Tuesday, May 23, 2006

great escape day two!

Oh, I'm overdue on my Great Escape updates, aren't i? This isn't because I'm destroyed by a weekend of relentless gig-going, it's just that I'm currently in Edinburgh - my second favourite place in the UK - attending a conference, so am a bit behind with my blogging duties. Day two, then.

For which Vic, master-planner extraordinaire, must get all the credit, having decided quite sensibly to take control of the schedule and boss us into being organised. Her plan worked a treat. We started at 6.30 at the Spiegel Tent, where we were promised 'spiky girl/boy rock and roll from Australia' in the shape of The Audreys. Question one, then, posed from on-stage. "Erm, so did anyone come here expecting a spiky rock band?". The Audreys' biography, it turned out, had been written "by someone on drugs", hence the mislabelling.

As it happened, the Audreys were instead a highly accomplished and musicianly acoustic pop band, dabbling in folk, country and other gentle musings of a romantic nature. Consisting of drums, double bass, violin and understated guitar, as well as joyful vocals, they were very skilful and doubtless very good. But y'know, not my kind of thing, if you get my meaning - although I'm still feeling emotional about the death of Grant McLennan so it's probably the right time for a wistful Australian pop group to try me out. And they were incredibly Australian, as both Vic and myself noted; the singer, particularly, with her lilting accent and perma-smile, looked constantly delighted to be performing for us. She doesn't understand that we like our pop stars melancholy over here. Good stuff, generally, though, and a nice, easy introduction to the evening and a convenient way to begin to emerge, blinking, from my hangover. Their myspace page is here.

The next step was to run across town to the Komedia, where we met up with Anne-Sophie and Sam, for Mistys Big Adventure. Now, in order to explain the tremendously restorative nature of seeing this band, I probably need to explain that by the time we had dashed up there, my meagre half-pint of beer sloshing round my stomach and my hangover still pounding at my temples, I had promised Victoria that I would never drink again and expressed sincere doubts about my ability to get through the night. One glass of water later, and two songs by Misty's, I was grinning like an idiot, shuffling my feet merrily and laughing with delight at the band's brilliantly inventive, irreverant shtick. It was Pete Ashton who turned me on to Mistys, but it took me seeing them live - as it did him - for it all to click for me. They're stupendous; Grandmaster Gareth deadpan centre stage, his long hair tufting out from beneath a black hat, scowling and ranting, while all around him merry chaos explodes - a rhythm section so spot-on and tight they might as well be Blockheads, a guitarist playing lovely, odd trebly riffs, two gorgeous girls on saxophone and trumpet respectively, and, well, a character - the Erotic Volvo, no less - dressed in an enormous red suit with about fifty blown-up blue gloves stitched all over it. Dancing. Punching the air. Parading through the audience. It's like seeing Eamon from British Sea Power crossed with Barney the dinosaur. And just as much fun.

But Mistys, despite the air of cartoonish chaos, are no novelty act - like Dury and his Blockheads, who is the most obvious reference point, Gareth is a genuinely intelligent and original songwriter, and his lyrics, indeed his whole act, is genuinely subversive, whether he's embarking on anti-Dubya rants, singing acapella about 'peodophile priests', or in the magnificent set closer, which sees him narrating the story of a pop group. "Hang on a minute guys", he announces, mid song, before telling the rest of his band, "I've got a great idea. I'm going to go down to the record shop and buy a load of post-punk records. And then we can listen to them, and rip them off. And make a ton of money". It's chastening watching someone like Gareth, for whom (I suspect) fashion and money mean nothing in comparison with originality and integrity, because he exposes the dearth of ambition and purpose in so many others. He is relentlessly focused and his satire is razor sharp. His songs, meanwhile, are joyful, beautiful and hugely enjoyable. A massive plus. Myspace here.

