Saturday, October 30, 2010

Concrete Blonde - 20 Years Of Bloodletting (live in Melbourne, 2010) review

 Venue: The Palace

In the twenty years since Hollywood natives Concrete Blonde released their defining album, Bloodletting, interest in all things vamp has skyrocketed, perhaps loosely benefiting this once nearly forgotten group. The title and content does reference Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, true, but the songs on Concrete Blonde's third album were never meant to be taken as literal tales of the freaky un-dead. Addiction and consequence were the songs thinly disguised subtexts – many of which were veiled pleas from the band's singer/bassist Johnette Napolitano to the people closest to her, including the rest of Concrete Blonde. But original drummer Harry Rushakoff and, to a lesser degree, guitarist Jim Mankey's substance abuse basically sunk the band less than four years after Bloodletting broke them out of obscurity.
In the last decade a rehabilitated and revived Concrete Blonde delivered the self-reflective 2002 sobered-up sequel to Bloodletting, Group Therapy and found their way out of the haze and put the wasted years behind them. Last year Napolitano paid a fleeting visit to Melbourne to test the waters with a small-ish solo gig and seemed genuinely surprised by the amount of slavering fans turning up she could still lay claim to. The time was right for her long-awaited musical return and both the artist and any fan despairing over Johnette's fellow Californian, seemingly plague proportion pop bitches, felt it at that show.

Napolitano is one of a dying breed of front-persons which has helped to keep her in good stead despite years of relative obscurity. The Concrete Blonde faithful don't waste any time - or volume either - in letting her know how much she's adored tonight at the Palace, as the dirty opening bass chords of Bloodletting's title tack are beaten into our ears. Australia was the first country outside of the US that Concrete Blonde toured, prompted by the album's reception here, and specifically the second single, Joey. It receives no encore placing either, but rather runs straight out of Bloodletting's feedback finish. Joey, like much of Bloodletting, runs at a mid-tempo pace, so the band hurl in a few bigger-sounding rock crowd-pleasers from other albums. Breaking away from Bloodletting - so far in running order - God Is A Bullet, Happy Birthday and True from Concrete Blonde's late '80s period, are especially well received.

Tonight's support band Graveyard Train had been the perfect pre-cursor to Concrete Blonde. The eight-member gothic blues group whipped up a bone-rattling storm that Johnette and co. rode in on, harnessed and wrestled into submission. Continuing their diversion from Bloodletting, the band haul Graveyard Train out from backstage to join them – as a kind of ghostly choir - for a momentous romp through Ghost Of A Texas Ladies' Man . The night was almost stolen by this near-forgotten single from the band's Walking In London album. The thrills were far from behind us though, and as Leonard Cohen's Australian live dates approach, a reminder that if he wants his song, Everybody Knows back from Napolitano, he'll need to pick up his game. Following that, a surprising cover of Hendrix's Little Wing gives guitarist Jim Mankey a chance to indulge himself a little - but not to be outdone, a barefoot Johnette indulges us all with some spirited flamenco dancing during two cuts – Heal It Up and the title track - from Spanish-flavoured album Mexican Moon.

The return to the Bloodletting tracks actually means some lost momentum built up over the side serving of nostalgia, a fact not lost on Johnette as her movements become noticeably exaggerated, including plenty of compensatory eye-bulging and eye-brow raising. The album was always more 'eight-parts-soulful and two-parts-rawk', so the decision to drop its beefiest moments – The Sky Is A Poisonous Garden and The Beast – is a very odd one indeed. The concert felt just a little incomplete from those song's omissions, but the frankly pissed-and-out-of-control audience don't seem to mind, especially once the stand-out sing-a-long moment Tomorrow Wendy begins. Johnette's near-accapella reading of the albums only cover track (it was an Andy Preiboy song) is a seriously powerful end to the set. Concrete Blonde receive a deafeningly raucous hand on their exit which is sustained for a good five minutes before the final encore of It'll Chew You Up And Spit You Out, which again is out of step with the mood built up by Tomorrow Wendy, but is no less a satisfying all-in-rock-out for the group and fans.

