IMELDA MAY AT THE COLSTON HALL

Bristol’s Colston Hall is a tale of two centuries. Firstly, there is the modern lobby and adjoined café where cubed seats and glass tables cling to the walls like a forgotten game of dice. In a masterstroke of artistic modernity there weren’t enough cubes for the restless latecomers who had no choice but to loiter and form orderly queues just for the hell of it. On the ground floor a jazz singer battled against the wash of sound checks and arithmetic that filtered through the walls of the auditorium – ‘one-two one-two…rubber duck…’  Sympathetic clapping grew more lacklustre as it spiralled up each level. On the top floor, as if dragged by the tide of a Mexican wave, we gently applauded what we hadn’t heard.

In contrast to its modern foyer, the entrance to the Colston Hall arena is like stepping through a time warp. The worn wooden seats had stories to tell and the panelled balconies glistened with thick gloss; layers peeled in places to reveal a more colourful past. The assembling audience was a charismatic array of period pieces and slick-backs. I hadn’t seen so many casualties of leopard print and Brill cream since the local feminist alliance boycotted Teddy Boy Tuesday at the Pontypool Workingman’s Club.

The supporting act was rock’n’roll home-boy  The Real John Lewis, “No toasters, here!”.  Either Gremlins had been let loose on the soundboard or the sound guy needed a good dapping. Regardless,  Johnny Bach didn’t skip a beat; always at ease and engaging the crowd  between pacey numbers, coupled with irreverent bursts of down-to-earth character from ‘across the bridge’. In our beloved Wenglish mother-tongue, Johnny Bach modestly announced that there were, “see-deez for sale in the foya” (sic), before dropping in a John Lewis iPad gag, and then bursting into a playful medley.  As momentum reached full pace the thick sea of slick-backs and throw-backs rocked and applauded. The Real John Lewis acknowledged the hall after the final song -and with a bow, exited stage-right. Live is where the rockabilly heart is!

At around 9pm Imelda May graced the stage. She looked like the femme fatal that film noir had forgot, sporting her trademark blonde curl, an Elvis printed dress and red high-heels. Her powerful voice punched the air as if celebrating liberation; between songs, snappy wit and lush Dublin tones passed sweetly through her cherry red lips. The set featured most of the tracks from the ‘Mayhem’ album, a few songs from ‘Love Tattoo’ and some rockabilly covers. ‘Kentish Town Waltz’ induced gentle sways while ‘Johnny Got A Boom Boom’ and ‘Big Bad Handsome Man’ had us stomping the Colston floorboards for all they were worth.

The ninety minutes of high octane rockabilly blues and sensual soul flew by like a bullet train. For the encore Imelda effortlessly belted out an Elvis Presley number followed by a rockabilly version of Tainted Love which was simply sublime. The biggest ovation of the night came during the band introductions when someone from the back row shouted, ‘what about Imelda May?’  You can add modesty to the growing list of May’s endearments.

To tell the truth, if anybody had asked me what I thought of Imelda May prior to the release of ‘Love Tattoo’ I would have claimed to know little about virulent strains of tree disease. I’m not generally interested 1950’s rockabilly music but May’s contemporary touch has transformed the rockabilly sound into something more modern and accessible – while retaining the roots and echoes of yesteryear’s pressed vinyl.

Over the years Imelda May has stuck firmly to her guns in terms of musical direction by refusing to bow to the expectations of record labels eager to groom, mould and market her into a different product; I respect her for doing so. The fact that this endearing Dubliner was not featured among any of the Simon Cowell’s cash-converters at the recent Brit Awards is the most telling evidence yet that the British music industry is robbing us all blind.

RAMMSTEIN ROCKEN! RAMMSTEIN BRENNT! – SONISPHERE 2010

Rammstein sure know how to make a grand entrance! A German flag covering the entire stage drops to ground revealing the band, fronted by the surly looking Till Linderman – resembling a more carnivorous and satanic looking Frank-N-Furter; wearing a red leather apron, a hair net, and a red feather scarf. The inside of his mouth is glowing with a bright white light. He looks unnerving as he opens his mouth wide.

The anthemic ‘Rammleid’ pummels the crowd into frenzy during which the demonic Linderman chants ‘Rammstein!’  The combination of his resonant growls and the overpowering thrashes of guitar during ‘B******’ left me in awe – as if an invasion force had cornered me inside a phone box and violated me with a hand grenade. Not being able to understand the lyrics made the songs seem even more sinister.

