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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 Last.fm 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.



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