Monday, October 27, 2014

October Spawned a Monster

There is so much good music being put on at the De La Warr Pavilion at the moment, I feel as though I spend more time in Bexhill’s Modernist temple of culture than I do in my own home. There is nothing wrong in that only, having been there three times in twelve days already this month, my state of genteel poverty presents me with a dilemma over the forthcoming Belle and Sebastian gig.

Not actually a gig, my sojourn at the De La Warr started a fortnight ago at an interview and book event with Public Image Limited’s John Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten of this Sex Pistols parish. Lydon was interviewed onstage by The Guardian’s Alex Petridis to promote his new ghosted autobiography, Anger is an Energy. When I say interviewed, Petridis only had to ask a few questions; getting John Lydon to talk has never been difficult. And he seems to know better these days that, when he is amongst friends, he doesn’t have to shock; having said that, he still gives good copy. He tells us that he believes in a society that looks after its weakest members; that Russell Brand is misguided and you must vote “for the least bad option”; that the best thing about Britain is its embracing of immigrants, like his Irish parents; and that punk had true gender equality. It would have been good to hear him play some music, but then I remembered that it was another interview with him, a long time ago, that caught my attention just as much as the Sex Pistols’ music. In a filmed piece with Janet Street-Porter for The London Weekend Show in November 1976, his expression of anger about the drudgery and low expectations society bestowed upon the young working class, resonated with my teenage self so much that – and I am not being hyperbolic here - it completely changed my outlook on life.

Three days later, and the De La Warr was hosting another Johnny. A few years after Lydon’s poetry had declared that there was “no future in England’s dreaming”, The Smiths gave us “the songs that saved your life” and, for many, their articulation of gauche awkwardness and personal desperation, was just as important and life-affirming as the Pistols. For all the pathos and bathos of Morrissey’s lyrics, what made The Smiths a great band was their cracking tunes. The architect of those, Johnny Marr, has spent most of the intervening years collaborating with others and being a general guitar for hire, but in the past 18 months he has released two solo albums. The title track from the most recent, Playland, is the impressive set-opener and then he does something unexpected: Panic is the second song in and, although I knew he would play Smiths songs, letting the audience know this early on settles things down – everybody goes on to enjoy themselves, most of all Marr, who is a virtuoso guitarist. When he takes off his jacket, very carefully folds it and places it on the drum riser, a friend remarks that it is a sure sign of a mature man. Upstarts from last year’s The Messenger album follows and then the set is made up mostly of songs from the new album, with a regular sprinkling of Smiths’ songs – Stop Me, Bigmouth Strikes Again (with lyrics archly changed from “Joan of Arc” to “Johnny Marr), There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – that are, inevitably, rapturously received. A version of Electronic’s Getting Away With It reminds me what an elegant song he penned with Barney Sumner and Neil Tennant, and the final encore, How Soon Is Now?, lets Marr show off that extraordinary guitar sound that used to frighten the life out of my oldest son when he was a baby.

If you can be fairly certain what you will get from Lydon and Marr, British Sea Power are a constant surprise. A long history of gigs in unlikely places, (only recently they played on a ferryboat to Brownsea Isand in Dorset), onstage bears and robots and diversions into instrumental film soundtracks all mark them out as one of the most innovative and idiosyncratic bands around. And last Friday night in Bexhill they presented Sea of Brass, a set of songs from their extensive 10-year repertoire rearranged for performance in collaboration with a full brass band. Touring the country with a variety of regional ensembles, London’s Redbridge Brass Band were present at the De La Warr. With the traditional BSP dressing of foliage, all 6 members of the band and the 28 members of the brass band, the stage was looking crammed; and if the visual senses had a lot to take in, the aural layers presented by the fullness of the sound were incredible. It was not unexpected to hear tender songs such as The Land Beyond, The Great Skua and Machineries of Joy working so well in this context but when the punk pounding of Atom features, and then a full ten-minute version of Lately, it is an absolute delight. I always enjoy British Sea Power when Phil Sumner’s trumpet and Abi Fry’s violin are high up in the mix and, with the guitars tempered for the occasion, they shine through and are beautifully complemented by the plaintive full brass. The whole thing is so bloody marvellous that it is hard to contain yourself: my brother-in-law, sitting next to me (the seats were in for this one), keeps throwing his arms up in the air in an almost involuntary spasm. They encore with Waving Flags, which is as amazing with brass as the version I saw them perform with the full London Bulgarian Choir at the Roundhouse in 2008.

At my age, it was a monster of a gig-going month and I was almost relieved my residency at the De La Warr had ended. But then talk of the Belle and Sebastian gig this Wednesday started, prompting me to ask myself the question: should I go and hear The Boy With The Arab Strap played live, or be a responsible parent and spend the money entertaining the kids during half-term?

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