Although the running order of the songs needed a rethink, it feels like a triviality when in the presence of Johnette Napolitano, who never once failed to be completely mesmerising. Drummer Gabriel Ramirez and guitarist Jim Mankey made for outstanding accompaniment, but it was Napolitano's show for her sheer authority as a vocalist and bass player. The 20 Years Of Bloodletting tour winds down soon and the demand for them to tour again may never be overwhelming enough but Concrete Blonde proved tonight they are much, much more than just a 20 year old album.



Photos by myself and Fruitbat

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rufus Wainwright performs All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu live (review)

Venue: The Palais, Melbourne. 24/10/10

In the time it takes many artists to work out what they want to do/say with their music to leave a decent mark, Rufus Wainwright crammed practically a lifetime's work. His un-relenting recording/tour schedule over the last decade, it has been suggested, is the result of the ethic bestowed upon him by his doting mother, Kate McGarrigle. At 14 Wainwright first performed with his legendary (in folk circles) mother and her sister Anna as part of the family's regular jaunts around Canada and America. These concerts, incorporating lengthy sing-a-longs to everything from Kate and Anna McGarrigle originals to depression-era anthems, helped build young Rufus into a confident 'old-hand' with an appreciation of his musical history. The importance of his mother's influence can't be underplayed when appreciating Wainwright as a performer in his own right, and so her death at the start of this year has obviously impacted greatly on his current stage show.

Rufus's solo return to Australia – his first visit since January 2008 – comes straight off the back of the Wainwright-penned opera, Prima Donna, which also seems to have had an influence on his concert presentation. The first indication that this was not going be your regular-type live show was the request for absolute silence during the first act – the current album All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu in complete form – and no applause between songs or until Mr Wainwright has completely left the stage. Sounds easy enough in theory, but over the course of the show a bizarre tension builds in the capacity crowd. The room suddenly falls silent as the curtain raises and we are faced with an almost completely blackened stage bar one spotlight above a baby grand piano positioned on the far right. A few gasps can be heard as a barely visible figure slowly emerges from the left and pads slowly and silently across the stage. In the darkness, a long flowing black garment with a shoulder bustle takes shape as our eyes adjust to the low light; then with cat-like grace, Rufus lowers himself onto the piano stool and elegantly and tilts his face towards the spotlight. He freezes with hands poised above the keyboard and the whole place draws its breath as one.

Before a note is even played, the sombre mood is set for this recital and all that's left to do is maintain the composure Rufus has requested of his us. He performs Who Are You New York? – the album's opener – and stops only briefly between songs until the final track, Zebulon. For the most part, we sit in a kind of outward silence as our minds fill with imagery and impressions of what we are witnessing. The most rewarding part of sustained silence, in any case, is an exaggerated awareness and with All Days Are Nights being such a personal and difficult album – both technically and conceptually – the emotions start to run high. The fruity, Judy Garland-singing Rufus we knew so recently, appears now as the cloaked apparition of some deceased opera singer, doomed to perform for muted, passive theatregoers. Of course transforming himself this way is all part of the recovery process of losing his mother, but it's also an exercise in restraint and the want for his audience, to not only see the live concert experience as a way to forget about trivialities but perhaps to re-think what we call trivial and what we take for granted.

Even Wainwright's positioning on stage seems significant after a while as the backdrop gradually fills up with mournful, heavily made-up eyes blankly staring out into the auditorium. He's made himself into a spectral, barely visible figure and turned the gaze onto us, effectively reversing the standard performer/audience roles. The melancholy tunes, many of which are derived from Shakespeare sonnets, are some of Wainwright's most demanding, from a listener's point of view, as well for him to perform. He has created with Songs For Lulu an exhaustive regime of classical pieces basically designed to torture the artist's concentration level and force audiences onto the edge of their seats. I would like to say he made it look easy, but Rufus demonstrates through this act the extremely high standard he sets himself – again a by-product of his mother's influence at a young age. And then there's that voice – Wainwright's instantly identifiable nasal/croak which - when described, sounds far better to the ears than on paper - riding over the octave scale in implausible fluidity. Also it's rare for him to dig into its lowest register, but tonight many a long guttural note punctuates the air in between those operatic highs.

