ufomammut and Lento packed maximum riffs-per-square-inch in to the Deventer Burgerweeshuis. The youngsters of Lento (on their first outing beyond their homeland’s borders) mix dense riffing with stretches of melodic hardcore and ambience, sometimes sounding like an instrumental Isis.

Lento @ Burgerweeshuis, Deventer 05-12-2008

Despite the calm-in-the-eye-of-the-hurricane ambient interludes, Lento had already damaged eardrums before the Ufomammut triumvirate took to the stage with their special brand of HEAVY, heady, heretical rock. That two-thirds of Ufomammut also comprise the Malleus art collective made for a captivating visual backdrop, all fire ‘n brimstone and psychedelic swirls, and the band played an awesome set of alternately hypnotic and crushing doom-metal.

Ufomammut @ Burgerweeshuis, Deventer 05-12-2008

Guitarist Poia gave a masterclass in controlled yet expansive riffing, showing that it’s not how many guitars you have in your arsenal but how you use ’em, and bandmates Vita (drums) and Urlo (bass, moog, vocals) ably supported him in creating the vast, hallucinatory doomsludge, at times swimming in Hell’s molten pits, at times in interstellar overdrive. The members of Lento joined their mentors onstage for the final two songs, playing “The Overload” and “Down” from their collaborative “Supernaturals Record One”. Two drummers, bass, moog and too many guitars to count achieved the impossible in being even heavier than what had gone before!

You can listen to the whole of Ufomammut’s 2008 album “Idolum” on here. The Ufomammut & Lento collaboration “Supernaturals Record One” can also be listened to here.
Ufomammut & Lento releases can be obtained directly from their label Supernatural Cat.

As far as interesting performance spaces go, German motorship Stubnitz outta Rostock must surely score near the top. A working 260-footer that traverses the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the inland waterways of Germany, it offers up a floating anarcho-industrial environment where the crew live & work, putting on live music shows. And they sure run a tight ship: friendly, well-organised, great sound and some great acts performing on a full & varied programme. There have been shows by the likes of Dälek, Mouthus, Spectre and Sensational during the Stubnitz’s temporary Amsterdam stopover, but it was back in late September when I was drawn across the water to the lysergic sounds of LSD March, the Japanese guitar-&-percussion duo proud to call the the surrounds of the mighty Himeji home.

To reach the Stubnitz’s mooring on the NDSM Werf we catch one of the free ferries that run regularly from Centraal Station, transporting people and their bikes across the broad IJ that divides Amsterdam from its northern suburbs. The approach to the ship is across the wide plain where around at the same time a year previously a brutal battle took place between two robot armies. Arriving on the big open deck, the location of the ship’s mooring allows great views back over the water to central Amsterdam and its other northern wharves. You then descend down into the bar area, suitably retro-futuristic in its bare-metal Mad Maxiness.

A large central opening down to the lower deck allows enjoyment of the sonic proceedings even when topping up on necessary lubricants. The stairs further down into the ship’s metal innards takes one past the back of the stage and round into the pipe-encovered belly, from where you can enjoy the performance from many different vantage points (two camerapeople up close shoot interesting views of the onstage events, broadcast to the TVs suspended in the corners of this metal maw).

First up is Ignatz, a Belgian guitarist extracting noisy blues out of his battered six-string, sitting cross-legged in front of an array of pedals. He evokes the dusty Depression-era blues when men would sell their souls at a deserted crossroads just to be able to play with style – but standing in all that steel, Bram Devens captured in close-up on the screens, the distorted electricity of it all makes for a weirdly futuristic experience. It’s feedback-drenched folk that traverses the Appalachian hills in some far-off future, akin to Flying Saucer Attack sweeping over the English moors.

LSD March‘s opener is the highlight of the evening for me – desolate peals of spaghetti-western guitar, a rumbling storm of percussion, and Shinsuke Michishita’s mournful wail slowly drawing in to an eruption of metallic shards of  noise. Michishita’s performance is consumed and restrained at the same time, even the slow delicate strums have a barely-suppressed force about them, before he loses himself in the anguished noise that closes the song. Michishita, his long black hair often completely covering his face, is accompanied by drummer Ikuro Takahashi (an alumnus of such luminaries as Fushitsusha, High Rise, Maher Shalal Hash Baz and Nagisa Ni Te) who brings subtle accents to the songs with his expressive percussion, as well as providing the more explosive punctuations that anchor Michishita’s bashed chords.


The next song layers sparse riffs over an organic tribal beat, the two performers meshing to create a propulsive and compelling dirge that could soundtrack a crossing into the Yōkai-filled spirit world. The third and final song sees Takahashi leave his kit to display his prowess with a saxophone mouthpiece, a high-pitched squeal doing battle with Michishita’s waves of feedback scree, all captured in close-up on the surrounding screens.

Here is the first song from LSD March‘s set, captured in the Museu do Chiado in Lisbon, a week before I saw them in Amsterdam.

LSD March – Untitled (part I) (live in Portugal)

LSD March – Untitled (part II) (live in Portugal)

Mogwai have a nice line in great venues. They give their acolytes the opportunity to see them in the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall, the back-to-roots basement-dive-vibe of the ICA, the faded seaside funpalace of Camber Sands, and most recently for me the open air stateliness (in SurroundSound!) of Somerset House. So it was to Antwerp for a long weekend that culminated in Mogwai playing the open-air amphitheatre (Openluchttheater) of the Rivierenhof, a large forested park to the east of the city.

