Friday, 30 August 2013

David Byrne & St. Vincent @ Birmingham Symphony Hall, 28/08/13

This week, I took a trip down to the Birmingham Symphony Hall to see David Byrne play - since I've moved out to the countryside, every gig is a decent distance away, but that means that I get to go to a hotel and turn each gig night into an 'experience' - it's expensive, but it makes every event into something a bit more unique. Famed solo avant-guardian and lead singer of the '70s band Talking Heads, Byrne's currently touring a new record that he produced with St. Vincent (A.K.A. Annie Clark), an experimental artist in her own right.

A couple of years ago, I went with my friend to see This Must Be The Place, a rather aimless film starring Sean Penn and David Byrne. It launched my friend into a protracted obsession with Byrne, whose richly varied musical career is still delighting her now - from slightly unnerving punk track 'Psycho Killer' to chart-pop sensation 'Lazy', Byrne has written something in almost every genre in the Western world, so I can understand why he'd retain amazement for so long. On Love This Giant, his release with St. Vincent, he draws on jazz, funk, ska and old-school minimalism by employing a full brass band to play pop songs, and the result sounds a lot like this:

Who by David Byrne & St. Vincent on Grooveshark

The band, a choreographed team of brass and woodwind musicians alongside a drummer and a keyboard player, broke into 'Who' as soon as Byrne had made his first wisecrack of the night. The Symphony Hall can prove too huge for a lot of rock and pop, voices and subtleties lost in the huge space, but Byrne and Clark's big-band tracks filled the room without hassle. As they worked their way through a two hour set, not even needing support bands to get everyone going, the crowd became more and more enthused, calling them on for two separate encores at the end. Here's the setlist:

David Byrne & St. Vincent Setlist Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England 2013, Love This Giant

The instrumentation and songwriting on Love this Giant definitely leave David Byrne firmly in his old category as one of the established avant-garde, but that isn't necessarily a comfortable collocation. 'Avant-garde' is about newness, but also about rebellion and challenge to what's gone before. Seeing the album performed live, the level of choreography and onstage organisation made me yearn for spontaneity. On the one hand, David Byrne and St. Vincent make music which is genreless, music I couldn't really compare to anything else right now, yet the performance was all very establishment-friendly - it would never get a bad review in the Guardian, because it follows the rule book on "How to Break the Rules"; i.e., though it was musically thrilling and fresh, it was hosted at an elite venue, followed a rigidly traditional show structure, showcased new talent without challenging the supremacy of the "star", and accepted a formal set of dress codes for its line-up. From talking to people afterwards, it seemed that many people loved the show as much as the music, but I felt it could have been a little more surprising. Still, that's no reason to critique the show too heavily: it was brilliantly played, the musicians were likeable, the hall had perfect acoustics and it was nigh-on impossible to get bored.

My favourite tracks of the night were 'Burning Down the House' and 'Cheerleader', written by Byrne and Clark respectively. The former got the whole audience dancing in the aisles, with a grand cheer rising from the hall as soon as these opening chords rang out from the stage. The latter, 'Cheerleader', was excellently performed live, building up to an epic and memorable chorus which stuck in my mind long after the concert had ended.

It's great to hear David Byrne contributing new music to the world, but it was possibly even better to help my friend's dreams come true afterwards by (reluctantly) agreeing to stage-door the man himself. 90% of the crowd had come to the gig for David Byrne, but only about 1% turned up to meet him afterwards, and by the time he came out onto Broad Street (of all streets!), only about 0.5% remained. So we got a peremptory glance from David Byrne and a moment of his time. My friend was so excited that she did a little dance - our relationships with our heroes are unfathomable sometimes. Nevertheless, if you get the chance to see David Byrne or St. Vincent, they're really worth the trip out (and in my case, the grotty hotel).

Friday, 16 August 2013

The lonely festival experience

This year, I managed to get a ticket to the YNot festival in Derbyshire. It's an annual 'small' festival (with around 8,000 tickets) costing just under £80 for the weekend. When I was offered a ticket with the press, I searched far and wide for people to accompany me, visualising beautiful afternoons lounging in a campsite with six or seven of my favourite people, music playing in the background, the sky blue, etc. etc.. That scene was never to materialise - one by one, my friends either turned me down or dropped out after assessing their finances and schedules. Having promised an article to the Oxford Student newspaper, though, I realised I was going to have to go. Alone.

The lonely festival experience didn't really appeal to me. In fact, I was dreading it. I whittled my plans down so that I only had to go for one day, and I wrote some lines in my mind which I could use to approach, and then befriend, strangers. I climbed into the taxi which would take me to the site, feeling nervousness - I was going to conduct my first live, face-to-face, in-the-same-room interview. I also felt pre-emptive boredom though, seeing the day stretching out ahead of me like a desert of solitude.

When I turned up, the festival was muddier than Sonisphere and Hard Rock Calling put together - every walkway was two feet deep, and every step felt like walking on the moon. Zero gravity mud. If I stood still for too long, I'd sink to my ankles, so I kept moving, finding my way to different tents. I've talked about the music and the atmosphere and stuff in my article at the OxStu. The highlights of the smaller acts were the Anything Goes Orchestra, Emperor Chung and Elliott Morris, and disappointingly, there was no-one bad enough for me to use my cruel witticisms. "Never before have I heard a band so bad that the crowd were chanting 'less! less!' at the end of the show" had to stay in my head, where it probably deserves to be, until now.

