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Stone Roses, Hordern Pavilion, 6th March 2013

Although their legacy basically rests on a single flawless record, The Stone Roses are easily one of the most beloved and influential British bands of their era – after all, their eponymous full-length debut was voted the greatest album ever by NME.

It is an album that seems both entirely of its time but also timeless and fresh, having once and for all broken down the boundaries between rock and dance music and created a completely euphoric commingling of the two.

The amazing success of The Stone Roses seems all the more remarkable given that the UK version leaves out a song which was released the same year and stands as perhaps their defining moment, a little tune called ‘Fool’s Gold’.

Striding onto stage to the strains of The Supremes classic ‘Stoned Love’, a great song which also works as a pithydescription of The Stone Roses’ music, the love the sold out crowd has for the Mancunians is soon made evident.

Even surprisingly sloppy vocals on the usually swaggering ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ fail to dampen the enthusiasm, though any thoughts of the performance being a flat exercise in nostalgia are soon dissipated with a surging version of ‘Sally Cinnamon’.

Looking every bit the cheeky scally that he was in their early 90s pomp, Ian Brown is the casual ringmaster of this circus, his distinctive ‘monkey dancing’ and tambourine shaking a feature throughout.

Even when he ventures a terrible joke (“Hello Sydney…and everyone who’s not called Sydney”) and repeats it a painful second and third time, the fans still have nothing but love for him.

The upbeat mood continues with the jangling guitars and pure pop melody of the underrated ‘Ten Story Love Song’, a rare highlight from the poorly regarded follow-up Second Coming.

It’s one of only two cuts from that record to make it into the setlist and really the only song from the album which can stand comfortably in the same company as their hit-filled debut.

‘Fool’s Gold’ is of course, immense, its shimmering guitars, fluid and funky bassline and uber-casual, almost whispered vocals creating an irresistible centrepiece in a set packed with favourites, and this version extends out into some hypnotic, psychedelic territory.

‘Shoot You Down’ features some gold standard guitar work from John Squire, channelling the exploratory, free-wheeling spirit of Hendrix; while the beautiful ‘Waterfall’ sees the cavernous Hordern Pavilion turned into a sea of clapping hands as it segues seamlessly into ‘Don’t Stop’.

Few songs have ever had a bassline as thrilling as ‘She Bangs The Drums’ or a lyric as brilliantly arrogant as “The past was yours/ but the future’s mine” and as they complete a faithful version, the collective sense of satisfaction of thousands of people who have been waiting years to hear the song live is felt.

One can only think wistfully of what it must have been like to have been part of the 27,000 strong crowd that poured onto the Isle of Wight back in their heyday for one of the most fabled gigs in the history of British music.

‘This is The One’ is huge, ecstatic, and wildly triumphant and ‘I Am The Resurrection’ even bigger; an energetic, fists-in-the air closing statement.

At their best, The Stone Roses were a wildly ambitious band, aiming for messianic grandeur and sky-kissing beauty and pulling it off with aplomb. Their peak was brief but this completely joyful music still resonates.

The remaining question is whether their new music, which is promised to appear this year but so far yet to materialise in their live show, lives up to the lofty expectations.

This series of reunion shows, which began last year after they’d been inactive since 1996, has seen them keep their reputation intact – they remain complete masters of their craft, and seeing them in the flesh is a huge tick on the bucket list of anyone with even a vague interest in rock or dance music.

But it does whet the appetite for more material to add to their remarkable but tiny discography. The past is theirs, but the future? Who knows.

Orginally appeared in: Tone Deaf

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Music

My Bloody Valentine, Enmore Theatre, 18th February 2013

My Bloody Valentine

When My Bloody Valentine step on stage, you feel like history is being made, for the back story of this tour is an unusually compelling one.

Having formed way back in 1983 and made some of that decade’s most singular and inspired music on Isn’t Anything,they followed up with the even more brilliant Loveless in 1991, almost bankrupting their record label and setting an unreachable landmark whose untouchable reputation only grew during the two decades of near silence that have followed.

