Thursday, 25 April 2013

My life in rock and roll

It's not – as you may have assumed – all work work work here at Uppal Towers. I've been dealing with the influx of nervous dissertation students by going to gigs and dancing like a madman. I've seen five acts in two days: it's like being young again, if I ignore the ringing in the ears and tortured knees.

The first gig was in the local flea-pit, The Slade Room, where I've previously seen luminaries like Julian Cope, the Primitives and, er, The Nightingales. On the £6 bill: There's Someone In The Pond, a band whose name I didn't catch, and Dingus Khan. In the audience: about 50 people, dwindling to 12 by the time Dingus gave in.

TSITP are new and fun: once you ignore the matching red shirts declaring a White Stripes/Franz Ferdinand/Kraftwerk affiliation, you get raucous, funny garage rock with occasional tinges of metal and blues. Big dollops of the Pixies, Throwing Muses and the B-52s. Songs about taxi drivers abound. Female singing drummer. A Philippa Collins, if you will. So: a good start.

Un-named local band were either amazing, or awful. It all depends on your point of view. If you like songs that sound like Ocean Colour Scene, played with astonishing technical proficiency by three young men who have done little other than comb through Britpop C-list B-sides and practice relentlessly, then they're amazing. If you like songs with something to say, unexpected chord changes, spontaneity, fun and a bit of edge, then they're awful. I fall into the latter camp: all that skill misused. Between that and the cheesy attempts at audience participation, they'll be doing covers at wedding receptions before the year is out.

And then we get to Dingus Khan. I genuinely cannot tell you whether they were brilliant or bollocks. There were 7 men on stage. 6 wore painters' overalls. One wore a dress. 3 of them were drummers, 2 of them bassists, one a guitarist, one played an electric mandolin. On stage with them: a inflatable swan and a 1990s fax machine. They looked – and behaved – like a student drama society pitching up at the Edinburgh festival, and they were having an enormously good time. Perhaps a better time than the audience, which rapidly dwindled until it was barely bigger than the band.

The problem was the relentless semi-musical assault, which the video above doesn't convey, though it is their best song. They sounded like a cassette bootleg of a Pavement gig, copied over and over and over and over again, plus added sound effects from a steelworks. There were words, but I have no idea what any of them were. No light and shade was the problem: 40 minutes of maximum volume, and every song (or whatever) at exactly the same speed. Exhilarating, but also massively self-indulgent. I'm afraid to say that I skipped the opportunity to have a drink with them afterwards, for fear of reacting violently to exuberant youth. I'm allergic to both 'wacky' and 'zany'.

So, on to last night. Off to the Glee Club in Birmingham, for another gig by one of my longstanding musical addictions, Low. On paper, a rock band comprising two Mormons (one a recovering drug addict) might not sound that enticing, but they are and always have been superb. They have two of the best voices in music, and their repetitive, hypnotic, slow-paced, ethereal, stately songs offer a profundity that most bands will never approach. Oh yes: another singing female drummer. More please!

I first saw Low a few weeks after being exiled to the West Midlands, having been a long-time devotee. In an upstairs room in a semi-derelict pub, so many people crammed in that sweat dripped from the ceiling. The only way to get a drink was to pass £5 through the crowd: 20 minutes later most of a pint would get back to you, the rest cooling the bald spots of your fellow gig-goers as it passed over their heads. The performance was equally intense, to the point of being transcendent.

The support act was a chap called Hebtronix. He lacked any stage presence entirely: I thought he was the roadie when he got up, after which it became clear that we were witnessing something between a therapy session and a much-needed cathartic breakdown. Armed only with a guitar and a sampler which he used to loop said guitar, he created claustrophobic, off-kilter tracks overlaid with the occasional self-hating lyric. Strange as it might be, I rather enjoyed it once I got over the initial pity and concern for the mental health of this special needs Frank Zappa.

But Low, Low were something else. Intense, committed and beautiful. Here are a few of their recent songs - they've been going for over 20 years, so I can't represent their many phases.

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