Wednesday, October 10, 2012

‘Crackling Vinyl presents Gulp, supported by Zervas & Pepper and Jessica’, at Telford’s Warehouse, Chester on 9th October 2012

A gig in Chester is admittedly not a very London city night, but work has sent me to Liverpool for a fortnight and I have to find culture when I can.  Starved of something to write about I put a call out on Facebook to see if anyone I knew was doing something in the area. Fortunately my good friend Meilir got back to me to let me know of this excellent night in scenic Chester.

Telford’s Warehouse in Chester is a lovely venue for music, and for pretty much anything else you could want to do in a pub.  It's nestled right up against the canal, and has large pieces of semi-industrial machinery dotted around it, with a great selection of beers and ales served by friendly bar staff.

Also, the food was absolutely delicious.  I wouldn’t normally comment on this in a gig review, but Telford’s Warehouse is one of the few places I’ve been that have truly managed to crack the mushroom burger.  The vast majority of mushroom burgers I’ve eaten have fallen victim to ‘sliding syndrome’.  The frictionless nature of a cooked Portobello mushroom plays havoc with a handheld burger.  A squeeze in the wrong place and suddenly the delicious contents have been ejected onto your plate, or worse, they spring forward and leave you with molten cheese burning a hole on your chin.  Either way, you’re left disconsolate, with an unattractive cheesy pile of mushroom and salad on your plate or in your lap, and an empty bun in your hand.  Somehow, Telford’s Warehouse has worked out a way to keep the whole thing together in one piece, and I think it’s got something to do with the type of salad, and the consistency of the bun.  My friend’s meat-based burgers looked pretty damn good too.

But I wasn’t there for burgers. I was there for music!  ‘Crackling Vinyl’organised by Adam Walton, Ben Hayes and Elin Bach, has been going for about a year now.  It’s pretty unashamedly muso-y, a night where the DJ is playing obscure and popular covers and there's a stall selling interesting looking vinyl in the back of the pub.  It’s a nice atmosphere, and fits the venue like a glove.  The stage area is a step down from the bar, and is so relaxed I ended up watching the entire show from a comfy sofa positioned just in front of the stage.  On one hand I think having big sofas just in front of the stage sends a message that there’s going to be no dancing around tomfoolery at this gig, and maybe that’s a bit of a shame.  On the other hand, I appreciated being able to sit down on a big cushion and see the entire stage.

Jessica Ball
First on was Jessica, who was substituted in at the last minute due to a cancellation.  I’ve seen a lot of talented ladies with acoustic guitars perched on stools singing beautifully lately, and sometimes I feel like I’m running out of new things to say about them.  These kinds of performances are difficult to either praise or criticise because it’s hard to decide what makes them worthwhile or not.  I half think that there must be some kind of musical absolute of perfection somewhere in this configuration, one day I’m going to see a woman/stool/acoustic guitar combo who’s so mindblowingly amazing that I leap out of my seat in violent paroxysms of weepy joy and emotion.  This wasn’t that.  But it was still pretty good.

With these performances you can forgive the occasional fumble on the guitar; performing alone and singing songs like this lends the artist a natural vulnerability and fragility that it’s hard not to be won over by.  This is underlined by her self-effacing manner between songs, when Jessica tells us that it’s nice to have an audience that’s actually listening to her rather than talking through her set you can sense her sincerity and feel a vicarious anger at those rude-as-hell philistines who just don’t appreciate music on the same level we do.

But it’s the sincerity that’s the real defining factor here, if we as an audience sense the songs she’s singing and the wistful way she plays the guitar are coming unfiltered from her heart then we’re on side and the performance is a success.  Jessica succeeds in this regard, but then there are a lot of women with acoustic guitars sitting on stools in pubs up and down the country who are also baring their souls to audiences and I don’t think she stands out enough from this crowd.  She’s obviously talented and it’s a pleasure watching her perform, but the music is almost too ephemeral. Once the performance is over there is very little that stays with you.

Zervas & Pepper
“Never trust a man who tucks his shirt into his jeans.”  It’s not exactly the noblest maxim around, but it’s an observation that’s held me in good stead for a long time.  So when Paul Zervas walks on stage, his metal belt buckle glistening in the stage lights, his bright red shirt tucked proudly into the waistband of his blue denim jeans I feel a shiver of concern.  This might be the most facile criticism of a musician I’ve ever made, but the sight activates some animalistic emotion deep in the reptile part of my brain.  It’s difficult to get over.  Perhaps this colours the rest of my impressions of their performance.  