Mogwai bring a particularly wet and windy August to a close by laying on arguably the best ‘summer’ weekend of the year – Antwerp weekend (priority version).
Unfortunately, after a couple of days spent sampling the Bourgondian multitude of Belgian beers in glorious sunshine, rain is forecast for the evening of Mogwai’s performance. However on arrival in the park that threat looks far off, and although the clouds gather with purpose, support act Motek play to a glorious sunset – the sky an apocalyptic orange over the tall trees that surround this superb venue. There’s booze, food and even blow-up cushions to aid our comfort, it’s just a shame that there is a Mogwai-inconducive sound-level restriction on the Openluchttheater’s PA.

As the band launch into opener “The Precipice” the first drops of rain are felt, prompting the better-prepared amongst us to scrabble for their micropacked ponchos. But Murphy’s Law is repealed after just a few minutes, and although a few more droplets fall during another new song – “Scotland’s Shame” – it is only during the tram ride back to town that the ground properly gets a soaking.

New songs are interspersed with highlights from Mogwai’s thirteen-year existence, and I’m particularly happy to hear ancient artifact “Ithica 27Φ9” played again, guitarist John Cummings and bassist Dominic Aitchison swapping instruments and the band concisely displaying their vice-like grasp of dynamics. They’re all obviously enjoying themselves a lot more than the night previous, a festival in Utrecht where they played in front of 500 Babyshambles fans – Stuart Braithwaite describes it as a “dispiriting experience” (anti-Babyshambles boo follows :)

During the guitar-and-lights assault of “Like Herod”, whose second half usually feels like the sudden arrival of a fierce storm, the wind picks up considerably, swirling through the dark looming trees that encircle us. New single “Batcat” follows, crunching guitars propelled along by the gusting wind, and is easily my favourite of the new songs that I hear for the first time tonight. Every Mogwai album needs its heavyweight anchor, and like “We’re No Here”, “Ratts Of The Capital”, “You Don’t Know Jesus”, and the heaven-and-hell “My Father, My King” before it, this for me is Mogwai at their best, when they wield their guitars as weapons and threaten to bring it all down around us.

As soon as we hit the eye-of-the-storm with “Helicon 2” and a cracked & fragile “Cody”, the wind dies away just as quickly as it had appeared…

The aforementioned mountain-mover “We’re No Here” is the last song of the night and ends in their customary feedback frenzy, the massed amps taking over from the restrained PA and giving us some proper Mogwai volume. John, always last to leave the stage (as the man charged with putting Part Chimp down on tape he must have armour-plated ears), is hailed with inflatable cushions – he ‘fights’ back, and then it’s over, and we’re in a dark forest at night. Into the trees…

The setlist can be found at the excellent brightlight! fansite here. And of course YouTube has some shaky handheld footage of a few of the songs…

Here is Mogwai in session for the Rob Da Bank show on BBC Radio 1 (18 August 2008), recorded live in the BBC’s Maida Vale studio:

Mogwai – Batcat (Rob Da Bank session)

Mogwai – I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead  (Rob Da Bank session)

Mogwai – The Precipice (Rob Da Bank session)

Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan (Rob Da Bank session)

The first half of the year has again sped by in a flash, and despite occasional protestations to the contrary I can’t resist the list-making urge, so here are the fifteen releases that most caught the ear in the first six months of 2008.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy : “Lie Down In The Light” (Drag City/Domino)

The Brian Jonestown Massacre : “My Bloody Underground” (A Records)

The Bug : “London Zoo” (Ninja Tune)

Earth : “The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull” (Southern Lord/Daymare)

Fuck Buttons : “Street Horrrsing” (ATP/R)

Lo Dubs presents “Analog Clash” (Lo Dubs/Anthem)

Lustmord : “Other” (Hydra Head/Daymare)

Nadja : “Skin Turns To Glass” (The End)

Our Brother The Native : “Make Amends For We Are Merely Vessels” (Fat Cat)

Portishead : “Third” (Go! Discs)

Sixteen Horsepower : “Live March 2001” (Glitterhouse)

These New Puritans : “Beat Pyramid” (Domino)

Thom Yorke : “The Eraser Rmxs” (XL)

Torche : “Meanderthal” (Hydra Head)

Ufomammut : “Idolum” (Supernatural Cat)


Moving to the Netherlands has by no means restricted access to ear-and-mind-blowingly good live music (and then there were the three days of aural pleasure in Barcelona). I’ve tried to write about most of it, but these slipped through the cracks…

Vic Chesnutt w/ A Silver Mt. Zion @ Paradiso, Amsterdam (13-Feb-2008)

Chesnutt is a songwriters’ songwriter, lauded by his peers around the world, but 2007’s “North Star Deserter” was the first time I’d been exposed to his darkly humourous confessionals on death & wanting to bring it closer. His ‘backing band’ on that album – most of A Silver Mt. Zion and Fugazi‘s Guy Picciotto – are here tonight, throwing up squalls of howling Godspeed guitar and giving added pathos to Vic’s songs with mournful strings. After a rendition of “Debriefing” that threatens to blow the stained-glass out of the windows of this old church, they encore with a haunting “Ruby Tuesday”, Vic then remaining alone on stage to close, appropriately enough, with “Over”.

Here is a recording of “Ruby Tuesday” performed at The Button Factory, Dublin, Ireland on 01 Dec 2007. The whole show, courtesy of David Bell, is available at Internet Archive.

