Wednesday 26 October 2016

Intense and Atmospheric - The Joe Gideon / Gemma Ray Experience

It is Tuesday night, and the second evening session of this year's Norwich Beer Festival is proving hard to resist. I have also ignored the chance to review a Sofar Sounds session elsewhere in the city featuring three 'mystery' artists. But no, I am back at Norwich Arts Centre to see an act that headlined a Jug Jaws Beat Club night at Bedfords' Crypt just five months ago.

Joe Gideon (previously of Bikini Atoll and Joe Gideon and The Shark) released his solo debut, Versa Vice, almost exactly a year ago. It was one of those albums that possibly needed several plays for the casual listener to really 'get', but I persisted and really grew to love its growling intensity. The chance to see him perform live was made even sweeter by his being joined on stage by Bad Seeds drummer Jim Sclavunos and a talented West Country multi-instrumentalist by the name of Gris-de-Lin.

Gideon is playing tonight in the first night of a double headline tour with Gemma Ray. Born in Essex, but now living in Berlin with partner, drummer and producer Andy Zammit, Ray is an artist that has remained criminally under my radar for far too long, especially with her previous albums all being acclaimed in reviews by the quality music magazines. The seventh, The Exodus Suite, recorded at the Candy Bomber Studios on the site of the former Templehof Airport in Berlin, was released earlier this year. It's title comes as a result of many of the airport buildings housing the recording studios now being used as temporary housing for up to 8000 Syrian refugees awaiting re-settlement elsewhere in Germany. The socio-political theme of the album's songs inevitably reflect the setting in which it was recorded.

Gemma Ray gets to play first, not to a huge audience, but certainly not to an empty auditorium either. For someone who has just released an album with such present-day problems central to its content, Ray's appearance, dark hair rolled up into a semi-beehive, and her instrument of choice, what looks like a vintage Hagstrom guitar (she has favoured Harmony Rockets on previous albums), is perhaps initially viewed as something of a paradox.

Certainly the music press have been tricked into making the inevitable comparisons with the likes of retro-inspired artists like Amy Winehouse, and the originals like Patsy Cline and even Franciose Hardy, and her guitar work can at times sound very cinematic, the tremolo reminiscent of soundtracks to David Lynch and Tarantino movies. But there is a contemporary edge to her music that almost defies definition. The closest comparison I could come up with is Anna Calvi, with a touch of Where The Wild Roses Grow era Kylie, although I have to also admit to hearing sweeter and lighter elements, including Dido and Helen Shapiro. Zammit's drumming, and occasional keyboards, again reminds of Anna Calvi's live shows. Classy and charismatic. Mind you, I've never seen Calvi attempt to play blues slide using what looks like a kitchen knife, or send her vocals through a stuttering stop-start effect pedal. Ray is certainly capable of showmanship as well as exquisite playing and atmospheric vocals. Stand out tracks for me both came from The Exodus Suite - The Switch and the haunting There Must Be More Than This. 

Perhaps it was the unexpected revelation of the first act, perhaps it was the sometimes inevitable result of over-anticipation from a previous gig, or perhaps it was just one of those nights, but I'm afraid Joe Gideon failed to ignite my fire in the same way that he did that night in the vaulted crypt of Bedfords. The set list, from what I can remember, was pretty much the same. Jim Sclavunos was bashing the drums with the same complex intensity as before, and Gris-de-Lin was playing keyboards, guitar and saxophone with the same involvement and versatility that impressed me last time around.

Perhaps Gideon responded better in the tight confines of Bedfords, especially as on that night he had to compete with a noisy element of drinkers at the bar who appeared to like the sound of their own voices more than that of those on stage. Sometimes that level of competition raises the bar of a performance accordingly, and adds to the intensity of the audience experience. The modest, but enthusiastic, crowd at the Arts Centre tonight may not have quite outnumbered those at Bedfords, but in a larger auditorium and with the band spread over a larger stage, some of the intimacy and the passion seemed to be lost. However the tracks from Versa Vice, including the powerful deliveries on Eugene Went Crazy and Heart Attack Girl, and the haunting cover of Porter Waggoner's Rubber Room, should have done enough to impress the first-timers.

Just a shame that we didn't get more of a two way vibe going on. Perhaps then we might have been treated to a reprise of that duet performance of Leather and Lace between Gideon and Ray at last year's Barbican tribute concert to Lee Hazelwood. Oh well. Perhaps next time.