At the end of act one, Rufus exits just as he entered – a shuffling ghostly figure, oblivious to the packed room barely restraining themselves from applauding until he is completely gone from view. The curtain falls and Wainwright's devotees erupt with gratitude, relieved to finally break their imposed silence. The next act is a much more relaxed, 'hits-and-favourites' set – with the comfort of welcomed applause and friendly banter thrown in. When Wainwright re-emerges, he's clad in orange tights and a pink scarf, while the crying eyes have been replaced with a deep, red sunset sky. He fairly skips onto the stage grinning and all memory of the first act has been unceremoniously eradicated. However the audience are not so quick to be distracted and now await Rufus's word on whether to applaud after some awkward silences between songs and comical stories of his adventures in Australia. Stunned as we were, I note that one benefit from act one's vocal workout is the ease at which Rufus sings his more familiar pieces. It was his best Hallelujah, his loveliest Art Teacher and his finest Poses, all thanks to Lulu and her demands on his voice.

This tour will no doubt become his most heavily criticised work – after all it was an extremely self-indulgent move, but fuck it, give me that kind of drama and theatrical pomp over wilting wallflowers or sulky indie boys any day. Wainwright has always been about the biggest wow and cockiest strut, so it stands to reason that this sad time in his life has bought out a no less extreme side to him. It may take him a long time from now to feel it himself, but from a watcher's view point, the man is totally and utterly fearless.







Friday, October 22, 2010

Manic Street Preachers - Postcards From A Young Man (review)

Postcards From A Young Man

Before its release even, the latest Manic Street Preachers album was heralded with a kind of surrender entirely out of character with the band; "Last Chance To Get Our Message Out There" was the cry from within – and what could that possibly mean for an act eleven albums old, and seemingly cursed and weighed down by misfortune and unpopular viewpoints? Were they surrendering or posing a threat? If they truly are considering a break-up, their detractors can at last say 'saw that coming years ago', but this possible last chapter in the Manics story will in no way be a bitter one for fans, who can comfortably celebrate Postcards... as one of the band's strongest albums in their 24 year career.

The Manics have survived against some pretty big odds all along. Missing-presumed-dead members, songs built around socialist meanderings and obscure literary references, (surely enough to drive many a  rock fan away?) but mostly a lack of broad, consistent interest. The Manics could easily be saddled with a 'glory or death' tag, but their refusal to be defeated even in some pretty glory-free times means either incredible unity within their ranks or sheer stubbornness has kept their fire burning. Which ever is true, I'd back them over a frothing Beta Band, a rearing Catatonia or a six-legged Super Furry Animal any day.

The Welsh trio have remained largely unchanged musically since first injecting their melancholy punk anthems with a little stadium pomp on 1996 classic, Everything Must Go, but subsequent releases often struggled to match that album's rich offerings. All but the hardcores probably shrugged at the band's post millennium releases, which up until last year's outstanding Journal For Plague Lovers, were met with little acclaim, but Postcards From A Young Man is a vital sounding push to the front of a once disappearing line, and the sound of a band mad at themselves for resting too long on their laurels.