Feeling hugely invigorated we dashed out into the rain and over to the Ocean Rooms, where we found, well, a long queue for the Young Knives, meaning that we missed the next band on our list (Ladyfuzz) but did get in in time to see the sophisticated and well-executed indie rock of Battle, who are a young band clearly on the brink of a break-through. Their sensitive, impassioned rock is nothing new - equal parts Cure and New Order with lashings of emo-style indie, but they inspire a mini-bout of hero worship from sections of the crowd. They're at their best by far when they abandon the heavy guitars and play with unusual rhythms and keyboard washes, although the flipside to that is that when they do, their influences are most clearly exposed. But they are powerful, intense and bright, and doubtless some people's idea of a very good thing indeed, although not really mine. Worth keeping an eye on though. Give 'em a try here, via myspace.

Which brings us to the night's headline band and - frankly - the reason I snatched up tickets for the Great Escape the second the line-up was announced. The Young Knives have been my favourite new band for ages but I've never managed to see them live before, although I know most of their set-list off by heart - this despite the fact that they've only managed a couple of singles with decent distribution, and somehow (so far) failed to capitalise on the popularity of bands like the Futureheads. The reasons for this, it is soon apparent, are both complex and easy to understand.

Firstly, the energy thing. When you see the Futureheads, or Maximo Park, for that matter, both get their kick from the enormous amount of energy they put into their show. That energy has done much to invigorate indie rock in the last year or two (and has done a lot to inspire, I suspect, the likes of the previously-flat-live Franz Ferdinand to raise their game in recent months). And their skill is channeling that energy so skilfully, using it to add texture to their songs without losing control of them. Yet with the 'Knives, the energy is the song, and losing control is part of the attraction, allowing that demented energy of theirs to run free. Considering the complicated, varied nature of the Futureheads' material, it's remarkable that their songs are so beautifully rendered in a live setting. Conversely, it's amazing that the Young Knives manage to make studio records as energetic as they do, because it's in the savage energy of their live set that the songs clearly belong. They are an absolute riot in the flesh, in other words.

And they're extremely loveable, too. Although you could probably excuse the Young Knives of having listened to a post-punk record or two, Grandmaster Gareth, you'd be mad not to appreciate that they are ploughing their own furrow. It's obvious from the moment they walk on stage, looking less like pop stars and more like middle-managers in a county town bank. The singer is wearing braces, for christ's sake. And while the songs obviously owe a lot to Adam Ant and XTC, amongst other influences, they are so peculiarly singular and brilliantly inventive. And it's frightening how many songs sound like hits, from the show-stopping 'Decision' through 'Coastguard' and 'Weekdays and Bleakdays', with it's marvellously delirious 'hot summer, hot hot summer' refrain, round to the awesome take on 'Rumour Mill' which closes the set. New single, 'She's Attracted To', features Henry boastinghng, adding ferocity each time he repeats it, that while 'you were screaming at your mother, I was punching your dad'. The song eventually erupts in a rare flash of guitar pyrotechnics from Henry. "Oh, I could do that all day", he said afterwards, before jerking his thumb at the House of Lords (his brother and the Knives' bassist). "He doesn't like it". The House wrinkled his nose up and shook his head, distastefully. "It's a bit show-offy", he agreed.

The interplay between the two is one of the best things about the Knives live, actually, whether it's Henry calling House "fatty" after the second song, or the delightful moment when he introduced a song as 'this is another one for the House to sing'. The crowd cheered wildly, bringing an immediate response of "Fuck off!" from the singer, outraged that we'd rather hear his brother sing than him (nonsense, of course). "Is anyone sticking around afterwards?", Henry asked, after one song. "Cos I am. And I'm gonna drink you fuckers under the table".

But the best thing about the Knives is the songs, the songs. I've not seen a set from a new band so full of killer melodies, humour, eccentric imagination or downright punk rock energy in, oh, ages. They've already made the best two singles of the last year, and are presumably fashioning the best album of 2006 as we speak. Who would bet against their being the best live act of the year, too? Not me, mate. Their myspace page is here.

Postscript: the photos. I've decided I'd like to learn how to take good gig photos, as literally all the ones I've taken with my new camera are in some way out of focus. I'd given up by the times the YKs came on. But since Friday, where I finally proved myself incapable of taking decent shots, I've finally read the manual and worked out, I think, where I'm going wrong. All in setting the camera up the right way, I hope. So I'm posting this as a reference point so that I can look back in a month or two and see how far I've come. Go and follow the link to Pete Ashton's blog above, if you wanna see how it should be done!

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