Even without the hair net and other apparel Till Linderman looks like a hit-man employed by Hell to take out Death for being too soft on facists. The unsettling gaze in his eyes is that of a performer who is clearly at home with unhinged; the Dark Knights’ darkest nightmare.

Linderman’s baritone bombardment sends shock-waves across the field whilst he beats his fist (the ‘Till-Hammer’) furiously onto his thigh.  In Rammstein tradition fire and flames engulfed the stage.  During ‘Feuer Frei!’ Till and his ‘axe-men of the apocalypse’ breathe flames from their mouths.  For ‘Benzine’ Linderman sets a ‘staged invader’ on fire with a flamethrower.  More pyros and flames whip the crowd into frenzy as Rammstein powers through favourites such as ‘Links234’, ‘Sonne’ and ‘Pussy’ – where Till straddles a giant penis that ejaculates foam into the audience.

During ‘Liebe ist für alle da’ Linderman drops keyboardist Flake into a steel tub, filling it with molten ash poured from an elevated platform.  Flake is resurrected wearing an all-in-one LED suit – homage to fellow German music pioneers Kraftwerk maybe?. He plays the keyboards for the rest of the show while rhythmically marching on a treadmill. 

A definite highlight of the show was during ‘Fish’ where Flake sails the crowd in an inflatable dinghy. Along the way he collects a military hat and a Union Jack.  A stowaway from the crowd jumps on board before being ejected by security.  During Flake’s sailing Till Linderman stands at the back of the stage with one and behind his back; stern and statuesque.

The performance was much for the senses to take in at times, with the imposing Linderman and his dark minions conjuring up a furious wall of sound, while Hell, fire and flames danced around them. In an ironic twist, the Rammstein machine drove 50,000 dumbfounded Brits to chant along in their mother tongue during a weekend that was supposed to celebrate Brit legends Iron Maiden’s homecoming.

This was an earth-shattering display of German engineering; surreal, unsettling, and sensational. The only time Linderman addressed the crowd was to say ‘thank you’ at the end. With his assertive tones it sounded more like a threat. Rammstein rocked! Rammstein burned!

SONISPHERE: A FUCKING ROCK FESTIVAL!

Already an established traveling circus in Europe, Sonisphere has elevated itself to one of the premiere summer rock festivals in the UK; threatening to surpass better established venues like Download in sheer vision and scale. Not bad for a festival still in its infancy.

The Sonisphere arena consisted of two stages positioned either side of a field barricaded-in by food stalls. Among the varied clothing and camping stalls was a shisha smoking den, a tea room, a coffee and cake shop (no, not ‘that’ type of coffee and cake shop) and an oxygen bar.

If nothing on the main stages sounded appealing there were other acts to be found hiding in the many sponsored tents that were scattered around, including comedians and performance artist. I’m sure I saw flaming horses at some point.

From Placebo to Pendulum there was something to suit every taste, and then some.   Europe fanboys basked in washed-up nostalgia, while Turisas and Apocalyptica brought a cultural flavour to the weekend.  The music came thick and fast at either end, sometimes feeling like a relay race.

Such was the astounding volume of acts and performers that it was simply impossible to have crammed them all in.  Among my notable highlights were Terrovision who reminded me of why I liked them so much in the 90’s – and had me asking myself why I had forgot them in the noughties – and 60daysofstatc, who sounded as if they had traveled from another place in space and time.

I suspect Gary Newman and Alice Cooper of being the same person; dentures with differing hair pieces. Both were on good form for their collective ages. Irish metal-heads Therapy? persevered in front of a supportive crowd, enduring two power-cuts during the opening song ‘Knives’. It is an injustice that Therapy? weren’t given one of the main stages because they could have filled the Bohemia tent over ten times its capacity.

Rammstein sounded like a savage invasion, enticing fifty thousand Brits to chanting in their mother-tongue.  It was a spectacle that nearly overshadowed the mighty Iron Maiden on their homecoming. Nearly! Old skool guitar licks came thick and fast as the legendary Maiden demonstrated what a good old fashioned rock show is, was, and always will be as long as they carry the baton.

It was strange to be heading home and seeing ‘normal’ people dressed in multi-colored fabrics not made of leather and denim.  Part of me didn’t want to re-adjust to what normality was after the euphoria of Sonisphere.  But there’s always next year…?  I would definitely encourage friends, rockers, and metal-heads to carve Sonisphere in their calendars for next year.