Vic Chesnutt & A Silver Mt. Zion – Ruby Tuesday (live)


Earth @ Effenaar, Eindhoven (07-Mar-2008)

Hearing the pure tone of Dylan Carlson’s Telecaster ring out at a volume where the drone can be felt as well as heard is thrilling (thanks must go in part to the Effenaar’s good sound setup). The opener “Hung From The Moon” is aptly-named – the notes hang in the air, the band’s slow-motion playing evoking a pagan ritual performed under a ghostly moon. Where once Earth was a solo mission, now Carlson is orbited by a stellar set of fellow cosmonauts – Adrienne Davies’s drumming verges on stasis but is precise & powerful, Don McGreevy adds planet-weight low end, and although Steve Moore’s Wurlitzer keys and trombone blasts could nudge the whole enterprise towards the dreaded blackhole that is j&*z, he fortunately steers a more psychedelic course. “Ouroboros Is Broken“, introduced by Carlson as the first song he ever wrote, is a monolithic juggernaut, Carlson sometimes holding his guitar aloft as though it were an offering to the gods. Support act Sir Richard Bishop joins the band onstage to add his Eastern-inflected guitar to “The Bees Ate Honey From The Lion’s Skull”, before they end this performance (and this tour) with the encore of “Coda Maestoso in F-flat Minor”, like “Ouroboros…” another early song reworked in the new Earth aesthetic.

Here is “Ouroboros Is Broken“, live at the Point Ephémère, Paris (17 Feb 2006), taken from the “Live Europe 2006” disc.

Earth – Ouroboros Is Broken (live)

The Cure @ Ahoy, Rotterdam (18-Mar-2008)

The current incarnation of the Cure looks a lot like one of the first, a stripped down rock band that delivers a guitar-heavy take on over 30 years of Robert Smith’s superlative songwriting. With no keyboard player, some of the keyboard parts are instead replicated by guitarist Porl Thomson, giving those songs an interesting twist. After a “Disintegration“-laden set, they treat us to three extended encores, the second drawn exclusively from “Three Imaginary Boys” and the first singles. To my delight (in a gloomy gothy kinda way of course) they finish (after playing for over three hours!) with my two favourite Cure songs – “Faith” and “A Forest”.

These New Puritans @ Paradiso, Amsterdam (06-May-2008)

On my first exposure to TNP (supporting Liars in London last year) I wrote them off as nothing more than youthfully energetic Fall copyists, but then “Beat Pyramid” (with its arcana-referencing distillation of the best of early 80s post-punk) became one of my favourite albums of the year. They deliver on the magicks of the album live, their frenetic set unfortunately cut short by the Paradiso’s sloppy scheduling. Check out some video clips from the show here.


Butthole Surfers @ Melkweg, Amsterdam (15-Jul-2008)

OK so I went off them when they took the honourable Touch and Go to court, but there was no chance of me passing up the opportunity to see the original Buttholes line-up play again for the first time since the 80s. Being joined by ‘the kids from the School of Rock ‘ lent an air of parody to it all, but they played their best songs, Gibby the megaphone-toting headmaster directing proceedings from behind the amazing Gibbytronix, and fuck it if Paul Leary ain’t one of the best goddamn guitarists I’ve had the pleasure of hearing (and now witnessing).

A live recording of their show at the Forum in London a couple of weeks later is available for purchase here.

Since returning from sunny Spain, the ‘summer’ skies over Amsterdam have been largely grey and precipitative. So it was fortunate that the very start of the month threw up a suberb summer’s evening for the kickoff of the “Westerpark” outdoor concert series with a performance by Radiohead. The Westerpark – as the name suggests – is a park just to the west of Amsterdam’s centre, built around an old gasworks, with the concert venue being a fenced-off portion of the park. I’ve long been keen to see Radiohead play, but the chance was remote given a natural aversion to paying steep ticket prices to be squashed into a group of tens of thousands. But the Dutch are an enterprising lot, and thousands more of us arrived in the park with blankets and picnic provisions, people planting themselves down around the enclosure and able to enjoy Radiohead’s performance at least as much as those 15,000 souls who’d forked over the good part of €60 to be a captive market to expensive beer and jostle for space in the throng.

I’m not particularly enamoured of “In Rainbows”, which they get through in its entireity during a long set – but there are plenty of crowd pleasers (and me-pleasers when it comes to the “Kid A” material) like “The National Anthem”, “Street Spirit”, “Karma Police”, “There There” and “How To Disappear Completely”. Chilling out with friends, in the sun, in the park, Amsterdam throws up another great & gezellig gig-going experience. The perfect weather highlights that the light only leaves the sky at well past 11pm, and during “Lucky” when Thom Yorke sings “It’s gonna be a glorious day” he couldn’t be more right.

Rdiohead - Westerpark, Amsterdam (01-07-2008)

Setlist: Radiohead @ Westerpark, Amsterdam (01 July 2008)
All I Need
The National Anthem
15 Step
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
There There
The Gloaming
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Faust Arp
Bangers And Mash
Everything In Its Right Place
House Of Cards
Climbing Up The Walls
A Wolf At The Door
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
Karma Police
How To Disappear Completely
Planet Telex

Having earlier enjoyed one of Antonio Gaudi’s many awe-inspiring modernist structures – the dragon-toppedhouse of bones‘ that is Casa Batlló – my final day of Primavera began in another architectural gem: the Herzog & de Meuron-designed Edifici Fòrum concert hall, which serves as the Auditori stage. Its limited capacity had meant hour-long queues on previous days (and would later also stymie access to the Throbbing Gristle and Young Marble Giants performances), but Scout Niblett‘s early start and relative anonymity ensured easy-enough access.