Once I'd wandered round, I started to get that bored feeling I'd anticipated. Standing in the VIP press area was kind of intimidating - sure, I could see the Jarman brothers talking in the backstage area, and it was awesome, but amongst the cool swaggering thirty-year-old men who were probably all from the NME, I felt unable to grin and cry "IT'S GARY JARMAN". Instead, I had to lean back and pretend that I encountered my heroes every day. Or even better, pretend I had no heroes, like the cynical bastards that are seasoned music journalists. And even then, I got a funny look from someone sitting in a press tent with an Apple Mac and headphones. I repeated to myself the mantra, "cynicism is just defensiveness", then attempted to be defensively cynical enough to fit in.

The boredom and discomfort made me seek out something else to do (or drink), but I was also getting a headache. I had to make the choice between cider and aspirin - I chose, after a long deliberation, a small drink and then a load of painkillers. Luckily, the ginger beer I chose was foul, so I decided to give it away - that'd be a good way to make friends, right? Little did I realise how hard it is, as an individual, to approach groups of strangers. They're all having too good a time, or they're too busy, or too drunk. In the end, I fobbed it off on a woman waiting for her friends at the portaloos and ran off, still alone.

After an hour or so, the better bands started to assuage my feeling of isolation, and I realised that actually, I was having quite a good time. At most festivals, I spend a lot of time worrying that the people around me aren't having fun, or considering when to broach the "Can we leave now? I need the loo and these guys are shit" topic. Here, I was totally free to leave when I stopped enjoying bands. I valued that freedom, but not as much as the freedom to eat two lunches without being judged.

There was another hiccup to come yet, though. I went to watch Sky Larkin, content in the knowledge that I was meeting them for an interview at 4.30pm after they'd been onstage. At 4.20, I nipped into the press area, envisaging a quick turnaround. I should have known that nothing is that simple. At 4.30, I saw Katie Harkin, the lead singer, emerge from the vans and run across the band area, but she didn't then come to meet me. I started wandering about, feeling lost, intimidated by the NME-men, and not nearly drunk enough to relax. It took 45 minutes for them to finally emerge, and then I realised I was in a queue. Feeling like I'd probably been forgotten, I sat in a VIP sun-lounger and tried not to look like an amateur.

At last, Katie and Nestor, Sky Larkin's drummer, greeted me - their manager (who I think, but can't be sure, was Wichita's Gareth Dobson) shepherded them towards me in a paternal fashion, and I did the shaking of hands and smiling that I assumed I was meant to. We disappeared into a press "yurt" and had what turned out to be a very relaxed chat while sitting on the floor, which I wrote up into a proper interview here. After that, I got a lot more comfortable. I'd had some human contact, done what I'd set out to do, and all that was left was to enjoy The Cribs.

Ash gave a brilliant performance on the mainstage, playing and performing to a standard I hadn't expected (even if the lead singer does look like an Irish James Blunt), and then I waited for The Cribs, free to find my own favourite place in the crowd. As I wandered, searching for the best spot for combining jumping with a good sight-line, I was accosted by two incredibly drunk teenage boys. My mistake was humouring their attempts to dance around near me. A smile was too much encouragement. One of them approached me and asked "Who're you with?" I, not wanting to say, "Oh Lord I'm so alone", replied, "I'm with the press". Yes, I embraced nobbishness for a few seconds to raise myself above pity. Instead of the contempt I expected, he was so drunk he replied, "That's so cool", before falling over onto his friend and then attempting to turn the fall into a dance move.

I managed to back away behind someone with a beer belly dramatic enough to hide me (and/or shelter me if it rained). Human interaction, I'd decided, is overrated - I couldn't make friends in a few hours, and moreover, that was fine. Being alone was fine. I'd decided that when The Cribs came on and reminded me why I usually like human beings. They were fantastic - more cheerful than usual, beautifully discordant, as wild as they were ten years' ago, if not more so. Ryan's recent weightloss and depression have coloured his character: in his new diminutive form, he seems fragile, lending more meaning to tracks like 'Back to the Bolthole', and yet he's a more imposing figure for his new sharp, shadowy jawline and uninhibited screaming. The Cribs were always impressive, but ten years on, five studio albums in, their retention of the outsider spirit and the untamed sound is really admirable. The crowd loved them - they had people jumping and singing right back into the audience.

If anything, seeing my favourite band alone was better than seeing them with my friends. My relationship with The Cribs is too intense to share - it's a secular worship, the only worship I allow myself, and I always feel a little bit embarrassed to enjoy them wholeheartedly with friends watching. I want to jump and scream and yell and laugh, like a small child who's had too much sugar watching Disney. On my own, knowing that nobody judging me mattered, I had a great time, full of abandon. I realised as I walked into the night, searching for my taxi back, I'd actually enjoyed being alone. The lonely, sober festival experience had been... good. In fact, I think I recommend it.