MUSE: THE RESISTANCE

There are claims that the Punk movement killed off Progressive Rock in the early 80’s, and that Country Life Butter really is the best. I’m more of an Anchor man myself, but I do believe that Punk forced a much needed re-invention of the Progressive Rock genre. There is clear evidence that the layered textures and rampant creativity of progressive rock continues to shine on; its coat of many chord changes encumbered in a more indie driven sound.
 
Waving the flag for Progressive Rock in 2009 is Muse with ‘The Resistance’. Muse have always shown the middle finger to the mainstream music industry by releasing what the hell they want, and this album shows no restraint in terms of their lust for experimentation. ‘The Resistance’ is rich in harmony, with melodies far more rewarding than anything the vapid X-Factor production line is serving up. This is music for listeners.
 
It’s difficult to rate this album against what Muse have released in the past because it is clearly intended to follow in a different direction; adopting a more piano driven electro-pop sound. With its musical diversity and varying pace, it takes a few listens for ‘The Resistance’ to sink in – but doesn’t any music with substance require the same? The conceptual soundscapes of the music will no doubt come across as pompous, bizarre and self indulgent, just as Queen were labelled back in their early day.  Good on Muse, I say!
 
Modern music has a habit of reproducing its closest rivals. In a masterstroke, Muse have borrowed from a diverse list of artists while managing to maintain their firm, melodic and textured stamp in the process. There is not a track on this album that I would want to skip through, and that is extremely rare for me.
 
I will not attempt to breakdown each individual track but I will mention that the final trilogy called ‘Exogenesis‘ is the instigation of a science fiction soundtrack if ever I heard one, complete with classical strings and piano pieces. With references to George Orwell, thought police, and its romantic rebellious overtones, the lyrical content of ‘The Resistance’ once again stamps the creative complexity of this band.
 
‘The Resistance’ is a refreshing alternative to the same old offerings being dished out by the cheap, accessible, blood clotting, greasy spoons of the industry. Contained in this classic recipe is a wisp of Led Zeppelin, some lashings of Queen, a synth-teasing taster of Depeche Mode, and subtle blends of The Stranglers, The Beatles, Goldfrapp, Brian Eno, Ultravox and U2. Add an accompaniment of classical piano overtones, lyrically intertwined with literature, and what one is presented with is a bold, sonic cuisine, executed with great panache. This isn’t any old Vindaloo; this is a feast fit for a Crimson King.

BACK TO THERAPY?

Therapy? were my instrument of torture for family and Brit Pop loving friends during my teens; my rebellious musical equivalent of the Sex Pistols. This Irish punk influenced band was responsible for tuning my ears into the energy, power, and aggression of metal.

It seems fitting to now reminisce about the first time I saw them live because it was my first proper, stripped-down gig. That night in November 30th, 1994, at the Cardiff Astoria is an experience that has always been fondly etched in my mind; a time when the decibel police didn’t exist to protect anyone from happily going deaf, and the bars would serve watered-down piss to any acne with a fake ID.

I was armed with 30 quid, 20 Marlboro, and the obligatory Zippo. Out of the 30 quid I had managed to hose myself down with eight pints of cider and black. I can still remember the gig and the state I left in; puking in a flower bed, proposing marriage, and passing out.

Therapy? blasted on to the stage, performing ‘Isolation’ as the opening number, relentlessly stampeding through ‘Potato Junkie’, ‘Stop It You’re Killing Me’, ‘Accelerator’, and ‘Nowhere’. Fyfe Ewing was still drumming for the band;. I really got off on his drumming, concentrating on him more than Andy and Michael.

I had found a strategic vantage point in order to get the best view  – the upstairs bar overlooking the stage. I will never forget being sat in the company of two female friends during ‘Femtex’. I raised my pint to Andy Cairns and nodded to him. In acknowledgment he looked me straight in the eye, gave his wicked grin, winked, and nodded back before singing the lines, “Do you want a fuck, do you want a friend…?” Those were the good old days!

After Donington and Reading in ’94/95, it would be 15 years before I would see Therapy? Again – at TJ’s Rock Club in Newport on the 16th October, 2009 with its stone and rustic interior resembling Santa’s Grotto after being gate crashed by rowdy Klingons.