The Auditori stage is imposingly widescreen for the two-piece of Scout and drummer Kristian Goddard, but they proved that they are not daunted by such environs when supporting The Stooges at London’s Royal Festival Hall last year (as part of the Jarvis Cocker-curated Meltdown festival). And as soon as Scout unleashes her expressive voice on the traditional couplets that make up the intro to “Do You Want To Be Buried With My People?”, it becomes apparent that this is a perfect venue for her – the excellent concert-hall acoustics giving wings to her already soaring voice. She never fails to surprise with her choice of covers and follows “Good To Me” (with its bizarre woodstockhenge hair metal intro) by making TLC’s “No Scrubs” her own. Scout is all about the highs and lows of being under love’s spell, and in “Hide And Seek” she references the sweetheart fever that seems to afflict her, going from sparse and melancholic love song to attaining Nirvana.

Scout Niblett, Auditori stage, Primavera Sound, 01-Jun-2008

“Kiss” gets the biggest cheer of the set so far, unsurprising as it’s the closest thing Scout has had to a ‘hit single’ (helped by the appearance of the Bonnie Prince William of Oldham on the recorded version).
The past few times I’ve seen Scout Niblett play I’ve been left unfulfilled when she fails to take a turn behind the drumkit, but tonight she delivers by temporarily ejecting Goddard and enthusiastically beating out “Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death”… We’re all gonna die! We don’t know when… We don’t know how…
The rest of the songs are all Niblett highlights – some more favourites from “This Fool Can Die Now” sandwiched between two diamonds from her first album. “Wet Road” yearns with love unfulfilled, while “Miss My Lion” is the perfect closer, Scout stomping and wailing to superbly crunching riffs.

Setlist: Scout Niblett @ Primavera Sound 2008, Barcelona (01 June 2008)
Do You Want To Be Buried With My People?
Good To Me
No Scrubs
Kidnapped By Neptune
Hide And Seek
Hot To Death
Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death
Wet Road
Let Thine Heart Be Warmed
Miss My Lion

Leaving the Auditori I’m happy to see that the rain that had niggled throughout the day has pissed off (only to return with a vengeance at the very end of the festival). There’s only enough time to catch Devastations end their set with a menacing, noisy “Rosa”, played with that scuzzy louche cool that seems peculiar to Australians-in-Berlin (cf. Nick Cave “The Heroin Years”, Angus Andrew of Liars). Their most recent album “Yes, U” blows hot and cold for me but here I find the swamp monster that lurks within their bombastic baroque-goth.

Devastations, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 01-Jun-2008

It’s then over to the Estrella Damm stage to see Okkervil River, who’d drawn one of the biggest crowds I’d yet experienced at Primavera. The opening salvo of “The President’s Dead / Black” sets the tone for the upbeat crowd-pleasing show that is to follow. My first hearing of Okkervil River was “Black Sheep Boy“, the melancholy of the Tim Hardin-inspired tracks appealing to me most (and I’m a sucker for the William Schaff artwork too) – so l found last year’s “The Stage Names” initially too ‘big band’ with Sheff’s sometimes tortured words incongruous to the upbeat backing, but here under a grey Barcelona sky those songs proved much more infectious. Halfway through, Sheff introduces “It Ends With A Fall” as a tribute to The Wrens guitarist Charles Bissell (playing his last show with the band) – then jokingly fires him on stage. The rest of the performance rocks energetically, hitting a peak with “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe” flowing straight into “For Real”, which really gets the audience jumping. They end with early song “Westfall” sung in Spanish, a fitting finale which the local fans really take to heart.

Okkervil River, Estrella Damm stage, Primavera Sound, 01-Jun-2008

Setlist: Okkervil River @ Primavera Sound 2008, Barcelona (01 June 2008)
The President’s Dead
A Hand To Take A Hold Of The Scene
The Latest Toughs
A Girl In Port
It Ends With A Fall
John Allan Smith Sails
Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe
For Real
Unless It’s Kicks
Westfall (Spanish version)

Dirty Projectors have created a lot of buzz over the past year, Dave Longstreth built up as some sort of weird genius. It’s not for me – maybe it’s too wilfully obscure or just too pop – but they provide some minutes of distraction, if not just for bassist Angel Deradoorian crooning melodies wearing what looked to be denim jogging shorts

Back to the well-visited ATP stage for Kinski, who sometimes come across as Sonic Youth from an alternate dimension – Chris Martin the floppy-haired guitar virtuoso, Lucy Atkinson the hard rockin’ female bassist, guitarist/flautist Matthew Reid-Schwartz in the Lee Ranaldo role, and Barret Wilke providing the Shelley-esque pounding. And sure Kinski are heavily indebted to their East Coast brethren (song titles like “Daydream Intonation” all but give it away), but these Seattle Sub Pop-ers also mix in a healthy dose of psych-kraut-space rock that coalesces into a riff-heavy brew that somehow stands apart from most of the post/psych/kraut/space-rock that abounds in these times.

Kinski, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 01-Jun-2008

Inbetween songs it’s announced that today is bassist Atkinson’s birthday which causes the audience to break into a Spanish-accented “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear… erm.. Kinski!!” The band clearly enjoys themselves, as do we all.