All of the regulation MSP fare is still present in 2010; the history book rifling, communist values, Britain in crisis etc… but these touchstones are delivered on Postcards without any of the awkwardness of the sometimes over-wordy early records. Confidence reigns and, although orchestras and choirs feature throughout this album, a lot of the excess fat found on such releases as 2000's Know Your Enemy, for example has been shed. You can almost hear the conversation between Bradfield, Wire and Moore as they embarked on their 'last chance' effort, which probably concluded with a remark close to 'never mind the bollocks, let's just make the album we've always wanted to'. Whatever thoughts they indeed had, this band knows its true strengths and unabashedly plunders them for all they're worth. The title track for starters is almost a cobbling together of the 'old' and the 'new' Manics' sound, acting as an awareness-metre of how much they have grown musically over 24 years. It also tidily announces the album's concept - the artist's present selves weighing up the value of progress against their past selves' quaint existences.

Being a Manics record, of course they're cranky about mindless consumption over elementary pursuits - and they've never written more clearly on the subject. Take A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun for example – guest bassist Duff McKagan (ex-Guns 'N' Roses) adds some fat 'n' heavy licks to Bradfield's no-nonsense rail against online bullying. It's worth noting that McKagan's presence, along with other guests Ian McCulloch (Echo & The Bunnymen) and John Cale, is down to a few Manics' childhood dreams being fulfilled. If you'd ever wondered who they count among their heroes, (Stephen Hawking was busy), there's the top three. Ian McCulloch's duet on Some Kind Of Nothingness – actually the dark twin of Kylie Minogue's Some Kind Of Bliss, which the Manics wrote for her - is celebratory, but one of the less impressive moments overall, in spite of the tricked out full choir backing. Cale meanwhile is more impressive on the Radiohead-esque, Auto-Intoxication, adding keys and 'non-descript noise' to this track about being slaves to the world wide web.

The album's powerful rock 'n' prose single, Its Not War (Just The End Of Love) – a paean to the media-driven divide between East and West - and All We Make Is Entertainment are probably the ripest fruits on offer overall. But following run of (what would be) easy choice singles - take your pick of Hazelton Avenue, Golden Platitudes, The Descent - the album hits you with a kicker of a finale - the beautifully titled Don't Be Evil, which makes me want to praise and damn them for the same reasons. There they go, being all articulate and irritatingly correct about lost humility through online social networking, the old grumps. But damn them if they aren't right on the money with this, and damned if any band's who've actually sprung up in the internet age could nail this topic so accurately and awesomely as the Manics have. Not satisfied with this triumph alone, it also happens to be one of the best rock songs of the year.

Yes, there is a vague, unsurprising concept running through Postcards From A Young Man, but it never feels whiny or self-important. As much as it is an album concerned with our increasing reliance on the virtual/digital world, it equally mourns the lost art of tactile communication and by proxy, the band themselves have whole heart-idly reconnected with their audience.


"Postcards From A Young Man" video.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sean Moore (Manic Street Preachers) interview (2010)


Manic Street Preachers could've been willfully obscure as their often confronting topics are on Postcards From A Young Man – their tenth album in 24 years. Yet their cold-hard tales of degenerative diseases, sold-out Britain and virtual-world obsession are instead served up with some sweet cock-rock riffing, big choruses and an orchestra. Initially these Welsh communist glam-punks were a reaction to mindless stadium rock – and not much has changed in that regard – but what better way to mock your enemy than to become them - with a knowing wink? Their strength has always lied in their understanding of the importance art plays in critiquing humanity, yet they are also a rock band and nowhere near as "Preachy" as the name might suggest. Instead these childhood friends, James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore, now in their 40s, continue forging a quiet battle against accepting the status quo.