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Everything Except The Magic Suede Numbers - Ben Watt, Bernard Butler and Michele Stodart

There are lots of reasons why I love Norwich Arts Centre - its iconic status and history, it's award-winning reputation (2014 NME UK Best Small Venue), its beautiful medieval auditorium (the de-consecrated church of St Swithin dates back to the 15th century) and, of course its variety of shows, from cutting edge new music to traditional folk, from performance art to comedy. It provides people like me with the chance to see favourite artists perform in a small and friendly small and friendly environment, but also test the water with acts that are new to me, or that might have passed me by on the first time around.

Tonight was a good example of the latter. I was never the biggest fan of 80's sophisti-pop duo Everything But The Girl. As my late father in law was fond of telling us, the word 'sophisticated' is derived from 'sophistry', which is the use of false premise with an intent to deceive. Not that Ben Watt and Tracy Thorn ever set out to deceive us. They wrote damn fine songs, and presented them in a manner that was extremely popular at the time. It is just that, whilst everyone else was enjoying albums like Eden and Love Not Money, I was being swept along on a tide of Britpop by bands like Blur and Oasis.

Tonight's show at Norwich Arts Centre featured not only Ben Watt, touring to promote his third solo album Fever Dream, but he was playing alongside Bernard Butler. Butler was guitarist with Suede until 1994, later became one half of successful duo McAlmont and Butler, and has since worked with some of my favourite bands and singers, including Summer Camp, Howling Bells, Neneh Cherry and Nerina Pallot. Several critics have hailed him as the most influential guitarist of his generation.

But first on stage, and this is why I always make sure that I arrive early at a venue, was Michele Stodart, known to many as bass player and one quarter of The Magic Numbers, a band who had a top 10 album with their eponymous debut in 2005, have since recorded another three albums, and are still touring. In fact, they have just finished a tour of South America, and Michele has literally travelled from Argentina to be with us in Norwich tonight. Talk about dedication to the craft. Some artists still complain about how long it takes to drive up the A11 from London.

Playing a set that starts with Once In A While and concludes with Will You Wait (both from her new album Pieces) but laced also with tracks from the earlier Wide-Eyed Crossing, Stodart has us entranced from start to finish. Playing alongside on guitar and occasional glockenspiel is Matt Skipper, but it is Stodart's voice and material that is such a revelation. Stepping out from her usual role of bass player and accompanying vocalist we find a voice that comfortably embraces elements of blues, country and even folk. Think Emmylou and Joplin blended together into one elegant emulsion with personal and heartfelt songs about relationships and life, and you begin to get the idea.

Ben Watt looks casual and relaxed in a denin-style jacket and matching blue cap as he opens his set with Running With The Front Runners, a track from the new album. Only then does Bernard Butler join him on stage and they together launch into the title track from 2014's Hendra. The band is made up of bearded Australian double bass player Rex Horan and a Japanese drummer (whose name I didn't catch although it sounded a bit like a type of motorcycle) standing in (and doing a fine job) for regular sticks man off the album recording, Martin Ditcham. (NB Thanks to String Bean Jen, who Tweeted to tell me his name - it is Mako Sakamoto)

Most of the setlist is, in fact, drawn largely from the last two albums with Butler giving us open and honest glimpses into the inspiration behind each song. He does, though, dip right back to the early days to perform Some Things Don't Matter, a song that originally appeared on Pillows and Prayers, a 1982 compilation album from Cherry Red Records, a Christmas release famous at the time for its 99p price tag. It later appeared on Watt's solo debut North Marine Drive, which was released the following year.

A couple of Everything But The Girl tracks are included, the choice of which is limited, Watt explains, by virtue of the fact that Tracy Thorn took lead vocals on the vast majority. However he picks two tracks from 1994's Amplified Heart album. The first, Rollercoaster, although originally performed by Thorn has deeply personal meaning to Watt, and his delivery is a poignant and sensitive highlight of the set. Later he performs 25th December, which he did originally sing.

The set ends with the title track off the new album, but Watt returns for a solo encore of North Marine Drive before the band returns for New Year of Grace and finally Forget.

It has been a memorable evening, not just because of Ben Watt's performance and songs, but also for the chance to see and hear Bernard Butler. Where else, other than the Norwich Arts Centre, is it possible to stand less than six feet away from such a legendary guitarist in full flow. No barriers, no obstructive security getting in the way. Just a room full of music lovers hanging on every note of Butler's restrained but amazing guitar work, and enjoying Watt's singing and lyrics. And both artists perfectly at ease in our presence, a contrast of light and shade in their respective guitar styles, but complementing each other perfectly, and no trace of ego getting in the way.


And let's not forget Michele Stodart who, despite flying all the way back from Argentina, and performing a support set, has been diligently manning the merch stand all evening. What an absolute trooper.

Like I say, this evening had absolutely everything. Except the magic suede numbers.