After catching a few songs by saxophone-fronted rock-‘n-sample band Menomena (who appeal on first hearing, despite giving such prominence to that feared symbol of all things j&!z), it’s a quickmarch back down to the ATP stage to secure a prime position for being showered in the minimalist-rock-greatness that is Shellac. I’m glad it’s not too hard to get a good vantage point upfront early on, because I later turn to see the crowd massed into all the available space, tailing up the path back to the main festival site. They come because Shellac is the best godamn live band I & many others here have ever had the pleasure of sharing a room with. Prior to their performance I’d been quite open to the idea that Shellac would not necessarily produce the highlight of my weekend – there’d certainly been other contenders – but who was I kidding? That perfect blend of mass, velocity and time knocks me over every time.
It’s the first time I’ve seen them rock under the stars (a rare opportunity as Shellac generally have a dislike of festivals, except when the fine folk at ATP are involved) and the experience is just as powerful (even if Steve Albini and Bob Weston are without their custom cabinets, making do instead with more prosaic Marshall and Ampeg stacks).

Shellac, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 01-Jun-2008

For all their precision, each show is an improvised performance – no setlists, Albini’s vocal adlibbing & caustic wit (in “Prayer To God” he exhorts Baby Jesus to “do your fuckin’ job for once”), taking questions from the crowd (this time unsuccessfully handled by Scout Niblett). And we get to hear a new song, sung by Weston and sounding like classic early ’90s-vintage Shellac (another new song appears in Paris about a week later – could it be we’ll be seeing a new Shellac album before the end of the world?!). It’s an amazing set, surely making new acolytes in the crowd of thousands, and (like all Shellac performances I’ve witnessed) words won’t do it justice…

Shellac, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 01-Jun-2008

Setlist: Shellac @ Primavera Sound 2008, Barcelona (01 June 2008)
My Black Ass
In A Minute
Squirrel Song
(new song with Bob on vocals)
Prayer To God
Steady As She Goes
End Of Radio
Watch Song

Les Savy Fav are talked up as a crazy live experience (some would go so far as to crown them best live band around – heretics!) and sure enough vocalist Tim Harrington gives the crowd their money’s worth – first appearing disguised as a plant before stripping down to a multicoloured leotard and jumping into the audience, running up and down the concrete steps to the right of the ATP stage. The rest of the band rock efficiently behind Harrington’s antics, but it seems to me that Les Savy Fav’s appeal must be more in their moon-howlin’ mad frontman than in their tunes – and in contrast to the masterclass of masa, velocidad & tiempo that went before this only entertains superficially. So it is halfway through their set that I decide to call time on Primavera Sound 2008, heading into the balmy Barcelona night, off to dream my sweet Albini dreams…

After a day of parks, Catalan cuisine and modern art, it’s time to bring the noise with a night-long stretch at the ATP stage, interspersed only with a quick look at Devo ‘s entertaining middle-aged-men-in-short-pants schtick and a scuttle past Cat Power’s lacklustre blues. The intention had been to also catch some shows in the Auditori venue, but its limited seating capacity meant hour-long queues just to get a ticket for the right to then join another snaking queue for the performance itself. With too many bands to see and too expansive of a city to explore to waste time standing in line, I had to give up on seeing Bill Callahan and Portishead’s second performance of the festival. The concert hall acoustics would’ve no doubt allowed Beth Gibbons’s voice to take on more of a ghostly hue, and on finishing with “We Carry On” the band invited the audience up onto the Auditori stage, so it was surely a special show and a shame to have missed it.

ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008


The evening kicks off with Six Organs Of Admittance singing the sun down, now at the end of their European tour and playing with a togetherness and understanding that was missing when I saw them at the start. This makes for an incendiary performance, Ben Chasny’s alternately intricate finger-picking and paint-peeling riffs in complete sync with drummer Alex Neilson’s expressive percussion, all washed over with Elisa Ambrogio’s waves of distortion and feedback. They start with live favourite “A Thousand Birds”, whose second half throws up swirls of splintered noise as Chasny & Ambrogio batter their guitars into submission. Chasny has recently said how he is drawn back to the noisier stuff that he made as a twenty-year-old, moving away from the all-acoustic explorations of earlier Six Organs material – and the evidence is certainly to be heard in his live performances, with Ambrogio’s instinctively free & unfettered playing the perfect springboard for Chasny to unleash his own six-stringed savagery.

Six Organs Of Admittance, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008

Songs from most recent album “Shelter From The Ash” are interspersed with oldie “Black Needle Rhymes” before Chasny & partner Ambrogio harmonise through Fleetwood Mac’s “That’s Alright”, another staple of their recent performances. Chasny then provides some eye-of-the-hurricane calm, running through two of his most affecting songs, just his yearning falsetto and stellar playing keeping the large crowd captivated. This is the start of a four-song-suite of “School Of The Flower” material (happily my favourite Six Organs release) that closes the performance. The title track of that album is introduced as “School Of The Mick Flower” in tribute to the Vibracathedral Orchestra‘s guitarist, Chasny urging us all to enrol, and it’s a treat to hear it played as it hasn’t featured in live sets for some time. All three band members conjure up a maelstrom of freerock that comes full circle, dissolving into Chasny’s repeating refrain before we’re comfortingly brought “Home”.