Another minor change within the band's ranks is the promotion of their latest album, which has been unusually high for the Manics - as their loyal fanbase like to call them. Much of their post-millennium output has suffered largely from a growing indifference towards the Socialist rockers, but it seems they are determined that Postcards From A Young Man won't suffer the same fate. It's been 11 years since the trio toured Australia, but providing further evidence of a Manics resurgence, a long over-due reconnection with the anitpodes was planned. Anticipation for both band and fans is naturaloly high, but as I chat to drummer/trumpet/player-cum-co-writer Sean Moore pre-tour, it soon becomes clear that anticipation for him can be a killer. Backstage at BBC studios, pre-warm up for the Manic Street Preachers' appearance on Later With Jools Holland, Moore sounds worried, "It's Holland's 250th show, so it's supposedly going to be a big one." He begins, while drawing a sharp breath, "I just saw Phil Collins in the hall and Klaxons are here…" He pauses as there's a knock on his dressing room door. "I better get that… It's okay, it's only my breakfast!" Moore doesn't like doing live TV, and the arrival of his first meal of the day is of greater relief than usual. "Sorry, I was expecting to be hauled out to do rehearsal then," he says with a nervous laugh. "I do find live television extremely nerve-racking. I've never been able to just slip into 'performer-Sean' mode. I'm always teetering on edge, and it either goes one way or the other. Hopefully we won't fall off on this occasion though.

As it's a landmark show for Jools Holland, he's pulled out all the stops and employed a full choir and string section to back the Manics umpteenth showcase. The new album is after all a heavily layered set, bursting with anthemic numbers, largely devoid of introspection. It has been described by the group's bassist and writer Nicky Wire as "their last shot at getting on the radio" following the quite modest reactions to the group's previous three albums. However, the Manics have never really sat very easily on radio playlists; If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next was as close to radio-friendly as they came, and so a battle plan was drawn up to get their message out to as many listeners as possible by dressing up their already solid tunes, and calling in some help from their peers. "We asked Ian McCulloch, John Cale and Duff McKagan to play on the album because we're fulfilling a lot of our boyhood dreams this time around," Sean states. "Echo & The Bunnymen was the first gig we all went to see, and my first album I ever bought was actually Porcupine." He says, brightening up. Arguably, the antithesis of the Manics on their angsty debut was misogynistic himbos, Guns 'N' Roses, which makes the appearance of ex-Gunner's bassist Duff McKagan on A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun seem all the more strange. Sean responds.

"In a way, you're right, but at the same time Guns 'N' Roses introduced James and Richey to rock music," he reasons, "Whereas Nick was more into Rush, for me AC/DC was about as heavy as it got." He laughs. "We met Duff when he presented us with an award and we reciprocated our appreciation by asking him to play bass on one of our songs. Turns out he's right into what we do as well, surprisingly." Ian McCulloch duet-ing, John Cale playing piano and a Gunner could all easily be seen as unduly ambitious, but the album was designed to be a sharp turn away from 2009's Journal For Plague Lovers and its bleak outpourings. Comparing the recording of Postcards… with Journal For Plague Lovers, Sean is very clear. "This album and Journal... are basically Jekyll and Hyde," he confirms. "Recording Postcards… was quite easy by comparison. We had our objective and we stayed put until that was seen through, whereas Plague Lovers was a collection of Richey's final lyrics that we painstakingly built music around and it became a kind of Holy Bible part 2." In 2008, an official verdict of 'deceased' was finally reached after the 1995 disappearance of Richey Edwards - the Manic's troubled guitarist/songwriter. His wise but often gut-wrenching lyrics were always the starting point of every one of the band's albums, making him a kind of thematic guide which the band then followed. 1994's The Holy Bible - The last album Edwards made with the band before vanishing - was also their most disturbing and most successful. 2009's Journal For Plague Lovers being an actual sequal to Holy Bible, meant that the latest album would have the task of following the last words of Richey Edwards - a man who for many fans was the true genius in the band. Sean discusses.

"We were quite aware of following up that album with something much brighter, as we did when we released Everything Must Go." (in 1996 - their first non-Richey album - and a total career-saver). We did two or three albums of that nature – heavy, Richey albums - but you just can't do that every time. If we did, I don't think I'd be speaking to you now," Sean says ominously. "The record-buying public don't want to hear that, and we have always said that we want to be heard by as many people as possible because we feel we have something worthwhile to say." Reactions to Manic Street Preachers entire canon of work are, in many ways, typical. There are those who yell 'sell-out' at anything but the band's purest angst period – Generation Terrorists, The Holy Bible – however the post-Richey following still see the band's passion as firmly intact. Sean considers the widely varying perceptions.

