Every Venue a Cathedral

Those lucky sods going to see Low tonight in Christ Church Cathedral are in for a hell of a treat. With about ten viewings under my belt, they are one of my favourite live acts of all time. Here’s a review I did way back in 2012 of their set in the Button Factory to get you in the mood. Merry Christmas, everybody. 

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Low
Button Factory, Dublin / July 10, 2012

IT NEVER sounded quite right; “Explosions In The Sky. With special guests Low.” The touring agreement may have suited both bands financially but the suspicion was that it would have curtailed a supporting act that had a good name when it came to showstoppers. With a family illness forcing Explosions In The Sky to drop out, the Minnesota three-piece stayed the course to visit long-time friends in Dublin. While our sympathies are with the original headliners, by the end of this exquisite performance the point has been proven – Low are just too commanding an outfit to play second fiddle. The Gig Gods had conspired wisely.

“Are they awestruck or just polite”, you ask of the quiet heads filling every inch of the venue. “Ssshhh,” someone quips allowed and everyone laughs. Awestruck it is, then, and why wouldn’t they be? Now reigning over a hallowed country that sits on the map somewhere between the prairie harmonies of Fleet Foxes or Bonnie Prince Billy and noise royalty like Dinosaur Jnr and Sonic Youth, Low turn every venue into a cathedral.

‘Pissing’ crashes glacially into view, a tense, deep-water stalk that erupts into a sky-shredding, glistening guitar voyage from the visionary Alan Sparhawk. ‘Nothing But Heart’ soars on similar thermals, his voice interlocking ever-seamlessly with percussionist wife Mimi Parker and floating off into the beyond. Other newer fare like ‘Especially Me’ and ‘Witches’ warp their choral beauty with lyrics about Al Green, baseball bats and moot elixirs. Even an old B-side such as ‘From Your Place On Sunset’ seems imperious on this night, like the most important thing you’ve heard all day.

The spirits are forcing Sparhawk’s brow to furrow and his body to writhe and spasm. Parker and bassist/keyboardist Steve Garrington lilt and sway along with the audience. No one takes their eyes off Sparhawk. When the time comes for an encore, a multitude of song requests are flung stagewards. ‘When I Go Deaf’ shimmers into life, the congregation quickens for the umpteenth time and the Gig Gods smile down at all they have created.

@HAWhiteK

Drive-in like you stole it

Worth waiting for? You better believe it. As soon as they walked on stage all in uniform, you could tell it was on. Fifteen years since ripping Temple Bar Music Centre (and the rock landscape in general) a new one, the Band That Changed My Life regrouped, reignited and staged an indoor Easter Rising. How the hell was it so incredible?  Read on…

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At The Drive-In
Vicar St, Dublin / March 26, 2016

FOR a city currently under siege from talk of rebellions and insurrections, it took At The Drive-in to show what a latter-day Rising looks like. “This is a re-ignition,” brayed top-heavy frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala halfway through the set as a mush of sweaty bodies panted with euphoria on the floor of Vicar St.

Part of this mass exhalation must surely be down to relief in light of the dreaded “comeback tour” spectre. At The Drive-in have occupied a particularly deified corner of rock fandom since imploding under the weight of hype, artistic differences and hallucinogen abuse 15 years ago. It came shortly after their Temple Bar Music Centre date, a gig that has now become a kind of GPO for Irish gig-goers in so much as about four times the capacity of the venue claim to have been at it.

And like the GPO, the band’s subsequent demise would go on to stir a revolution. The possibilities of how guitar rock could be configured saw a sea change. At The Drive-in demonstrated new routes to hard-rock thrills without the need of distortion pedals or gym socks. Their demise gave birth to countless numbers of Bloc Parties, Foals, Battles, Richter Collective champions and DFA funky punks, even if it never seemed obvious at the time. Maybe there was something in that “new Nirvana” tag after all.

Fears that the 11th-hour departure of guitarist Jim Ward and the customary expectation levels would mar the evening are immediately shit-canned with the maracas-and-hurricanes intro to ‘Arcarsenal’. It all goes heavily against script from there on in. Unlike those Coachella gigs a couple of years back, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez looks charged by the whole experience, writhing the angular riffs of ‘Quarantined’, ‘Catacombs’ and ‘Ursa Minor’ into life and shouting the replies to Cedric’s William Burroughs barks. Super-sub Keeley Davis looks fundamental to the power play. Cedric may no longer quite stand on his head but the 41-year-old still flails and whirls the length and breadth of the stage.