Setlist: Six Organs Of Admittance @ Primavera Sound 2008, Barcelona (30 May 2008)
A Thousand Birds
Strangled Road
Black Needle Rhymes
Shelter From The Ash
That’s Alright (Fleetwood Mac cover)
All You’ve Left
Words For Two
School Of The Flower


Having heard lots of buzz around Autolux I’d almost taken it for granted that they would prove to be my ‘discovery of the festival’. And I would have really enjoyed their performance had I completely missed out on Sonic Youth 1985-1995. As it is I can’t get past the fact that every riff sounds like it has been plundered from the Noo Yoik noiseniks back catalogue, not really adding (to these ears) anything new to the formula. That they actually manage to sound like Sonic Youth is achievement in itself I suppose, and if Autolux succeed in turning a new generation onto the joys of “Evol” or “Sister” then they’re serving a beneficial & humanitarian purpose, but it does not compute that this is considered somehow new & exciting. Of course most art builds on a foundation of what has gone before, but the revivalist nature of a lot of alternative music released this decade seems to these aged ears to be a case of cheap knock-off rather than an assimilation of influences in the pursuit of creating something new. That said, Autolux do entertain and they’re certainly no fly-by-night phonies – they’ve been playing together since the start of this decade, and although not exactly prolific (they’ve one album to their name thus far) have built a sizeable fanbase (as evidenced by the large & enthusiastic crowd here). Carla Azar is a powerhouse drummer, and really propels the band along – remarkable given that a shattered elbow following a stage fall in 2002 resulted in the prognosis that she would probably never play drums again. Eight titanium screws later and she continues to pound the skins with ferocious dexterity.


Polvo are a band revered by many, original proponents of dissonant math rock, all bent notes and complex time signatures. They existed for much of the 90s before disbanding – now reformed for a series of ATP-related festivals. They score high on the math test (ouch!): high-school classmates with some of Superchunk, releases on Touch and Go, recorded by Bob Weston, yada yada… – but don’t really do it for me. I like a good big dumb riff to get a hold of, and this is a bit too knowingly complex and fiddly, venturing into that no-man’s-land where the borders between punk and prog are unclear. For sure they still know how to wield their axes with intent and there is Eastern-tinged melody to be found in their unorthodox tunings and fluid fretwork, but I guess I’m too much of a big dumb lunk to want to study this further.

Polvo, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008


Bristol-now-London duo Fuck Buttons are something I’ve been keen to see, and they don’t disappoint. The spirit of Suicide and a worthy history of noise bands inform the Fuck Buttons sound, and they have fun with turning it into the noize you can move to, be moved by. It has an elemental simplicity (and it seems eco-friendly too) which works well here under the stars by the sea. Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power stand hunched over their equipment, moving to the crystalline melodies submerged in the swarm of electronic noise, Power sometimes bashing out a tribal beat on a floor tom. While Hung seems pretty chilled behind his bank of old Casio keyboards, Power is the more animated, sticking the toy microphone into his mouth, screaming the distorted vocals while using both hands to shape the sound.

Fuck Buttons, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008

Most of the set seems drawn from their “Street Horrrsing” album, although I think they may have played something new to finish. “Sweet Love For Planet Earth” is the highlight with its rainfall tinkle and pulsing drones building into a melodically abrasive shout out for help on behalf of this hunk of rock, Power howling into the microphone clenched in his jaws. For the rest, the tune-friendly, sometimes playful and at times downright-euphoric circuit-bent wall of buzzing synth sound makes for one upbeat noise party.


When news broke earlier in the year that drummer Chris Hakius had left Om I feared for the life of the mighty mantric metallers. Hakius and bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros had been friends & collaborators of some twenty years, playing in Sabbathian stoner-rock legends Sleep together before reconvening in 2004 for Om, and I couldn’t see how the band would survive the end of such a longstanding & close-knit connection. But Grandmaster Cisneros (he teaches chess when he is not captain of the shrine effulgent Om windship) quickly announced the continuation of the Om journey, and tonight he performs with new drummer Emil Amos (of Grails and Holy Sons).

The first thing that strikes me is just how good a bass-player Cisneros is – his fingers glide effortlessly over his Rickenbacker’s neck, the dextrous display somewhat incongruous with the bludgeoning vibrations that emenate from the speaker stacks. Early on, as I stand close to the stage, it feels as those vibrations will resonate inside my head to such an extent that it’ll explode, but I soon tune into the pre-dawn mantras, focusing only on the new rites of a Vedic sun to attend the blue horizon… The low-end barrage, cyclical rhythms, songs that seem to slow time, riffs fashioned from dark matter and chanted mysticisms (Julian Cope once called Cisneros’s lyrics “the kind of accessible pseudo-religious genius that started genuine religions”) all make for a meditative experience, albeit at arsequake volume – even if (to the uninitiated) the songs all sound the same. That Om plough the same groove is not something Cisneros denies: he talks of the music as being a singular continuous expression, with Om as merely the vessel that occasionally tunes into this one theme to make it tangible in our world (the 2004 debut album is aptly titled “Variations On A Theme”).

Om, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 30-May-2008

Second song is “To The Shrinebuilder”, arguably Om’s most propulsive song to date, Amos adding even more weight to it with his hard-hitting percussion (you can download a live version of this song, recorded in Canada in 2006, from Holy Mountain here). Amos definitely brings a new dimension to the Om sound, his dynamic drumming is expressive and powerful, so it will be interesting to see how this translates to future Om recordings. They close with the epic “At Giza”, many fans’ favourite of Om’s thematic variations, the crowd going wild for the breakdown in the middle where Cisneros’s bass note hangs in the air before the song slowly builds again into a glacially heavy groove, the coming of the sun and that blue horizon a couple of hours away yet…


Setlist: Om @ Primavera Sound 2008, Barcelona (30 May 2008)
Bhima’s Theme
To The Shrinebuilder
Kapila’s Theme
At Giza
(well this is what I think it was… it was late & muchos Estrella later, so any corrections welcome…)



On getting wind of this year’s Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona it immediately became an attend-at-all-costs kinda thing – three (presumably sunny) days of some of my favourite bands by the sea in one of my favourite cities being too good to resist. The incredible line-up that sucked me in included Portishead, Scout Niblett, Six Organs Of Admittance, Boris, Public Enemy performing “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back“, Om, Shipping News, Okkervil River, Bill Callahan, Kinski, Fuck Buttons… tickets were swiftly procured, so when Shellac were added to the bill a little while later I could barely contain myself.