Since then rumours of a follow-up to Loveless have swirled and returns were prophesised but precious little actually materialised.

Tantalisingly, what new material did surface in the form of Kevin Shields’ rare but fruitful collaborations and his contributions to the Lost in Translation soundtrack were exceptional, suggesting the sparks of visionary genius that fired Loveless had not been snuffed out.

Given the years of absence, it’s a surprise to be seeing them at all, so the novelty of actually having them onstage could be stronger than the thrill of hearing them play.

Thankfully though, the real-life My Bloody Valentine prove more than a match for the idea ofthe band and from the opening notes of ‘I Only Said’ there’s a sense of relief that the sound is just right; the famously gauzy guitars of Shields and the somehow still youthful looking Bilinda Butcher providing an instant gateway to shoegaze heaven.

They’re really quite loud. In the earlier years, there were apparently doctors urging people not to see them in the interests of preserving their health.

While probably not playing at such dangerous levels these days, the ear plugs they’re handing out at the door are not just for show with many of the songs tipping the scales at a solid 100 decibels or so.

Amazingly, there’s next to nothing from the immense and satisfying new record m b v, their first full-length in over 20 years, though the beautiful and distinctive ‘New You’ stands out with its faint leanings to a more pop sensibility.

A sonic outlier in a set which settles into a consistently dreamy mood, it already seems cemented as a fan favourite.

Most of the setlist instead comprises the storied classics of Loveless and Isn’t Anything, along with surprising inclusions like ‘Thorn’ and ‘Cigarette In Your Bed’, both B-sides of incendiary single ‘You Made Me Realise’.

It’s much the same set they played at their ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror performance, but after waiting for years to see them and never really expecting this return to ever happen, nobody is complaining about overfamiliarity.

More Loveless tracks fly by: ‘Come in Alone’, ‘Soon’, ‘Only Shallow’, all peerless mood pieces which see savagery and beauty sit side by side.

Every second group seems influenced by this aesthetic, but no band had ever made noise sound so incredibly comforting, so impossibly pretty.

Often there seems a complete disconnect between their exertion and the noise produced, with an enveloping, thickly atmospheric fog of wailing noise seemingly being made from little more than light strumming.

The vocals are way down in the mix throughout, indistinct words and sugary melodies artfully obscured and submerged deep beneath crashing waves of guitar.

Some people see fit to yell at someone to turn up the vocals, which seems like going to a production of Waiting For Godot and shouting at the performers to hurry it up a bit.

The penultimate song ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ is absolutely ferocious, a reminder that My Bloody Valentine can be as punishing and intense as any metal band.  But even this seems like a mere warm-up for the scorched earth intensity of ‘You Made Me Realise’, still perhaps their greatest moment and the song that closes most of their sets, which is saved to last.

As indistinct shapes and shadowy figures swirl around on the projections, the song evolves into a truly punishing 15-minute long burst of white noise (sometimes referred to as the ‘Holocaust section’ by fans).

Audience members start jamming their fingers into orifices already blocked by earplugs as a single chord is repeated with manic, machine-like intensity. When they finally return to something resembling the song, it’s easy to forget where you’ve been.

The ringing in your ears will subside, but the memory of this improbable and thrilling return will be hard to forget. When they do decide to play the m b v songs (possibly some time in the 2030s) you’ll want to be there.

They remain the best possible way to have your hearing slowly destroyed.

Originally appeared in: Tone Deaf 

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Music

Tegan and Sara, Sydney Opera House, 26th April 2013

DANIEL HERBORN gets a taste of TEGAN AND SARA’s new pop stylings at the Sydney Opera House.

In most walks of life maturity is a good quality, but for pop bands it can often be a kiss of death. It’s a trap Tegan and Sara have sidestepped on their latest record ‘Hearthrob’, which instead of “maturity” opts for a slick pop aesthetic that seems made for shopping malls and sized for arenas. It’s big, fun and unabashedly pop – a record clearly unconcerned with the vague yet powerful notion of indie credibility. A decade and a half into their career, they’re producing their most youthful sounding music in years.