Zervas & Pepper are both obviously musically talented, and Kathryn Pepper has a clear, honest voice.  It’s got the kind of purity of purpose that you really tend to only hear from mid 60s/early 70s records.  It’s difficult to explain, but the way Pepper sings is absolutely devoid of any layer of irony or pretension.  It doesn’t feel forced, and there’s no impression she’s faking this persona.  Their songs are unpretentious and folky, and a great fit for Pepper’s vocal talents, but they do begin to run into one another after a while, and there’s never a moment where you feel a ‘bite’ or urgency in their music,.  It’s unfortunate, but far and away their best song was a cover of a Father John Misty song, which was beautiful.  It’s dangerous to play a cover that’s in the same vein as your own material, as if it is a brilliant song (as this is), it tends to make your stuff pale in comparison a bit.  Still, if nothing else they’ve turned me onto an excellent solo artist who I wasn’t aware of.

But despite this I just can’t get over my instinctual shudders of horror at Zervas.  I honestly don’t know what came over me during their set, but his every movement began to annoy me.  The way he gurns ever so slightly with his eyes closed as he plays, the way when he sings he stares off meaningfully into the middle distance as if imagining something very deep and meaningful, even the slight wiggle of his shoulder that seems calculated to let us know he’s not  just playing the music; he is the music.  Between songs he tells us an anecdote of how he accidentally dropped ash from a ‘funny fag’ on a vinyl, or later about his impulse to throw a cat into the canal.  

This review is probably more a reflection on me than him, but he conjures up an instinctual repulsion that I just can’t help. It’s how I imagine a dog feels when it senses an oncoming earthquake; I knew something was very wrong, but I had no idea as to what.  I’m sure he’s a lovely guy socially, I’m sure he’s far more artistically satisfied than I’ll ever be and I feel guilty about laying into him like this, but as Roy Walker said “just say what you see”.  And that’s what I saw.

(left to right) Guto Pryce, Lindsey Leven, Jonny Gumbo and Gid Goudry
After two folky, acoustic performances I was ready for something more dynamic and a lot louder.  Thankfully Gulp were both of those things.  The band is the brainchild of Guto Pryce (bassist in the Super Furry Animals), and singer/songwriter Lindsey Leven, with Gid Goudry on guitar and Jonny Gumbo on drums (in his third ever gig for the band). ‘Gulp’ is very much in the aesthetic and musical tradition of the SFA, and mines a similar psychedelic semi-distorted upbeat seam as much of Gruff Rhys’ solo work. 

The songs are played with pre-recorded backing tracks, and at time it’s slightly distracting trying to work out which noise is coming from which part of the stage.  This is a performance where a lot of knobs get twisted on various devices, with the effect of creating a pretty lush sound.  Band members keep playing with boxes with lots of wires coming out them, or stomping on effects pedals like it's going out of style.  On most songs, there’s some kind of synthesiser throb deep in the background that gives a band who have retro trappings a sharp, up-to-date electro edge.  On paper all this sounds a bit chaotic, but it comes together pretty effortlessly.

Guto Pryce is the big name draw here, and I'm assuming he's the musical muscle of the band.  He stands playing bass on the side of the stage, occasionally turning around to queue up the next backing track on a laptop, and generally staying out of the spotlight.  It shows a refreshing lack of ego on his part and I figured the music does the talking well enough. Perhaps because there's very little ego or showboating from any of the band, Gulp work very well as an tight, musical ensemble.

Lindsey Leven is more than up to the task of lead vocalist, and manages to find the sweet spot between electro ice-queen, and psychedelic preacher.  She's the most energetic person up there, and the only one that seems to interacts with the other members of the band.   At various points she dances, drums and plays synthy little keyboard riffs and manages to pull it all off fairly well (with maybe a few slight wobbles on the keyboard).  There's a nice bit in one of the final songs of the set where she uncurls the mic lead from the stand and gets to cut loose a bit on stage.   One of my few criticisms of the show was that apart from this, the rest of the band was quite static, but then it's only when one person in the band suddenly has some freedom to move around that you notice the restriction.  

It seems happily inevitable with four excellent musicians working together like this that Gulp can only get better with time.  I hope that doesn't sound like criticism, because I thoroughly enjoyed pretty much everything about seeing Gulp last night, but while at the moment they are ‘merely’ great, but they've got it in them to be a stunning live band.

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