Just Got Back From A Dream Attack
I don't exactly know how this came about, but it's nearly a year since I went to a gig. I saw one horrible jazz / funk / trad. Scottish group last summer more or less by accident (I'd never seen such aggressive and ungainly dancing: 'We ARE having fun'), but that sure as hell doesn't count. There was one reason (looking for a job) and another (found a job, sorta), but we won't go into that now. This week lots of things fell magically into place and the drought was drenched, the pop sun burst through and all was rainbows and butterflies. This is what happened.

The Flaming Lips / The Go! Team, Carling Academy, Birmingham, 24th April

Making a spinach and bean shepherd's pie for my folks on my last evening home, planning a quiet night in, maybe some Scrabble. At five to six my phone went and it was a friend who recently moved to Birmingham from Dundee (sensible chap, but yeah, not going into that are we?), and whose girlfriend all of a sudden couldn't go to that night's sold out Flaming Lips show. How sad for her. What a shame. You're fucking right I'd like to go instead.

Two hours later, past touts in daylight to the subterranean Academy, flanked by a large BBC lorry (the gig went out on Lamacq Live), remembering the last time I was here and Primal Scream were so tame despite it being the 'Exterminator' tour and despite Kevin Shields' intermittent presence stage left, at a point where it still seemed possible that he might mean something again one day. Must track down his Go! Team remix actually, for old times' sake. But what is that familiar song booming up from the ground? What was I listening to on the train across, as the ideal going-out-to-a-Lips-gig music? Could it be? It is, you know.

The Go! Team were in full flight as we arrived, at least six of them, dwarfed (but somehow not) by a massive back projection. The word 'Go!' repeated over and over. Stock military footage. A mask of a tiger moved by an unseen hand, fifty feet high, at once home made and effortlessly '!' (that '!' in the band's name is important). Transfixed, I couldn't follow the others to the cloakroom or the bar. How can you, at a time like this? I'd rather get heat stroke than miss a second of it. There were old songs and new, the new brash, tuneful, vocal. (Have I got this right? That 'Thunder, Lightening, Strike' was recorded by one bloke in his bedroom and that therefore the follow up will an unimaginable explosion of ideas and energy; that LP multiplied by the live show? Pretty please?) There was a sing-a-long (not the last of the night), the audience informed in no uncertain terms by Ninja that they were to yell 'G! O!' and 'Do it! Do it! Alright!', which I shamefully didn't, but it was great, Go! Team, it really was. I couldn't stop smiling.
They'd barely left the stage when there was a roar for Wayne Coyne, who'd appeared to oversee the sound check. As no other front man in the world would do, but of course The Flaming Lips are like no other band, don't need the artificial mystique of anticipation and ego tripping because they've got far more exciting artificial aids like industrial strength party poppers and gigantic green balloons. And why pretend in any case? As Wayne said once the show was under way, isn't it an amazing thing, for however many thousand people it is to pile into a hot sweaty room and jump for joy? There's no need to invent anything: here it is.

There was a second roar when Wayne helpfully talked us through the opening of the show, saying there was going to be some intro music and that (for the benefit of the Lamacq Live listeners) as they went into 'Race For The Prize' we were to go absolutely crazy. 'Yeah. Like that'. For the rest of the set his digressions more often than not revolved around the broadcast: how they'd have to cut out all the fucking swearing (ha ha) and even the bits between the songs where nothing much seemed to be happening, so if we used these to catch our breath and went crazy for every song using the reserves of energy thus acquired, Radio 1 would end up with a hell of a recording and we'd all sound like we'd taken about ten ecstasies.

The songs? Oh yeah. A beyond epic 'Do You Realise??' was probably the pick, coming at the end of the set proper and carrying all before it, almost lost in amp buzz as it thundered on, affirming every life in the place. 'Feeling Yourself Disintegrate' followed, and did funny things to me (at a long ago Lips show I practically cracked up when it did its plunge into 'Sleeping on the Roof', a shift which crystallised a bad time), and 'Vain of Stars' showed itself a worthy successor, but otherwise it was fun fun fun. 'Free Radicals' came alive with a hundred tons of stop / start rubble and squeak, and its minimal lyric 'You think you're radical / in fact you're fanatical' gained another interpretation sung to a room of fans. It should be the mantra for our times.