While an obvious stylistic departure from previous work which sometimes saw them pegged as indie folk or pop-punk, the melodrama of chart pop has always been a feature of what they do – the setlist on a previous tour featured a cover of Rihanna’s top 40 masterpiece ‘Umbrella’. The new synth-heavy, ‘80s-referencing stuff is perhaps too easy to dismiss on first listen as a collection of shiny but shallow pop baubles. However, Hearthrobtracks ‘Goodbye, Goodbye’ and ‘I Couldn’t Be Your Friend’, which both feature early in the set, show a depth and emotional complexity that establishes Robyn as the best reference point.

The audience at tonight’s Sydney Opera House performance skews young, but it’s probably the older songs that get the most enthusiastic response; the intricate and urgent ‘The Con’ and the terrific ‘Back In Your Head’ being greeted warmly. ‘Alligator’ demonstrates their knack of writing seemingly simple songs with awesome staying power and ‘Walking With a Ghost’ retains all its raw-boned energy and vitality.

Always a chatty band, much of their conversation tonight ends up circling back to the weird and fascinating theme of fandom, with hilarious, self-effacing anecdotes about meeting their teen idols (Billy Corgan) and slightly less credible pre-teen pop crushes (The New Kids on The Block), and being disappointed that the experience didn’t amount to much.

One of the reasons Tegan and Sara have such a loyal fanbase is their charm and honesty, a sense of openness and a habit of peppering every show with self-deprecating tales of their unglamorous lives on the road. Whether they’re passionately advocating for marriage equality, discussing the embarrassing tourist photos they took at the Sydney Opera House on previous tours, or wondering out loud whether they can just go ahead and tweet Billy Corgan now, they’re the most likeable of bands.

They’re now in the strange position where fans meet them and feel as overwhelmed and emotional as they did meeting their heroes. At one point Sara mentions how she senses everyone in the audience are lovely, genuine people, but that she could be “off” with this feeling and we could actually be “a bunch of dickbags”. It’s a funny moment, but also a telling one. As if to underline the uneasy dynamic that can exist between a band and its hardcore fans, they later have to tell one such fan – who says she has flown all the way from Ireland to be here and wants a hug – to move away from the front of stage.

The bigger fanbase brings with it bigger venues though, and they seem both proud and self-conscious about bringing their pop songs into the rarified surrounds of the Opera House. At one point Sara comes out with the theory that an Opera House gig is like a wedding, where the guests initially feel stifled by their formal surroundings before eventually kicking back into drunken party mode. The atmosphere has definitely tilted towards the club by the back end of the set, which takes in the slick but thoughtful ‘I’m Not Your Hero’, the windblown epic ballad ‘Now I’m All Messed Up’ and ‘Closer’, an irresistibly silly, fizzy dance pop song reminiscent of Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’.

After joking about the inevitability of an encore and the silliness involved in the charade of going off stage, they deliver the crowd-pleasing ‘Nineteen’, a song with lyrics as naked and plainly emotional as a teenage diary entry: “Flew back home to where we met / Stayed inside I was so upset”. It’s apparently the song fans are most likely to be seen crying to, which is perhaps unsurprising. It’s not their most sophisticated song, but it’s still their best. After this highpoint, a version of ‘Feel It In My Bones’, their underwhelming collaboration with trance megastar Tiesto, seems something of an anti-climax, but it doesn’t detract from the general mood of euphoria.

After a string of consistently strong albums that worked as variations on a theme, Tegan and Sara have changed things up with a shiny new pop makeover, finding themselves in an interesting and slightly awkward stage of their career. With ‘Hearthrob’ they’ve aimed bigger than before, but managed to retain what made them special. They’ve embraced a wider audience and find it embracing them back. But like a hug from a stranger, it’s equal parts warm and weird.

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

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Blondie & The Stranglers, Enmore Theatre, 6th December 2012

DANIEL HERBORN discovers that The Stranglers still have it and punk legends Blondie wouldn’t ever do anything as uncool as pandering to what their audience wants.