The tables rock – not in a good way – and the chairs are all retired bar-brawl veterans. The bar taps were part of the décor. In defiance of the Rock Gods there is no Newcastle Brown Ale, only cheap cans of Fosters and Carling.

The main stage, or balcony, is small enough to make the Spinal Tap ‘Stone  Henge’ look impressive. It was a fitting venue for a heavy metal gig. Most of the crowd in attendance – married couples who sat on bar stools – were in their late teens during the 90’s; it was a sea of greying, receding hairlines with sensible haircuts, facial hair; grown-ups with jobs and mortgages. This was a mature, dedicated fan base that out-grew the need to look cool and trendy at the turn of the century (or was that just me?).

I wasn’t expecting anything special from tonight’s event; a few recognisable songs slung in among the newer material for nostalgia. I had become skeptical of Therapy? All the new stuff seemed pale in comparison to the earlier albums – ‘Babyteeth’, ‘Nurse’, ‘Pleasure Death’ and ‘Troublegum’ – listened to as they were through younger, less expectant ears. For me, the bands decline had coincided with the departure of Fyfe Ewing who always added an extra groove to the Andy Cairns/Mike McKeegan freight train. I was, however, about to be force-fed a molten slice of metal pie, served with a firm reminder of why Therapy? were my metal messiahs during my teens.

Therapy? took to the stage quite late. A displeased member of the crowd lobbed his pint at Andy, calling him a mother-fucking ‘female’s front bottom’. Welcomes to Newport, brah! Unabated they kick-started the proceedings with the classic ‘Opal Mantra’, steamrolling through ‘Turn’ and ‘Isolation’, stopping briefly to announce the next song; dedicated to Spike Milligan entitled ‘I Told You I Was Ill’.

I’d forgotten what good craftsmen Andy and Michael were. Andy can still deliver the vocal goods too, his voice sounding more mature, less strained and gruff. The drummer wasn’t too shabby either. His style seemed more rigid and less showy than his predecessor. This showed through on songs like ‘Isolation’ where (remembering 1994) Fyfe’s free-flowing style brought the song to life. Still, it wasn’t enough to stop me losing myself like a deranged idiot.

Two new songs – ‘Blacken The Page’, and ‘Enjoy The Struggle’ – from the ‘Crooked Timber’ album followed. Orbiting around us during the first few numbers was a freaky looking college couple that seemed determined to tongue the last breath out of each other while taking selfie photos at odd angles (I was a virgin, once).

During a belting version of ‘Teethgrinder’ some tanked-up idiots broke on to the stage in an attempt to stage-dive (have you ever tried to stage-dive in a wardrobe?). Andy Cairns ended up on his back and his guitar stopped working. The rest of the band carried on un-phased, waiting for Andy to rise to his feet. While waiting for the techies to get his guitar grinding again he serenaded the crowd with a chorus of “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna turn around or desert you…” Then, with his axe back in business, they ploughed on. “If you’re gonna come on to the stage, at least have the decency to feel my balls before you jump off!” adds Mc Keegan.

After ‘Teethgrinder’ and a surprise performance of the accompanying B-side – ‘Summer of Hate – Andy thanked everyone for turning up and supporting the band during difficult times; by the look on his face he was clearly being sincere. This is where I swallowed my metal pie, before certifiably rocking to ‘Innocent-X’.

A few post Infernal Love numbers followed, most noticeably ‘Live Like A Fucker, Die Like A Mother-Fucker’ – dedicated to Gordon Brown & Co. My deranged dance moves continued into the next two old-school memories ‘Fantasy Bag’ from ‘Pleasure Death’ and ‘Nausea’ from the ‘Born in a Crash’ EP. ‘Stories’, ‘Diane’, ‘Die laughing’, ‘Nowhere’, ‘Potato Junkie’, and ‘Screamager’, relentlessly pounded the adoring crowd. Fuck, this is what feeling young again is!

Over the next few days I would dig out my old albums and bootlegs and make up for what I had missed all these years. They don’t make bands like this anymore and I doubt – for me – they ever will. I’m older, more cynical and less inspired.

For years I have been going to concerts with blinding light shows designed to compensate for the fact that the performers are merely matchsticks in the distance. But gigs like Therapy? at TJ’s are as raw and stripped down as they come; up close and personal.

Commercial obscurity has not dampened Therapy?’s passion and enthusiasm. At TJ’s in Newport, these old-school Irish metal-heads reminded everyone of what they do best: they blew the mother-fucking doors off Newport!