Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Review of Beach House at Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, on March 25, 2013

Two sold-out gigs at Shepherd's Bush Empire. Tickets secured at the last minute on Sunday afternoon via the internet and a cash transaction with a man at the end of the 94 bus route at Acton Green.

This is what it gets you: the only almost completely backlit gig I can remember seeing, slight eye strain from the blinding white light behind the Beach House for some of the songs and a sense that they'd be better off streaming their magnificent tunes on Spotify then sitting back and relaxing.

Extreme back lighting
The Baltimore duo's recorded sound is fabulous. Shimmering guitars, drum machine backdrop and vocals that sound like Nico with Liz Fraser's range and Lana Del Rey's sultriness. The Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil mashed up with the Velvet Underground and The Cure. Lovely.

The ethereal new album, Bloom, is exactly the sort of dreamy sound you'd want to take to your imaginary beach house. Especially in this weather. It opens with a wistful wind-bell, ebbs and flows on gentle seahorse waves and washes over you like an invigorating dip in the Atlantic ocean.

Live, not so much. Drum machine complemented by a real life drummer, Victoria's vocals even less discernible than usual, and performed in silhouette. It's as though they don't want to be recognised. The most rock and roll they get is Alex's bent-double Stratocaster-bobbing and her sequinned sparkly top. It's also admittedly difficult to get into a Beach House zone on a freezing Monday night in west London when an Arctic wind whistles round your neck every time the entrance door opens on the first floor.

What's that lady saying?

Banter? Forget it. "It's so nice to see you," Victoria ventures 15 minutes in. Wish we could say the same, we think, squinting into the light. Later, "It's our nineteenth time in London. You're like an old pony." Yes, that's what we are - an old pony. You'd just think the stagecraft stuff would be so much better after 18 previous efforts in London alone.

What's even more bizarre is the downbeat contrast with their bright and vibrant videos. The clip for the majestic Wishes is like a cross between the superb Friday Night Lights TV show, a Coen brothers film and a Flaming Lips stage show.

So how come for the live gig Victoria settles for the odd swish of her long hair behind her coffin keyboard and Alex can hardly be arsed to get off his stool for most of the gig?

The reason? They don't have to. The gigs sell out, the new album is brilliant and the sound is everything. If you want showbiz bugger off to watch another duo like the Pet Shop Boys or something.

White indie media crowd better lit than the band
Nothing to see here. Move along. Just listen. It's wonderful.

Technical notes if you're going tonight: Beach House were on stage at 9.30pm and the set lasted 90 minutes. The support act, Marques Toliver, is an astonishing solo soul-singing violinist who samples and loops his fiddle brilliantly and gets exasperated when people talk through his set.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Review of Ron Sexsmith at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on March 7, 2013

A fabulous concert from first song to last. It just got better as Ron's rich voice warmed-up and filled the hall over his hour-and-half on stage.

The best moment was genuinely moving. The nostalgia of the elegiac Deepens With Time was made even more poignant when Ron told us his mum and dad had made the trip from Canada for the show. "Here we are, Ron!' shouted his dad, and the house lights went up to reveal his folks in a box at the back of the hall. It's a classic Ron song - poetic, wistful, vulnerable, maybe even a bit sentimental. He wrote it for Faith Hill. But it's his song.

That voice reminds me a bit of Paul McCartney, especially in a song like Love Shines with its Springsteenesque opening line, "In every nowhere town, there are somewhere dreams."

Ron spoke with genuine pride about working with Don Black on his new album, the man who wrote the lyrics to Born Free. And with the same pride about getting a good luck message on the night from a classic piano pop-maker from a previous generation, Gilbert O'Sullivan. Alone again. Naturally

Like Gilbert's flat-cap and braces 70s persona, Ron doesn't look a classic pop star. He's got a troubled, chubby face - an outline caricature version of it in lights formed the backdrop last night - he wears a big check jacket, crumpled grey slacks, an acoustic guitar hung round his neck and seems a bit uncomfortable on stage. He leaves any movement to the lead guitarist and keyboard guy in his four-piece band.

He self-deprecates all the time. He seemed a bit offended by someone in Amsterdam who'd criticised his use of a synthesiser instead of a real strings section. As he said, he's not the kind of guy who can afford to travel with an orchestra, even if superstars like Michael Buble and Elton John have swelled the coffers with some covers of his songs.

When he came back for a three-song encore he made a quip about never understanding the tradition of walking off at the end then back on again. It got him another standing ovation.

His mum and dad must be very proud.