The citizen army genuflect with frenzied slam-dancing and karaoke wailing, and are not admonished from the microphone as that night in Temple Bar. In fact, this has been the definitive Irish outing for At The Drive-In. Chaos and petulance have made way for generosity and focus. With this first night of their huge 13-week tour triumphing, the quintet genuflect back to the troops with sincerity. Both parties walk away feeling tonight had no right to be this good.

First published on State.ie

Kurt’s Vibe

Love me a bit of Kurt Vile, but he can be a tricky sort live. Last week’s Vicar St show was top notch, however. Here’s my State review.

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Kurt Vile and the Violators
Vicar St, Dublin / Nov 15, 2015

TONIGHT feels different. When we last met Kurt Vile, there was a somewhat detached air about the hirsute guitar maestro and erstwhile Warrior on Drugs. This heavily subscribed Vicar St show sees him joined by threepiece backing band the Violators, whose fraternal presence appears to temper the 35-year-old’s more curtained tendencies. They also help make flesh the ranging, circular rock songs that we felt didn’t get fully airborne last time around due to it being a solo acoustic show.

Vile may resemble a bed-headed guitar tech and sing in a resigned drawl but the vibe the quartet conjure is, like Vile’s career in general, the stuff of fierce determination. That voice is less a disseminator of poetic visions than a read-back from his own slacker diary, a one-man conversation about times hazy and perplexing on the great Americana highway. ‘Dust Bunnies’ (one of many highlights off this year’s believe I’m goin downserved up here) uses douses of organ and a steady thump to get heads nodding. During the bittersweet bliss of ‘Walkin’ On a Pretty Day’, the wirey frame and formidable mop curl over the guitar as he goes off on one of his refreshingly indulgence-free solos.

Yes, where Vile goes so too does a crisp, multi-coloured guitar style that is all his own. Tonight, he swaps banjo (‘I’m An Outlaw’) for sumptuously finger-picked acoustic (‘Stand Inside’, ‘That’s Life, Tho’) for Fender Jaguar (‘KV Crimes’, the dusty ‘Wheelhouse’) whipping them off impatiently afterwards as if fearful of a sag in atmosphere. When someone deliriously blurts out “Kurt Vile!” amid the howls of approval, you question his concern.

‘Freak Train’ makes for a perfect crescendo, a frenzied, saxophone-buoyed celebration of rock ‘n’ roll in all its adolescent chaos. Security-riling scamps are up on the shoulders of others. Vile holds his Jaguar aloft like a beacon as FX pedals squall through the room of grins. There are no salutes or shout outs to our fallen brothers and sisters in Paris. It’s not his style. But what he’s done tonight has sounded a reminder to jaded hearts everywhere following the atrocity just 48 hours previously. The message is gin-clear: Rock ‘n’ roll will never be killed. These nights will never be taken from us. Nous Somme Bataclan.

St Vincent’s Day

Oh St Vincent, let me count the ways… Scrap that. Here’s my State.ie review of her recent July show in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens. Photos provided by the not inconsiderable snapping skills of Robert Porter

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IT RAINS, the sound is bad and it’s full of scenesters. That’s the mantra of the increasingly vocal sector besmirching the name of outdoor gigs. A glance up at the soupy broth replacing the summer sky this evening, a part of you wants to agree and leave the oasis of Iveagh Gardens to see who’s playing the front bar in Whelans. But you don’t. You wait because this generation’s Bowie is here. Her and Danish support act Mew will seduce and electrify, your heart tells you. The rain will be an inconsequential spittle. There will be no place for that tedious “rain failed to dampen spirits” line here. And maybe, this time, you’ll be right.

It seems to be going to plan as Mew go about their business with all the efficiency and cleanliness you’d expect from four chiselled Scandinavians. Studio-quality renditions of ‘Am I Wry’, ‘Special’ and the helixing vocals of ‘The Zookeeper’s Boy’ all sound the result of a ‘play’ button somewhere backstage, they are so faithful. Alas, this is just a simple combination of good live mixing and hardened gig-fitness. It’s usually our preference to have the non-album colours come across in the live scenario but today it feels somehow fitting for these poppiest proponents of prog-rock.