You know you’ve got some pulling power when your support band has 23 Top 40 singles. That’s the UK track record of The Stranglers, who rose to fame (or more accurately, infamy) during the punk explosion. Influenced by that movement’s energy and spite without ever neatly fitting into it, The Stranglers were initially dismissed as bandwagon jumpers and misogynist yobs, yet their music has proven strangely enduring and its sense of strangeness remains undimmed.

Featuring a 74-year-old drummer and a ring-in lead singer, The Stranglers circa 2012 may be rubbish on paper, but they are dynamite in reality. Dressed all in black, like a uniform, they are a purposeful unit and Baz Warne makes a menacing, more than capable replacement for the original but long-departed frontman Hugh Cornwell.

The greatest hits set takes in the surging nostalgia of 1986 hit ‘Always The Sun’, a paranoid, clattering version of the controversial ‘Peaches’ and a funeral-march paced, pitch black cover of ‘Walk On By’.

A rare detour into new material comes in the form of ‘Mercury Rising’ which is a strong addition to their canon, featuring an almost spoken-word rave from Warne and some howling guitar work. They’re soon back to the classics though with ‘Golden Brown’, its instantly memorable harpsichord hook and haunting, lysergic rhythm making for a hypnotising highlight. Most bands never write a song this good.

In a tight, filler-free set their cover of The Kinks’ ‘All Day and All of the Night’ stands tall, before the title track of their best album ‘No More Heroes’ brings their set to a triumphant finish.

Recently Blondie’s Clem Burke told FL that “we were almost the perfect band”, a statement that at once seems outlandish, melancholy and difficult to refute. That sense of past perfection hangs over tonight’s set, in which the towering pop highlights and ongoing star power of Debbie Harry are the dominant themes.

Dressed in three-quarter length red pants, with a gold jacket, glitter-skull belt buckle and red-tinted ponytail, Debbie Harry looks equal parts glamorous and ridiculous, still every bit a rock star. For the first few songs, which include a raucously received ‘Hanging On The Telephone’, the delirium is such that it’s almost irrelevant what they sound like, the experience of being at a Blondie show being more important to a mainly middle-aged, often drunk audience hungry for nostalgia and familiarity.

“At one point Harry whips her sunglasses off, a gesture that gets a bigger response than some of the new songs. ”

Harry’s voice is still as refreshing and clear as cool water and she remains a charismatic figure. When a friend asks me a few songs in about Burke’s drum shield, I realise that I haven’t actually looked at the drummer, or any of the other members of the band at all, such is the dominance of Harry. At one point she whips her sunglasses off, a gesture that gets a bigger response than some of the new songs. Later, she hides at the back of the stage, apparently to let the others have a much-deserved share of the spotlight.

When the initial excitement wears off, new songs like ‘D-Day’ and ‘Wipe Off My Sweat’ prove to be perfectly serviceable pieces of dance pop, but fail to elicit much of a response. ‘What I Heard’- another track from last year’s largely ignored Panic of Girls – has a cruisy disco feel. It’s fine, but again finds the band at odds with its audience.

‘The Tide Is High’ fares better, a kind of easy listening reggae torch tune- virtually unknown in the pop world until Blondie covered it – it’s a shining example of a band making a song their own. ‘Atomic’, meanwhile, is huge and ‘Call Me’, featuring some choice keytar action, pulses with energy.

The strange pop of ‘Mother’ segues into an unlikely, but winning version of the Beastie Boys’ classic ‘No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn’, before the encore begins with a solid (if inessential) cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’. The endpoint and pinnacle is of course, ‘Heart of Glass’. A completely perfect slice of pop and a sunny, detached ode to romantic indifference (how many other pop songs have ever shrugged off infatuation as “a pain in the ass”?) Bringing a close to this uneven but enjoyable show, it’s a reminder that Blondie wouldn’t ever do anything as uncool as pandering to what their audience wants.

Originally appeared in: FasterLouder