The festival site is the Parc del Forum, a concrete ‘urban park’ built for the 2004 “Universal Forum of Cultures” and located in the northwest corner of the city at the end of the Avinguda Diagonal & Barcelona’s stretch of beaches. The five open-air stages and the indoor ‘Auditori’ concert hall are well-spaced so that moving from one to the other is easily done, without there being too much sound bleed from one to the other. The ATP stage (where most of my time is spent over the next few days) is particularly well-situated in the far corner of the site, a tree-lined avenue leading to the stage, which is flanked by a grassy knoll (from which the sea is visible) on one side and a bank of concrete seating on the other, meaning great views for (almost) all. 

Primavera map

An early arrival to ‘check-in’ means that I get to enjoy sitting in the sun listening to Portishead soundcheck, the views out over the industrialised section of Barcelona’s coastline suitably soundtracked by Portishead’s mechanical beats and spooky synths. Hearing snatches of the likes of “Glory Box” and “Sour Times” along with new favourites like “We Carry On” and “Machine Gun” mean that we’re all going to be in for a treat later that evening, and certainly gets the pulse racing for what is in store when the festival properly kicks off a few hours later.

I’ve only recently come to the finely-crafted soundworlds of Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie/Microphones – the brooding ‘organic’ odes to nature (in particular to the topography of his native Anacortes, Washington State) cut through with an almost playful folkpop sensibility mixed with lo-fi ‘anything goes’ experimentation. His recordings are often ambitious, densely-layered, inscrutable works, rounded out with contributions from any number of fleeting studio visitors, so I wondered how this sound would translate to his solo live performance.

For the first part of the set Elverum (on acoustic guitar) is joined by Julie Doiron (voice) of recently-reunited Canadian band Eric’s Trip (who are also playing the festival) and Fred Squire (electric guitar). The trio have recently recorded together (Mt. Eerie’s forthcoming “Lost Wisdom” album) and are therefore comfortably in-sync with each other & the material, but nonetheless fail to ignite – Elverum’s soft & measured mumble meshes well with Doiron’s Joni-Mitchell-esque voice but the songs seem to wander aimlessly before either ending abruptly or petering out sans any sense of resolution. Nonetheless, experiencing this pastoralism, beer-in-hand, under the sunny Spanish sky seems as good an introduction as any to the delights of this seaside festival. 

Mount Eerie, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 29-May-2008

For the rest of the set Elverum is on his own, this time on electric guitar, and the material is of a doomier, gloomier bent. He gently coaxes distorted waves of sound from his guitar that better evoke the looming and vast natural landscapes that often serve as his muse, and the lyrics take on a darker existentialism than those brightened by the earlier presence of Doiron.

Mount Eerie’s current focus is on what Elverum has termed “Black Wooden” – ‘black metal using natural materials’ – and based on the darker drones of the second half of this performance I’m keen to discover what this talented-yet-frustratingly-oblique songwriter can make of such an appealing concept on forthcoming releases.

1988’s “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” is widely considered to be Public Enemy‘s (and hiphop’s) finest album, a reactionary barrage of sparse Bomb Squad beats, squealing sample stabs, and rhyme animal Chuck D’s we-ain’t-gonna-take-no-shit-from-the-Man lyrics. To say anticipation is running high is somewhat of an understatement. However, PE give over the first part of their slot to the recently reformed Bomb Squad, brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee playing a captivating set of “dub bass” (their take on dubstep, which they credit themselves for inventing!). Public Enemy finally take the stage to a rapturous reception from the crowd, Chuck D and Flavor Flav augmented by a full live band, DJ Lord and of course members of their Security Of The First World (Professor Griff would’ve been present too but for visa problems). “Bring The Noise” predictably gets us all into a frenzy, and as they take us through their landmark album the audience parties under the Spanish stars. Chuck D’s iconic bullhorn voice is as imposing as ever, Flavor cold lamps all over the big stage (“Yeah, Boooooooooy!”) and the S1Ws ‘dance’ in formation.

Public Enemy, Rockdelux stage, Primavera Sound 2008, 29-May-2008

When they get to “Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic” Chuck D announces this (tour) as the first time they’re playing this in 15 years, and as original PE DJ Terminator X is long retired (apparently now an ostrich farmer!) it serves as a fitting tribute. But having given up so much of their slot to the Bomb Squad, PE only get as far as playing “She Watch Channel Zero?!”, before ending off with a quick run-through of some more recent crowd-pleasers (“911 Is A Joke”, “Welcome To The Terrordome” and new song “Just Like That”) – leaving me sorely disappointed at missing out on such classics as “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” and my favourite PE song “Rebel Without A Pause”…

It’s then swiftly up to the CD Drome stage to catch the last part of Shipping News‘s set, and man are they playing a blinder, ending with a massive version of “Paper Lanterns (Zero Return)”. When I’d seen them previously they’d played as a trio with Jason Noble on bass, but here he is freed up to double up the riffage by the presence of Todd Cook, Louisville’s hardest working bassist. It leaves me regretting not having caught their whole performance, particularly as they don’t tour very often – but that is the only downside to this excellent festival: there is just too much good stuff on to have any hope in catching it all.