Sing-a-long #2 came with 'The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song', #3 with 'Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots'. There were audience members on stage as there were last tour, dressed this time as (stage right) a pack of Santa Clauses and (stage left) a mob of aliens, all armed with torches that they pretended were lasers, in the great fight between good and evil (the aliens being 'the Church of Scientology', apparently). Essentially this was the 'Yoshimi' tour part two, with few concessions made to the changes in the music so apparent on 'At War with the Mystics'. The album feels like an abdication of sorts, with the cartoon mega-productions of 'The Soft Bulletin', 'Yoshimi' and 'Zaireeka' left behind for a more human sound, still immensely detailed ('The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song' is hardly stripped back), but somehow smaller. Whether this is a good thing is hard to say: the melancholy of 'It Overtakes Me' or 'Mr Ambulance Driver' is more resigned than 'Yoshimi''s down songs, and 'Haven't Got a Clue' is - almost unbelievably from The Flaming Lips - bitchy. The stage show, on the other hand, is a continuation of the most fun spectacle pop / indie rock has ever produced, and is just about the best thing money can buy.
Morrissey, Caird Hall, Dundee, 25th April

And so to Morrissey, a man travelling in the opposite direction, from bitchiness to celebration. Is 'You are the Quarry' bitchy? People say so; I couldn't stomach it for long enough to find out. 'Ringleader of the Tormentors' though, whilst it doesn't shift from Morrissey's customary and extremely limited frame of reference ('Heaven knows I'm miserable, and it might be something to do with sex, or it might not. By the way, did you hear about this frightfully exciting criminal?'), is as celebratory as could be expected within those confines. He bears comparison with Daniel Johnston for the twenty year trajectory from a rare lyrical sadness ('Surely You Don't Work All Night' / 'The Hand that Rocks the Cradle') to monomania (for Laurie / Morrissey). The good news this time round is that he's making an effort for once, and seems to be enjoying himself. 'Dear God Please Help Me' is his best song in ever such a long time; 'Life is a Pigsty' an attempt to recapture the beauty of 'Well I Wonder', which only half works (but half way to 'Well I Wonder' is a damn fine place to be).

Marching on stage brandishing a fan-made banner which reads 'To us you are a work of art', to an auditorium from which daffodils have - for one night only - been banned, he opened with a crowd-rousing 'First of the Gang to Die', then made my jaw nearly fall off by continuing with 'Still Ill'. You don't need me to tell you what he sounded like. As on the LP: muscular, efficient, job to do. In fine yodelling voice. There's a sense that because he and we and all the world know the drill by heart by now, we can relax and enjoy Moz the elder (-ish) statesman without worrying as much as before about the insularity of what he's saying, and his warped self-fulfilling logic. You aren't going to learn much about your own life (or Morrissey's) from 'You Have Killed Me', but it manages to be touching. Is it enough to hear him meaning something, however unspecific? It probably is. In any case, it's what we've got.

The oddest moment of the night was announced as 'an old song from Manchester', which turned out to be Magazine's 'A Song from Under the Floorboards'! Deigning to admit a context of some sort, the act of an ex-pop obsessive rather than a matin_e idol. It suited him and had - as you might imagine - more dry bite than the rest of the set combined. Morrissey seemed disappointed at its reception: 'Magazine never blew the roof off Dundee then? But what could?' It's as though he was bored (if only for an instant) with his own fame, wondering why he and not Devoto should have been singled out. Then it's back to Moz-dom with a reassuring, placatory 'I Will See You In Foreign Places', then further in still with a 'How Soon Is Now?' seemingly engineered to allow him a royal walkabout, shaking a sea of sweaty hands. The briefest of encores ('Irish Heart, English Blood'), a pink shirt thrown into the audience (after which Morrissey seemed to suddenly notice the size of his belly, and ran from the stage), and it was over. On this showing, the man who turned sickness into popular song is in fighting trim.
Silver Jews, The Bongo Club, Edinburgh & The Tramway, Glasgow, 27th & 28th April

