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   Saturday, March 19, 2005  
You're winsome, you lose some...

An agreeably hectic round of gigs kicked off with Hem's headline show at the Bush Hall. "A bit too winsome for me," one woman - a most un-rock, respectable-looking Hem-ish 'type' of a certain age, mark you - was overheard to remark on the way out. And you kind of knew what she meant but you also knew that she was totally WRONG! Even with a pick-up violinist first-timer playing studiously off the page and a stand-in pianist depping for new dad Dan 'the man' Messe, this singular seven-piece remain effortlessly transporting.
Also overheard: "They didn't play the two best songs on Eveningland". Really? Not sure which ones he could of been thinking of; this blog sort of lost count after about the eighth Eveningland ace. Hem are slowly, gracefully carving out a kind of alternative American songbook. Surely some of these tunes have been around, in the air, for years you think but mostly no, they haven't. Listening to Carry me home for the first time, rr had to check the sleevenotes to establish this really was an original. And isn't Redwing a lesser-known Jimmy Webb number? Apparently not.
The enveloping balm, the sheer evenness of this music and Sally's cool vocal might not suit everyone - devotees of the gruff Manly Forearm School of Alt-C, for instance - but the quality tunesmithing is unavoidable. And it's actually rendered with surprising vigour from the players, rousing almost. Listening to the records, Hem might be the last band in the world you'd think of working up a sweat live but core pickers 'n' strummers Gary Maurer and Steve Curtis, even tho' seated throughout, definitely burned a few kilojoules. And as with previous Hem shows this blog has seen, Curtis's keening harmonies are stronger live, more pronounced and the music's all the better for it...

How many from that show were at the Astoria a few days later for Bright Eyes, this blog wondered surveying the sold-out throng. Certainly the hoodie count was way higher and the average age way lower even though mandolin & dobro solos were once again the order of the day. And in some cases actually rather better ones at that.
With the rollicking-to-prettily-ruminative indie country-folk of I'm wide awake, it's morning, Conor Oberst is another contributor to this notional Alternative American Songbook albeit with lyrics distinctly more singular and committed than those of Hem. But you certainly can enjoy both. Fans of Sally Ellyson's creamy purity might baulk at the boy Oberst's impassioned quaver but, hey, Emmylou's there to hold your hand some of the way. She (nor any substitute to speak of) wasn't on hand at the Astoria but it didn't stop the band turning in a fine, fine set.
From memory, all ten songs from the yes-it's-as-good-as-they-say-it-is IWAIM got an airing with a very crisp Train under water and the vividly eloquent anti-war-isms of Land locked blues particularly standing out. It's a testament to the strength and confidence of the newest material that the set included only one song from the varied riches of the half-million selling Lifted, or..; EP-only extras like True blue and When the president talks to God more than held their own. And best of all, Conor stuck mostly to water and didn't get wasted...

Some fine Andrew Kendall show pix here.. and the FT's Mr Rock, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney (go, Ludo!), confirms that yes indeed, you did miss out... you did also if you arrived at the show late. Holding the attention of someone else's crowd is never an easy thing to do but the modestly wonderful Rilo Kiley pretty much managed it throughout a goodly support slot set. Last seen struggling in similar circumstances eight or so months back on the Modest Mouse underbill they were here suffused with the relaxed confidence that hatful of great new songs and lots of friendly UK newsprint gives you [interview, The Independent].
Setting a new PB, reallyrather's loyalty to what is more or less this blog's mascot band meant a consecutive hat-trick of RK shows, the band having squeezed in a pair of headliners before they returned home. The Borderline was packed on Tuesday and what a joy to see Jenny, Blake, Pierre & Jason finally getting the love. More or less everything they touched paid off this evening with Blake's pre-show fastidiousness paying sound dividends, quite literally. Their's hasn't always been the easiest sound to pull off live but rr heard no complaints and the rictus grins of the late-comers lining the stairs (looking at you, Mr. Mark Ellen) told their own story.
As with Bright Eyes, RK stuck largely to their latest release, the dense-with-delights More adventurous: the ball was smacked out of the stadium time and again with plums like the country-soul superness of I never and fine new song Pull me in tighter, irresistable radio hit Portions for foxes and gorgeous love-tangle lament Does he love you? Climaxing with strings on record, the latter's live ending is Blake's sub-Van Halen buzzsaw guitar. Fantastico.
Jenny Lewis' lyrics are a huge part of this band's attraction and they're not always easy to catch live, particularly in the lower register. Hard for this blog to tell if it was a problem this night; knowing the songs so well, reallyrather 'heard' them all. And in a cosy venue like The Borderline it easy enough to read her lips. Aah, her lips, her fringe, her.. [adminsters slap to face]. No, no, its the music it really is, honest. The melodies, the songcraft, the modesty, the sexiness, the sharpness... what more does this blog ask for? Nothing, really. And whenever they're here (early summer at the Electric Ballroom?), reallyrather will be on the premises.. and duly was the next night at the less-conducive-to-total-enjoyment environs of The (so-called) Marquee for their last show.
A few extraneous factors nothing to do with the band lowered the pleasure-ometer reading a notch (the voluble American was called Jesse and she out's herself down the page here) but still built to a joyfully chaotic conclusion, anyone & everyone being invited on stage for a full-throated With arms outstretched.. surely the way all the best gigs should end?
[More ace Astoria pix courtesy of Andrew Kendall]

