Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Review: Michael Gira, Simon Finn, Directing Hand at Tailor John's House, Sunday 21st October, 2007

Back to Taylor John's with Murray for the Michael Gira gig... The place, ridiculously under threat as a venue, tonight packed, an atmosphere of buzzing anticipation...

The openers: Directing Hand – a duo of Alex Neilsen on drums/vocals and Lavinia Blackwell vocals/ various plucked and keyed instruments. Scrubbing away at the harp to produce swirling glissandos, she launches a serpentine wordless vocal line, half folk, half more classical/operatic over spattering free jazz percussion. Switching to electronic keyboard – fizzing and buzzing with a reverbing memory of Suicide's gloriously cheapo scuzzy noise with a drone shard of Nico perhaps – more of the same vocal strategies. What makes it work – and there is a danger of going on too long - is the bending and stretching framework of the drums wrapping round the melodic movement. Ending on a stark acappella duet – some old murder ballad whose title I have forgotten – Neilsen's high voice giving a sinister, unearthly ambiance appropriate to the stark tale unfolding. Damn good – I've heard similar material down the years by more orthodox 'folk' performers that comes nowhere near the eery menace and feeling for the story they achieve here...

The second support – another pleasant surprise – Taylor John's obviously put some thought into the balance of the shows (or maybe the luck of the blessed, who knows?) - Simon Finn. (Here and here A rugged faced, long-haired survivor of the distant dream of the Sixties who moved to Canada in the seventies apparently, I had the odd feeling I had heard him back in London years ago. Given that the legacy of the Brit acoustic scene has been revisited much over recent years as the 'Freak Folk/Psych Folk' brigade pick up on antecedents like Bert Jansch, Davy Graham and co and extend the lineage in fascinating new ways (as did the previous act tonight) he proved to be a revelation. Backed by violin (Joolie Wood) and superb guitar work (Karl Blake) that acted as a backdrop of sonic washes and sympathetic amendments rather than conventional rhythm or lead, his old songs stand up well, far from being some corny tribute, and the new stuff is equally compelling. Finn plays with a hard-strumming tough sound and has a powerful, flexible voice, both used with passionate intensity. Darkish melancholy wrapped in a peculiarly English angst. Title of the night: 'The Rich Girl with no trousers.'

Gira is resplendent in a light suit, splendid hat and cool cowboy boots as he prepares for his set. When he is ready to start he has lost the jacket and titfer, showing workmanlike braces over a spotless white shirt. Sunday going-to-meeting clothes now adapted for sitting on the front porches of a soul-dark night. 'I'm as ready as I'll never be.' Playing amped up acoustic guitar, he opens on crushing discords and proceeds to deliver a set of extreme emotional power with aggressive nonchalance. Professional to the max in that American way, yet engaging the audience totally – almost brutally – his between-song patter spiked with a mordant humour that probes the Brit politeness of the audience – 'Why don't you guys have a war with Germany again to jack up the testostorone levels.' 'Can I say... cunt?' You wag Michael... The Swans are a ways back now but there are still echoes of their special brand of slowsmashing overwhelming darkness. Gira lets more light and air in these days with broader orchestrations and more acoustic backdrops - the 'Angels of Light' collaborations with the Akron Family – but this perhaps points up those movements through the dark places of the soul which are still operating in his work. And some fascinating positioning in the traditions of American music. On 'Promise of Water,' his sudden savage footstomps work as a device that echoes and channels John Lee Hooker's jukejoint rhythmic punctuations. Similarly, with his use of extended vamping figures, he reaches back to the devices of the country blues without being a pale imitation (pun intended). No blackface here – in fact, his rich dark baritone links to the country styles of Johnny Cash in a resonant and existential similarity although he's arguably a more flexible singer and swoops down into deeper cowboy angel transgressional territories than the Man in Black. Add a singular grasp of dynamics to the mix and you have an evening that takes in madness, booze and allied addictions, thwarted love and despair, decay and death - delivered with a subtlely throttled back emotion and a literate and knowing intelligence. Fun, really... And a suggestion for future encores – 'Smoke, smoke smoke that cigarette.' (You had to have been there...).

And a big shout to Taylor John's for another great gig – keep up the fight!

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