Here's a drill the world doesn't know. Twelve years into their career, Silver Jews have just completed their first ever tour. Apparently playing live saps creativity, or something. And yet there they were, six of them, on the smallest stage in the world, David Berman looking a little confused, Cassie Berman looking more than a little glamorous, playing a set of Silver Jews songs. Slipping in and out of sense, doing cartwheels in words, dr_le and desperate. 'In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection / Slowly screwing myself across the United States / They had to make a correction' David began, to cheers of incredulous recognition (this is really happening?) Then maybe there was a 'Smith & Jones Forever', and... Actually, the embarrassingly small quantity of drink it takes to do for me these days kicked in at this point, and I spent quite a lot of the set outside, where you could breathe properly. The Jews played great though, they suited the bar room vibe down to the ground. Immediately after the show my friend showed Cassie (standing around in the yard outside, with other non-DCB Jews, mingling) pictures he'd taken of David playing, his beard and the glow of the stage lights making him look like Jesus. 'I always go for men who look like that' she said. She also said she'd noticed him from the stage. They are now very much mutually in love, he says.

On to Glasgow, the final gig of their (and my) tour. A venue three times the size, a decent stage and a head which didn't keep nearly blacking out made all the difference. It was more or less a homecoming, and the set, in lieu of tours for the previous albums, went through them chronologically, from 'Train Across the Sea' (on 1994's 'Starlite Walker') up to 'There Is A Place', the last song on last year's 'Tanglewood Numbers'. Cassie wore a pale green cocktail dress which was pretty much to die for, and David, with more space, got a bit more into the whole front man thing: 'Turns out I'm not funny on stage' he apologised, after a mumbled joke, 'This is my 16th ever show. Maybe when we get into triple figures...' When he stood with his feet a yard apart it was unclear whether this was a Rock Posture or whether his mic stand was too low and he couldn't adjust it and sing at the same time. His suit was ill-fitting in every conceivable way, and so was his hair. Likewise his voice, on utterly great form both nights, sounding as though it came from that beer soaked beard rather than his throat. It's a wonderful sound: casual but inevitable, on the edge of a nervous breakdown and drily amused at the nonsensical version of the world its words spin. The impression that the nonsense is a reaction to the far greater nonsense of reality. Or, if there's no such thing, conventional expression.

The blocks of songs from particular albums drew attention to the strangest and most obvious thing about the occasion: that the Silver Jews aren't a live band. These songs don't have a history of live performance. We could all have sung along on what was almost their first public outing, to songs stretching back a decade. We didn't sing along, but when David missed out the second half of the line 'If you don't want me I promise not to linger / But before I go I gotta ask you dear about the tan line on your ring finger' on 'Random Rules' everyone noticed it, and the absence of the absence was heartbreaking. Now seemed a good time to break the silence though. Aside from the fact that it was great to see them at all, 'Tanglewood Numbers', of all their records, is the one that comes most from the band, that isn't just David laying down his songs one week (though 'The Natural Bridge', which is precisely that, is of course one of mankind's greatest achievements). There's a dynamic in there which makes it sound the product of a tour of half-empty bars: the band knitting ever tighter in their lurid frazzled stomps, the regulars shuffling on their bar stools, lifting an eyebrow or a glass in appreciation. And 'There Is A Place' was such a perfect set-closer, with its wig-out middle section ('Thank you for coming! You've been such a great audience!' Berman yelled over it, weirdly conventional (and therefore not)) and the cascade back to the sad sad place just past the blues. We were not worthy.

© 2006 Chris Fox