Shipping News, CD Drome stage, Primavera Sound, 29-May-2008

Portishead, Rockdelux stage, Primavera Sound, 29-May-2008

Portishead are undoubtedly the main Primavera drawcard for many and so the amphitheatre-style Rockdelux stage is packed with expectant punters, by far the biggest crush of the day. The start is delayed (messing up my plans to catch most of both their set and Boris, who play elsewhere a little later). They eventually kick off with “Silence”, the first track off new album “Third” – the spoken-word sample intro to that song almost perfectly-appropriate (it’s Portuguese, rather than Spanish). Geoff Barrow hammers out the rolling beat on a floor tom, while the screens on either side of the stage flicker with grainy black & white close-ups of the action on stage. The new material’s emphasis on live instrumentation is clear here as the band are able to faultlessly recreate the sound of their new record. It is a thrill to see them live for the first time, but as they’re playing the following night (in the seated Auditori) I make the tough choice to depart as they launch into “Hunter” in order to catch the Japanese sludge monsters rumbling into life nearby. I later learn that I miss one of those one-off gig experiences as Chuck D joins Portishead on stage to spit a few rhymes over the staccato industrial beats of “Machine Gun”…

Boris, who are playing the nearby ATP Stage, threaten to do a Godzilla stomp all over Beth Gibbons’s fragile vocals as they open with the crunchy noise of “Statement” – they are LOUD, and with the addition of an extra guitarist (Ghost mainman Michio Kurihara) the sludgy, distorted wail of sound is even more dense than usual. In contrast to the last time I saw them, I’m unfortunately unable to engage with them tonight, their schizophrenic, scuzzy barrage of noise proving to be an impenetrable and distancing barrier. Instead I just marvel at the slight Wata & her masterful playing – she spews out massive riffs incongruous with her diminutive frame, barely moving as she propels the band forward. I recognise “Pink” and “Farewell” but the rest sadly congeals into an eardrum-assaulting morass, a messy mix of Motörhead, hair metal and punk rock that brings a slightly disappointing close to a wonderful first day.

Boris, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 29-May-2008

Utrecht, one of Holland’s oldest cities and the spiritual home of Dutch modernist design (the birthplace of Theo van Doesburg, Gerrit Rietveld and Dick Bruna), is also blessed with some great gig venues. The relatively small size of the city (population: 300,000) supports several perfectly-proportioned spaces (capacity: a couple of hundred at most) ideal for those ‘intimate’ shows I’d take over a stadium gig every time. So as a taster for the upcoming Primavera festival of delights in Barcelona (where both bands will play), in early May I twice made the 30 minute train journey to Utrecht to see Six Organs of Admittance (@ Poppodium EKKO) and Scout Niblett (@ Tivoli De Helling) do their thing.

The Six Organs Of Admittance show is the first proper of their European tour (following a special warm-up date in Latvia of all places) and unfortunately it shows. Drummer Alex Neilsen is rightly regarded as one of the best around but this night he lays it on too strong, filling in spaces that were best filled only with Ben Chasny & Elisa Ambrogio’s wailing twelve strings.

Listening to Chasny’s playing on record it is clear that he plays at a pace all of his own, not always beholden to what would be considered conventional timing or rhythm, and although Neilson is of course well-versed in improvisational drumming, too often they fail to quite mesh. But this is not to suggest that there are not moments of classic Six Organs transcendentalism: Ambrogio and Chasny transform “Hum A Silent Prayer” (on record, virtually acapella) into a droning noisechant and there are moments of blissed out freerock in “Black Needle Rhymes” when the three bandmembers connect. The “Shelter From The Ash” songs – like the title track, “Coming To Get You” and “Strangled Road” – are all tight , Neilson forced to be more economical by those songs’ relatively concise & conventional structures.

Six Organs Of Admittance - live at Poppodium EKKO, Utrecht, 12-May-2008

Unfortunately the performance is cut short due to the enforcement of a strict (public holiday) Monday night curfew (why don’t promoters/venues get the support acts on earlier if there is a danger that the headliner will have to play a constricted set?!). As I headed into the still-faintly-lit Dutch night I hoped that by the time they hit Barcelona the band will have better mindmelded, Neilsen taking a more subtle approach to fleshing out the twin-guitar cacophony of Chasny & Ambrogio, and I looked forward to the next Six Organs experience being all the more powerful for it.


Scout Niblett plays on the packed bill of Distorted Channel‘s 5th birthday celebration (headlined by Health) so it’s another performance that ends too soon. But we get “Wolfie” after Scout asks the audience what we want to hear next, the reflective “Wet Road”, a TLC cover (“No Scrubs”), and she and drummer Kristian Goddard take us through “This Fool Can Die Now”‘s best songs, closing with the monolithic desert rock of “Nevada”. Scout has also started a Shellac-style mid-set Q&A session, although the question quality was low, only eliciting the information that Scout likes dogs and isn’t particularly bothered when it comes to cats…

Scout Niblett, live at Tivoli De Helling, Utrecht, 17-May-2008

It is another intense & exposed performance from Scout (I’m sure she can’t do it any other way), heart on sleeve and amp turned up to the max. So with appetite suitably whet, bring on Barcelona! Chart (weekly)

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