"I agree that we have a divided audience, but I don't believe we have released anything we didn't wholly believe in," he continues. "We always need something to react against to even begin to get our creative juices flowing and if we ain't got that, we don't do anything particularly well." All Manics albums are angry at something; their debut, Generation Terrorists (1991), was the truest example of a punk record released in many years. The band, dressed head-to-toe in glam-rock regalia, dug their heels deep into their own generation's apathy (all while resembling a bad '80s metal group). So began the wild ride of album upon album spiked with wake-up calls or ripping in to the cold truths on all manner of subjects, with a particular lean towards human rights injustices in and outside of the developed world. A few mis-fires and failed attempts were clocked up along the way, yet, unlike U2 for example, the Manics never made the mistake of patronising their fans; they have always presumed the listener to be curious, informed, or wishing to be challenged. However, Sean understands, the songs don't always translate. "You know, I wouldn't want to be in a band making music that meant nothing to people, and I get that people don't always see the meaning in our songs, but when they do it feels like we've achieved something." Moore explains, "I don't make any apology if that's not the case, but it would be quite boring for us if we made it too easy or over simplified it." He adds, "We were criticised for being too flamboyant in the past, and for having overly wordy songs, but sometimes I think you need music that goes that bit further than just rocking out."

The beauty of the Manics is you can invest in the often intricate song meanings as many fans would want, but engaging with the well-defined passion of their delivery is a rich enough reward in itself. James Dean Bradfield has one of the strongest voices in music, plus the trio have never allowed a gigantic, memorable hook pass them by. Sean explains, "The way we see it, you have to make the music as accessible as possible especially with this album (Postcards…) because Journal… was a lot more edgy, or less musically direct." Sean adds, "We are guilty of being a bit obscure at times, but we wanted this album to rise up out of that." Postcard From A Young Man is nothing if not direct. It takes hold from the very first listen with all the strength of a greatest hits CD. Yet within is a loose, but prevalent theme of longing for simpler times, or at least criticism of the crap-tastic 'world of purchase power' we find ourselves in. Sean discusses.

It's Not War (Just The End Of Love) on Later With Jools Holland

"The title refers to more tactile forms of communication which have all but been replaced by things like e-mail. It's very easy to gain information about a person, but any kind of personal touch is fading away rapidly." The cover image features actor Tim Roth (Lie To Me, Reservoir Dogs) shirtless, his face mostly obscured as he takes a Polaroid picture. The dated photo summarises beautifully the tactile world to which Sean refers - Roth as he was 20-odd years ago embracing a long-lost artefact. Moore continues, "It's just something that harks back to when we were young, I suppose, when you had to sort of maintain and care for the condition of a record or a photo. Now digital images and mp3s are forever frozen in a kind of stable perfection, and none of these things have a chance to wear." He sighs, "But we still like the strange beauty of seeing tangible objects gradually fray at the edges."

Manic Street Preachers can claim a roaring return with Postcards From A Young Man. If their wish to 'get back on the radio' comes true, the album's first single (It's Not War) Just The End Of Love - a commentary on Russia and America's forever damaged ties despite the Cold War ending years ago – would be a delicious prospect. Yes, they are willingly living in the past on this album, and their paranoia of an Orwellian future seems as dated as the idea of 'infiltrating the mainstream'. But the Manics' greatest drive is that there's still room in popular music for renegades, and share their fan's hope that that's something which will never fall out of fashion.


In the weeks before the Manics Melbourne concert, I was invited onto local community station JoyFM to do a two hour special on the band just playing faves and talking a bit about the group in between songs. The program was called "Raise Your Flag", a kind of all-things-punk weekly show... Funny thing is, we got complaints that the music wasn't suited to the theme of the program! What do you think, reader?

Manic Street Preachers "Raise Your Flag" playlist