The Guardian's Caroline Sullivan sniffs that it's probably only the Bright Eyes connection that's bumped Rilo Kiley to headline sell-out status, that there's loads of others doing this sort of stuff at least as well. Er, names please, Caroline - seriously, this blog would love to know who they are. (In something of a first, we must turn to the Daily Mail for a more sympathetic ear.) Basically, if you've got it the folks'll get it..eventually. And class recognises class, hence Jenny's confirmation in a brief chat after the Borderline show that half her upcoming solo album is being produced by the mighty..

..M. Ward. And it was a slightly ironic twist that we should've been talking about his fantastic new record in a venue which looks set to fall into the clutches of Clear Channel, arch nemesis of the independent-minded DJ/radio station which Transistor radio celebrates and is broadly inspired by (not that you really need to know that to appreciate this hugely appealing disc).
As with the Bright Eyes' latest, there's a little less variety and light 'n' shade on Transistor radio compared to album that came before but reallyrather isn't in the least concerned since the prevalent tone is the warm amber glow of the likes of Voice at the end of the line, or Good news from his debut. Beautifully crafted once again by Ward and Mike Coykendall in the latter's attic, more or less the whole disc represents a reclamation of the (ordinarily oh-so-tiresome) blues format into something altogether more acceptable.
Using a marks-out-of-three shorthand to rate these songs, at least eight, maybe nine, score a full 'three'. reallyrather notices that one even gets Four out of three! Paul's song, about the prosaic reality of life on the road, is that song and it's utterly gorgeous with Paul Brainard's steel guitar lifting Ward's sweet weariness into the heavens. For this track alone you need to have Transistor radio but the greatness doesn't stop there..

..oh no. Paul's song, no9 of 16, heralds an amazingly strong run to the finishing line and actually it's almost invidious to pick out others amongst so much rapturously honeyed, scuffling beauty. Suffice to say that the likes of Lullaby + exile, Fuel for fire and One life away also zero straight into this blog's sentimental heart with eye-moistening accuracy.
Musical references drift in and out: the spirit of George Harrison is resurrected in the refulgent Here comes the sun again while I'll be yr bird might easily be retitled 'Makin' Whoopee in Norwegian Wood Blues'. The quoting of Saint-saen's The swan at the close of Fuel for fire induces the same sense of heady intoxication this blog last recalls feeling while watching My summer of love, the BAFTA-for-best-British-film winner of last year which also happens to feature The swan as a motif.
But it's not all woozy, blissed-out wonderment. Some excellently rudimentary ass-kicking percussion supplied by the Old Joe Clarks helps boot along 4hrs in Washington, Big boat and Deep dark well. Truly, if reallyrather happens to come up on the lottery between now and June 3 (when Matt plays London's Lyric Theatre) the first cheque to be written will be the one to underwrite these guys' passage over. With Transistor radio M. Ward raises the bar for '05 and, basically, you need it...

Golly gosh, etc.. it's now £20(!) to see The Be Good Tanyas, London Purcell Room July 3...[book]
   posted by SMc at 5:09 PM |