As crowds go, Mew’s “small but attentive” lot are swelled by St Vincent’s “hipsterfied all-sorts”, many of whom are initially too cool to fully lose it when Annie Clark slinks on stage like the second coming of Ziggy Stardust. This doesn’t last, however, and it’s only a couple of songs in before they’ve been beguiled by Anni-B Parson’s android choreography, the insistent throb of Clark’s immaculate three piece backing band or the centrifugal force of the entire shebang – Clark herself.

Let’s take a moment to digest what we have before us because it’s a rare and exotic species indeed. The electro-pixie look of the 2014 leg of this tour has been ditched and in its wake comes something that is equal parts Joan Jett, Edward Scissorhands and Catwoman. There is an oozing, vampish sexual arsenal behind every footstep but it is when she’s in the throes of another crunching, unruly guitar workout or rolling down the rear-stage riser that you begin to suspect a proper enigma has crash-landed on earth.

Opener ‘Birth In Reverse’ is a robotic ballet of tick-tocking shimmies with guitarist/keyboardist Toko Yasuda. Clark is bathed in golds, purples and blues as she takes to the riser for the widescreen sway of ‘Prince Johnny’, and it is from up here, statuesque before the congregation, that ‘Cheerleader’’s languid climaxes see the air above the audience get punched. ‘Bring Me Your Loves’ shows off a guitar tone as distinctive as any Josh Homme or Jack White. Listen carefully and you’ll hear State and thousands of others sighing.

Yes, it’s been a splendid coup indeed for the outdoor concert experience. By the time of the encore, State has learned of a new-born child that was recently named after this goddess of cool. And there, up on the stage, we continue to watch entranced as Clark is wheeled out on a psychiatrist’s lounger for ‘The Party’. We hope they never find a cure for her.

Getting Arcade Fired Up…

IN December 2010, Arcade Fire waltzed into Dublin and tore the 02 a new you-know-what. That night, I popped my cherry on the much-lauded Canadian collective and have not been the same man since. I hereby re-post this review I did for state.ie to prove that while I may have been the only Dubliner absent on Sunday in Marlay Park (I have a very demanding cat), I was there, man…

 

THE reasons I never ‘got’ Arcade Fire remain unclear. It may have been that I grew sick of people ordering me to love them upon my arrival home from a couple of years away. Returning to Ireland in 2005, it was all Orcade Foyre this, Orcade Foyre that. Jump forward five years, and I’m exiting the O2 breathless and emotional and struggling to think of the last group that has made a real, tangible connection with their audience on such a level. Boringly, U2 is all I can muster.

It should also be noted that tonight probably wasn’t even their best Irish show ever. Opening with the chugging insistence of ‘Ready To Start’, they were greeted by a white noise of welcome but still had to get us out of bed, as it were. ‘Stand the fuck up!” barked Win Butler to the seated tiers before ‘Month of May’’s staccato drone tore off in their direction. This show was happening, even if the crowd had to be prodded once or twice. ‘Neighborhood #2 (Laika)’ sees another plea to stand and be counted, but the malaise is then well and truly bludgeoned by ‘No Cars Go’. Salutes and a ‘HEY!’ chant that could split the ice outside give it the semblance of a fascist political rally. Arcade Fire’s aural Red Bull has found the bloodstream.

The audience are as proud of muscular new LP The Suburbs as the band are, swishing along to the title track and its hushed Thomas Newman-style outro, but the bar did get a little busier during ‘Modern Man’. It’s like watching two old friends catch up. “We know it’s hard times… politicians are fucking you over,” sighs Butler, unselfconsciously, at one point. The building roars in agreement.

The octet are finished with foreplay though, and with the encore in sight, they decide it’s time to slip it in. Butler wonders aloud which of their O2 performances will be the best, and that in their experience it’s usually the second. The O2 jeers in response. ‘Well then show us what you’ve fucking got. 1, 2, 3,…’ he snarls before ‘Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)’ is detonated.

Watching the group stroll away, the audience realises they have limited time left with their old friends. When they return to more white noise for a final brace of songs, everybody – everybody – wants to make up for initial lethargy. ‘Wake Up’ unites each last living voice in the former Point Depot. The chorus is overwhelming, like a winning try against England in Croke Park. We file out into the cold along with 13,000 or so others, our buttons firmly pushed. Now I get it.